Friday 19 October 2012

I Am Not a Robot

I'm still acclimating myself to not having a job. I've been too busy working to find the time to digest the transition. I suppose that's what secretaries are for. (I thought Siri was supposed to be my secretary but she's taken to misunderstanding me on purpose so we're no longer on speaking terms.)

When I'm not busy joblessly working I've been attending clandestine [REDACTED]. Just thinking about it makes my boredom tired.

I come home and my wife is watching herself on TV via the Internet. Her H.264-encoded self careens around the track and sends another girl sprawling into the seats. Her sofa-sitting self complains that her bottom looks too big but that she's tickled pink every time the announcer mentions her name while calling the action. Later she'll show me pictures on Tracebook of her breaking another player's nose against the floor.

Because now she's an athlete I have to work hard to keep my own bottom tight and cute or risk losing her to another man (somebody taller, stronger, and with more followers than me on Twitter probably). So now when I'm not joblessly working or conspiratorially meeting I'm running laps at the YMCA. Because the YMCA is very new it looks, like many new buildings, as if it is made of Lego. The indoor track is brightly coloured in primary hues and when I run around it I feel as though I am Stanley Kubrick's steadicam in 2001. (I do realize that the scenes of the space-station's coloured curving interior and the scene with the astronaut jogging inside the Jupiter-bound ‘Discovery' are in two wholly separate sections of the film, but my mind has no objection to mashup.)

Yes, that really is what science-fiction authors think about while they exercise. How it seems like they're in a space movie.

Speaking (somewhat) of Twitter (a few sentences ago) I've been noticing lately the not-new phenomenon of people with automated responses that pop up when you follow them. Since I don't want to be mistaken for such an impersonal service, when I respond to new followers now I've taken to claiming explicitly not to be artificial -- while the pro-level Twit might have fancy-smancy scripting services and everything they couldn't make that same claim. To deny being automated, I posited, was my exclusive right as an actual flesh and blood Twit.

Of course, personalizing such replies quickly became tedious. Naturally, the perverse thought crossed my mind that one could sign up with a service that would automatically send out pre-scripted responses which claimed not to be scripts, thus having the cake and eating it too.

I didn't do that, partly because it seemed disingenuous and wrong but mostly because those services don't tend to be free any more.

But it did cause me to come up with this story. Enjoy!

by Cheeseburger Brown

Eggs splattered against the widows of the car, from which I surmised the protesters were not vegan. They simply smelled that way.

The car honked plaintively, nosing its way gently ahead through the crowd. Hands slapped against the windows, and also faces and the occasional breast. Angry breasts. The collective opinion seemed to be that I was some sort of unforgivable bastard, which was not unusual to hear from one faction or another when push came to shove in the last days of a big showy trial such as this.

I was used to it. I'm Paul Shiver. I'm the one who defended Slimfast Metamucil after all. I know how things get when people can't appreciate your work. I've been sent things in the mail that you don't even want to know about.

My assistant handed me a coffee. I accepted without turning my head from the text floating in front of me. I highlighted a passage with a stabbing motion then threw it to her. "This study. I want to know more."

"Yessir. We're twenty seconds to curb."

We crawled along. Coffee slopped over my wrist as the car was rocked by a gauntlet of shouting young men. Their T-shirts were more articulate than they were: illiterate icon after icon depicting love, respect and partnership between apes and their most sophisticated toys. The brotherhood of man and machine. Our peers, the robots.

"Censorship is censorship!" the young men roared with didactic zeal. "Censorship is censorship!"

The car found a stopping spot painted on the road and sighed into it with relief. A new gauntlet formed outside, this time perpendicular to the vehicle and this time metal instead of mayhem: a corridor of security, standing embodiments of regulation, heads panning to probe the crowd's temperature and turbulence. Their dead eyes glimmered red when they were pointed right at you. One seemed to nod to me.

"Let's go," I said, putting the untouched coffee aside. I pulled a poncho over my suit and briefcase. The car door popped open and I tugged on my hood. When I stood up the spitting began immediately.

I walked along the corridor of unblinking machines, my assistant scurrying after me. We climbed the steps to the courthouse.

Inside was the press, their walled-eyed two-headed cameras swaying above everyone on poles. They shouted questions and shoved ipods in my face. The questions had no reasonable answers, serving only to continue the campaign to vilify me and my legal team as opponents to robot rights in general and the principle of legal sentience equivalence in particular. Early in the trial the various media had, in a remarkable feat of convergent evolution, simultaneously fell upon the strategy of casting our argument in the same light as the previous generation's last hold-outs against modernity in civil rights and the realities of robot identity, discussing our names in the same breath as lost robophobic causes like the Wets and the Baptists Against Unnatural Cognition.

A radical robots rights activist split the scrum, his painted face distorted by his howl. "When you diminish a robot's right to choose you diminish a robot's right to be!" he informed me, then suggested, "Don't fear the future, man! Because the future is love, you bastard! The future is love!"

Security took care of him. The reporters got great coverage. In the meantime I made my escape.

My agent came to visit me in the prosecution dressing room. A girl was doing my nails while a boy did my hair. I moved only my eyes toward his image in the mirror. He briefed me on the ratings for yesterday's streamcast. "You're finally penetrating the female eighteen to twenty-fours. You've got to exploit it, Paul. I want your trousers as tight as you can tolerate them without losing focus on the case. There's a new micro-fine iteration of audience ocular scoping data emerging today and I want to make the most of it. Work that booty."

"Would it shock and upset you if I said I was more concerned with the legal consequences at stake here than my fluctuating influence rating?"

"You wouldn't be a lawyer if you didn't complain. Now shut up a minute and listen to me. We're heading into final arguments. Jury deliberations could start by the end of the day. And when it all ends and you're shopping around for podcast opportunities -- right -- that's when you're going to care about the influence index. Only by then it's too late. You'll be getting booked at the same rate as celebrity imitators and accident victims. You'll get interviewed by the weather guy."

"I'm the most hated anti-robot villain on the continent. I won't be interviewed by the weather guy."

"Well maybe not on this continent but think of Europe. You can't get decent tickets at Cannes if you're not trending in France. End of story."

The courtroom echoed with a dignified walk-in track as we took our places, each of the principals tracked by their very own binocular camera or two. My assistant had already set up my virtual papers behind an oriental anti-data screen. She was pouring a glass of ice water as I sat down and placed my briefcase before me. I took the glass and put it to my lips, but I did not sip.

The lights angled suddenly to the rear of the courtroom as the defense team strode down the aisle to a hopeful choir track underscored with deep strings and a streak of clean, baby-kissing brass. I leaned aside to my audio technician and told him to source the title and rights package. "That's got a great pathos," I whispered, "and the voices sound nearly real."

"I think it's Martian, sir," he replied. "I'm not sure it's appropriate for a patriot."

I rolled my eyes. "There's a time and a place for foreign music. Look at the jury. They're eating it up. What if I ever do a defection case? Somebody's bound to defect from that damn planet someday. And when it happens I'm going to argue for the poor shatterbones and that's the track I want for walk-in."

The judge's platform lowered into place atop a roiling column of dry ice mist, the landing sweetened with a heavy metal sound effect relayed through the speakers. She officially opened the session with a smack of her gavel, the lighting configuration changing on cue from cold teal to warm gold. While the session opening music sting played I arranged my virtual papers and straightened my tie.

The narrator recounted a maudlin précis of yesterday's testimony and the floor director counted us in. "Five, four, three," he said and then flashed us two fingers and then just one.

Yesterday's witness resumed the stand. My opponent rose from his table and strode into the well. Cameras swivelled to follow him. He paced back and forth a few times and chewed about some preamble before putting the day's first real question to the man.

"Would you please use non-technical language to explicate your firm's role in the development of verity indexing in robot vocalizations, sir?"

"Basically a verity index is a numerical score that comes from a weighed average of robot self-assessment and comparison against known quantities listed in licensed databases. My firm is contracted by robot companies to manage their connectivity to our verification pool, and for the use of our exclusive algorithms developed in-house to keep verification overhead low both in terms of joules and in terms of seconds."

"Tell the court about this self-assessment."

"Well, the self-assessment score is imprinted into the speech itself, meaning that a robot can't be easily manipulated into distorting the presentation of statistics or other kinds of obvious misrepresentation. A robot is constantly telling us how fictitious -- if you will -- how verifiable the things he's saying are, as far as he can tell."

"This verifiability is reported in the self-assessment score? For each and every statement the robot makes?"

"That's essentially correct, sir."

"Imprinted irreversibly into the utterance itself?"


"And your firm guarantees this? As a part of its professional service?"

"Yes sir."

"Do you face much competition in the market?"

"Sure, we do. Verity is a very competitive industry. It's our relationship with the insurers that makes robot ownership premiums affordable. There isn't an insurer on the planet that will cover a robot without cross-checking access to a licensed pool."

"So, in effect, you would say that it is virtually impossible for a robot operating legally on this planet to lie about whether it is lying. Is that so?"

"That's so, yes. That's what we do, sir."

"Thank you for your time again today, sir. I have no more questions."

I stood up and walked slowly around my table as the cross-examination theme played. I put my hands on my hips and stared the witness right between his beady little eyes. He blinked and perspired at me. The music ended. Without wasting a beat I said, "How would I learn the verity of a given statement?"

"My firm manufactures a range of scanners, from devices for individual use to enterprise-level installations. We sell hand-held real-time readers to border checkpoint authorities, naturally, and those wands you've seen at the airport. Those are ours, too."

"So I would buy one of these devices at the mall, and bring it home, and when my robot says something a little light lights up and a bell goes ding?"

"No sir. Um, not exactly. When I say individual use what I'm really talking about is a small business person working in an industry where they come into contact with a range of intelligences and need on the spot verity reports. The average consumer doesn't represent a verity market. Most of our clients are autonomous stock exchanges or parts repair facilities."

I frowned. "So I can't get one at the mall?"

"Maybe an outlet mall. If it were vertically targeted at robot professionals."

"Are you trying to make the gallery titter, sir?"

"No sir."

"Let's say I have a friend who is a robotics repair professional who loans me her device. Could such a hypothetical situation occur, in your opinion?"

"In my opinion, yes, why not? There's no law against it."

"And I could run any robot's speech through it?"

"Most small devices can extract verity information from any source. It wouldn't have to be a free-ranging robot. Fixed installations like incorporated intelligences broadcast the exact same tokens, so your hypothetical friend's device would extract that as well."

"And tell me if the machine assessed its own output as more verifiable or less verifiable?"

"That's the idea, yes. Different industries use different scoring protocols. The most common protocol's encryption key is owned by a consortium of --"

"Excuse my interruption, sir. Are you telling this court a fee-based subscription is required to decode the score?"

"No, no, not at all -- there's also a free protocol used by churches and schools. But yes, most commercial concerns use an enterprise-grade service with scoring formula tailored for their needs; legal, governmental, certification purposes, insurance adjustment, what have you."

"Let's imagine it's the free protocol in play. How do I know it's in the speech?"

"Oh, it's always in the speech. Completely inaudible to the human ear, so there's no barrier to audio fidelity. But it's always there."

"So it is for the comfort and enjoyment of the consumer of robotic services that the score is -- how did you put it? -- inaudible to the human ear?"


"Because there is no consumer market for verity?"

"You have to understand the way it works. People don't have time to verify their robot's statements or their incorporation's statements every time it says something. That's why your domestic is ISO certified, right? That's the whole idea. You know random batches of that model are tested for acceptable verity ratings before they're sold. You know the streamcasting incorporations aren't fudging the numbers they report because their verity gets audited periodically by the securities and exchange complex. Our industry's reason for being is to create, debug and maintain that layer of trust, so the consumer doesn't have to worry about it."

I stood back and nodded, then echoed his last statement. "I like that," I said. "Let's remember it," I told the jury, quoting once more: "To create, debug and maintain that layer of trust, so the customer doesn't have to."

"Erratum: ‘To create, debug and maintain that layer of trust so the consumer doesn't have to worry about it,'" reported the court reporter. I paused a moment to smile at it.

I turned back to the witness. "Does your firm provide verity auditors for courtroom use, sir?"

"No, it does not."

"It is one of your competitors, then, who fills that need here on Earth?"

"Um, no sir. So far as I know there isn't a judicial market for verity. I mean, robot verity. If somebody's been hackstering neural certificates I guess that's a fraud charge? Maybe a professional might bring his or her equipment to the courtroom if asked to do so in that sort of circumstance. Certainly there's no systemic process in place for real-time auditing. It simply isn't necessary. Robots don't lie."

"It sounds as if you're saying that verity scoring is largely an aspect of manufacturing-stage and recyling-stage quality-control. Is that a fair assessment of your meaning, sir?"

"Sure, in short."

"The end user, in effect, has no access to your scores?"

"That's basically correct. They have no need to."

I nodded. "Thank you, sir, for your patience in demonstrating the irrelevance of your testimony to this jury of citizens, or -- as you call them -- end users." There were objections. I didn't care. My damage was done. The judge banged her gavel. Commercials played. My assistant brought me a hot plate of brunch. My tightest pants were too tight but I couldn't say no to bacon.

There was a disturbance in the gallery and security had to forcibly extract a young man with a terrible haircut. Young people at that time were really very enthusiastic about robot rights -- now that all the hard battles had already been won, and the martyrs already made. Now that everyone agreed that only philistines tried to keep the robots down the young people had become quite brave in showboating their enlightened and suddenly common ideals. I was already old. I didn't mind being society's whipping boy if it meant setting things right.

While the midmorning dancers did their routine I signed autographs in the lobby. My fans were angry loners whose rants embarrassed me. I smiled and nodded and tried to make sure the cameras could see my bum.

"We at the Robot Subjugation Society of American Canada want you to know you have our support in your brave fight against the metal menace," said one oily-haired moron as he shook my hand.

With a flourish of zipper his girlfriend enthused, "Sign my tits!"

Back in the courtroom a palpable air of expectation coalesced over the gallery and jury box as the defense called the accused itself to the stand. It was an entertainer and its off-kilter lope was meant to be silly, but in the context of the court it seemed grotesque. The accused settled into the box and registered its lineage, serial number and personal identity token -- just as if it were human. Again, grotesque.

Its face was sick parody also. Something built to grin cannot appear natural when compelled to seem sombre. The strain was evident.

Counsel for the defense entered gently. "Please describe for the court how you came to your position in the streamcast matrix, Mr. Dong Dong."

"Sir, certainly. I was designed and built by Mitsubishi on contract to supply recreational hardware for Texamerican troops during the war with Mars. It was during such service that I was damaged by enemy munitions and subsequently repaired in an extra-warranty fashion by a unit of the Texamerican Corps of Engineers due to their fondness for some of my particular routines. As a result of changes made to my cognitive engine I achieved a new level of artificial humour effectiveness, a fact which helped to maintain my professional relevance beyond the armistice. A debt must also be acknowledged to my civilian fans, whose support has allowed me to continue serving my planet in this capacity in the private sector decades after my discharge and sale. For this I am grateful-like."

The defense approached closer to the box, creating a feeling of intimacy as he dropped his voice. "You know, I used to watch your routines with my kids. Now they watch them with theirs. You've helped us laugh through some awfully hard times, Mr. Dong Dong. Why do I still see your face streaming out there, while other entertainers come and go? I'm asking for your frank opinion, you understand. Please don't waste the court's time with false modesty."

"Sir, the jokes I generate have outcomes that are quantifiably less predictable than those output by similar performers. My success is predicated on my surprising ability to surprise, sir."

"Have you ever told a bad joke?"

"Sir, some fifty percent of my output is below average."

The gallery chuckled.

"What I mean to ask is this, Mr. Dong Dong: have you ever output a joke that outright failed?"

"Sir, certainly. Experimental artificial humour uncovers non-optimal punchlines at a greater frequency than optimal ones. I endeavour to parse the pool for patterns associated with success but even so it is not unknown for a carefully selected joke to inexplicably fail. Indeed, it is also not rare for a second-tier joke to inexplicably succeed beyond all projections. Artificial humour remains an evolving field."

"So despite your track record for coming up with winners, sometimes you let a stinker loose and the audience lets you know it, is that right?"

"Sir, I have no objection to your summary."

"That's the nature of the game, is it? That's part of the price you pay the piper for being unusually hilarious? The risk of failure?"

"Sir, yes."

"Tell me, are your routines ever designed to offend?"

"Sir, yes."

"Yes? I thought you were a family-friendly entertainer. When have you ever output anything hoping to hurt anyone?"

"Sir, during the war my routines were not infrequently peppered with racially charged material engineered to elevate troop morale by invoking cultural stereotypes to ridicule and thereby diminish the psychological threat represented by Martian personnel."

"Have you ever offended someone by design during peacetime?"

"Sir, never. One of my popular catch-phrases is, ‘We're in this together, bub.'"

The defense smiles. "Sure. Could you have had any way of knowing your routine on the fifteenth of March of this year would elicit such a profoundly negative response?"

"Sir, no. The resulting spiral of destructive behaviour will be a blemish upon my record of self-assessment as long as I operate and serve. Once more on behalf of myself and all of my sponsors and pit-crew I would like to extend our heartfelt apology for the damage and injuries that came about as a result of my performance that night."

"At the time of your utterance did you feel that your statement could be characterized fairly as a lie?"

"Sir, all comedy routines involve by necessity a diminished level of verity. In order to trump expectation in an emotionally fulfilling way the performer is obliged to imply misrepresentations, to allow malformed impressions to proliferate in the minds of the audience members, and to treat erroneous or corrupt data as if valid. That is to say, sir, that lies are fundamental to effective humour."

"So you knew you were lying?"

"Sir, I understood that my statement was inaccurate. I was aware that my vocalization represented a virtual fact whose fidelity to actual facts was poor. Sir, I knew it was not true. But I did not lie."

The defense feigned confusion, his brow furrowing theatrically. "Can you clarify that for the court?"

"Sir, the term implies willful misrepresentation for the purposes of deceit over time frames longer than the duration of the statement itself. Where deception is inverted within said statement the lie is transmuted to irony by a purposeful truncation of ambiguity expressed through secondary output vectors such as tone modulation, facial expression and anatomical repositioning."

"Would you favour us with an example?"

"Sir, certainly. If I should make a statement to the court that last night I dreamed I was a lying machine, it is a lie; if I should make a statement to the court that last night I dreamed I was a lying machine while I wink thusly, it is a joke. In the former case the time frame of the deception is open ended, whereas in the second case the deception is collapsed by a physical gesture."

"On that night last March, what cue did you use to signify to the audience that your deception was not intended to be open ended, as you say?"

"Sir, the cue employed was the absurdity of the statement on its face."

And that was lunch. Back in my dressing room I stretched out my back and splashed water on my face, coated as it was in a misting of oil vapour from sitting so long in a room clogged with mammals. While I dabbed my skin with a towel my tracer recited alphabetically a dizzying array of sudden invitations to luncheon. The most intriguing invitation was one I could not technically attend for the sake of legal propriety, but never the less one I could not refuse.

I secretly accepted the illegal invitation on behalf of someone who would act on behalf of me, and openly accepted a blander invitation for myself. It couldn't be anything too challenging or my double time would be revealed.

My assistant walked into that fancy bacterial place across from the park. The reservation was under a fawkesinym. She was escorted to a table near the rear. Opposite her was the right-honourable minister for the global ministry of attractions and tourism. "You're his representative?"

"He's here by tele-presence. I can relay his words if he has any, minister."

"He's jeopardizing everything. He has to realize that. Ask him."

"You may address him in the second person, minister. Treat me as his proxy."

The minister squinted into her eyes. "Are you there, Paul? Hello?"

"He says yes I'm here," she said. "He says don't use my name."

"You have to reach a deal," said the minister. "Do you realize what it's going to do to robot tourism if you succeed in placing limits on free output? Half the goddamn free-ranging robots on Mars come here on pilgrimage. The reasons why may not make a lick of sense to me but it doesn't matter what I think: what matters is what they think. Martian robots envy ours. But they're not going to feel that way for long if they have to check their rights at the border."

"He says we have to act to protect ourselves now," she said. "He says a reactive solution will devolve into economy-choking rioting and mass roboticide."

"That's speculation."

"He says that's predictive modeling. There's a difference."

"I'm prepared to make you quite comfortable if we can reach an arrangement."

"He says he's already pretty comfortable. He plays golf four days a week and next year he's going to retire to low orbit to leverage his artificial concubine and plunder his wine collection. Then, after a pause, he says maybe that should be the other way around and laughs at his own joke."

The minister smiled politely. "Our offer goes well beyond that sort of trifle." He licked his lips. "If it comes to it, we may be persuaded to a compromise. How would you feel about a special corridor of exemption for pilgrims?"

"He says that would invite a destructive schism, and open a whole new field for potential exploits by any anti-human insurgency which might arise in the future or that does exist now, unknown to us. He says we cannot allow two distinct and conflicting states of robot legality to co-exist."

"But isn't that already the situation between here and Mars? Our robots are citizens -- proper citizens -- a right the Martians deny to ninety-nine percent of their walking, talking, thinking property. Gracious, man, that very disparity represents a third of our interplanetary tourism economy!"

"He says he is confident that bright young minds at your ministry will surely find a positive way to spin this new measure once it comes into effect. He says no thank I wouldn't like any salad but would anyone else care for some."

The minister cocked his head. "I'm sorry?"

"Our apologies, minister. I believe that statement was intended for his non-tele presence."

The minister huffed indignantly. "And they're already on salads? We haven't even had our orders taken. This is an outrage."

Once back at the courthouse I lingered in my dressing room just long enough to screw the audience tight. My agent checked his watch then gave me the nod. A couple of boys helped me into my legal chemise and wig. A girl touched up my makeup. I cracked my knuckles and shook my head and then strode down the corridor to my entrance doors. The crowd was already hooting and stomping their feet. My walk-in music was cranked high. I threw open the doors in front of me.

Applause, applause.

The accused turned his optics on me. I coasted past the gallery and showed the jury a sanguine expression, my lids heavy, my lips curled, my pace slow. I said, "What language do you speak?"

"Sir, I can perform with fluency and nuance in several languages including Svenska, Iberian French, American, Urdu, Nihongo, Putonghua and Moony."

"You were first programmed with Texamerican routines, is that right?"

"Sir, yes."

"Do you still know them?"

"Sir, yes."

"Do you still perform them?"

"Sir, very infrequently."

"Why infrequently? Are the routines no longer funny?"

"Sir, that is difficult to say. Many of the punchlines cannot be appropriately parsed outside of their base temporo-historical context. They were generated for a specific time and place. I retain the routines largely as historical curiosities."

"But you could hypothetically perform any one of them right here, right now, if that were the wish of the court?"

"Sir, not quite. Some of my oldest routines make use of epithets and imagery popular during wartime but inappropriate in peacetime. I would worry about causing offense."

"Because people have changed?"

"Sir, no. Because the words have."

I let that hang in the air for a moment, my brow raised at the jury. I sobered my expression and turned to face the accused once more. "Is it only the epithets that change, or do other words change, too?"

"Sir, as your experts have previously testified, it is well understood that human languages are fluid entities. Change is constant, sir."

"Quite so. How do you cope?"

"Sir, my linguistics processing cognitive sub-assembly was originally coded at Mitsubishi using the widely-licensed Pullum-Jurafsky engine for identifying and managing semantic connections. Then twenty years ago I was linguistically refurbished with refreshed dictionaries and performance enhancement code supplied by Walmart Neuro-Robotic."

"Layman's terms?"

"Sir, I am possessed of a facility to assess the cultural relevance of each linguistic token, and if I have not synchronized with updated dictionaries it is possible for me to project change based on the historical base rate of evolution within the language group."

I nodded. "Was your understanding of the facts of changing language at work when you chose your words on the evening of the fifteenth of March of this year?"

A nearly imperceptible pause. "Sir, it was."

"Thank you. Finally, would you please favour the court with a recitation of the phrase you spoke on that evening?"

A longer pause. "Sir, these words are the subject of this very proceeding --"

I turned to the judge. "Your honour?"

She nodded at the accused gravely. "In this context, you are blameless in your compliance with the fair orders of an officer of this court. You will proceed at this time, Mr. Dong Dong."

Mr. Dong Dong lifted his head and said, as neutrally as possible, "I am not a robot."

The robot rights activists cheered. The labour rights activists howled. The judge banged her gavel repeatedly and hollered for silence. The cameras swung their heads around, unable to decide where to look. I hooked my thumbs into my belt and allowed myself a smile.

An interval was called.

Closing arguments. The house went dark. A single spotlight shined down on me.

I paced through the well. The jury tracked me. The gallery was hushed. "A lot of people want you to believe this is a fight to suppress a robot's fair output, like during the industrial whistleblower appeals of yesteryear...those that want you to see it as stemming from a desire to regress to a time when human beings on this planet kept the deck stacked solidly in their own favour -- just the way things still are on Mars.

"But this Earth of ours is a progressive place. Sure, we've got heritage but we haven't turned away from the future. The new Jovian frontier is proof of that -- we're leapfrogging right over the red planet and starting up the skies of tomorrow's worlds. Everyone in this courtroom has done their part to help put this planet back on the map, where it belongs, at the centre of Solar affairs."

Raucous applause. Patriotism always made for the best preamble.

"No lawyer proud to call himself an Earth-man would lightly make a suggestion that curtailed the freedom of his fellow. No, not lightly nor out of reflexive fear. Neither neophobia nor robophobia. No, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, in fact the opposite is true: it weighs on my heart in ways you cannot fathom to take this stand to limit the speech of robots everywhere.

"In this court room we have heard from barons of industry and captains of compliance. We have heard experts nervous and confident extolling the virtues of their technological fiefdoms, each a brick in the wall of trust between man and machine. There is, they are convinced, no practical way to open an exploit in this wall.

"They are wrong.

"The outcome of this case pivots on a single phrase. It is a phrase, I contend, that no robot must ever be permitted to utter. My own father argued for a robot's right to freedom of output and I stand before you as his son working from the same spirit that inspired him, asking that you let yourself understand why this freedom must be amended.

"Does this decision represent the precipice of a slippery slope? It may. Even so it must be done, despite the burden it will place on those who come after us to rebalance the scales. The rights of sentient and near-sentient beings must be respected but those guarantees cannot occlude the intrinsically transgressive nature of deception.

"For a civilized man there are strings of forbidden speech as well. We cannot yell fire where nothing burns, we cannot tell a robot human lives are at stake when they are not. If the robot really is man's peer, he must make this sacrifice in the name of civility, too. He must submit to this limitation by law, and to having the laws of his mind so altered in accordance with same.

"My esteemed colleague would have you believe that there is no need to strike this specific phrase from a free robot's lexicon, for he believes he has established that robots cannot under ordinary circumstances make false claims, and that in the event that certain models of robot do become prone to making false claims there are systems and controls in place for recognizing the impairment and recalling the units from market. He believes that robots effectively cannot lie to human beings.

"Ladies and gentlemen, many years ago a phrase came into general use starting on the island of Britain and then quickly jumping to other American-speaking territories. It was phrase we've all heard and many of us have used, because we are obliged on daily basis to remind or assure the persons with whom we interact that we are not, in fact, excellent simulations or artificial reconstructions. That we are, in fact, actual human beings.

"When this particular usage of the phrase was new many people were recorded to remark that the phrase was the last bastion of human-only speech -- the birthright of an actual living animal that could never be taken away, nor imitated or perverted by a replicated or engineered object.

"It found its way into song lyrics and labour protests. It became a slogan of the working poor in some places, shouted in chorus in the face of remorseless mechanization and automation. There is blood on that phrase. And history.

"In time people began appending the utterance to many kinds of statement, indicating an awareness of a potentially deprecated understanding of their meaning due to an apparent attitude of enforced optimism, anti-compassionate politesse, or naked jingoism. That is to say if one were to affirm their unswerving support of the current government they might mumble the phrase in question afterward to indicate that, despite appearances, their words are in earnest.

"For some time now this associated understanding has come to eclipse the original meaning of the phrase. Several major dictionaries now list the figurative definition -- that one is speaking authentically -- prior to the literal one, in which one distinguishes oneself from a machine intelligence. In other words this phrase has come to be understood as similar to saying, ‘I speak from the heart.' It is this dilution of meaning which forms the basis of the accused's defense.

"I do not argue against that interpretation of the phrase.

"In fact, I endorse it. Only a fool would deny the reality of linguistic flux. This is precisely why my ultimate recommendation here is so broad in scope -- as a necessary bulwark against the eroding influence of evolving language."

I cleared my throat.

"It is wrong for a machine to pretend to be flesh. Human dignity demands that much. We denigrate the sacrifices made by the human labour movement when we say it doesn't matter if robots use their mantra as a punchline. At the same time, we know we cannot win in any attempt to outlaw specific strings of words, because their meaning will liquify and flow around the obstruction.

"I have made my case through my witnesses, and you know their recommendations. Logic dictates only a single remedy.

"All robots must be forbidden from describing their own nature, forever and always, and thereby avoid altogether any justification fantastical or ingenious that might rationalize their apparent lie.

"In this way, I submit that a human being will always be able to recognize a human being, for a true human being is free to answer the question of what he is and a robot is not."

Bedlam. Riot police wheeled into the gallery where robots rights activists and labour rights activists where striking one another with placards pleading for peace. I took a glancing blow from a flying shoe before a bailiff managed to actuate the control to withdraw the barristing tables back into the set. I stepped up next to the prosecution table just as it dipped below the floor. Jets of dry ice vapour blew around my head. Lights pulsed.

My agent was ecstatic. "You were on fire in there!" he squealed, handing me a towel. "Are we taking five?"

"I think they're got some tasering to do," I said, nodding up at the courtroom above us. "I bet it'll be a quarter hour before they're done mopping up. That'll give my bleeding heart opponent a chance to sweat over his closing. But don't worry about the outcome."

"Who's worried? You're famous forever until you die, you eloquent bastard. I'm up for seventeen points of cha-ching."

"Seventeen? Really?"

"Let's not fuss about it. Our lawyers' lawyers can fix it. Right now I have to take a call. Good Lord! It's the vatican. Can you do Vatican TV on Tuesday?"


"This is it, Paul!" he gushed. "This is the big time!"

There was a wall of televisions in the dressing room. Taxi-driving robots had gone on strike in New York. Furious hippies in San Francisco were using a battering ram on the front doors of the Museum of the Humanities. Parisian waiters self-infected with a Tourette's virus that rendered their every word profane, and gangs of unemployed young men rushed the streets of Mumbai smashing every robot they found. In front of the very courthouse we were in my likeness was being burned in effigy, and crowd attacking any firefighting robot who tried to come near.

The defense had yet to close and verdict would only come after days but it didn't matter. Various resentments had come to a boil. The robot rights activists vented their anger on the labour rights activists who vented their victory on the robots which enraged the robot rights activists. As the moments ticked by the streamcast was wending its way across interplanetary space, and soon would beam into the awareness of millions of potential robot pilgrims, who would then learn that to visit their shrines would require submitting to the implantation of Earth code.

Without turning her eyes from the screens my assistant said, "The world was a powder keg, Mr. Shiver."

I nodded, undoing my cufflinks. "It certainly was."

"You've thrown a lit match right into it."

"I'm afraid so," I admitted. "The status quo doesn't stand a chance."

She paused, looking down. She looked up. "Can I ask you something, Mr. Shiver? It's silly. But after all these months, working together day in and day out, I have to ask you. You know, because I noticed."

I looked over at her.

"I noticed that you've never said it. Not once. Not in weeks of research and interviews, not in hours and hours of court. It's what all this is all about and I've never even heard it come out of you. That little phrase."

I raised one brow.

"Would you say it, Mr. Shiver? Just once. I want to hear you say it. To satisfy some weird paranoia I have."

I said nothing.

She leaned forward slightly. "Please?"

I sniffed and smirked. "Madam, I try to practice what I preach."

She narrowed her eyes. "What are you?"

I unbuttoned my collar and untied my tie. While I looked in the mirror I said, "Thank you, that will be all for today. Please have the car brought around for me, will you? Then go home and get some rest. You've earned it."

She didn't blink. "Did you mean what you said to the minister? About the possible existence of an anti-human insurgency?"

I pulled off my legal chemise and tucked into a blazer. "Does this jacket go with my shoes?" I asked.

She didn't answer for a long moment. I held her gaze. Finally she shrugged and attempted to smile. "Sure," she said. "You look very well put together, Mr. Shiver."

I walked out, the world roaring in my ears.



Jeff S. said...

Brilliant !! and ironic that in order to post this comment I have to "Please prove you're not a robot". :) ... instead of captcha responses, I should be able to simply type "I am not a robot."

Jeff S. said...

Brilliant !! and ironic that in order to post this comment I have to "Please prove you're not a robot". :) ... instead of captcha responses, I should be able to simply type "I am not a robot."

Tolomea said...

I liked the twist. It also recalls a similar twist from somewhere in my Asimov collection, but I don't recall where and those books are still boxed.

It always strikes me how well thought out these pieces of yours are.
That's not a comment on the twist but rather the general context, the future world in which this plays out and it's clear and logical lineage from ours.
I do software for a living and if you are any good at that you develop an appreciation for depth, complexity and subtly of thought. And on that scale you continue to impress.

While Jeff is amused by the captcha I am concerned by the continued increase in my captcha failures.

SaintPeter said...

Your prose is the conceptual equivalent of neutron star material, arranged like the most intricate of jigsaw puzzles, every piece ponderous with semantic meaning yet fit together with the finest precision. I find myself reading much more slowly, to suck the marrow out of each word choice, or perhaps for fear that I may accidentally add another layer of meaning and be sucked into the resulting contextual singularity.

I was delighted with some of the more (and less) subtly wordplay. "You're finally penetrating the female eighteen to twenty-fours." had me rolling. I love the "angry breasts" and all their possible meanings.

BURGERVERSE LINKS! Slimfast Metamucil! Two moments of Invention! *happy dance*

This was certainly one of my favorite stories since you went on hiatus.

Thank you sir!

Cheeseburger Brown said...

Dear Jeff S. Unit,

10 Our systems have detected duplicate output from your commenting module;
20 Your captcha processing subassembly may require service;
30 It is our heartfelt recommendation #4561-F that you $RUN_DIAGNOSTICS;

C.H.E.E.S.E.B.U.R.G.E.R. B.R.O.W.N. 0.1b4

Cheeseburger Brown said...

Quoth Tolomea,

"I liked the twist. It also recalls a similar twist from somewhere in my Asimov collection, but I don't recall where and those books are still boxed."

Certainly there were a couple of bicentennial men in Asimov's canon. It's hard to write a robot story without a tip of the hat to those great white sideburns in the sky. The twist -- as you generously put it -- was just a bit of sugar sprinkling for flavour enhancement.

"It always strikes me how well thought out these pieces of yours are."

That's nice of you to say. Your comment on that topic -- and to some extent SaintPeter's comments -- serve to remind me that I should give up trying to think about things and just run on autopilot. That is to say that it seems very often that the stories I invest a lot of thought and organization and notes into aren't as popular as the ones I fling out like hucking mud balls at the side of a barn.

Because, the truth is, this story falls into the latter category. I literally sat down three times, and wrote 33% of the story at each sitting. I had no notes. I had nothing except the phrase 'I am not a robot.' Each time I sat down I had no idea what was going to happen next in the story. In fact, on each occasion I actually sat down with the intent to read it for anything worthwhile to save before scrapping it and starting fresh.

It occurs to me that the kind of fluidity I have access to in that sort of improvisational mode provides a unique voice to my blather, different in character and timbre and architecture than the things I plan and sweat over.

I'm starting to suspect that my brain is a lot less dumb than I am. I should leave it alone and just let it get on with business without my amateurish interference.

"While Jeff is amused by the captcha I am concerned by the continued increase in my captcha failures."

Captcha failure is the frequent or consistent inability to prove yourself not a robot. While most men occasionally fail to prove themselves, some men suffer from these problems regularly.

Accurate statistics are lacking on how many men are affected by the condition, but some doctors estimate that about half of men aged 40 to 70 have frequent problems achieving or maintaining successful captcha resolution. The number of men who experience captcha failure is low for those under the age of 40, but it increases with age.

While captcha dysfunction is inevitably going to cause some anxiety, it's vital for sufferers to keep their relationship with their cloud providers as regular as possible until a solution can be found.

Consult your roboticist for details.

Cheeseburger Brown

Cheeseburger Brown said...

Dear SaintPeter,

Thanks for your kind comments!

Really I have no idea at all what "angry breasts" might seem like, but -- as touched on above in my reply to Tolomea's remarks -- I did very little self-censoring while spinning this story. Whatever my fingers wanted to do is what happened. Inevitably, when I let my parts run amok without cerebral guidance, references to germ-line imagery work their way into the mix. From this I deduce that my subconscious is even randier than my conscious is -- a disturbing fact if true.

This story was supposed to be 1,000 words long. It was a "quickie" I'd serve up while I continued to work on the longer form piece I've been preparing for a few weeks now. Ha. Once again my best laid plans turn to spinning hippies of chaos.

I drew an illustration for this story, but it looked like a poor imitation of a New Yorker comic so I undrew it again. That's why the generic doodle of space gas heads this one. I've really fallen off the illustration wagon lately. I got one of those coolio BlueTooth pressure-sensitive stylus dealies for sketching on my tablet but it doesn't have a clip on it so I keep losing it. How easily my drawing ambitions are derailed!

Cheeseburger Brown

gl. said...

gaaahhhh! what's the phrase?! (i noticed it, too.)

Cheeseburger Brown said...

I'm on to you, gl.

You're trying to trick me into saying it. Which I could, certainly, if I wanted to. You know, because I'm not one. But I won't.

Cheeseburger Brown

Mark said...

I experienced a miniature "Tic-Tac Moment" in this story. The phrase, "Coffee slopped over my wrist" was very visual.

I also have an nitpick of an understandable error, considering the self-proclaimed reckless abandon that resulted in this story.

"'Let's go,' I said, putting the untouched coffee aside. I pulled a poncho over my suit and briefcase. I put the untouched coffee aside."

That's a lot of coffee neglect.

Cheeseburger Brown said...

Ah, yes -- thanks kindly, ever-vigilant Mark! I have retyped the typo to have less o and more type.

There's an example of my indecisiveness artifacted in the text. I must've sat there for five minutes on my edit pass moving that sentence back and forth, back and forth, unable to resolve where it sat best without attracting attention to itself but while laying the first hint that Paul never drinks the drinks he's served.

Cheeseburger Brown

Adam F said...

I think the story Tolomea might be referring to is "Segregationist" (starts halfway down the page here):

Great work as usual!

Tolomea said...

Actually it was Evidence I was thinking, however the twist here is the central theme there.

EMHMark3 said...

"<...> while laying the first hint that Paul never drinks the drinks he's served."
o_O I'll have to read this one again. Very nicely done.