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Short story: Robbie Can't Dance


The very rich buy licensed robot copies of their favourite celebrities. The rest of us make do with factory seconds. Story by Kate OrmanIllustrations by Snip Green


Illustration by Snip Green

White waiters shaped like street lamps wheel softly between the tables, never spilling a drop of soup or wine. They move in a world of microseconds, arms gracefully arcing through the leaden motion of furniture, crockery, people. The robot in your kitchen or at the supermarket is accurate enough for the job, but these are medical grade robots, precise to the micromillimetre. I watched robots like this wash and lay out my father’s body with such sensitive elegance that it looked like loving care. Do these mechanical butlers have a dim machine sense of pride at their perfection? Does Robbie envy their poise?

I glance at Robbie, seated on my right, a tuxedo’d figure with perfect posture. Strong jaw, glossy mouth, big dark eyes that vanish when he laughs. Today his hair is silver-white. He catches me looking and gives me a naughty wink, in front of everyone, making my skin tighten all over.

Sitting on Robbie’s right is my oldest friend, Sasha, wearing an outrageous leopard-print jacket. We’re keeping a careful eye on Robbie, but we really don’t need to worry. From the spherical patriarch and his spherical wife to the blushing débutante, they’re all charmed by my baby doll.

No, Robbie doesn’t need to envy Golden Ratio’s display of its latest generation of wait staff. He belongs to a category of artificial intelligence astronomically more complex: robots with full-blown human personalities.

Intelligent Doll. I-dol. Eye-dol.

Every table here has one dol collector, showing off their prized possession – seven dols in total – every one of them with some little flaw. There’s even another ‘Robbie’ here tonight, though with different hair (my people talked to his owners). The ones who can’t afford their own are watching like hawks, waiting for that flaw to be revealed.

Disaster doesn’t strike until the trout, when I pick up my cheese knife in error. I really don’t care about the cutlery, but of course Robbie’s an expert, even though he doesn’t eat. ‘Here, love.’ He picks up the fish knife to hand it to me - the simplest thing you can imagine – and it all goes wrong, his fingers sticking out every which way. He almost manages to save it, frowning in concentration, but the blade splashes down in my plate.

Sasha shoots me a sympathetic look, aware of the greedy eyes all around: a-ha! But Robbie hits everyone with his killer smile, apologetically dabbing my cheek with his napkin. ‘It’s been one of those days.’

After the dessert there’s dancing. The other collectors take to the floor with their dols, but Robbie smoothly strikes up a conversation with the deb while Sasha takes my hand and leads me onto the floor – with the ulterior motive of teasing me horribly in the way only your best mate can.

‘When was he manufactured, again?’

‘Three years ago.’

‘Paedo!’

‘You’ve got a dirty mind, Sasha.’

‘He’s got a machine mind. Does he ever turn you down?’ That strikes home, because of course, he never does. ‘A robot can’t really consent, can it?’

‘Excuse me, but exactly what is it you spend your time doing in Bali every summer?’

He laughs. ‘Those young men don’t do anything they don’t want to!’

‘Be honest. You said there were too many whores and not enough sugar daddies these days. They even fight over you.’

Snip Green

‘But I can’t program them to fall in love with me.’

‘Him being in love with me isn’t the problem.’ I get a glimpse of Robbie, keeping an eye on my clutch bag on the seat next to him. I put my head on Sasha’s shoulder. ‘It’s me being in love with him.’

Sasha doesn’t try to tell me that it’s an illusion (My mother: “Yes, Gloria, but when are you going to fall in real love?”). He doesn’t say no-one’s going to take Robbie away from me. He just hugs me while keeping us slowly moving.

It’s a 180 degree turn from the tongue-lashing he gave me at the flat. ‘Screw this up,’ he said, ‘and you lose everything, not just Robbie. You know your mother will cut you loose.’ He snapped his fingers. ‘That’s the rest of your life, gone, in one evening.’

‘Well,’ I said, ‘if that happens, you’ll just have to marry me.’

When Robbie came in to ask for help with his bow tie, he found us both laughing like idiots.

The dol collectors watch Sasha dance with me, drawing entirely the wrong conclusions. Soon, when the new licence fee is due, their passion for their own dols will tragically and suddenly fade. A few have already been handed over. It’s surprising how love can wither when there are hundreds of thousands of dollars involved.

What if Sasha and Mum are right? How can I be certain I’m not just infatuated – or worse, spoilt? If you can’t even be sure yourself, how could you ever convince someone else it’s real?

Inside my clutch bag is Sasha’s executive pass for a tour of the laboratories. His little present to me.

I have a sudden, irrational fear that, while I’m away tonight, Golden Ratio will kidnap Robbie from the party. ‘Look after him for me,’ I beg Sasha.

He just laughs. ‘That terrible machine! I hope he’s worth all this.’

‘Thank you,’ I murmur. ‘Again.’

‘Good luck,’ says Sasha. ‘Give them heaps, gorgeous.’

Robot frames are simple and flexible, cheap to manufacture and easy to repair or modify. Robot brains, ones with the ultimate in complex behaviour - real personalities - are much more difficult to make, even when they plagiarise a genuine human mind.

“Robbie” has the personality – the stage persona, to be exact - of the lead dancer of a boy band you’ve certainly heard of. If it wasn’t for that unmistakeable, famous face, preserved forever at the age of eighteen, you’d never know he wasn’t human.

Before I laid out the cash for Robbie, I found an independent neurologist and took him out to lunch. Doctor Potamos knows as much about Golden Ratio’s robot brains as anyone who hasn’t signed their confidentiality agreement. ‘They’re greatly simplified versions of the human brain,’ he told me. ‘But they still contain an astronomical number of connections. You can’t just turn them out of a printer, the way you can an arm or an eye. No, each completed brain goes through an intricate series of developmental stages. And just like the human brain, there’s so much that can go wrong.’ He smiled. ‘Most of us have a few little oddities. In fact, human brains can be seriously damaged or disabled and still function. That’s how GR has made its fortune – creating therapies for brain defects and injuries.’

I poured him another glass of red, and he went on. ‘But for their robot brains, there is no in-between.’ He waved his glass, looking for an analogy. ‘Did you know it took them over two hundred tries to clone Dolly the Sheep?’

‘Really?’

‘Only twenty-nine of the embryos lived, and only one went on to become little Dolly. Well, according to the literature, it’s similar with the robot brains. Most stop developing at an early stage, long before becoming aware. But once in a while, one develops completely, and the result is a functioning consciousness, ready to be placed in a robot body – but almost always with some unpredicted glitch.’

Golden Ratio couldn’t dispose of all those blemished newborn minds. Robot brains can be bought and sold, but they can’t be scrapped; that’s too close to murder for the shareholders. But why leave them sleeping on shelves, collecting dust, when bodies were so cheap to manufacture?

Robot brains can be bought and sold, but they can’t be scrapped; that’s
too close to murder for the shareholders

Pious Muslim weavers, I read somewhere, always leave a deliberate mistake in their carpets, because perfection is for God. Does God consider babies born with their hearts on the outside to be perfect? Or those shocking kittens on the Internet, their faces just one big eye, who die within a week? What does God think of poor Robbie, who can’t tell his own fingers apart, who can’t tell his left foot from his right?

We cope with that. No, what puts Robbie in danger now is Golden Ratio’s sudden, crazy increase in their license fee. Technically, you don’t own a dol; again, that’s close enough to slavery to make the shareholders itch. Instead, you pay an annual maintenance fee, and in return the company engineers provide upgrades and repairs. If you don’t pay the fee, they can take your dol back, on the grounds that you’re not maintaining it properly and that’s cruelty. No-one wealthy enough to afford a dol gave the fee a second thought until, last month, GR added three zeroes to the end of it. Suddenly, for most collectors, the dols are toys too expensive to justify keeping. Hence the party, I suppose: an apology, a farewell.

Just paying the ransom isn’t going to be enough. What if they just add more zeroes next year? No, I need a permanent solution. I need dirt. Golden Ratio is, effectively, recalling all of its dols; I need to find out why.

I’ve watched Robbie in sleep mode, sprawled easily in the sheets, his hard belly artificially rising and falling, half a smile on his face. Does he really enjoy it all as much as he seems to?

‘Of course he does,’ Dr Potamos told me. ‘Remember that the structure of his brain is very nearly the same as yours. The same areas activate when…’ He smiled a little, rearranging the stuff on his desk. ‘… ah, when for example he sees the colour green, as when you see it.’

Snip Green

I didn’t care if the subject was delicate: I wanted answers. ‘But couldn’t he be putting on a show? A literal performance in bed?’

‘Golden Ratio’s engineers could check the precise records from Robbie’s stream of consciousness. Even I could do that … but it would violate his warranty.’

I went hot with indignation for a moment, before I realised it was a completely serious suggestion. Luckily, he was still stacking notes. ‘Why not something simpler? He likes to rest his head on my shoulder. What does he feel then?’

‘My sense is that the real question you’re asking isn’t “Does Robbie enjoy my company, or is it an act?”, but “Does Robbie ‘enjoy’ anything, or is it all an act?” As best we can measure, the answer is: yes. He enjoys.’

It made sense. I was nodding. And then Potamos said: ‘And of course, if he doesn’t enjoy your company, changing that is as simple as adjusting a few dials.’

I kiss Robbie and leave him mesmerising one and all and join the little group of pass-holders for our special tour of the facility. A gloved woman leads us through lilac corridors, past one great glass window after another, behind which are dinosaur robots assembling buildings, and mouse robots digging through simulated earthquake rubble to dummy survivors, and everything you can imagine in between. In a little theatre, a real budgerigar and a robot one show off their tricks.

At each display, technicians appear to answer questions. The one Potamos told me to look for, a scrubbed honours student name-tagged Evelyn, is the keeper of the robo-budgie.

I put a hand on her arm, steering her along with the tour, asking her stupid questions. She looks panicked for a moment, but then quickly takes me down a corridor and into an empty lab so we can talk.

‘You, ah, you want to know, so do I, what’s happening to the recalled dols,’ she gabbles, tight-chested. ‘I think we can get into the secure part of the building and find out.’

‘You think.’

She looks like she’s going to burst into tears. At this moment I’m holding this poor kid’s whole life in my hands.

‘Take a deep breath,’ I tell her. ‘Then tell me what we’re going to do.’

I don't love him. I don't even know him. I love you.

I’ve told Robbie he shouldn’t watch his original on TV, but he is a naughty puppy, and I’ve caught him more than once gazing at his template in admiration. Playing guitar, or piano, or dancing with furious energy in one of his old boy band videos.

Once I even came across Robbie trying to copy one of those dances – a challenge for anyone, but for him, neurologically impossible. (The household robots hovered nervously; they know how prone he is to breaking things.) For a few steps, he was like a toddler dancing, and a few steps later he tipped over onto the carpet.

I rushed in and cradled him. He put his head down on my shoulder.

‘I don’t know how he does it. I really don’t.’

There were tears in his voice, even if there were no tears in his eyes, and I couldn’t help thinking of my father’s rage in the hospital, trapped by his own body.

‘I don’t love him. I don’t even know him. I love you.’

Robbie’s brain is made, finished, set hard in sophisticated plastics. You can’t see the deficits under a microscope, like lesions in grey matter. They’re knotted deep into the tapestry of his brain; unweaving it to find and fix them would be fatal. Where a human brain could learn and change with practice, no amount of therapy can ever teach him to remember which one’s his left foot and which one’s his right.

He was still captivated by the TV. I switched it off. In the silence, he sighed, ‘It’s been one of those days.’

Young Evelyn leads me quickly through a succession of doors, at first opening automatically at the approach of her RFID chip, then only at the touch of her ID card. Finally we reach a door that requires a good old-fashioned metal key – three of them, in fact, in three different locks. Hacker-proof. I haven’t seen one like this in years.

What I’m looking for is one of several models of computer used to keep confidential information off the net. Golden Ratio probably have the same setup as my mother’s office - easily recognised if you know what you’re looking for. What dirt will I be able to dig up? Forged research results? Gruesome footage of dols murdering their owners?

I wish Sasha were here with me, but the less he has to do with this the better. He’s not just wearing that leopard jacket for camp value; if anything goes wrong tonight, everyone will remember where he was.

Of course, I’m not as frightened as Evelyn. She depends on the company not just for her room and board, but for her education. We’re both risking our careers, but she could end up literally starving on the streets.

She murmurs, ‘Is he like the real Robbie? I mean, your Robbie?’

I’ve never even met the real “Robbie”, but I’m not about to burst this girl’s bubble. ‘He’s just as sweet. And just as mischievous.’

‘You’re so lucky. You get to see him every day.’

I’ve been wondering why she hasn’t said anything about money yet. Now it dawns on me: she’s got a blazing crush on Robbie’s original. Poor kid thinks she’s in robo-love.

‘I am very lucky. And he’s very lucky to have the pair of us trying to save him.’

She emits a pleased little laugh, then swallows it. ‘Wait here.’

There’s an open door nearby; she looks inside - and backs sharply out of the office. ‘Oh,’ she squeaks, ‘Isn’t Mr Gatlin on duty tonight?’

A muffin-topped man in a GR uniform follows her out. ‘Gatlin called in sick at the last minute.’ He looks at us with heavy scepticism, putting a hand on his left hip, making sure we understand he’s not just a cleaner, making sure we see his sidearm. ‘Ladies, I’m pretty sure you’re not supposed to be in this part of the building.’

Evelyn just turns to me in abject panic. Whatever arrangement she had with Gatlin, he’s chickened out of it at the last moment, leaving us facing a complete unknown. A man who, if he concludes we’re industrial spies, could kill us and never have to answer a question about it.

Evelyn is about to start crying. My heart clenches into a hard ball. This is the moment to smile and blush, and talk like an idiot, and to have the man escort us safely back to our tour, and to let GR do whatever they want with Robbie.

In this moment, with complete lucidity, I know that this is the real thing. I really am in love with him.

I ask the man with the gun, ‘What’s your annual salary?’

He stares at me.

I’ve been trained how to offer a bribe, for heaven’s sake, but my mind is blank and all I have is desperation and cash.

Incredibly, instead of reaching for his phone or pistol, the guard mumbles a figure. I know that’s well below the poverty level; he’s only surviving thanks to company housing and handouts.

‘Right,’ I say. I take a spare cash card out of my purse, load it up on my phone, and hand it over. ‘That’s two years’ pay. If there’s trouble, you can always get another job in another city.’

The man looks at the card between his fingers, bug-eyed and thin-lipped. He goes into his office. Evelyn and I look at each other, helpless; he’s either calling security or he’s checking the balance on the card.

The man returns with two of the keys we need. Evelyn has the third: ‘They gave it to me when I first started work, so I could feed the rats overnight, and they forgot to ask for it back.’

‘Don’t come back this way,’ the man says. ‘Use a fire escape to get out.’

I say, ‘Alarms and cameras?’

He chews on the inside of his mouth. ‘OK – they’ll be switched off. Just for an hour.’

He locks the door behind us.

Sasha’s right. It’s just too easy to get what you want in this world, when there are too many whores and not enough sugar daddies.

Golden Ratio has made a private zoo of broken brains.

‘Did you know that my parents were both scientists?’ Dr Potamos told me, at a cocktail party. ‘My mother was a particle physicist, my father, a geneticist. Both of them would tell me the same thing: to understand how something works: break it!’ I laughed politely. ‘My father’s work was more complex, in many ways. He used radiation and chemicals, and later, genetic surgery, to “break” the genes of the fruit flies. Break this gene, and the larva has no head, and dies; break that one, and it survives to adulthood, but cannot fly. You see? This way he could determine the normal function of the unbroken gene.’ He sighed. ‘But when it comes to human development, we can only wait to see what strange and cruel mistakes nature throws our way. That’s what Golden Ratio has been so astonishingly successful at doing – identifying Grundstörungen.’ I tried to pronounce it, and we both laughed. ‘The “ground fault”, the root of the problem, deeply hidden in the brain. When a neurologist can identify that, then the work of healing can begin.’

Looking for offices, Evelyn and I find ourselves instead in another lilac hall of windows, licked by flickering light. We look inside the first window.

Rag-dol.

It sits naked on a plastic chair, a skinless metal frame. Shining black wires erupt from its shoulders, from the backs of its hands, trailing up to an array of plugs in the ceiling. Its head is a smooth cylinder, with oval outlines indicating where its eyes and mouth should be.

It’s trying to stand up, but it can’t. It keeps pushing itself up out of the chair, but each time, it topples forward, smacking its head against the floor of the laboratory, trailing wires. A moment later a thick cable hooked to its back starts reeling it up from the floor, and it struggles into the chair, and then the whole thing begins all over again.

The flickering light is coming from a video screen set up where the dol can see it. The screen shows a steady loop of footage of people sitting in chairs, getting up. Such a simple, human thing to do, something even infants can do: standing on your own two feet.

The dol twists its empty face towards us, making us both jump back from the glass. ‘It’s been one of those days,’ it says, in a familiar voice loaded with humiliation.

I take a step backwards, turn around, and throw up my entire dinner.

‘Oh dear God,’ breathes Evelyn, finally unleashing the tears. ‘That’s Robbie. That’s a Robbie brain in there. What have they done to him?’

‘They haven’t done anything to him. They’re looking for a Grundstörungen.’ Evelyn looks at me in bewilderment. ‘Golden Ratio claims the robot brains either come out of the process close to perfect, or not at all. But here’s this poor bastard.’

‘I don’t know how they do it,’ says the dol, miserably, as the cable jerks it back to the starting position. ‘I really don’t.’

Just as geneticists make broken fruit flies to study, Golden Ratio has made a private zoo of broken brains. A mind as functional as Robbie’s is valuable, but nowhere near as valuable as the failed attempts to create him, with all their random flaws. Hundreds of lambs, deformed Dollies, bleating as they stumble or stagger.

This dol will never stand up, any more than Robbie will dance. This tiny and absurd hell is the source of GR’s breakthroughs in neurotherapy, all its wealth.

How many more windows in the lilac hall? I can’t bring myself to count.

I fish a handkerchief out of my bag, but I can’t get the taste out of my mouth. ‘No wonder they’re shutting down the dols-for-rent program. People like Potamos are starting to figure out what they’re really doing. I wonder what the shareholders would think about this.’

Evelyn cries, ‘What are we going to do?’

‘Give me a moment.’ I take my phone out and film the whole tragic cycle twice. Then I attach four – no, five – numbers, and hit send.

‘Can you stop it?’ I ask Evelyn.

‘I’m nobody!’ she gasps. ‘How can I stop - this!’

‘No, I mean, can you stop him banging his head on the floor?’

Evelyn rushes into the lab, shutting down a console. She catches the broken dol as it crumples, kneeling down, holding it in her arms. ‘How many others?’ she sobs.

She’s still holding the robot when two security guards show up a minute later, tipped off by the closed-down console. Evelyn gives a little shriek when they point their guns at us. Luckily, neither of them startles when the phone I’m still holding goes off.

‘That’ll be the CEO of Golden Ratio,’ I tell them, ‘wanting to talk to me. But probably to you, first.’

Sasha pulls a bottle of champagne from the limo’s ice bucket and pours us both a flute. ‘Here’s to you and your nasty old blowup-dol.’

Robbie, his head on my shoulder, opens one eye and sticks his tongue out at Sasha. ‘I’m just glad the party’s over,’ he says, ‘and I can be myself again.’

I toast Sasha. ‘All it took was balls and the price of a cute little sports car.’

‘It could have cost you a lot more,’ he murmurs.

We both take a long hit of the champagne, settling back as the limo steers us smoothly home. After a couple of calls, I have what’s important: a formal undertaking that Robbie won’t be repossessed before the licensing question is legally settled. I’m confident that further discussions will lead to my outright purchase of my baby-dol.

Perhaps GR will shut down their experiments. Probably not. Sad little Evelyn will be sent to a safe new life in the Americas, whether she likes it or not. Am I strange and cruel? Robbie loosens his bowtie, settling on my shoulder, perfectly relaxed. He will never know what this night was all about. He will never see the video I sent to Sasha, and Potamos, and the heads of Golden Ratio. And nothing like that will ever, ever be done to him. So you tell me.

Robbie will never quite be out of danger. GR have already made it clear that they won’t be providing hardware or software support. With their competitors racing to catch up, I should be able to keep my living-dol ticking over for years; but in time, the technology will pass him by. He’ll become as obsolete as a telephone or a laptop.

But I suppose we all end up on the scrapheap eventually.

You can’t have him. He’s mine. He’s going to stay with me until he rusts.

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Kate Orman is an Australian author, best known for her books connected to the British science-fiction television series Doctor Who.
Snip Green is an illustrator based in Melbourne.

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