Would you obey everyone who pushed your button and told you to do something?
Now my name is Robey (Row-bee). I am a prototype Thinking Machine designed to have unconditional positive regard for everyone, and to do no harm to people or property through action or inaction. I also have a big problem: When people give me orders, how can I know whether what they tell me to do could cause harm?
Dr. Maynard Little III invented the technology that allows me to think. He built me to test products his company makes. I enjoy the work, although “enjoy” means different things for me than it does for you—if you are human. I got into trouble because of differences like that.
Besides my big problem I must mention the small ones.
My advisers and my human assistant tell me this memoir must be written like a novel, not a diary. It must start by showing the protagonist in peril, and then, despite every effort to get out of peril, things must get worse. There must also be an antagonist, the one who causes the peril—or at least some of it. Then, when things look so bad that they cannot be resolved without destroying the protagonist—or the world—the story must resolve into a satisfying ending.
Not realistic, is it? Except for the “get worse” part.
To be specific, my small problems are: 1) I do not start out in peril; 2) Things get funny before they get worse; 3) There are three protagonists, not one; 4) People think I am the main cause of the peril—though I disagree strongly about that; 5) Before things get resolved everyone is my antagonist, and when the bad stuff happens… well, best not to get into that here.[a]
This book is mostly about engineers and me. There is shooting and chasing and so forth, but if you want a lot of breath-snatching suspense and heart-pounding action—or if you dislike “thinky” books (to use John le Carré’s happy word), it might be a good idea to put this book down now and walk away.
I apologize if this warning comes after you bought the book; Marketing would not print it anywhere that is easy for a browsing customer to see.
Three protagonists, did I say? Yes.
Dr. Little is one of them. I am another. Gaitano (Guy) Enver-Wilson, my programmer, is the third. There are several antagonists as well and a bunch of necessary others because engineering is a team endeavor. Rather than explain those relationships now, we shall let the story do that.
There is a convoluted problem:
This story, like those of all machines, begins in the mind of someone who thought me up. That is Maynard Little, who had been thinking about me ever since he was a boy. But he started wrestling with his own problems before Guy or I wrestled with ours. To tell my story, I must begin with his. Fortunately, he gets into peril, but it started earlier with his problems, and when his problems started, I did not exist. Do you see my problem?
My Data Matrix memory—my diary, as some call it—has much of the story, but most things in the matrix are not in this book. There are also gaps: things in my story that I did not experience. Mr. Jenkins and I interviewed others later to fill those gaps. Chapters one through eight are an example.
I do not like to talk about myself. However, this is my memoir so I write it as a third-person narrative. If I seem omniscient, like some god, I should say that as far as TLC, Inc. is concerned, I am closer to seeing and knowing everything than anyone—except God, of course. Whoever that is.
I have one final problem: I must not cause harm by betraying anyone’s personal confidences without permission. So when I hedge, it is usually because someone gave me contradictory signals or did not want to talk about it.
Peril does not start with peril. What starts is an idea that looks good to someone. Rejoicing in an idea’s benefits while ignoring its problems usually leads to trouble which, with help from a few more good ideas, can easily become peril. Dr. Little’s trouble may not seem terrible to those who have never been frustrated in achieving their life’s ambition, but it does get worse for him, and, I must say, events in the safe house were not known to me while he was there….
“Captain! Blue Team’s pinned down by machine gun fire. They can’t flank. It’s too exposed.”
“Get air support on station. For God’s sake don’t let them hit the wrong end of the IR.” [b]
“And tell Forest to get the rest of his men off that road!”
Doc’s eyes popped open.
He sat up, but slowly.
Everything was complicated because his head hurt.
That one again, he thought. Deep breaths.
After a groggy attempt to relax his jaw and neck, his head cleared, and he didn’t recognize the room. What was it? He glanced around. …It was a sitting room …that smelled like vanilla, of all things.
The room measured about four meters by six and felt vaguely familiar. Its furnishings were the sort of things he preferred; they appeared modest, well-made and comfortable—and coordinated if you ignored the exercise walking machine in the corner.
There were two doors, and he eased off the sofa to try them. The door ahead was locked. The one to the right opened on a clean bathroom. Listening carefully, he heard muffled sounds—carpenters, possibly. Then he felt the gentle breath of HVAC[c]—with a hint of vanilla. He couldn’t decide whether the air was H or AC, so it was V.
Stooping for a look in the mirror, at last he saw something he expected. That ruddy brown face with a touch of gaunt had gotten easier to look at, and his children, now grown, loved it as “interesting.”
He wiped off the sweat. The medicine cabinet had a bottle of pills; the label called them aspirin. If they were poison, he might die.
He could live with that chance and took one with a handful of water.
He thought about crying out but resisted. More reconnaissance first.
Surveying the sitting room from the doorway, the exercise machine was to his right, next were the locked door, a wardrobe and, in the far corner, an armoire. At his left hand was an end table with a sturdy lamp. Next was the sofa, angled toward a TV in the armoire.
Pressing his better ear against the wall, he heard two workmen, maybe more, and one of them laughed easily.
The perimeter wall felt too solid to be in a home or non-commercial building. He fetched the lamp and scratched the wall. It showed drywall beneath paint that seemed dry but fresh. He put the lamp back.
“Good morning, Doctor Little,” said a thin, raspy voice. It startled him, and he knocked the lamp.
“I’m sorry,” the voice added. “I wanted to avoid that, but I suppose giving you a start was inevitable. How’re you feeling?”
Doc steadied the lamp. The raspy voice was probably male and seemed to be coming from a stuffed but empty easy chair in the far-left corner of the room. He ambled toward it.
A small table stood between the sofa and the stuffed chair. He stopped to look it over and decide what to say. It was walnut. Very nice—perhaps even expensive—and suitable for playing bridge or supporting dinner for two. A used microwave oven disgraced its top.
That voice… It was… He had an easier time deciding what it wasn’t.
It wasn’t family. It wasn’t from TLC, or MTM, or any other place he had worked. How about his military past? A name might emerge eventually. No. A voice like that he would remember instantly.
He played along, but with his own twist. Casually canting his head and staring at the chair, he moved just enough to tell whether the voice stayed put. “Where am I?” he asked, faking a yawn that turned into a real one. “Who are you? What’s going on?”
“Yes,” said the voice—still from the chair, “we’ve not been properly introduced, but we can talk, and you can ask me any question you wish. Let’s start with ‘Where am I?’—or rather: ‘Where are you?’ The answer is: ‘I can’t say.’
“As to ‘Who am I?’—that’s not important. And ‘What’s going on…?’ You are in protective custody. Consider this a safe house.”
Doc didn’t buy it. For one thing, he didn’t feel safe. He gauged the wall, looking for a spot that was most likely between two studs, and banged it hard with his fist. The blow left a faint imprint of knuckles, not a dent or hole as one would expect. “With only a room and a half and no windows,” he growled, massaging his hand, “it seems more like a cell than a house.”
“Windows wouldn’t be safe,” said the voice. “But we’re working at giving you another room. It won’t be long.”
“How long?” Little asked.
“Another rich question,” answered the voice in a tone suggesting a smile. “Probably about—”
There was a muffled pause as if the owner of the voice had covered the phone and looked inquiringly at someone else for the answer of: “Two or three days. It’s not as easy as you might think. You’ve been here for about… I’m embarrassed to say how long. And how long you stay is dependent on you, but on others as well.”
“Does it depend on you?” Doc asked, striding to the chair.
“I don’t think so. I could be wrong, but probably not.”
The only thing in Doc’s surroundings now that didn’t fit into a named bucket was the voice. It didn’t sound like anyone he knew, including TM3—or TM2 for that matter. His inquiring mind suggested those two possibilities, and there was a sure way to find the truth. Both TMs were artificially intelligent machines his company had built. They could not lie.
“Are you Timothy?” he asked, plopping into the stuffed chair.
“No. Timothy who?” The voice came from beside the locked door.
Chasing the voice around started to feel like dancing a pas de deux with a ghost. Instead, he clarified: “Are you TM3? Or TM2? Or Robey?”
As he decided what to ask next, the voice added, “I’ve put books and magazines you might like in the end table cabinet. There’s food and drink in the armoire, and changes of clothes in the wardrobe. We’ll talk more soon.”
Little called out a rambling unanswered question.
This is an interrogation, he realized. They must want my secrets. Which ones? Doesn’t matter. They’d have to kill me first—though torture might be in their plan, and I don’t know if I’d stand up to that. But what kind of a life would I have if I cracked? I’d have lost my dreams too…
Suck it up, soldier. This is an interrogation. That was the Approach—or the first steps of it. But what kind of approach? [d]
He let that question cook as he inspected the armoire, keeping its doors open to see the TV screen the next time the voice spoke. Then he began a detailed search for audio and surveillance hardware that must exist.
[a] Dear Diary, I wanted a Prologue. My human advisers said no one reads Prologues anymore. They also wanted to start numbering pages and chapters at one instead of zero. We argued until I insisted we rename my Prologue as Chapter Zero, because if no one reads it, so what? Personally, I am glad you are reading it. Footnotes like this use tiny lower-case letters. Tiny numbers refer to Endnotes that begin on page 358. Endnote numbers start at one because their software insists, and I understand totally.
[b] IR, i.e., Infra-Red light. IR beacons identify friendlies. IR lasers paint targets.
[c] HVAC, i.e., Heating, Ventilation, Air Conditioning.
[d] Dear Diary: Here and elsewhere Doctor Little recalls parts of US Army FM 34‒52, a manual on interrogation techniques current when he was in military service. Maynard Little was a line officer, not an intelligence officer. His recall of approach techniques, and of rapport and other protocols is fuzzy, but is correct as far as he refers to them in this book.