And now, a randomly generated scene…
Nouns: adjustment, son, burn, structure, brass, news, trade
Adjectives: cryptic, inflexible, limited, frequent, semiautomatic
Verbs: underscore, carry, scale
A harried skip to his step, commonly seen in those eager to reach a destination or keen to escape their previous one, Kwan scaled the low stairs in the lobby and jabbed the upward-pointing arrow by the lift. The doors opened moments later, though it had travelled from the thirty-second floor to reach him. This structure – this company – never boasted anything less than the best technology could produce, the very best money could buy. Generally speaking, though, ever-cryptic Benton & Brown had a hand in the production of this very best of technology; money had little to do with its presence here. And money, Kwan fathomed, had become an issue after their most controversial brainchild had been taken off the shelves a year ago. They were staking an awful lot on this new version.
On level twenty-three, Kwan was expected. Still, Song-Hee looked surprised to see him, shaking his hand and her head simultaneously as security and shop staff looked on.
‘You’ve got some brass, working your way through that crowd,’ she said. ‘I was sure, after one look at the fuss down there, you would reconsider my offer to discuss your purchase electronically and have your order couriered straight to you.’
Her eyes flicker to the large windows. At eye-level was a stunning vision of the city in the glow of the late afternoon as it faded. Straight down, Kwan knew the protesters remained with their banners and megaphones, rights activists mingling with bigots and dissatisfied customers, these starkly different minds united only by their abhorrence of Benton & Brown. Amazingly, he’d made it through the front doors unscathed as police officers held off the crush of angry bodies.
‘If you’ll follow me, sir, we can talk about your order.’
Song-Hee invited Kwan into her office. Following the Benton & Brown representative, Kwan bypassed shelves stocked with large, glossy boxes of replacement parts and examples of the new version standing freely at strategic intervals about the shop, their eyes down, un-activated and powerless.
‘Please sit down.’
Kwan sat in the offered plush lounge chair across from Song-Hee’s clinically-clean desk.
‘Our sincerest apologies again for what became of Jessie.’
‘It wasn’t your fault,’ Kwan waved a hand in what he knew was a dismissive fashion. ‘You didn’t lead that mob to my door.’
‘It is remarkable you are unhurt.’
‘Well,’ Kwan said, indicating a cut by his lip, ‘mostly unhurt.’
He winced, jaw still aching. Se-Jin could really land a punch, and Miller had told him to make it look like it hurt.
‘We know it must be hard for you, but we can’t express how pleased we are that you wish to purchase a new version. We’re very excited about our first line – Semiautomatic Sons. They’re not boys, though, of course – gender neutral, all of them. We learnt from that mistake… I have to ask, though, sir,’ Song-Hee said, looking uncomfortable, ‘you will be taking every precautions to keep it safe? We’ve made an adjustment so pain sensors can be deactivated, but that does hinder its learning process. Our products require protection from certain… well, you’ve experienced that unpleasantness yourself.’
He hadn’t. But Kwan had seen the news. The predecessors to Semiautomatic Sons were too human, was the most common gripe. He’d seen more in the streets – an abandoned child-version wearing out, synthetic skin dotted with burns, denied the adolescent upgrades it needed. Owners – parents – trading to other parents. Parents trading to labs. Trades from labs to criminal syndicates. The city had become very unsafe for synthetic persons from the day they were released.
‘Of course I will do everything in my power to protect it – it will be my child, after all.’
‘Well, all of your fresh screenings have checked out,’ Song-Hee said, though she still pursed her lips uncertainly.
‘I have bought a new apartment since the attack,’ Kwan said, producing details on his tablet and sending them to hers. Assured that no unwelcome, frequent visitors with violence on their mind would be able to find him or his Semiautomatic Son for some time, Song-Hee immediately relaxed.
‘Before we finalise the purchase, I just want to double-check my research,’ Kwan said once Song-Hee had updated his customer profile. She nodded, clasping her hands on her desk and smiling professionally at him. Kwan cleared his throat, recalling the questions he’d been instructed to ask.
‘How exactly does the new version differ from the originals?’
‘It’s all in the name, sir,’ Song-Hee said fervently, leaning forward in well-contained pleasure and excitement at the advances they’d made to synthetic persons since the original release. ‘Semiautomatic Sons. They’re still intelligent, learning products; they’ll think as well as the originals, as well as you and me – better, if you let them. But they’re limited.’
‘How so?’ Kwan asked, surreptitiously confirming his tablet recorded every word.
‘They are now subject to inflexible rules that govern their learning, actions and beliefs, rules that can be set and adjusted as you see fit.’
‘I’m sorry for the simple example,’ Song-Hee smiled, well-prepared, ‘but say you had a room in your apartment you didn’t wish your Semiautomatic Son to enter. You can instruct it not to do so, and it never will. It will never question you about it, never wonder about it – never even think of disobeying to satisfy its curiosity. Put simply, such a rule would wipe that room as a subject it is able to learn about.’
‘So, basically, I can make any rule that would keep it from questioning anything I liked?’
‘Yes. Of course, many of the original versions were very obedient, compliant – often it depended on the buyer’s parenting skills.’
‘Of course,’ Kwan nodded, thinking how Miller would laugh if he heard. For him, Jessie had been anything but compliant.
‘But this just ensures their best behaviour. Honestly, sir,’ Song-Hee confided in him, ‘the main reason we’ve limited our Semiautomatic Sons is to keep the protesters happy.’
‘Which ones?’ Kwan asked, smiling crookedly.
‘The ones who are frightened of them,’ Song-Hee sighed, running a hand through her perfectly-combed hair in general frustration. ‘Scared they’re too smart, convinced they’ll take over the city… this should calm them down for a while. But those protesting poor treatment of synthetic persons… this will only rile them up. We’ve as good as taken their freedom to learn, their free will. But there’s fewer activists to worry about,’ Song-Hee shrugged unhappily. Clearly, this seller of synthetic persons sided with the activists. Just as clearly, despite her eager investment in their development, Song-Hee was in the wrong line of business.
‘Of course, these limitations aren’t the only thing that’s new.’
Song-Hee moved on to underscore more new features, Kwan now barely listening. He already owned the information he’d been sent for. Now he just needed the box with the Synthetic Son inside.
‘In response to public surveys, we’ve toned down the human appearance – not by much. Focus groups have said they look partway between dolls and humans, now, and responded very positively to their new appearance. We’ve placed controls where they can be seen, as well – mostly on the wrist and arms – and adjusted their joints so they can’t move as smoothly.’
‘Little things keep the bigots quiet,’ Kwan said, nodding distantly. ‘To remind everyone they’re just machines.’
‘They’re hardly just machines, sir…’
‘And they’re gender neutral now, you said?’
‘Yes, sir. Well, genderless would be a more appropriate term.’
Kwan paid with credit – he would be given the equivalent in cash over the next few weeks – and an employee emerged from a storeroom with an enormous box.
‘Here you are, sir. It’s set with the name Jordan – that was in your customer profile as your next choice after Jessie. We didn’t think you’d want to re-use that name so soon after…’
‘Jordan’s a lovely name.’
‘Make sure to keep your receipt for discounts when it’s time to upgrade to older child-versions and adolescent stages.’
After reassuring Song-Hee, again gone anxious, that his car had taken a lift up to the top level and he was meeting his driver there, Kwan wheeled the box with the new Semiautomatic Son out of Benton & Brown’s synthetic person store.
Miller’s new Semiautomatic Son.
Miller would be glad Se-Jin had convinced him to keep every part after scrapping Jessie. Once he’d heard of the new version’s limiting factors, he’d been quick to take her apart. And there was at least one new feature Miller wouldn’t be so happy about. Kwan would need to replace a few parts before he activated Jordan.