Excerpt from Experiment Gone Wrong: Book One of Lesbots Series:
My name’s Mika. I’m a computer programmer, a software monkey, a coder, and yes, since you ask, I am a massive geek. I know everything, literally everything about Star Wars, and pretty much everything about Star Trek, Attack on Titan, Pokemon and Battlestar Galactica. My apartment, which I haven’t been back to for a while, is stuffed with gadgets, toys, games, consoles, collectible cards and mint condition figures.
I don’t say that as an admission, by the way. I’m proud of being a geek. Being dumb and sporty went out with the old millennium. The geeks are inheriting the earth, literally. We are reshaping the culture and the world, opening up new possibilities. Of course, sometimes those new possibilities can get just a little too real.
But first I need to tell you the basics. I write code for whoever wants it. I mainly work at a company called Code Base, supplying software to the gaming industry. They have a swish headquarters complete with bean bags, classic games cabinets, you know the kind of thing. They don’t really care for their employees, they just need to look as though they care.
Code Base is actually part of Horizon Corp, and Horizon Corp, as you know, belongs to CEO Alab Querry. Yeah, that guy. One of the pioneers of self-replicating code, AI and a dozen other crazy ideas that other people might think up but never make real. Yes, you might hate those guys, but they are changing human experience, one invention at a time. That level of genius comes at a price, as I have discovered for myself.
Querry is a legend, particularly in the field of robotics where my friend Avery works. She has a huge crush on him, though obviously she’s never met him and never come close to meeting him, unless you count stalking him online and using social media and satellite feeds to try to find his house. She even has a little shrine dedicated to him at the back of her kitchen, covered in pictures. Yes, it is as creepy as it sounds.
The money I make from coding is good, very good in fact. My skills are in demand and having been involved in writing code for most of my life, I find it comes naturally. Still, for a long time I had found it kind of limiting. I had a growing feeling that I was missing something, something that could not be found through debugging scripts or designing random number generating software optimization protocols. Turns out I was right.
It all started one day at work. I’d just booted up my PC when Graham, the section supervisor pinged me to head into his office. I sighed. I had been up till two playing Elf Wars and I hadn’t yet had my first sip of coffee so I wasn’t ready for a lecture on email protocol or the correct completion of time sheets.
I trudged into his office and slumped into the only chair that wasn’t piled high with papers, wires and earphones.
“I’m not a beat around the bush kind of guy,” said Graham
“Okay,” I said. I’d worked there for two years at this point, so I knew that already, although I would have described it as ‘entirely lacking in any understanding of social conventions.”
“Alab Querry wants to meet you.”
What did he say?
“Technically he doesn’t want to meet you. You aren’t special. But he wants someone from our company to take part in some kind of robotics thing and it has to be a girl apparently because girls are under-represented or something, and you’re the only girl here.”
“I’ll send you the details. Don’t be late.”
Back at my desk, I stared, bewildered, out of the window for a while. Then I texted Avery, counted to three-and-a-half and read her first reaction, which was a line of exclamation marks, emojis with hearts for eyes and asterisks. As you would expect.
* * * *
Between us Avery and I decided that I should go smart. That wasn’t my first choice. Avery dug up two interviews with Querry using her cross-referenced topics Querry index. In the first interview, he said that formal business wear was unnecessary and outdated. In the second he said he preferred to see people in suits. He seemed to be more adamant in the second interview, so with reluctance I dug the suit out of the back of my wardrobe.
It was the same suit I’d worn to my interview at Code Base two years earlier, just three months out of college. I was pleased to find that it still fitted, though was a little tighter around the ass, and the hem of the skirt was an inch or two shorter than I’d remembered.
Avery hugged me, with tears in her eyes and waved me off as though I was going on a long journey to distant lands and would never see her again. As it turned out, that wasn’t too far from the truth.
The taxi dropped me at the end of the dust road that led to Palo Querry, his compound. As I trudged along the road, I remembered that a college professor had once said that only Somalian warlords, mad scientists and the NSA had compounds. If someone does their business in a compound, it is likely to be illegal, dangerous or both. He was right.
The security guards at the gate looked at me suspiciously, made me show them the email I had received inviting me to the compound, took my fingerprints, and then made me sign non-disclosure papers and an indemnity form. Eventually, they decided it was okay to let me in and led the way around a giant mound topped with cacti to a low, but massive grey warehouse with a towering entrance. One of the guards opened a small door in the side of the warehouse, told me to take the stairs on the left and then clanged the door shut behind me.
The interior of the warehouse was dingy, lit by feeble strip bulbs that looked like they belonged in the 1980s. I followed my instructions, wandering down a gloomy corridor, turning left and climbing a set of metal stars. At the top of the stairs was a door and behind the door a wide, cluttered office, in the centre of which sat Alab Querry.
It was a minute or two before he noticed me, and when he did, it was with a distracted air, as though I had interrupted him at a crucial moment.
“I…I’m Mika. From Code Base. You invited me.”
He looked at me, frowned, and then stood up.
“Yes, that’s right, I remember.”
He was dressed in blue and pink plaid trousers, a tatty black Star Wars t-shirt, and expensive sunglasses. His desk was overflowing with papers and the floor was strewn with paper too, as though someone had thrown all of his files into the air and left them where they fell.
“Are you ready to begin?”
“Begin? Begin what?”
“Oh yes, I mean, yes of course. Can I just say my friend is a big, big admirer of your work.”
“That’s great. Now, as you may or may not know, for some time I have been working on producing robots that display consciousness and awareness. In fact, it is pretty much my life’s work. You’ve heard of the Turing test?”
“Yes, if artificial intelligence can communicate with someone without that person realizing they are talking to a robot, the Turing test is passed.”
“Quite. Well I have created lifelike robotic machines that have passed the Turing test.”
“Yes, yes it is,” he said, nodding. “But now I want to go further.”
“Yes, further. Please don’t interrupt.”
“All of my robots are women. That was a deliberate choice. Do you know why?”
I can guess.
“Because women are more interesting socially than men and society is the focus of this experiment. I want them to interact. With other women. You are ideal: young, open to new ideas, no family, and you signed a non-disclosure form when you joined the company.”
“I’m sorry, you want me to socialize with them?”
“Yes. I want to see if they are capable of genuine thought and consciousness.”
“Well, the thing is, I’m not actually very sociable.”
“Nonsense,” he said. “Now, the robots are in a sort of replica of a house. I wanted to set them in a typical human environment. You will enter the house, converse with them, share drinks, secrets, whatever you would normally do with your girlfriends.”
I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I didn’t have friends plural and that my leisure time with Avery was generally spent playing console games, arguing about Star Wars trivia and eating chips. As a representative of woman kind I may not have been what he had in mind.”
“Are you ready?” he asked. “Good,” he said, without waiting for my reply.
* * * *
“It’s important that they don’t see me,” said Alab. We’d stopped in front of a traditional looking porch outside a traditional looking suburban home, recreated in his warehouse.
But Alab had already retreated out of site, back through the gate in the electrified fence that he had assured me was purely precautionary. I was left standing there, so thought I might as well knock on the door. It was opened almost instantly.
I have only a slight interest in robotics, but from what I know, based on Avery’s work, there are two kinds of robots: those that look realistically human but have limited functions, and those that look like collections of mechanical spare parts but perform well.
The robot that answered the door, however, was like none I had ever seen before. In fact, if I had met this robot in the street, I doubt that I would have been able to tell it was not human. It actually felt rude to think of it as an it. It, or she, was tall, maybe, 5’10, with perfect skin, immaculately coiffured blonde hair, make-up that looked like she’d spent three hours in a salon and the body of an Olympic athlete crossed with a Greek goddess. She was wearing an absurdly short and elaborate black evening dress that barely reached her thighs and had a complicated arrangement of straps across her shoulders.
“Hi…” I said.
She looked me up and down, then smiled, a little too widely.
“Won’t you please come in,” she said, opening the door.
“I’m Mika,” I said.
“My name is 178b,” she said, in a sing-song voice, as though she was proud of her number. She walked with an elaborate, swaying gait, like a super model strutting down the catwalk. It wasn’t too hard to see that this female robot had been built by a man.
178b led me into the lounge area. Two other robots were waiting there, sitting on a sofa as though at some kind of cocktail party. The first had short red hair, pale skin and wore an impossibly tight and clingy green dress. The other had an Asian complexion, silky black hair and wore a red shiny dress that barely reached her knees.
“This is XQ7,” said 178b, pointing at the red-haired robot.
“And I am 445.6,” said the third robot, smiling broadly. All three of them stared at me, smiling, as though waiting for a response.
“Why don’t you sit with us?” said 178b, patting the sofa. This was beyond weird. I sat between them and then listened as they began to exchange relatively meaningful comments on the weather and the state of the non-existent garden and the plot of television programs that they almost certainly hadn’t seen. But despite the weirdness of the conversation and a slight sheen to their skin, they were virtually indistinguishable from real humans.
“So,” said 178b, clapping her hands together and smiling. “I think it is time to get naked.”