Monday, August 8, 2016

Buying a Robot

Albert Cutbrack was old, a widower, and just starting to feel it -- the onset of various age and health conditions made it more and more difficult to do everything on his own. His kids had grown up, and moved on -- too far from Boston for him to want to move away. He also didn't want to burden them with taking care of him. Luckily, robots were available to take care of many jobs around the house, and were affordable, even to someone on Social Security. As he grew more and more tired, and found house work to be too much of a drain on his energy, he seriously thought about taking the plunge into the future. What started his gradual acceptance of getting a robot to work for him, was a conversation he had, a few months earlier, with his youngest son, Johnny. 20 years ago, Johnny spent a couple of semesters at M.I.T. developing some of the technologies that many manufacturers now incorporated into modern robots. What stuck in his mind was Johnny saying "If you had a heart attack or stroke, and were living all alone, nobody could help you. With a household robot, most of them have basic first aid programming. They know CPR. They know the warning signs of a stroke and many other illnesses. They can call an ambulance and keep you stabilized while waiting. It's actually better than having family members, who might freak out or not know what to do." That was sounding more real to Al, and before going to bed, he decided that tomorrow would be the day he did it -- he was going to buy a robot.

On Saturday morning, Albert woke up, his bladder begging for release. He looked at the clock. It was 8:45am. Just like every other morning. His focus shifted from the clock to the picture sitting next to it. It was a picture of him , his wife, and kids, taken decades ago. After some debate with his body about getting up, he slowly slid to the edge of the bed where he sat, his body now debating about standing up. Eventually, he stood, his back snapping and crackling as he straightened. He slowly shuffled to the bathroom, fortunately making it to the toilet before doing his business. He brushed his teeth, gargled some mouthwash, and got dressed. In spite of considering himself a fairly modern, technical guy, Albert liked to dress old fashioned. He appreciated the style of the past more and more, and decided that he'd like to permanently have that early 20th century businessman look -- an old 1920's suit and tie with a fedora. Very classy. His Pencil Mustache made him look kind of like a private eye from an old Black-and-white movie. Wing-tip shoes really completed the look. He quickly brushed his hair back, put on his hat, and he was off to the bus stop to go downtown to pick up the gadget that would save him from the ravages of time.

Albert walked the block up his street to the local bus stop. He stood there, tipping his hat at ladies that walked by, while continuing the process of waking up. After just a 10 minute wait, the bus pulled up to the stop. The robot driver opened the door, lowered the walkway, and Al stepped onto it. The walkway rose to the bus's seating level, and Al swiped his wallet on the sensor to pay. He lost his driver's license years ago, thanks to his deteriorating vision, hearing, and other old age issues. Since then, he depended on buses, trains, and the odd robo-taxi. Another factor that made him decide to break down and get a robot was that if you had one, you could have a car again -- Robots with federally-approved driving software were automatically licensed to drive. Al's old car could soon come out of mothballs to give him mobility. To do work around the house, all robots came with a library of software for different chores. They could, of course, learn more if you showed them what you wanted to do, and as a result, manufacturers offered a lot of functions and features with new robots to remain competitive. Algorithms for child care, pet care, laundry, washing dishes, cooking, and vacuuming were standard in the industry. There were many options and upgrades available. There were other things that had become standard, too, and Albert was about to find out just how far technology had come.

The bus arrived at Wellington Station, and from there, it was just a few stops to Downtown Crossing, the very heart of downtown Boston. The subway was converted to monorail back about 50 years earlier. Concrete tracks and rubber wheels made for a much smoother, quieter ride than the old steel rails. It still wasn't a mag-lev system like other big cities had. That would have to wait for enough funding in the state's budget -- the constant scourge of public transportation. Al watched the scenery out the window change from the skyscraper-packed Boston skyline, to darkness as the subway entered the tunnel that went under the Charles from Charlestown. Next, came North Station, Haymarket, and State Street stations, which still looked pretty much the same as they always had. When he arrived at Downtown Crossing, he was a little surprised. It had been about 10 years since he had been there, and the station had been remodeled. It was now brightly lit up, with white concrete and plastic detailing. There was now a large-scale shopping mall right in the station itself, with environmental control to keep it cool in summer and warm in winter. When he was a kid, there were always stalls and shops there, but the new subway-mall was on a scale he never saw before. He thought he was going to exit and take the elevator up to the street, and walk to the U-bot store, but he didn't have to. The U-bot store had access just a few yards from the train platform.

"Holy crap", he said to himself, as he gawked at the new look of subterranean Boston. He stopped at a small push-cart to buy a creme-puck, a popular mini-Boston Creme pie, that looked like a yellow hockey-puck with chocolate on top. Legend had it that one maker of these pastries started putting a large white "B" in the form of the Boston Bruins logo, on top of the chocolate, and that's when everyone started calling them "pucks". Al walked into the Dunkin' Donuts. The same shop had been there for over a century, but staff was mostly robots, now. The store prided itself on never messing up people's orders. Al ordered a large mocha cappuccino with real whipped cream. His doctors would definitely not approve the espresso or whipped cream, but he wanted to treat himself. The robot servant gave him exactly what he ordered, which pleased him deeply, having remembered the many times human Dunkin' Donuts workers failed his simple orders. He took a sip of coffee, getting a whipped-cream mustache, which he licked from his lip. Ah, perfect. Another sip as he walked out the door, and into U-Bot he went. As he deposited the wrapper of his Creme-puck in a trash can, and sipped some more coffee, Albert took in the sight of the U-Bot store. The logo said "yoU-Bot", with the "yo" in "you" just barely visible and "U-Bot" in bigger, bolder, blue. The company sold dozens of brands of robots to suit your every need -- "The right robot to serve yoU!" was their motto. Lots of small robots that looked like appliances could be seen, first. There were floor sweepers, carpet cleaners, lawn mowers, and other single-task machines that lacked the intelligence of the familiar humanoid models. The humanoid robots, also known by terms like "multi-purpose", "companion", "housekeeping", and other descriptors, were essentially plastic people with silicon skins. They looked just like human beings, but had a distinctively fake look. They even dressed them in cute little outfits, like French maids, butlers, and handymen, in coveralls. It all looked kind of cute, but in a tacky sort of way.

"Hello, sir, how may I help you!" came a voice from behind. Albert turned around, and there stood a plastic man in a silly-looking, shiny, plastic business suit. The cheery, smiling robot continued "I'm one of the sales robots. You can ask me any questions about the robots you see here, and I can also help pick out the model that's best for you, based on what your specific needs are." Albert expected a real salesperson, and not a machine. "Can I talk to your manager? It's my first time, and I'm not familiar with what to look for in a robot." "Certainly sir, I'll call him right away", said the overly cheerful robot. A moment later, both the robot and a second robot appeared. The second robot bowed slightly, and presented himself to Albert "I am the manager sir, how can I help you?" Albert was a bit befuddled. "Can I talk to a real person, please?" Albert said in a slightly cranky voice. Both robots made a sort of vaguely Chinese gesture with the left fist wrapped by the right hand, bowed slightly, and said, in cheerful unison, "Of course sir, we'll get him for you, right away!"

A slightly disheveled kid in a blue shirt showed up and put his hand out to Mr. Cutbrack, while trying to button the top buttons of his shirt with the other hand. Al noticed the name tag that said "Curtis". He didn't notice that Curtis's name tag had his job title under his name. It said "technician". But he was a real flesh-and-blood human, and that's who Al wanted to talk to. "Hi sir, what can I do for you?" he said. Albert shook the young man's hand. It was reassuringly warm. "The kid," He thought, "He can't be more than 15 or 16. He's running this place?" Albert smiled, and said "Hi, I'm Al, and I'm shopping for my first robot. I'm not sure what I need to look for or how your process works, so I'd like a little help." Albert remembered all the trendy stores that evolved over the years, with their "new ways to shop". Some stores put you in a maze and had you walk the one-way path around the whole store, and you'd arrive at the check-out, where you'd pick up the items you wanted. Others had "wizards" or "geniuses" -- young kids who would be there to make you feel stupid if you asked questions. This robot store was the first chain to regularly use robots as sales people. U-Bot had come a long way from the traditional "cashier at a desk in the far end of the shop" that was the model as far back as Al could recall. Curtis the human smiled, and said "That's what the robots are for, sir. They know everything about the merchandise -- even more than me. They're programmed to talk to you and help you decide based on what you're looking for. Here, let me show you!" Albert expressed "Oh?" and before he could think of anything to say, one of the store sales robots showed up, and the young kid ordered him "Here, show mister..." "Cutbrack", Albert said. "Cutbrack how the sales process works", he continued.

The robot smiled and looked at Albert. "Hi, Mr. Cutbrack, You can call me Rob. We are all fully functional, artificially-intelligent beings who can interact with humans, and communicate even the most complex information. If you have specific needs, just let me know what you want, and I'll cross-reference what you ask for with all the different models we have, and tell you which models fit your need and budget." "Robby the Robot," Albert said, with a slight chuckle and a little smile. Robby the Robot continued to babble on, explaining all sorts of unnecessary details, and Al, having heard enough prerecorded sales pitches in his life, abruptly said "Robby, I have a question." Rob the Robot immediately responded, and replied "Of course, sir what is it?" "I have exactly $6,000 in my budget for my first robot", Al told him, "What do you have that will give me the most bang for my buck?" "Certainly, sir, there are approximately 30 models in the store, and many special-order models that fall within that price range", Robby gleefully replied. Albert was relieved. "Really?" Al said. "That's pretty much most of the robots you have here. I thought I'd have to pay a lot more." Robby chirped "There is a lot of competition in the robot industry, sir. They used to cost more than a car, or even a small house, back about 20 years ago." Robby continued, "With Sony, Samsung, and all the Chinese manufacturers making them, prices have come down considerably."

Al's mood perked up, and he smiled a little wider. He was getting more comfortable talking to this fake person. It was almost like he was accepting it as a real person, but more at the low level where a bigot starts to grudgingly acknowledge the humanity of a black person. Still, it was a start. Al was heard to ask more questions. "What can they do without extra programming? Do I have to pay extra to get one that does more chores? How long does the battery last?" "Well," Robby said, "They all come with these standard groups of chores and abilities," as he handed Al a brochure. Al thought that the brochure was a bit quaint in the age of robots, but he liked it. It was old fashioned. He looked at the list of household, garden, and mechanical things these plastic people could do, and even the cheapest model exceeded what he needed. In fact, he thought there's just so much stuff that they can do, that his choice of brand and model would probably be irrelevant. "Robby," Al asked, "If all the robots here can do the same thing, what makes one better quality than the other? Why would I want the Hitachi over the Samsung over the Dyson?" Robby paused momentarily, and replied "Well, that's where you need to decide, sir. Dyson is locally made. Samsung, Sony, and Hitachi are imported from Japan and Korea. Kemper is imported from Germany. They all are very similar, and it comes down mostly to style, brand preference, and other human factors. Plus, all can be customized, and various after-market modifications are available."

As he paused in deep thought for a moment, trying to think of more intelligent questions to ask, Al paused, then perked up, and asked "How about things like durability, and maintenance? Which robots can lift the heaviest weight, and which ones have the fewest breakdowns?" "Most of the robots sold here have auto-repair ability," replied Robby, matter-of-factually. He added "They sense when they need repairs, and during the warranty period, will bring themselves in for repair, and you'll never know there is a problem. After the warranty is up, it's difficult to tell which robots will fail, first, because what makes them break down has a lot more to do with their environment. We see far more incidents of accidental human-caused damages than defective parts." Al quickly responded "so which ones are more durable, and are more resistant to damage, then -- caused by humans or otherwise?" Robby paused for a few seconds, as though he were calculating a very large spreadsheet. He then said "According to our store's records Kemper Androids have the least expensive problems. They are fairly durable, and we mostly see them for preventative maintenance and cosmetic repairs. The company is regarded as making a very rugged product, Sir." Al, thought a moment, and said "Okay Robby the Robot, show me the Kemper robots, starting with the models that I can afford, most expensive to least." "Certainly, sir, this way, please!" the cheerful Robby said, as he gestured Al to follow.

Al looked at a bunch of robots. He didn't know what to look for. As Robby the robot would show him a model, Al would pinch the arms, give them a push, maybe a shove, and on a few occasions, he was tempted to kick them, like you would an old fashioned rubber tire, when buying a car. Al must have been there for well over an hour, poking, prodding, and asking to talk to various models, when Curtis, reappeared and asked, "Excuse me, sir, you seem to be taking an awfully long time. Is there anything I can do to help you decide?" Al was slightly startled, but composed himself and chuckled, "Sorry," He read the name tag on the kid's shirt again, "...Curtis. This is all so new to me, and well, purchasing a robot is a big deal. I've never had one before, and I want to make sure I get one that's right for me. Plus, I'm retired, so I don't have any job to get back to."

"No worries, sir, I'm not used to people taking this much time. I just wanted to be sure you're not getting overwhelmed or anything." "Well, " Al said, "It is a little overwhelming, but I think I know what I need. I like the Kemper model 3. So let's go ahead and get one for me." "Awesome, sir." Let's go configure one for you," Curtis responded, with a smile. Curtis, Robby, and Al walked over to a desk with a computer monitor on it. Al and Curtis sat, both looking at the monitor, while Robby stood by the desk, attentively. Curtis touched the screen and brought up images of different robot faces. "So you want a male or a female," asked Curtis. Al thought for a moment, and said "Female... but what's the difference, really? Aren't they all the same?" "Curtis looked at Robby, and said "Explain it to him." Robby sprung to life and said "It's all your personal preference, sir. This robot will be your companion and friend for many years of service. You should configure their appearance and voice to appeal to you, and maybe even select a body-type appeals to you." Al quickly decided "Female." "You want it to sound young or mature," asked Curtis, "you can have a teenage voice or one that sounds like granny, if don't mind me putting it that way." "No offense taken, kid" said Al. "I'll go with a 30-something voice, sort of in-between." "You want blonde, brunette, redhead, curly, straight, short long, or a custom style?" said Curtis. "Oh, I hadn't thought about that..." said Al, as he paused to ponder. Thinking about his wife and daughter, who both had shoulder-length black hair, he said "Black hair, shoulder-length." "We can do that," Said Curtis.

"How about breast size? You like em' big or small," asked Curtis. Al was taken aback by this unusual question, and said "What?" Curtis put his hands in front of his chest and motioned "Big ones, or small ones? Al was slightly put off by the idea, and asked "Can I get one with none?" Curtis said "Of course, but it doesn't change the price. In addition to working for you, and being a companion, these robots can help make your fantasies come true, or be an extension of your personality. Some people have their robots dress like clowns, or in fetish gear, or like characters from their favorite movies." Al thought for a moment. "Oh, Jesus, maybe I should get a male," he said grudgingly. "No problem, sir," said Curtis, "Male it is. Any preference on the penis size?" Al grumbled in disbelief "What? You're kidding, right?" "Not at all," Curtis replied, "All male robots have penises, and all female robots have vaginas." he explained, while Al's face scrunched up in response to this weirdness. Curtis continued "The humanoid robots of today are generalized; they are meant to fill nearly any roles that people need, whether it's just cooking and cleaning, or as celebrity look-alike sex dolls."

Al listened in slightly creeped-out amazement, but he knew it was not bullshit. He remembered seeing sex robots on TV infotainment shows, when the first, mostly immobile ones, were being made to moan and provide fake pillow talk to their owners. He recalled reading about, and seeing TV news segments on people who developed unhealthy psychiatric issues, when they become attached to their life-sized super-realistic sex dolls, and later, robot sex dolls. The thought of sex with a robot was sort of sickening to Al. He refused to accept when people told him that he was too old fashioned and just didn't understand that sex with robots was totally normal and socially acceptable. He thought it was like humping a washing machine. He looked at Curtis and cut him off, mid sentence "Can I get one that has no sex -- just a sexless robot with no male or female parts, blinking lights, with an old fashioned computer-voice like that famous physicist guy in the wheelchair?" Curtis didn't hesitate for a second, and said "Of course we can sir, but that kind of customization might get a bit expensive. We'd have to remove whole assemblies from the robot, get a custom skin to make up for the removed parts, or make new plastic ones, if you want it to look like an old fashioned robot." Al countered "It will cost more to sell me the robot with fewer parts in it?" "Well," Curtis said, "It's more complicated than that. We have to spend the time and resources opening the robot up, removing assemblies that are sometimes difficult to remove. Sometimes you have to take a whole bunch of stuff apart just to get to one small piece. So that's a lot of labor right there. Plus, to compensate for the parts you remove, often times, you have to put in fillers to hold it together. The outer skin or membrane then has to be redesigned to still fit after the penis or vagina is removed. It helps prevent moisture damage..."

"Okay, I get it," Al grumbled in frustration. Curtis got a twinkle in his eye, smiled reassuringly, and put his arm out to Al, as he walked up to a female robot, that was standing motionless a few feet from the desk. Curtis, displaying an enchanted gaze, looked at the female robot's rump, and then put his hand on it. "Feel that, Mr. Cutbrack. Touch that ass. It's so much like a real one. You can caress it, pinch it, goose it, or slap it, and it behaves exactly like a real woman's ass." Al watched in slight disgust, as Curtis played with the robot's ass, caressing it with a face like he was in a trance." "Oh, brother..." commented Al. Curtis quickly perked up. smiled in a slightly embarrassed way, and removed his wandering hand from the robot's ass. He then slapped it. "Look at how it jiggles when you slap it, just like real flesh!" Curtis smiled, but saw Al's disapproving stare, and said "Oh, sorry, but you get the idea, sir. It's just like a real person's. You can touch it, or just admire it from a distance. It's just one of the many features they pack into them. You can appreciate it, or take it for granted."

Thinking about this, Al realized that he didn't have to have sex with the robot, if he didn't want to -- it was like the old AM/FM radios that used to get put into cars back when he was young. Nobody really listened to AM or FM bands anymore, but the media players in most cars still had AM/FM radios in them, for people who still did. He got over himself and his disgust for today's youth, and their quite literal love of technology.

"Alright," said Al, "Let's go with the original idea -- A female robot with black hair, 30-something voice, and average size breasts. Nothing larger than a C-cup. Dress her in not-too-revealing clothes -- jeans and a regular shirt..." Curtis tapped away on the monitor screen, and after 20-30 minutes of less ridiculous questions, the monitor showed a photo of the Robot, exactly as Al had orderd, with shoulder-length black hair and 30-something appearance. "Do you have a name in mind for her?" asked Curtis. Al thought for a moment. Should he name her after his wife? His mom? An old flame? A Movie Star? Then Al said "I think we'll just call her Jane, as in Jane Doe. We can change it any time later on, right?" "of Course, Sir," said Curtis. Curtis touched a few more buttons on the screen, then typed a few things on the keyboard. He then called one of the store's sales robots over, and asked it to go get the order in the back and configure it. Curtis then turned to Al and said "I'm having Marvin un-box your robot, and configure the customization that we just programmed into the system. It takes a few minutes to get everything done." Al nodded, understandingly. After about 15 or 20 minutes, Marvin the robot came from the back with a 2-wheeled hand-cart that had a roughly 6-foot tall box on it. It had all sorts of labels and writing on it, and Al noticed the Kemper brand name logo. Curtis was almost as nervous in anticipation as Al was. Marvin parked the hand-cart in front of Al and Curtis. The seal on the box was already broken, because Marvin had to open it up to put on the custom parts and clothing options. Curtis and Marvin worked together to open the folds of the box, and the plastic wrapper. Inside was Jane the robot, resting in a form-fitting foam pad. She looked almost identical to the image on the computer. Curtis looked at Jane. Al did too, but in a different way. Where Al looked at it with the gaze of someone marveling at technology, Curtis looked at it like a wolf drooling over a meal. Curtis let out a gasp, and Al looked at Curtis, and looked at his crotch, because he was almost sure Curtis was aroused by Jane. Curtis remarked "Wow, this new model is such a huge improvement over the model 2! I'm jealous now." Curtis grinned and turned to Al. Al turned to look at Jane, and pretended he wasn't creeped-out at Curtis's apparent arousal. Curtis said "the switch is at the base of the neck, just under the hair. Push it once to turn it on. If you push it and hold it for 10 seconds, you will put it into diagnostic mode. If you do that by accident, just pushing it for 10 seconds will reboot the robot. Go ahead, turn it on. Al reached in back of Jane's head, felt a round plastic button, and pressed it. A few motors buzzed, and Jane's eyes opened. Jane stared blankly forward, and said "Ready for custom programming...". Curtis pushed a few buttons on the keyboard, swiped a few icons on the screen, and said "Okay, the upload only takes a minute or so... and BANG! She's born!"

Jane the Robot came to life, looked at Al, and said "Hi Al, I'll be your new assistant. What would you like me to do, first?" "Well, I guess you can walk home with me, and I'll show you the house," said Al, in a fairly relieved voice. Curtis ran Al's credit card through the computer, printed a receipt, handed him a manual, and said "You'll really like her, sir. These robots can do pretty much anything you need, and they're not as creepy-looking as some of those older ones were. You have a good day, and if you have any problems whatsoever, just call the number on the receipt, and me or one of the robots will help you out." Al smiled, shook Curtis's hand, and said "Thanks for being so understanding. I guess I'm just so old fashioned that I forgot how much things changed since I was your age. I mean, when I was your age, I was programming computers -- and that was a new thing back then; adults didn't expect that 9, 10, and 12-year-olds would be writing computer programs and building machines before they went to college or even high school. I'm from the age before robots were replacements for your wife or girlfriend."

"Yeah, " Curtis said. "My parents are sort of like that, but they're getting used to it, now." Then Curtis laughed, and said to Al, "So I almost thought you were going to walk out on me when we started talking about the sex parts, you should have seen your face. I was kinda scared." Al replied "Well, the idea of sex with machines is kinda disgusting. Call me old fashioned, but that's just the way I am." Curtis smiled and said "yeah, I grew up with robots being everywhere, and people renting sex robots for parties and stuff. So it's all normal to me. I mean, lots of people I know had their first sex experience with robots, then met real women and turned out okay." Al smiled and said, "Yeah, it's just like when people weren't accepting gay and lesbian people. Eventually they became accepted as just regular folks, and people saw them as people. Now we don't even think about it." Al kind of figured that Curtis popped his cherry with a robot. He just got that vibe from him. He felt a slight amount of pity for him, but the kid seemed like a good salesman, and did know his stuff, so he couldn't have been all bad.

Al smiled, and slapped Jane's ass. "hey, you're right! That is a pretty nice ass! Maybe I can get mine replaced with one like it some day," Al joked, thinking about all the people he knew who had artificial body parts, many of which he considered frivolous plastic status-symbols, as opposed to life-saving, necessary surgery. Curtis watched Jane's Ass as she followed Al out the door, and through the mall back towards the subway platform. She was so new and advanced, that her ass moved perfectly like a human one. He stared at the ass wantingly, until she was out of sight. It was well after Curtis's lunch break, which went overtime because Al took so long to pick out a robot. Curtis said to Robby, "I'm taking my lunch break now, so you watch the store, and only come get me if it's really important, okay?" "Certainly sir," said Robby. Curtis started unbuttoning his shirt, and took one of the female robots by the hand, as they walked into the back office of the store, and closed the door.