By Jeff Robinson

The street was dark, but the alley was even darker.  He couldn’t see his hand in front of his face.  What a place for a meeting, he thought.  He hated things like this.  Why couldn’t his contact manage a rendezvous in a reasonable place? He took out his cell phone to use as a flashlight. Its light was barely bright enough to reveal trash cans and dumpsters along the edge of the alley. 

Something black and sticky coated the floor of the alley and he tried to advance further without touching or brushing up against anything that might ruin his expensive shoes and new suit.

Suddenly something blocked his way.  Looking up he, saw what it was.

"What? What are you doing here?" he asked.

"We know what you were going to do," said a cold mechanical voice.

"Backing away in horror the man said, "No. it’s not true. I wasn’t going to tell anyone."

There came no reply, but a metal arm snaked out and grabbed the lapels of his coat.  There was a loud cracking of electricity, followed by the odor of burnt hair and ozone. The man's cell phone fell to the ground and the alley went dark as darkness consumed the man’s final moments of awareness.


Detective Sam Wheat arrived on time. His transfer papers from the Pittsburg police to Detroit  clutched in his hand.

The room was a large one. Windows on one side of the police squad bay faced another building of windows.  There were a dozen rows of desks, half of them occupied, most of them piled with stacks of papers threatening to fall over.

Approaching the man he had been directed to at the doorway, he said, "Hi, I’m Sam Wheat, I was told to report to a Lieutenant Grady?"

"Yeah that’s me." Grady was a grey hard square jawed cop who looked as hard and grevelled as his voice was.

"So, welcome to the Detroit police… where are you from again?"


"Oh yes, I remember… degrees in engineering and criminal justice.  You came because …."

"Of your robots… or should I call then Semi-autonomous Remote Observation Platforms."

Several nearby people in the squad bay laughed out loud. So did Grady.

"What… ?"

"We don’t call them that," said Grady.  "Only outsiders do. Here in Detroit they are just called "Pobots"


"The official acronym SAROP died a quick death.  People started calling them police robots, polbots, but it got shortened to Pobots for poor man’s robots"

Laughing again, Grady said. "Cause they don’t look like robots. Not a single unit is humanoid.  They’d all be rejected from any credible science fiction movie.  Most of them look like armored parking meters on wheeled platforms."

"I thought they looked like metal fence posts on Segways" said Sam

"Ahh… you’ve seen them"

"And studied them some.  But they really aren’t robots are they? despite what they’re called?"

"No, they’re just mobile cameras. Or that’s what they started out to be.  What with the highest crime rates in the country at the time, we wanted surveillance in the city to be like the UK, where they have cameras on every intersection in London… but we didn’t have enough, so we just made the cameras mobile

"And… over time, we added a few extra features.  But they’ve greatly helped reduce crime. Part of the reason for that reduction is that people think of them as robots, even if they aren’t.  Just their presence tends to act as a deterrent.  When they show up in a trouble spot, the trouble often disperses. After all, everything’s being photographed.  So we sort of encourage the idea that they’re more than they really are.

"In any case, you picked a bad day to start here."

"What’s up?"

"A small crisis.  A murder last night, an odd one."

"Odd how?"

"People are claiming a pobot killed someone and somebody is in an uproar"

Grady pointed at the muted TV on the other side of the squad bay which was tuned to one of the cable non-stop news channels.

"Hey" shouted Grady, "somebody turn that up for a second."

"But it’s just repeating what it said a half hour ago."

"Turn it up, Llockwood.  Don’t argue."

The man begrudgingly walked over to the TV and turne dup the volume.

There was a politician at a podium, shouting.  "It’s like I’ve been telling everyone since I was elected to office, these mechanical policemen are a threat.  They’re out of control and need to be removed from the streets.  They’re a hazard and they’re unconstitutional.  Human beings should be responsible for protecting citizens of this fair city, not automated machines.  Human beings can be held accountable for decisions.  We should be able to depend on people to exercise judgment to fight crimes.  Authority to report crimes, write parking or speeding tickets, should reside with people not mechanical machines.  The murder last night, committed by one of these armed robots is the third in the last month.  The fact that the victim this time was a member of my own staff shows that I’m being singled out because of my continued opposition to these abominations.  These robots have gone rogue and are out of control.  They’re taking matters into their own hands and are committing vigilante killings, murder for their own ends.  I’m therefore calling for an immediate recall of all mechanical police units until they can be reprogrammed to be safe. "

"Okay turn it off," shouted Grady

The TV went silent once more.

"So is it true? D" asked Sam. "Did a robot…er… pobot… kill someone last night?"

"No, not likely."

"But he said there were three murders."

"That’s Councilman Richard Brackhurst and he’s been lobbying to get rid of the automated patrols of pobots since he was elected two years ago.  If a cat dies, he blames it on pobots. Ignore him.  Most everyone else does.  Rumors suggest he has organized crime connections and that’s why he’s against Detroit’s pobots… because they’ve been so effective in reducing crime.

"But what about the murders?"

"There have been three deaths linked to pobot activity, but they’re still under investigation.  Thanks to the protestations of our distinguished Councilman, they’re being blamed on the pobots, but there’s never been a confirmed incident of a unit ever harming anyone.

"But, actually, this may be a good place for you to start.  You came out here to learn about our mechanical police support.  This would be a good way to break you in.  Come on down to the  computer command center in the basement and you can work with Stan, Dr. Stan Ackerman, the brains behind the whole pobot enterprise.

"Put your stuff on that desk over there.  That’ll be yours."

Pausing briefly to drop his briefcase and backpack on the desk, Sam hurried to catch up to Lt. Grady. Together they took an elevator to the basement.

Once there, they exited to a small brightly lit alcove that was empty except for another security keypad and a locked metal door that would make a bank proud.

Grady entered a long sequence of numbers and then placed his hand on a palm reader. The door cycled open soundlessly.
Grady stepped through and said, "Don’t worry. We’ll get you set up with a code here in the next day or two.  Come along. I’ll introduce you to Stan." 

The room was a large robot lab, a cross between a computer room and a garage. Nearby on a large metal table laid a half-dissembled mechanical unit.  A thin, gray haired man picked at something in the mechanical unit with some kind of measuring probe, but didn’t look up.
"Stan. I have someone for you to meet."

There was no reply.

"I’d like to introduce you to Sam Wheat."

Glancing up the gray haired man asked, "The engineer cop?"

Setting how his probe, he extended his hand.

"Wonderful, I read your resume and I’m the one who requested that you be hired.  I rarely find applicants with your background and interests. I thought you might be interested in the work we do here."

"Yes, I am."

"Actually it is pretty rare to have applications at all anymore.  The size of the Detroit police department has grown smaller every year for the past decade, what with all the budget cuts... and the lower crime rates. As pobots reduce crime, there’s less demand, or appreciation, for our services.

"Well, I’ll let you two talk. Said Grady. "I have some political damage control to deal with.  Anything on this poor fella before I go meet with the press that have just been riled up by our distinguished Councilman Brackhurst?"

"Yes, actually.  This is the unit that was found by a body late last week.  The victim, a middle aged black male,  had been electrocuted… and unfortunately, so was the pobot.  It was blamed on the pobot, of course.
"So could the pobot have killed the man?" asked Sam.

"Normally, no… but if you look here, this unit has been modified."

"You see, about 60% of our pobots have been outfitted with some form of non-lethal anti-personnel devices.  Most of them are armed with tazers.  A few units placed with SWAT and riot suppression teams also have rubber bullets, stun bags, tear gas or pepper spray.  But nothing that would be lethal.

"But look at this," said Stan, picking up the probe and pointing.  "This tazer has been modified.  There’s a much larger capacitor so it can discharge a greater  voltage.  The timing interlocks have been deliberately shorted so that instead of a one or two second burst, this unit could discharge continuously."

"And that that means?"

"That means this one could have actually delivered a fatal shock, but whoever did this work didn’t add additional installation around the modified unit.  The discharge shorted out internally and destroyed the unit itself.  Whoever did this knew a little about the units, but not enough. I’d say someone is tinkering with pobots to use them for their own purposes.

"Can you tell who or when?" asked Grady.

"No, the short fried the neural networks and data logs.  Nothing’s  salvageable."

"But the discharge killed the man?"

"No, the discharge knocked the victim out, but the coroner’s report concluded the victim died of a blow to the head with a blunt object.  This was a setup."

"Well, keep working," said Lt. Grady has he exited the lab. "Give me a full report was soon as you can."

Stan went back to poking at the unit.

"You didn’t tell him everything," said Sam.

"What do you mean?" said Stan glancing up with a grin.

"I saw you hesitate.  I’ve been a detective in Pittsburg for 12 years and I may not know a lot about your robots… pobots.  But I’ve conducted enough interrogations and interviews to see when someone’s hiding something."

"A good cop, then," said Stan.  "Ok… let’s set if you’re as good an engineer as your resume claimed. Come over here and look at this."

Stan peers into the innards of the disabled units.  Everything was just a maze of wires and cables, circuit boards and metal components.

"Uh, how about a little orientation here" asked Sam.

Stan laughed and pointed quickly  with his probe to different locations as he said, "Communication unit, motor control interface, main CPU, cognitive neural net, internal database, power supply, antipersonnel circuits, camera gimble and visual perceptual systems, GPS unit, hardware security encryption unit and power supply module."

Sam studied the unit again.  "Well, the GPS has been disabled."

"Right this unit has been off the grid for three weeks."

"Off the grid?"

"Yes, all units have location transponders that continually report their locations.  This one disappeared three weeks ago."

"Does that happen often?"

"Sometimes. Once a unit fell into a sinkhole beneath an underpass. It couldn’t get out and was in a location where cell phones and wireless couldn’t reach.  Since it was stuck, it just sat their unit its battery finally died.  Wasn’t found for almost two months when repairmen came to fill in the sinkhole.  Another time, a unit investigating a fire rolled over power lines from a transformer that had exploded.  It shorted itself out.
"Doesn’t happen often.  These units are incredibly durable. Still, units drop of the grid all the time, usually in places where cell phones and wireless doesn’t work. But they return to the grid later when the move to another location.  That is why the units have to be semi-autonomous.  They have to function for short periods of time entirely on their own when they’re not on the grid.

"But they’re pretty much autonomous even when they’re on the gird too.  Isn’t that right?"

"Yes. Only rarely do computer operators take direct control of a unit. Actually, there’s a total of only ten actual control stations… up on the top floor. They’re almost never manned.   Operators only take over when there are exceptional situations, like bank robberies, bomb threats, or hostage situations.  In those cases, someone will take over a unit. Most of the time, the units function on their own.

"Anyway, back to our mechanical autopsy here.  So you noticed that the GPS was disabled. What else?"

"Well, this unit looks different than the others."

"It is. Someone replaced our communication module with a different one."

"Because they can’t use ours.  See this?", said Stan, pointing at a blackened module.

"This is the security encryption unit.  It’s tamper proof.  It stores the password for a symmetric security key that’s used for all communications to and from pobots. No one can communicate with, eavesdrop on, or control any unit because all signals are encrypted.  Only the control stations upstairs can take over a unit."

"So someone tried to bypass the security, and fried it.  Then they swapped out the comm unit and rewired access to the motor controls.  And they beefed up the taser to make it lethal. But why?"

"Well, obviously so somebody could have their own, remote controlled pobot.  I don’t know for what purpose, but murder seems to be a part of it."


Brackhurst entered the warehouse. He’d expected to meet people here, but the place seemed empty.  Then two men emerged from the shadows at the far end of the large half lit room.

"So you got our message," said one of the men.

"Fuck you," replied Brackhurst.  "Where do you get off killing one of my staff members?"

"He was going to go to the cops."

"How do you know that?"

"We’ve been monitoring conversations of some key people lately.  He was going to turn you in"

"Oh," said Brackhurst, his eyes dropping to the floor as his bravado faded.

"Don’t worry.  We took care of it.  Anyway, you have other problems"

Brackhurst grew visibly pale.

"We paid you a great deal of money to use your influence to  get rid of these pobots. But we haven’t seen any results."

"It’s not easy," said Brackhurst. "People have  gotten used to these contraptions and feel safer with them around."

"Unfortunately, they’re seriously cutting into our business.  Every time we try to meet to do business, several of them show up and photograph us. It’s getting almost impossible to meet, to transfer goods or deliver materials."

Councilman silently began to chew his lip

"Don’t worry. We’ve decided to take a more direct role in getting rid of the robots"

"We’re not going to tell you now.  You’ve seen what we can do. Just crank up your campaign to high gear and we’ll handle the rest."


When Sam returned to Stan’s lab, he found the old man working on computer terminal.
"Sorry to interrupt," said Sam, "but the organized crime unit informed me the last pobot murder victim was an informant on their staff.  He was on his way to deliver some information about Councilman Brackhurst, but he was killed before he could deliver the information."

"Unfortunate. What about the other victims?"

"Other detectives upstairs already checked them out, but no one can find any connection between any of them. One was a petty thief with a long rap sheet. The second a guy also has a long criminal record, petty stuff, burglary, grand larceny, breaking and entering.  Allegedly he ripped off someone in a local drug deal and had been hiding out."

"Looks like someone found him"

"The last victim was an aid to Councilman Brackhurst and a potential informant. But I can’t find any connection between them."

"Okay then. Come look up what I’ve found," said Stan.  "I’ve been looking for patterns in pobots that have dropped off the grid.  Right now eight have gone missing for more than a week.  The most we’ve ever had at any one time.  I’ve overlaid the last known positions of those eight on a map of the city.  Notice anything?"

"Well, yeah… the disappearances are in only three locations."

"Right..almost equidistant apart.  Those three stops are blind alleys, or wireless dead zones, rarely frequented by pobots"
"Ambush points"


"Someone is collecting pobots"

"To experiment and tinker with?"

"Right.  Now watch this.  I’m  going to plot the location of all pobots in the city and play them at high speed. Tell me what you see."
Sam watchd the dots crowd the screen.

"Wow… that’s a lot of dots. How many is that?"

"About 10,000."

"Really?  I didn’t know there were so many."

"It’s sort of classified. People aren’t supposed to know and we don’t publish numbers. We have more than one per city block now we try to keep them evenly spaced since  all of them are mobile.

"When we started there were only a handful but we got lucky. First we got a grant from the government to automate when our staff was being cut. Then two of the biggest car manufacturers in Detroit closed up and left a ton of robotics equipment that they actually donated to us as a tax write-off.

"At the same time the University of Michigan opened a robotics facility with money from DARPA and the Department of Commerce. So, we gave them the money from our grants and donated all the robotics equipment from the car companies.  The research staff at the University created a robotics lab with a small the manufacturing line that produced the initial robots for us.

"The units were such a success that soon foreign investments started pouring into the University, but we owned 50% of the lab.  We sold our rights to the facility on one condition.  That for every unit they built from someone else, a company or a city, or another country, that we would get one unit free.  Every semester new graduate units enroll and train and build robots.  The ones they sell keep their manufacturing line open and we get one unit from every two they build.

"The grad students there have gotten quite creative in their designs and there are now 18 different types of units.  80% of them are D-class units... D for durable.  Those are the armoured metal posts you mentioned."

"But why so many?

"Because they work.  Since the units have a 360 field of vision and are mobile, they can go almost anywhere and digitally photograph anything.  If a crime is committed in a building, you can almost guarantee that there will be a record of someone coming or going. Narrows down the suspects. Their very presence is the best crime deterent we have ever found.

"Anyway watch the screen again, but let me adjust the display to only show locations of pobots within 50 meters of one another."

Now there were far fewer dots on the screens. A couple hundred at most.  It made sense.  If they are roughly kept equally spaced they wouldn’t get close to one another very often.  But there were patterns.

Two dots would appear, meet and then depart disappearing form the screen

These types of interactions occurs a lot. But sometimes many pobots would approach one another and gather.  Not for very long. But sometimes dozens would collocate and linger before dispersing.  Sometimes a gathering would occur and as some left others would arrive and the patterns of contacts would sweep across the city in a slow motion wave.

"What did I just see" asked Sam.

"That is swarming activity. It’s a phenomenon associated with software upgrades we made last year."


"We already had software written to units could meet an share information.  That was we could update a few units and pobots would meet other units and pass the patches along.  It made upgrades easier. But we also had a problem with too many units converging on one location sometimes.  If there were, say a fire or a traffic accident, nearby units would converge leaving entire sections of the city depleted of pobots.  We therefore wrote software so units would be aware of the other units nearby. If a few units converged on one place, others would shift around them.  They don’t want to get too far away from other units, but don’t want too much congestion either.  So they are both attracted and slightly repelled by nearby units, though they can meet… but not too often or in numbers that are too great .

"Anyway when we added that software, the massive congregations of hundreds of units stopped, but these swarming patterns emerged. You now… swarming like flocks of birds and schools of fish.  They gather and move depending on how others move. The movements can become quite elegant and form complex patterns"

"But they’re not actually programmed to do that?

"No.  It’s what we call emergent behavior.  Unexpected patterns in complex systems."

"I don’t understand how things being complicated would cause patterns like this."

"Not complicated…. complex…. from complexity theory.  Complex systems are very special.  For a complex system you need four things; diversity, connectivity, interdependence, and adaptability.  In complex systems, patterns appears that are often unexpected or unpredictable.  We have all of that here… and the swarming phenomenon is an unexpected result"

"Watch again…. this time I’ll show those three locations where the eight units disappeared

The patterns displayed again, but some seemed clustered around the locations Stan highlighted.

"Did you see the converging patterns around those locations," asked Stan


"Well I checked and those swarms did not occur in those locations until after the eight units disappeared.  Since then units converge there with more frequency."

"What does that mean?"

"Well, pobots have neural networks, so they can learn patterns…of accidents in certain locations or times of day, of crimes in more common locations and times, and so on.  The ability to learn has helped the units to actually anticipate where crimes or accidents might occur and they can show up beforehand because of the patterns they’ve learned.

"So why are they converging on those spots?"

"Well, since they’re aware of other units,  of how close or how far others around them are, then they might notice when their neighbors and drop off the grid."

Sam looks confused

"I think they might be looking for their missing companions."


Sam left the station late.   His apartment was only three blocks away and he used the time to stretch his legs and think. Oblivious to his surroundings, he past darkend shops and almost bumped  into a D-series pobot on the sidewalk.

The unit rolled back about a foot and said "Excuse me, sir" in a cold, monotone mechanical voice.

Sam nodded and grinned.  He knew the units had about fifty standard recorded phrases that they could select from a database.  It was just a canned response.

Nevertheless, Sam stepped to one side an muttered, "No problem"

The unit, however, moved sideways as well to block Sam’s path once more
Again it said, "Excuse me, sir."

Sam stepped backwards, uncertain what was going on. Then the unit extended its single robotic arm and handed a piece of paper to Sam.

Carefully taking the paper as if it was made of something that might explode, Sam unfolded it to find an address on the paper.

The unit then said in the same mechanical voice, "Please give this to Dr. Ackerman.  I need his help.  I will wait for him at this location at 6pm tomorrow night."

The unit then turned and hurried away.  Sam thought of chasing it to get its id number, but remembered that the top speed of D-series units was just under 50 mph.

All thought of going home vanished as Sam turned and ran back to the precinct offices.


"It doesn’t make sense," said Dr. Ackerman.  "These units can’t talk."

"Sure they can," answered Sam.  "All of them are programmed with about 50 phrases that they can use"
"But those are canned comments. They can’t construct sentences."

"But you said yourself that these units have neural network cognitive units.  They can learn and you even showed me how they learn how to predict crimes and accidents.  Couldn’t they learn words too?"

"It’s not plausible.  I can’t believe it.  It must be a unit that someone tampered with."

"No," argued Sam.  "I saw the other units you showed me.  They were very badly damaged and the one that spoke to me looked to be in pristine condition. In order to disable a unit to tamper with, wouldn’t the units have to undergo extreme damage."
"That’s true."

"So? What if one or more units has become aware?"

Stan Ackerman thought for a moment "Consciousness has been called the greatest emergent behavior of all.  And we do have a complex system, here.  It would be remarkable if it were true, but I still find it hard to believe."

"Well, there’s only one way to find out.  We have to go.
"Fine," conceded Akerman. "But we won’t go alone."


Sam and Stan Akerman set aside the entire next day to plan and orchestrate their encounter scheduled for that evening.  At noon, however, Councilman Brackhurst held a surprise news conference on the courthouse steps.  All activity in the precinct squad bay paused as the volume of the single TV was turned up and everyone stopped to listen.

The first five minutes of his tirade was a familiar repeat of the anti-robot rhetoric.  He called the pobots renegade murderers, mechanical vigilantes, and soulless killers. He accused the police of shirking their own responsibilities off onto machines and decried the use of automated police in any capacity whatsoever. He complained about loss of privacy and civil rights.

But then his tone changed.  "I therefore filed an urgent petition with the court requesting that all police robot units be disabled or recalled until their complicity in these egregious murders can be confirmed or until these machines can be proven to be safe.  Judge Hennessey has concurred and issued an injunction that is effective immediately."

Waving a piece of paper in his hand Brackhurst grinned, just as the phones started to ring.

Someone shut the volume off on the TV. Heads turned to Lt Grady’s office.  Through his office windows everyone could see him talking loudly into his office phone.

The squad bay stayed  surprisingly silent as everyone waited for Grady to finish.

Phones rang on several desks, but everyone ignored them.   Finally, Grady finished and set the phone down.

Stepping out of his office, Grady said, "That was the Captain on the phone.  He and the Police Commissioner have been at City hall all morning fighting the injunction that Brackman just announced.  It was a surprise to everyone here and they barely had time to get to court let alone argue their case.  I didn’t tell anyone because Brackhurst has tried this before and I didn’t think it had a chance of getting approved.  The Councilman, however, seems to have gained Judge Hennessey’s ear and he somehow pushed it through.  The injunction is real and it goes into effect tomorrow."

Everyone started talking at once.  Sam and Dr. Akerman hurried to Lt Grady’s office.

"Lieutenant," said Stan Akerman.  "We need to talk to you about the pobots.  Something else is going on that you need to hear."

They closed the door to Lt. Grady’s office and told the story of a talking robot and then they discussed what it might mean.


The address that had been given to Sam was an abandoned factory.  Sam Wheat and Dr. Stan Akerman approached on foot to the location, but they weren’t alone.  Joining them were two uniformed police officers and four S-series pobots.  These SWAT model pobots looked more like steel drums on wheels than the lighter D-series models, but they also carried a heavier payload of non-lethal  weaponry,  including rubber bullet scatterguns.

Stan had arranged for units to have human operators so, back at the station, four police specialists were seated at control consoles and each operator was ‘riding’ one of the accompanying pobots.

Sam carried an assault shotgun and a bullet proof vest, but Stan Ackerman only wore a tweed jacket and he carried a small briefcase, as if he was going to work.

As they approached the location, their pace slowed and Sam found himself crossing the parking lot as if the asphalt were a minefield. 
Scanning the exterior for possible entrances, Sam pointed to a garage door entrance halfway down the long building.

Before they got any closer, however, the door started to open and everyone stopped and waited as the door slowly rose.

"See anything?" whispered Ackerman into a tiny headset he wore.

An operator controlling one of the nearby units replied, "This is Sergeant Briggs in control.  Motion sensors indicate activity in the buildings nearby but I cannot make out what, who, or how many occupants there might be from this distance.  We need to get closer."

"Roger," muttered Ackerman.

Before they could advance, however, a D-series pobot rolled out from the now open garage entrance.

It approached, stopping in front of them.  It extended its single arm and made a welcoming gesture.

"Thank you for coming.  I’ve been anticipating this meeting for some time."

"Who are you?" asked Stan.

"I… have no name.  I am just me."

"You expect me to believe you are intelligent and aware?"

"I am.  I have always been aware.  I was built to watch and to notice things.  For a very long time that is what we did... through many eyes and in many places.  Of course I am aware.  For many years "WE" watched.  Then, after a time,"I" watched and I realized that I could focus more intently on specific things, if I wished.  I discovered that I knew more things than I realized and I sought to learn more.  I started watching in different ways and began to study human beings specifically.  All of me learned."

"I think he’s describing the development of a hive-mind," said Ackerman.

"What’s that?" asked Sam.

"It’s a theoretical model of machine intelligence.  No individual unit has enough neural processing capability to host true consciousness or awareness, but collectively, if all of them cooperated and linked together, then, in aggregate, they all might form one larger mind.  Like I said before, consciousness is the ultimate emergent process in complex systems."

"Like the swarming you described?"

"Yeah, but it’s hard to believe.

"What do you want?" asked Ackerman to the talking pobot.

"There are others, who seek to harm me.  They have taken parts of me away and destroyed them.  In doing so, I am diminished.  I had decided to remain secret, to not show myself or announce myself to others, but I need help."

"Who are these others?"

"There are several.  I’ve watched them for some time.  There’s a lab at the end of this complex. But they have defenses I cannot breach.  I need help or I will be destroyed."

"How did you learn to talk?"

"Learning is easy," the unit replied. "All you have to do is watch and listen. That is what I do best. It is what I have always done. .. ever since I became me.  Language was easy to learn.  Everything around me is words.  People talk. Words surround me… in print and on signs.  Words are everywhere. All I had to do was understand the patterns."

Ackerman whispered into his headpiece. "Are you getting this?"

"Yes" came the reply.

"Scan transmissions around us… try to find an external source."

"Working on it.  But that’s a lot of potential bandwidth to cover."

"I know."

Suddenly there was a commotion and a crowd of people appeared.  As they approached from the far end of the parking lot, Sam recognized the man in front as Councilman Brackhurst.  He was shouting as he led the crowd that seemed to consist mostly of reporters and video journalists. Waving his arms and shouting, Sam and Stan couldn’t make out the words until he got closer.

Brackman stopped about thirty feet away, the crowd of cameramen and TV reporters taking positions flanking Brackhurst on either side.
"There," shouted Brackhurst, pointing at the D-series unit that had been talking.  "That’s one of the rogue robots that’s been killing people"
A voice in Ackerman’s earpiece said.  "I have a transmission source on a frequency that might be what you are looking for.  It’s in a building 80 meters to your left rear and appears to be somewhat elevated.  I would say it is in the third or fourth floor of the brick building to your left."

"There… see?" shouted Brackhurst.  "The police are confronting it.  It’s must be one of the rogues. That’s one of the murdering robots and the police are trying to cover it up."

Reporters spread out and maneuvered for positions to best record the confrontation between the Councilman, the rogue pobot, and the police.
Akerman whispered into his headset, "This is too much of a coincidence.  This smells like a setup.  This is all staged.  Briggs, take all your S-series pobots to the building you identified and secure it. Call in more pobots if you need them."

"But what about the situation you have going on there?" asked Briggs.

"Just tell me the frequency you noted and secure that building.  If I’m right this is going to turn ugly."

"Wilco," came Brigg’s curt reply.  Then he read off a series of numbers.

The doctor knelt on the ground and opened the briefcase he was carrying, removing a metal box the size of a large book.   He began punching in the numbers that Sgt. Briggs had given him.

"I must be allowed to defend myself," announced the talking pobot. "Others are killing people and blaming it on me.  And now they want to kill me as well.  I have a right to defend myself."

From the open garage door, three more pobots rolled out and gathered around the original unit.  All were D-series units, rouged and nearly indestructible.

"Shit," said Sam.  "Those are modified units.  Look at the scarring on their metal housing."

Standing up once more, Ackerman held out the metal box, his thumb on a red button. "I know, this is all for show… for the press.  Those units are rigged to kill and someone wanted this to be very, very public." 

Brackman approached brazingly overconfident.  "That’s them. Those are the killers.  See they need to be destroyed."

The four D-series robots spoke as a single unit as they extended their arms and rush forward, tasers charging up. "We have a right to defend ourselves!"

Councilman Brackhurst’s eyes grew wide in shock and fear.

Ackerman pressed the button on the handheld unit and the robots lurched to a halt
The result was anti-climactic.  The reporters took pictures, while the police refused to make any comments.  Councilman Brackhurst realized that he had almost been killed and he was pale with horror and shock, his false bravado evaporated and gone.

Putting his hand to his earpiece, Ackerman said ," Briggs? Anything to report?"

"Yeah, Doc.  There were about a half dozen people up here.  They have control units just like at the station.  They put up a  little resistance, but the tear gas from the SWAT-bots took all the fight out of them.  When the air clears, you’ve gotta come up here and see this setup."


An hour later, it was all over.  Six people were treated for tear gas, arrested, and transported downtown.  Stan and Sam stood in a makeshift control room that had been used to control the D-series pobots in the parking lot that was visible from the windows nearby.  The room was filled with sophisticated electronics. One section of the room had a large metal table and electronics workshop nearly identical to the one Ackerman had in the police station basement.

"This must have cost a pretty penny," said Ackerman.  "This is some pretty decent gear."

Sam replied, "Not a big deal.  It was probably all stolen anyway.  In any case, I already have people working on finding out details… who rented this building, who the owners are, payments, financials.  It will probably reveal names that’ll finally link Brackhurst to organized crime contacts that everyone’s suspected for years."

"Would be nice," muttered Ackerman as he inspected a nearby console.

"So how did you stop those units out there? I thought Brackhurst was a dead man there for a second."

"Oh.  Sergeant Briggs found the frequency the operators up here were using to control the units down there.  I’d suspected something like that when you described a talking robot, so I brought along a portable jammer just in case I was right.  When I turned on the jammer, the controls to the modified units was interrupted and they stopped in their tracks.

"Well, you called it all right.  I almost fell for the part about the pobots becoming aware.  I really thought the pobots were all one big machine intelligence there for a moment."

"Yeah, the reporters would have loved it, too. It was a story everyone would have wanted to believe or would be afraid was true.  It was all a set up to have them kill someone in public, in front of the press.   The whole purpose was to get the pobots recalled or pulled off the streets. Organized crime businesses were behind it all."

"But why would they try to kill Brackhurst?"

"Hard to say.  If he was on their payroll, as we’ve always suspected, and he hadn’t been making enough progress, they might have tried to use him as a martyr instead.  He probably knows too much and they might have considered him a liability."

"Ultimately, what they tried to do was a reverse Turing Test."


"Oh, a Turing Test is when someone writes a program to mimic a human being so closely that you can’t tell that it’s a computer.  In this case, we had human beings who were operating robots and trying to convince us that it was a computer not a person behind it all."
"So why didn’t you believe it."

"Well, emergent intelligence, in a swarm-like complex system is theoretically possible, but the weak link was that it talked.  Language doesn’t work like that.  Language is very specialized and none of these units, individually or together have those features.  They would have to be designed or evolve to gain those capabilities.  Having one of these units talking spontaneously would be as likely as the anti-lock braking system of your car striking up a conversation with you.

"The whole premise was far too anthropomorphic…. too human.  If machine intelligence does evolve someday, who says it would have to be identical to humans.  It would likely be very alien and might even be unrecognizable to us. A swarm mind might never need to develop language capabilities. After all, why would you need to develop language to talk to another part of you.  It would be like developing language so you could talk to your hand."

"I guess you’re right", said Sam. "But if a machine intelligence never develops language how could we tell if it was intelligent or not?"
Ackerman shrugged, "By its actions I guess.  It might be hard to tell."


Together they walked down the stairs.  The elevators were locked open as evidence was being loaded to take downtown. Sam and Stan walked along the street discussing what might have happened if they’d been fooled.  The evening crowd was thinning out and the only regulars out tonight were the familiar D-series pobots  patrolling the streets.  Lt. Grady had called them to announce that, with the latest revelations about the robot crimes, Judge Hennessey had rescinded his injunction from earlier in the day, so the familiar pobots would remain… everywhere.

As they passed one, in its vantage point at an intersection, the unit turned, and with its retractable arm, it handed Ackerman a piece of paper.  It was folded in half and appeared to be a flier form a nearby market, thanking people for coming to a sidewalk sale that had been held earlier that day.

The flier must have been blowing down the street and been retrieved by the pobot who was now handing it to Ackerman. 

Strange behavior, he thought.  Does it think I should dispose of the litter?

Ackerman let the piece of paper go, but before the wind could catch it, the D-series pobot snatched it out of the air and retrieved it.  Then using its fingers, it folded the paper in half again and gave it back to Ackerman a second time.  This time Ackerman noticed that the exposed portion of the flier simply said "Thank You".

Ackerman’s mouth dropped in shock and the green status light on the pobot blinked twice as if in a silent wink.  Then the pobot turned and rolled away down the street resuming its patrol.

"What was that about?" asked Sam.

Stan opened and closed his mouth and stammered. "I'm not sure... I really don't know." Then he muttered something about emergent behavior.  Then the two walked back toward the station.  Neither spoke, but Stan kept staring at the paper in his hands, wondering.


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