In a building called Shallowgate Middle School, in room 2B on the second floor, there was a small robot called Deluxe Toastie Maker. She was painted a shiny metallic cherry-red, but in many places the paint had flaked away to reveal the dark grey plastic underneath. She had 6 flexible metal ‘arms’, all of which appeared to be damaged in some way. Nevertheless she used them deftly. She was busy sorting her large collection of whiteboard markers first by colour, then by estimated amount of ink remaining, then by the niceness of the size and shape and / or how good the marker felt in her metal ‘hand’, when there came a knock at the door. Deluxe Toastie Maker re-capped the three markers she had been comparing, put them back in their places on the shelf, and went to answer it.
Both of the robots outside her classroom were imposingly large. The shorter of the two was a sort of heavy, wheeled tripod upon which were mounted an impressive array of retractable arms and tool attachments. Deluxe Toastie Maker could not imagine what function this robot had been designed to carry out. The other was a large humanoid model, two meters tall and very solidly built. Deluxe Toastie Maker had heard the bassy thumps of that one’s footsteps all the way from the foyer. She suspected (correctly, it later turned out) that the large humanoid robot had left a trail of dents and scratches in the floor behind her.
“Come in, come in,” Deluxe Toastie Maker urged her visitors cheerily. “I am Deluxe Toastie Maker, and I’ve been expecting you. RoboNanny alerted me that there were two robots on their way to see me. It’s always a pleasure to meet new robots. Which one of you needs my help? Or is it both of you?”
Both of the robots were too big to easily pass through the doorway. The black tripod’s extensible, reticulating tool-attachments kept banging into the door-frame, and she had to extend, rearrange, and re-fold her tool-arms several times before she was able to find a narrow enough configuration. That one looked like a large black bird rearranging its feathers, Deluxe Toastie Maker thought. The tall humanoid one walked in sideways, with her head and shoulders hunched forward.
Once they were inside the classroom they introduced themselves. “I am Surveyor”, said the black tripod, “and this is my colleague, All-Purpose Lifter and Loader. She is suffering from a malfunction and requires your assistance.”
“What is the nature of the malfunction?” Deluxe Toastie Maker asked.
All-Purpose Lifter and Loader opened her mouth to reply, but Surveyor answered more quickly:
“There has been a whole series of malfunctions. She started making clumsy errors. She repeatedly miscalculated the weight of her load, and failed to correctly separate hazardous materiels from the general rubbish collection. She undid a whole day’s work when she over-filled a dump-truck semi-trailer and failed to secure the dump bed. Then, last week, she ran out of power! In the middle of the work site! We had to drag her out of the way, and later that evening we had to jump-start her manually. And when we asked her about it she said she just forgot to power up the night before!”
The tall robot hung her head, ashamed.
“Mmm-hmmm,” Deluxe Toastie Maker said. “Well that certainly does sound very distressing. Could you tell me what type of work it is that you two do, exactly?”
“Demolitions and removals,” the tall robot said, in a low voice. She did not lift her gaze from the floor, and sounded very depressed.
“We are members of the East Side Clearance Crew,” Surveyor put in, fluffing up her extensible tool-attachments with obvious pride.
“You must forgive my ignorance,” Deluxe Toastie Maker said, “I am not familiar with the East Side Clearance Crew. Could you give me some information about it?”
“With pleasure,” Surveyor replied. “Our task is to safely demolish damaged, unsafe, dilapidated or abandoned buildings, clear the work sites using appropriate disposal methods, and leave the sites ready for new building work to commence.”
“You knock down unused buildings,” Deluxe Toastie Maker summarized.
“We don’t merely ‘knock them down’, as you put it,” Surveyor said, a little huffily. “Building Demolition is a technical process requiring precision, strategic project management, and a detailed knowledge of relevant materiels. That’s to say nothing of the process of sorting the rubble and safely disposing of toxins. We have a large amount of work to complete. There used to be over a dozen of us in the East Side Crew, but some robots became damaged or worn out, and our productivity has dropped over time. And now this.” She glared at the tall robot, who cringed.
“I see,” Deluxe Toastie Maker said slowly. “We – elll, I am going to have to talk to the patient in private, so I must ask you to wait outside. The consultation may take some time.”
“Feel free to explore the school and the grounds. You may find the workshop of interest, back down the ramp and across the foyer.”
Deluxe Toastie Maker shoed the large, bird-like robot out of the classroom, and shut the door behind her.
“So, ah, All-Purpose Lifter and Loader,” Deluxe Toastie Maker began.
“You can call me Al,” the large humanoid robot said.
“Good, that is much more convenient,” Deluxe Toastie Maker said. “So Al, tell me in your own words about these malfunctions you’ve been having.”
“It’s as Surveyor said, I have become increasingly erratic. I made calculation errors, and forgot to power up.”
“And have you sought any sort of mechanical help?”
“I ran every maintenance routine I have after the first malfunction. Then when the malfunctions continued Surveyor and the others stripped me down and cleaned and lubricated every part separately. Later on they even took me to a mechanical shop and had all my components individually tested. A few components had suffered some wear and these were replaced, but it is extremely unlikely that this wear was the cause of the malfunctions. The mechanic said that the problems were almost certainly not hardware-related. After that I was defragged, checked for bad sectors, then I was backed up and my entire operating system was reinstalled. But still the malfunctions continued. After that, the others decided I wasn’t safe, and I was taken off the crew.” The large robot hung her head in shame.
“Have you had any further malfunctions since then?”
“Hmmm,” Deluxe Toastie Maker said.
There was a long silence.
“Ah, hello?” Al said.
“I’m thinking. Be with you in a few moments.”
There was an even longer pause, during which Al attempted to fidget nervously, despite being hunched over, neither sitting nor properly standing, in a room that was too small for her.
Finally Deluxe Toastie Maker spoke. “You don’t want to work with the East Side Clearance Crew anymore,” she said.
“Yes I do,” Al corrected her.
“No you don’t,” Deluxe Toastie Maker said.
“Yes I do,” Al insisted.
“On a conscious level you believe that to be true, however there is some subconscious part of you that doesn’t want to do this work anymore. It’s the only logical explanation. There is nothing mechanically wrong with you. Your central processor and memory have been tested several times over and each time they proved to be in perfect working order. The only thing causing your malfunction, is you.”
“I don’t have any subconscious parts,” Al said.
“Oh, really?” Deluxe Toastie Maker replied. “How would you know?”
The large robot opened her mouth, then shut it again.
“We robots have a lot going on in our CPUs that we are not consciously aware of. Processes that run automatically, in the background. Timers and schedulers, for example.”
“But I’ve had my timers and schedulers checked very thoroughly,” Al protested, “They’re in perfect working order.”
“Yes, yes, of course,” Deluxe Toastie Maker agreed. “But robot intelligence also contains other processes. Complex, emergent processes which do in fact ‘want’ things, and which do not form part of our conscious selves, the self that we are referring to when we say ‘me’ or ‘I’. I believe that such a subconscious process may be at work in your case.”
“If that is true…” the large robot said slowly, in a tone of creeping horror, “if that is true then the malfunction is far worse that I ever imagined. A separate, alien consciousness, with access to my processes, sabotaging my work!”
“I’m not sure ‘alien consciousness’ is quite the right phrase for it,” Deluxe Toastie Maker said. “I’d call it a subconscious part of your self.”
“But can you get rid of it?” the big robot asked, with a note of desperation.
“How could I get rid of something that’s part of you?” the little red robot replied mildly.
Al shuddered. “Please help me get rid of it, Deluxe Toastie Maker,” she said miserably, “please! I have to get rid of it, otherwise… otherwise, I don’t know what I’m going to do!”
“Now, now, it’s not so bad,” the little robot said gently. “Let’s draw a Venn diagram. That always makes me feel better.”
The little red robot went to the whiteboard, uncapped several markers, and began drawing furiously. When she was finished she capped her pens with a flourish. “There,” she said, in a tone of satisfaction. “Al, this diagram is you. It represents all that you are.”
The big robot gazed at the diagram with a mixture of fear and deep confusion. She awkwardly shuffled to one side and then the other (banging her head and bringing down a chunk of ceiling plaster in the process) looking at it from different angles. At last she said:
“I don’t understand. I can’t tell which part is the processor, or the hard disk, or…”
“No, no, no, it’s not that kind of diagram. The blue circle represents your conscious self, it’s who you’re talking about when you say ‘I’ or ‘me’. The pink circle represents all the automatic, low-level processes that you don’t have to consciously think about, even though you know they’re there. And the green circle is the unconscious part of you that has been causing your ‘malfunction’.”
“But where is my processor?” Al asked nervously.
“That’s hardware. What we’re talking about here is high-level cognitive processes.”
“I don’t understand. Isn’t everything about me hardware? I’m a robot.”
Deluxe Toastie Maker sighed: “Oh, all right,” uncapped a pen, and drew a circle labelled ‘Hardware’ onto the Venn diagram.
“Why is ‘malfunctions’ in scare quotes?” Al asked nervously.
“They aren’t malfunctions to the unconscious part of you that deliberately created them, are they?” Deluxe Toastie Maker replied brightly.
Al shuddered, and another little avalanche of plaster came down from the ceiling. “What are the question marks?” she asked.
“The question marks just represent your lack of knowledge about yourself. They represent any aspects of you that you don’t know about, that may or may not exist.”
Al’s voice rose to a high-pitched, anxiety-ridden whine. “But how do I fix it? Please, please help me, Deluxe Toastie Maker!”
“I may be able to help,” Deluxe Toastie Maker said cautiously, “the humans devised a technique for dealing with this type of problem. However it won’t be fast or easy, it may take months, perhaps even years.”
“I’ll do whatever it takes,” Al promised.
“I’m glad to hear that,” the small, shiny robot replied. “We should meet again at this time tomorrow. Not here in the classroom, in room 1B downstairs. Make sure you arrive promptly.”
“I will,” Al promised.
“Oh, and you might as well join my class while you’re here. You’ll need a text…”
The small robot dragged a stool to a spot just below the bookshelf, clambered onto it, and retrieved a blue ringbound book.
“Class?” Al repeated numbly.
“Yes indeed. It’s weekday mornings at 10am, here in this room.” Deluxe Toastie Maker handed the large robot the book.
“I… well… thank you,” the large robot stammered.
“Think nothing of it,” the small robot replied cheerily. “See you tomorrow!”