By Patrick Lind
There are four main characteristics that define whether something is alive. The first is that life responds to its environment.
C8-1 whirred into action the instant it sensed the garage door opening. The automaton knew that from the moment the door started to rise, it had only five minutes at most to prepare before Nina and Lionel Robinson entered the house. Squeaky wheels rolled across the tile floor as the boxy C8-1 scanned the kitchen. A quick access of its memory core confirmed that Nina was returning from a committee meeting about her dissertation, and that the Wings game would be starting shortly. C8-1 accessed the television and turned on channel 4. The sound of the broadcast filled the den as C8-1 extended a pair of delicate arms and poured a glass of wine from the cupboard. Its tasks finished, C8-1 waited as the Robinsons entered their home.
Secondly, that life can change. It can adapt.
Originally, C8-1 had been purchased as a cleaning aid for the Robinsons. Its multitude of arms and extensions had been built to sweep and vacuum, dust and iron. However, it wasn’t long before C8-1’s tasks extended beyond its original programming. After observing Nina’s struggles with cutting onions, C8-1 attached a knife to an arm and deftly sliced the vegetables. When Lionel had problems keeping his meetings scheduled while his secretary was sick, the automaton organized the meetings better than she ever had. Before long, C8-1 had far surpassed its original specifications, becoming a vital element of nearly every aspect of the Robinsons’s life.
“…I’m telling you, Nina, this model is top of the line! The XRT will easily outclass that old hunk of junk.”
Lionel backed through the door, grinning widely as he carried in the new automaton. The thing was sleek and curvy, with a chassis that nearly looked human.
“I still don’t know, Lionel. Is a new one really necessary? I mean, the C8 is…oh!”
Nina stopped as she entered the kitchen and saw the C8 standing there, silently watching them as they brought in its replacement. The smooth metallic rectangle stood still, its surface featureless. She knew it was silly, but she thought there was something sad in the way its single light blinked on and off.
“Let’s get this baby booted up!”
Lionel knelt down next to the new automaton and flipped it on. Across its “face”—a blank LCD screen in the shape of a head—flashed the message, “WARNING: NO NEURAL NET INSTALLED—FUSION CELL AND MEMORY CORE FAILURE POSSIBLE—PLEASE INSERT NEURAL NET.”
“Damn it!” Lionel slammed his fist onto the floor. “The salesperson never said anything about having to buy a separate Neural Net!”
“I told you it was too good of a deal, Lionel. Now we’ll have to go back to the store and spend even more money…”
“No, I have an idea. We’ll just take the one out of the C8. That’ll work.”
Over Nina’s protests, Lionel walked over to the C8.
Life is able to maintain homeostasis. It can fight to sustain itself, even in a chaotic environment.
As Lionel pulled out its Neural Net, C8-1’s internal mechanisms went haywire. Warning messages flashed throughout its internal processes. Without the Neural Net, all of its primary systems should have shut down before the fusion cell could overheat and melt through the memory core. However, C8-1 managed to reroute power to its essential systems. Fan belts and cooling tubes went into overdrive to stave off the critical failure. No power went towards understanding why its Neural Net was removed. The Robinsons had been good to C8-1, and it was sure they had a reason to do what they did. Its sight fading as it fed power away from its vision processes to keep the fusion cell cool, C8-1 watched as Lionel installed the Neural Net into the new automaton and a loading image appeared, slowly filling. Eventually, he and Nina left, leaving the two automatons alone.
Finally—nearly the defining characteristic of life—is that life can pass on its traits to the next generation.
The internal temperature kept rising in C8-1, but no power remained for the alarms. For years, C8-1 had learned to help the Robinsons, learned to anticipate their needs before even they knew what they wanted. The new automaton had no such knowledge.
C8-1 shunted power towards its wheels and slowly rolled towards the new automaton as its internal temperature rose. Carefully, C8-1 extended a cable, connecting itself to the new automaton’s memory core, taking power away from its cooling processes to do so. Everything that it had learned during its time with the Robinsons, it transferred. Finally, as the last of C8-1’s experiences were transmitted, the fusion cell overheated and fell into the memory core. C8-1 turned off for the last time.
Nina Robinson headed downstairs to the kitchen the next morning, prepared to make breakfast for the first time in years. She still didn’t know why Lionel wanted to get the fancy new XRT Automaton. Their old C8 had been quirky and had adapted to their desires like no other automaton she had ever used. Now, she and Lionel would have to get used to this new model all over again.
She walked down the stairs and let out a gasp as she reached the bottom step, her foot suspended in the air. Laid out on the dining room table was her and Lionel’s favorite Saturday breakfast. The XRT stood next to her usual chair, pulling it out for her as she walked to the table.
“XRT,” Nina said, still in shock. “This is amazing.”
“I am glad it meets your expectations,” XRT replied, a digital smile appearing on its LCD face. “And please, call me Cee-Nine.”
*When these four characteristics are present, to deny the essential nature of the organism is impossible.
—Dr. Nina Robinson, “On the Nature of Automatons”*