Checks, Balances – Ch. 3

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Aria had seen numerous photographs of various younger versions of the prehistoric man with the sickle-shaped back. In fact, she’d seen them so many times, so frequently, and over such a long period of her life that she recognized him even though the latest photograph she’d seen of him was from two decades ago.

This prehistoric man was the notoriously reclusive bot engineer, Antonius Wang.

Before the commercialization of his technology, robots in the household were grouped together with appliances. They were the extension of vacuum cleaners and washing machines. You know, those disc-shaped cleaning robots that blindly rolled forward, sucking the dust from your carpet, until they bumped into the wall, and then changed directions? Those used to be the only “robots” in the household.

But ever since Antonius Wang, robots had been equipped with intelligence, and most importantly, with the type of intelligence that had a direct impact on everyday human life. The robots took the shape of humans. They were customized to the owner’s tastes and needs. They became companions.

The most-recently-taken photograph of Antonius Wang had actually been the first of his photographs that Aria had ever seen. In it, he’d already reached the age of one hundred. He’d made a rare public appearance for an honorary awards ceremony celebrating human-bot coexistence. Aria had only been ten years old then, but she remembered the photo clearly. One reason was the online article that accompanied the photo. It mentioned the following as the “Top Five Eccentric Facts About Antonius Wang, the Hermit Engineer”:

5. Antonius Wang’s only son, who recently died at age sixty-five, died from a stroke.

4. Ten years before that, Antonius Wang lost his wife (at age eighty) in an accident; she fell down the stairs.

3. His family never owned an aidbot.

2. Both his son and his wife could have survived if they’d owned an aidbot, which would have guaranteed quick medical attention.

1. Antonius Wang currently lives alone. He owns no usable aidbots and never plans to own one.

His house is filled with artifacts from his glorious past as a successful engineer… blah blah… never up to date… no money… blah blah… probably why he decided to leave his house for once and attend the ceremony, to get paid for an appearance…

Young Aria had stopped reading there.

First of all, the tone of the article had made her furious. Also, that wording. Something about making a list of “Five Eccentric Facts” about a man who had lost his son and wife had felt so wrong. And saying things like “could have survived” and “leave his house for once” had sounded wrong, too, given that a man should be free to choose his house staff and the timing of his leaving his own house without being judged.

However, Aria recalled that as a young child, she did think: This is a bit ironic.

Plenty of elderly and hyperelderly lost their sons, daughters, and spouses before they themselves came within death’s radar. But Antonius Wang, the bot engineer, the father of aidbots? Him losing his son and wife because of a stroke and a fall down the stairs because no aidbot was around? Ironic.

Aria also clearly remembered the sense of responsibility that had filled her little ten-year-old mind. She’d recently had the conversation about the four files with fruit names with her mother, and the article had seemed like a sign.

What a worthy field to explore, that whole field related to aidbots! Antonius Wang couldn’t save his family and didn’t seem interested in saving himself, but he’d saved many others. If Aria could master what he’d started, she could give friends to the hyperelderly who didn’t have any family anymore. Nobody had to be that lonely.

Those were the memories around that photograph. Without it and without everything that Mr. Wang had given the world, there’d be no Aria as she was today, at the airport, craving bacon and eggs, and restless. And as strange as it was, Aria thought: He’s aged just the way I thought he’d age.

Because, when a person aged, there was a trend—a direction, a flow for the process. For example, some people’s eyebrows sagged as they aged. Some people lost significant weight over time. Others gained weight, equally significantly. Not to mention the trends in the increased wrinkles.

There was always some trend in the wrinkle formation. What made each person unique was where the wrinkles ended up looking most conspicuous. In the case of Antonius Wang, the prehistoric man, that location was around his eyes, which he was still keeping closed because the agentbot had taken away his sunglasses.

Antonius Wang had overworked his eyes, a lot, over a substantial period of time. Based on the many biographies that Aria had read on the man and the documentaries she’d watched, such a habit of overworking had begun since Mr. Wang’s high school years. It was said that he was prone to read too much, and in darkness, because he never noticed that the sun had set a long time ago. Consequently, the muscles around his eyes had gone on a strike much sooner than their friends anywhere else in his body.

His eyelids sagged. His temples sagged. The fat under his eyes sagged.

Unintentionally, Aria had been observing this trend of sagging as she’d paid close attention to the many photographs of Mr. Wang.

The subconscious logic behind such observations must have been that by internalizing the outward appearance of a great engineer, she could somehow absorb his essence. It was the exact same logic that compelled her to stare at Lucious Bold whenever she watched a documentary about him.

Anyway, how insane that Aria should run into Mr. Wang here, of all places. He hated crowds. An airport full of people taking off their shoes to reveal their smelly feet had to be his worst nightmare. He was so introverted and private.

Which, in turn, made her wonder why he was wearing what he was wearing. The Antonius Wang she knew would’ve worn a thick coat and a mask and a hat to cover himself as much as possible. He’d have frowned and hurried along to get on the airplane, where he’d take a sleeping pill as soon as he sat down, hoping to dear heavens that he’d stay asleep for the next three, five hours.

But as far as Aria could tell, Mr. Wang didn’t show signs of distress. He just stood there, in his shabby, muddy, wet attire, so ill-equipped for a winter excursion, utterly exposed to both nature and the curious stares of people.

“Sir, sir,” the agentbot kept saying.

It was still trying to make eye contact with Mr. Wang. It pointed at the metal box covered in pink vinyl—the first-ever aidbot mockup.

Aria alternated between standing on her tiptoes and relaxing her feet. Only a few times in her life had she wished she were taller. This was one such time. Because everyone was curious about Mr. Wang and the mockup, everyone was crowding toward them. From what Aria could tell, the mockup was moving, sort of swiveling left and right.

“Your luggage is overweight by 200 grams,” the agentbot said again. “According to the new regulations that took effect three days ago, it cannot board the plane. It never should have reached this point in the boarding process—”

The agentbot stopped. Its visor blinked white. It was processing new information internally.

A few seconds passed, and it said, “Now it’s too late. You cannot check the luggage anymore. You must leave it here or you won’t be able to board.”

There was great authority in its voice. It scanned the mockup once more with its visor.

“Yes. 200 grams exactly. It is not allowed on the plane.”

Murmurs of agreement spread among the crowd. No one questioned the power of the visor. It was capable of scanning any and all people and objects to measure their weight based on size and density. Accuracy? 99.999%.

Mr. Wang didn’t respond. He didn’t open his eyes either. He looked very discontented, very closed-off to everything around him.

The murmurs transformed from agreement for the agentbot to disapproval. With every additional second, the murmurs swelled up in volume. Some were targeted at the agentbot. But others were targeted at Mr. Wang. And yet others, the largest group, directed their disapproval toward the mockup aidbot, which in their eyes, was merely an ugly metal thing that had no function whatsoever.

Aria guessed that she was the only one who’d recognized the mockup and Antonius Wang. Other people—normal people who didn’t spend their free time reading biographies and watching documentaries about an engineer, out of all professions—were probably wondering: why does this super-ultra-hyperelderly man want this ugly box with him on the airplane? Is it a primitively designed bomb?

Meanwhile, what Aria wondered was this: why isn’t the aidbot doing its job of communicating with the agentbot?

Sure, it was just a mockup. Primitive “arms” that looked like shower extension hoses had been attached to the box, along with four wheels as “legs.” But hardware aside, the advanced artificial intelligence that sat inside the box was what made it so special. That was what had enabled the mockup to become the first bot to customize itself to its owner—not merely by memorizing doctor’s appointment dates but also by actively making judgment calls regarding when to talk, at what volume, about what, etc, etc, etc.

But the mockup didn’t seem to be its old self. Apparently, this was why the writer of the stupid article accompanying the awards ceremony photograph hadn’t counted this mockup as an aidbot working for the Wang household.

By now, the mockup either should have used human speech or electronic signals to communicate with the agentbot. The latter was preferred, since communication in a human language didn’t have a great reputation for precision. Signals made up of zeroes and ones worked faster, too, as opposed to broadcasting the bots’ lightning-fast thought processes to the layman’s world. But even verbal communication or really, any sort of signaling method, would have been better than what the mockup was doing, which was absolutely nothing.

“Sir, sir,” the agentbot said yet again.

Because of its perfectly human voice, its repetition sounded eerie. “Your luggage is overweight by 200 grams. It cannot board the plane. It never should have reached this point in the boarding process. And you cannot check it, it’s too late for that.”

“He cannot hear you,” a woman among the spectators said.

“Yeah, take him to a doctor or something,” a man said. “Anywhere but here. He’s blocking the way.”

Suppressed yet crystal-clear concurrences were murmured throughout the crowd. Its size, by now, had multiplied tenfold, with so many people being utterly bored and annoyed by the security check process and welcoming any and all distractions.

“What mean people,” the old lady next to Aria murmured.

The lady still held her loafers in one hand and with the other, clasped Aria’s arm more tightly.

“He needs help,” the lady said.

That was evident.

“Can you help him?” she said.

Then, surprisingly, she pleadingly looked at Aria, whom she’d called “so stern, a little” only minutes ago.

Aria looked around. No one paid attention to her at the moment, not even the I’m-wearing-this-super-expensive-$4,000-suit-so-I’m-important guy. All the bored and impatient people were staring at Antonius Wang and the mockup.

But that didn’t change the fact that everyone’s heads towered over Aria’s. She wore black, looked all stern, and tried to get things done to stop feeling like she was constantly floating and aimlessly wandering—but what could she possibly do for that great engineer? Aria was just a newbie technician. A child, compared to him. No, a baby. No, an embryo.

If a person could have resolved the situation through technical skills, Antonius Wang would have accomplished that on his own. And if a person needed strength or size to resolve the situation, Aria was useless.

But the old lady tugged on Aria’s arm. “You are such a friendly girl,” she said.

Suddenly, Aria’s grumbling stomach ceased to writhe. Compliments did that to you. You forgot survival-related things. There was a higher purpose!

Maybe… maybe Aria could offer her assistance, just in case Mr. Wang found it useful? Even though he looked quite determined to ignore everyone here? Even if he said no, or began yelling at her, she’d forever have a story to tell: Hey, I was stuck at the security check at the airport and got yelled at by Antonius Wang…

And so, Aria firmly nodded at the old lady, who responded with a firm nod of her own and let go of Aria’s arm.

Then, Aria squeezed through the crowd.

“Excuse me. I’m sorry. I’m trying to get to the front. Yes, thank you. Sorry… Excuse me…”

While she fought her way forward, she could hear the agentbot continuing:

“Sir, where is your passport? What is your name? I cannot recognize your face. Where are you going? Is anyone accompanying you?”

Soon, she reached the empty area that separated Mr. Wang, the mockup, and the agentbot from the encircling crowd. By that time, the agentbot’s visor was already blinking red and blue—meaning, it was requesting help from the airport police. That was alarming, but part of a routine procedure.

What definitely wasn’t part of a routine, and therefore more alarming, was that the mockup was still fiercely swiveling left and right without any apparent desire to communicate with the agentbot. The mockup was just repeating the same action over and over again. It didn’t care how the agentbot or anyone else interpreted its movements. There was nothing it wanted to convey. No message, no aim.

This was wrong. The first and foremost purpose of an aidbot was to aid its owner. That mockup was clearly incapable of performing that role. It should have been placed in a museum. A bot that didn’t know what it was doing couldn’t be allowed to roam the streets.

“Wait,” Aria said, entering the empty area.

The agentbot, as well as everyone among the crowd, whipped around to face her.

“Step back, please,” the agentbot said, holding out a hand. “Thank you for your cooperation.”

Aria stopped. “I was just wondering,” she said—then blushed.

All these eyes on her, they made her nervous. She wasn’t the stage-personality type. But for this incredible man who’d created the profession she was in, she had to try.

“I was just going to ask if Mr. Wang needs any assistance,” she said.

“Mr. Wang,” the agentbot said. Its visor returned to its usual black. This meant that it was willing to listen before requesting police help again. “Is that this man’s name? Do you know this man?”

“Well, not personally, but he’s a famous engineer,” Aria said. “Antonius Wang is his full name. He is the first person to ever actually build an aidbot. Look.” She pointed at the mockup. “It’s the first mockup ever.”

The agentbot’s face remained toward Aria. If it could frown, it would have. If it could stare, really stare the way humans did, it would have. But since it only had a visor and no eyes, all it could do was face her and maintain the pause to express its deep disbelief.

“That box cannot be an aidbot,” the agentbot finally said.

Secretly, Aria admired the designer who had devised the agentbot in such a way that it could successfully convey irony and doubt by waiting for the perfect amount of time before reacting to a statement. But this was no time to dwell on admiration.

“It is,” Aria said. “Look it up. Look up Antonius Wang.”

The aidbot’s visor lit up, this time in green and yellow. This meant that it was searching for a piece of information in its digital archives. Within a few seconds, the visor returned to the normal black color. It had probably found a photograph of a younger, eighty-something Antonius Wang with the mockup.

“Indeed,” the agentbot said.

Then it crossed its arms, leaned back, and tilted its head sideways to consider the mockup further.

“But even for a mockup, the thing seems to be far from being related to me,” the agentbot said. “Also, it doesn’t have a model number or a serial number.”

“That’s probably because it was never on sale,” Aria said.

“Oh, here it is. His proteges wanted to have this thing donated to a museum in return for funding, but Antonius Wang refused.”

“Sounds about right.”

“Whatever the case may be, I cannot communicate with it. It’s just dancing left and right. And it exceeds the new weight limit by 200 grams. It cannot board the plane. It never should have reached this point in the boarding process. So, I thank you for your input, but if there’s nothing else, I must call the airport police to remove Mr. Wang and his luggage from this area.”

And promptly, the agentbot returned to blinking its visor red and blue.

“Wait,” Aria said. “Let me try talking to him.”

“That has been impossible for the last ten minutes,” the agentbot said. Its visor didn’t cease to blink red and blue. “It is highly unlikely that you will succeed.”

“Then let me try talking to the mockup.”

The agentbot shook its head. “That is even less likely to succeed. If bot-to-bot communication doesn’t work, human-to-bot communication, which is more complicated, won’t work either.”

“True. But I am an aidbot technician. I think I can access its software.”

The crowd reaction was immediate. Some let out an interested sigh, others held their breaths, and yet others stood on tiptoes to see Aria closer.

A person who works? A person who can formulate a sentence along the lines of “I am so and so,” in which “so and so” isn’t their name, but rather, a profession?

What a rarity. A curiosity worth seeing, as much as the prehistoric man and his weird metal-box aidbot.

“I see,” the agentbot said.

Its visor returned to black. It handed Mr. Wang’s sunglasses and two crumpled flight tickets to Aria.

“But may I make one suggestion?” it said.

“Sure.”

“It might be a good idea to focus on removing 200 grams of the mockup, and fast, instead of trying to communicate with it. Mr. Wang’s flight—flight TXP076—is leaving in an hour and he must board it at least ten minutes before takeoff. And I believe it will take him at least twenty minutes to get from here to the gate.”

200 grams, an hour, ten minutes, twenty minutes—

“So… eh… what?” Aria said. She was real bad at mental arithmetic, especially when people were staring at her.

“I’m saying you have thirty minutes to get them right back here. Them minus 200 grams.”

© 2022 Ithaka O.

All rights reserved.
This story is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
No part of this story may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without written permission from the author.


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