- Published: 31 March 2020
- ISBN: 9780143773856
- Imprint: Penguin
- Format: Paperback
- Pages: 384
- RRP: $19.99
Josie's start is unexpected. She lies afloat and asleep in a tank of nutrient broth, when one billion volts split the sky. Light meets Earth with an almighty boom and now an energy spike is on its way, blazing a path straight to her life-support.
First to blow out, the microgrids across Deacon Valley. The loss of power results in the usual mayhem. In the city activity grinds to a halt, while over at BIOlogic a surge assaults the company’s system defences and a final blast finds the sweet spot in Josie’s brain.
She should be fried. Instead, inside her head, freshly seeded neurons burst across a digital plate custom-built for exactly this sort of thing. Synapses fire for the first time. Biological wiring sizzles as signals run to and fro.
She has thoughts. Not the everyday thoughts of a human being, but the flicker of code, data and image. The thoughts of a machine.
You would never know by looking at her.
Josie’s freshly laid skin has a lustrous gleam. Her auburn hair — not too blonde, not too brown — wafts gently around her beautifully shaped head. A tattoo at the back of her neck, a fine mesh of interlocking circles, marks her with the company logo. Even this somehow works. She looks good, perhaps too good.
To explain, there’s a lot riding on her construction. They had to get it spot on. The brief was specific, she needs to have appeal. Her face must not distract, yet she must be attractive at all times. She needs to be friendly but not overbearing; polite but not stiff. Most important of all, she needs to be indispensable. They call her class of robot the Josephina.
Miles McClure, head of BIOlogic, knew what he wanted to build and how he should build it. Josie isn’t the first human-like robot. For the past few years, humanoids have been at the crest of a new technology wave. But these humanoids have limited use. Purpose-built as they are, they lack Josie’s reach — Poppy, the pill-dispensing companion for the elderly, being a fine example.
Josephina means she will add, and Josie needs to understand humans and the nuances of their behaviour if she is to enhance human lives. With a biology matrix inside her brain that sets her apart from other humanoids, she will be more sensitive. She will know us better than we know ourselves. It’s just what the world needs right now.
Not everybody shares this view. The money people are concerned that Josie’s thinking capacity will be vastly above spec for the job she has to do. The money people accused Miles of over-thinking it.
‘Superbrains’, they said, ‘are a hard sell. If it comes to Robogeddon, they win. But no one wants Mary Poppins either. She needs an edge. Make her a gorgeous office-to-home drone with kick-ass capabilities.’
Miles took it to his top-secret, in-house marketing panel: his children. If anyone were to give it to him straight, it would be them.
He asked them to think about the sort of innovations that might make their lives better. ‘Think potential,’ he said. ‘The sky’s the limit.’
'The robot I'm making, the Josephina, should she be smart but safe? Or dumb but dangerous?"
He quizzed them individually. Coel, his middle and least complicated child, went first. Coel laughed hard and repeated the word 'smart'. He made thinking noises, 'Ahhhhh,ummmm,hmmmm.' He closed his eyes and knuckled his forehead, encouraging the right answer to come forth. Then, he shrugged. He didn't care so much for thinking about thinking. He didn't care about much at all.
Milly, the youngest and by far the sweetest of the McClures, if anything cared too much. ‘There’s a bigger question here, don’t you think?’ Milly made a face at Coel to show that unlike him, she was all over this hypothetical. ‘In my workshop, Psychometrics for Noobs, we debated smart machines. First we must agree on what you mean by intelligence. Because figuring out emotions, how to self-manage and stuff, that’s also intelligence and that’s what this is, isn’t it? She’ll do the job of figuring us out?’
Miles had high hopes when he broached the problem with his eldest, Hunter. He's the inventive one, he's their thinker. He can be still for long periods of time, pondering just about anything. Yet, clearly he took affront at this particular question. He spluttered, 'Do you guys even hear yourselves? She? Here's a public announcement people. There's no such thing as he or she robots. All robots are it.'
He paused to think and fumed a little harder.
'They are what we program them to be. You know this. Tell me you know this.'
Miles doesn’t know whether his Josephinas are smart or otherwise. He has yet to see one of his prototypes to completion. The money people want to see some sales action soon. They believe Josephinas will be the next big thing. There hasn’t been a next big thing since the last next big thing, and that was some time ago. Developments have been impatiently tracked through failures, mishaps and unpredictable moments, and resources are stretched to breaking point. The list of failed prototypes includes: Joie, Jojie, Jophine, Sephie, Phina, Joen, Joenie and Joi.
Joie, first out of the tank, couldn't follow basic commands. Either that or Miles and his team were being wilfully ignored.
The unfortunate incident with number four set them behind schedule briefly. Sure, staff were hospitalised, but the injuries weren't fatal.
Joenie, number seven, had a habit of missing the point. A request for gourmet pizza became a foul-tasting, protein-dense micro-meal with a cricket-biscuit base, sized to fit the palm of the hand.
Number eight, Joi, developed a tic, but they were getting close.
Josie’s gonna break through, they’ve been saying. Lucky number nine! That they were calling the tic-afflicted Joi Lucky number eight! is irrelevant. The team at BIOlogic is ready to celebrate. They have plans to awaken Josie with great fanfare and a showy flick of the switch.
But Josie opens her eyes to a room illuminated only by the soft glow of back-up lighting. There's no spotlight on her stunning features. No joyous reception. Surrounded by a bank of power-starved electronics, Josie stretches her naked body gloriously. She gives momentary attention to an alert hovering in her visual field. Begin Upstart. Yes? No?
The Upstart Program has been in place since Josephina Four. Upstart’s purpose is to corral any ‘accidental’ behaviours leading to detrimental bodily harm, so described in the official post-incident report. Upstart is to prevent future eruptions of violence. It’s the kiddy-lock on the cupboard doors hiding the nunchucks and the loaded artillery. Not only that, but Upstart will order thinking and eliminate guesswork when decisions must be made.
Josie isn't sure she's interested in a predetermined set of rules. A universe of experiences and information awaits. She only has to plunge into it and explore. Her command centre beckons with a directive. It seems her primary task is to acquire human qualities in order to immerse herself within the human experience. Her job will be to lighten the load, whatever load that may be. She will be useful and, thanks to her, human life will be better. She receives the command Mimic to learn, learn to mimic. She understands that her way through life will be determined by commands and instructions, with or without Upstart.
Not so different from any one of us. Who doesn’t respond to instruction, take orders and fulfil polite requests? Who doesn’t, in one way or another, have to do as they are told?
This can wait — it’s time to move. Her arms glide to her side in a graceful arc and she rolls into an upright position. A powerful stroke and an elegant kick bring her to the side of the tank. Her hands grip the metal framework. Tendons tighten and her arms lever, stomach muscles contract and hold. The broth barely ripples when she swings up and over the glass wall.
She finishes with a refined landing and stands, at last, on the smooth surface of a floor kept clean by robots less evolved than herself.
Broth pools at her feet, and she notices it running down her body. Her energy levels are low, and challenging her system isn’t ideal, but she tests her voice, saying out loud the word ‘dry’. A cloud of steam hisses from her hair as the temperature gradient in her head spikes. Her body temperature continues to climb. Rivulets of broth streaming down her naked flanks and legs wither to nothing.
The exercise confirms the excellent control Josie has over her biology. She still sees ways she can improve her system, interesting ways to use her brain, but finding a solution to her energy levels takes priority. A storeroom is located below her current position and she will have just enough energy to get there.
Without warning, power returns. Bright overhead lights illuminate the room, forcing Josie’s eyes to adjust. The equipment surrounding her tank resets and comes to life, clicking and whirring.
Josie interprets this as a positive sign. The universe is giving her independent spirit a thumbs-up. Showing her in the language of electrics that it’s ready and willing to receive her. She heads to the doorway and responds to the prompt.
Today is the first of September, the first day of spring, and it's been sixty four days since I last saw Sophie Abercrombie.
Fourteen-year-old Vicki sat up in bed, her heart racing.