Bot-of-the-Month Club

Jason Thomas

My first month in the Bot-of-the-Month Club consisted of a large tin can following me around for four weeks asking endless questions. Not surprising really; I was its first host, so its AI was completely untrained. The second month was better—that bot spent its first month with a professional chef. I’m still trying to lose the extra weight.

The third month, I’d rather not talk about. I thought all the hosts were screened, and if so, there’s some big damn holes in the screen. Barely two days after delivery I called the emergency services hotline. Technicians arrived at my house within the hour and took the bot off to have its AI wiped. I still get chills thinking about the things it said.

That’s why I let this month’s delivery sit outside for the last three days; I wasn’t sure I even wanted it in the house. However, the small matter of liability ate at me, so today I caved and brought it in.

I could just leave it here in the hallway, boxed up ‘til the end of the month. Kind of a waste of money though. If I’m going that route, I may as well cancel and eat the early cancellation fees. Bloody fine print.

I snap the X-Acto knife in my right hand open and closed. Leave it? Open it?

Screw it.

I slide the blade through the clear packing tape around the top of the heavy-duty cardboard box. Then I pull open the flaps and start fishing around in an ocean of mint green packing peanuts. Finally, my fingers touch cold metal, raising goosebumps along my arms. I find the rounded edge of the bot’s head, and with a heave, I pull it out. Packing peanuts go everywhere. Guess what the bot gets to do first.

I set the round, glossy black bot on the floor, thinking again of how much its flattened top and bottom make it look like a hamburger bun. Its arms and legs—silvery metal bars joined to the body and each other by complicated gears and motors—dangle loosely, two from the bottom and one from each side. When it stands, its two reflective, silver-dollar sized eyes will reach just below my waist.

It looks just like the other three I’ve had, apart from one detail. Its lower half is completely plastered with stickers. Dozens of them. Pink and white flowers, butterflies, and even a large one of a pony with a purple mane and an impossibly human looking smile. Some little girl must have had this bot last month. I involuntarily picture my third bot having gone to her house instead of mine. I shudder.

“Identify,” I say in a commanding voice. The eyes light up, and the round little head tilts to one side, then the other like a curious dog.

“My name is Kaywun. Are you my new friend?” The voice comes from a cluster of small holes punched into the black metal shell just under the eyes. It’s using a little girl’s voice. That’s getting fixed, right now.

“Reset voice, original setting,” I say. “Identify.”

The bot does some more head tilting. “Let’s go outside and play!” It starts bouncing up and down on its metallic legs, still using the little girl’s voice. Probably the same girl who decorated it with the stickers and taught it to call itself Kaywun—an obvious shortening of the letter K and the number 1. Likely some part of the bot’s serial number.

I sigh. “Clean up the hallway while I figure out how to reset your voice.”

“Aww, do I have to?” it whines.

What the hell? “Comply. Clean up the mess.” The bot lets its arms flop at its sides in unhappy resignation, then begins collecting the scattered foam nuggets and dropping them back into the box—one at a time. I take my phone out of my pocket.

Opting to skip the digital decathlon required to speak to customer service, I head to the tech support forums and do some searching. I discover that the bot has a set of customer-facing reset switches under a hidden panel on the back of its head. Perfect.

“Kaywun, come here,” I say.

Tiny motors whir, their pitch alternating high and low as the bot walks over. “Can I go outside now?” it asks.

“Turn around and hold still.” I run my fingers over the enameled metal, feeling for a seam. I find it, and press down gently. A four-inch square flap of metal with rounded edges releases, and I remove it with care. I stare a moment at the opening; someone has tucked a folded piece of paper in here. “What’s this?” I mutter, unfolding it.

It’s a drawing, in crayon, of a young girl with long pink hair in two ponytails sitting at a small table with a handful of colored pencils. Behind her is a grey pole with grey balloons, or something like that, hanging off it. Multicolored lines connect the balloons to the girl’s arm. Seated next to her, with a similar handful of pencils, is a round black lump that can only be this bot. They’re both smiling, but at a larger table near them, two bigger people are sitting across from a third, crying huge tears of blue wax. The third is wearing a Y shaped necklace with circles drawn at each of its three ends.

My fingers wander over the panel cover in my one hand while I consider the drawing in the other. The smooth metal becomes bumpy, but the bumps are in a straight line. I look, and find the bot’s serial number stamped into the panel cover. It’s more than thirty characters long, but doesn’t end in K1. In fact, there are no Ks and no 1s in it at all.

I hold the picture in front of the bot. “Query. Who are the people in this picture?” The bot doesn’t respond. “This girl,” I point to the girl at the table, “is she the one who gave you these?” I point to the stickers. From behind it, I can see the stickers go underneath the bot as well as around it.

I notice something. One of the stickers is large and rectangular, with both computer-printed and hand-written text on it. It’s an identification tag, like the one hospitals put on patient’s wrists when they get admitted, and it’s been glued to the bot. Maybe the bot was donated to a hospital, or maybe it was sent there to observe raw emotion, firsthand. Talk about being thrown in at the deep end.

I examine the tag. Its owner was a nine-year-old girl named Isabel Campbell, with an inoperable brain tumor. The drawing suddenly weighs a thousand pounds.

I point to the little girl. “Is this Isabel?”

The bot slowly extends a metallic finger and gently taps the smiling figure. “Kaywun,” it says. It must be totally confused. I look at the admitting tag again. In block letters, it says, ‘Isabell Cambell, age nine. First floor, K-wing, room 1.’


I point to the black blob. “Identify.”

“Isabel Campbell. Deceased,” says the bot.

I stare in disbelief. Somehow Isabel’s death caused the bot to take on her identity, or part of it. Had the bot’s exposure to such an intensely emotional experience somehow corrupted its programming, or damaged its circuitry? Had Isabel scrambled its metal brains by stuffing her drawing under the access panel?

Or was this machine learning to deal with loss in the only logical way it could—by filling the void its host left behind. With itself.

Incredible. A bot that truly thinks it’s a person; the Bot-of-the-Month people will be all over this. One call and they’ll be here in minutes. They’ll rush this bot off to some research lab, attach masses of colored wires to it, run tests, make guesses, and then start all over again.

I consider the drawing and the lines from Isabel’s arm to the pole behind her.

“Now can we play outside?” asks the bot.

“After you finish with the mess,” I say, replacing the panel but not the drawing. “I have to make a phone call.” Kaywun starts cleaning with real enthusiasm. I dial the number on the rectangular tag, hoping the Campbells are home. Later, I’ll call the Bot-of-the-Month emergency hotline. Seems I left this month’s delivery outside one day too long after all.

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