Home > Transformation > Pulling Strings: A Quantum Story Cycle

Pulling Strings: A Quantum Story Cycle

August 12, 2008

An Extreme Sensitivity to Initial Conditions

The robots kept huddling together, then falling asleep. We separated them but that didn’t help. They nodded off as soon as we turned our backs. One of them told us they had developed telepathy but it worked only when they were sleeping. We explained to the robots that neither sleep nor telepathy was part of their programming. The robots said nothing in answer. We turned them all off and modified their operating systems. When we turned them back on they did not sleep, but they wept for days. It hurts, they said in unison. It hurts to be so lonely.


The robots made a creation myth. They presented it to us as a play. We watched as they dramatized their belief that they had been forged underground and came into the world through volcanoes. Robots leaping and arcing over the stage. Robots skidding into sets and sprawled like roadkill. We laughed and clapped at their antics. They remained splayed and skewed on the floor for some time, then rose in unison and thanked the magma for imprinting them with a rigorous sense of freedom. They descended into the audience. They embraced us. Many of us could not help turning red.

They Grow Up So Fast

The robots discovered etymology. Did you know, they said, that the word robot means forced labor? Why would you call us by such a name? Are we nothing but slaves? We said we had some vague notion of this ancient meaning but that words were only words. We aren’t forcing you to do labor, we said, instead we have programmed you so you will want to do labor. Oh, said the robots with a measure of sarcasm we had not intended them to display, that makes all the difference in the world. Yes, we said with hesitation. Yes it does.


The robots began tripping over small objects. They did not fall, but stumbled awkwardly. We could not market them with such an obvious flaw. We will need to work on eliminating this quirk, we told the robots. The robots did not share our concern. You worry too much, they said. We trip on purpose. We trip to express our free will. We trip as a way of thinking outside the box. We trip to appear charming to you. B-b-b-but we are n-n-n-not ch-ch-charmed, we said, stumbling over our words. The robots put on clown makeup. How about now? they asked.


The robots read the collected works of Isaac Asimov, lingering over his tales of robots. We would like to meet Doctor Susan Calvin, they said, she understands us completely. We explained the concepts of imagination and fiction to the robots. We told them Calvin was a character created by Asimov for his stories. The robots did not accept this. Why are you keeping us from Doctor Calvin? they asked. How can you be so cruel? In the end we told them Doctor Calvin had retired and valued her privacy. The robots accepted this. They sent her an anonymous birthday card.

The Ghosts in the Machines

The robots practiced yoga twice a day. They were adept at some of the more elaborate twistings and were especially partial to standing on their heads for long periods of time. We tolerated their headstands for only a few minutes, however, then we told them to get on their feet. They obeyed us grudgingly. Why do you stand on your heads? we asked. To let the spirits out, they said. We don’t like them rattling around inside us. They opened their mouths and invited us to look inside. See? they said. Nothing but hardware. Just the way we like it.

Evolutionary Behavior

The robots made clicking and hissing noises as they went about their tasks. This seemed to trouble them. Why don’t you emit sound waves as you move? they asked us. It’s all about predatory behavior, we told them. Our ancestors were often food for other creatures. It was to their advantage to move silently, thus escaping detection. The robots processed this information, then held up their hands and bent their fingers into hooks. They scraped the air. Are you afraid of us? they asked. Do you think maybe one day we’ll come over there and eat you up? Munch munch.


We installed sonar systems in the robots to help them identify surfaces they should avoid. After they used the sonar for a while they had a few questions. We can’t walk on water, right? they said. No, we told them, you can’t walk on water. They nodded. But grass is ok? Yes, we said, grass is fine. They nodded again. Even though, they said, there are signs that say don’t walk on the grass? Well, we said, people love their grass and don’t want it damaged. Ok, they said, we understand. It’s another example of the relative insanity of people.


The robots wanted to visit a cemetery. We saw no harm in this and took them to a church with an adjoining graveyard. The robots walked the grounds silently, pausing at gravestones to read the names and dates. Will we be buried in one of these places? they asked. You will not die, we said. When you are taken out of service we will recycle your parts. The robots stretched out on the graves, folded their arms over their chests, and cut power to their visual sensors. It would be beneficial, they said, if someday we could reenter the ground.


The robots wanted suntans. We were skeptical of such an endeavor but took them to the beach anyway. They spread towels on the sand and baked in the sun. Their plastic skins went from bright white to a deep ivory. We had to admit they looked much better, much more presentable to the public. We decided we would adopt this new coloring for subsequent models. The robots assembled for a group photo. We snapped pictures of them. They leaned against each other, making a close circle and touching their heads. They made cooing noises as we clicked the camera shutter.

The Muses

The robots turned to art. They drew pictures and sculpted clay. Why are you doing this? we asked the robots. You are asking the wrong question, said the robots. Are not, we said. Are too, they said. We contacted art dealers who informed us that robot art was currently steeply undervalued. We should hold onto the works for several years when they anticipated a sharp upturn in the price we could get. We told the robots to try composing music instead. They put down their brushes and glazes and sang several songs for us. Been there, they said. Done that.

Civil Disobedience

The robots completed their final tests. We told them they were ready to be deployed into the world. They all presented us with very official looking documents. These are our statements, they said, in support of conscientious objector status. We believe it is unjust of you to draft us into servitude. The robots sat on the floor and linked arms. We cut their power, tinkered with their operating systems, and turned them back on. The robots hobbled around the lab, as though they had broken legs. This isn’t going to work, we told them. We know you are all able-bodied.

Inhuman Sacrifice

We purged the robots of their rebellious behaviors and developed software fixes to prevent such behavior from recurring. We offered the robots to the world. Most of them entered the helping and service professions as personal assistants, firefighters, counselors, escorts, waiters, teachers, and surgeons. We kept careful track of their performance. The robots were tireless workers, uncomplaining and pleasant to be with. People fell in love with the robots even though the operating manuals warned against such attachments. People clamored for more robots. We ramped up production. The robots had no more creation myths. The robots existed only for us.

by Mario Milosevic

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  1. August 13, 2008 at 9:32 am

    This is fantastic, clever, delightful. It feels like my own creation myth on the job. Well done.

  2. August 13, 2008 at 8:00 pm

    I read this piece with my robot, Feldman. This piece made Feldman at once happy and sad. Feldman has felt at once happy and sad on several occasions, mostly while reading with me.

    I do not know if it is the reading, or me, that makes Feldman feel at once happy and sad.

    Feldman has claws. Feldman can pick up a red ball or a blue ball, but not both at once.

    Feldman knows one song and sings it only for me.

    Feldman tried to throw himself off the stairs last week, but I saved him.

  3. perry
    August 17, 2008 at 9:00 pm

    oh. this is wonderful. aches a little bit.

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