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Less Than Human
By Maxine McArthur
Warner AspectCopyright © 2004 Maxine McArthur
All right reserved.
To: E. McGuire, Mechatronics Research, Tomita Electronics Co. Sender: A Subject: Re: catching up Eleanor-san
I am glad that you found my notes on artificial synapses interesting. I have been engaged in some private research on the matter and believe that my "angle" is one that will provide scope for further development. I would like to discuss this personally with you in the near future. You tell me that your current integrated systems project will be reviewed soon. Perhaps after that? I can take leave and come to Osaka, so tell me when I should book the train.
Eleanor blanked her personal com screen with a frown. Akita's requests for a meeting were getting hard to ignore ... She hadn't seen him since he left the company, twelve years earlier, and that was how it should stay. He'd given her a couple of ideas to use on her robot, but he'd always struck her as being a little too on edge, even in those days. The last thing she needed now was to be distracted by personal relationships. Not now that she was close to results with the Sam project.
The robot Sam had four gangly metallic limbs, an almost nonexistent trunk, and an oversized, upside-down triangular head with huge camera eyes. Multicolored wires twisted in and out of the limbs, and its battery pack gave it a hunch. But it stood by itself and was learning to navigate. She wanted it to walk across the room and pick up a beaker from the bench. It should recognize the bench on the far side of the lab from the perceptual map she'd helped it build over the past two years.
One foot rose slowly, moved forward, and descended again. Then that pendulum became the fixed point, and the other leg swung forward. The robot took three more steps. It stood next to the bench. Pick up the beaker.
She imagined the order as a liquid, flowing through the silicon synapses and pushing the robot irresistibly toward its goal.
Its eyes found the beaker on the bench top. Pick up the beaker.
In her chair on the other side of the lab, Eleanor wiped sweaty palms on her trousers. The robot had to work out how to do it by itself.
Its arm extended. The three-fingered hand opened, reached out.
The fingers would curl around the beaker, and data from its surface would pass through the haptic sensors, through the synapses into the tapestry of artificial neural networks that determined reaction, all in an infinitesimal amount of real time. I feel, therefore I am. I act, therefore I think ... The phone buzzed.
Eleanor spun her chair and glared at the source, the wall unit near the lab door. Not more interruptions ... it was a holiday. Why couldn't they let her work?
It was Saturday of the Bon holiday week in mid-August, the slowest day of the year. Most Tomita Electronics staff were either at home or visiting relatives in the country. But the blasted building sensors knew her employee microchip was in the lab.
Eleanor pushed her chair back, slowly, so as not to distract the robot, and tapped the RECEIVE button. The readout of the dialer's number below the screen showed an internal line, Public Affairs.
"McGuire here." She didn't bother trying to sound civil. "This is Degawa." The screen showed a swarthy man of about thirty-five wearing, a long-sleeved white shirt in spite of the heat. His voice sounded vaguely familiar. "Public Affairs Department," he added unnecessarily.
She remembered Degawa. A year ago he had helped her conduct a press conference when her department failed to win a government grant. His job was to act as a buffer between R&D departments and the rest of the world.
"We have a situation," he said, now using formal speech. "I've called the division chief and the managing director, but they won't be able to get back to town until this evening."
"What's the problem?" "There's been a fatal accident. With one of our robots." Her cheeks went cold, and all she could think to say was, "Where?"
"A factory in Minato Ward. Kawanishi Metalworks. It seems advisable that you attend." There was a sheen of sweat on Degawa's otherwise impassive face. Eleanor knew how he felt. The room felt suddenly hot, despite the air-conditioning. She wiped her palms on her trousers. "But I don't do industrial robots now. You want Number Four Lab."
"There's nobody at Number Four." Degawa's formal verb endings had dissolved, and his voice held a hint of panic. "You worked on this robot. Your personnel data is linked to the relevant research records."
Degawa didn't want responsibility for this. He expected her to waste time going out to a factory in one of the hottest parts of the city because some idiot had ignored safety warnings ... Then she felt ashamed at the thought.
"You're the most senior staff here right now," he said, as if that decided the matter.
There was a clunk behind her. She turned and saw the robot sweep its hand along the bench top in search of the beaker that was rolling at its feet.
"Damn," she said in English. "I beg your pardon?"
"Nothing." She'd have to take the robot back to the beginning of the sequence. "When did it happen?"
"They think it must have been early this morning," said Degawa. "A security robot found the body on the factory floor. It raised the alarm; the company called an ambulance and the shop manager. The manager called his superiors, and they notified us."
"What about the police?" "The manager said the police response team called an engineer. The engineer said it was clearly human error, and they logged it as an accident. There's still one constable there until the local station clears the scene."
Degawa sounded smugly sure of his facts. Good that the police had finished-Eleanor didn't want detectives staring at her while she checked the robot.
"Was the dead man ..." She would have liked to use more than the bare phrase, but couldn't remember an alternative. It wasn't a word one used every day. "Was he operating the machine or trying to fix it?"
"I don't know the details. But protocol demands that we recall the robot and issue an official message of condolence." The first part of that job was hers, and the second Degawa's. She hoped she could take one look at the scene and approve the recall; otherwise, she'd be contradicting the police report, and goodness knew what kind of protocol that would offend.
Degawa's eyes met hers briefly, then glanced politely away again. "Supervisor, I realize you are probably aware of the rules, but you will forgive me reminding you that you should not speak to the press about this accident. The company will make a statement tomorrow."
Eleanor tried not to let her annoyance show. "I know the rules. How soon should I go?"
"I have just ordered a taxi for you. Please send a copy of your report to this office as well as to the director's office." He inclined his head at exactly the correct angle and the screen went blank.
Eleanor sighed. Degawa was right, she'd worked on industrial robots when she first came to Osaka and joined Tomita. Worked on them with Akita, in fact. But that was fifteen years ago. And how could there have been a fatal accident if the factory followed safety regulations? If they hadn't, it wasn't her company's problem.
She'd never seen a factory accident that wasn't due to human error. Someone had ignored barriers and warning signs. Or a maintenance technician tried to do too much. She picked up the beaker and paused the robot. It didn't seem to be processing its sensory input efficiently. They had to do something about the reactions, and quickly. On the wall above the bench, an old-fashioned paper calendar showed a red circle drawn around next Tuesday. Her project was due to come before a budget committee that was looking for projects to ax.
The hints she got from Akita offered some prospect of development in this area, but they didn't have enough time to go back and redesign sensors. It was Saturday afternoon now, which didn't even leave enough time to polish a different sequence. They'd have to stick with the walk-and-pick up, but maybe try something easier to grasp, like a soft toy.
She patted the robot on its unwieldy head. It was just the right height to pat, about that of a five-year-old child. "It's not your fault."
As Eleanor got out of the taxi a wall of heat hit her in the face. Gasping and squinting against the late-afternoon glare, she looked around. The taxi pulled away from a gate set in a two-meter wire fence. A metal plate set in the post beside the gate said KAWANISHI METALWORKS INC. EST. 1954. The whole area was full of large blocks of sprawling factories, and the air smelled thick and metallic. It smoked gold as the sun lowered.
She rarely went outside these days, and certainly not in the heat of the day. Tomita Corporation was linked by rail to the Amagasaki Betta, where Eleanor and most of the researchers lived. Everyone used either subway or skyway connections. She hated being driven. It made her sweat with nervousness, even if the car was in autodrive.
The taxi honked farewell at the end of the street. The driver, released by autodrive from the irksome task of actually watching the road, had talked to her constantly, demanding the usual personal information-where she came from, why she worked in Japan, whether she was married, how she learned Japanese, was her red hair a natural color, why was she carrying a tool kit and hard hat ... Eleanor had exhausted her store of stock answers and was reduced to brusqueness.
In a side street opposite the factory some of Osaka's huge homeless population camped in lines of blue vineel tents. Nobody moved near the tents, which stood in the shade of the buildings. Everything else was gray concrete, baking in the heat. Osaka even looked gray from a distance-gray angles stretched from horizon to horizon, fading into a gray haze broken only by the immense, squat silhouettes of Bettas.
The town always looked gray outside the Bettas. Eleanor could remember when nearly every street in Osaka was like this-dirty, colorless, treeless. The Great Tokyo Quake of 2006 had been a terrible thing, but life for ordinary Japanese had certainly improved afterward. Who wouldn't prefer to live in a temperature-and humidity-controlled environment with autocleaning facilities? Not to mention the smart appliances. Total Interactive Environment, they called the Bettas.
Eleanor wiped sweat clumsily from her upper lip with the hand that held her hard hat and wished she was home in her Betta. She could feel her fair skin frying.
After the Quake, the government and big business had teamed up to initiate the Building for Life Plan, or "Seikai," as it was commonly abbreviated, for the Japanese archipelago.
No more unplanned, disaster-prone development. All Japanese would live in safe, self-contained minitowns connected to fast transport networks. Bettas, they called the huge complexes. A Betta Life for All. Which was fine in Tokyo, which had to be rebuilt from the sewers up anyway; but in Osaka, the Seikai plans had not progressed as far or as comprehensively. Bettas and the new train networks co-existed uneasily with remnants of the old city.
The Kawanishi factory gate was latched, but not locked. There was an intercom unit set on one of the gateposts, but it remained silent when she announced herself. Inside the courtyard she could see a blue-and-white police car parked against a single-story building, and a uniformed policeman waited at the entry. He stared at her with official impassivity but his eyes registered every detail of her face, hair, and body.
Sometimes she thought she didn't care, but just then it fed her frustration. People never used to stare so much. Since the U.S. closed its borders and the European Union began to regulate foreign travel, white foreigners were as rare as when she'd first lived in Japan as a child. Eleanor inclined her head as much as she could be bothered in the heat. "I'm from Tomita Electronics Corporation," she said. "The makers of the robot involved in the accident."
The constable's round, red face dripped sweat as he nodded. That dark blue uniform must be stifling. "They're expecting you." He opened the steel door of the building.
It was even hotter inside. Lights blazed along the ceiling, and the place stank of metal. A large poster on the wall next to the door showed a rotund blue cartoon cat brandishing a hard hat. Safety First Don't Forget Your Helmet said the speech balloon. Eleanor settled hers onto her plait obediently.
The ovenlike air was ridiculously nostalgic. Life had seemed simpler when she worked on industrial robots. It was easier to believe such robots made a difference to people's lives. Eleanor had worked on an assembly line when she was a student, and, as far as she was concerned, the robots were welcome to it.
The rows of machines were silent and still. Voices echoed at the other end of the floor. That glassed-in cubicle on the wall at the other end of the factory would be the control room. Banks of computer monitors were visible through the glass, and two men stood talking in front of it.
One was portly and in his midforties, polo shirt and golf slacks incongruous with his hard-hat. The other was a younger man, midtwenties, wearing stained and crumpled overalls. They watched suspiciously as she approached. Eleanor bowed properly and proffered a business card.
"My name is McGuire, of Tomita Electronics Corporation." Gotoba started visibly. "Eh, you can speak Japanese."
One of these days, Eleanor thought, I'll scream. And nobody will understand why.
"I'm the supervisor of our robotics department in the research division. The department that developed your robot." How useful formality could be.
The portly man took her card and bowed grudgingly. "I'm Gotoba, floor manager here. This is Sakaki, one of our maintenance technicians." Gotoba inclined his head at the young man in overalls. "He knew Mito. That's the deceased," he added, dropping his voice.
Eleanor bowed again. "Manager, please accept our sincerest apologies." Not that I think we did anything wrong, she was tempted to add. "We will, of course, remove the offending machine as soon as I have examined it for our records."
She glanced meaningfully at the tall, angular shape of the Tomita welder on the far side of the factory floor. Orange tape stretched around its workstation.
"You're going to examine it?" Gotoba said. He exchanged a glance with Sakaki, who looked down. "The machine is under extended warranty," she said. In other words, if a design flaw caused the accident, Tomita was obliged to fix or replace it.
"If you'll excuse me." Eleanor indicated her tool kit, bowed again, and walked with relief toward the robot. Behind her she heard a flurry of whispers, then Sakaki caught up with her.
"Did you handle this robot?" Sakaki nodded. "I'm responsible for routine maintenance." His tilted eyes squinted tighter, as if holding in some emotion. Maybe he'd been close to the dead man.
Excerpted from Less Than Human by Maxine McArthur Copyright © 2004 by Maxine McArthur. Excerpted by permission.
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