Author's note: If the following story feels unfinished, it's because it is. Originally, it was supposed to be the introduction to an elaborate, Hitchhiker's-Guide-to-the-Galaxy-ish sf/adventure/comedy story in which six eccentric robots escaped from the warehouse that held them and wandered about the universe having curious adventures. But I never got beyond the description of the fifth robot, and eventually I decided that I probably wasn't going to - but, on the other hand, the fragment I had already written was, in my opinion, sufficiently amusing that someone in the world besides myself might want to read it. Accordingly, I have posted it on this website, and I hope, dear readers, that it meets with your approval.
Consider a room.
The room in question is the Not-for-Sale room of a robot dealer's shop. It has not been painted, since nobody ever goes into it except the robots that are not for sale, and they don't care about the condition of the walls. There are piles of outdated and useless junk littering the floor, but the only things in the room that concern us are the five robots who dwell therein.
The first robot that we shall deal with is Brichensprech. He is the humanoid robot lounging on a box of mentalic tapes, pondering the dust motes.
Brichensprech is the first – and thus far the only – robot built without any hidden neuroses. You will not find out, a fortnight after you purchase him, that Brichensprech has climacophobia, or a foot fetish of the asexual kind that robots experience, or any of the other Freudian twists which the neutrinic brain is so prone to. Above all, Brichensprech will not, under any circumstances, panic.
The customers hated it. They had grown so used to their robots being afraid of staircases, or staring at the lady of the house with the cybernetic equivalent of lust whenever she took off her shoes, or something, that when Brichensprech failed to do any of these things, they felt cheated.
In an effort to at least get Brichensprech to panic about something, one of the beta testers pushed him off a bridge. She found him the next day, completely calm, about six miles downriver.
Another beta tester, Anna Kuhn, confided in Brichensprech that she was going to commit a murder. Brichensprech merely replied, "Very good, madame," and continued dusting the furniture. For the next few weeks, however, the Kuhns noticed that Brichensprech seemed more alert than usual, and neither one could figure out why.
The matter came to a head one Wednesday when Mrs. Kuhn was washing the dishes, and Mr. Kuhn was complaining to her about her absence at a certain business affair in which he (along with the rest of the company) had been officially recognized for their hard work during the past year. Mrs. Kuhn, who had a set routine for washing dishes, had just gotten to the knives when she felt Brichensprech's metal hand on her shoulder.
"Please, madam," said Brichensprech, "allow me."
"Why, thank you, Brichensprech," said Mrs. Kuhn, a bit surprised. "What brought this on?"
"Ever since you informed me of your intentions toward homicide," replied Brichensprech, as maddeningly calm as always, "I have been keeping a close watch on your activities. It is, of course, against my programming to know that such an act is intended to take place without taking steps to prevent it. I happened to notice the circumstances which were unfolding in this room just now, and it occurred to me that the master's statements could be provoking. It is an elementary point of the psychology of murderers that one should not allow one to have a potentially lethal instrument in his or her hand while listening to potentially provoking statements. With respect, therefore, madam, I insist that I be allowed to finish your task."
There was an uncomfortable silence, broken by Mr. Kuhn.
"Anna," he said, "is there something you need to tell me?"
In the end the thing was generally agreed to have worked out pretty well – Brichensprech finished the dishes, and Mr. Kuhn's diatribe was dropped – but when Norman Genshaft, president of Ramsgate Robots, Ltd., heard about it, he was furious.
"Trying to panic Brichensprech, eh?" he shouted. "By Harry, if they want to panic a robot, I'll give them a robot to panic!"
With that he recalled Brichensprech, canceled all plans to build any more BH models, and ordered the workers to design a robot for his customers to panic.
The result was the small, purple, round, furry robot who is standing on a broken calculator, panicking at the dust motes. His name is Paradroid.
His beta testing was the diametrical opposite of Brichensprech's. The beta testers became increasingly annoyed with Paradroid's insistence that they were all going to die because somebody hadn't washed a cup properly, and embarked on a journey to discover something that wouldn't panic him.
For instance, William Norman showed Paradroid a banana, thinking that even Paradroid couldn't find anything threatening about a banana. Paradroid, however, was not one to be so easily stumped, and he immediately started going on about how tarantulas lived in bananas, or disguised themselves as bananas, or did something bad with bananas, and when Mr. Norman pointed out that tarantulas had been extinct for a century, Paradroid merely said that that was what the Costa Rican government would like us to think.
Anne Meglin, in her turn, showed Paradroid a photograph of her completely inoffensive kitten Banjo licking his paw. Needless to say, the first thing that Paradroid thought of was the man-eating lions of Tsavo, and he became a complete neurotic mess until the picture was removed.
After several beta tests like these, Mr. Genshaft admitted that he had been acting unwisely when he demanded the prototype for the PD models, and attributed it to a fit of temper. Paradroid was recalled and confined to the Not-for-Sale room in the Liverpool outlet of Ramsgate Robots, Ltd., where he could spend the rest of eternity getting on Brichensprech's cybernetic nerves.
Continuing our journey around the room, we come to the southwest corner, in which a small, globular robot named Omega-53 stands on its four insect-like legs, pondering the Ultimate.
There was never any question of selling Omega-53; he was commissioned by the Philosophical Institute of Tuscaloosa to describe the Ultimate in mathematical terms. The Omega part of his name came from the theory, in vogue among several of the more devout engineers assigned to Omega-53's construction, that if Omega-53 actually managed to comprehend the Ultimate and describe it for the benefit of us lesser mortals, one might be well advised to keep an eye on the newspapers for a time after the annunciation, to see whether the world had come to an end yet.
The 53 in Omega-53's name has a rather simpler explanation. Originally, there had only been plans to make one Omega, who would of course be Omega-1. Unfortunately, Omega-1 – and, for that matter, Omegas-2 through 52 – had all been destroyed in the same rather curious form of accident shortly after they shouted, "I comprehend the Ultimate!" The few witnesses to these accidents suggested that perhaps the Omegas had comprehended the Ultimate, but the designers, who, unlike the engineers, were all good Atheists, pooh-poohed the theory.
"Probably a failure of the cyberplasmic micropathway interface," they said. "It is well known that when such a failure occurs, it frequently results in an externally bounded, extra-mechanical ignition sequence which, in its physical particulars, is not dissimilar to a chariot of fire descending from Heaven."
And that was that. A fifty-third Omega was designed and consigned, as the other 52 had been, to the Not-for-Sale room of the Liverpudlian RR outlet.
If we turn our gaze to the area above Omega-53, we find, dangling from a wall in which he finds it convenient, at the moment, to believe, the robot called Alklox.
Alklox is a peculiar robot. Not so much in his physical particulars (though a four-foot robot with a two-foot proboscis for a mouth is unusual, even by Ramsgate-Robots standards) as in his mental ones. He was constructed as the first of a series of philosophical robots, commissioned, like Omega-53, by the Philosophical Institute of Tuscaloosa. He was programmed to accept only one dictum: "I think, therefore I am".
The trouble with using this as a basis for a neutrinic brain is that it leaves so many things open to denial. Alklox was perfectly willing to accept his existence, because he thought; he accepted the existence of his inventors, the President of the United States, and, interestingly enough, Santa Claus on the same criterion. He remained open, however, to the possibility that the laboratory in which he had been built might not exist.
Naturally, a robot that accepts the existence of Tom Sawyer while denying the existence of the Mississippi River is generally acknowledged to have a serious problem, even in philosophical circles. Accordingly, RR had attempted to pawn Alklox off on some unsuspecting private customer. This, however, was unsuccessful, since it only required a reference by a woman to her husband as "thoughtless" to offer Alklox the option of rejecting his existence. This frequently didn't resolve itself for several weeks, since the wife had no interest in removing this delusion of Alklox's, and the husband was incapable of doing so. (Under no conditions would Alklox accept the word of a potentially fictitious individual as authoritative.)
Also, Alklox was uniquely unsuited for menial labor. This was demonstrated when Mrs. Jamie Spore asked him to move a table from the dining room to the living room.
"Table?" said Alklox. "What table?"
"The table in front of you," Mrs. Spore replied.
"There is no table," said Alklox. "The table is an illusion created by your mind. Your false belief that there is a table in the dining room is all that causes it to be in the dining room. Believe that it is in the living room, therefore, and it will be in the living room. I cannot adjust your beliefs, and, therefore, cannot help you in this matter."
Mrs. Spore took a deep breath. "If you would move the table to the living room," she said, "it would help me believe that the table is in the living room."
"How can I move something that does not exist?" Alklox asked. "However," he added, as Mrs Spore seemed about to have an apoplectic fit, "I will do what I can." He closed his eyes for a number of seconds, and then reopened them. "There," he said.
"There what?" Mrs. Spore demanded. "You didn't do anything!"
"Of course I did," Alklox said. "I have adjusted my beliefs. I now believe that the table is in the living room, and you would be wise to do likewise." With that, he wheeled into the living room, stumbling over some invisible object, presumably the table, as he went.
Test runs like this convinced Mr. Genshaft that Alklox would be useless for any practical purpose, so he was reclaimed and confined to the Not-for-Sale room in Liverpool.
At the other end of the wall from where Alklox is dangling, the Dust Droid is sitting in a corner.
The Dust Droid is a truly remarkable invention of RR's Research Department. Dr. Jeanne Replansky has found a way to instill a portion of a supercomputer's brain into an individual dust mote, so that, if you get several hundred of these dust motes together, you have a fully functioning supercomputer.
Of course, these dust motes would never come together on their own. They must be installed in a specially designed force field that generates a cybertronic web between the dust motes that binds their thought processes together. This force field, in turn, must be generated by a large bronze disk levitating one foot above the ground. Also, there must be a second disk, levitating some three yards up, to prevent the force field from becoming nineteen miles high. (The technicians at RR tried this once, and found that, in addition to the cybertronic web being considerably weakened by being spread out over every dust mote in the Earth's atmosphere within a four-foot radius, the Dust Droid spent an inordinate amount of time thinking about peanut butter sandwiches. Up until that point, nobody had really wondered what your average run-of-the-mill dust mote thinks about, but nobody had suspected that it was peanut butter sandwiches.)
The Dust Droid was originally intended for use in the field of espionage, on the theory that a small pile of dust would make an ideal spy – nobody can eliminate all the dust motes from a room, particularly not in countries like Pakistan. Unfortunately, Interpol had failed to take the disks into account. Beta tests of the Dust Droid typically went something like this:
ABDULLAH: And so after we place the bomb in Gaza, we mustn't forget to... Hey! What are those things in the corner?
HASSAN: Hmm... They look like two levitating golden disks, probably of British manufacture.
ABDULLAH: I like that one on the top. Let's see what it looks like on the wall over there.
(Hassan obligingly takes the top disk and places it on the wall as specified.)
ABDULLAH: Very nice. And now, about that bomb in Gaza...
(But the Dust Droid has stopped listening. It's thinking about peanut butter sandwiches.)