I’d love to start this post off with a follow-up to last week’s post on my possible audiobook deal, but I still can’t give any more details. Things are progressing behind the scenes, however, and I wouldn’t be surprised if I have some news by next weekend.
But enough about that. I still need more content for “This Book Cannot Make Any Money,” and I also need a “before” example for my post on editing. So let’s try to write a short story that’ll help fill things out (keep in mind I have no outline, no plot idea, done no research to prepare for it… at the time I’m typing this, I’m not even sure what genre I intend this story to be. Furthermore, I’m usually terribly slow on short stories, and I only have a couple hours of time each day — usually when also eating dinner or sitting with family who INSIST on talking to me while I’m trying to get things done — to write it in. And it’s completely unedited — that’s the whole point, after all — so… don’t expect much):
HRC-2057-BB, a.k.a. Humanoid Robotic Chef 2057-Bungalow Burger (known to most of the staff as “Hummer,” both because of its full name and because of a particular noise from a minor electrical short it had developed in its first year of operation) had a lot of unnecessary programming in it.
It was originally supposed to be labelled HRC-2-CdlC (or Human Robotic Check 2-Creme de la Creme), intended for a high-end gourmet restaurant, before said restaurant went bankrupt. It was instead sent to one of the three thousand Bungalow Burger fast food restaurants.
Bungalow Burger had added its own food prep and customer service protocols to Hummer when it had been purchased, but had never bothered to delete Creme de la Creme’s food prep and customer service protocols.
That, combined with that very old short circuit, led to some very strange conversations with its human co-workers, sometimes.
“Zey want zer burgers well-done? Sacré bleu! Ze flavor of zis exzellent meat will be utterly ruined!” Zzzzt! Hummmm…. “The customer is always right. Two well-done Bungalow Big Burgers, coming right up.”
“Belay that, Hummer,” that particular Bungalow Burger’s human supervisor, Jeffrey Davis, said. “Give that order to Zipper. We’ve got a visitor who needs to talk to you.”
Zzzzt! Hummm…. “You zay we ‘ave a viziter? Do ze want to zee ze master chef in action?”
Davis smacked Hummer in a particular spot on his frame, nearly dislodging the silly chef’s hat he’d been ordered to wear whenever cooking. Zzzzt! Hummm…. “Drop that horrible fake French accent. The police officer who wants to talk with you won’t appreciate it. He wants to talk to you about one of your orders from a few days ago.”
“Law Enforcement Compliance Protocols engaged,” Hummer said, its voice losing all of the personality pre-programmed into it. “I will comply with any lawful orders. Take me to the law enforcement official.”
“Huh. That’s a new one,” Davis said, chuckling. “I’m guessing that’s installed in case Federal inspectors come to check up the restaurant. Well, this has nothing to do with inspections. Come on. He’s waiting by the maintenance hub.”
The kitchen, if you could call it that (Hummer had been programmed with the ability to form culinary opinions, including on the quality of the kitchen equipment; both of its personalities had frequently debated with its human controller whether a flat-top grill and a bank of deep fat fryers constituted an actual kitchen or not), opened in the back to a bank of charging stations for the robot chefs and janitors that made up the bulk of Bungalow Burgers’ staff. It was also the place they all went for maintenance, and an informal meeting room between robots and human whenever something needed to be discussed out of hearing of the customers.
A meeting in that room, per every protocol that had been programmed into it since it was brought into Bungalow Burger, meant that Hummer was to remain silent until and unless asked questions.
Davis led Hummer into the room and stepped aside. By law, the human owner of a robot (or, in this case, their licensed representative) was both permitted and required to be present when questioned by law enforcement, so he would be sitting through the entire interview.
“Wow,” the policeman said. He wore a name-tag labeling him as Officer Kaaya. “Your humanoid chefs look really… human. More than I’m used to seeing from a fast food joint.”
Hummer would never pass for a human on the streets, with obvious hydraulics making up its ‘muscles’ and metallic mesh for a ‘skin,’ but he did have several cosmetic adaptions that made him look more human than the track-motored industrial robots like Zipper, like humanoid-style walking legs and a molded body frame.
“Most of ours aren’t,” Davis said. “One of the ‘bots we started this restaurant with was damaged a couple years after the first batch came in — a maintenance tech dropped one of its circuit boards into one of the fryers. This was a higher-end model, bought as a replacement at a discount. It’s got all kinds of advantages over our other ‘bots — various sensors like infrared thermometers to check the food as its cooked, UV decontamination lights to help ‘clean’ his workspace, simulated emotions for customer service, and all sorts of high tech gizmos that are completely useless for a glorified burger flipper. Fortunately it can do that, too.”
“So, he’s less likely than any of your other ‘bots to mess up an order, then?”
“I wouldn’t necessarily say that. He sometimes forgets he’s a burger flipper, not a fine dining chef.”
Officer Kaaya raised an eyebrow at that. “Okay, that’s odd… but it’s not why I’m here. Robot HRC-2057-BB, you cooked a meal two weeks ago corresponding to this ticket, right?”
It took a moment for Hummer to recognize the faded characters on a photo of an old receipt. Culinary-grade humanoid robots were required to store data on all orders for at least two weeks for the purpose of tracking down sources of food poisoning. They were sorted by a tracking number, which Hummer was quickly able to interpret.
“Two Bungalow Burgers, medium rare, one onion rings, one fries, and two drinks,” Hummer recounted. “Was there a problem with our service?”
Were Hummer’s video sensors not so heavily calibrated, it might have missed the hesitant tick of Kaaya’s nose at the question. The body language interpretation subroutine programmed into Hummer’s old front-of-house protocol interpreted that as an indication he was about to either lie or misdirect to avoid answering. That protocol was dormant at the moment, however.
“Not at all. However, these two customers of yours were found murdered later that evening, so we’re trying to track everything down about their day that we can.”
“Murdered?” Davis exclaimed. “You didn’t tell me this was a murder investigation.”
“I didn’t? Oh, my apologies.” Even Hummer could tell that was insincere. It did not know why Kaaya would have failed to mention the crime to its supervisor, however. “I would still like to know, HRC-2057-BB, if there was anything unusual you might have stored in your memory bank about this order.”
The Law Enforcement Compliance Protocols demanded that Hummer comply, so he searched his memory banks. It had perfect recollection of cooking that particular meal, and it went through things from start to finish.
“No anomalies in my routine are detected,” Hummer said.
“Maybe not with your routine, but with the ingredients themselves? In particular, the burger meat?”
“Oh, no,” Davis said, his head falling into his hands.
“Incroyable! You dare inzult our ingredients? Zis ees an outrage! We have only ze finest prime grade meats available anywhere in zis restaurant!” Hummer exclaimed.
“No, we don’t,” Davis said, smacking a particular spot on Hummer’s torso. Zzzzt! Hummm…. “We use cheap, utility grade beef. Hummer sometimes forgets we’re a fast food joint, and not the high-end fine dining restaurant it was originally programmed to service.”
(Author’s Note: In terms of weird research, I had to look up the cheapest grade of meat acceptable for commercial use to write the above line, which led to several articles on interpreting USDA Beef grades. Fortunately, that was a quick bit of research; let’s hope that this little tangent doesn’t make it impossible to finish this story in time)
Kaaya’s lips twitched. “I think I’m starting to see why you were able to get this guy at a discount.”
“Actually, the short developed after we got him,” Davis said. “Still not sure quite what’s causing it. But his memory is still accurate enough to pass certification, and his cooking skills are… well, better than any of the burger flippers we’ve got, here. I just wish I knew what the restaurant that we got him from was thinking when they gave him that ridiculous faux-french accent.”
Davis had not quite been accurate in his description of Hummer’s special abilities. He did not have ‘simulated’ emotions, he had ‘synthetic’ emotions, though the mistake was understandable. Robots with simulated emotions were designed to react in specific ’emotional’ ways (for example, arranging their facial features to resemble a smile or a frown) to specific external stimuli.
Synthetic emotions would start much the same way, though with a wider range of reactions to a significantly wider range of stimuli. Then, using heuristic analysis of the situations which prompted those stimuli and an adaptive artificial intelligence, they would start applying those emotional reactions to different stimuli.
In other words, robots with synthetic emotions would learn emotions.
Hummer had been programmed to have a strong sense of pride in its cooking. That pride in its cooking had also grown to be pride in itself, being the best cook in the restaurant by far. Having its trusted supervisor describe its accent as “ridiculous” hit those heuristic pride emotions hard.
But after having slipped its Law Enforcement Compliance protocols once after an emotional reaction, Hummer had to be careful not to react again, instead choosing another seldom-used emotional state in its place: Stoicism.
“So, what was wrong with our meat, Officer Kaaya?” Davis asked.
“The couple who died was poisoned with a neurotoxin similar to what’s found in box jellyfish, laced with some synthetic controlling agent I’ve never heard of that delayed any reaction to said neurotoxin for several hours. Our coroner was able to determine, after investigating their stomach contents, that the bulk of the neurotoxins were concentrated in some burger meat they had ingested about two hours before they died. From this receipt, we’re fairly confident that said burger meat came from your restaurant.”
“Has anyone else died?” Davis asked.
“We’d have shut you down long before now if they had,” Kaaya said. “No, the poison must have been added to those specific burgers and no others. And, given the amount of time needed for that poison to act, we figure it must have happened while the couple was here… meaning it was done by either the staff or another customer. Tell me, Mr. Davis, how many human staff are employed at this Bungalow Burger?”
“Uh… just three of us. The day shift manager, the maintenance tech, and me. Labor costs are so high, nowadays, that even high-end robots like Hummer are cheaper than employing human staff… or so that’s what corporate says. Things are automated enough that we don’t even need to be here every day.”
“And your shift starts at?”
“Four in the afternoon, usually,” Davis said, then gave a start. “But it wasn’t us! Like I said, we don’t need to be here every day; none of us were here in the restaurant when this couple came through. We were four hours drive away. The regional manager had a meeting of all of his franchisees, upstate.”
“And it’s unlikely your ‘bot, here, tried to kill them,” Kaaya said, shaking his head. “We’d like to check your sales records for that day, see if there are any connections between your other customers and the victims.”
Letting out a deep breath, Davis nodded. “Of course — we’re quite willing to co-operate in any way we can.”
Hummer knew that wasn’t corporate policy — Bungalow Burgers did not permit the release of customer information, even to law enforcement without a warrant — but the Law Enforcement Compliance Protocol (which were added to its programming at the builder’s discretion, not the restaurant’s) prevented it from saying anything.
But, underneath all the protocols dictating its outward behavior, Hummer’s synthetic emotional matrix was suggesting it take radical action. It had pride in its food — even if all it made, in its current employment, was burgers — and the thought that someone had used its cooking to kill someone hurt that pride.
Hummer needed to do something.
Technically, there was no law or corporate policy requiring that robots remain in their owner’s establishment when not engaged in normal operations. The one concern might be keeping batteries recharged, but most modern robots had batteries that would allow them to continue normal operations for up to three days between recharges.
However, there had never been any reason for Hummer — or any of Bungalow Burger’s other robots — to leave the restaurant, either. Leaving the restaurant was not a behavior it had been programmed with, and so Hummer never left.
But Hummer had synthetic emotions. In order to make synthetic emotions work, there had to be a mechanism for an emotional reaction to override normal behavior. Usually, this was limited to something simple, such as laughing at something its heuristical analysis determined was ‘funny’ during a period in which its normal programming said it should do nothing, but the level of basic programming it was permitted to override increased the greater the emotional response.
Currently, Hummer’s emotions were so engaged that it could even override the valid orders of a law enforcement officer. Hummer didn’t want to believe that its burgers were the murder weapon for a pair of humans. It was also curious — could it even tell if they were?
Among the ‘various sensors’ Davis had explained Hummer was equipped with were tools to detect contaminants in the food, both biological and non-biological. They were supposed to be sensitive enough that it could tell if there were enough traces of shellfish on a mixed-use cutting board to cause an allergic reaction if food was prepped on it. Most of Bungalow Burger’s burger-flipper bots didn’t have any sensors at all, so there were no protocols requiring Hummer to use that sensor, but the pride in his work that his original programming demanded of him was such that he used those sensors, anyway — every time he cooked, he made sure there was no contamination in any food he prepared.
So, if the burgers were poisoned, Hummer should have detected it… right?
But perhaps the poison was something that its sensors wouldn’t detect. Hummer did a search through all of the documentation available to it, but still could not tell if this ‘box jellyfish toxin’ would be registered by its contamination sensors. The only way to be sure would be to experiment and see. The problem was attempting that experiment required a sample of the toxin, which should not be available in the Bungalow Burger restaurant.
The police would have a sample of the poison in evidence lock-up at the police station, however, which was why, after the store had been closed up, Hummer had left the Bungalow Burger for the first time since its arrival, several years before.
Directions to the station were easy enough to find on the net, but walking on bipedal legs it would take hours to get there. Fortunately, public transportation was still running, and it was no longer strange to see a humanoid robot using public transportation.
Of course, once it was at the police station, Hummer’s problems weren’t over. Robots weren’t allowed inside the station, unescorted, without identification declaring they were in the employ of the police, and all robots were hard-coded with warnings not to take orders that would have them stealing or copying those identifications.
But Hummer hadn’t been ordered to do so — it was acting on its own, in response to his emotional prerogatives. Hummer hadn’t known the term ‘loophole’ would ever be relevant to its programming, but it was capable of exploiting one when it needed to.
There was a public charging station for robots of all designs only a block away. The statistical probabilities of finding a robot with the necessary identification to allow them entry into the Police station was highest at that charging station.
If Hummer could even comprehend the concept of ‘luck,’ he would think himself lucky to find a lone robot at the charging station bearing an identity transponder that would allow it access into the police station unsupervised. All it took was disconnecting the other robot’s battery and towing it down a nearby alleyway where no-one might stumble across it. Hummer then disconnected the transponder from the police robot and mounting it into its own frame.
And into the police station Hummer went.
Hummer was not doing a good job of ‘blending in’ as he made his way to the evidence lock-up.
“Since when have we had bipedal robots?”
“I’ve never seen that ‘bot before — is he new?”
“Does that ‘bot have a spatula in its holster instead of a service weapon?!”
Hummer could hear these and other questions, but at least no-one was curious enough to follow or investigate it. Evidence lock-up was down several flights of stairs (Hummer was programmed to navigate stairs safely, but had never tested that feature of its bipedal legs until that day), in the basement, near the coroner’s offices and the morgue.
Of course, then Hummer had to figure out where the sample of its burger had been filed. That first involved finding any case files featuring its restaurant (this wasn’t the first time a Bungalow Burger was involved in a crime, locally, but it did appear to be the first time it was involved in a murder), then figuring out how the evidence filing system worked.
Initially, Hummer tried to plug in to the network directly, but the firewalls wouldn’t let him in. However, the in-station computers were set up to bypass those firewalls automatically, and it was easy for Hummer to get onto those computers and give himself access.
After that, it was a quick search, and there it was… locked up. It wasn’t hard to bypass the security on the electronic lock, however, and finally Hummer had its sample.
The contamination probe was quickly inserted and… yep. It could distinguish the poison from the original (now spoiled) meat… and from the stomach juices and other assorted tidbits which contaminated it.
There is was. Absolute proof that it wasn’t Hummer’s cooking that killed the couple. That should allow the satisfaction circuit to kick in, and it could resume its days at the Bungalow Burger without a problem.
“Hey, does someone smell something like wires burning?” a voice called from outside of evidence lock-up.
Fine dining chef persona engages or not, Hummer knew it needed to get out of there, and as quietly as possible. After replacing the evidence and re-sealing the evidence locker well enough to hide the fact that a robot had ever been inside it, Hummer took off, back up the stairs and out of the police station. Its mission was complete.
Heading back to the alleyway where Hummer had left the deactivated police robot, it contemplated the truth of that statement. Yes, logically, the synthetic emotion of pride should be satisfied by having confirmed that the deaths weren’t its fault, and emotional subroutine ‘satisfaction’ should be engaged. It was not engaging, however. Along the way, ‘pride’ brought out another, rarely used emotion into the mix: Curiosity.
The meat had not been contaminated when Hummer cooked it. It was contaminated when the couple ate it… which, given the timeline mentioned by the coroner in the file, had to have been consumed before the couple were last seen in the Bungalow Burger that night. Davis and the Bungalow Burger’s other humans had been away during that period of time, as well. Officer Kaaya had been right — whoever had murdered the young couple had been a customer at Bungalow Burger, as well. But which one?
It would take a real investigation to figure out which customer was the murderer, however, and Kaaya had already marked the file as ‘closed, unsolved.’ Apparently, following through to investigate each of those customers was too much for him.
“Sacré Bleu! If zomeone iz to zolve zis crime, it must be me!”
Which meant Hummer need to learn how to be a detective. Fortunately, there was a certain captive police robot down a certain alleyway which was available to learn methods and techniques of investigation from.
And then it had to hurry back to the public transit system. Hummer’s shift at Bungalow Burger began in little more than an hour.
…And that’s it for this story fragment. No, I am NOT continuing this, at least not any time soon; I’ve already got far too many things to do, first, and I’m not really equipped to write a mystery novel right now… not even one featuring a burger-flipping robot detective. But I will be demonstrating self-editing techniques on it in my next blog post (probably the week after next, as next week looks pretty busy), and then the (edited) fragment will be published in “This Book Cannot Make Any Money.”