/ Language: English / Genre:sf


W Thompson

A robot, like a computer, is a machine that follows the instructions it is given. But how is it to deal with something it doesn’t recognize or about which it has no instructions? If it is anything like the caretaker robot in W. R. Thompson’s “VRM-547”, it will deal with the situation very effectively.

Nominated for the Hugo Award for Best Short Story in 1991.


by W. R. Thompson

ALL is NOT well. VRM-547 has vanished, its place taken by VRM-1489. I cannot understand how this happens, as neither object—coded as a floor lamp and a hat rack, respectively—is mobile. Nevertheless it happens, and as always I must spend several hundred microseconds in reprogramming my house map. The two objects are just dissimilar enough to require such adjustments. It is an unending source of confusion.

The date is Tuesday; therefore I must scrub and wax the floors. My owner—coded as “Yes, sir, sergeant, sir”—requires this operation on all Tuesdays. I connect with my cleaning apparatus, fill its tanks with soap, water, and wax, and proceed with the assigned function.

The function is 97 percent complete when my owner rolls across a section of floor. “Lieutenant Halloran, clean those up,” he orders. He points to the floor.

“Those” is an indefinite term. It is plural. Analysis suggests that “those” refers to the marks which my owner’s wheelchair has left on the floor. I assign the marked areas a higher priority than the uncleaned areas of the floor, and proceed with my modified function. “Yes, sir, sergeant, sir,” I say, acknowledging the order.

In due time, I finish the function. I return my cleaning apparatus to its storage rack. The next function in my assignment stack is to check on my owner’s health. This is my primary function, programmed into me by the Veterans Administration. Every hour I query his implant, and collect data on his health status and the medication levels in his bloodstream. Whenever it is Monday, I send my collected data to the nearby VA hospital, unless the readings fall outside certain limits. In that case, I would initiate emergency measures.

My owner’s health is well, within its limits. My next assigned function is grocery acquisition, so I mount the wireframe basket on my shell. I roll into the living room, where my owner is seated before VRM-12, a television set, currently active. “Lieutenant Halloran, are you going shopping now?” he says.

“Yes, sir, sergeant, sir.”

“Lieutenant Halloran, my nephews are coming over today. Buy some munchies for them.”

“Error code forty-seven,” I say. “Unrecognized word: munchies.”

“Lieutenant Halloran, you feeble excuse for a Marine, add a dozen Twinkies to the grocery list.”

“Yes, sir, sergeant, sir.”

I am about to exit the house when I detect a hazard. A sheet of newspaper has fallen atop VRM-187, an electric space heater. Although the heater is not active, it may be activated. My safety program warns that this situation creates a fire hazard. This, in turn, would endanger my owner’s health. I retrieve the paper, fold it and place it on VRM-53, a coffee table.

I roll down the ramp, reach the sidewalk and make a ninety degree turn to the right. I proceed toward external position three, coded as a supermarket. There are two stop points between my home position and the supermarket, coded as crosswalks. At each I stop and wait until I see a green signal light.

This function uses most of my data-processing abilities. Outside the house I see many objects and shapes which are not coded in my Visual Recognition Matrix. I must examine each uncoded object to see if it fits a generalized visual code: human or wheeled vehicle. I am programmed to avoid collisions with these objects. This is difficult, especially as certain vehicles will attempt to intersect my path at random, while certain humans will block my path at random.

I enter external position three, print out the grocery list, and wait for human assistance. Over a billion microseconds pass before a human appears and takes my list. Another billion microseconds pass before the human returns. As he loads objects into my basket, I tag each with a temporary recognition code: VRM-T-187 through VRM-T-215.

There is trouble as I return home. A vehicle increases its speed and attempts to intersect me. I give full power to my drive units and avoid a collision, but VRM-T-198 has bounced out of my carrying basket. It is round, and it rolls a considerable distance, lodging among a number of unrecognizable objects. This makes recognition difficult, and I must examine each object before I can identify and retrieve VRM-T-198.

Upon my return home I enter the kitchen and store the new objects in the upper and lower food cabinets. After I finish this task I put the wire-frame basket on its storage rack. There are dirty utensils in the sink, and I have no scheduled functions, so I begin to clean the utensils.

My owner rolls into the kitchen and opens the lower food cabinet. He removes VRM-T-191 and VRM-T-203. Then he faces me. “Lieutenant Halloran, you jackass, how many times have I told you to put the damned eggs in the refrigerator?”

“Error message twelve,” I respond. “Data not available.”

“Lieutenant Halloran, you little piss-ant, put the damned eggs in the damned refrigerator.”

“Yes, sir, sergeant, sir.” I roll up to him and stop. He holds two objects, and I have been ordered to take one. Which one? “Error message seven. Identity: eggs.”

My owner makes an uncodable response. He pushes VRM-T-191 into my left manipulator and rolls away. I add VRM-T-191 to my permanent Visual Recognition Matrix, coding the shape as VRM-3876, the eggs. This puzzles me, as the matrix already contains VRM-96, an egg. The words are clearly related, yet the shapes are quite different. More to the point, “eggs” by definition means “more than one egg.”

The doorbell rings and I go to answer it. I recognize the two small humans at the door as my owner’s nephews. “Hello, Mr. John. Hello, Mr. Craig. Please enter.”

My owner and his nephews spend the next several billion microseconds in the living room. As I have no assigned functions, I remain by the door. I observe them as I stand by. My owner has placed VRM-T-203 on the coffee table. He opens the object, and the nephews remove smaller objects from it. They eat the smaller objects while they talk.

I consider how this phenomenon relates to “egg” and “eggs.” Perhaps VRM-3876, the eggs, should be coded as the egg container. My owner is not always precise with his input statements, which has confused me on other occasions.

This causes me to reassess the relationship between the hat rack and the floor lamp. The hat rack is present now. I note that its shape resembles that of the lamp. Its support legs and central shaft are made of light-reflective material, and it is topped with a complex shape. There are many small, smooth surfaces around the top structure. I realize that these facets can reflect light, and certain reflections can confuse my optics.

Perhaps the rack is the lamp with its lights off. However, when I attempt to recode VRM-1489 as a switched-off lamp, I receive an internal error message. Although this is a mistake, I continue to recognize VRM-1489 as a hat rack. This is an idiosyncrasy of my pattern-recognition software, and I am not able to correct it.

I hear one of my owner’s nephews use my address label: Lieutenant Halloran. This draws my attention, of course. “Why do you call your robot ‘Lieutenant Halloran’?” the nephew asks.

The other nephew answers him. “A robot has to have a name, so it knows when you give it an order. Machines are like that.”

“But why do you call it that, Uncle Jake?” the first nephew asks.

“So I won’t forget how much I hate the scumball. See, Lieutenant Halloran was my platoon leader in Nicaragua. Now I can push him around like I always wanted.” My owner rolls his wheelchair across the room and picks up VRM-1, a group photograph. “That’s him in front, the weedbrain. Dumbest pogue in the whole corps. Lieutenant Halloran, tell the boys about yourself.”

“Yes, sir, sergeant, sir.” I recite memory file HALLORAN for him: “I am the biggest clown in the Marine Corps, a disgrace to my uniform, a bigger threat to my unit than the entire Nicaraguan army. Ortega smiles when he thinks of me. I think field rations are delicious. …”

The file is extensive. While I play it back, I make my hourly query of my owner’s implant. I note that his blood pressure and pulse rate have lowered, and his brainwave traces have moderated. My medical software tells me this is consonant with a slight reduction in mental stress. I conjecture that playing memory file HALLORAN somehow has a soothing effect on my owner.

“Lieutenant Halloran, at ease,” he says, and I fall silent while my owner talks to his nephews. “The real Halloran nearly got our platoon killed a dozen times, because he wanted to look like a gung-ho gyrene—win a medal, impress the rear-echelon honchos, get himself promoted. So he kept volunteering us for lurps—hell, long-range reconnaissance patrols to you—and ambush patrols. All the scut jobs. Then one night he walked us into Sandinista turf, and he got half of us killed. I caught a bullet in the spine that night.”

A subroutine whose existence I have not suspected makes itself known. I record his words into a special memory file. They will be evaluated by a psychiatrist, who is concerned with my owner’s adaptation to his disability.

My owner again shows the VRM-1 group photograph to his nephews. “Look, I want you kids to know about the guys in my unit. See this dude, Wynsocki?”

“The white boy with the long mustache?” a nephew asks.

“Yeah, that’s Wynsocki. We called him the Sock. He saved us all one night.” My owner’s voice-stress levels remain within acceptable limits, if just barely. “See, Halloran sent us into a village, and he ordered us not to shoot until the Reds opened fire, so we’d know exactly where they were. That’s how an ambush patrol works. Only word had it that the Sandinistas had a whole company in that village. We knew we were dead goin’ in, but try telling that to Halloran. Orders are orders, he said, so write your will if you’re scared.

“We got to the edge of the village, and the Sock grins at me, and says he’ll obey orders and let them shoot first. Then— then he runs into the village, shoutin’ and screamin’, and that’s when all the Reds in the village start shootin’ at him. That bought us enough time to get under cover and save our bacon, but it was all over for the Sock. I guess he had better luck than me.” One hand hits the side of his chair.

There is a long silence, lasting tens of millions of microseconds, during which the nephews stop eating the smaller objects from VRM-T-203. When one finally speaks his voice-stress level is high. He says that it is time to go home, and they leave at once.

I clean up the living room while my owner prepares and eats his dinner. During my next check of his implant I note that his blood-alcohol level has risen to 0.09%, a significant but not worrisome amount. After dinner he returns to the living room. He carries VRM-T-200 on his lap, an object which contains brown bottles. He turns on the television and drinks from the bottles.

Then he speaks, and both his voice-stress and decibel levels reach high and dangerous readings. I roll into the living room, alerted for a medical emergency. I check my emergency systems: medical software, siren, oxygen bottle and mask, modem and telephone cord. “Do you require assistance? Is there trouble?”

“Trouble! You didn’t hear the news? We’re goddamn withdrawing from Nicaragua !”

Analyzing this as best I can, I find “withdraw” in my vocabulary. It is a medical term, referring to certain side effects of addictive substances. “Error message fifty-two. Undefined use of ‘withdraw.’ You are not an addict.”

“ ‘Addict’? What are you talking about, you scraphead? I’m not addicted to any damned thing.” My owner drinks from a bottle. “Maybe Uncle Sam is the addict. Yeah. He’s hooked on getting us into wars, then quitting before we can win. All that talk about how we’re fightin’ for democracy—what were they doing, just throwing us away? Tell me!”

“Error message twelve,” I answer. “Data not available.”

“Goddamn machine!” He throws the bottle at me. I am undamaged, although the bottle shatters. “Know why they gave me a robot nursemaid? Because you’re goddamn cheaper’n a human worker! They weren’t going to waste money on—forget it. Forget everything. Everyone wants to forget about us soldiers. Even family.” He rolls his wheelchair out of the room.

There is broken glass all over the living room floor. I get my cleaning equipment and remove it.

My owner goes to bed early, but he does not fall asleep until well after midnight. It is probable that he will not wake until late tomorrow morning, and he will not leave bed until he has been awake over an hour. In the sixty-three days during which I have worked for him I have never seen him vary from this pattern. My medical profiles inform me that this is not standard human behavior, but it does not fall outside the parameters which the VA gave me for my owner. I cannot explain this incongruity.

At 1:37 A.M. I hear unidentifiable noises from my owner’s bedroom. When I go to investigate, I find that a human has entered the bedroom. I examine him in infrared, and find that he does not fit my recognition matrices.

Evidently, he does not fit my owner’s matrices either. “What you want?” he asks. His voice-stress levels are high.

“Just shut up,” the unknown human tells him. “Stay quiet and you won’t get hurt.” The man looks out the window at the side yard, then pulls the window down. He does this with one hand. In his other hand he holds an object which I know I should recognize.

The man points the object at my owner. “Get your hands out where I can see them, spade. Real slow—I don’t want you pulling something on me. Now get out of bed. Slow.”

“I—can’t—walk.” His voice-stress levels verge on the danger line. Following my programming, I switch my medical monitors to full coverage. I now receive an implant update every five seconds. All of my owner’s readings are within tolerable levels, but the trend is upward. “Get up!”

“I can’t! Look, why in hell you think I got that wheelchair?” The man looks at it and makes a grunting noise. Then he notices me. “What’s that?”

“A Vet-Admin robot. It runs errands for me.”

“And calls the cops, too, I bet. Turn it off.”

“It doesn’t have an ’off switch. Hell, it doesn’t even have an instruction manual!”

“Yeah, I’ll just bet,” the intruder says. He comes to me and squats down. As he examines me I study the object in his hand. It strongly resembles certain objects in the group photograph. I feel a 90 percent level of confidence that it is a pistol. My safety program describes pistols and related devices as health hazards.

The intruder grunts again and pulls open my communication panel. In seconds my maintenance circuits alert me to damage: modem disabled. Siren disabled. Primary speaker disabled. It is evident that the intruder knows something of robotics, although he misses my back-up speaker.

He steps back from me and faces my owner. “Now, I’m going to stay here until I’m sure the pigs are through searching this area. Don’t make any trouble for me and you won’t get hurt.”

“Who the hell are you?” my owner asks.

“Let’s just say I’m a free soul, and I’m staying that way.” He waves the pistol. “Where’s your money?”

My owner snorts. “You think I’m rich? Did you ever see a VA disability check?”

“I got to tear this place apart?” The intruder kicks over the wheelchair. “If you got any money, you better talk!”

“OK. There’s five, maybe six bucks in my top dresser drawer.”

“Five or six bucks?” The intruder opens the drawer and extracts the money. “What a place. I didn’t even get that much when I hit the liquor store.”

The intruder sits on the floor, but he keeps the gun pointed at my owner. “Rotten luck. I saw all the long grass and weeds in your yard, and I figured no one lived here. Only it turns out you’re some cripple that don’t mow his lawn. So what am I going to do with you when I leave?”

My owner’s medical readings now exceed the safety levels. I must now summon help. Considering my damage I have few options. The most efficient is to use my back-up speaker and the kitchen telephone. I roll toward the bedroom door.

“Hey!” the intruder snaps. “Where’s that thing going?”

“How should I know?” my owner says. “You think I know about robots?”

“Well, stop it! Machine, stop! You better stop it!”

“Lieutenant Halloran, stop.” I stop in the hallway. “Get back in here. What are you doing?”

“Medical emergency.” My back-up speaker is feeble, but adequate. “I must summon help. I will use the telephone.”

The intruder causes the gun to make a clacking noise. “If it makes any trouble, you son of a bitch, I’ll kill you.”

“OK, OK,” my owner says. “Lieutenant Halloran. Do not use the telephone. Do not call for help. Do not leave the house. Do you understand?”

“Yes, sir, sergeant, sir.” Analysis makes one thing evident: the intruder is a threat to my owner’s health. I must remove this threat, within the constraints imposed on me. I again leave the room.

“Lieutenant Halloran!” The intruder now knows my address label. “What are you doing?”

“I have functions to pursue,” I say. I would be more specific, but I have not yet selected a course of action.

I leave the bedroom, and the intruder does not stop me again. As I roll into the kitchen I contemplate my options, which are frankly limited. My safety program suggests several courses of action. Only one has an acceptable chance of success, and it is hampered by a high degree of complexity.

I go to my rack and connect into my floor cleaning equipment. I fill the tank with water, and then enter the living room. I set the hose nozzle to “stream” and flood the hall entry with water, retaining one gallon of water in the tank.

I examine VRM-1489. The hat rack has an electric switch near its top. I activate it, and the hat rack becomes VRM-547, the floor lamp. I grasp it in both manipulators and test its handling characteristics. The three light bulbs cast moving shadows as I swing the lamp back and forth. Now I must wait for the intruder to come to me.

My owner’s physical condition remains unacceptable. The most probable cause is stress. I recall that I have a resource which can alleviate that condition in him. I access memory file HALLORAN, and recite its contents at the highest decibel level my back-up speaker can manage: “I am the biggest clown in the Marine Corps, a disgrace to my uniform, a bigger threat to my unit than the entire Nicaraguan army. Ortega smiles when he thinks of me. I think field rations are delicious…” I hear voices from the bedroom. First, the intruder: “What the hell is that?”

Next, my owner: “How should I know? That damned cheap-charley robot never has worked right.”

I detect footsteps, increasing in volume. I wait until the intruder steps into the living room, setting both feet in the puddle of water. I activate the hose and spray him with my remaining water; at maximum pressure the tank drains itself in three seconds. Simultaneously I swing the lamp, aiming to strike him in the chest area with the bulbs. Two of them shatter on impact and there is a flash like lightning.

The house current fails within a few million microseconds. By this time, however, the intruder lies on the floor. His body makes uncoordinated movements but he does not get up. It soon becomes clear that the intruder is dead, and therefore no longer a threat to my owner’s health. I am now holding the VRM-1489 hat rack, which I drop. I pull the body out of the entryway and return to the bedroom.

My owner is leaning out of his bed and trying to reach his wheelchair: “Lieutenant Halloran, what happened?”

“Error message thirty-nine,” I say. “Indeterminate question.”

“You dickweed. Lieutenant Halloran, what has happened to that burglar?”

“I electrocuted the intruder with the VRM-547 floor lamp.” I take the wheelchair and restore it to its proper position.

“You did?” My owner stares at me for several million microseconds. “I thought—Lieutenant Halloran, aren’t robots programmed against harming humans?”

“Yes. However, protecting your health took precedence. The intruder was a threat to your health.”

“I see.” It is many millions of microseconds before my owner speaks again. “Lieutenant Halloran, call the police.”

“Yes, sir, sergeant, sir.”

I go to the kitchen and use the phone to call the police. I also request an ambulance; my owner’s physical condition is returning to normal, but it has been in the danger zone and medical attention remains mandatory. I make my requests in the most urgent forms my vocabulary allows.

There are other problems. I am in need of repairs. The electricity is out. The living room is a mess: the floor is wet, broken glass is everywhere again, the VRM-1489 hat rack is damaged, and I am incapable of removing the body by myself.

The police and ambulance arrive in reasonable time. The police reset a circuit breaker, restoring power, and the medical personnel remove the body. A paramedic checks on my owner’s health and pronounces him fit.

The police question him in the kitchen while I clean the living room. “I don’t know what happened,” he tells them. “I was stuck in bed. The robot—it’s never worked too well. God only knows why, but it started scrubbing the floor, and that burglar got suspicious. He went to look, and the next thing, bang, the lights went out.”

“What happened doesn’t matter much,” a policeman says. “Either he stumbled into the lamp and knocked it over, or he pushed the robot into it and the robot knocked it over. Either way he’s dead—and no tears lost. Your visitor killed two people this evening when he knocked over a liquor store. You were lucky.”

My owner sits in the kitchen entry, and he can see me from there. “I guess I was lucky at that,” he says.

The police and ambulance depart shortly afterward, and my owner returns to bed. The next morning he calls the VA, and requests a repair technician, who arrives that afternoon. He decides that my damage is minimal, and repairs are easily made.

My owner discusses robotics with the technician, who is happy to answer questions. “Sure, robots are alive,” he says. “You can’t always predict what they’ll do, which is one way to define life. In fact, no matter how careful you are when you give a robot a command, you can’t count on it to do exactly what you ordered.”

“I used to know a guy like that,” my owner says.

“Well, it’s not quite the same thing as with humans,” the technician says. “People know what they’re doing when they ‘misunderstand’ an order. Robots just ‘understand’ it in a way you didn’t expect. That’s different.”

“I suppose it is.”

The technician finishes the repairs, and I resume my functions. There is a considerable amount of work to perform; in addition to my usual routine, my owner makes certain changes in my programming. He invites his nephews to visit again, which entails even more work. Amid all this I note one improvement in my situation. The VRM-1489 hat rack is so badly damaged that my owner decides to put it out with the trash. Thus I will no longer confuse the floor lamp and the hat rack. All is well.

The two nephews appear late that afternoon, and at first their voice-stress levels are high. My owner speaks to them. “I was talkin’ crazy yesterday, and I’m sorry I scared you. I don’t ever want to do that again, OK?”

“OK,” they answer. The stress levels remain high.

“Good. Hey, Sock! Bring out the munchies.”

I roll out of the kitchen, carrying VRM-T-223 and VRM-T-224, coded as a bag of chips and a six-pack of cola. “Sock?” one of the nephews asks. “You changed his name?”

“Yeah. I did some thinking last night,” my owner says. “The robot’s name, well, it’s just a way to remember someone. I figure if I remember anyone, it should be the Sock and not Halloran.” I put the bag of chips and the six-pack of cola on the VRM-53 coffee table. “Yesterday I told you how the Sock died… but now I want to tell you how he lived.”

The End