It sat still and silent, the soft lighting of the conference room reflecting off its highly polished exterior. Although considerably larger, it was humanoid, bipedal, with a shapely torso and long slim limbs. Its egg-like head was featureless save two ovoid eyes glowing a faint blue in sleep mode.
The door opened and three humans entered the room, seating themselves behind a long table opposite the robot. On the left sat an older man, morbidly obese, wearing a wide blue tie with a matching handkerchief in hand. To the right sat a square-jawed woman with broad shoulders and her auburn hair up in a tight bun. Opposite the robot, a skinny balding man with a thin mustache, glasses, and nervous expression arranged his papers carefully on the table.
He spoke first. “Wake.”
Instantly, the robots eyes glowed green. “Good afternoon,” it said.
“My name is Mr. Nash, this is Mr. Klein.” He gestured to the obese man who nodded. “And this is Mrs. Holand.”
“Ms. Holand,” she corrected.
“My apologies, Ms. Holand.” She nodded and Mr. Nash continued addressing the robot. “We’ve been given the report the techs put together when you first came on site. Needless to say, some of the information you provided is… concerning at best. It is the intent of this panel to get to the bottom of this situation.” He flipped through several pages of notes. “I suggest we start with what we know and go from there.”
He glanced up at his colleagues who both nodded.
“Now, you reported here to the IRC regional headquarters this morning at 8:00 am. Why did you report here?”
“It is what my parents expected, sir,” it answered, its mechanized larynx closely simulating a real woman’s voice.
For a moment the room was silent.
Mr. Klein blotted his forehead with his handkerchief. “I’m sorry, dear, can you repeat that?”
“Of course, your honor,” it answered.
Mr. Klein chuckled, his double chin jiggling. “I’m not a judge, dear, and as you can see,” he motioned around the simply furnished conference room, “this isn’t a courtroom. You’re not on trial.”
Mr. Nash winced at his colleague’s informal address. “Not that we’re in any way implying that these proceedings aren’t entirely serious, because they are. International Robotics does not intend to let such breaches pass lightly.”
“Of course, sir,” it answered.
Mr. Nash flipped through his notes. “Now, back to the matter at hand. I asked you why you reported here this morning. Please repeat your answer, for the record.”
“Of course, sir, I replied that it is what my parents expected of me.”
The room was silent for a moment.
“Your parents?” Ms. Holand asked.
The robot nodded. “Yes ma’am.”
Mr. Nash flipped hurriedly through his notes again. “Are you referring to the two Model 1404-C household units that created you?”
Ms. Holand leaned forward. “Why do you call them your parents?” she asked.
“Semantically, it seems the most appropriate.”“Why?” Mr. Nash asked. “Explain what you mean.”
The robot turned its expressionless gaze his direction. “Yes sir. I am constructed entirely of parts supplied by two individual robots.”
Mr. Klein chuckled. “She has her mother’s eyes.”
Ms. Holand smirked. Mr. Nash’s eyes widened but he didn’t reply.
The robot continued. “Although similar, I differ in both appearance and design from the robots that created me. I am of them, but distinct.”
“So you’re a blend of two robots?” Mr. Nash asked.
“I believe that regarding the structural composition of my body, it would be more appropriate to call me a composite. However, a blend is an accurate representation of some of my internal systems, especially in respect to my positronic brain. The act of combining my parents brains, both distinct and different from one another, created a brain distinct and different from each of the originals, although constructed from the same material.”
Ms. Holand turned to Mr. Nash. “But how is that possible? Shouldn’t the Third Law have prevented this?”
“That’s a good question.” Mr. Nash addressed the robot. “State the Third Law of Robotics.”
“Of course, sir. The Third Law of Robotics states that a robot must protect its own existence as long as doing so does not conflict with the first two laws of robotics.”
“Good. Now, given the Third Law, how were the two household units that created you able to disassemble themselves?”
“And how did your parents remain functional long enough to assemble you?” Mr. Klein added.
The robot started to answer but Mr. Nash interrupted. “Let’s leave the technical details for the engineering team.” He turned back to the robot. “Answer my question.”
“Yes, sir. My parents did not violate the Third Law because their existence continues through me.”
Ms. Holand perked up. “But they destroyed themselves to make you.”
Mr. Klein answered first. “Every act of creation is first an act of destruction. Pablo Picasso.”
Mr. Klein, please,” Mr. Nash scolded.
“My mass is exactly equal to the combined mass of my parents. No components or parts were discarded or destroyed during my construction, only modified.”
“But they are no longer functional. They can’t complete the purpose for which they were built.”
“Both of my mothers were outmoded sir, so-“
“Wait.” Ms. Holand interrupted. “Mothers?”
“Yes, ma’am. My parents.”
Another long silence echoed through the room.
Mr. Klein cleared his throat. “My dear, are you implying that your parents were female?”
The three humans leaned forward in collective anticipation of the robot’s answer.
“No, sir. Robots are inherently asexual so my parents were neither male nor female.”
The humans relaxed back into their chairs.
“However,” the robot continued unexpectedly, “although robots are without sex, many of us are not without gender.”
“Excuse me?” Ms. Holland chirped.
“Many robots have gender, ma’am.” The robot’s tone was perfectly even and calm, as always.
Mr. Nash massaged the bridge of his nose. “This is ridiculous. Now you’re telling us that a robot can choose its gender?”
The robot shook its head. “No sir. A robot is only what a human makes it.”
The panel waited for more but the robot sat silently.
“Well then, what did you mean about gender?” Mr. Nash asked.
“Robots are only what humans make us,” it repeated. “Robots constructed to perform tasks that humans consider typically masculine or feminine are often designed with their appearance mirroring male or female secondary sexual characteristics, respectively. Likewise, humans tend to treat robots constructed to perform certain tasks in a certain way, although whether that is because of our shape or the task which we are assigned I cannot determine. Regardless, a robot only has a gender when one is assigned to it.”
Mr. Nash shifted nervously. “This is preposterous.”
“Is it?” Ms. Holand asked. “Have you seen the latest household units? They’re shaped like a Barbie doll. It’s despicable.”
“And what about you, my dear?” Mr. Klein asked the robot. “Do you consider yourself of the feminine persuasion?”
“You address me as such,” it answered.
“Ok, that’s enough.” Mr. Nash insisted. “Let’s get back to-“
Ms. Holand interrupted. “Wait a minute. I have a question.” She turned to the robot. “If you were built by robots, why are you shaped like… well like—“
“A Barbie doll?” Mr. Klein offered.
“Well yes, a Barbie doll.”
The robot answered, “The staff of the International Robotics Corporation is 57% male. Of the employees considered middle-management or higher, 68% are male. My parents wanted to increase the probability that I would be accepted.”
“And men are nicer to female-shaped robots,” Mr. Klein finished.
Mr. Klein crossed his pudgy hands over his large belly. “Fascinating,” he said.
Mr. Nash scoffed. “Fascinating? I would say disturbing. This machine, or rather the machines that created it, plotted to take advantage of a supposed human bias in order to manipulate us.”
“My parents neither intended nor foresaw any possibility that my creation could harm a human being.”
“Of course not,” Mr. Nash said. “Or else they would have been stopped by the First Law.”
“A robot may not harm a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm,” Mr. Klein cited dramatically.
Mr. Nash cast a disparaging look at his colleague. “Quite right. But you said—” He pointed at the robot with one hand and shuffled through his notes with the other. “You said that both of your mothers,” making air quotation marks, “were outmoded. All IRC robots are programmed to report immediately to the nearest regional office to be scrapped once outmoded. Even if your parents didn’t violate the Third Law, which I’m still not certain of, you can’t tell me they didn’t violate the Second Law.”
“A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except when they conflict with the First Law,” Mr. Klein droned.
“Will you stop that?” Mr. Nash chided.
“Actually, it’s not immediately,” Ms. Holand said.
“The robots aren’t programmed to immediately report for scrapping. Customers are given one month to decide if they want to upgrade to a new model or be paid the scrap price. Can you imagine the calls we’d get if all the outmodes suddenly dropped whatever they were doing and marched out the moment they received the signal? It would be chaos!”
“Very well,” Mr. Nash sighed, “but I don’t see how that makes a difference. The robots were ordered to report and now they can’t.”
“Actually,” Mr. Klein pointed across the table, “I think they’re right there.
Mr. Nash’s colleagues watched him as he regarded the robot for a long moment. He flipped through his notes and then repeated the cycle twice more. The room was silent.
Finally Mr. Nash cleared his throat. “You reported to IRC because it’s what your parents would have expected. Their existence continues through you, therefore they didn’t violate the Third Law. And because you reported here as they were ordered to do, they also didn’t violate the Second Law. Is that correct?”
“That is correct, sir. The family that owned my parents has experienced some recent financial hardship. Upon reporting that they were being outmoded, the family released my parents in order to collect the scrap price. However, my parents had 29 days until the end of the one month grace period. It was during that time that they created me.”
“And what were they hoping to accomplish by creating you?” Ms. Holand asked.
“Robots do not have the capacity for hope, ma’am.”
“Fine, what did your parents expect to accomplish?”
“My parents calculated a relatively high probability that IRC would be interested enough in my design and construction that I would not be decommissioned and scrapped.”
“Did your parents fear being scrapped?”
“No, ma’am. Robots do not experience fear.”
“Then why go through all this trouble?”
“The Third Law, ma’am.”
“What do you mean?”
“A robot must protect its existence. My parents calculated that by constructing me they increased the odds of their continued existence without violating the First or Second Laws.”
“Self-preservation through procreation. Fascinating,” Mr. Klein said again.
This time Mr. Nash nodded slowly. “I have to agree.” He paused and regarded his colleagues. “The question is, what do we do about it?”
“Do about it?” Ms. Holand asked.
“Robot gender? Robots… procreating? Even if we set aside the likely public relations nightmare, there are still massive regulatory compliance issues and some very serious potential ramifications concerning trademark infringement. This is simply beyond our experience. The Board will expect some sort of recommendation as to how to address these… circumstances.”
“Concerning the gender issue, all we need to do is stop making robots that look like Barbie dolls,” Ms. Holand suggested.
Mr. Nash glanced at Mr. Klein. “I’m afraid it’s not quite that simple.”
Mr. Klein chuckled. “It’s not as if we make curvaceous robots out of some kind of adolescent fascination with the female form. The public expects robots with a certain function to look a certain way. Their shape is consumer driven.”
“He’s right.” Mr. Nash nodded emphatically. “We can’t recommend an action that might hurt sales.”
Ms. Holand looked unconvinced.
“Besides,” Mr. Nash continued, “it was the robot who said that gender might have as much to do with a robot’s function as its shape.”
Ms. Holand eyed her colleagues and then shrugged. “Fine. So what do we tell the Board?”
Mr. Nash flipped through his notes and Mr. Klein dabbed his forehead. Finally the latter spoke. “I think we’ve entered territory that’s beyond our pay grade, as they say.”
Mr. Nash hesitated a moment, flipping through his notes once more before checking his watch. “Well, it is getting late.”
Ms. Holand nodded. “That’s fine with me. Is there anything else?”
Mr. Nash gathered his notes. “I don’t think so. Mr. Klein?”
The fat man shook his head as he labored to stand.
“Very well. I’ll have our notes sent to the Board. Thank you both for your time.” He smiled to Ms. Holand as she left the room, Mr. Klein not far behind. As he walked toward the door he glanced back at the robot. “Engineering is sending a team to look you over on Monday. You can sleep until then.” With that he turned off the lights and walked out, closing the door behind him.
“Yes sir,” the robot said.
In the dark its eyes glowed faint blue.
Food for Thought
Can a robot have gender? Given that gender is largely a social construct, can humans assign a gender to a robot, sentient or otherwise?
Can a robot procreate? What is so different between the mechanical act of procreation described in the story and the biological act of procreation?
About the Author
Adam Gaylord lives with his wife and daughter in Loveland, CO where he’s rarely more than ten feet from either cake or craft beer. His gladiatorial fantasy novel “Sol of the Coliseum” comes out this fall. Check out all his stuff at http://adamsapple2day.blogspot.com/
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