Welcome to Flash Pulp, episode one hundred and ten.
This week’s episodes are brought to you by the the new Nutty Bites Podcast
Flash Pulp is an experiment in broadcasting fresh pulp stories in the modern age – three to ten minutes of fiction brought to you Monday, Wednesday and Friday evenings.
Tonight, we present a tale of futuristic justice.
Flash Pulp 110 – Deliberation, Part 1 of 1
“Well, they all look like over-sized mars rovers, and they all roll around killing cows – that’s about it, mostly.”
The prosecutor smirked at the rough-handed man currently on the stand.
“A country understatement if I’ve ever heard one. You’re familiar with the farm’s operations? With the unit itself?”
“I’ve been working on the Lancaster’s spread for fifteen years, although only with, uh the unit, for the last four.”
“- and you knew Gregor Petrov personally?”
“Yeah, I knew him. We worked together five days a week for seven years.”
“What about the day he died?”
“I wasn’t actually on-shift when it happened, but the only surprise was that the robot had done it – I figured it would have been one of the other guys.”
“You were the sole maintenance man for the farm?”
“Well, no, I mean, I’m definitely the guy who does the hard stuff, but most folks on a farm know how to twist wires and pour gas.”
“Fine, but for something as complex as a portable abatoir…?”
“Yeah, sure, I was probably the only one who knew enough to plug a laptop in and poke at the interface, and I did a lot of the mechanical maintenance, but that doesn’t mean I have clue one about his electronics. I’m sure you know how to set your microwave’s clock and can replace the spinning platter if it cracks, but that doesn’t mean you can build one from scratch or even fix it if someone dumps a mug of coffee in the back. We have seven of the units, and Grumpy is the only one I’ve ever seen acting weird.”
The lawyer took a sip of her water, then re-approached the witness box.
“Do you think what happened was a mechanical or software failure?”
“Do you think this robot was programmed to kill?”
The cowhand licked his lips.
“Not especially. People might not have liked Gregor, and I could possibly see someone wanting to do him in, but changing Grumpy that much would be way out of my league, and I know I’m well ahead of the rest of the pack back at the ranch.”
“Do you think the company that built it might be culpable?”
“Well – not exactly. I don’t know how their learning software works, but I have to wonder.”
* * *
The technician which now occupied the hot-seat pulled at his tie, considering his answer.
“Before this incident we’d only had one human fatality. The units use something we call the adaptive education matrix to learn to make smarter decisions, but only in areas related to what they do. They learn to recognize who they need to be partnered with, and some of their human companions preferences – it learns the map of the area it operates in… but certainly nothing that we might think of as emotions. It’s mostly just a computer.”
“Doesn’t it have something of a sense of humour as a sort of emotional assistance to the human it’s working with in the slaughter house? My understanding is that it picks up jokes from the people it works with and passes them on?”
The tech shifted in his seat before replying.
“Sort of – all it’s really doing is analyzing a history of how often the people that it knows know the punchline interact with the person its assisting, then, if it thinks there’s a low incidence of crossover, it’ll try it out.”
“Frankly, Mitch, that’s how I tell my jokes as well.”
“We’ve been over his code with a fine toothed comb, repeatedly. After what happened last time, we actually reformatted him, just in case. We’ve got over ten-thousand of these guys out in the wild, and this is the only one that’s killed a man. If it hadn’t been for the fact that one of our quality assurance ladies has an obsession with perfection that drove her to memorize his serial number, we wouldn’t even have been aware that it was the same unit.”
“You refer to it as a “him”, why is that?”
“Oh, I, uh, don’t mean it, it’s just that after a long while of working with a ‘bot you start to project – it’s probably because the milkers we build have suction cups, and the slaughterers have a pneumatic spike.”
“What happened the last time your product killed someone?”
“Well – it was ruled an accident. We ran tests; we stripped him down; in the end we couldn’t pinpoint what the problem was. You can’t always anticipate what’ll happen when you bring that many interfaces together, but it was obvious from the volume of alternates we had in the field, and the number of man-hours logged without incident, that it was a fluke.”
“- and still a fluke the second time?”
* * *
It took the jury four days to determine they weren’t going to come back with a proper verdict, and the press were relieved that a hung jury meant they could keep the ratings going for at least a few more months.
When the announcement was made, Grumpy rolled gently back and forth, twice. The robot’s lawyer put a hand out onto the unit’s boxy shell – unbeknownst to both, a Time cover in the making – then directed his client out of the courthouse.
The defendant rolled past the cameras without comment.
Flash Pulp is presented by http://skinner.fm. The audio and text formats of Flash Pulp are released under the Canadian Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 2.5 License.