by Veronica Brush
Steve was sweating horribly, even in the air-conditioned lab that they always kept chilly for the sake of the machines.
There were just the two of them in the observation room, him and Nora. Behind the giant one-way mirror built into the wall, some of the most respected people in the world of robotics were watching them. This was going to be the day Steve made history, as long as everything went according to the plan.
Nora was sitting in a chair. Steve had polished her metal skin until it brightly reflected the observation room lights. He had thought about putting Nora in a dress to emphasize her human-esque side, but he feared that it might be perceived as corny. He just wanted her to look her best. Even though she didn’t have hair on her human-shaped head, he thought she was beautiful and he hoped everyone else could see it, too.
Taking several deep breaths, he walked across the observation room. He reminded himself not to trip as he went because he was sure that the mental reminder actually helped keep him from tripping when he was nervous.
He stood in front of Nora, who was still seated, but who had watched him ceaselessly since he entered the room. He had programmed her to focus on movement, much like a real human would. There was a slight problem when two people moved around her in opposite directions. Rather than choose one person to focus on, Nora would simply focus one eye on each person. One time Nora’s eyes had separated and gone so far back in her head, they actually became stuck there. Steve had panicked a little that day. There wasn’t money in the budget for two new eyes. It had taken him hours, but he was able to carefully free Nora’s original eyes and set them in the right place again.
After that, only one person was allowed in a room with Nora at a time.
Speaking extra clearly, but trying to sound natural himself, Steve said, “Nora, I have a present for you.”
From his lab coat pocket, he pulled out a yellow, plastic daffodil.
“This is for you, Nora,” he said as he handed her the flower, sneaking a quick look at the mirror. He hoped someone was taking a picture of this moment.
Nora reached out and took the flower in her hand. She had a set expression on her face that looked pleasantly pleased all the time.
“Thank you,” she said. It still sounded very automated, like those obnoxious spam robocalls. But how she said things wasn’t as important as what she was going to say.
Steve said, “I picked out that flower especially for you. You told me your favorite color was yellow. Do you remember that?”
“Yes,” she replied. “I see yell-low with the most clar-rit-ty of all the coll-lors.”
She still broke up syllables into almost different words. Steve wished he had had more time to correct that before the demonstration.
He continued, “And when I downloaded pictures of different kinds of flowers into your memory banks, you told me the daffodils were your favorite. Right?”
“Yes. The daff-fo-odils were yell-low and I see yell-low with the most clar-rit-ty of all the coll-lors.”
“So now you have your very own yellow daffodil that I got especially for you. So, Nora…” Steve paused to emphasize his next question. “Are you happy?”
“Yes. I am hap-py.”
Steve gave an excited nod to the mirror. But a robot claiming to have an emotion wasn’t quite enough proof.
So he said, “Nora, can you tell me what happy means?”
“Hap-py is a hum-man em-mo-tion that re-sults in a re-lease of plea-asure che-mech-chals in the brain and an in-crease in blood flow from the heart, which can re-sult in in-creas-sed en-er-gy and pro-duc-tiv-vity.”
“Now, Nora, you don’t have a heart or a human brain. So how can you feel happy?”
“I have been pro-gram-med with a brain that in-creas-ses and de-creas-ses func-tion in re-sponse to my em-mo-tions.”
“So you really can feel happy like a human?”
“And you really do feel happy now?”
Steve felt bad for what he had to do next, but it was all part of the demonstration.
He grabbed the flower out of her hand, threw it on the ground and stomped on it.
With another habitual nervous glance to the mirror, he asked, “Do you feel happy now, Nora?”
This time, she didn’t answer.
Steve cleared his throat and asked louder, “Nora, are you sad because I ruined your flower?”
“No,” she said.
Steve was crestfallen. He had planned the experiment so carefully. Yesterday he had run the whole thing through. Yesterday stomping on her flower had made her sad. He couldn’t understand why it wasn’t working today, when it was most important.
Desperately trying to save his experiment, he said, “What do you feel, Nora?”
“You keep giv-ving me flow-wers and then ru-in-ing them. How am I sup-pos-sed to fe-el?”
“Sad?” Steve suggested.
She looked at him, that pleasant expression forced on her face, so he couldn’t read her like he might have been able to in a human.
That’s why he never saw it coming when she punched him in the face.
Even as Steve fell to the ground, he smiled. This was better than Nora explaining how she could feel sad. He had built the first robot that could feel vengeful and had demonstrated it beautifully.
He was already thinking of the grant money he would be awarded. He’d be able to afford anything he wanted. And the first thing he was going to buy was two new back-up eyes just for Nora.