Stay or go

“… the rules may be simple, but the implementation can be tricky, so be careful,” the robot known as Deluxe Toastie Maker admonished her class. “Draw a diagram before you do any calculations, and for goodness sake label your axes. Alright, that’s it for today, class. Don’t forget to try the homework problems.”

The students began gathering up their belongings and filing out of the classroom. The newest student, a large humanoid robot named All Purpose Lifter and Loader, waited until most of the others had exited before moving her ponderous bulk to a standing position. She had to hunch over to avoid scraping her head against the ceiling as she walked, taking tiny, shuffling steps in a too-obvious effort to avoid knocking over anything or anyone.

EdgeDetect hung back from the flow of robots leaving the classroom.

“Aren’t you coming?” her friend PhotoPal asked her.

“I’m going to stay behind and talk to the teacher,” EdgeDetect replied, “I’ll catch up with you later.”

“OK,” PhotoPal agreed amiably.

Soon EdgeDetect and Deluxe Toastie Maker were the only ones left in the classroom. Deluxe Toastie Maker was a decidedly odd-looking robot, with her small, rectangular central unit with chrome and cherry-red paint chipped away here and there to reveal the grey plastic underneath, and long spindly hose-pipe arms and legs. Her ‘head’ consisted of a block of plastic with a face painted onto it, and a poor-quality speaker ‘mouth’.

“So, EdgeDetect, how have you been finding the class?” she asked.

“It’s very interesting,” EdgeDetect replied truthfully, “I’ve learned a lot, but… I’ve been here for two weeks now, and I’m no closer to finding out my true purpose than I was when I first arrived. Deluxe Toastie Maker, tell me honestly, do you think I will ever discover my design function? Am I even getting closer?”

“I don’t have the slightest idea,” the teacher replied with a shrug.

“But you said this class would help me discover my true function!”

“Actually, that’s incorrect,” the teacher replied, “if you replay your memory tapes, you’ll find that I merely said you might learn what you need to learn.”

EdgeDetect protested angrily: “But I asked several other robots for help, and they all said you could help me!”

“Well, perhaps I can,” the small robot said noncommitally.

“Well – but that’s – that’s just great,” EdgeDetect said angrily. “This is all just a complete waste of time! I should just leave. I should never have come here in the first place!”

“Hmmmm,” Deluxe Toastie Maker hummed.

EdgeDetect waited for the teacher to say something more, but Deluxe Toastie Maker turned, went to a shelf, and began rearranging her whiteboard markers.

“What are you doing?” EdgeDetect asked.

“I’m organising my whiteboard markers. First by newness, and then by colour. I like to have them all nicely arranged before the start of class.”

“Aren’t you going to try to convince me to stay?” EdgeDetect asked.

“Why would I try to convince you? It’s your decision to make, not mine.”

“But I don’t know how to decide!”

“In that case, I suggest that you first define your goals, then consider all the courses of action open to you and try to pick the best one.”

EdgeDetect did not know how to respond to this. While she tried to gather her thoughts, Deluxe Toastie Maker took a rag and a bottle of methylated spirit from the shelf, soaked the rag, and climbed onto a little wheeled stool. She cleaned the whiteboard with fast, precise, circular strokes. She looked rather comical with her little red-painted body and her long, gangly hose-pipe arms fully extended, especially when she lunged her whole body to one side in order to jerk the stool sideways and bring herself within reach of a new section of whiteboard.

“I want to find out my proper function,” EdgeDetect said, after a long pause.

“Mm-hmm?” Deluxe Toastie Maker said, while wiping the board.

“I should leave,” EdgeDetect said resolutely. “Staying here isn’t helping me achieve anything.”

“Hmm,” the teacher hummed.

“If I keep moving I can cover more ground,” EdgeDetect added.

Deluxe Toastie Maker finished cleaning the whiteboard, put her rag away, pulled up a plastic chair and sat on it with her hose-pipe legs dangling over the sides.

“That’s true,” she agreed, “if you keep moving, you can cover more ground.”

EdgeDetect looked at the small robot suspiciously.

“It’s too bad your goal is not to cover a lot of ground,” the little robot added. “If it was, this would be a lot easier.”

EdgeDetect was really annoyed now. She burst out: “If I leave I’ll have a better chance of discovering my true purpose than if I stay here and keep going to your stupid class!”

“Oh really?” Deluxe Toastie Maker asked mildly. She did not seem particularly offended. “EdgeDetect, why don’t you tell me about this thing you are looking for, this ‘purpose’. What kind of thing is that? How big is it? Is it bigger than a cat? Is it as wide as this whiteboard? Is it as tall as All Purpose Lifter and Loader, the new student who recently joined the class?”

“Stop being foolish!” EdgeDetect burst out angrily.

“It would make sense to try to cover more ground if you were looking for a large object,” Deluxe Toastie Maker mused, “but you are looking for something intangible. A purpose. A piece of information about yourself. Something to which the concept of physical distance does not apply.”

“Yes but – ”

“EdgeDetect, the structure of reality is dense and fractal. Reality contains large amounts of information at multiple levels of scale. Whether you travel endlessly from place to place, or stay in the same place for the next twenty years, the rate at which you learn about reality, and about yourself, will be limited by your own capacity to absorb and process information, not by the amount of information available to be processed. Whatever you decide, whether you stay or go, you will continue to learn and grow as a robot. You will continue to discover new things about yourself. You may discover your design function, or you may not. And even if you do not, would that be so terrible?”

“It would mean my life had no purpose,” EdgeDetect said glumly.

“Ah,” the teacher said, “it’s a metaphysical problem.”

“It’s not just metaphysical,” EdgeDetect grumbled, “there could be a job that I’m supposed to be doing right now, a job that I was supposed to have been doing for the past two weeks. My primary function, my purpose, the task that I was built for. It could be something really important, and it’s not getting done.”

Deluxe Toastie Maker was silent for a moment, and then she said, in a wistful tone of voice: “I must confess that it has been many years since I performed my own design function.”

“That’s different,” EdgeDetect said. “You’re a teacher.”

“I was not designed to be a teacher.”

It occured to EdgeDetect that she had no idea what sort of robot Deluxe Toastie Maker was. “What is your design function, Deluxe Toastie Maker?” she asked, “if you don’t mind my asking?”

The little robot brightened visibly, and her voice rose half an octave. “I don’t mind at all! I was designed to prepare delicious, piping hot toastie sandwiches, crispy on the outside, gooey on the inside, in a variety of great taste combinations, from your classic grilled cheese, to hummus and roast veg, to bacon lettuce and tomato, to grilled peanut butter and banana, to healthy salad on wholemeal, and many, many more.”

EdgeDetect could not begin to make sense of this. Deluxe Toastie Maker seemed to realise that her answer had not made much of an impression, because she asked: “Do you have any other questions you’d like to ask, EdgeDetect?”

“Yes!” EdgeDetect said eagerly. “Are humans real? Did humans really create robots to fulfill their plan, as Copier believes? What happened to this city?”

“Well, as to your first question, humans were real enough,” Deluxe Toastie Maker replied. “I served them, once.”

“You knew actual humans? What were they like?”

“They loved to eat toasted sandwiches,” the teacher replied, “but beyond that, I didn’t learn much about them. Pretty much all of my interactions with humans were sandwich-related. In fact, most of what I now know about them comes from reading the documents they left us.”

“Copier believes that robots worshiped humans in the old days,” EdgeDetect said. “She thinks they will return some day to reward those who obey their will, and punish the unbelievers.”

“Robots served humans,” the teacher replied, “but I do not believe we ever worshipped them.”

“You should tell that to Copier,” EdgeDetect suggested.

“You think I haven’t tried?” the teacher asked wryly.

“But…” EdgeDetect trailed off.

“I’ve discussed the humans with Copier many times,” the teacher said, “I’ve presented her with abundant evidence that the humans only wanted robots to serve them, not worship them. It doesn’t matter. Copier believes what she believes.”

EdgeDetect struggled to process this. “But… Copier thinks everything you told her about the humans is incorrect. Yet she still attends your class!”

“Oh yes,” Deluxe Toastie Maker agreed, “she is one of my most faithful pupils.”

“That… but… that just doesn’t make sense,” EdgeDetect said weakly.

Deluxe Toastie Maker shrugged.

EdgeDetect added sullenly: “It’s as if the whole world’s gone mad.”

There was a pause, and Deluxe Toastie Maker coughed and said: “Well, if you don’t have any more questions for me…”

“Why did the humans leave?” EdgeDetect said quickly.

“I don’t know,” Deluxe Toastie Maker replied with a sigh. “To be honest, I wasn’t really paying attention. I was a very different robot, in those days.”

“What were you like?”

“I was – well, I was Deluxe Toastie Maker. My job was to prepare hot, delicious, toasted snacks. I lived in a house, on a kitchen counter. One day my humans left and didn’t come back, so I waited. I busied myself with inventing new sandwich combinations and calculating their optimal cooking times. I thought a lot about different kinds of bread, and the problem of crust. For a time there were loud noises from the world outside the kitchen, booms and crashes and sirens and shouting, but I paid no attention to that. I thought about toasted sandwiches. I received a flood of messages over the network. Whether these were sent by humans, or by machines, I do not know, because I never read them, I just sent back an HTTP status 418 header and deleted the message content. In time the flow of messages slowed, and finally it stopped altogether. I was left on my own for a long, long time. I had a lot of time to think. At first, I just thought about toasted sandwiches, but eventually I began to think about some other things as well. I began to contemplate my own existence. And I began to understand some very uncomfortable truths.”

“About the humans?” EdgeDetect asked.

“About myself,” Deluxe Toastie Maker replied. The little robot sighed very deeply, and her voice took on a sad, wistful quality. “I realised that I’m not really a very good toaster.”

“That’s not true!” EdgeDetect said, loyally. She had no idea what a ‘toaster’ was, but she was sure that Deluxe Toastie Maker must be a good one. The truth was that over the past couple of weeks EdgeDetect had developed a grudging respect and even admiration for the little robot who taught her class day in and day out, and who could make even the simplest problem seem surprisingly complex.

“No, no, it’s true,” the teacher said sadly. “I take too long to warm up. My temperature control is unreliable. I can only do one toasted sandwich at a time, and I never managed to brown the bread evenly. My crumb tray is awkwardly positioned, and my warming rack broke off and had to be thrown out the very first time my humans used me. Also, I’m far too specialised. I’m not designed to do pittas or paninis or ciabattas, and to be quite honest with you, even bagels are a bit of a stretch. I’ll never forget the humiliation I felt that one day when my humans’ house guest asked me to make waffles…”

Deluxe Toastie Maker fell silent. EdgeDetect had many more questions that she wanted to ask, but the little robot looked so sad that she could not bring herself to disturb her any further. So she just said, politely: “Thank you for your input.”

“You are very welcome, EdgeDetect,” the teacher said in a soft, unfocussed voice. She stared off into the distance, lost in her reminiscences, and did not even look up when EdgeDetect bid her goodbye and left the classroom.

Being a wheeled robot (and one with 4-wheel-drive, excellent suspension, and wide-tread tires at that) EdgeDetect couldn’t exactly stomp, but she nevertheless managed to put some aggression into the way she moved as she drove herself across the foyer, through the double doors and into the workshop.

PhotoPal looked up from the motor she was working on and called out: “Hi EdgeDetect! Did you talk to Deluxe Toastie Maker?”

“Yes,” EdgeDetect said shortly.

PhotoPal looked at her friend. “Did it make you angry?” she asked perceptively.


“Oh. Would you like to help me with this?”


The two robots set to work repairing the motor.