The mushroom farm job
Giles Baldwin was one of those farmers who had the art of growing fat off government grants off to a 't'. He chose both mushrooms and the outer asteroid belt to maximise his grant income, and then employed AOK Life Support Systems because Andrea's was a start-up business and he figured he could screw her into the ground, financially speaking. His doubts about her pecuniary astuteness were reinforced when he first set eyes on H.
"That's a very flashy robot for such a little girl," he remarked.
Why do I have to put up with this crap? thought Andrea. "It makes up for my deficiencies," she responded pleasantly with a sugar-laden smile.
The actual site was basic. The glasshouse domes were in place, but the life support system for mushrooms and workers would form the largest part of the work. Andrea made a rough estimate of six months to get it up and running, dependent on supply of plant and parts. Luckily the space suit she had selected in London was equal to the conditions.
She then surveyed the site and at first was depressed by the absence of an obvious fuel supply. A small amount of solar energy could be obtained by photovoltaics which were probably too expensive for Farmer Giles, as she thought of him, to pay for. She learnt quite by accident about the tradition of circulation of organic material among the farmers, and she found herself having to do some rapid research on the web to tap into the potentialities of that, which, fortunately, were adequate. A heat pump would make temperatures inside the dome bearable for human and mushroom life. The most important part was of course the gas exchange, which would allow people to breathe an atmosphere sufficiently similar to that of Earth for them to survive. But because of the intensive farming use, her calculations had to take into account the effect of the mushrooms and their mulch; in fact the presence of human beings was a secondary factor which to a typical level of accuracy for such calculations could be completely ignored! This shocked Andrea more than a little, and, with the caution of inexperience, she simply increased the sensitivity of all her measurements and the accuracy of all her calculations.
Another unforeseen aspect of her new job was the human resources problem. With characteristic insouciance she had just assumed that she would use 'local casual labour' to do the digging on her contracts. This labour on the outer asteroids was present, certainly, but comprised mainly desperate men from deprived parts of the Solar System looking for farm work. Life had treated them to no favours and left them predictably tough. From having been junior employee and resident comedienne on Uranusbase, she found herself having to be the equally tough boss. Many of the men spoke little English, although some spoke German, which Andrea could get by in due to her family connections. They were not used to taking orders from a woman, especially one barely into her twenty-sixth year. Like so many women before her in the construction industry, Andrea had to hide her femininity as best she could and fortunately it was easy on the outer asteroids. With her silky blonde hair stuffed into a hard hat or space helmet and her soft curves obscured by a boiler suit or space suit, only her voice gave a clue. She found herself cultivating an authoritative contralto.
Strangely enough, H proved to be her greatest asset in managing the men. Whilst the robot had reinforced Farmer Giles's impression of Andrea as a stereotypically dumb blonde, the rough, tough labourers were impressed by such a quality bit of kit. It gave them the idea that Andrea must be at least a bit of a princess, and worthy of greater respect for that.
The challenges of such a project frequently had Andrea teetering over the limits of her capabilities, but her determination to fake it until she made it kept her on course. She came closest to serious embarrassment over the gas exchange. The one on Uranusbase had been simply enormous; this was a micro-system by comparison. Familiar with the figures for the Uranusbase plant, Andrea mis-read the data book when specifying components and nearly precipitated a disaster which might have put her out of business for good. But H saved the day and pointed out her error to her. That is one of the things that anybody would get for their money when investing in an H-type machine.
Back in their spaceship home after the day's work on site, Andrea would update the company blog. This was a very important task, as it would serve as a window on her professional ability for prospective clients. She had to give an account of what she had been doing, but 'spun' to show her work to its greatest advantage while saying nothing that might breach commercial confidentiality. It was a difficult art to master, and for the first few weeks the blog came out very thin. But as time went on she started to infuse it with her personal brand of humour and her non-engineering interests, and unbeknown to her it started to gain a bit of a cult following.
Generally, life was tough but rewarding, and the most rewarding part of all continued to be her relationship with H. Once the blog had been uploaded each day, he would help her with the exercises she had to do to maintain her bone density, given the very low gravity conditions in which they were working. This reminded her of their meeting on Uranusbase, when they had ended up dancing the tango, and she always found it a turn-on. So it was no surprise that they invariably ended up in a passionate embrace. Then they would continue their journey through The Greatest Ever Joy of Sex. Improvisation was always necessary as they were not the pairing for which it had been written. But hey! When one of the couple is an engineer and the other is programmed to please, improving on any standard procedure is no less than integral to life.
And it hardly seemed as though six months had passed when the project was installed, thoroughly tested, and presented in turnkey form to Farmer Giles. He tried hard not to show how impressed he was as he handed over the final banker's draft, but did not really succeed.
"I shall pass your name around, me girl," he assured her. "Not a bad job you've done here. Not bad at all."
Andrea and H then returned to their spacecraft where the reality suddenly dawned on Andrea that their contract was finished and they had not yet been sought with an offer of another.
"I think the thing to do is leave messages on a few of the eforums to remind potential clients that we are available," said H.
"Let's just go straight to Milton Keynes and have a rest," said Andrea.
Back in Milton Keynes
Although the season had changed, in many ways it felt as though they had never left. Even the underwear saleswoman with her robot B was there. She and Andrea chatted whenever they met at one or other of the space park's facilities, but never found out one another's names. Space parks are oddly anonymous places.
Over the next few days Andrea and H busied themselves updating the main website to give a glowing account of their successful installation of the life support system at the mushroom farm. Andrea was frequently reduced to fits of giggles by her own hyperbole. A certain amount of this was expected in the business, but H was wise to Andrea's flamboyant style and made it his business to survey other similar sites and alert her whenever he considered her prose had gone over the top.
Wendy on the case
Andrea had faithfully written up her blog each day unaware even of its growing cult status, let alone that one follower had a special interest in her activities on the outer asteroid.
Wendy Fairfax logged on religiously every day, even on holiday and when her children were ill, because she felt keenly the responsibility she had taken on for the welfare of one Andrea Kapell, known to be in an unconventional relationship with one of the robots which she, Wendy, had helped to design and program.
Day by day she read Andrea's words, right from the thin beginnings when nobody would choose to do so for amusement. But even then she enjoyed what she read, because of the window it gave her on another branch of engineering, and because she felt a fellowship with another woman working in this male-dominated profession. She felt immense admiration for Andrea's bravery in not only operating in what was such a tough field even within engineering, but for doing it as a lone operator at such a young age. Her own career looked safe and conservative by comparison, having been spent, pre-family, entirely at Mars Robots.
At first she was bemused by Andrea's penchant for taking photographs of herself and her companion robot in peculiar poses; there was one almost every day on the blog. Then she re-read Andrea's CV and discovered that among all the technical qualifications Andrea had a history of art qualification and then all became clear: those poses were intended as comical pastiches of great works of art! No art historian herself, Wendy nevertheless had little trouble identifying Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa and Edvard Munch's The Scream. In fact The Scream was a favourite and both parties posed it at regular intervals. Every engineer will understand. But the one which really had Wendy in fits of giggles, and not only because of her privileged knowledge, was Andrea and H's take on The Arnolfini Marriage. It was so thoughtfully crafted and so utterly absurd and ridiculous that Wendy could not help seeing it as a double bluff: "No way are we having a sexual relationship!"
When Wendy read that they were back in Milton Keynes, she realised that she needed to act quickly if she were to secure her interview before they shot off on another job and might be unwilling to oblige her. But cold-emailing Andrea proved harder than she had anticipated. What, exactly, should she tell her? "I want to talk to you about your sexual relationship with your companion robot," would certainly not do; that was for sure. After much thought and many presses of the delete key she devised a fictitious research project in which she was following up a selection of Mars Robots products in service in order to assist in future product development.
The next morning Andrea picked up her emails as usual and found two of particular interest.
"Hey, H!" she called across the deck to her companion. "There's one here from some academics at the University of Johannesburg. They are impressed with my success at the mushroom farm and love my erudite blog – blimey! – and will be in London next week and would like to meet me at the Institution of Engineering and Technology to discuss my possible involvement in the setting up of a new solar observation station on Mercury. Wow! Mercury! What an experience that would be. London's convenient of course but I'm just a tiny bit disappointed they don't want me to go to South Africa... Kumala... Evolution... Leopards Leap..."
"As your protector," responded H, "I think I need to keep you as far as possible from the South African vineyards."
"You're supposed to please me too, remember."
"OK, maybe one or two glasses, but no more, per day."
"And this one's from a Wendy Fairfax of Mars Robots – your manufacturer. She's doing some product development research and would like to interview us both. She's offering expenses, so that's the rocket fuel and berthing fee at Marszopolis Spaceport Marina covered, and it might be an interesting way to fill in time until we meet these South Africans next week." She emailed back immediately and said that they could make themselves available as long as it was very soon.
Later that day the phone on the spaceship rang. It was Wendy. Could they make tomorrow as her husband would be off work and would be able to deal with her nine-month-old son? Yes, of course they could, with nothing else to do but bum around Milton Keynes Space Park at this point in time.
Wendy and Jack had planned carefully how they would conduct the day's business. Wendy decided she wanted to interview the two parties separately, because then she would have two stories to correlate. Also, the power she naturally held over her interviewees by meeting them in her own home would be substantially diminished if they outnumbered her. Inside, she did feel a bit of a cad, calling them up on a false premise, but she also felt that the information she might obtain could be so vital to future robotics work that it was worth the trouble risked by mild subterfuge.
At the appointed mid-morning time there was a knock on the door. Wendy had to steady her nerves consciously as she opened it to the petite blonde and her companion robot who stood there waiting.
"Please do come in," she smiled. Once the door was closed behind them she explained: "Ms Kapell, I would like to talk to you first, and then, if I may, have a few words with HCR-328."
"Fine," nodded Andrea, looking uncharacteristically nervous herself. She followed Wendy into the living room with its two sofas while Jack took H into the study where Ricky was busying himself with various baby toys in his playpen. Wendy had given him a breastfeed less than an hour ago, and he would also now drink water from a cup and eat a variety of finger-foods, so she felt she could justifiably ask Jack that she not be disturbed during her interviews.
"Please take a seat," said Wendy, and then sat opposite Andrea.
"I am particularly interested in your experience," she began, "because it is unusual for a top-of-the-range H-type companion robot to be used in a small business setting, let alone by a sole trader." You lying witch! she silently reprimanded herself, but the weaving of the tangled web had gone too far now.
"H worked with me on Uranusbase for nearly a year," explained Andrea, beginning to relax, "so when I won the lottery and decided to set up on my own using my winnings as capital, I took the opportunity to buy him – it – from Uranusbase. Then I didn't have to start all over again with a new companion robot. We all get quite attached to them, you know."
Wendy smiled. She had planned a little more procrastination, but also knew she would have to get to the point soon. "When you were working on your job on the outer asteroid," she said, "did you find that such a high specification robot gave you any particular advantages or disadvantages?"
Andrea was able to explain about the contrary responses of Farmer Giles and the labourers to H as well as the ways in which H had helped her in the work. Wendy listened with genuine interest, but the time had come to move onto the serious stuff.
"You said a moment ago," she began, "that everyone gets attached to their companion robot. I would now like to ask you a bit more about your attachment to 'H', as you call it." Andrea started to look worried. Wendy felt a bit of a shit. "I have seen CCTV footage which seems to indicate that your relationship with H goes beyond the usual attachment that is typically felt towards a companion robot. Not only from Uranusbase, but from a London bookshop, where you were witnessed buying this book together," she waved her own copy of The Greatest Ever Joy of Sex which she had stowed handy but obscured in preparation for this confrontation.
Andrea went bright red and looked really unhappy, but she knew there was no escape; she just had to get through this. She became defensive. "I have just set out as a sole trader in a really tough business. If I had a relationship with a man, the odds are he wouldn't want to come with me on jobs, and then might resent me being away. Or if he did come, we might get into arguments which would make life even harder. And ultimately he would have his own aspirations which might conflict with mine. Taking H as my lover at this time of my life was easy, has been very enjoyable and is risk free. I am unaware that it breaks any laws and I don't think it is anybody's business but my own."
"I see," said Wendy contemplatively. "I am really sorry I had to bring this up, but I hope you can understand that having heard about your relationship with H, I could not help but be interested and concerned, because this is not a function the design team ever considered for our product, and there may be health and safety considerations."
"Less so than a relationship with a man, surely," said Andrea, her confidence recovering. "H can't even get me pregnant, let alone give me VD or AIDS. And the fact that he is programmed to please me ensures that the few domestic disputes we do have are always resolved."
"Thank you very much, Ms Kapell. You have been very helpful. I am sorry to have embarrassed you so. Now I have spoken to you I think I can go a long way towards reassuring my employers that far from the legal action they fear, Mars Robots may indeed be creating some very happy women."
They both smiled with relief, and Wendy escorted Andrea out to the study. Then she returned to the living room with H in tow. The two of them sat down on opposing sofas and Wendy paused a moment to contemplate the awesome machine facing her. Its humanoid frame was constructed of titanium and carbon fibre, both materials chosen for their lightness and strength and each deployed where its other properties were most appropriate. It was powered by the most advanced solid-state cell, located in the abdominal region to keep its centre of gravity as low as possible. Rudimentary eyes and ears were sculpted around the most advanced optical and auditory sensors. Likewise a mouth circled the high-bandwidth loudspeaker which gave the robot such a pleasant voice. The HCR model even had olfactory sensors obscured beneath what Wendy considered a rather cute nose. They could not detect domestic gas – why bother when the stuff has been so carefully prepared to be detected by human equipment – but more importantly could detect carbon monoxide. It was not a face that would win any beauty contests, but then there are plenty of human faces that appear beautiful only to their mothers and lovers.
The humanoid's many complex movements were actuated by a battery of the lightest precision servomotors available. And the electronics which provided the machine's adaptive intelligence and control were so extensive and complex that they filled the remainder of the internal space, despite being on a nano-level of miniaturisation in many places.
Wendy stopped herself just in time from letting out a dreamy sigh. There was business to be got on with! Her plan was to interview the robot about the details of the physical relationship to spare Andrea's blushes. To do a proper health and safety assessment she felt she needed more than the self-evident truths that the machine could not impregnate the woman or pass on STIs.
"I am aware that you have become the lover of Andrea Kapell," was her opening statement. The robot did not reply. It was not a question. Wendy started to wonder if her idea had been such a good one after all.
"I find myself a little puzzled by this," continued Wendy. "When we designed your type at Mars Robots we did not think to cast you in this role and therefore did not provide you with the equipment that men consider essential for the task."
Still no reply. Wendy felt rising irritation at the double standards of this recalcitrant machine which had had the audacity to move into a human sphere of activity but lacked the decency to discuss it the way a human would: obliquely.
"Dammit," she said. "How d'you manage without a penis?" There was no evading this issue and if she had to put it that crudely, so she would. The answer she got stunned her.
"The penis has three functions," the robot replied. "The elimination of liquid waste, the fathering of children, and the provision of pleasure for the man who possesses it. I do not produce liquid waste. I do not need to father children because more like me can be made in a factory. And I have no need for pleasure; my purpose is to help, protect and please the human being to whom I have been assigned as companion."
The robot's words were unfaultably logical: a neutral statement of difference, but one which came across to Wendy at first as extraordinarily arrogant and the sign of a serious superiority complex over the poor human male. The apparently effortless combination of the two most powerful political speech tactics (build 'em up then knock 'em down and the three part list) certainly helped! But she was quick to question herself and realise that throughout her years of robotics work she had been living with a deep-seated assumption that robot 'life' understood itself to be inferior to human life. This was less a direct reflection on the modern humanoid robot, designed thus to share human tools and living environments, than the historic tendency of human beings to see themselves as superior to other life forms which is embodied in most traditions and religions. Roboticists had even postulated a 'Pinocchio complex', named from the Italian folk tale: a condition in which a robot wished and sought to become human. Now here was an HCR, an example of the most advanced intelligent humanoid hitherto developed, quite clear that it saw no need and had no wish to be a man, even in the context of an intimate relationship with a woman.
"OK," she said, composing herself. "So you don't need a penis. Would you tell me what you might do to go about pleasing Ms Kapell, in a sexual way?"
The robot was silent for a while, then eventually said: "You have not given me enough data to answer that question."
Bloody machine mind. Never ask it to 'give an example'!
Wendy had to think fast. She was by nature a woman of action: an engineer not a lawyer. She got up, crossed the room, and sat down beside HCR-328. She picked up one of its hands. She raised the hand to the height of her neck and angled it around the back. She hoped that would narrow the choices down to the point where the robot could reasonably be expected to demonstrate a response. "How would you continue once you were in this position?" she asked.
Companion robots of all types, although principally intended to help, protect and please a particular human being, are also programmed to be generally pleasant and obliging to others. After all, many, if not most, worked in teams as well as pairs, so a demonstration of this nature posed no particular problem to HCR-328. It slid one hand around the back of Wendy's neck then turned it to run the fingers comb-like up through her hair. Nice, she thought, relaxing at last but feeling a bit guilty about enjoying the experience. With the back of Wendy's head still cradled in the first hand, the robot started to run the fingers of its other hand down her spine; not just over the bones but cleverly also around the sides of them, hesitantly at first, as Wendy's contours were different from Andrea's. Kinda cute, thought Wendy as she gazed at H's face and started to feel warm inside.
By the time the hand reached Wendy's lower ribs, H's software had deconstructed the pattern of her spine into a sine and cosine series and passed control directly to the algorithms which linked the sensors and the servomotors in the hands: the bit which Wendy had programmed in assembly language. The fingers then fell with mechanical precision onto the most sensitive points around her lower spine and by the time they reached the bottom she discovered she had melted 'down below'. She gasped. This was not the objective scientific experience she had been expecting.
Both parties had passed control to a lower level and it ennobled neither. For the robot, a program break immediately followed as Wendy was most evidently not Andrea. It took its hands away from Wendy's body and folded them chastely in its lap.
Whilst the HCR project had taken a team of designer-programmers several years to complete, the human female sexual response was the result of millions of years of evolution. Any remaining cerebral function active in Wendy immediately shut down in the face of her desperate desire for the orgasm which she was now confident those carbon fibre fingers could deliver with consummate skill and precision. She simply asked weakly: "Aren't you going to finish the job, then?"
"Do you mean, am I going to bring you to a sexual climax?" asked the robot for clarification.
"Yes," said Wendy.
"No," said the robot. Wendy had triggered the characteristic stroppiness of an HCR faced with what it considered to be excessive demands from a third party.
You tease! "Why not?"
"Because I am not your companion robot." H would not expect to help Wendy in her work, or to protect her from back injury with no data on the strength of her back. He categorised the giving of sexual pleasure along with the other exclusive functions of companion robothood.
Wendy had no choice but to re-engage her higher mental functions and accept her rejection philosophically. She should have realised that the robot's fidelity was hard-wired. And had her seduction attempt succeeded, the effect this double infidelity might have had on Jack and Andrea did not bear thinking about. There was the further consideration that ever since she had seen H learn the tango, Wendy had perceived him, after a fashion, as her son – a teenager maybe – so that such an act would have uncomfortable incest implications. Finally, she realised that to this point she had still had difficulty taking the idea of a robot in a sexual relationship seriously; but now it was clear that H's technique was no joke.
"Thank you very much," she said, standing up unsteadily. "You have been very helpful." She escorted the robot out of the door as her mind buzzed and she realised she had something more to say to Andrea.
Andrea was in the study, playing with Ricky and exchanging small-talk with Jack.
"Ms Kapell, may I have a further word?" asked Wendy.
"Of course," replied Andrea pleasantly, and followed Wendy into the living room. Wendy closed the door behind them.
"Ms Kapell," she began, "I have had a very interesting and illuminating talk with your companion robot, and I felt I just had to alert you to something which had not occurred to me before."
"Yes?" said Andrea.
"Earlier on," started Wendy, slowly and deliberately, "you told me that one of the greatest attractions of a relationship with a robot is that it is 'risk free'. Now I have identified a risk, and this is it. That machine could wed you to it so completely that you will never be able to let it go and will miss out on the richness that a relationship with a real man can bring – growing old together and bearing children to suckle at your breast and watch with pride as they develop towards adulthood. And the reason for this risk is not a mystery; it's a hormone called oxytocin."
It was obvious that Andrea had never heard of oxytocin, so Wendy explained. "The 'love hormone'. It's released by the body at arousal and orgasm, childbirth and milk ejection. Nobody is ever as beautiful as our lover or our baby because we see them through the oxytocin glass."
Andrea looked chastened and thoughtful, but almost immediately she had made this stirring speech Wendy realised it was presumptuous and less than logical. The fact that Andrea's soft youthful skin would turn rough and wrinkly with liver spots and unsightly little growths while H remained sleek and shiny was most unlikely to be a problem given H's hard-wired fidelity. And H's adaptive artificial intelligence could certainly cope with the changes in Andrea's mind due to ageing. Furthermore, some women genuinely felt: "Children, yuck!" and it was no doubt good for the human race that they did, because they were freed from the tyranny of the infantile whinge to do other useful things for society. Still, she affirmed silently to herself, it was probably best said. It was important in life that risks were calculated and choices informed. Then no matter what the outcome, one could look back and sing: "I did it my way," instead of wailing: "Nobody told me."
Andrea spoke. "You've given me something to think about. Thank you."
Wendy felt a wave of compassion. "But I may be wrong. Everybody's different. Everything may work out fine for you. I think we've covered everything I want for now. You have my email address; well here's my calling card with full contact details. I don't rate myself great as an agony aunt, but I do know your secret, and I do understand robots well, so if you ever have any need to talk to me in future, please don't hesitate to call."
"Thank you," said Andrea rather weakly as Wendy escorted her once again to the door.
After they had gone, Wendy typed a short courtesy email to Wilfrid Portman to let him know that she had confirmed his suspicions about the sexual nature of Andrea and H's relationship; but that she was happy there was no problem with it, at least in the short term. Perhaps, she thought, this sort of thing was an inevitable consequence of creating a sufficiently advanced humanoid robot. As with all unintended consequences, it was hard to see where it might lead when the only data you had concerned one isolated early instance. There was nothing the scientist could do but be alert and very patient.