christopher makim friendly robotsSan Jose, California 2037

Rajesh Choudhary’s sedentary lifestyle and fifty pounds of excess weight took a toll on his knees. He ambled to greet Darrion as he stepped on the landing pad. “Welcome, Mr. Chadwick. We’re glad to see you here again.”

Darrion extended his hand in greeting. “It’s good to be here. It looks like you’ve trimmed down a little. But, Raj, please call me Darrion. We’ve seen each other at least once a month since the Directorate acquired Friendly twelve months ago.”

“True, but I want to keep up appearances for the rest of the staff. They are assembled in the Boardroom.” He gestured toward the glass-walled conference facility straight ahead.

“As you wish. Tell me how everything is progressing.”

“Marginally better than the last time we spoke. We have robots that look like people, and they can do the work that people do, but the subtleties of human interaction continue to elude us. Young children can easily tell our bots are not people.”

“Disappointing.”

Executive management and the top researchers sat around the conference table having last-minute discussions about what they would tell Mr. Chadwick. This meeting was critical for their jobs. Progress wasn’t as significant as expected, but it wasn’t bad either. Creating a human-appearing robot isn’t easy. It would take more work and time. That meant more money, and Darrion Chadwick was the person who could give it to them. He entered, and the conversations in the room ended abruptly. Everyone stood and applauded. Darrion sat at the head of the table, and, on cue, the walls became opaque and the room filled with the first of several holographic presentations.

Darrion pointed to a new member of the executive team and tilted his head in Choudhary direction. “Tricky. I see what you mean. You put in a ringer, didn’t you? She’s clearly a bot.”

“What gave Roberta away?”

“Something in the clapping. A flat affect… most people are nervous the first time they meet me. They sweat a little.”

“I wanted you to see for yourself. She can stand, smile, and clap fine, but something is missing.”

“Indeed,” Darrion replied. “There’s no spark of life.”

Gesturing toward the Director of R&D, Raj said, “I’ll let Ms. Kuznetsov elaborate.”

Alyona Kuznetsov loved making computers think and act like human beings. At 15, Russian intelligence enlisted her into clandestine efforts to make their social media bots indistinguishable from real people. The Directorate obtained that technology from a Russian officer who was happy to have a large bank account in the Cayman Islands and used it to subvert the elections in Europe. Alyona was responsible for circumventing all the anti-spamming software Google, Facebook, and others spent hundreds of millions of dollars developing. That’s when Darrion noticed her brilliant talents. He also saw her athletic build, shoulder-length chocolate brown hair, chestnut eyes, and alluring Russian accent. At his insistence, she became the head of all research when the Directorate purchased the controlling interest in Friendly Robots.

She stood facing Darrion and smiled. “Good morning, Mr. Chadwick. It’s wonderful to see you again.”

“Thank you. I enjoy my visits to San Jose. What’s happened since my visit six months ago?”

“We brought the best researchers from Deepmind and Rethink Robotics on board right after our last meeting. Deepmind is the leader in machine intelligence… not artificial intelligence, but in human intelligence simulation.”

“HIS, right?”

“Yes, sir. Rethink started human interaction robotics in 2012 with Baxter, the first humanoid robot. It looked nothing like a person and was only suited to menial labor but was a huge leap forward in how robots related to humans.”

“So, we got HIS and HIR,” Darrion said chuckling.

Alyona smiled, “Yes, I guess we did. In any case, their cumulative efforts led to Roberta, the robot you just met. Physically, it’s difficult to distinguish her from a person, but it is possible.”

“I’ll bet she doesn’t have human smells.”

“You’d win. Verbally, her vocabulary and inflection are typical of anyone in an upper middle class, well-educated position. She can do anything a strong, healthy human can do, but her physical capabilities can be enhanced too.”

“I noticed that something was missing right away… no offense Roberta.”

“None taken,” the machine responded.

Alyona continued, “The bottom line is that we have a robot that can look, act, and carry out tasks like a human being, but it’s not indistinguishable from one. There is still the uncanny valley syndrome where people get weirded out by almost-lifelike robots.”

“Why?”

“People are incredibly complex, and the complexity is in subtle things. To bring up smells, how much should a robot sweat and what odor should it have when it runs? More to the point, why is that important? I don’t think the real objective is replacing humans entirely. It’s having machines do the work that requires humans.”

Darrion sat back in his chair. “Ms. Kuznetsov, it’s enough for you to know that having completely lifelike robots is the Directorate’s primary goal for this company. It’s the only reason you got the position you have, and Friendly got virtually unlimited cash resources. You made progress, but your work is incomplete. When can I expect more significant results?”

Alyona sat and looked down at the table. “Honestly, I’m not sure. We are just beginning to understand many of the challenges, and we’ll need to develop entirely new technologies.”

“Don’t worry. you still have the full support of my investment group. Get whatever you need and make sure you have my personal ComServ number before I leave. Call me weekly to report your progress. I want you to make a presentation to my grandfather in Houston. Both he and I are here to help you.”

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