Education of HIRAM-973
By Ronald D. Ferguson
JAN CHOKES AND SPEWS clear liquid across the bar top.
“Ugh. That’s just nasty.”
“You okay?” Todd pats her back. “What did you order?”
“A margarita on the rocks.” She examines the salt-rimmed glass. “Are those real rocks in the bottom. Doesn’t that gadget know that on the rocks means over ice?”
“He does now. Margarita, huh? Let me check the history. Nope. This is HIRAM’s first margarita. Usually it takes him five or six attempts to get a new drink right.”
“And I’m the guinea pig for your robot bartender. Why didn’t you simply load drink recipes into its memory?”
“That misses the point of the experiment. Learning is what HIRAM’s all about. Besides, not everyone likes the same recipe. Usually, he downloads a list of the likeliest ingredients, but he’s having trouble making wireless connections today. Try another margarita.”
“Are you crazy. That thing almost killed me.”
“Don’t exaggerate, and HIRAM isn’t a thing. I think of HIRAM as a he. I expected you to order a Parrot’s Tail. You always order a Parrot’s Tail. I’ve already run HIRAM through half a dozen Parrot’s Tails before you got here. He learns fast. He’ll adapt the recipe to your taste in just a few tries.”
“Fine. Give me a Parrot’s Tail.”
“Why don’t you let him make another margarita. By the time he’s gauged your reaction to four or five more, he’ll adjust, and you’ll think they are the best you ever had. ”
“After four or five drinks like that last one, I’d think vinegar is the best I’ve ever had. Didn’t you build some safeguards into this machine?”
“Machine? His name is HIRAM, Heurisitc Intelligent Rapid Adapting Mixologist. He reads your facial expression for feedback to improve the recipe. I used a facial analysis chip salvaged from an old JCN-973. Works pretty well.”
“Safeguards. I had in mind something like Asimov’s Three Rules of Robotics.”
“There are four rules, if you count rule zero.”
“Aren’t the rules intended to protect human beings.” Her smile is playful. “That margarita could have been fatal.”
“Another exaggeration. Anyway, Asimov’s laws aren’t that easy to program. Computers take instructions literally, and so you have to be careful what you say. Try defining what constitutes a human sometime.”
“You did put in safeguards?”
“More like hardwired hierarchical directives.”
“O.M.G., you made them up yourself.” She can’t help but laugh. “Lay on Macduff. What are the directives?”
“You want to know the hardwired rules? Actually, they are vectored interrupts in the ROM to give them precedence.”
“Laws, whatever. Quit avoiding the question. How many?”
“Good. Count ’em out.”
“Uh. Okay. One. Be helpful. Two. Don’t annoy. Three. Learn and adapt.”
“You think that’s a better strategy than defining a human? Those don’t sound like rules for a robot. They sound like advice to a bartender. You have rules one and two backwards.”
“HIRAM. Mixologist. He is a bartender. Duh. Look, he’s made you another margarita. Try it.”
“Hmm. Well it looks okay. Ice this time instead of pebbles. Smells okay. Maybe ... say not great, but not too bad.”
Todd’s smile expands. “It gets better.”
“Wow, that was fantastic.” Jan drops her napkin on the table. “When did HIRAM take up cooking?”
“Gourmet cooking. He watched me warm up a frozen dinner last month, and then he dug the box out of the trash to read the ingredients. Helpful, you know? By the following week he could crank out a gourmet dinner on a half-hour notice. Eating like this has changed my life.”
“Yes, I grok that from your waistline. How did he learn to cook?”
“He gets the startup information online since I improved his Internet access, but you know how that goes, one-hundred-fifty-seven recipes for onion soup and six were posted as jokes. Lots of experimental chemistry involved. My grocery bill is up because I have to taste five or six versions of everything for him to adapt to my taste, but it’s worth it. He now has a good repertoire customized for me, and it expands daily. You want some dessert?”
“No. I’m stuffed, but an Irish coffee would be nice.”
“Good choice. He’s already mastered that. How about an extra shot of whiskey?”
“Are you trying to get me drunk? You ply me with alcohol every time I visit. Not really necessary. If you have some nefarious plan, I’ll most likely cooperate. Besides, I’m not much of a drinker.”
“Not drunk, just relaxed.” He winks at her, part of his usual foreplay routine. “Makes for a pleasant evening.”
“I’m already relaxed enough to provide a pleasant evening. He doesn’t whip the cream for the coffee does he?”
“Only by special request. Don’t worry. HIRAM will take good care of you.”
“Ibid.” She rests her hand on his arm. “And me of you.”
Jan basks in the afterglow. She feels thoroughly relaxed and content. Todd strokes her hair when she turns her head to kiss his sweaty chest.
“That was nice,” Todd says.
She sighs. He always says that was nice. Predictable, but ... comforting in its familiarity. Still, if he devoted as much of his imagination to her as he did to that robot—
Something moves beyond the bed.
She sits upright in bed and clutches the covers to her chin.
“What the—” Todd sits up beside her.
“Someone’s in the room with us.”
“Impossible,” he says. “The doors are locked.”
He reaches for the remote and snaps on the lights. HIRAM waits at the foot of the bed.
“Has he been here the whole time?” Jan continues to cover herself as if she is suddenly naked in public.
“What? I don’t think so. Probably he just came in to see if we needed anything. Helpful, you know?”
“Helpful? How the hell could he help us with what we’ve been doing?”
“Don’t get hysterical. Let HIRAM get you a nightcap.”
“I don’t think so.” Jan rolls out of bed and locates her shoes. “Look at the expression on its face. He was watching us the whole time.”
“He’s just a robot. He doesn’t really have a face. That’s the same express ... Where are you going?”
“Home.” She wraps her dress about her like a robe and heads for the door. “And I’m not coming back so long as that thing is here. I don’t like the way he watches me.”
“You want me to get rid of HIRAM?”
“Him or me?”
“But? BUT? I’m leaving.”
Jan ignores the first three phone message, but the fourth call attracts her attention.
“Jan. Please pick up. Jan, please. Maybe you were right about HIRAM. He woke me in the middle of the night by jiggling the bed, you know, shaking it like those vibrating beds that take a quarter in a cheap motel. I asked what he thought he was doing, but I never installed a speech chip, so he didn’t answer. He did stop shaking the bed when I said to stop, but I’ve taken to barricading the bedroom door to keep him out. Still can’t sleep, knowing he’s waiting in the hall, waiting to help me. O.M.G, what if he sees me using the bathroom? Jan?”
Jan reaches for the phone. “Todd?” But he hangs up before she can pick up. She considers calling him back, but instead replays the message.
What is that crazy robot trying to learn? Sex? That had to be it, sex. Trying to be helpful according to its directive, but this is scary. Doesn’t it recognize when it’s annoying? What would be worse, Todd getting hurt while HIRAM learns, or HIRAM quickly adapting until Todd likes it? Likes it? Just scary.
What did Todd say? HIRAM needs five or six attempts to learn and adapt.
Shaking the bed. Did that count as the first attempt?
Should she call? Maybe you were right about HIRAM doesn’t seem like an adequate apology for a 3:00 a.m. call. Todd has a lesson to learn too, and it sure as hell takes him longer than five or six tries to figure things out. Probably he wasn’t in any real danger. Surely HIRAM won’t try anything more tonight, not with the door locked.
She sets the phone aside and spends a restless night.
Reluctantly, Jan straps on the black armband. She’s angry with HIRAM. She’s angry with Todd. She is not in the mood for mourning.
Todd steps to the makeshift podium. “We’re here today to celebrate the life of HIRAM-973.”
We? Jan looks about. Except for the bored guy at the junk-crushing control panel, she and Todd are the only ones present. Does he have to make it sound like a wedding ceremony?
Tears fill Todd’s eyes, and he pauses to wipe them away.
“Would you get on with this?” Jan cannot hide the impatience in her voice. How in hell had he developed such an attachment to a robot? On second thought, she didn’t want to know. “The man is waiting.”
“Please, Jan. I could rebuild him. Better. Safer. More reliable. You would really like him once you got to know him.”
“No I wouldn’t. I don’t want his help. If you expect me to be with you, then you won’t ever mention his name again after this, this—”
“Your walking a dangerous line, Todd. Straighten up.”
“Hey, Mister,” says the man at the control panel. “I’ll have to charge extra if you don’t get on with it.”
“I can’t stand much more,” Jan says. “The robot is dead, fused, burnt, gone. Bury him.”
“Let me do it.” Lips pursed and eyes narrowed, Jan approaches the podium. “Step down.”
“You heard me. Step down. I’ll give the elegy.”
She forces her way behind the temporary podium, and Todd steps back.
“Here are the facts about HIRAM.” She speaks as if there is an audience. “Todd built a robot to mix drinks, but the robot had bigger ideas about being helpful. The robot mixed drinks, cooked meals, shopped for groceries, made the bed, and was a helpmate to Todd. Then the robot researched love on the Internet. The only thing that saved Todd from a fate that he had better never mention again in my presence was that the robot came across some archaic terminology for lovemaking. Despite HIRAM’s attempt to spark with Todd, Todd received only minor burns, but HIRAM’s negatronic brain shorted beyond repair. Did I leave out anything?”
Todd cannot withstand her withering glare. “No, Dear.”
“Good. You at the controls, Mr. Recycle Guy, grind that damn robot into scrap.”
“Yes, ma’am.” The man taps the panel, and gears ratchet the remnants of HIRAM into the depths of the shredder.
“Now.” She turns to Todd. “When you are ready to go home, I will remind you of how love should operate.”
“Okay, but the house is a mess? Say, I wonder if I could build a robotic maid to keep it clean for us?”
Ronald D. Ferguson is an active member of the SFWA. His short fiction has appeared in “Daily Science Fiction,” “Nature,” “The Universe Annex,” NewMyths.com,” and elsewhere. He lives with his wife and a dog near the shadow of the Alamo.