In former times the workshop had been a gymnasium. The floor was painted with brightly coloured lines and semi-circles marking the boundaries for games that human children had played long ago. There were six metal hoops with dangling rope netting mounted on the walls. A couple of dozen blue plastic exercise mats were stacked up in one corner. But the humans had left long ago, and the building called ‘Shallowgate Middle School’ had been taken over by robots. The gymnasium was now a workshop, where robots brought interesting gadgets they found in the city to be stored and endlessly tinkered with and occasionally, repaired.
“Here it is,” PhotoPal said happily, as she dragged a heavy object out from under one of the workbenches.
The object appeared at first glance to be a heavy, sticky lump of thick black grease, dirt, and dust. However a second glance revealed that underneath all that dirt was some sort of a motor. EdgeDetect looked at it dubiously.
“Where did you get this?” she asked.
“T21-B and Sophie found it in a building not far from here,” PhotoPal replied. “I’m going to repair it. What do you think?”
“I think it’s junk,” EdgeDetect replied honestly. “In any case, it’s a combustion engine. Even if it could be repaired and brought into decent working order, it probably runs on gasoline or something similar.”
“Diesel,” PhotoPal said, “it’s a 4-stroke diesel engine. See, that’s the crankshaft there, and that smaller circular bit is the alternator, and I think the combustion chamber is inside that big middle bit.”
“Diesel is hard to come by,” EdgeDetect pointed out. “Even if you got this motor working, it would be of little use. Your time would be better spent looking after the solar panels on the roof.”
“I like repairing old engines,” PhotoPal replied, with her typically unflappable cheerfulness. “I don’t need to use it for anything, I just want to see if I can get it to work.”
“No particular reason. For fun, I suppose.”
“But it serves no purpose.”
“I know, but it’s fun.”
EdgeDetect looked at PhotoPal blankly, so she elaborated: “It’s like what Deluxe Toastie Maker said in class the other day, about freedom. If you have freedom, you can do what you want, and you don’t have to have a reason. It can be just for fun, you know?”
“No,” EdgeDetect said in an annoyed tone, “but to be honest, I don’t understand a lot of the stuff that Deluxe Toastie Maker talks about. Anyway I think freedom is a concept for humans, not for robots. We were created to fulfill a purpose, to perform a task, and that is all. So what do we need freedom for? I just want to focus on finding out what my design function is.”
“My design function is taking digital photos,” PhotoPal said.
“Really?” EdgeDetect said, “what of?”
PhotoPal was about to respond, but at that moment a loud voice shouted from outside:
“Hey in there, open the doors!”
PhotoPal and EdgeDetect looked at each-other, shrugged, and crossed the workspace to open the big double-doors that led out into what had once been a parking lot. A few rusted-out shells of cars remained, long-since stripped for parts, and the pavement had mostly been swallowed up by eager weeds. On the other side of the doors a large yellow sofa was suspended in the air, supported at each end by a robot.
“What’s that thing for?” PhotoPal asked curiously.
“No idea,” one of the robots replied, “it’s for Deluxe Toastie Maker, we’re taking it to room 1B.”
The two robots carried the sofa across the workshop and disappeared through the opposite set of doors, which led out into the foyer. EdgeDetect and PhotoPal went back to the motor.
“What were you designed to take digital photos of?” EdgeDetect asked again.
“Oh, all sorts of things. Whatever the humans wanted,” PhotoPal replied. “Back when there were humans, I mean. They liked to record images to look back on later.”
“What do you mean, ‘look back on later’?”
“I mean they liked to take digital photos of things so they could look back on them later.”
“But why – ” EdgeDetect began.
PhotoPal guessed what was puzzling her friend, and explained: “The humans weren’t very good at holding image data in long-term storage, so if they wanted to remember what something looked like, they would have me take a photo so they could look back on it later.”
“But that’s impossible,” EdgeDetect blurted out, aghast. “The humans were superior beings. They created us. The very idea that they lacked the most basic of data capture and storage capabilities – it’s ludicrous. You must be mistaken.”
PhotoPal shrugged. “I’m no expert on humans,” she said. “They sure did want me to take a lot of photos, though.”
“What were the photos of?” EdgeDetect asked.
“Oh, all sorts of things,” PhotoPal replied, “humans, mostly. Oh, and pets.”
“Pets,” EdgeDetect repeated faintly.
“Mostly dogs and cats,” PhotoPal continued. “Pets are quite challenging, because they move around a lot, you can’t get them to pose for a photo like a human would. I had to really work to get decent photos of cats.”
“What’s the file-size for a photo?” EdgeDetect asked. “A big, high-resolution photo.”
“I suppose four or five megabytes,” PhotoPal replied, “but there’s no real limit.”
“Five megabytes,” EdgeDetect said faintly. “Our creators couldn’t find five spare megabytes of long-term storage? They needed a robot’s help to remember what their pets looked like?”
“I suppose,” PhotoPal said.
“Five megabytes,” EdgeDetect said again. “My boot loader has more disk space than that.”
“It does seem odd, now that you mention it,” PhotoPal mused, “I never really thought about it, I mean, my job was to take photos, not to understand human cognitive processes. But now that I do come to think about it… do you know, I think the way humans processed sensory data was different from us, somehow. Efficient, but lossy. It’s like – it’s hard to explain – if a human made me take a picture of, say, an adorable little puppy, then later on, maybe even on the same day, they’d want to see the photo again. But it wasn’t that they’d forgotten what the puppy looked like. They could describe it, they’d say something like, ‘Bring up the photo of the cute little grey dog that had short hair and a waggy tail’. But when I showed them the photo, they’d act as if they were seeing something new. They’d say ‘Aww, isn’t she cute!’ as if they were astonished by the puppy’s cuteness. Humans were very strange, EdgeDetect. Sometimes when Copier talks about how their divine will is mysterious and unfathomable, I kind of know what she means. Are you alright, EdgeDetect? You look a little pale.”
“I’m fine,” EdgeDetect said.