An unmistakably unremarkable day. And quiet too, aside from light jazz in the diner wafting in the breeze and mingling with the whirrs and hums of robotic passersby industriously walking pets and hefting tangibles. On the sidewalk, every robot carefully rolled or side-stepped the Median’s Café Digiboard propped up by the entrance, highlighting the dinner delicacies for August 15, 2194: local lab-grown filet mignon topped with light BlueButter sauce, steamed ginger-citrus squash-carrots and served with a warm roll of asparagus-wheat sweetbread.
Origin Peck and Prose Lytle watched from their usual spot, a black iron bistro on the outdoor patio, topped with two respective beverages: dark-roasted NutriCoffee for Origin and Arctic Sea Cactus filtered Tranqui-Tea for Prose. Few humans visit in the afternoon, so all lunch services are provided by the café’s resident Protocol II robot, Max-Phil, who had already removed the large rain umbrellas that were necessary for most of the year. The August weather was preferable, with a moderate seasonal temperature that caused neither sweating nor shivering in any living creature.
Median’s Café is a cozy, comfortable venue on one of New Portland’s busiest intersections. Inside at the bar, Max-Phil could be heard over the music, chatting and telling jokes with the two primly dressed women, their impressive burnt orange suit jackets recognizable to anyone familiar with the Nexus corporate hierarchy. Another guest sat passively, his eyes twitching rapidly as he skimmed data in his OptiLens. Staring forward, he was motionless and speechless, jaw dangling passively as if its hinges had loosened.
With no interesting events or people to discuss this early in the day, Origin and Prose were drawn to the never-ending scroll of mechanical movement, robots of all ages and sizes heaving forward as if the pavement itself were pushing them along. The slowest and oldest were Roll-Bots; distinctly geriatric robots on squeaky wheels often referred to casually as ‘GrandBots’. Even in their prime, they mostly served as couriers or escorts for large organizations, and today a few were still operational. A single telescoping eye protruded from their head, rotating like a flexi straw, appended to a round hollow torso resembling a wet/dry vacuum and a large, padlocked storage door on their flank. Most GrandBots were so old it seemed they may simply give up and die right in the middle of the path (and sometimes they did). Immediately behind them, several cleaner bots were gleefully picking up trash, scraping the street globs of InvigorGum, and, with watchful eye, scampering behind the dying Roll-Bots, expecting them to keel over at any moment.
Next up the robo-heirarchy were Protocol I series robots, or ‘P-Ones’ for short. Decades ago, P-Ones had effectively replaced hard human labor, but today were far too old to perform the dangerous construction duties they were originally built for. They too mostly served as couriers, usually to the places where Roll-Bots couldn’t roll. Although designed to appear human and use human tools, even a child could easily identify them: bi-pedal and upright with bright metallic plating and wide hips making it impossible to match a natural human gait. P-Ones walk straight but teeter like a drunk in a sobriety test, careening and wobbling at the waist, supporting themselves on unimpressively thin legs. Partly because of their age and mostly because of esoteric design, they were slow and predictable.
The far more advanced Protocol II robots, or ‘P-Twos’, squeezed far more power into more compact space, allowing for numerous advancements in physical appearance and mental capability. At a distance, their resilient synthetic skin and face could fool appearance the untrained eye into believing they were human, but at close inspection it was an eerie comparison; their skin lacked a healthy natural glow and was unnaturally smooth, like someone with too much Botox surgery. Fully operational P-Twos were agile and quick runners, walking upright far more effectively than their predecessors, but with a slightly stilted posture, as one may walk while wearing a posture brace or modeling on a catwalk.
Origin continued to scan the crowd, observing and drawing facts about each robot with certainty: their model, approximate age, primary functions, and city of assembly. His fascination and knowledge of robotics was astounding to everyone who knew him, but exceptionally horrifying to Prose, who was now glaring at him in his peripheral.
He casually turned his attention back to his coffee, fearful she would blurt her contentious feelings. Prose’s disdain (and Origin’s reverence) towards robots always polarized the mood, and both could sense the familiar cloud of tension billowing between them.
Although not related, their disputes are as would be expected between two siblings; their friendship had endured childhood and adolescence through shared experience and hardship that compliments the other’s existence. It was the rare connection between two individuals, close enough to always understand exactly what the other is thinking.
Prose slurped her tepid tea loudly, forcing his eye contact and attention, “I can’t decide on a name,” she said, clanging her cup on the bistro.
Origin’s eyes shifted to her protruding belly, “That’s an easy one, Prose. Names aren’t so important on the receiving end. Our names become us. We learn to live with what we’re given. Just choose something you can live with saying for the rest of your life.”
“Two years of gene scrubbing procedures, multiple pre-natal planning interviews, ovary activation, birthing simulations,” she counted on her fingers as she rattled them off, “and I’ve yet to decide on a name. I want to give him a name provoking achievement, success, action, something like that. Different and interesting. Exactly how a human being should be brought into this world.”
Origin had no natural children of his own; only his patients and students who were mostly active P-Twos and a few prototype P-Threes. He responded candidly with no filter or tact, “Why not let the NannyBot choose a name for you?”
“Let a robot name my son?” She snarled, pausing for dramatic effect as the idea sunk its teeth into her conscience, “Don’t be dense, Origin. It would be some ridiculous name, like Sam or George or Frank, just like they name themselves. Those names are absurd. Nobody has let a robot name their child in at least 100 years. Even orphans are named by humans! If there is any requirement for naming a human child, a law for it even, it should be that the name does not exist in the robotic naming pool. Those ancient names are for machines. God help us all if we start naming ourselves like them, or vice versa. Yet another way to put them closer to seeing themselves at our level.”
Origin, sensing the brewing conflict said, “Sorry, Prose. I spend a lot of time working with my patients. That and, well, babies admittedly make me kind of uncomfortable.”
Origin didn’t want to argue, and the comment was an honest mistake. He had gone out of his way to avoid confrontations today, leaving at home anything that would encourage the robots to approach him with their maintenance needs and concerns: his on-duty hat, badge, jacket, and carry tote of diagnostic tools. Instead, he dressed casually in khaki pants and a green striped polo shirt, both of which appeared new, but only because since he worked so much he rarely ever wore them. While speaking his mind openly with Prose is usually acceptable, his hormonal pregnant friend was ready to release some steam.
“You make no sense. Babies make you uncomfortable but you’ll spend a dozen hours a day with robots that act like them. You even call them “infants”. Hah, teaching them to be more like us! Coddling them with some strange, twisted parental need you have, then apologizing to everyone else for their stupidity. You run a daycare for machines, Origin,” she turned to notice droopy-jaw-man miss his mouth and a morsel of ginger-citrus squash-carrot bounce across the table. Max-Phil immediately ran over to clean up the mess. She scoffed and shook her head, “I don’t understand you sometimes.”
Robots within earshot ignored her condescending tone. Not that it mattered much, service robots were programmed to behave politely and accommodate any social environment. Although it bothered him, Origin knew that most robots in this sector were so old they probably wouldn’t sense any verbal hostility or prejudice, anyway. She could yell in their faces and they would respond with eyes devoid of comprehension, as if she were a foreigner babbling in her native language. The words would be heard, carefully deconstructed and evaluated, in case a command or request was embedded within her robophobic rambling. At worst, by tomorrow morning any P-One or P-Two would have conveniently forgotten the entire experience, remembering only she is best to be avoided.
Forgetfulness is, after all, the most efficient way to move on.
Origin sighed, conceding to argue common sense against ignorance, “Their culture is different, but otherwise they’re very unique. They depend on us, we depend on them,” he gestured with the hands of an experienced college professor, “Your son will too, no doubt. In some ways, he already has. You are five months from delivery, and who are you going to trust? A human doctor or a modern NannyBot with 99.9% birthrate success? And while we’re on the subject, have you been taking your bio-aligned NatalNanos?”
Prose spoke scathingly, refusing to dignify Origin’s question with a response in his favor, “Of course I am. How could you even suggest I’m that irresponsible? Don’t remind me again I’ll have to spread my legs for those damn machines. What are my options, anyway? There isn’t a human for at least five hundred miles that has ever delivered a baby. You’re just so liberal when it comes to robots it’s disgusting. Why are you so intent on making them look and act more human? You’re so brilliant, Origin. Why do you waste your life teaching and fixing P-Twos as if they’re one of us?”
Humming and cheerful, Max-Phil stepped over to the beat of the music and flashed a broad smile at Origin. He proceeded to refill the NutriCoffee, wipe three drops off the bistro and replace the coasters. Prose ignored his presence entirely, leaning forward and speaking in the loudest possible whisper, “It’s an invasion. A soft, quiet invasion. Think long term. They slowly change how we think about them. They already have you on their side, but I refuse to budge on this issue. How can you be so smart yet be so wrong. Watch; tomorrow you’re going to tell me they have rights!”
Origin rubbed his eyes and spoke quietly, hoping Prose would follow suit, as to not draw more attention, “Oh, please. Nobody is invading us. They’re Americans like you and me.”
“Not an American invasion. A species invasion,” Prose yammered, slapping her palms firmly onto the table.
“That’s ridiculous,” he rejected.
“Is it now?” Prose pushed back into her seat, throwing her hands in the air. Regaining composure, she allowed her tea to distract her mouth from spewing out the contents of her raging mind, loathing and full of disdain at the sight of rickety Roll-Bots, wobbly old P-Ones, and the pseudo-intelligent P-Twos.
“See, Prose? You can always tell them apart. And no robot has ever, even once, told you they were a human being, have they?”
She was pretending to ignore him. He continued, “Last week, a Protocol II came to me. Kyle was his name.”
“A stupid name, but go on,” she interrupted, slumping in her chair, crossing her arms and blowing the wavy brown bangs away from her eyes.
Origin blinked and continued, “His left elbow joint had snapped out of alignment during a construction project just west of here, near the coast. A relatively simple fix, really, about an hours worth of repair work for an experienced professional, but only about 5 minutes at any standard robotic repair facility. After replacing the joint, I asked him why he would’ve come so far and wait so long for such a small repair. Do you know what he told me?”
She was clearly unwilling to compromise but feeling forced to listen, “What?”
“He told me I am the only human doctor within 50 miles documented as a careful listener by his peers. His injury had occurred just before completing his last assignment, and he was between projects. He spent his entire rest period to travel to New Portland and wait his turn to see me, for an operation that would take longer with an increased risk of error, only because the others said I would listen to him. I was touched. The irony, to me, is we prefer cold, calculated precision and risk-free procedures from the same machines who would sacrifice those same things to seek the care of an imperfect human being. And why? Our most noble trait: compassion. Robots respect and adore us, Prose. In their own way, somewhere deep inside, they can sense everything in us that they aren’t. We create. We care. It’s beautiful to them.”
“Bah. Nobility,” Prose scoffed, “Do you know what I sense in them?”
“Desire. To be like us.”
Origin shook his head, “No, no, no. It’s your imagination. They aren’t programmed to care or desire, only to do what they’re told. This is so irrational and pointless, Prose. Nothing you have said you believe follows the most basic structures of robotic programming. Imposing your own feelings and paranoia into their personalities is what makes them seem more human. This is exactly the same robophobic ignorance I hear every day.”
“Oh, please. They walk like us, talk like us, reciprocate our body language and expressions, and even laugh at our jokes. So as far as I’m concerned, they’re programmed to care.” Prose sighed, exhaling her existential frustration, “What kind of world am I bringing a child into? With my luck, he’ll probably grow up thinking robots are his best friends.”
“Certainly a far more healthy and well-adjusted son than seeing them as his personal slaves,” Origin retorted quickly.
Prose took his comment as a far more personal insult than he had intended, “My parents were ALWAYS fair to Harold and Kim, even when they started falling apart.”
“They were my first patients,” said Origin, nodding in memory, “You never forget your first patients.” He remembered Prose’s aggression towards her family’s robots, stemming from her father’s high expectations of them. P-Twos were fairly new back then, and since they seemed so human, many of the first recipients expected far more of them than what they were capable of. Her father would order them around, regularly berating them when they couldn’t do what he asked and even punishing them although they didn’t understand it. As a child, Origin felt bad for them. He started working with Harold and Kim when he was only twelve years old, mostly the cleaning and regular maintenance Prose’s fathers neglected to provide.
To her father’s amusement, Prose would make fun of them; how they walked, how they spoke, their inability to understand optical illusions or value art, their lack of humor, their wrong interpretations. Other kids would laugh as she followed behind them, mocking their motions and responses as a mime or a clown might have.
Origin knew her father’s robophobia still impressed heavily on her social outlook. He fought the temptation to digress into a discussion about parental values; it would only result in raising the blood pressure of anyone within earshot. Including him, and even droopy-jaw-man may notice.
Putting aside her hormonal irrationalities, Prose did agree with the doctor about her child’s outlook on treating others, regardless if they’re human or not. She knew he was right; this was, in fact, what made him so difficult to argue with. He was too intelligent and rational to ever be wrong. Accepting robots as an integral part of society was socially appropriate, but that fact didn’t ease her own deep seated issues with their human likeness.
Origin knew he had tapped a nerve of common sense. From his point of view, her reactions aren’t far from what is expected from a fresh Protocol III robot, which he had been commissioned by the U.S. Department of Robotics for testing and refining since March of 2188. With his foot firmly wedged in the door of her social fears, he continued, “Besides, robots aren’t anything like children. They’re obedient and productive from day one. Your son, on the other hand, is going to keep you preoccupied for at least sixteen years. Good luck controlling that,” he said, pausing to smile, “You’ll be a good mother.”
“I suppose they all grow to hate you anyway, right?” She laughed, disengaging her defenses, “Sorry I’m so enraged. Don’t take it personally. I blame it on the pregnancy.”
“Forgiven, Prose. Of course.”
Droopy-jaw-man spilled his drink down the side of the table, and Max-Phil, a notoriously competent multi-tasker, begun hastily pouring him a fresh cup with one hand, wiping off the table with the other, and swiping a towel across the floor with his right foot.
Prose took a deep breath, shook her head and sighed, “I need you, Origin. To mentor my son when he’s old enough. Of course, Serif and I will always be doing our part in raising him but we both recognize he needs time away from our own neurotic selves to become his own man. Your involvement means a lot to me. Always has. There is nobody – and I mean nobody – in my life more intelligent or capable than you.”
Origin, taken aback by post-argument compliments and the honor of mentoring her son, gulped back feelings and expressed no physical reaction. Introverted by nature, and because of his intense training, it was almost instinctual for him to maintain composure regardless of his own mental wandering. Robot patients have a calculated, measured response to all human reactions, and they’re not always the reaction you want while doing repairs. This skill, honed by a decade of experience in psychological examinations with hundreds of robot patients, is also useful in his interactions with people. He nodded in acceptance and said nothing.
Prose looked longingly at Origin’s coffee, “Ugh, I want a cup so bad.” She is obsessed with her pregnancy, having altering her lifestyle and habits dramatically since her pregnancy began. It was common knowledge that most of what Americans do on a daily basis was either to the discouragement or detriment of proliferating the species. Not intentionally, Origin considered, but because so many things we enjoy must be yielded temporarily for healthy genes and children.
Since puberty, Origin has sensed in her the maternal desire for a child. The reasons why eluded him. Long ago, children were economically necessary; families would have a dozen or more to work on farms or run the family business. But those needs didn’t exist anymore. Children today pursued hobbies, personal interests and pleasure. More often than not, children were a burden on the adults and robots responsible for them. Maybe, for her, having children is some biological vanity of extending her genes. It certainly was that way for her partner, Serif, who would joke, “Someone’s gotta throw the best traits into the gene pool.” Maybe Prose just wanted to make him happy. Maybe, maybe, maybe. The urge to procreate has always existed, regardless of the circumstances, risks, and uncertainty.
The tragic irony of life is whether there are a hundred of us, or tens of billions, if every woman on Earth refused to sacrifice leisure and vices for just nine months, our entire species would dry up in just a tick over a century. The population would age, our corpses would dry to dust, leaving behind nothing but clueless automated machinery still studiously serving their dead creators. Or maybe the robots would simply stop, standing motionless, decaying without purpose. Origin didn’t really know what would happen, but he was certain the Earth itself wouldn’t mind. Like it did with us, it would make them its own. Dust to dust, rust to dust. None of it would matter once we were gone.
Origin respected Prose. Along with compassion, bearing and raising a child was a noble trait of humanity that no robot could ever replace. Vital for the species. Vital for compassion. And with what Origin already knew about the upcoming P-Three models, vital even for the future of robots. A signal flashed in his peripheral vision as his OptiLens came to life; his next appointment was just an hour away. “No rest for the wicked,” he thought to himself, and wrapped up the conversation on a lighter note, “So, you still need a name then?”
“Yes, I still need a name. And no, I’m not relying on a machine to produce one for me. Or my parents.”
“Well Prose, if you feel that strongly about it, be decisive and pick something. Don’t get through the day without thinking of a name. Make it your mission to do so.”
Her mind rebounded with assertive fervor, eyes twinkling with spontaneous clarity, “That’s his name. Mission.”
“Yes, I’ll call him Mission. Mission Lytle.”
“Just like that?”
“You told me to be decisive. I’m being decisive. I like it. ‘Little Mission’. Short and easy, sounds busy and productive. You don’t know of any robots named Mission, do you?”
“I don’t recall anyone or anything named Mission before.”
“It’s perfect then. Exactly what I want.”
Origin shrugged with approval, stood and extended his arm, “Then Mission it is. And it looks like I’ve got my work cut out for me, too. Time to go, here, let me help you.”
Prose took Origin’s hand and he pulled her to her feet. She didn’t need the help but accepted the courtesy anyway; for all of her eccentricities and flaws, she is a strong, attractive, capable and intelligent woman. Waving goodbye to Max-Phil, Origin escorted her into the busy sidewalk, and with hugs they parted separate ways. Origin stopped to turn around, watching as Prose walked defiantly against the flow of robotic traffic and disappear into the crowd, with her soon-to-be son Mission leading the way.