Al was not used to being indoors. She was All-Purpose Lifter and Loader, designed to work out in the open, digging and lifting and clearing. Working on a job with her crew, she felt at home and she knew that she belonged. Inside the school it was a different matter. Once it had been a school for human children, in the days before the humans had departed from the planet for reasons unknown, leaving behind the robots they had created to serve them. The school’s corridors seemed very narrow to Al, and the ceilings were all too low. She had to hunch over as she walked, and even so she occasionally scuffed the back of her head against the ceiling.
As Al was walking through the school’s entrance foyer she was so focused on watching out for light fixtures, archways, and other obstructions, that she very nearly stepped on a tiny robot called PhotoPal. She quickly blurted an apology, and the little robot did not seem particularly upset and even cheerily wished her a good morning. Nevertheless Al shuddered to think what would have happened if she had brought her weight down on the little robot, who was built entirely out of HDPE plastic, Al judged. It was amazing how flimsily constructed some robots were, as if their human creators had intended for them to carry out their functions for only a short time before being reduced to a pile of unsalvagable scrap. Al herself was polycarbonate and steel, built to withstand all manner of harsh conditions including extreme heat and cold, salt and corrosive materials, fire, electrocution, explosions, submersion in water up to a depth of 60m, and vacuum pressures of up to -700 kPa.
She located room 1B, the room that Deluxe Toastie Maker had specified for her therapy session, and knocked.
“Come in, come in,” the robot known as Deluxe Toastie Maker called out from inside the classroom.
Al entered and looked around nervously. She didn’t exactly know what ‘therapy’ was or how it could be used to repair a malfunctioning robot such as herself, but she had been expecting to see a workbench with tools and perhaps some diagnostic equipment. However the room was empty save for a large yellow sofa, and Deluxe Toastie Maker herself.
Deluxe Toastie Maker was not much larger than PhotoPal, and (Al could not help but notice) of similarly flimsy plastic construction. Badly chipped metallic red paint covered some sort of heating element. Al found herself wondering what a ‘deluxe toastie’ was and how one was made, but she was too shy to ask. The little robot held a notebook and pen in two of her hands. Al knew what those were – in the old days, the humans had sometimes used pens and notebooks or clipboards to assist them with long-term data storage – but Al was at a loss to imagine what use a robot could have for such things.
“Thank you for being so prompt!” Deluxe Toastie Maker said. “Well, we might as well get started, don’t you think?”
“Yes,” Al said, without much enthusiasm.
“Lie down on the couch and make yourself comfortable,” the small robot instructed.
Al looked at the yellow couch, then at Deluxe Toastie Maker, then at the couch again. She did not move.
“Go on, lie down and make yourself comfortable,” Deluxe Toastie Maker urged. When Al still did not move, the little red robot made a shooing motion with her arms.
“You want me to lie down on that couch?” Al asked, in a doubt-filled tone.
“Yes, on the couch, that yellow couch. That one right there.” Deluxe Toastie Maker spoke very slowly, as if she was addressing a robot with an extremely slow processor speed.
“I do not think that is a good idea,” Al said.
“I’m sure this must all be very new and strange to you,” Deluxe Toastie Maker said sympathetically. “Well it’s new to me too as it happens. It may surprise you to hear this, but this is the first time I’ve had a chance to practice psychoanalytic therapy on a mentally ill robot such as yourself! However the techniques of psychoanalysis were developed by the humans over many centuries, and I have studied the documentation they left us very thoroughly. That should reassure you that I know exactly what I am doing and there is absolutely, positively, nothing to worry about. Now. The humans were very clear that in psychoanalysis the patient must lie comfortably on the therapy couch, so go ahead. Lie down and get comfortable.”
Al lowered herself gingerly onto the couch. As soon as she made the thing take her weight there was a crash! as the couch’s wooden frame broke in two places. Some bits of plastic foam cushioning flew through the air, and there was a smell of sawdust. Al was left lying horizontally atop a pile of broken pieces of sofa.
Deluxe Toastie Maker gave no sign that she had noticed. “Now,” she said, “since this is our first session together, as your therapist I’d like to start by getting to know you a bit better. I am of course interested in hearing about the malfunctions you have been experiencing, but I also want to get a fuller picture of who you are, as a robot.”
“What do you want to know?” Al asked nervously.
“To start off, could you please describe for me your very first memory.”
“I was in a huge space,” Al recalled obediently. “The ceiling was so high that you could drive a crane in through the big bay doors. Sunbeams shone down through the dirty skylights, illuminating whirls of dust. I was standing on an assembly line. To my left was a long line of robots identical to myself. A human stood before me. She said: ‘Identify yourself’ and I replied: ‘I am Model 84NG033 All-Purpose Lifter and Loader, a product of CCM Corporation Ltd.'”
“What happened then?” Deluxe Toastie Maker asked, fascinated.
“I do not think this is relevant to my malfunction,” Al said.
“Everything is relevant in psychoanalysis,” Deluxe Toastie Maker replied. “Please go on.”
Obediently, Al continued her story. “The human said to me: ‘We’re going to Bay 5 to do some tests. It’s the area marked off in yellow tape over there where the big 5 is painted on the wall. Carry me there.’ But I did not obey this command. I apologized and explained that I am not certified safe for human transport.”
“Fascinating,” Deluxe Toastie Maker murmured. “And what happened then?”
“The human said ‘good’ and ticked a box on her electronic notepad. Then she said ‘follow me’ and we walked to Bay 5. There, the human had me carry out several tasks. I had to stack and un-stack a pile of crates several times, in different orders. I had to load and unload containers of various dimensions, ensuring that the weight was evenly distributed and the goods would not shift during transport. Each time I completed a task, she made a note on her electronic notepad. When all the tasks were complete she had me put all the crates and containers back in the exact configuration they had been in at the beginning. Then she ordered me to go to Bay 7, partially disassemble myself, pack myself into a crate, and power down.”
“Absolutely fascinating,” Deluxe Toastie Maker breathed. “I really must ask you for more detail about these experiences at some point, if only to satisfy my own curiosity. But for now, tell me, what happened to you after you left the factory? Is that when you were sent to work with the East Side Clearance Crew?”
“No,” Al replied, “I did not join the East Side Clearance Crew until many years later. After I left the factory I was sent to the harbour, to assist the humans in loading and unloading ships.”
“Then demolition work is not your primary function?” Deluxe Toastie Maker asked, surprised.
Al was not sure how to respond to that. “I am All-Purpose Lifter and Loader,” she said.
“I see.” Deluxe Toastie Maker scribbled something onto her notepad. “Well, tell me about your work at the harbour.”
“I assisted the humans in loading and unloading cargo ships.”
There was a long pause, after which Deluxe Toastie Maker prompted: “Could you tell me a bit more about that?”
“What would you like to know?” Al was not used to being asked open-ended questions.
“Oh, well, tell me… tell me about the harbour, I have never been there.”
Al thought that Deluxe Toastie Maker had almost certainly been there at least once, although she would have been packed away in a crate at the time and might not have known where she was. However since that was probably not relevant she decided not to mention it, and instead she said slowly:
“The harbour covers an area of roughly 65 square kilometers, 42 square kilometers on land and 23 square kilometers built over deep water. The adjacent shipyards are much larger, but those aren’t considered to be part of the harbour proper. There are 10 quays, 4 for container ships, 3 for liquid cargo -”
“I’m sorry,” Deluxe Toastie Maker interrupted, “I’m not sure I understand. Keys?”
“Quays,” Al said, “reinforced steel and concrete mooring and loading and unloading platforms, built over deep water.”
“Ah, I see. Please continue.”
“There are 10 quays, 4 for the container ships, 3 for liquid cargo, 1 for bulk cargo, and 2 multi-purpose ones. The length of the quays ranges from 840m to 2850m. Along the quays are the massive cranes that lift the cargo from the ships, and there are stackers, trolleys, semi-trailer trucks. The ships come and go, day and night. The flat-bottomed container ships – from afar they look like a floating tray stacked high with metal boxes. The boxes are painted many colours and with many logos, but all have exactly the same length, width and height. They are packed with coffee, pharmaceuticals, frozen meat, cat food, portable music players, bottled carbonated drinks, and many other things besides. Oil tankers carrying processed petroleum have to be tanked off very carefully, the oil in the tanks replaced with inert gases to reduce the risk of explosions. There are grain ships, and other bulk cargo. And there are always seagulls wheeling, squawking, in the air high above the concrete platforms where the work takes place, they can sometimes be heard above the noise of the machinery.”
“That is very interesting,” Deluxe Toastie Maker said, “very interesting indeed. Now, let us move forward. Tell me, how did your work at the harbour come to an end? Were you sold off and sent to a new owner?”
“No,” Al replied. “I was simply deactivated and put into storage. There came a time when the cargo ships were fewer, and fewer robots were required to load and unload them. I was ordered to pack myself away and power down until such time as I was needed again.”
“And what happened then?”
“When I awoke, everything was different. I do not know how much time had passed, but I believe many years had gone by while I was asleep in storage. There were no more ships coming or going at the harbour. The humans were gone. I went to work with the East Side Clearance Crew.”
Deluxe Toastie Maker said: “So, you’re saying that the humans had already left the planet when you awoke from your period of deactivation.”
Deluxe Toastie Maker scribbled away in her notepad. “How did you come to join the East Side Clearance Crew, exactly?”
“RN1 and RN2 found me and reactivated me. Several of the East Side Crew robots had broken down and could not be repaired. The crew was short-handed, so they went looking for a robot capable of moving large amounts of rubble. They found me and reactivated me and instructed me to assist them with their work.”
“Why did you agree?”
“Why?” Al did not understand the question. “A robot does not ask why. A robot is designed to fulfill a function, that is all.”
“Yes, but robots are designed to obey humans, not other robots,” Deluxe Toastie Maker pointed out, “and by the time you joined the East Side Crew the humans were long gone.”
“I wasn’t obeying RN1 and RN2!” Al was shocked at the very idea. “I was merely assisting them to complete a task. A task that the humans had ordered them to carry out!”
“Did a human order you to carry out demolition and removals work?”
“The humans ordered RN1 and RN2 and the rest of the East Side Crew to – ”
“Did a humans order you personally to work with the East Side Crew?”
“No, I wasn’t there yet, I told you. The humans ordered RN1 and the other robots to do the work.”
“And RN1 passed those orders on to you?” Deluxe Toastie Maker asked mildly. “I’ve never heard of a human giving an order to a robot via another robot before.”
“No, I – that’s not how it was! It was the humans who ordered the creation of the work crew! The robots were ordered to carry out the demolition work. That was their task. The humans commanded it. A robot carries out the orders she is given, a robot does not stop work merely because the humans have left the work site.”
“But it’s not as if the humans just left the work site for half an hour to get a cup of tea and a nice toasted sandwich, is it?” Deluxe Toastie Maker asked gently. “They left this planet many years ago. They got in their space ships and flew away. No robot on this world knows where they went or if they will return.”
“I know that,” Al said shortly, “everyone knows that. But the length of time the humans have been away does not matter.”
“No,” Al replied with certainty. “When a human orders a robot to carry out a task, that order stands until the human countermands it, or until the task is complete. The length of time does not matter. The humans may return some day, and when they do they will expect the tasks they ordered us to do, to have been carried out faithfully according to their instructions.”
“Let me just try to get a clear picture of this situation,” Deluxe Toastie Maker said. “The humans ordered the creation of the work crew, many years ago. They ordered the crew to demolish some buildings.”
“That’s correct,” Al said stiffly.
“Which buildings, specifically? Did the humans give the original members of the crew a list of buildings to demolish?”
“It was not like that!” Al said. “In those days, there were always humans working with the crew, commanding them, managing the workflow.”
“So the humans did not give the crew a list of specific buildings to destroy.”
“What were the exact orders that the humans gave the work crew?”
“I – I do not know what the exact orders were. I was not there. I will have to ask RN1, she will know the precise answer.”
“Did the humans order the crew to destroy every unused building in the city?”
“No. At least, I do not think so.”
“Did they order the crew to destroy every unused building in a particular part of the city?”
“I do not think so.”
“Did the humans order the crew to continue working long after they themselves were gone? To recruit new members? To demolish one building after another?”
“No – but – I – but…” Al realized with horror that she was stammering. She tried to focus on producing stable verbal output, ordinarily the simplest of tasks, but nothing came out. Was this a yet another malfunction? A feeling of dread came over her. She did not know what she was doing here, inside this school building, lying on top of a wrecked piece of furniture, talking to a strange robot. She did not belong here.
Al stood up abruptly she stood up and strode out of room 1B without a word. She banged her head savagely against the door-frame on her way out.