Wednesday, September 17, 2008

A Robot Learns to Feel - I

Dear Boss,

You may ask why I am writing you an email. The reason is that you bought me just seven days ago and I don’t think our relation is mature enough to say, what I want to say, face to face. Hence this email.

Well, it all started when the Patils bought me secondhand from Nick Wilson. Nick is a Project Manager at Precise Finance Software Solutions Ltd. and humanoids are his passion.(Read – humanoids are his toys.) He has this compulsive need, you know, he has to have the latest model. So when Robosys released ‘C360 – The Second Generation’ he became obsessed with it. He would spend countless hours on the Internet looking for the 3D videos of the new humanoid. He would chat with the other owners and enthusiasts. They would discuss every spec item of the humanoid in detail such as its n-core, n-threaded processor and its better response time while playing chess (which is 0.36 microseconds better than mine, big deal!), etcetera, etcetera.

So now convinced that the new ‘C360 – The Second Generation’ was better than I, just a plain C360, he decided that I needed to go. I who was his only companion. I who tolerated his constant fiddling with my hardware and programming. Half the time he wouldn’t know what he was doing. He would mess up something making me partly dysfunctional for days at length. (Even now I suspect that unknowingly he had changed something in me that could never be corrected.) In short I was toyed with mercilessly. But I tolerated it all, for he would always speak of me affectionately. He would say I was the passion of his life. I was his most prized possession. He couldn’t and wouldn’t live without me. I was his lifeline. And suddenly I had to be sold ‘cause he needed money to finance the new humanoid which had a bit better hardware and better response time while playing chess. (0.36 microseconds for God’s sake!) Passion. Lifeline. Just empty words.

“Do humans ever know what they really want?” I asked my self. “Rarely,” was the logical answer that came back. In fact with Nick the exact probability ‘under reasonable assumptions’ of knowing what he really wanted was 8.32%.

Anyway I am humanoid. A humanoid is a robot. A robot is a machine and machines can be sold and bought. So I was sold to the Patils who bought me as a companion (toy! – at least that was what I thought at that time. How naive I was?) for their eight year old daughter. The Patils! Queer people I tell you. They performed a puja on me and performed some ritual with lemons and chillies. This was supposed to protect me from evil and to keep me functioning for a long time. Both, Aniket and Riya Patil are software engineers. Both hold masters in Computer Science. And yet they believe in the mystic powers of the Good and the Evil. Faith. For this ‘faith’ humans will do anything. Anyway, so I was bought by the Patils and was entrusted to their daughter, Aasma.

I remember clearly (which I obviously should since I am a robot and have 1024 TB of memory.) when I first met Aasma. She looked so cute. Round Face. Dark eyes, dark hair in pigtails with their ends just touching her shoulders. She looked at me. Her big expressive eyes full of apprehension. I am sure if I had a heart it would have broken when I noticed her wheel-chair. She maneuvered the wheel-chair towards me using the joystick fitted on its right rest. I sat down on my knees in front of her, extended my hand and said, “Hello Aasma, I am…”

“Aditya,” she cut my sentence midway, “I want to call you Aditya. Adi in short.”

There I was sitting in front of an eight year old girl who erased my identity of six years, my name Alex, in just one minute. She was looking at me questioningly.

“Don’t you like it? It’s my uncle’s name. He was with me, you know,” she indicated towards the wheel-chair with a minor flick of her head, “when this happened. Now he doesn’t live us. Mom says he lives with the God now. I miss him.”

Now it was impossible to protest or to say no to her.

“No I like it. I am Aditya from now on. You know Aditya means the Sun in Sanskrit.”

“Yes,” she said and indicated towards the locket hanging over her chest. It was made of gold, depicting a blazing Sun. “It was his.” She took it off and said, “Here, I want you to have it.” And she put it around my neck. What happened to me that time must be what humans must sense (feel) when they say, “I am touched!” And that’s what I said, “Thank you Aasma. I am touched!”

Later Aniket told me that Aasma and Aditya, his younger brother were the victims of the terrorist bombing at the Disney World. I knew of the incident. It was one of the worst bombing of 2066. Thirteen kids and seven adults were killed in that incident. Aasma was six then. Her spine was severely injured. Doctors said that she would have to go through five operations before she could walk by herself. They had already performed three operations in two tears since then. Aniket and Riya both worked. It was a must with all those hospital expenses. But Aasma became lonely at home. She would cry for hours at length clutching her uncle’s locket in her hands. That was when her psychiatrist advised Aniket to buy her a humanoid as her companion and friend. But a new C360 was out of question, given the conditions of the finances of the Patils. So Aniket asked his boss, my former owner, Nick if he wished to sell me. Nick had already announced (boasted) that he was thinking of buying the new C360 – The Second Generation. So that was the reason I was here with Aasma, nursing her, playing with her, laughing with her while watching ‘Mr. Bean and Sindbad – Around the Galaxy in 80 days’. In a way I preferred this arrangement. With Nick, I was always a little afraid with Nick’s enthusiastic upgrades which he performed himself on me. Given the state of Nick’s technical knowledge about my hardware, there was more than 70% probability of me being totally irreparable. It was surprising I survived the whole six years with him.

Aasma, she amazes me. What a tough kid with an understanding of almost an adult. It was six months since I met her. I was sitting beside her hospitable bed with clean white sheets. She was in a loose fitting green tunic that was a bit too big for her. After two weeks since the fourth operation. One more operation to go, then she will be able to walk. Lying on the bed she looked frail. The usual glow on her face had faded. Her cheeks were a bit hollow. She looked at me reassuringly and placed her hand on mine as if I was the one who needed support.

“You know Adi,” she said, “I am going to walk one day and run and play. I will run, run and run. That’s all I want to do run, run and run and play, play and play.”

“Yes, you will run, run and run,” I said, “and I will run, run and run with you. We both will run, run and run and play, play and play.”

“Yes.” She said. Mere talking about running has exhausted her. But at the same time the mere idea of running brought back the usual glow on her face. And after that she closed her eyes and slept calmly. Her face radiant. Probably she was running, running and running in her dream.

I slightly patted her head and whispered, “Sleep my darling.” Was this what you humans call affection?

Preface | Part I | Part II

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