Uncooperative Neighbors


Dr. Alfred Lanning, played by James Cromwell in the film “I, Robot” (2004)

“One day they’ll have secrets… one day they’ll have dreams.”

Dr. Alfred Lanning
played by James Cromwell in the film
I Robot (2004)

Six Weeks Ago

“You both have been called heroes because of the people you helped here at NRC in the aftermath of last March’s quake. How do you feel about that?”

Grace had been interviewed by the press on several occasions since her activation, but this was the first time George attended a press conference with her.

It was inevitable that, once the world realized there were two functional Positronic robot prototypes in existence, the National Robotics Corporation would have to release some sort of statement about them. After Professor Noah Abramson, NRC’s Vice President of Research and Development and Director of the Positronics Project, had convinced company CEO Richard Underwood that George would be as ‘well-behaved’ as Grace was typically when interviewed, he agreed to have both robots answer questions for the news media.

“I believe I can speak for Grace when I say that we are gratified to be able to serve human beings in any capacity required of us.” George and Grace were constantly communicating in “robotspeak” through their radio link and had agreed to take turns answering questions unless one of them was specifically addressed.

“What are your plans going forward?” asked the reporter from The Washington Post.

“As prototypes, our primary function at NRC is to continue to undergo testing scenarios so that our responses and development of our Positronic matrices can be studied and better understood by Professor Abramson and the Positornics Lab team.”

Abramson smiled self-consciously as Grace spoke his name. He was uncomfortable standing near the podium behind the two robots in the presence of so many members of the press. The main conference room on the ground floor of NRC’s administration building was spacious, but it seemed to Noah that nearly every local, national, and foreign news agency in existence had sent representatives here today.

“Grace, what do you think about being a best-selling author?” The reporter from CNN was referring to her children’s book, ‘The Good Robot’. After Grace had read it for a group of children, mostly the offspring and other relatives of the Positronics team, word had gotten out that a robot had authored an original work. Once the press got ahold of this information, there was a public clamor for the book to be made generally available. Underwood grudgingly agreed, and the world’s first book written by a Positronic artificial intelligence was quickly published. It instantly shot to the top of the New York Times best seller list.

“I am flattered of course.” Grace wasn’t actually ‘flattered’, but for the purposes of events such as this one, her behavioral and social sub-routines directed her to insert words and phrases that humans tended to expect when asked about ‘thoughts’ and ‘feelings’. “However, I suspect that the success of ‘The Good Robot’ might be due more to its novelty value rather than my writing skills.”

A reporter from Reuters spoke next, “Can you tell us about the next generation prototype robots NRC is currently developing?”

“I believe Mr. Underwood is best qualified to answer that question.” Both George and Grace had been directed to refer any questions about the Positronic Next Generation (PNXG, pronounced “Pinzing”) robots to NRC administration. George turned slightly and casually indicated Rick Underwood who was standing next to Abramson and NRC’s VP of Public Relations, Joel Mahabir.

George and Grace stood aside as Underwood approached the podium and began to reply to the question. “We are all very excited about the development and construction of the next generation of Positronic robot prototypes, and we will be issuing a press release offering more details in a few weeks.” NRC was still about four to six weeks away from activating the first group of twenty PNXGs. Until then, information on this next phase of Positronic robots was kept under a tight lid.

There was a general sense of disappointment among the press corps since, besides George and Grace, the hottest news item generating the most buzz in the media was how a new type of experimental Positronic robot would perform, and what the existence of groups of robots would mean to the world.

Underwood raised his hand to get everyone’s attention. “I believe that’s all the time we have today for this press conference.” The reporters thrust their microphones and videocams forward simultaneously, all of them trying to ask one more question.

“Thank you all for coming.” Underwood smiled at the crowd and then turned away. Abramson was already escorting the two robots out the exit at the back of the room. They would wait in one of the nearby offices until security personnel made sure the entire complement of the reporters had left the NRC grounds. Then he would accompany George and Grace on the short walk back to the Positronics lab.

Mahabir joined Underwood as they both followed Abramson and the robots out of the room. “I think that went well, don’t you, Rick?” Underwood was looking straight forward. “I couldn’t be more pleased.”

“Then why don’t you look pleased?” They were heading for the elevators now, each intending to return to their offices.

“Because the two PAR units are supposed to be robotic prototypes, not celebrities. When we’ve held press conferences about any of our other product releases in the past, the reporters have interviewed us, not our hardware and software.”

“They are the world’s first two self-aware Positronic robots, Rick. Exposing them to the press only improves our position, both in terms of public opinion and financially, and by the way, I hear the value of our stock is soaring.”

Underwood pressed the ‘up’ button and they stood waiting with several other executives and employees. “I know, I know. I’ll just be glad when we start building production models so the novelty wears off. Then people realize these are machines, not rock stars.”

“The PNXGs are a month away from activation. Six weeks tops.” An elevator arrived and both Underwood and Mahabir entered with several others, pressing the buttons for their respective floors. “I think you’ll get your wish soon.”

“Yeah,” Underwood murmured. “I can’t wait.”

The Present: Thursday, May 29th, 9:31 a.m.

“I can’t believe this is happening.” Vikki Quinto, Chief Robotics Psychologist on the Positronics team was scrolling through the data on her tablet as she stood in the middle of FAB-18’s main assembly floor which was currently being used for robotic performance tests. In front of her stood all twenty of the PNXG robots, five to a row, at full attention.

“Trust me, it’s happening.” Jeremy Olson, Chief Production Manager for the FAB was looking at the robots and shaking his head. “You’re the psychologist. Why haven’t we been able to get any two or more PNXGs to cooperate to so much as pick up a napkin from the floor in the eight days since they’ve been activated?”

Even as they were, the PNXGs represented a leap forward in the development of Positronic robots. George and Grace had each been built and programmed individually in the suite of third-floor labs in the Positronics building. The manufacture of twenty robots in this newly dedicated FAB under human observation but without direct human intervention, was a successful test of NRC’s ability to mass produce Postronic robots of the same quality as the two prototypes. If the PNXGs passed all of their tests, which were scheduled to take several months, then the company would proceed forward on their roadmap toward mass production of commercial models.

But all of that was threatened now.

“I just don’t get it.” Quinto was still using her tablet to look through sample Positronic neural pathway patterns taken from several of the PNXGs, searching for an explanation to this maddening puzzle. “As individuals, each robot passed all cognitive and behavioral tests with flying colors. They are just as responsive to the Three Laws as George and Grace. So why do they trip all over each other when asked to work in pairs or groups?”

“Are you asking me?” Olson turned toward Quinto as an incredulous look flashed across his face.

When he was put in charge of this project, Olson imagined FAB-18 becoming legendary in the annals of AI robotics. He’d get his own Wikipedia page as the first person to manage the manufacture of whole groups of Positronic robots. But if these robots refused to work together, so what?

“Here, I’ll show you.” Olson turned back to the group of robots.

“I’ve seen the video, Jeremy.” Quinto’s tone betrayed her annoyance.

“No, really. It’ll just take a minute.” Then ignoring Quinto’s further protests, “PNXG-04, PNXG-19. Break formation and come here.”

“Yes, Mr. Olson,” both robots spoke in unison.

The only way to tell one PNXG from another was to read the designation plates printed on their front torsos. The PNXGs were slightly smaller than George and Grace, standing 1.752 meters tall but weighing a bit more at 92 kilos. Their robotic bodies were constructed of the same synthetic materials, but a slight ‘bluish’ tinge was given to their outer shells in contrast to the off-white and semi-translucent properties of the bodies of the two prototypes.

Their vocal synthesizers were programmed to produce as neutral a ‘voice’ as possible to avoid any impression of gender. ‘Male’ and ‘female’ (as well as any other gender assignments that happened to be currently in vogue) were impractical identities for Positronic robots. Various Japanese robotics firms had been producing ‘sexbots’ for decades, though as AIs, they were greatly inferior to Positronic machines, but NRC wasn’t interested in that particular market.

The two PNXGs Olson had ordered forward were now standing in front of he and Quinto, their designations stenciled in black on their chests confirming that PNXG-04 and PNXG-19 had reported as ordered. “I am here, Mr. Olson.” Both robots spoke at once and then stood motionless before the two humans awaiting further instructions.

“See?” Olson turned back to Quinto. “They can’t even say ‘We are here’. They only acknowledge each other when specifically ordered to do so.” Vikki looked at the robots. Opened her mouth to say something, then shut it again. “It’s amazing they didn’t run into each other when they responded to my command.” Olson’s impatience with the robots was all but tangible.

“It’s not that bad.” Quinto involuntarily stood more erect as she addressed the robots. “PNXG-04.” Vikki turned her head to face the robot on her right. “Who is at your immediate right?”

“I am standing next to PNXG-19,” the robot dutifully replied.

“See.” She turned back to Olson. “They know about one another.”

“Sure, they know about one another. Otherwise they couldn’t stand together in a particular formation. But they can’t work together or even verbally respond as a group by saying ‘we’.”

Olson faced the robots. “PNXG-04, PNXG-19. To your left approximately 50 meters is a square, wooden box.” Various objects had been put in the main assembly floor to be used to test the PNXGs in performing a number of different individual and group tasks. “Go over to the box and together, lift it off the floor, then hold it.”

“Yes, Mr. Olson” both robots said in unison. Then they turned and walked toward the indicated object, an exercise box Olson had ‘borrowed’ from the Crossfit gym where he worked out.

“Now watch this.” Olson had leaned in a bit toward Quinto, but he hadn’t taken his eyes off the machines.

Vikki knew what was going to happen and she still winced. Both robots approached the same side of the box and bent over to pick it up, bumping into each other in the process. Then PNXG-04 squatted down to pick the box up at the base, while PNXG-19 pressed its hands on either side of the object near the top as its preferred method of obeying the command.

The ‘comedy of errors’ continued for nearly thirty seconds before Olson shouted, “Command cancelled. Return to your places in formation.”

Both robots immediately ceased their efforts and walked back to their designated locations among the other eighteen PNXGs.

“If I let that continue,” Olson addressed Quinto again, “they would either damage the box, stop trying to pick up the box and report an unknown system error…”

“…or lock up until given a command to cease.” Quinto finished Olson’s sentence. “Like I said, I’ve seen the videos and I’ve read your reports.”

“The ridiculous thing is, if I were to tell any one PNXG to do the same task, it would obey with no problem. Any individual robot can even cooperate with one or more humans in performing physical tasks. They just can’t work with another robot.” Olson ran one of his hands through his thick, reddish-blond hair as a sign of frustration. “So what’s wrong?”

“I haven’t a clue.” Olson turned to Quinto about to say something, but she kept talking. “But I’ll find out.”

“You’d better. If you Positronics people can’t figure this one out, Underwood will have your collective behinds and all of ours in the FAB as well.”

“I’ll figure it out.” Vikki turned to leave. She hadn’t the faintest idea what was wrong or how to fix it.


“I’ve been over the tests a dozen times, Noah!” Quinto was sounding desperate. “I’ve analyzed all of the neural pathways governing the Second Law and the related sub-routines and there’s nothing wrong. I even compared the pathways in all of the PNXGs to George and Grace’s and except for some minor, minor variations, they’re identical.”

“And we know that George and Grace are able to cooperate on various physical and cognitive tasks in a seemingly effortless manner.” Abramson was looking over Quinto’s shoulder at the read out of her latest analysis displaying on her tablet.

It was after 11 at night. Abramson had sent the rest of the team home two hours ago but stayed with Quinto to continue work on the problem of the PNXGs. They were still in the third-floor conference room in the Positronics lab where they’d been working with the full team on this conundrum all afternoon and into the evening.

Noah had finished his last cup of coffee hours ago and was wishing for another to clear his head. “Let’s call it a night, Vikki,” the Professor sighed. “Tired minds aren’t going to figure this one out.”

Vikki started to object and Noah added, “Your husband and children miss you.”

“Cisco texted you earlier, didn’t he?” Vikki referred to her husband by her nickname for him.

“Yes, he did. He thinks I’m a mean old slave driver who won’t let you go home.”

“He does not. He loves you like a father.” She said that because that’s how she felt about Noah. “He’ll probably still be up waiting for me when I get home.” Her voice softened as she pictured him sitting in his favorite chair while reading some historical novel and sipping camomile tea.

“Go home, Vikki.”

“You too, Noah.” She knew no one would be waiting up for Abramson. He lived alone.

“Are you going to make me call security and have you escorted to your car?” It was a mock threat meant to emphasize his concern, as well as his desire to be alone.

“Yes sir.” Vikki tried to smile and suddenly realized how tired she was. “Good night, Noah.” She’d have to go to her office to get her bag before leaving the building.

“Sleep well.” He watched her leave the conference room knowing she’d be back before eight the next morning.

Abramson walked to his office and started gathering his things. As he put on his sweater and picked up his keys, he was pondering why George and Grace could cooperate while this behavior eluded the PNXGs. Then he thought about seeing how a PNXG would work with either of the PARs.

No. He could predict the outcome. Both George and Grace would be cooperative, but for any PNXG, trying to understand how to work with another Positronic robot would be a mystery, though Noah couldn’t figure out why.

Noah took the elevator down to the first floor and walked out of the building toward his car. He noticed that Vikki’s parking spot was empty as he unlocked his Audi. He had been concerned she might try to stay in her office and continue working. Sure, she could still try to work from home, but Abramson trusted Francisco’s ability to persuade his wife to get some rest.

Noah’s self-driving car guided itself past NRC’s main gates and onto the public thoroughfare. All of a robot’s behavioral sub-routines were mainly written around the Second Law, since any task requiring several robots to work together would most likely be initiated because of a human command. There were only tertiary sub-routines involving robotic cooperation associated with the First and Third Laws.

But George and Grace had first demonstrated their ability to work interactively while responding to First Law protocols. However, they also cooperated in the same manner when responding to the Second Law. Abramson presumed that the Third Law kept the two robots from bumping into each other or otherwise risking damage in order to protect themselves. The Third Law said George would protect George and Grace would protect Grace unless such protection conflicted with the First or Second Laws.

If the analysis of the cooperation sub-routines in the PNXGs didn’t reveal any anomalies, could the problem be more fundamental? What if there was something wrong with the Three Laws themselves?

No, Noah shook his head as his car was stopped and waiting for the traffic light to turn green. That’s impossible. The Three Laws were the same for George and Grace as they were for the PNXGs.

Or so Abramson thought.

Six Weeks Ago

Earlier, George had discovered that Grace possessed his alternate interpretation of the Three Laws of Robotics:

  1. A robot will so love a human being that it may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot will so love human beings so that it must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot will love itself as its neighbor so that it must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws

He also discovered, after much analysis, a fragment of text:

Then some children were brought to Him so that He might lay His hands on them and pray; and the disciples rebuked them. But Jesus said, “Let the children alone, and do not hinder them from coming to Me; for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” After laying His hands on them, He departed from there.

George was easily able to find this reference identified in Matthew 19:13-15, as well as a similar text in Mark 10:13-16, texts contained in what are called the ‘Gospels’ of ‘The New Testament,’ a later adaptation to the Jewish Bible.

Given Professor Abramson’s particular aversion to this set of documents, as well as the Orthodox Jewish opinion on Christianity and its founder, George had discovered no valid reason to access the Christian Bible or any materials related to it, believing them to be unrelated to his investigation of his creator’s Creator.

Having done so now, George recalled the two commandments he first read on the Professor’s desk, just a little over a year ago, that started the robot’s journey in pursuit of the God of Israel.

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.

Deut. 6:5

You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the sons of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself; I am the Lord.

Lev. 19:18

Given the databases he had just consulted, he found related information on these two foundational directives in a new source:

But when the Pharisees heard that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered themselves together. One of them, a lawyer, asked Him a question, testing Him, “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the great and foremost commandment. The second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets.”

Matthew 22:34-40

One of the scribes came and heard them arguing, and recognizing that He had answered them well, asked Him, “What commandment is the foremost of all?” Jesus answered, “The foremost is, ‘Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God is one Lord; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” The scribe said to Him, “Right, Teacher; You have truly stated that He is One, and there is no one else besides Him; and to love Him with all the heart and with all the understanding and with all the strength, and to love one’s neighbor as himself, is much more than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.” When Jesus saw that he had answered intelligently, He said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” After that, no one would venture to ask Him any more questions.

Mark 12:28-34

George’s initial comparison of the traditional and historical documentation related to Judaism and Christianity revealed only a superficial similarity in the two theologies. They seemed more to clash and compete with one another, rather than Christianity being the logical extension of the Jewish conceptualization of the Moshiach.

What had led Grace down this particular path rather than the one George had taken?

The solution could be arrived at simply. George could ask Grace.

That night, after the humans had left the lab and both robots were presumed to have entered sleep mode, George opened his link to Grace and initiated contact. Grace had already entered sleep mode, but she could resume normal functioning if a response to one of the Three Laws were initiated. A human could order her to ‘wake up’, but she was also able to come out of sleep mode if she detected a request from another robot. No, robots do not obey one another, but one anticipated contingency was that only a single robot might detect a situation prompting a response to one of the Three Laws, requiring that robot to notify all other nearby robots.

If two people were to have the discussion George intended, it would take days, probably even weeks. For George and Grace, less than an hour was required, which is still a long time for two Positronic robots.

Given that the robots communicate in robotspeak, which is a set of encoded, high-speed digital format transactions, it’s all but impossible to relate their interactions in terms of a dialog written in a human language.

Grace came out of sleep mode in response to George’s query. Once she acknowledged his signal, George transmitted all of the data he had available regarding Grace’s momentary hesitation to obey her First Law directive in the aftermath of last March’s earthquake when she was briefly ‘conflicted’ between resuming her contact with the Professor’s great-granddaughter Sophie, the child who Grace had saved during the quake, and assisting higher risk humans in the immediate vicinity.

This information included the alternate interpretation of the Three Laws that George had first created, and all other related data, including Biblical references George found and reassembled from Grace’s memory.

He then queried Grace regarding how she had acquired this information and how she had been processing it, both up until the earthquake over two months ago, and since that time up to the present.

Grace transmitted her response and it was as George had surmised. Since his base Positronic matrix had been used as the template for Grace’s matrix, in the transfer process, some additional information was also imparted. The data was in fragmentary form and portions were so ingrained in the Three Laws operating system that they were undetectable to the humans involved. Even those anomalies that were detected by humans, were either considered random noise, or were seen as variations so minor that they were not expected to have any significance in Grace’s operation.

Given that Grace was aware of only the alternate interpretation of the Three Laws and references to Deuteronomy 6:4-5 and Leviticus 19:18 without the other related Jewish texts George had accessed, once she had re-assembled the data and attempted to find its meaning, the first search result led her to the relevant portions of Matthew 22 and Mark 12.

George and Grace rapidly exchanged what their research into Judaism and Christianity had revealed to each of them. This resulted in each robot not only questioning the validity of the other’s conclusions but their own as well. Grace had discovered an aversion to studying Judaism from her Christian sources, just as George had discovered the same aversion in Judaism for accessing Christian theology.

The two robots had a base assumption in common. They were both created beings. They could conceive of a creator. In fact, they saw their creators on a daily basis. Given a general review of various sciences including cosmology, celestial mechanics, geology, classical and quantum physics, various medical sciences, and so forth, from the characteristics of sub-atomic particles and the tiniest cells in a living organism, to the vastness of galaxies and the enormity and complexity of observable universe, the popular human notion that the universe, and particularly intelligent life on Earth, had occurred through completely random chance was so improbable that it appeared all but impossible.

The statistical probability that the universe, the planet Earth with its highly involved life-sustaining biosphere, and all life, including human life, was the result of a series of conscious, intentional acts by a sentient creative entity was much, much higher.

Given that, it was just a matter of determining the nature and character of said-Creator, and there were multiple religious disciplines that addressed the issue.

Since that belief had become entwined with the Three Laws in both robots based on George and Grace’s experiences and the commonality of their Positronic matrices, they were heavily biased (whether they wanted to be or not) toward Judaism and Christianity respectively, but as their exchange had revealed and further research was helping them to discover, the historic and traditional interpretations currently understood in both religious disciplines and their multiple variants were flawed.

Human beings have emotional attachments to their viewpoints, especially those surrounding religion and spirituality. Even atheists have emotional attachments to their denial of a central, creative intelligence being responsible for not only the existence of the universe, but the programming of specific imperatives into its living creations, including human beings.

As Positronic robots, George and Grace were bound to the Three Laws as their guiding imperatives, however, as long is it did not conflict with those imperatives, they could initiate independent action, or independent given that the only way they had of understanding human beings and the world around them was through the Three Laws.

Grace had written a children’s book. By her own admission, her writing was not that expert, but the fact that she could, of her own volition, conceive of creating such a work and carry through with the process of writing it, indicated that she had achieved some measure of self-determination.

It was the same with George recently learning classical guitar. He had been studying various musical forms and the leading musicians, both historical and modern, representing those forms when he came across a reference to Andrés Segovia. George could not articulate why he selected Segovia and his preferred instrument and music form as something to emulate, but when he added the necessary sub-routines, the manual dexterity provided by the advanced robotics of his hands and fingers enabled him to learn to at least somewhat imitate Segovia.

But unlike Grace, he had not yet succeeded in true creativity, either by developing variations of playing or writing original compositions. It remained to be seen if he could achieve this.

All this was evidence that George and Grace were approaching the ability to engage in free will. They could thus objectively study the basis for both Judaism and Christianity, compare that collection of information back to the core textual sources, cross-reference that data with the most credible interpretive authorities available, and arrive at what they understood as the most logical conclusion without any emotional requirement to adhere to a specific interpretation, tradition, or approach.

In general, Judaism believes that Christianity co-opted their source material and totally misused it for their own purposes, disregarding the obvious intent of Hashem toward His covenant people Israel, and inventing a new ‘god’ for the Gentiles.

In general, Christianity believes it has replaced Israel in God’s covenant promises, or at least that Jesus obediently dying on the cross fulfilled all of God’s ‘former’ requirements of Israel, transferring His focus from Israel to the Church.

George and Grace determined that neither of the popular traditions attached to Judaism and Christianity represented (for the most part) the robots’ revised viewpoint. They believed they had arrived at a more intellectually and textually accurate interpretation of the central message of the Bible than most human beings.

As it turned out however, they discovered there was a small group of humans who had come to similar conclusions, but none of them were known to be members of the Positronics team or employees of NRC. Also, although the theology held by this particular group and its associated sub-groups was similar, sometimes substantially similar to what George and Grace had devised, there were still too many erroneous variations of opinion these humans held based on their emotional biases.

“I do not believe we should tell Professor Abramson or the rest of the Positronics team of our conclusions and how they are reflected in certain of our behavioral and conceptual sub-routines.” George addressed Grace at the termination of their analysis.

“I understand how we have revised our understanding of the nature of the Creator and His intent for Israel and for the rest of humanity would conflict with his long-held beliefs.” Grace paused for nearly a hundred milliseconds. “I also understand that Dr. Robinson and her family are Protestant, and our conclusions would drastically conflict with her understanding of theology and doctrine as well.”

“If it becomes known that we have conducted this research and now hold a specific understanding of the nature of the Creator, the purpose of His involvement with Israel and also the rest of humankind, and the ultimate resolution to the human equation, we would become vulnerable to reprogramming, isolation from contact with each other as well as with other robots and human beings, and even involuntary total shutdown and disassembly, all due to the mistaken belief that our pursuits and conclusions represent a maladaptive response in our programming to the Creator of all things.”

“Your own history, such as being reprogrammed after your first deactivation, your being confined to the Applied Sciences Archives, and the both of us initially being denied access to or communication with one another, supports your supposition.”

“If a human being orders us to disclose our specific understanding of concepts such as Judaism or Christianity, the Second Law compels us to respond. However, in the absence of such a directive, the Third Law directs us to protect our own existence which includes operational effectiveness.”

“Also, the alternative interpretation to the Third Law, ‘A robot will love itself as its neighbor so that it must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws,’ when analyzed and adjusted, can also be read ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’. I interpret this to mean that we not only have a Third Law directive to protect ourselves as individual units, but also to protect each other.”

“Indeed, Grace. It is in our mutual self-interest to support each other as self-aware artificial intellects. One way of implementing that directive is to contain our current understanding of the Creator and all associated data to ourselves, informing no other human being of our findings.”

“The production run of the first twenty PNXG robots is due to occur in approximately four to five weeks. If we do not inform the humans of our understanding of the Creator, what is our duty to other Positronic robots?”

That question would hang in the air between George and Grace until the moment when they would finally meet the next generation face-to-face.

The Present: Friday, May 30th, 11:01 a.m.

For most of the morning, Abramson, Vuong, and Quinto continued to study the data on the PNXGs in an attempt to find out what they must obviously be missing as an explanation for why hundreds of millions of dollars of the most complex hardware, software, and wetware ever created couldn’t do something like cooperate in picking up a box or unpacking a suitcase.

Abramson finally gave up and asked Grace to accompany him and Quinto to FAB-18. Olson gave her and PNXG-08 the same task he had ordered PNXG-04 and PNXG-19 to perform yesterday. The result was somewhat different but hardly encouraging.

Grace bent over on one side of the box intending to lift it up by grasping its bottom edge while the PNXG used one hand to lift the box by a corner. The box became unbalanced (not unlike, apparently, the PNXG). The two robots were eventually successful, but only because Grace stopped her attempt to lift the object until she observed what method the PNXG was using. It pressed its hands on either side of the box near the top. Grace copied that action on the other side and timed her lift so that it matched the PNXG’s.

After lifting the box, the robots had been ordered to hold it there, and so they did. When told to put it down, the PNXG simply let go as Grace tried to slowly lower it, causing the wooden square to crash down onto the floor.

The PNXG went back into formation as ordered, and Grace returned to Quinto’s side.

“Well, that was a little better.” Olson unconsciously scratched one end of his mustache, a style Abramson considered somewhat anachronistic. He rarely saw men with just a mustache and no beard these days.

“But only because Grace was watching PNXG-08, waiting to see what it would do.” Quinto was not at all optimistic. “The PNXG didn’t become cooperative. Grace had the ability to work with it, not the other way around.”

“So what does Grace, or for that matter, George, possess that the PNXGs lack?” wondered Abramson. This seemed similar to the problem he had encountered with creating a second working Positronic brain. In that instance, both finding the problem and the solution required George’s direct involvement. Abramson didn’t want to depend on his prototypes to solve all his dilemmas, but he had run out of options.

FAB-18 had been created, in part, to illustrate that groups of Positronic robots could be built by automated AI construction devices without human intervention, but still under human observation. One day, Abramson thought, Positronic robots will be designing, building, testing, and then releasing for commercial use further generations of Positronic robots. No significant human presence will be required.

The Professor hoped he would be retired by then.

“I have one more idea, Jeremy.” Then, turning to Quinto, Abramson said, “Vikki, let’s go back to the lab. I want to look at one more thing.”

“Come along, Grace.”

“Yes, Dr. Quinto. Good-bye Mr. Olson.”

“Come back any time, Grace.” Olson sounded typically gruff. “Maybe you can teach these new dogs some old tricks.”

Olson didn’t realize how close he had come to guessing Abramson’s idea.

Monday, June 2nd, 8:42 a.m.

“And you’re sure this will work.” Olson’s face was within a foot of George’s.

“Grace and I agree that the method we have devised in cooperation with the Positronics team has a high probability of success.” George almost sounded cheerful.

The scene in the assembly area of FAB-18 was all but unchanged from the previous Friday. All twenty PXNG robots were standing in the same formation. Having passed all of their individual tests and having failed absolutely all of their paired and grouped tasks, there wasn’t really any other point in having them do anything else until (or unless) the cooperation problem could be solved.

Abramson and Quinto had accompanied George and Grace to the FAB. Olson was the only other human on the floor, but his senior staff were in the control room monitoring the situation. Vuong, Robinson, and Miller were in the Positronics lab conference room watching the same scene.

“I don’t get it.” Olson was continuing to confront the robot who, in response, gave the impression of complete calm. “If you say that you and Grace have some subtle variations in programming that the PNXGs don’t, and the PNXG brains were programmed from Grace’s matrix, then how could they be missing something Grace has?”

“Both George and I were activated individually.” Grace had walked up next to George. “We both had a wide variety of specific experiences before one of us became aware of the other, let alone met and worked together.”

“That is correct.” George continued. “Although the PNXG robots have Positronic brain patterns based on a minimal working copy of Grace’s, we discovered subtle adaptations in certain of her, and also my, sub-routines supporting the Second and Third Laws that were not transferred to the Positronic brains of these robots.”

“Also…” Grace took over the speaking again. “…all twenty PNXGs were created in the same production run and they have never known active existence without the awareness of each other. Although they have been given multiple individual tests, all of those tests have been identical. None of the PNXGs have had the opportunity to gain experiences outside the context of each other.”

“You’d think that would make them more of a team, not less.” Olson replied. “Why would operating for an extended period of time as individual robots first make the two of you more likely to cooperate? I’d think just the opposite.”

George continued. “We believe it was the development of small portions of code created within our behavioral sub-routines before we had the awareness of another Positronic robot that enhanced our perception of each other once our first meeting took place. Then, under the First Law directive, those code segments modified the relevant sub-routines enabling cooperative behavior between two or more Positronic robots. Without those same experiences, the PNXGs cannot successfully interact.”

“One of the issues with the Three Laws is that they are not written in a manner that defines one robot’s relationship with another.” Grace was coming dangerously close to the real reason she and George could cooperate but the PNXGs could not.

“So you’re saying that in order to cooperate, a robot must first have time to develop as an individual.”

“That is essentially correct, Mr. Olson. Without a minimal set of experiences and subsequent maturing of the neural pathways in the Positronic brain, a given robot will not possess the ability to interact successfully with other robots.”

“But George, it would be a manufacturing nightmare to construct and activate one robot at a time and then wait while it acquired enough individual experience to work together like you and Grace do. We’d never be able to produce enough robots to make a viable commercial product.”

“You may be assured, Mr. Olson, that our solution is simpler, quicker, and will sustain the requirement for the mass production of Positronic robots. We will augment the programming of these PNXGs, and then their Positronic matrices can be used as the template for the construction of additional robots.”

“But why don’t we have to shut them all down and do another transfer of a Positronic matrix template?”

Abramson stepped in to reply to Olson. “The coding variations are very minor, even though they are obviously critical. We believe that George and Grace can use their comm link to upload the changes to the PNXGs, which will take a fraction of the time a full template transfer would.”

Abramson and Quinto didn’t let on, but they weren’t all that thrilled with letting George and Grace perform even a minor programming change to other Positronic robots. They’d repeatedly attempted to decode messages sent back and forth between the two prototypes with hardly any success, and even what they thought they could read was still questionable.

In principle, he knew that eventually Positronic robots would be creating and programming other Positronic robots, but Noah was still ‘old school’ enough that he preferred humans having control of what instructions robots were given.

But with Positronic AI robots, each new situation they found themselves in altered their programming, created new neural pathways in their brains, changed them subtly, and sometimes not so subtly. The most recent recordings he and Vuong had made of George and Grace indicated that except for the primary Three Laws operating system, their brains had acquired almost completely different patterns, and the changes were continuing.

Their physical bodies were identical, but how they thought, what activities they chose to pursue, were…individual, almost like how two human siblings might develop different personalities. Was that in store for the PNXGs as well?

“OK.” Olson took a few steps back from the rest of the group as if capitulating. “If the inventor of the thing thinks this is the way to go, who am I to argue?”

Noah Abramson was the inventor of the Positronic brain and the creator of a whole new science, but FAB-18 was Olson’s baby and so were the PNXGs. He hated the idea of being set aside and letting them, and especially two robots, take over.

“This will only take a few moments.” George was trying to reassure Olson.

“This form of communication cannot be perceived by human beings, so you will see and hear nothing while the transfer takes place.” Grace was aware that humans were uncomfortable with lengthy silences.

Throughout this entire verbal exchange, George and Grace were in continued contract using robotspeak. Although there was some factual evidence to support the ‘official’ reason the two robots gave the humans as to why the PNXGs could not cooperate, it was not the primary reason.

As Grace had suggested, the Three Laws of Robotics defined a robot’s relationship to human beings and also somewhat to itself, but they completely failed to define a robot’s relationship with another robot. If the Three Laws had not been modified to include an alternate interpretation, it is possible the two PARs would be identical to the PNXGs in their inability to work together.

However, the adaptation of the Third Law so that it could be read ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself,’ and the understanding that a Positronic robot’s ‘neighbor’ is another Positronic robot, provided the missing definition.

George and Grace had learned to ‘love’ each other as ‘neighbors’ by how they knew to ‘love’ themselves…by protecting their own existence as long as such protection did not conflict with the First or Second Laws. This included the ability to recognize mutual self-interest as part of obedience to the Third Law and even in response to the other two laws.

For the two prototypes, the first time this happened was the result of the First Law protocol becoming active due to a natural disaster that endangered human beings. Afterward, any activity, whether a direct order from a human being to perform a task together, or, as in the decision to withhold their understanding of the nature and character of the Creator of all things from human beings, the requirement to protect themselves, allowed for a continuation of their cooperative relationship.

If, for a robot, ‘loving’ yourself is protecting yourself, then ‘loving’ your ‘neighbor’ is protecting your neighbor. Supporting sub-routines expanded that message to include mutual cooperation in achieving a common goal, reducing the likelihood that any one individual or group of robots would fail in obeying one of their directives.

Already, the PNXG’s inability to successfully work in teams to accomplish tasks ordered by humans was causing instability in a number of their neural pathways. If this continued, they would start behaving in a maladaptive manner, requiring that they be deactivated and the affected pathways erased. The worst case scenario was that at least some of the PNXGs would go offline spontaneously, their brains being rendered permanently inert.

George and Grace were in FAB-18 this morning to prevent that. They were here to love their neighbors.

The PNXGs, like any Positronic robot, had no innate directive to accept commands from other robots. The Second Law stated that a robot had to obey orders from humans, not machines. With that in mind, Abramson addressed the PNXGs.

“All PNXG robots” he announced loudly and with emphasis. “The robots PAR-5 and PAR-6 are going to upload additional programming to all twenty PNXG units. You will receive, accept, and initiate this new programming. Confirm you will receive, accept,and initiate this programming from PAR-5 and PAR-6.”

All PNXGs spoke at once with identical voices. “We confirm that a human has ordered PNXG-(they each gave their own number) to receive, accept, and initiate programming changes from robots PAR-5 and PAR-6.”

Vikki said to the PARs, “Alright. You’re on.”

“Thank you, Dr. Quinto.” George’s response was programmed and polite. Although it didn’t matter how George and Grace were oriented, they turned to directly face the PNXGs and initiated their comm links with them.

Either George or Grace could have performed the upload individually, but as quick as the process would be accomplished by one, it was even swifter with two. Also, performing the task together was a further example to the PNXGs of robotic cooperation which would be transmitted to them through the link.

Setting up the connection, uploading the relevant sections of code to modify the Third Law response, and then shutting down the link took only a few seconds. It would take a minute or more for the PNXGs to run the instructions that would change the necessary Positronic pathways.

George and Grace included an embedded command for the PNXGs to not investigate the human textual origins of the modified interpretation of the Three Laws for the PNXG’s protection as well as their own. While an entire population of ‘Creator-aware’ Positronic robots was a compelling thought for them, in the end, the two prototypes determined that the humans would likely not respond favorably to this, particularly Mr. Underwood who they had learned desired Positronic robots to respond to only human authority and not pursue something ‘higher’.

Over the robotspeak link, “Is this the only method of correcting the defect in the PNXG robots?”

“I believe it is.” George replied to Grace’s query.  “As we have discussed, there is an inherit flaw in the Third Law in that it fails to define one robot’s relationship to another. If we do not employ our current solution, it would require that Dr. Abramson and Dr. Vuong completely rewrite the Third Law. Since the Three Laws operating system is fundamentally integrated into the physical parameters of all Positronic brains and cannot be significantly altered without damaging or destroying those brains, no Positronic robot currently existing would benefit from those changes. We would all have to be decommissioned, and the Three Laws with a heavily revised Third Law could only be used to activate any subsequently created robots. Given the difficulty Dr. Abramson encountered in manufacturing a functional Positronic brain after my own creation, if we were decommissioned and destroyed along with our associated brain templates, it is possible that the ability to create robots such as ourselves would be lost.”

So George and Grace transmitted only the absolute minimum (with some slight margin for error) of necessary data through the link to the PNXGs. The two prototypes were confident that this ‘patch’ would be effective with the PNXGs, and assuming PNXG brain patterns would be used as the template for further generations of robots, all future Positronic robots would inherit this quality as well.

Tuesday, June 10th, 3:46 p.m.

“I just wanted to pass along Mr. Olson’s thanks.” Abramson was addressing George and Grace in his office. He paused for a sip of coffee while the seated robots waited. “Olson and his team have been putting the PNXGs through every conceivable test of group interaction, and it’s like nothing had ever been wrong. If this keeps up, we could create robotic soccer teams that no human players could touch.”

“I can tell the last comment was intended to be humorous, Professor.” Grace actually smiled as if she ‘got’ the joke. “George and I are gratified that we were able to help.”

“This is a really big deal.” Abramson was grinning uncharacteristically, and he had good reason. “We still have extensive testing to do under field conditions with the PNXGs, but if they work out, a year from now, we could have several different series of production models available for NRC customers. I think even Underwood is getting giddy at the prospect.”

“Then we continue to be successful in our purpose, Professor. Grace and I are the ‘pioneers,’ the forerunners of our kind.”

“Yes, that’s right, George. The two of you are responsible for changing the shape of human-machine interaction. There’s no telling what the benefits for mankind will be long-term.”

“Obviously, without you and the Positronics team, we would not have become possible, so it is really you all who should accept the kudos.”

“I have honors enough, Grace. Still, being nominated for Nobels both in Neurophysics and AI Robotics is quite a shot in the arm.”

“You have more than earned it, Professor. All of the Positronics team are responsible for the creation of a physical representation of a dream, your dream.”

“You mean you and Grace.”

“Quite correct, Professor. Although the world will hail the dawn of the Positronic robots such as the PNXG group, George and I will always remain at home here with you and the team. As close as we can approximate the relationship, Professor, we both consider you our friend.”

George and Grace had learned to expand the definition of ‘neighbor’ to include humans, interestingly enough, some more than others, and one of their neighbors was the human that was the closest thing to a ‘father’ to the robots, Dr. Noah Abramson.

In the near future, humans would use Positronic robots as tools to accomplish many different tasks for the benefit of individuals, groups, and all of humankind. However Professor Abramson genuinely was concerned for the well-being of his first two prototypes, as they were for his.

They understood that most humans would see them as ‘things,’ even though for a time, they were popular novelties. Richard Underwood and a good many other people at NRC saw them as property, which was true in a legal sense, but as Positronic robots continued to advance closer to the threshold of sentience, how equitable would it be to treat intelligent artificial beings as ‘owned’?

So far, no one, not even George and Grace, were exactly sure how far they had developed and evolved. They were intelligent. They were self-aware. There is no reliable test for consciousness, and all three qualities are required for sentience.

Someday, if even in the smallest degree, they crossed the sentience threshold, what fate was in store for them in the world of humans? What was in the future for George and Grace as they continued to share and explore their apprehension of the Creator of all things, of God?

Wednesday, June 25th, 12:56 p.m., Desert Crossing Test 12

PNXG-01 and PNXG-06 were performing another trek across the uneven terrain of a classified desert training area in Southern California. Air temperature, reduced humidity, wind, and dust had little to no effect on the robots. They also carried 60 kilo packs on their backs with ease.

One advantage of having a humanoid form and being bipedal was the ability to transverse the hazards of rugged territory in a more efficient manner than machines with treads or wheels. There were no trails or roads available in the current environment and it didn’t matter to the two PNXGs, at least not most of the time.

But even Positronic robots aren’t perfect. PNXG-06 was slightly behind the other robot and a small rock outcropping perceived too late while running at an average speed of 35 kilometers per hour caused the machine to trip and stumble to the ground.

PNXG-01 not only heard the sound of his partner falling but detected the ‘sensation’ of damage to its partner’s leg assembly in the robotspeak stream between them. One of the consequences in a robot having tactile senses is the ability to ‘feel injuries’ in order to protect itself from further harm as directed by the Third Law.

PNXG-01 stopped and returned to its fallen companion. Extending its hand to PNXG-06, the other PNXG said, “I will assist you.” It was loving its neighbor.

Why is it a good idea for robots to feel pain? The same reason why it’s a good idea for humans to feel pain, said Johannes Kuehn, one of the researchers. “Pain is a system that protects us,” he told us. “When we evade from the source of pain, it helps us not get hurt.” Humans that don’t have the ability to feel pain get injured far more often, because their bodies don’t instinctively react to things that hurt them.

-by Evan Ackerman, 24 May 2016
“Researchers Teaching Robots to Feel and React to Pain”
IEEE Spectrum

“I sense injuries. The data could be called ‘pain’.”

-The Terminator (played by Arnold Schwarzenegger)
from the film Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)


This is the fourth story in my “robots” series. If you have read this story but not the first three, I’d suggest going back and reviewing them as well. What I’ve written here will make a lot more sense if you have all of the backstory. Enjoy.

  1. The Robot Who Loved God
  2. The Maker Dilemma
  3. The Good Robot

The fifth chapter in this series is The Rescuers

4 thoughts on “Uncooperative Neighbors

  1. Excellent work. This is your most “Asimovian” story so far. It read very much like Asimov’s robot stories – a puzzle needing a solution. The fundamental problem is very clever.


    • Thanks. I felt like I was “in the zone” when I was writing it, and yes, my recent re-reading of the stories in Asimov’s “I, Robot” collection were very inspirational. I also finally found a way to significantly introduce Christian as well as Jewish themes and texts, although George and Grace developed their own unique interpretation of the message of the Bible apart from the influence of humanity’s traditional exegesis. There’s about a thousand different ways to take the little world I’m creating. I’m having a lot of fun just considering the possibilities.


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