For this one I swapped the gender of everyone but the robot. But robots don’t have gender, do they?
Robots will be our servants. But how can they serve us when we don’t know what we want?
(Based on Weak on Square Roots by Russell Burton)
Root of the Problem
As her coach sped through dusk-darkened Jersey meadows, Rona Lovegear, fourteen years with Allied Electronix, embraced her burden with both arms, silently cursing the engineer who was deliberately rocking the train. In her breast she nursed the conviction that someday there would be an intelligent robot at the throttle of the 5:10 to Philadelphia.
She carefully moved one hand and took a notebook from her pocket. That would be a good thing to mention at the office next Monday.
Again she congratulated herself for having induced her superiors to let her take home the company’s most highly developed mechanism to date. She had already forgiven herself for the little white lie that morning.
“Pascal,” she had told them, “is a little weak on square roots.” That had done it!
Old Hardwick would never permit an Allied computer to hit the market that was not the absolute master of square roots. If Lovegear wanted to work on Pascal on her own time it was fine with the boss.
Rona Lovegear consulted her watch. She wondered if her husband would be on time. She had told Conway twice over the phone to bring the station wagon to meet her. But he had been so forgetful lately. It was probably the new house; six rooms to keep up without a maid was quite a chore. Her pale eyes blinked. She had a few ideas along that line too. She smiled and gave the crate a gentle pat.
Conway was at the station, and he had brought the station wagon. Lovegear managed to get the crate to the stairs of the coach where she consented to the assistance of a porter.
“It’s not really heavy,” she told Conway as she and the porter waddled through the crowd. “Actually only 57 pounds, four ounces. Aluminum casing, you know …”
“No, I didn’t …” began Conway.
“But it’s delicate,” she continued. “If I should drop this …” She shuddered.
After the crate had been placed lengthwise in the rear of the station wagon, Conway watched Rona tuck a blanket around it.
“It’s not very cold, Rona.”
“I don’t want it to get bounced around,” she said. “Now, please, Conway, do drive carefully.” Not until he had driven half a block did she kiss him on the cheek. Then she glanced anxiously over her shoulder at the rear seat. Once she thought Conway hit a rut that could have been avoided.
Long after Conway had retired that night he heard Rona pounding with a brass hammer down in her den. At first he had insisted she take the crate out to her workshop. He looked at her with scientific aloofness and asked if he had the slightest conception of what “this is worth?” He hadn’t, and he went to bed. It was only another one of her gestures which was responsible for these weird dreams. That night he dreamed Rona brought home a giant octopus which insisted on doing the dishes for him. In the morning he woke up feeling unwanted.
Downstairs Rona had already put on the coffee. She was wearing his robe and the pinched greyness of her face told Conway she had been up half the night. She poured coffee for him, smiling wanly. “If I have any commitments today, Conway, will you please see that they are taken care of?”
“But you were supposed to get the wallpaper for the guest room…”
“I know, I know, dear. But time is so short. They might want Pascal back any day. For the next week or two I shall want to devote most of my time …”
“Yes. The machine – the computer.” She smiled at his ignorance. “We usually name the expensive jobs. You see, a computer of this nature is really the heart and soul of the robot we will construct.”
Conway didn’t see, but in a few minutes he strolled toward the den, balancing his coffee in both hands. With one elbow he eased the door open. There it was: an innocent polished cabinet reaching up to his shoulders. Rona had removed one of the plates from its side and he peeped into the section where the heart and soul might be located. He saw only an unanatomical array of vacuum tubes and electrical relays.
He felt Rona at his back. “It looks like the inside of a juke box,” he said.
She beamed. “The same relay systems used in the simple juke box are incorporated in a computer.” She placed one hand lovingly on the top of the cabinet.
“But, Rona – it doesn’t even resemble a – a person?”
“That’s because it doesn’t have any appendages as yet. You know, arms and legs. That’s a relatively simple adjustment.” She winked at Conway with a great air of complicity. “And I have some excellent ideas along that line. Now, run along, because I’ll be busy most of the day.”
Conway ran along. He spent most of the day shopping for week-end necessities. On an irrational last-minute impulse – perhaps an unconscious surrender to the machine age – he dug in the grocery deep freeze and brought out a couple of T-bone steaks.
That evening he had to call Rona three times for dinner, and when she came out of the den he noticed that she closed the door the way one does upon a small child. He chattered about inconsequential matters all through dinner. Conway knew that her work was going smoothly. A few minutes later he was to know how smoothly.
It started when he began to put on his apron to do the dishes. “Let that go for now, dear,” Rona said, taking the apron from him. She went into the den, returning with a small black box covered with push buttons. “Now observe carefully,” she said, her voice pitched high.
She pushed one of the buttons, waited a second with her ear cocked toward the den, then pushed another.
Conway heard the turning of metal against metal, and he slowly turned her head.
“Oh!” He suppressed a shriek, clutching Rona’s arm so tightly she almost dropped the control box.
Pascal was walking under his own effort, considerably taller now with the round, aluminum legs Rona had given him. Two metal arms also hung at the sides of the cabinet. One of these rose stiffly, as though for balance. Conway’s mouth opened as he watched the creature jerk awkwardly across the living room.
“Oh, Rona! The fishbowl!”
Rona stabbed knowingly at several buttons.
Pascal pivoted toward them, but not before his right arm swung out and, almost contemptuously, brushed the fishbowl to the floor.
Conway closed his eyes at the crash. Then he scooped up several little golden bodies and rushed for the kitchen. When he returned Rona was picking up pieces of glass and dabbing at the pool of water with one of his bathroom towels. Pascal, magnificently aloof, was standing in the center of the mess.
“I’m sorry.” Rona looked up. “It was my fault. I got confused on the buttons.”
But Conway’s glances toward the rigid Pascal held no indictment. He was only mystified. There was something wrong here.
“But Rona, he’s so ugly without a head. I thought that all robots–”
“Oh, no,” she explained, “we would put heads on them for display purposes only. Admittedly that captures the imagination of the public. That little adapter shaft at the top could be the neck, of course…”
She waved Conway aside and continued her experiments with the home-made robot. Pascal moved in controlled spasms around the living room. Once, he walked just a little too close to the floor-length window–and Conway stood up nervously. But Rona apparently had mastered the little black box.
With complete confidence Conway went into the kitchen to do the dishes. Not until he was elbow deep in suds did he recall his dreams about the octopus. He looked over his shoulder, and the curious, unwanted feeling came again.
The following afternoon – after Rona had cancelled their Sunday drive into the country – Pascal, with constant exhortations by Rona at the black box, succeeded in vacuum cleaning the entire living room. Rona was ecstatic.
“Now do you understand?” she asked Conway. “A mechanical servant! Think of it! Of course mass production may be years away, but…”
“Everyone will have Thursday nights off,” said Conway – but Rona was already jabbing at buttons as Pascal dragged the vacuum cleaner back to its niche in the closet.
Later, Conway persuaded Rona to take him to a movie, but not until the last moment was he certain that Pascal wasn’t going to drag along.
Every afternoon of the following week Rona Lovegear called from the laboratory in New York to ask how Pascal was getting along.
“Just fine,” Conway told her on Thursday afternoon. “But he certainly ruined some of the tomato plants in the garden. He just doesn’t seem to hoe in a straight line. Are you certain it’s the green button I push?”
“It’s probably one of the pressure regulators,” interrupted Rona. “I’ll check it when I get home.” Conway suspected by her lowered voice that Mr. Hardwick had walked into the lab.
That night Pascal successfully washed and dried the dishes, cracking only one cup in the process. Conway spent the rest of the evening sitting in the far corner of the living room, thumbing the pages of a magazine.
On the following afternoon – prompted perhaps by that perverse male trait which demands completion of all projects once started – Conway lingered for several minutes in the vegetable department at the grocery. He finally picked out a fresh, round and blushing pumpkin.
Later in his kitchen, humming a little tune under his breath, Conway deftly maneuvered a paring knife to transform the pumpkin into a very reasonable facsimile of a man’s head. He placed the pumpkin over the tiny shaft between Pascal’s box-shaped shoulders and stepped back.
He smiled at the moon-faced idiot grinning back at him. He was complete, and not bad-looking! But just before he touched the red button once and the blue button twice – which sent Pascal stumbling out to the backyard to finish weeding the circle of pansies before dinner – he wondered about the gash that was Pascal’s mouth. He distinctly remembered carving it so that the ends curved upward into a frozen and quite harmless smile. But one end of the toothless grin seemed to sag a little, like the cynical smile of one who knows his powers have been underestimated.
Conway would not have had to worry about his wife’s reaction to the new vegetable-topped Pascal. Rona accepted the transformation good-naturedly, thinking that a little levity, once in a while, was a good thing.
“And after all,” said Conway later that evening, “I’m the one who has to spend all day in the house with…” He lowered his voice: “With Pascal.”
But Rona wasn’t listening. She retired to her den to finish the plans for the mass production of competent mechanical servants. One for every home in America… She fell asleep with the thought.
Conway and Pascal spent the next two weeks going through pretty much the same routine. Pascal, methodically jolting through the household chores; Conway, walking aimlessly from room to room, smoking too many cigarettes. He began to think of Pascal as a boarder. Strange – at first he had been responsible for that unwanted feeling. But now his helpfulness around the house had lightened Conway’s burden. And he was so cheerful all the time! After living with Rona’s preoccupied frown for seven years…
After luncheon one day, when Pascal neglected to shut off the garden hose, Conway caught himself scolding him as if he were human. Was that a shadow from the curtain waving in the breeze, or did he see a hurt look flit across the mouth of the pumpkin? Conway put out his hand and patted Pascal’s cylindrical wrist.
It was warm – flesh warm.
He hurried upstairs and stood breathing heavily with his back to the door. A little later he thought he heard someone – someone with a heavy step – moving around downstairs.
“I left the control box down there,” he thought. “Of course, it’s absurd…”
At four o’clock he went slowly down the stairs to start Rona’s dinner. Pascal was standing by the refrigerator, exactly where Conway had left him. Not until he had started to peel the potatoes did Conway notice the little bouquet of pansies in the center of the table.
Conway felt he needed a strong cup of tea. He put the water on and placed a cup on the kitchen table. Not until he was going to sit down did he decide that perhaps Pascal should be in the other room.
He pressed the red button, the one which should turn Pascal around, and the blue button, which should make him walk into the living room. He heard the little buzz of mechanical life as Pascal began to move. But he did not go into the other room! He was holding a chair for Conway, and he sat down rather heavily. A sudden rush of pleasure reddened his cheeks. Not since fraternity days…
Before Pascal’s arms moved away Conway touched his wrist again, softly, only this time his hand lingered. And Pascal’s wrist was warm!
“When do they want Pascal back at the lab?” he asked Rona at dinner that evening, trying to keep his voice casual.
Rona smiled. “I think I might have him indefinitely, dear. I’ve got Hardwick convinced I’m working on something revolutionary.” She stopped. “Oh, Conway! You’ve spilled coffee all over yourself.”
The following night Rona was late in getting home from work. It was raining outside the Newark station and the cabs deliberately evaded her. She finally caught a bus, which deposited her one block from the house. She cut through the back alley, hurrying through the rain. Just before she started up the stairs she glanced through the lighted kitchen window. She stopped, gripping the railing for support.
In the living room were Pascal and Conway. Pascal was reclining leisurely in the fireside chair; Conway was standing in front of him. It was the expression on Conway’s face which stopped Rona Lovegear. The look was a compound of restraint and compulsion, the reflection of some deep struggle in Conway’s soul. Then he suddenly leaned forward and pressed his lips to Pascal’s full, fleshy pumpkin mouth. Slowly, one of Pascal’s aluminum arms moved up and encircled his waist.
Mrs. Lovegear stepped back into the rain. She stood there for several minutes. The rain curled around the brim of her hat, dropped to her face, and rolled down her cheeks with the slow agitation of tears.
When, finally, she walked around to the front and stamped heavily up the stairs, Conway greeted her with a flush in his cheeks. Rona told him that she didn’t feel “quite up to dinner. Just coffee, please.” When it was ready she sipped slowly, watching Conway’s figure as he moved around the room. She avoided looking at the aluminum figure in the chair.
Rona put her coffee down, walked over to Pascal, and, gripping him behind the shoulders, dragged him into the den.
Conway stood looking at the closed door and listened to the furious pounding.
Ten minutes later Rona came out and went straight to the phone.
“Yes! Immediately!” she told the man at the freight office. While she sat there waiting Conway walked upstairs.
Rona did not offer to help the freight men drag the box outside. When they had gone she went into the den and came back with the pumpkin. She opened the back door and hurled it out into the rain. It cleared the back fence and rolled down the alley stopping in a small puddle in the cinders.
After a while the water level reached the mouth and there was a soft choking sound. The kid who found it the next morning looked at the mouth and wondered why anyone would carve such a sad Jack-O’-Lantern.