2: Number 877
On a dark, humid night in July, human 877 was born. Off in the underground Unit manufacturing plant, a new Unit was being commissioned at the same time. But no one celebrates commission day.
Savannah—that’s human 877’s name—didn’t remember more of her first four years than most of us do; unfortunately Unit 877 couldn’t be as forgetful. It had vivid memories of diaper changes and spoon feeding. Some Units were handheld devices—there were even a few that snapped around their human’s wrist—but Unit 877 was a fully mobile independent robot. And there was more to 877’s uniqueness too. For the first time ever, 877 was equipped with independent AI. It could make personalized decisions for Savannah, without consulting the data mine unless it chose to do so. In order to make the personalization effective, 877 had been given every ability to interact with Savannah—talking to her, playing with her, working with her, and learning from her. Whether this kind of individualized Unit would lead to greater happiness reactions—whether it would be used in perpetuity or end up on the scrap heap—would have to be seen.
Savannah’s earliest memory took her back to a bright Tuesday afternoon right after waking up halfway through her naptime to find herself alone in the room—with only a few boring old toys. But in a pinch, even a door will do for a toy. Savannah stood on her doll’s chair and played with the doorknob. Once she managed to open the door, but at the cost of a fall. Standing back up, she tumbled over and shut the door again.
“Want out,” Savannah huffed at the uncooperative door, frowning.
Five minutes later Unit 877, which had been touching up a bit of its left arm’s chrome paint (Savannah sometimes mistook that arm for a chew toy), heard a bloodcurdling series of screams. Savannah had tired of the door and was saying so explicitly.
But Savannah had locked herself in. 877 ran scenarios, but look at it from whatever angle, the time saving alternative of busting in would be attended with significant collateral damage. Equipped with plenty of cold logic and no sensitive ears, 877 calmly went to find a key.
“There you are,” Savannah’s dad said from his seat at the table. “Can’t you teach that kid to talk? Or at least to stop the squealing? All those shiny plating, arms and legs and stuff. You know, Paulie’s Unit never lets her scream. There hasn’t been a peep out of that baby since she was born three years ago. Savannah is embarrassing—what are you doing?”
“I have gone to retrieve the key to Savannah’s room. In what unpredictable location did you last leave it?”
“Me? Forget it, I haven’t a clue. Tap into your omniscient central core already, little bot. You know, if I had access to a century worth of human data, you wouldn’t catch me standing there asking me where I put the key when you know perfectly well I can’t even remember what I ate for breakfast.”
“I know where the key is,” 877 said patiently. “I was only making conversation.”
“Making conversation! While that kid’s screams are loud enough to bring the whole complex down around our ears! Of all the worthless heaps of cold metal…”
But by this time 877 had got the key from the key rack and was far out of earshot.
“Though I guess I could keep talking to you anyways. You could hear me—if you wanted to… AI…” Savannah’s dad looked around warily and returned to his cup of coffee in an uncanny silence.
877 unlocked the door and Savannah hugged its leg.
“Want out, want out,” she sobbed, trying to catch her breath.
877 picked her up and let her rest on its shoulder. “I ought to inform you, Savannah,” it said, “some of your own kind are displeased with your vocal exercises. I am of the opinion that they are beneficial for the larynx, but words are certainly to be commended for their greater preciseness. So, Savannah, tomorrow I will begin to teach you to talk.”
But the only answer was a gentle snore.
Savannah had some unpredictable ideas, and with 877’s help she started putting them into words.
“Are you a Unit?” she demanded one day over breakfast, months later.
“I am Unit 877.”
“You’re not like the other Units. Dad’s Unit doesn’t talk to him like you do.”
“Your father’s Unit has full playback capacity.”
“It doesn’t say what it’s thinking.”
“Your father’s Unit is not capable of independent thought.”
“Dad’s Unit also doesn’t move.”
“That is incorrect, Savannah. Your father’s Unit vibrates when it wishes to attract his attention.”
“Dad’s Unit doesn’t pick him up and sing him lullabies,” Savannah said triumphantly.
877 found nothing to say in response to that.
Savannah crunched through four more bites of cereal and then said conclusively, “You’re different from other Units… you need your own name.”
“My name is 877.”
“That’s not a name. It’s just what people call you.”
“A name is a sequence of syllables that people make use of when they wish to attract the attention of the subject, or to draw the subject’s attention to a particular object.”
Savannah crinkled her nose. “877’s not a name, Your name will be… your name is…” she looked around the room and waved her spoon at the fridge. “Your name will be Malcolm Defroster,” she said positively.
“My name is eight seven…” Malcolm began helplessly.
Savannah looked up sweetly.
“My name is Malcolm Defroster,” he said.
To be continued…
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