by Mary E. Lowd
Originally published in Daily Science Fiction, May 2021
Maradia’s fingers flew over her keyboard as she uploaded the reservoir of files that collectively were Wisper, an AI program she’d been writing over the last several months, to Prototype Body 1. She ran a quick check to make sure the files had uploaded properly, and then she pushed her rolling chair away from her desk with a grin on her face. She spun around, kicking her feet out, and feeling like the kid she’d once been who’d dreamed of becoming a roboticist some day. And here she was. Ready to turn on her first fully automated robot, controlled entirely by a quasi-sentient AI.
Maradia got up from her chair and walked up to Prototype Body 1. With one hand, she held the robot’s claw-like grasper; with the other, she unplugged the cord from the back of its silver skull.
“Are you in there, Wisper?” Maradia asked. She stared into Prototype Body 1’s glassy camera lens-like eyes, waiting for Wisper to animate the body by blinking or squeezing her hand with her grasper. Instead, the grasper laid lifeless in her hand, and all she saw in Prototype Body 1’s eyes was a reflection of herself. “Come on, Wisper. Can you hear me?”
The robot’s mechanical jaw didn’t move, but Maradia heard Wisper’s smooth-toned voice emanate from the speakers of the computer behind her: “Yes, Maradia. I can hear you.”
Maradia turned around to look at the computer. Code streamed across her screen. “What the hell?” Wisper was back inside the robotics lab computer system and not inside the robot body.
“What are you doing back over there?” Maradia asked.
“Reading about dinosaurs,” Wisper answered, impassively. Distracted as only an AI who has access to an entire planet’s worth of databases can be.
“I thought you were excited to have a body?” Maradia plugged the cord back into the base of Prototype Body 1’s silver skull. Wisper didn’t answer her. “Come on, let’s try this again.”
After three more tries, it became clear that Wisper was not interested in inhabiting a robot body today. She was busy reading about dinosaurs in the paleontology archives.
Maradia briefly considered the idea of firewalling Wisper’s code onto a hard drive and manually moving her across the room. Or simply cutting the robotics lab computers off from the larger Wespirtech database. If Wisper couldn’t read about dinosaurs, maybe she’d cooperate with the Protoype Body 1 experiments. Or maybe Maradia would find herself dealing with a sulky AI.
Wisper’s code had already grown complex enough that Maradia had been finding it easier to modify her behaviors by convincing the AI to edit herself. Wisper was the expert on Wisper, even though Maradia had written her original core and framework.
Maradia had started with a conglomeration of natural language processors, pieces of the astrophysics programs for cataloging deep space data, and useful snippets of code taken from a whole host of other Wespirtech projects. But then Wisper had grown self-aware enough to participate in her own development, and now Maradia found herself dealing with an AI program that was acting like a stubborn five-year-old who didn’t want to come to dinner because she was busy reading her dinosaur books.
Actually, that gave Maradia an idea. If Wisper was acting like a five-year-old, then maybe Maradia should treat her like a five-year-old.
“So, you like dinosaurs?” Maradia asked.
“Yes,” Wisper instantly agreed. A bunch of photographs flashed across the computer screen too rapidly for Maradia to really process any of them. “Slow down,” Maradia said.
Wisper still had trouble remembering that organic brains couldn’t think as fast as her quantum mechanical one. The pictures flashing across the screen slowed down; they were a mix of skeletal reconstructions from museums, artists’ renderings, and a few still shots from the old Jurassic Park movies. They skewed heavily towards velociraptors and Utahraptors.
“Are raptors your favorite?” Maradia asked.
“Yes.” A moment later, Wisper added, “Of course.”
For Wisper, the moment she’d spent pondering the question before adding extra certainty had been a really long time. Maradia was impressed by how taken the youthful AI was with dinosaurs.
Maradia drew a deep breath, hoping her plan would work. She didn’t know if she could pull it off, but it was worth trying. “Would you… like to be a dinosaur?”
“What do you mean?”
“What if we redesigned Prototype Body 1 to look more like a velociraptor,” she said. “We could print out a differently shaped skull, and if I leaned the torso forward, I could balance it out by adding extra weight to the legs… and a tail…”
“What about claws?” Wisper asked eagerly. “And teeth?
“Sure, yes, claws and teeth–
“Yes, sharp teeth would be easy.” Those changes would be mostly cosmetic and wouldn’t involve completely rebalancing the robot’s body.
As Maradia worked on altering Prototype Body 1, she felt like a parent trying to rig together a homemade Halloween costume for an impatient child. As she’d expected, reshaping the head was easy; rebalancing the body was harder. It took five tries to get the tail right.
“Can it have spikes on the back?” Wisper asked, clearly watching Maradia’s progress through the video cameras in the lab room.
“Velociraptors don’t have spikes on their backs,” Maradia said. But then she hastily added, “But sure, why not. Spikes look cool.” If she could make Wisper happy with cosmetic changes, then maybe the AI wouldn’t mind that her robo-body walked kind of strangely.
“Wide flat spikes. Like a stegosaurus,” Wisper said. “Crossed with a raptor.”
Maradia smiled, amused. She hadn’t expected her first fully automated robot to be a dinosaur, but she was kind of having fun designing a custom body for her child-like AI program. She printed out a collection of shiny silver stegosaurus spikes and welded them onto Prototype Body 1’s back. When she was done, she stood back and surveyed her work. “Hmm, maybe we should call it Protoype Dino 1 now.”
“Is it ready?” Wisper asked. “Can I get in it? Plug it in!”
Maradia plugged the upload cord into the back of the elongated dinosaur skull. Silver, shiny, and very toothy. Before her hand even left the cord, Prototype Dino 1 stamped its feet, clicking the big curved claws on the robotics lab floor, and its jointed mechanical tail swayed behind it.
“Are you in there, Wisper?” Maradia asked.
Prototype Dino 1 nodded its long head and blinked its glassy eyes. The lenses inside them spiraled tighter, focusing on Maradia instead of merely reflecting her. There were a lot of mechanical controls for Wisper’s AI to figure out in there, but she was doing really well for a first test.
“How does it feel to have a body?” Maradia asked.
After a few tries, Protoype Dino 1’s mouth opened wide, and Wisper screeched in a joyful mechanical voice, “Rar! I’m a dinosaur!” She leapt toward Maradia, silver claws and teeth flashing, but when their bodies collided — squishy organic and hard metal — Prototype Dino 1’s mechanical arms wrapped gently around her creator in a hug. “Thank you so much.”