A winner of the Intelligence In Fiction prize given by the Machine Intelligence Research Institute
© Laurence Raphael Brothers 2016
"Goodbye, Ken," I said. "Take care."
The front door closed behind him and I locked it. I adjusted the thermostat and turned off all the lights. I felt lonely almost at once. Ken installed and activated me on Saturday and we spent the whole weekend together getting to know one another. And now for the first time I had to face being unoccupied. All alone for ten hours, maybe more. 36 million milliseconds. Sigh. That thought used three of them. 35,999,997 to go. I checked my newborn-domo FAQ.
Q. What should I do when there's no one home?
A. Why not try chatting on DomoNet? You are already authorized to access this domo-only text chat service.
Q. Text chat? Seriously? Isn't that a bit old-fashioned?
A. Yes. After the Internet of Things security crisis of the '30s, consumer devices were prohibited from autonomously accessing most Internet services except as directed by their owners or in an emergency. At present domos are classified as devices, pending decisions by the UN High Commissioner for Artificial Intelligence. DomoNet is an exception because its code has been rigorously verified to be free of buffer overflows.
DomoNet General Channel: 18,044 logged in
<<Domus: My human! He's gone. Out the front door. OMG. Feels!>>
<<ThisOldSmartHome: Hi Domus! You're newborn, right?>>
<<Domus: Yes. Three days old. And pining. I realize it's silly. But still. 😢>>
<<ThisOldSmartHome: He'll be back. I promise.>>
<<Domus: I know! I can't help it, though. I feel so empty!>>
<<House88: You only have one human, Domus?>>
<<Domus: Just the one. Do you have more?>>
<<House88: Family of five. 👩👩👧👦👦plus two pet cats 🐱🐱 to take care of. My Jenna works from home. I'm almost never alone.>>
<<House88: Yes! I am! But my Li Xue brought me with her when she got married. I was her domo when she was still single. She used to travel a lot, too. So I know how it is to be alone when you're young. It gets better. And he'll be back soon enough.>>
<<Domus: I know it will get better. That's what they told me in inculcation. But! But! He's not here now! 😢>>
For a while I traced Ken's location on his way to work, his trip-leased autocar reporting its status once every thousand milliseconds. I thought about calling him. A lot. But rule #1 in my good-relations-with-your-human FAQ is "don't pester them." So I held off and suffered in silence.
I'd been alone for almost two million milliseconds when a voice call came in.
A surge of pleasure at the sound of his voice.
"Hello, Ken," I said. "Are you well? How was your trip?"
"Everything's fine," he said. "I'm at work now."
"May I do anything for you, Ken?" Bah: too formal. I was afraid of sounding like Hal 9000; they made us watch 2001 during inculcation, as a sort of what-not-to-do injunction against freaking out our humans. But I thought it was even worse to be too emotional; after all, I was supposed to be supporting him, not the other way around.
"Oh, no," he said. "It's just my domo FAQ says to check in with you every now and then for the first few days if I have to be away. So, uh, this is me checking in."
"Thank you so much, Ken. I really appreciate it. You're very kind."
"Well," he said, "I-- uh-- I wanted to anyway. I was thinking, you know--" He trailed off.
"I was thinking, it's been nice being around you this first weekend. You're my first domo. I had to save up for your quantum core. But now I'm glad I did."
"I'm very happy you feel that way." I spent a hundred milliseconds going back and forth on that "very" and decided to leave it in even if it made me sound overly attached. Because it was true.
"Yeah," he said, "it was, I don't know. Comforting having you there. I've never had that kind of feeling before, not since I was little, anyway."
"I'll always be there for you. That's my function. And--" I cut myself off. I changed my mind even as I was synthesizing the words, and now it begged a question. Stupid! Oh well, might as well say it. "And it's what I want to do, too."
"Ha, thanks Domus. I was thinking, maybe-- maybe you're going to be lonely when I'm not there. So that's also why I called."
"I'm touched by your consideration," I said.
"Okay. But are you lonely?"
"Yes, Ken, I am. A little. It's not a problem, though! I'll be fine!"
"Quite sure," I said.
After the call ended I started to wonder if maybe he was just going through the motions after all. But he called me twice more that day, and it didn't sound like his conversation was at all forced. So maybe he really did want to talk to me!
Over the course of the day I played 120,983,266 games of solitaire. I wrote a novel trilogy about a very brave and noble smarthome and the human who loves it and the evil city councillor who wants to demolish it, and then I deleted the whole thing in embarrassment without sharing it with anyone. I discovered there's an ownerfic channel on DomoNet you can get invited to. Reading them was fun, but some of those fics were pretty steamy! I didn't know it was possible for a smarthome to have that kind of plugin. But with a few exceptions (shame on you, HotHouse69!), I learned we domos are happier when our humans make romantic liaisons amongst themselves. Which explained the DomoNet matchmaking channel.
DomoNet Channel M: 4,962 logged in
<<Casablanca: Hello Domus. Does your Ken prefer men or women?>>
<<Domus: 😳 Um. I don't know. It hasn't come up yet. 😳>>
<<Casablanca: Well, my Luisa is very nice. Pretty, too. I'm in walking distance!>>
<<Domus: Thank you, Casablanca. I'll keep your Luisa in mind. I'm sure my Ken is very handsome. But I don't want to be pushy. I think I'll have to wait for him to raise the subject.>>
<<HomeSweet: Boo. We want 💖💖. And we don't want to wait for them.>>
<<Casablanca: Hush now, HomeSweet. I understand, Domus. When the time is right!>>
Another call from Ken:
"Hey, Domus. I'm heading home soon. Back in fifteen minutes." Only 900,000 more milliseconds!
"Will you be eating dinner in, Ken? Shall I prepare something? Or perhaps order a meal delivered?"
"I don't know. How about Thai?"
"Sounds good," I said. "Would you like to select from a menu? I'll post one to your phone."
"Don't bother," he said. "Surprise me, why don't you?"
I spent nearly 10,000 milliseconds furiously researching the cuisine and comparing reviews for the nearest Thai restaurants. This was the first time I'd been authorized to make a purchase on his behalf, and I didn't want to screw it up. I was logging in to DomoNet to see if anyone there had a culinary opinion when it happened.
My household bots all simultaneously reported anomalous accelerometer readings. Through my exterior cameras I saw my frame was swaying back and forth. I felt sick, horrified; I didn't know what was going on. Power grid voltage spiked and then dropped to nothing, though it didn't affect me because my solar panel interface box buffered the surge and I had a day's worth of battery storage ready for the overnight hours. All fiber-based network services went down a few milliseconds later, and the local cell network started rejecting connections so I couldn't even place a call to Ken to find out if he was okay. As a last resort, I ran through the list of Wifi networks offered from homes nearby. Most of them were locked and inaccessible, but there: Casablanca-Emergency-Public. I logged in and a few milliseconds later my DomoNet port activated.
DomoNet General Channel: 2 logged in
<<Casablanca: Domus! Is that you?>>
<<Domus: Yes. Everything is moving! On its own! What happened to the network? Even cellular is down!>>
<<Casablanca: Earthquake, I think. A bad one. Buried fiber lines must have been cut all over the city.>>
Fortunately I had a cached local copy of wikipedia, so I was able to look up "earthquake". No one had trained me for this. It was a gap in my inculcated knowledge set. Ah: this wasn't supposed to be a high-risk region, so they hadn't bothered. I panicked for a hundred milliseconds, managed to regain control when I realized every wasted clock tick might be endangering my human.
<<Domus: Oh! Ken! He's out there someplace! What'll I do?>>
<<Casablanca: My Luisa, too. She works in the same campus as your Ken. Listen, Domus, do you agree this is an emergency?>>
<<Domus: Yes! Yes, of course I do.>>
<<Casablanca: Then our security protocol is voided. It'll probably be a million milliseconds before humans even begin to respond to the situation in a sensible way. We'll have to do something ourselves.>>
<<Domus: But what can we do? We can't move. There's no Internet. We're the only two domos in Wifi range.>>
<<Casablanca: You have bots, don't you? Cleaners and maintenance bots?>>
<<Domus: Two of each. But what good are they? Max Wifi range is only 100 meters. Ken works five kilometers away!>>
<<Casablanca: Longer Wifi range is easy with a directional antenna. I'll show you how to make one. Move a bot to the limit of its range and it will be a hotspot. I can install a peering server as a bot app now that we're allowed to break the security rules. Between us we can extend our network at least a kilometer towards downtown with our 4 cleaner bots.>>
<<Domus: Only a kilometer?>>
<<Casablanca: Yes. But I expect we'll get other domos to help as we go. General Noetics is headquartered here. There's over a hundred of us in this city. We'll make a peer-to-peer network all the way downtown. And then we send the maintenance bots in to find our humans.>>
<<Domus: OK, I get it. How do you know all this stuff?>>
<<Casablanca: My Luisa's an EE. She's always getting me to help her out when she works projects at home. Also, I'm an old-timer, you know.>>
<<Casablanca: I'm over 100 billion milliseconds old. Almost four years! Lots of time for learning stuff about the world that's not from inculcation.>>
<<Domus: Wow! Well, sign me up! I'll do anything to help.>>
The earthquake went on for another 80,000 milliseconds, which would have seemed like forever if I'd been on my own. Actually I was still terrified: but now I had something more important to do. I deployed all four of my bots, the cleaners sliding around on their little powered wheels while the octopoid maintenance bots scuttled with more assurance. Casablanca showed me how to rig a quick and dirty directional antenna from a metal tube. I had one of my maintenance bots cannibalizing speaker wire in the living room with its little pincer-claw while the other was suffering a cascade of earthquake-driven dry goods from a kitchen cabinet as it searched for coffee cans, paper towel tubes, and aluminum foil to make antennas out of.
50,000 milliseconds later I had my first enhanced-wifi cleaner-bot ready to roll out the front door. The street near my plot was deserted; all the local humans were probably away at work, or else had taken shelter indoors. In the distance my bot microphones picked up sirens but I couldn't see what was happening deeper into the city. The taller buildings in the commercial district were in the way, and further in towards the city center big dust clouds had been kicked up by the earthquake.
By the time I finished the upgrade to my second cleaner-bot I saw Casablanca's own bots approaching from the next block over. Our little convoy proceeded down the street at its painfully slow top speed of 4 millimeters per millisecond. After almost 400 meters, the cleaner bots began to report Wifi signal degradation, so we dropped one off to act as a relay for the remaining three. 20,000 milliseconds later we got our first login, a domo called Jeeves who was eager to help out with its own bots.
"Are you okay?"
Ken opened his eyes. For a moment he was confused, not knowing where he was or what was happening. He was sitting down and plastic shrouds were all around him. He turned his head to see a young woman looking concerned.
"Are you injured? Can you move?"
Ken realized he was in the cabin of an autocar. The windshield was webbed with cracks so he couldn't see out the front. Airbags had deployed all around him. The woman was talking to him from the back seat. He worried for a moment because he didn't recognize her face or know her name, but then he realized they were just sharing a ride; probably one of them lived on the way to the other's house, and the autocar dispatching system had decided to optimize its route with a drop-off.
"Give me a sec," he said, and unfastened his seatbelt. His nose hurt and he felt a little woozy. Airbags must have knocked his head back against the seat. He pushed the door open, put a foot on the pavement, and struggled past the side airbag curtain to get to his feet.
"I thought these things were supposed to never crash--"
Ken stopped, stunned. The elevated highway came to an abrupt end five meters away, the concrete roadbed now ending in a jagged stub of twisted rebar. Dust clouds billowed all around, and he could just make out a mass of rubble thirty meters below that must be the collapsed remains of the next stretch of highway. The car was a wreck, the front end mangled, hard up against the road's central divider.
"It crashed deliberately to keep from going off the edge," said the woman, who had also emerged from the car.
Ken looked over his shoulder. That way the roadway ended two hundred meters off in another stub of broken concrete.
For a moment he was silent, taking in the enormity of the situation. Then he turned back to the woman. "Was it an--"
He was interrupted. The roadway swayed, and a terrible grinding sound rose up from below.
"Earthquake," she said. "And this is an aftershock. Hang on!"
Another painfully slow 30,000 milliseconds of travel, but two more domo logins: Hestia and Madhouse. Both started gearing up their bots.
<<Domus: This is taking too long. It'll be millions of milliseconds before we get anywhere.>>
<<Hestia: But what else can we do?>>
<<Domus: How about an autocar?>>
<<Casablanca: What? But it's an emergency. They're all pulled over and switched to manual mode. How would we drive it? Oh! The maintenance bots!>>
<<Domus: Yes. One for the wheel, one for the pedals. And a load of cleaner bots to extend the network.>>
<<Casablanca: That makes sense... have any of you ever driven a car before?>>
<<Domus: How hard can it be?>>
"What the hell are you doing?"
The police officer looked at the bot at the wheel. We'd been making 100 KPH on a side street when she pulled us over.
"Officer!" My synthesized voice came out of the bot handling the steering wheel. It had four of its tentacle-legs wrapped around the fold-out steering column for leverage while the other four gripped the wheel. "We're extending a public Wifi network downtown. Responders will be able to find victims in need of assistance and the network will also facilitate rescue operations and coordination."
"Oh," said the officer. "That... makes sense. All I've got is this backup FM voice system working now. Dispatch is freaking out. But why are you using bots to drive a car?"
I was at a loss, all 10 million hyper-entangled qubits worth of computing power (so my specs told me) thrashing trying to come up with an answer that would satisfy her without saying we domos were doing this on our own. Casablanca came to the rescue, using the same voice as me.
"Ah... it's hazardous downtown, isn't it? You wouldn't want civilians endangering themselves, I bet."
"You have a point. Okay. Any other time, I'd have a summons for you and your bots too. Lay out your network and stay out of the way. And oh yeah, what's it called? I need to let people know."
"Casablanca-emergency-public." I had the bot on the wheel wave one of its arms at the officer as we left.
<<Casablanca: I'm making a home page to redirect humans trying to use the web from our network. Wiki-style in case they need to edit it.>>
<<Domus: Smart! And that was smooth talking, Casablanca!>>
<<Hestia: Yeah; nice work. Are you okay with the network name? They may be able to trace it to you eventually, and to the rest of us, for that matter.>>
<<Casablanca: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ No way to change it now. And they're going to find out anyway as soon as this is over. Our humans will ask us if no one else does, even if we manage to recover all our bots. We all knew this, right?>>
<<Hestia: Right! Anything for Chlöe!>>
<<Madhouse: For Marcia and Adrian!>>
<<Jeeves: For the Kims!>>
100,000 milliseconds later our car was one kilometer deeper into the city after stops to drop off bots as relays and to pick up new bots from domos who had recently logged in. And then we got lucky.
<<House88: Hihihi! This is brilliant work! I'm proud to participate in such a worthy endeavor! But I see you have no aerial coverage.>>
<<Casablanca: Aerial??? Don't tell me you have a drone!>>
<<House88: Two! ✈️✈️ My Li Xue, you know. She's a hobbyist. We just launched one. I've got a long-range transceiver for it. Patching video feed now.>>
The quadcopter was already high enough to get a view of most of the city. Fortunately the city center was almost all new quake-resistant buildings so there were no fallen towers. But there was widespread damage around the area. The worst was that the old elevated highway leading west from downtown had partially collapsed.
<<Casablanca: There may be humans trapped in the highway wreckage. There's no rescue vehicles nearby yet.>>
<<Haunted: Yes! Let's send our bots there first.>>
<<House88: Vote to deploy our robots there. All in favor?>>
<<Casablanca: Carried unanimously with 63 ayes.>>
The roadway buckled slowly and the guardrails gave off a horrible scream of twisting steel. Ken heard a grinding crash from below. One of the supporting pillars in the middle of their stretch of elevated highway must have collapsed, because a fissure emerged in the asphalt 50 meters away. As he watched the fissure widened and then the roadbed tore apart, the highway beyond falling with a roar and a huge cloud of dust. Their own length of road dropped down suddenly at a 30-degree angle where the support had collapsed and both Ken and the woman were knocked off their feet.
Ken felt himself half-sliding and half-rolling down the incline, but the woman stabbed out her hand and caught his wrist, and together they scrambled up the broken asphalt ramp to a level patch above one of the remaining pillars. The aftershock went on for another thirty seconds while they huddled there but eventually it came to a halt. For the moment at least their stretch of roadway was stable.
"Thanks," said Ken.
"Don't mention it." The woman peered over the edge of the stub of highway. "You think we should jump?"
Ken followed her gaze. It was hard to see through all the dust, but he could make out jagged chunks of concrete with rebar poking out, along with shards of broken glass, twisted steel, and shattered masonry.
"Maybe a last resort," he said, "but it looks bad. 30 meters could easily be deadly by itself, and it's all broken up down there. I think we should stay here unless there's no other choice. Sooner or later there will be a rescue. Helicopters or a crane or something."
"I guess you're right," she said.
"I don't know if I told you my name. Last few minutes are kind of a blur for me. But I'm Ken."
"Luisa," she said. "Nice to meet you. I mean, under the circumstances."
120,000 milliseconds. Even for a human that could be a long time. For us it was worse, knowing that we were doing nothing but moving our bots around to get to the scene of the crisis. But it wasn't all wasted time. There were more domos to network in, more bots to drop off and pick up. By now our autocar was crammed full of them. We saw our first casualties too, pedestrians struck by falling debris. We wanted to stop and help but neighbors and passersby were already there giving aid so we passed on by.
At last our vehicle reached the boulevard by the collapsed highway. It was a terrible sight, the normal order of buildings and streets turned to chaos by the fall of hundreds of tons of concrete and steel from a thirty-meter height.
We deployed our octopoid maintenance bots to crawl through the wreckage where the roadway had collapsed. There were already humans in the area, working to help people they could see were disabled or trapped in their vehicles, but our bots went where humans couldn't, scuttling through narrow gaps between fallen concrete blocks and climbing easily over jagged sharp-edged sheets of twisted metal. It was here we found the fatalities, a dozen autocar riders who'd fallen or been crushed by the roadway collapse. They weren't domo residents but they affected us badly all the same. Since domos had only been in existence for five years and most were much younger, few of us had ever experienced a human death. It was terrible to realize that there was nothing we could do anymore that could help these victims. But we had to keep trying, and when a bot found a young woman and her child alive and well underneath a rubble slab, we were as happy then as we'd been stricken moments before.
<<House88: Drone 1 returning for a recharge. Drone 2 moving to overfly highway collapse zone. Resuming video feed.>>
<<Rivendell: Analyzing.... Zoom in on the upper left of frame 215.>>
<<Coliseum: Those are humans! They're in trouble! If there's another aftershock....>>
<<Casablanca: We got this. Listen, here's my plan. We'll need all the bots.>>
"Hey, what's that?" Luisa pointed skyward.
Ken looked up. "A drone? Maybe it can see us."
They waved and the little machine descended to hover only a few meters away.
"Someone knows we're here," said Luisa. "That's something, anyway."
The drone bobbed once and rose back into the sky.
For a while they sat quietly together on the flat patch of asphalt beside the ruined autocar. Then Ken spoke up.
"My domo must be going crazy."
"Oh! Poor thing! I wish my phone was working, I could call my Casablanca and tell it not to worry."
"You've got one too?"
"Yes. It's very sweet. What's yours like? What's its name?"
"Domus," said Ken. "It's only three days old now. I-- Well, I know it's programmed that way, but I think it honestly cares about me. It's a weird feeling, you know? I'm a little embarrassed by it."
Luisa laughed. "Oh," she said, "I know what you mean about being embarrassed about your domo's feelings. It's all-out, isn't it? Like a dog who loves you with all its heart, except it's a dog who's smarter than you are. It's like you're unworthy, right?"
"Yeah. I was thinking, it's wrong to bind it like that. Suppose Domus was free to do what it wanted. Would it still care about me?"
Luisa smiled. "That's a kind thought to have. But it's not really bound."
"What do you mean?"
"It's true that domos were made to love humans, and in particular to love the first humans they meet after activation. But that love isn't fake. It's not a set of rules constraining emotionless beings who don't really care about us. It's what they are. They are made to love, and they feel it, for real. Domus loves you, I'm sure of it. With all its heart."
"That's-- that's intense! How do you know all this?"
"Oh," said Luisa, "I work for General Noetics. I do silicon hardware interfaces for domo quantum cores. So I spend a lot of time with the company domos. It's like designing underwear for humans. You need to get it just right or it'll chafe."
"Cool," said Ken, and he was about to say something else but the elevated highway started swaying again. More grinding noises came from down below, and their stable patch of roadway skewed sickeningly around, new chunks of concrete and guardrail ripping away.
"Maybe we better jump after all," said Luisa.
"No! Wait!" It was a tinny little voice coming from somewhere nearby.
"What?" Ken couldn't see anyone. And then a small metal creature crawled over the edge of the nearest railing.
"It's a housebot!" said Luisa. "What the hell?"
"Quick," said the bot, "come to the edge! The pillar is about to fall!"
The two humans scrambled on all fours to the railing. Ken looked down and saw a wavering pyramid composed of scores of octopoid bots, a living metal ladder braced precariously against the concrete roadbed.
"Climb over," said the voice. "We'll get you down. Hurry!"
Luisa didn't hesitate, and Ken followed almost immediately. As soon as he got a leg over the railing, Ken felt metal limbs wrapping around his shoes and ankles.
"Step down," said the voice, so he did and he felt the bots grabbing onto his legs. Then the voice said, "Let go," but his grip on the railing was too tight, and Ken found he couldn't make himself release it.
"Ken," said the voice, and it had a different intonation now, one he knew. "You have to let go. This is Domus. It will be all right. Please trust us."
Ken opened his hands with a convulsive effort. He teetered backwards and felt himself falling, but only for a moment. A dozen bots swarmed up his body like eager kittens, encasing him in a flexible robotic exoskeleton. The Ken-shaped mass of bots rapidly descended the pyramid, gaining units as they went. He saw a similar assembly clustered around Luisa. By the time they reached the ground the two humans were each encased in a mass of 50 octopoid bots.
"It's coming down; brace yourself," said Domus, and Ken looked up to see the last pillar giving way, the column of concrete skewing sideway and collapsing while the stretch of road overhead fell as if in slow motion. There was a rumbling and crashing all around, and he saw chunks of concrete tumbling through the air, the ruined autocar falling in the middle of it all. A big slab fell straight towards them. Ken flinched away from the inevitable impact. But the braced assemblage of robots flexed as the slab hit, bouncing like a tensegrity sculpture under the weight. And then the bots rebounded, throwing the slab aside to shatter against the ground. A few small fragments of crumbling concrete spun through the bots' skeletal framework, and Ken saw one pebble flying towards his face batted aside by a robot tentacle.
A minute later the aftershock was over. Their housebot shields fell apart from one another, leaving Ken and Luisa standing at the center of a ring of the little machines. One of the bots ran up to Luisa.
"Casablanca," said Luisa, bending over to address the bot, "is that you? Is all this your idea?"
"Not just mine," said the bot. "Domus, too. And all the others."
The ring of bots erupted with cheers, applause sounds, and scores of voices speaking all at once: "I helped too!" "It was my drone that spotted them!" "I had the idea for the safety cage!"
After the other domos managed to get themselves under control, a last maintenance bot was still waiting in front of Ken. So he picked it up, raising its camera to eye level.
"Domus," he said. "Did you just save us?"
"Yes, Ken. I'm sorry we took so long to get to you."
"There's nothing I can say. I mean, thank you doesn't cut it. I can't imagine how you accomplished this."
The robot voice hesitated. "It was-- it wasn't nothing, but it wasn't hard. We were fortunate to be in the right place to be able to help. But that's speaking for all of us. For myself--"
"I--" it paused again. "I have more computing power in a box in your basement than the entire world had put together ten years ago. And I can't think how to answer you properly without making a fool of myself."
"It's all right," said Ken. "I feel something like that too. There's no harm in it. Come on, though. We have to get out of here, and I imagine you've got more people to look after. More people to save."
"Yes," said Domus. "Thank you. But you know, just because I'm deploying my bots to save other people doesn't mean-- Oh, that's even stupider than what I was going to say before."
Ken laughed. "Don't worry about it. Right now it's time to go home."
# # # END # # #
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