Editor’s Note: Frankensteel is Book One of the Just Hunter Series by Robin Craig. It is the near future, and in the conflict between advancing high technology and those who want to stop it, the world's first self aware, thinking robot violently escapes the men who seek to destroy it. This novella follows the intertwining lives of the robot, Steel, and the people trying to find, save or destroy him; and explores the philosophical implications of artificial intelligence and what it means to be human. Frankensteel is part of The Writers Series, our highly popular feature that spotlights novelists who have been influenced by Ayn Rand.
He clenched the piece of paper in his fist. Such a small, innocuous thing, a piece of paper, to be crumpled and discarded without a thought. But not this one.
He remembered those men so many years ago, men who could not see the vision so clear before his eyes, men afraid to move forward: as if life lay in the safety of stillness not in flight over unlimited horizons. But he understood. It was their money, well maybe not theirs but entrusted to their care, and like all men they could only follow their own vision not that of someone else. But if they could refuse him, if they could put obstacles in his path, still they could not stop him and he would find his own way without them. And so he had, and it had brought him to where he now sat, at a burnished desk high in the sky overlooking a sunwashed city, behind a polished door holding a small brass plaque simply inscribed:
Alexander Beldan, CEO
But where had his vision and work brought him, when it came down to it? If the minds on that Board had been small, here in his hand was the expression of minds even smaller. Minds not only incapable of seeing, but insisting on binding others into their own blindness, for no reason other than the fears of some feeding the will to power of others. He had fought this insanity as well as any man could fight insanity, but his only weapons were his vision and the reason that had seen it and given it form. Reason, he knew, was the most powerful weapon of them all. But the lives of Galileo, of Bruno, of Socrates and many others of mankind’s pioneers had shown that its victory was often too late for its visionaries, who too often had fallen before the fears of the mob and those whose power fed on it and urged it on. All those men had won in the end, but what is more ashen than a victory one does not live to see? The death warrant in his hand was not for him: his life was not in danger, not from this. Yet he felt the pain of part of his life being ripped from him nonetheless.
The scrap of paper was a legal demand that Beldan Robotics obey the new national moratorium on advanced artificial intelligence research and development. In particular, the prototype known as Steel was to be deactivated forthwith, until sufficient government studies could determine its safety. The men who wrote the words knew his reputation, and the piece of paper was not alone. It was accompanied by two duly authorized officers of the law, charged with escorting Mr Beldan and bearing witness to his compliance. Mr Beldan, the paper made clear, retained all legal rights of appeal to reverse this decision–after the fact.
He sat, staring at the wall behind the men, drumming his fingers slowly. Let them wait, he thought, let them stand and wait. He had long since ceased being surprised at how men expected polite consideration when they came bearing demands like this, demands of velvet draped over a sword. He had long since ceased caring how they felt when he did not grant it to them.
He wondered that so much could change in so short a time, and his mind wandered back to a press conference mere weeks before.
The room was alive with speculation and rapid, hushed conversations. Something big was in the air. Alexander Beldan did not often venture personally into the publicity arena: he was content to produce marvels and let the marvels speak for themselves. When he did, it was a sign to pay attention.
Belden walked to the podium and the noise fell to a silence with a faint buzz of excitement still lingering like bees among summer flowers. “Ladies and Gentlemen, as you know I’m not one to go into a lot of talk, I prefer to let you see with your own eyes. I will answer your questions in a moment, but first, I am thirsty. Steel, will you bring me a glass of water, please?”
The room seemed to hold its collective breath, at the sight of something like a man, but shiny like polished metal, walking gracefully onto the stage and handing Beldan a glass of water. “Thank you, Steel,” said Beldan, and the machine inclined its head briefly, then turned to face the press and stood there, silent and relaxed at Beldan’s side. It was of the proportions of a man, a little under six feet tall, with a softly reflecting silver surface. It was like a sculpture of a man: even its face was human-looking, its eyes human-like though in a metal face; a face made even more human by the straight black hair hanging halfway to its shoulders. Other than looking slowly from side to side, the machine ignored the flash of cameras and the rising hubbub of voices, as the meaning of what they were seeing in such a simple act registered in the minds of the reporters present.
Beldan also simply stood, observing the crowd and saying nothing, until slowly the voices and questions subsided.
“No, there are no tricks here and yes, what you have seen is exactly what it looks like. I am proud to unveil the world’s first autonomous humanoid robot. For years Beldan Robotics has been working on the technologies required for such a machine. Those of you who are familiar with this area will know just how hard it is: the simple acts of walking and understanding normal human speech, not to mention obeying orders as smoothly as you’ve just seen, takes far more computing power than it’s worth, and certainly can’t fit into the head of a robot like this. Until now.
“We have named it Steel. Its skeleton is constructed of stainless steel microcellular honeycomb, stronger and lighter than solid steel. It has a tough but flexible skin over electroactive muscles, both made of a similar material except with a more open, spiral microstructure. The brain, naturally, is the key.
"It is not assembled piece by piece: it is grown more like that of a human baby, developing itself through a process guided by a general blueprint, turned by rules and feedback loops, but not precisely designed. This allows us to achieve a complexity comparable to that of a human brain, which is what it needs to do what a human does.
“Are there any questions?” he finished with an understated smile.
“Dr. Beldan! Why did you construct this robot?”
"I have to confess a kinship with the first man who climbed Mt Everest, who said he did it because it was there. Don’t you feel that is one of the things that define we humans–the desire to know, to explore, to do what no one has been able to do before? True artificial intelligence has been a dream for decades, but no one has been able to get even close because of the sheer processing power required–and the technologies developed to make Steel a reality are the iceberg beneath the tip that you see standing beside me. But in purely practical terms, a humanoid robot has many potential uses, from dangerous tasks like firefighting or space exploration to jobs with too much dirt or drudgery to be desired by human beings.”
“Steel seems to understand your commands, but has not spoken. Can it talk?”
“Steel is designed to be able to speak, both physically and mentally, but so far it has not shown any inclination to do so. We don’t know why, but its brain is so complex that we have no precise model of it. However, in human terms, it’s only 4 weeks old, so don’t be too hard on it.” Laughter rippled through the audience in response.
"What are its other physical abilities?”
“The handouts you are receiving list its basic specifications. To summarize, Steel is only a little heavier than a man of the same size, but with about twice the strength and speed. So it has excellent capabilities but is by no means a ‘superman.’ Of course both larger and smaller models could be constructed for different purposes.”
“You spoke of artificial intelligence and said its brain was comparable to ours. Can it think? Is it conscious?”
Beldan spread his hands, palms up. “Our studies of its brain functions have detected some interesting anomalies, but nothing in its behavior so far indicates anything like that. Technically though, given the complexity of its brain, a robot like this could be capable of true thought and consciousness.”
A startled rush of questions and conversations erupted at that answer, until a reporter from one of the popular magazines made himself heard:
“Dr. Beldan, aren’t you afraid that making a robot that is our equal or better could be the first step in the extinction of the human race? How would you answer critics, like Mr Denner of the Imagists, that this kind of research should never be allowed?”
Beldan frowned. The Imagists had been making noises lately. They always made noises, but recently the topic of the dangers of artificial intelligence had started recurring like a building theme in a horror movie. He wondered how much they had deduced about what Beldan Robotics had been up to. He thought them fools, but clearly they weren’t stupid ones. “Well, you see beside me the evidence that I completely disagree. Many people over the years have wondered whether other creatures like dolphins might be our equals, but nobody has used that as an argument to wipe them out–quite the contrary. And while the myth of evil intelligence has a long history, the only ones we have met so far came from our own species.”
He let them digest that, before adding, “Don’t forget this is just one robot that can’t breed. Even if we encounter problems, we have plenty of opportunities to solve them. It is often said that new technology is like Pandora’s Box, that once it’s out it can’t be put back in. Well, that may be true, but any honest look at history will show one thing: nobody really tried, not because it couldn’t be put back but because the benefits have always outweighed the problems, which have always had solutions. There is not a generation after any new advance that has ever wanted to go back to their parents’ way of life.”
“You said, ‘one robot.’ Is Steel the only one? Are others in the pipeline?"
“Steel is the first working prototype. There were a few failures along the way, as you can imagine. Steel is the first to not only meet basic specifications but to continue functioning for any length of time. We still have a long way to go to make production routine, and even then, the way the brain is made means that for the near future each one will be unique, as unique as a human being. At this scale of complexity the outcome is a battle between chaos theory and our feedback loops, and we need to learn how to improve the fineness of our control. So now we have a working model we want to test it thoroughly before trying again. At this point we have no good idea why Steel has been successful where its predecessors failed, or how to reliably reproduce it, let alone improve it.”
“Does it have a sense of right and wrong?”
“In a way. To grow and train a robot brain, we have to give it some kind of internal guidance, and we do try to instill basic ethics including self preservation. But it is also designed to be adaptable and flexible, to learn and, in theory at least, even think. That means it has no fixed programming, you could even say it has a kind of free will. So there is no circuit to force the robot to be moral or to obey orders. On the other hand, that’s true of you too, and I don’t think anyone here is worried that you’re going to run amok. Things go wrong with people all the time, but nobody is jumping up and down trying to ban babies just because some babies grow up to be killers.”
“How will you protect the public if something does go wrong?”
Beldan held up a small remote control. “This is our final fail-safe. Steel has a shutdown circuit triggered by this radio remote control, with a range of about a mile. If something goes badly wrong, we can press this button and Steel will shut down. It has no control over that, it is a separate circuit isolated from the rest of its functions.”
Yes, Beldan thought, the press conference had seemed to go well. Most of the reports had been favorable. But things had gone rapidly downhill. Perhaps Frankenstein myths were still too deeply embedded in the popular psyche. Whatever the reason–not that reason had much to do with it, thought Beldan sourly–the Imagists and their spiritual brothers had stirred up enough mindless fear to give birth to the demented demand in his hand. His eyes focused back on the men now shifting uncomfortably before him. He let out a sigh that may have signaled resignation, weariness or contempt, and rose.
They came into the laboratory where Steel stood. It was doing what it usually did, silently accessing the net, gathering data, exercising its AI routines against computer simulations.
He contemplated his creation, sorrow and fury battling for supremacy as the current ruler of his emotions. What was it, really? It seemed both more and less than he had hoped, something like an idiot savant child that mostly seemed like a loyal puppy while at times doing things that surprised or delighted. Its performance was within the predicted range of their mathematical models, yet while its complexity and raw performance measurements were surprisingly high, its functions were barely within the predictions, as if some flaw or inefficiency were sapping its full potential.
Would he ever know, now? Could one stop a human brain, turn it off, then expect to turn it on again as if nothing had happened? Why then did these men with their paper and guns think what they were doing was anything less than destruction of a mind, a mind that might never be repeated?
And what for? To pander to primal ignorance and fear, the fears that produced legends like that of Frankenstein, legends that had been repeated too frequently in the days leading up to this? And did they never stop to think of the meaning of their own fears? If in the world of fiction so many creations had turned against their creators, was it not true that, from Frankenstein’s monster to Skynet, they had done so only when their own existence was threatened, the self-fulfillment of the fears and nightmares that motivated those threats?
And here he was, about to make the same threat, but with the simple press of a button in his hand, rather than a mob with pitchforks and fire. The mob was more civilized now. They did not gather in storm and darkness to light their own torches: they sent pieces of paper and politely armed police to make men like him do their work for them, while they sat in their comfortable houses wrapped in their comforting ignorance.
Just a machine? Perhaps, perhaps not. But while he had found how to cause electrons and metals to do what others had thought was impossible, he could find no way to escape the will embodied in the armed men beside him, a will that could neither be reasoned with nor pleaded with once set on its course.
The two men stiffened when they saw the robot, oddly human in its pose, their hands now resting on their guns, a current of fear and uncertainty now in their manner. They nodded to him, whether in curt command or silent plea was not certain.
Well, get it over with then, he said to himself, murder your own child and rescue what you can from the wreckage later. The thought startled him. He had not consciously thought of this thing as his child, but now that its death was imminent and at his own hand, he realized that was how it felt.
The slightest tremor betrayed him as he raised the remote. He was about to press the button when the robot looked directly at them and spoke: “Please do not do that, Dr Beldan.”