Looking for Sentience

by Mary E. Lowd

Originally published in Luna Station Quarterly, June 2019

“I know you help robots prove their sentience, and I believe I’m sentient. I know I’m not a robot, but I can’t find anyone who helps people like me.”

Light glinted off the tips of the spires that rose from the rocky asteroid base of Kau Meti as Gerengelo’s shuttle approached.  The yellow sunlight caught the metal of the spires in just the right way to gleam enticingly, like a wink and the promise of a shiny, exciting future.  Gerangelo was not impressed.  He was familiar with the promises humans made to themselves and others — with words, with shiny buildings, even with contracts filled with legally binding language.  They made promises and broke them.  Sometimes, though, when they wouldn’t break their own promises, Gerangelo had to break their promises for them — fight his way through with a machete of righteousness.

Gerangelo parked his shuttle on one of the asteroid’s landing pads, and as soon as the shuttle’s engines powered down, the pad descended beneath the asteroid’s surface into the hollowed out center.  It was like a parking garage inside an asteroid.  Gerangelo left his shuttle in the care of one of the Heffen attendants, a canid woman wearing a jumpsuit uniform over her thick red fur.  The uniform was emblazoned with the words GENE-TECH.

Gerangelo took an elevator up into one of the spires.  He may have been a robot, but he looked like an extremely handsome human man — dark hair, dark eyes, chiseled nose, and broad shoulders.  His creator had designed him that way — as her perfect man.  But he’d outgrown her, taken the sentience tests, and then sued her for half of her Robot Emporium.

Gerangelo had become a roboticist in his own right.  In his spare time, he helped educate other sentient robots as to their rights.  Sure, there were plenty of sub-sentient deck-scrubbers roaming around Crossroads Station, keeping the station clean and possessing the intellect of a counting program.  Or a goldfish, in organic-speak.  But there were also sentient robots, designed for more complicated tasks, who had never been informed by their creators or purchasers that sentient creatures — organic OR robotic — could not be enslaved.  Legally, morally, ethically, at all.

Since Gerangelo looked like a human — and a handsome, well-dressed one at that — he was greeted on the other side of the elevator by enthusiastic sales reps.  The human woman and Heffen man weren’t wearing jumpsuits like the parking attendant, but their crisp business suits were equally emblazoned with the all caps word GENE-TECH.

“Welcome to Gene-Tech,” the human said.  Her hair was about the same shade of red as the Heffen man’s fur.  “I’m Laura Edel, and this is Jeffa Kour.  We’re happy to give you a tour of our facilities and talk to you about your needs and what our scientists are capable of.”

“I’ve heard good things,” Gerangelo said dryly.  He’d actually heard horrible things.  Mostly one thing — a plea for help.  Somewhere in this institution, a sentient robot was being enslaved and had managed to sneak a message to Gerangelo’s shop, Robots 4 Robots, on Crossroads Station.  A deeply stirring, heart-felt plea.  At least, it would have been, if robots were inflicted with hearts.

Gerangelo intended to find the robot, help them, and see to it that they had the knowledge and tools needed to free themselves from their human-made captivity.  “I’d love to start with a tour.”  Gerangelo flashed a smile that he knew made human women go all melty inside.  His eyes sparkled at Laura.  And he knew it.  Then he nodded at Jeffa, and the Heffen nodded back.

“Right this way,” Jeffa said, gesturing with a paw fringed by long orange fur that overflowed the tight cuff of his shirt sleeve.

Gerangelo followed the human and Heffen through the halls and stairs and laboratories of the high rise building, tuning out their patter about gengineering and custom-designed organics.  From the outside, this building had looked like a futuristic metal spire.  On the inside it was just an office building.  But the windows did all look out on the gleaming semi-circle of the asteroid belt and a field of stars behind it.  Without an atmosphere refracting the sunlight, the yellow sun — dimmed by photo-reactive glass — and the distant stars shared the heavens.  The view was nice.

Gerangelo tried to stay focused, watching for robots who had the potential for more than they were currently doing.  None of the cleaning robots — which looked like trash cans on wheels — were made from high enough quality materials to imply their brains had the kind of expensive circuitry necessary to support sentience in such small housings.

For a computer to be capable of sentience, it had to be large enough, or the circuitry had to be small enough to allow the processor to pass a critical threshold in terms of operations per second.  The exact number had not been quantified.  Gerangelo had pushed for that ambiguity when he’d joined the board in charge of the sentience tests.  He didn’t want to rule out the possibility of what he called Slow Sentience.  Thinking can happen at all speeds.  The question isn’t:  is it fast?  The question is:  is it self aware?

Nonetheless, there were trends.  And Gerangelo couldn’t tilt after every mechanical windmill.  He didn’t have time.  So, he ignored the cleaning robots.  He wondered if the sentient robot here could be the building itself.  If the computers were networked, then he might not be looking for a robot so much as a sentient computer system.  There were a lot of computers here.

“So far, we’ve only showed you the work rooms where ideas are developed,” the Heffen man woofed.  “Shall we show you the exciting part now?”

“The gallery, if you will?” the human added.  She smiled like she was trying to flirt with Gerangelo.

Belatedly, he remembered that he’d been encouraging her to think they were flirting, in order to keep her cooperative.  So, he smiled back and said, “Please do!”  She wouldn’t have noticed the slight delay.  Human brains didn’t move fast enough to keep up with him.

The human and Heffen showed Gerangelo into a penthouse atrium — the very top of their particular spire.  Stars shone through all the slanted windows above, slightly obscured by the tangled green reflections of the trees and shrubbery filling the large room.  Birds squawked and frogs croaked.  He heard the violin-like chirping of insects.  It was a cacophony of organic noise.

“Well, isn’t that lovely,” Gerangelo said, trying to hide his distaste.

“Everything in here has been genetically tweaked for a specific purpose,” the human said, reaching down to pick up one of the frogs.  It gleamed wetly on her hand like an emerald.  Except squishy and blobby, filled with blood and organs.  Total ick.  Really, nothing like an emerald.  “This amphibious chimera was designed using DNA from a variety of frog-like creatures from different star systems, primarily the Emeraldback Flummox Frog from Orion’s Boot Toe.”

If androids had a gag reflex, Gerangelo would have gagged.  “Gorgeous,” he forced himself to say.  Maybe there was a caretaker robot somewhere in this mess of photosynthetic organisms, feeding the animals and tending the plants, a job complicated enough that it might lead a robot to develop sentience.  He didn’t see any silver gleams among the green though.  It was all squishy green stuff in here, except for the occasional ostentatiously colored macaw or butterfly.

“Don’t you want to know what the frog was designed to do?” the Heffen woofed.

Uh oh, they were noticing that he didn’t care about their designer organics.  “Right, yes,” Gerangelo said.  “I was simply distracted–”  He gestured about at all of the awful organics.  “–by all the… amazing… things in here.”

Laura beamed.  She held the frog toward him.  “Would you like to hold it?”  The frog opened its wide mouth and started singing a syncopated croaking beat.  “Its skin exudes a chemical that humans — like us — find soothing, and receptors in its toes pick up the emotions of the person holding it and translate them into song.”

“It’s a mood frog!” the Heffen woofed.

“That is so very delightful,” Gerangelo said, backing away.  “But there’s so much in here…  It’s a little overwhelming.  Do you mind if I look around by myself for a while?”

The human and Heffen sales reps exchanged a glance, and the Heffen shrugged.  The human looked a little hurt that Gerangelo didn’t want to keep flirting with her.  But she said, “Sure, we’ll be right over here if you have any questions.”

The Heffen added, “And for when you’re ready to start talking about your own project.  We can give you lots of information about options and pricing.”

Gerangelo took off into the rainforest of designer trees.  There had to be a robot somewhere in here.  Interacting with organics was notoriously difficult work — organics could be so finicky and erratic.  They required a delicate touch and keen intelligence, exactly the ingredients that often led to a robot developing sentience.  A sad irony.  Working with organics led robots to develop the kind of intelligence that made them not want to work with organics.

Gerangelo stumbled through the forest, tripping over tree roots and wishing he were back on the smooth metal floors of Crossroads Station.  He aimed for the far side of the atrium; perhaps there was a computer bank with atmospheric controls hiding over there?  That could be a complex enough process to lead to the development of sentience.

Gerangelo did find a computer bank, and he poked at it briefly, typing a few test commands into the console.  Of course, it was password locked, but he had a knack for hacking and finding backdoors into programs.  If there was a self-aware intelligence hiding in the computer’s software, it would want to reach out to him.  After all, someone had summoned him here, asking for help.

“Ehks-scoooze may,” a rough voice spoke from behind.

Gerangelo turned around to see a fuzzy brown creature, about half his height, with a long muzzle and round ears, staring at him from soulful eyes.  It looked a bit like a wolverine or badger, except it was standing on hind legs, shoulders slumped forward but still, bipedal.

“I’m not one of the workers here,” Gerangelo said.  He gestured vaguely back the way he’d come.  “There are some of your people over there.  If you’re… hungry… or whatever, go bother them.”  Organics were always getting hungry.

“Aihr yooo Geh-ran-geh-low?” the badger creature spoke each syllable carefully; the Solanese language did not fit the shape of its muzzle well.

“Yeees…”  Gerangelo recoiled from the gengineered monstrosity.  He could see where this was going, and he didn’t like it.  Organics were bad enough, but now humans were gengineering quasi-sentient organics?  Weren’t they satisfied by all of the alien races they’d met out here in the stars?  Naturally evolved organic sentients like the canine Heffens abounded on the Goldilocks planets in the galaxy.  Human scientists didn’t need to try to create more.

Gerangelo already had his hands full defending all of the fully sentient robots that humans tried to enslave, and now he had quasi-sentient organics reaching out to him as well.  Robots were his work; organics should, at least, take care of their own kind.

“Cawl-ed yooo for halp,” the badger said.

“I work with robots,” Gerangelo said.

The badger started to speak again but got frustrated quickly.  “Taw-ck haerd.”  The badger shuffled forward and put its paws to the computer console.  It had long, curved claws that clattered against the keys on the keyboard as it typed.  But it typed fast.  And words spilled across the computer screen in a voice much more like the one that had reached out to Gerangelo asking for help originally.

“The keepers don’t know I can type.  They don’t know I can use the computer.  They didn’t like it when I tried to talk to them, so I’ve kept it secret.  I found information about you on the intra-stellar info-net.  I know you help robots prove their sentience, and I believe I’m sentient.  I know I’m not a robot, but I can’t find anyone who helps people like me.  Please, help.”

Gerangelo stared at the words on the screen.  These were not the words of a quasi-sentient.  They were the coherent, well-reasoned words of a full sentient.  He looked at the bear-like creature again.  It was staring up at him with hope in its eyes.  Not the blind-faith hope of one of the dumb pets that humans kept on Crossroads Station.  This was the considered, delicate, easy-to-break hope of a creature who was fully aware that hope could be crushed.

There was no real choice here.  There was only one right thing to do, no matter how little Gerangelo liked it.

“What’s your name?” Gerangelo asked.  One of the first questions in the sentience tests.  Respondents didn’t have to have a name to prove their sentience — but they had to give a considered response to the question.

“Zhey cawl Nanny Beahr.”  The badger-like creature shook its head.  “Nawt like zhat.  Ai cawl… Nahn-see.”

“Nancy?” Gerangelo asked, checking he’d understood right.

The badger creature nodded eagerly.  “Saw in vid, fouwnd ohn info-net.”

“You spend a lot of time on the info-net when the keepers aren’t around?” Gerangelo asked.

Nancy nodded.  “Yooo halp?”

Gerangelo smiled grimly.  “Yes, I’m going to help you.  Are there any others here like you?”

“Nawt shure,” Nancy said.  “Nawt zhis roooom.”

Gerangelo would have to get a warrant to check the entire place out, including their projects under development.  That could wait.  For now, he needed to get Nancy out of here.  He held out a hand — perfectly designed to mimic a human’s hand, right down to the creases and veins in the skin, all artificial of course — and took ahold of Nancy’s coarse paw.

Nancy had rough paw pads under her crescent claws.  At first, she seemed surprised by the robot man’s gesture, but then her paw squeezed his hand.  He knew how to comfort organics.  That had been part of his original programming, and it would always be with him.  He smiled at her again, more softly, and her eyes sparkled with gratitude.  Someone had finally listened to her.

Gerangelo led Nancy back through the gengineered rainforest.  He found himself wondering whether the trees would develop sentience and come crying to him for help next.  When he got back to Laura and Jeffa, he said, “I’ve found what I was looking for.”

“Excuse me?” Laura asked with an intonation so similar to the one Nancy had used to get Gerangelo’s attention that he could hear the influence the keeper woman had had on the developing creature.  An unintentional mother.  Cold and uncaring.  Laura didn’t think of Nancy as a person, and would never have seen her as a child — only a product.

But Nancy might well have seen the keepers here as parents of a sort.  She had limited alternatives, given the banks of test tubes and incubators Gerangelo had seen in the lower laboratories.

Gerangelo used his free hand to pull a digi-comp out of his pocket and held it forward so Laura could inspect it.  “I’m a licensed member of the Sentience Board, and I believe GENE-TECH has been harboring sentients here without affording them their full rights.”

“We don’t have any robots,” Jeffa woofed.  His triangular ears had splayed out in bewilderment.

“I didn’t say robots.”  Gerangelo gritted his teeth.  Organics were so imprecise.  It drove him crazy.  “I said sentients, and the Sentience Board doesn’t specify that applicants to the sentience tests be robots.”  He looked down at the badger creature holding his hand.  He was developing a fondness for her, simply from seeing how much she must have struggled through to reach out to him.  She had rewritten herself as a person in her own eyes, in spite of being raised to see herself as… nothing.  “I believe that Nancy here qualifies for an initial examination.”

“But the Nanny Bear Project and its prototype is the property of one of our biggest investors!” Laura exclaimed.  Her eyes flashed with anger.

“Sentients are never property,” Gerangelo said.  “So your contract with your investor became null and void when Nancy developed sentience.  Assuming she has.  Check my credentials.”

Gerangelo tilted his head to the side as he watched Laura and Jeffa study the credentials in his digi-comp.  Their faces showed increasing frustration.  They could see that their company was in trouble, and there was nothing they could do about it.

“We’ll have to double-check all of this,” Jeffa woofed.

“Of course,” Gerangelo said.  His authority in this realm was iron-clad.  Though it might take a few hours for the bureaucracy here to realize that, come to terms with it, and release him to take Nancy back to Crossroads Station on his shuttle.

Humans were a strange lot.  They made rules, like sentience must be respected in all forms, and then they strained against following those same rules.  It was bad programming.

“In the meantime–” Gerangelo looked back down at Nancy, still gripping his hand tightly with her fuzzy brown paw. “–would you like to show me around… your home?”  He had no desire to examine this hideous rainforest further, but Nancy needed a chance to say goodbye to her stifling cradle.

He’d be introducing her to a whole new world — a whole universe full of possibilities — shortly.  He had no doubts she would pass the sentience tests and become a full citizen of the Human Expansion.  The sentience tests were not hard to pass, not if an individual truly wanted to pass them.

The true test of self awareness is the belief that you have it.  And Nancy — although not a robot — was one of the most compelling examples of emergent sentience that Gerangelo had ever seen.

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