This short story was originally published on richardholliday.co.uk on September 22nd 2013.
by Richard Holliday
A finger pushed gently on a plastic button in the depths of a control room. A millisecond passed before electrical contact was made, and the whirring began in an instant. This wasn’t conception of a robot; that has been done in the design labs long ago, where the ideas and plans for a thousand droids had been generated from a million different permutations. With a gurgle, the assembly plant devoured the plans. These were robotic DNA, and were the basis from which everything that followed came from.
The operator went for lunch. There was nothing more for him to do, anyway. Like any other day the great machines below his control room would create other machines for use by his species brethren elsewhere.
From hoppers high above the assembly frame designated for one particular robot droid, through conduits and chutes came parts that under the guidance of manipulator arms clicked into place. First, a titanium frame formed a skeleton, with sockets and holes ready to hang components on that arrived afterwards with an unceasing regularity and in a predetermined order that had never deviated.
Next were circuit boards with their intricate traces running like tendrils across a flat plane of neuro-plastic to form nerves, followed by a hydraulic pump hung on a bracket that formed a steadily beating heart with hydraulic lines forming veins leading around the skeleton toward the limbs. Casing panels were fused together under the precise arm of an arc-laser and plasma cutter into something whole, and complete to attach to the skeleton.
Grey epoxy skin was poured over the bare metal from top to bottom and a blast of heat cured it into a rubbery film that hissed with escaping gas. The grey was not quite the tone of human flesh; that was never the intention. As the epoxy cooled it achieved its final shade of an unearthly, gaunt grey. Flecks of dark material permeated the flexible surface of this skin, mixed in a way that was totally unique to this droid. Chaos Engineering lay at the heart of the robot manufacturing process, making identical droids that weren’t identical in subtle ways. This allowed for differentiation and a artificial sense of ingenuity to develop themselves in any given robot. Once the skin had cooled the body to which it was indelibly adhered was around and shoved into a alcove surrounded by drooping cable conduits and monitors.
The metal body was now ready to receive its mind. Clamps took hold of the arms of the metal humanoid and interfaced its neural port with a spindly apparatus that emerged from the alcove to allow it’s very intelligence to be distilled directly into its memory banks through a thick plug burned in the nape of its neck.
The robot didn’t have a name yet. A curated history of its creator species, rudimentary base routines that formed ‘instincts’ and a logic and decision-making kernel took mere seconds to install onto solid-state memory chips. As with the skin tone, a little Chaos engineering went a long way, randomising the personality traits like it had done with the skin tone (within set parameters) and hard-baking them into this unit, making it unique. This would allow the robot to come to its own conclusions about the situations it would face and decide the best course of action for the desired outcome, within parameters.
To finish the assembly process, the electronic eyes of this proxy-human registered light. Sensors embedded in plexi spheres picked up the first morsels of light which grew exponentially. It was bright! There was a brief wakeup period – a millisecond or two – before the newly assembled unit recognised the bright glare from its freshly-installed intelligence.
Input error. Attempting recalibration…
With an unerring regularity, the false eyelids cleansed the glass lenses, assuming from the anomalous light readings that they were dirty. This was a common false-positive; many new units mistook their first glimpses of the light from yonder as a manufacturing fault; some were right, most were not. It was the first test and this particular unit had passed.
Sunlight identified. Triangulating local time from server…. server not found. Seeking alternate date signals.
Darkness befell the droid unit in a flash, and light resumed an unspecified time later. The unit found itself standing in a great yard alongside dozens of it’s brethren; all uniform in size and dimension but differing in skin tone and synthetic hairstyle. None could recall how they had gotten here. All were still, not moving, though the whirr of cooling fans and eye motors beguiled their apparent lack of life. These robots weren’t dead; rather, they were learning how to be alive.
Date signal found; syncing. Generating identification tag…
The robots looked around in unison with the others in this walled yard. It was featureless and uniform like the ranks of droids around. Every one of them worse a strikingly- barren set of clothes; a nylon shirt designed merely to cover the synthetic nudity beneath, with trousers too. The backs of each of the boiler suit tops was emblazoned with the identity of their Creator: Apex Engineering.
The robot stared into the back of its immediate neighbour. This was another part of quality control; could the new units name themselves? The robot searched its memory banks for something… suitable. This was a more advanced test than the sunlight test back in the assembly plant. Could a robot reflect its designer’s own ingenuity and christen itself? From a monitor on a wall in a faraway control room human overseers waited to see if their technical masterpiece – a true artificial intelligence – could recognise itself and give itself a name.
The robots began to question its very being. What was ‘it’, anyway? What was it for?
Identify type: Apex Engineering General Utility Service droid serial number 5049… searching for name-date file; not found, generating…
A few seconds passed, the robot’s vision flickering as it searched for anything that could be deemed… ‘inspirational’.
Name generated: Apex GUS 5049; awaiting verification.
The robot had ‘thought’ of a name. A few advanced sentience subroutines successfully activated. The metal mouth broke into a cautious smile, revealing pearly, plastic teeth.
Name accepted. Unit designated as GUS 5049.
GUS blinked coldly, before falling immediately into a deep sleep. The tests were over, and when it next woke up, it found itself somewhere quite different, and about to face its first real challenge…
© Richard Holliday, 2013