FictionScience Fiction

Story Time: The Butler Did It


“So that guy, whose brain was used as the template for nearly every robot servant in the world, was a serial killer,” Mark said, between bites of his club sandwich. “They only found out after he died and his relatives were going through his stuff. Newspaper clippings, photographs, pickled body parts…”

“Um… Trying to eat, here,” Tanya interjected, picking at her mahi mahi salad. “Maybe ease up a bit on the whole ‘body parts’ thing?”

“Right. Sorry.” said Mark.

Janine chimed in with, “But it’s weird, right? Sutcliffe interviewed thousands of candidates. All sorts of tests and shit. And they ended up picking a complete psycho.” She snapped her fingers at a passing waiter. “Hey! Running a bit low on Pinot Noir.”

“Right away, ma’am,” the robot said, hurrying away to fetch another bottle. Our third so far.

“You could be a little more polite, you know,” I pointed out.

Janine waved her hand dismissively. “It’s just a robot. It’s not like you can hurt its feelings. Just a pile of nuts and bolts.”

“…modeled after a psycho killer.” Mark being morbid again.

“So, what, our waiter’s going to murder me because I didn’t say please and thank you?” Janine snorted. Pretty sure Janine had been drinking the majority of the wine.

“Sutcliffe just put out a press release saying there’s no danger. Their robots are inhibited from causing any harm,” Tanya said, flipping though the news stream on her tablet.

“Well, they would say that, wouldn’t they?” Mark said. “What else could they do, slap a label on each model that says ‘Warning: May cause unexpected disembowelment’?”

“Still eating, Mark,” said Tanya.

“Sorry. But, look, they have to spin this. They can’t have people thinking their products are unsafe. I mean, they’re everywhere. The entire staff of this restaurant are Sutcliffes.” Mark waved his arm at the dining area in general, nearly connecting with a waiter, who deftly side-stepped the collision. Mark might’ve had a few glasses of Pinot, too.

The waiter returned with the wine.

I looked up and said, “Thank you.”

“You’re quite welcome, sir,” the waiter replied, then hurried off to tend to another table.

“You don’t have to say thank you to those things, Sean,” Janine said, directing her gaze unsteadily in my general direction. “It’s just a… thing.”

“I know,” I said. “I’m just not comfortable being impolite to something that looks human. I guess I’m worried that I’ll get into the habit, and start treating humans like that too.”

Mark laughed a bit too loudly, causing some of the other diners to side-eye our table. “You are so Canadian.”

“No. I get what Sean’s saying,” said Tanya. “The less human you treat robots, the easier it is to start treating humans as something… less than human. Look at Janine. She already treats everybody like they’re at her beck and call.”

“That’s got nothing to do with robots,” said Mark. “Janine’s just an asshole.”

“Mark…” I began.

“No, it’s true,” interrupted Janine. “I am an asshole. Always have been. But I get away with it because I’m smart and talented. Oh, and seriously hot.”

“Can’t argue with that,” said Tanya, still picking at her salad. I swear, she takes forever to eat.

Mark nodded in agreement. “She’s got you there, Sean.”

I shrugged. “But the point still stands,” I said. “It’s like, treating robots inhumanely makes me feel less human. Or something. I don’t know.”

“Well, you’ve certainly swayed me,” Janine scoffed. “Say, were you on the debate team in college? Because, wow.”

“Oh, look. Tanya’s finally finished eating her salad,” Mark interjected. “Now can we talk about the gory Mister Randolph?”

“Hold on,” said Tanya, pouring a glass of wine. She downed it quickly and braced herself. “OK, go.”

Charles Leonard Randolph was the human template for all of Sutcliffe Robotics’ domestic robots. Up until ten years ago, Sutcliffe had specialized in industrial robots. They had avoided getting into the domestic robot arena, which was probably a good move on their part. There were dozens of manufacturers, hundreds of models, and they all had one thing in common: they were nearly useless.

The A.I. processors in these early domestic robots were plenty powerful. More than enough for handling most household tasks. They just didn’t have any common sense. The general approach to programming was to start with an out-of-the box A.I. template, usually something about the equivalent of a five-year-old in intelligence and world experience. Then they’d take that, bolt it into a humanoid frame and try to teach it to be a butler or maid or waiter, from scratch.

This approach worked fairly well, up to a point. They could handle most routine domestic tasks, the key word here being “routine”. Slight deviations in their routine would throw them off-task, and their behavior would continue to diverge from the norm until a human intervened and set them back on course.

For example, a broken dustpan might cause a robot to sweep a pile of dirt around in circles for hours, while the roast in the oven burned. Or construction on a sidewalk might divert the robot’s path to the point where it was wandering around the HOV lane on the interstate. That actually happened. Seriously. The news footage of the resulting traffic jam was really something to see.

In short, domestic robots were stuck firmly in the “trough of disillusionment” on the technology hype curve. They seemed really cool but, in the long run, were more trouble than they were worth.

While all this was going on, Sutcliffe Robotics was quietly acquiring a startup called Cerebragraph which claimed to be able to record memories into permanent storage. Their goal was to eventually provide brain backups with the hope of eventually restoring to a new body. Technological immortality, of a sort. Sutcliffe had other plans.

Again, very quietly, and using a third-party agency, Sutcliffe started interviewing domestic workers. The agency was purportedly searching for “the perfect butler” to be the subject of a documentary about the latest of a long line of vocations being replaced by technology. The winning candidate was a seventy-year-old man named Charles Randolph, who had been in the service of the Bonneville family – essentially his entire life – taking over his father’s position when he retired. Even though the Bonnevilles’ fortune had dwindled over the years, Charles had stayed on out of loyalty, and at reduced wages, up until his retirement. He was exactly the sort of person Sutcliffe was looking for.

Sutcliffe offered Mr. Randolph a huge sum of money for two things. One: a scan of his brain, and two: his complete discretion. Randolph happily agreed to the terms and, true to his word, kept his mouth shut. The man was good at keeping secrets, after all. He’d had a lifetime of experience.

It was only after his death that everyone found out who Charles Leonard Randolph was, and exactly how good he was at keeping secrets. Over the years, Randolph had killed over forty people. His relatives found a diary, cataloging every murder in meticulous and often explicit detail. He had also kept a souvenir body part of each victim, preserved in mason jars. A finger from one, an ear from another, an eye, a nose, a tongue. There was a distinct five-senses theme.

All of this hit the newsfeeds last night. Social media streams were clogged with news, information, misinformation, speculation, opinion, and (of course) extremely tasteless memes. Sutcliffe Robotics was frantically working on damage control. My friends and I were still trying to process all of this when we met for our regular Sunday brunch.

Mark eagerly went over all the gory details, both verified and rumored. Tanya cringed, expressed disgust, and made a respectable attempt at catching up with Mark and Janine on wine consumption. Janine interjected rude comments and laughed inappropriately.

Me? I’m the “quiet one” of the group. I was also way behind everyone else on the wine. I tried to be the voice of reason, but wasn’t sure reason really applied in a situation like this. We were having brunch while literally surrounded by robots modeled on a serial killer. Does that sound reasonable?

I really didn’t know how to feel. The Sutcliffe Jeeves line was the most popular domestic robot in the world. From the day they were introduced, they completely dominated the market. Everyone had one. Janine, for example, had just traded up to the Jeeves S7. Mark and Tanya both had S6′s. I was still on the old S4 but had been saving up for an S5. Like I said, everyone had one.

I’d been staring off into space for a while, when something Tanya said pulled me out of it.

“It’s just so surreal,” she said. “I mean, imagine waking up one day and finding out your toaster was made from old landmine parts. You’d always be thinking, this time, instead of making a nice piece of toast, maybe it’ll blow your face off.”

“I don’t even know if I have a toaster,” Janine said. “My S7 takes care of all that stuff.”

Tanya grabbed her by the arm and glared at her. “That’s. Exactly. My. Point.” She punctuated each word with a shake of Janine’s arm, causing her head to wobble slightly.

I looked around the restaurant. “We’ve been here a long time,” I said. “Maybe we should get the check. Free up the table?”

The other three looked down, played with their forks or wine glasses. Did everything except look me in the eye.

Right. I always was a bit slow on the uptake. Getting the check meant leaving. Leaving meant going home. Going home meant being alone …nearly alone …alone with a robot.

“Or we could stick around and order another bottle?” I offered.

(©2016 Story reprinted from Dandelion Seeds)

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Steve DeGroof

Steve is an expat Canadian who now lives in North Carolina. He has worked, at one time or other, as: a TV repairman, a security guard at a children's hospital, and a janitor in a strip club. His current day job is as a computer programmer for a bank, which doesn't involve nearly as much being electrocuted and cleaning up vomit. He has a patent for a "Folding Stereoscopic Computer Display", which sounds a lot more impressive than it really is. He has created various "artworks", including: a baby woolly mammoth with a jetpack (which doesn't actually fly), a Giger counter (not a typo), a clockwork orange (a bowler-hat-wearing, wind-up piece of fruit that plays "Singing in the Rain"), a clock in the shape of Rick Astley that chimes "Never Gonna Give You Up" on the hour (for which he is sincerely sorry). His first book, "Dandelion Seeds", was written largely by accident (it's... complicated).

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