BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP...
The hateful sound of the alarm clock jarred me out of a sound, peaceful sleep, the harsh beeping echoing in my skull as I shuddered. It just couldn't be morning yet!
I looked up blearily, and saw the bright red glow of the LEDs spelling out that it was indeed 5:20 am, as if the loathsome sound of the beeping alarm had not been evidence enough of that. The bedroom was still dark and welcoming, the bed nice and warm, I was hardly eager to get up on a chilly November morning to face the day!
I snuggled down into the warm covers, the heat from my husband's body next to me making the bed that much more toasty warm, and I heard him reluctantly stirring beside me. He rolled over to face me, and opened his eyes.
The beeping continued, until I could stand it no longer, and reached a hand out to bang ineffectually at the night table, trying to hit the SNOOZE button. After a few moments, I managed it, and the horrible noise stopped, returning blessed silence to our bedroom.
We lay there for a moment, enjoying the warmth and the quiet, but knowing that we would have to momentarily get up. And 'have to' was the precisely correct phrasing!
"Honey," my husband Ted said, his voice still half-asleep, "I don't want to get up yet!"
"Neither do I," I responded, snuggling closer to him and settling my head on his chest, but then after a moment I added, "but if we wait much longer, we're going to be getting out of the bed the hard way!"
"Well...maybe we can just lie here and rest our eyes for a minute..." he muttered.
"You know that's not a good idea-" I started to say, before a huge yawn broke my sentence. Staying up until 11:00 pm the night before had been a bad idea, really, but come on, it had been a Friday night, we had to have a little fun, didn't we?
I knew better than to close my eyes again, we had set the alarm to give us ten minutes grace for a reason, but I couldn't resist the temptation. We lay together, our eyes closed and fighting sleep, and as I had feared would happen, we drifted toward dozing off again.
"THEODORE! JANET! It's time to get up!"
The voice was very lovely, sweet, even-tempered, the word were stern, perfectly enunciated, and spoken in the tone of an order. I groaned, when that voice snapped through my head my eyes blinked open and I knew Ted and I had let ourselves doze off again! I rolled away from my husband, suddenly eager to get my body out of the warm bed.
As my bare feet hit the chilly hardwood floor, I looked up to see the source of the stern voice. She was quite a sight to see, really: 6'0" of flowing silver, sculpted into the most perfect vision of a slender female human form you could imagine. Technically, I suppose 'it' would be more grammatically correct to describe the vision than 'she', but nobody could look at INGA and not think of that vision of silvery perfection as a 'she'!
Beside me, Ted had also jumped out of bed as fast as he could manage, but I looked at the clock, and saw with a sinking sensation that it now read 5:53 am, meaning that not only had we fallen asleep after hitting the snooze button, but that we had slept almost half an hour late!
We are so in for it! I groaned to myself mentally, shivering in the chill morning air. I wished I had on something heavier than my light pajamas, and that I had some kind of house shoes on to protect my feet from the cold floor, but I knew better than to reach for either just then. Poor Ted had it worse, all he had slept in was a pair of white briefs, meaning he was even more exposed to the chilly air than I was.
"I can not believe the two of you," INGA said, her perfectly modulated voice somehow conveying disappointment, anger, and a promise of future changes, without ever becoming less perfectly sweet. Her voice was the voice of every long-suffering mother and nanny, all rolled into one.
"I'm sorry, INGA," I said. "We were up late last night, and-"
I knew better than to try to defend myself, but I could not help it. Ted wisely remained silent, but I just had to try it, and as I should have expected INGA cut me off in mid-excuse.
"I don't want excuses, Janet! You both knew what time you had to be up this morning, so if you stayed up too late it's your own fault you had trouble rising this morning. The children all got up on time, so it would hardly be fair to excuse their parents for failing to manage what teenagers had sufficient maturity to do! Don't you agree, Janet?"
I sighed. "I suppose so, Ma'am."
"I suppose so, too," the mechanical woman said. "Janet, Ted, I'm afraid I have little choice but to punish you for this."
My heart sank as I heard INGA's lovely, perfect voice say that Ted and I would have to be punished. I had a fairly good idea of what the punishment would be, and I was hoping I was wrong.
"Ted, Janet," INGA said, looking them directly in the eye with her glowing green eyes, "you are both grounded for 7 days. There will be no television, no Internet, no radio, leaving the house except to go to work. I am moving your bedtime up to 9:00 pm, and there is to be no sex. Ted, you will move into the guest room until the seven days are up."
"But-" we both started to say in unison, only to be cut off my our robotic nanny.
"SILENCE! This is not open for negotiation, the decision is made! Now both of you, get down to breakfast before it gets cold!"
INGA glided out of the room, leaving my husband and I staring at the door after her. I couldn't believe it, we were grounded, at our age?! I was 42 years old, Ted was 44! She couldn't be serious...could she?
I sighed. Of course she was serious. My 42 year old butt was grounded for the first time since I was 16!
"Well," I said sadly, "so much for our anniversary dinner tomorrow night!"
Ted nodded. "Yep, and my fishing trip! I don't believe this is happening!"
After a silent moment, I said, "Well, you heard her. We'd better get down to breakfast before we get into even more trouble!"
Ten and I headed downstairs, to find that, as INGA had said, our teenagers were already at the table eating. The food was set at our places as well, where our chairs were inviting waiting, and the bacon and eggs smelled delicious. The household 'bots were programmed with everyone's favorite dishes, always cooked to perfection.
As we sat down at the circular table, I saw one of the household 'bots bringing in more orange juice. Unlike INGA, they were purely utilitarian machines, they didn't look remotely human, and they were very stupid, unable to do more than their basic assigned tasks. They did those well, but that was all they did.
Still, they were useful and well-designed. Floating on hoverfans, they could flit from seat to seat serving the diners, or fly back to the kitchen for more food or drink, and navigate the house in the dark. I had done a very good job on their design and programming if I did say so myself, and the patent had made Ted and myself quite comfortable, since they were one of Consolidated Robotics' best selling lines.
"Good morning, Mom," 12 year old Stephanie said to me as I sat down. "Good morning Daddy!"
"Hi honey," I said, ruffling her blonde hair. Stephanie is my youngest child, and I often have to fight the urge just to grab her into my arms and squeeze, she's so sweet. Except that she's a teenager now, and sometimes the sweetness gives way to a little devil. It was a progression I was quite familiar with from my older children, Brad, who was 14, Staci, who was 16, and Maria at 19. Each of them, but especially the girls, had given Ted and me their share of trouble at that age.
Of course, Stephanie and Brad were getting away with a good deal less than their older sisters had. INGA was not one to tolerate a lot of teenage hellaciousness, and she was a harder authority figure to charm or sweet-talk than I had been!
Ted and I sat on the side of the circular dining room table closest to the living room door, Stephanie sat opposite us, her brother and sisters on either side. It was a Saturday morning, and so we were all still clad in our pajamas, and I was grateful that the dining room floor was heated, it felt good to my bare feet.
Th dining room table was round and had no 'head' point, which had been the whole point when INGA made us replace the former rectangular table with a circular one. It was her way of reinforcing who was in charge in our household, and that wasn't Ted or me now!
"So," Brad asked between bites of his biscuits and gravy, "you two overslept?"
I blushed, seeing the grins the kids were exchanging. Naturally they already knew that Ted and I had to be in trouble, since INGA is very strict about bedtimes and rising times.
"Well, yeah," I admitted.
"So what happened?" Staci asked, having finished her plate of waffles.
"Well..." I said, "we-"
"Theodore and Janet have been grounded for seven days," the smooth, flawlessly silky voice of INGA said as she stepped through the doorway, the morning sunlight glistening on her polished silver skin. As always, she was a sight to see. She was clad in what I thought of as her 'nanny uniform', a knee-length skirt and severe top, sleeveless and black. The only think missing from the uniform was shoes, since it was the household custom to go barefoot indoors, and INGA did so as well.
"Grounded?!" Stephanie exclaimed in amazement and glee, "Mom and Dad are grounded?!"
The other kids were giggling, even Nichelle, and I guess I could hardly blame them seeing their parents treated as if we were naughty kids.
"Indeed they are, Stephanie," our robotic nanny said. "For the next seven days, in fact. So keep that in mind if you are tempted to break the rules, children!"
I was blushing furiously. I still had a hard time believing this was happening, but it was. I dug into my braekfast, even as the kids snickered and peppered INGA with questions about how it would work.
INGA answered them calmly. There was no question that she had thoroughly planned out how this would work, I had to admit. No question about it, when Ted and I created INGA, we had really topped ourselves!
Finally, I thought to myself! Thank Heaven it's finally over!
A week before, when INGA had informed me that I was grounded, along with my husband, I had not taken it all that seriously. True, I had been upset by the fact that we had to cancel out anniversary dinner, and a couple of other things, but I figured that being stuck at home for a week (except for work) wouldn't be that big a deal.
I had been wrong.
What I had not figured on was just how boring it would be. INGA had taken away the TV, the radio, the Internet, she had locked the library to us, and put Ted in the guest room so even that distraction was gone! Basically I had had nothing to do for a week except go to work, come home from work (straight home, at that!) and chores at home. By the third day of it I was going nuts, by the fifth day I was ready to scream. It had been a far more effective punishment than I had expected.
But now I was free. It was Saturday again, and I had risen (on time!), and had breakfast and now it was time to get dressed for my day's shopping excursion. I was taking Stephanie and Staci to buy some new outfits, and we were also planning to buy a new TV set to replace the one with the burned out power unit.
As I slipped off my silk pajamas, I paused to take in my image in the mirror. For a 42 year old mother of four, I didn't think I looked have bad. My blonde hair (which is mostly natural blonde, my grandmother was from Sweden) and green eyes were good features, and if I was a little heavier than I once was, my figure was still good enough to suit me. I wished my boobs were a little perkier, but that's life.
I turned to the closet holding my clothes, and reached for a pair of jeans and a blouse. As I did I thought longingly of the clothes hanging in the locked storage room, the short skirts and tight cutoff jeans and other items INGA considered inappropriate for me. OK, so I'm 42 years old, but I've kept in shape and frankly I think I've got the body for those clothes, but INGA was adamant about it, I was not allowed to wear skirts above the knee, tops that showed cleavage, or cutoffs as tight and short as the ones I once wore, period.
When I finished dressing and slipped on my nice sandals, I looked myself over in the mirror again, brushing my shoulder-length hair as I did. When I thought I looked presentable, I picked up my purse and headed downstairs, where my 12 and 16 year old daughters were waiting. I would have liked to have Maria with us too, but my 19-year old was with her boyfriend that day.
"Hi, Mom, about time!" Stephanie piped up. "We've been waiting forever!"
I rolled my eyes. Stephanie's impatience was a running family joke, her drawled out 'forever' probably meant about five minutes.
The girls, dressed like me in jeans and blouse-tops, looked adorable, and we matched fairly well, since all my kids inherited my blonde hair. Stephie wears hers short, but since she turned 16 Staci was letting hers grow down her back.
We were dressed and ready to go, which left only one more matter: allowances. Saturday was Allowance Day, and shopping was kind of pointless without some money, after all.
"Well," I said, "let's see about the allowances for the week, and we'll be off!"
I led the girls to the room where INGA kept her 'office', the room were the robot kept the records and other information, and where she also performed necessary self-maintenance. We found INGA there, putting together the weekly menu plan.
"Hello, Janet, Staci, Stephanie," the flowing-silver vision of femininity said, with her more than humanly sweet and perfect voice, "I take it you are here for your allowances?"
"Yes, Ma'am," I said, before Stephanie could say something teenagerish.
"Very well," INGA said. "Janet, I have authorized $2500.00 into your personal credit account for the new television, the clothing for the girls, and the repair work on the car's air conditioning system. For your personal allowances..."
INGA opened a small safe, and removed some cash, and gave Stephanie $50.00, Staci $50.00, and handed me $100.00.
"Be careful of spending that, girls. I will expect to see a list of what it was spent on at the end of the week, with receipts!"
"We understand," I said quickly. I knew Stephanie resented having to keep track of every penny she spent for INGA's approval, but I also knew that if she mouthed off just then, we might find our shopping trip replaced with a day of chores, which was not how I planned to spend this first free Saturday!
A few minutes later, as we drove down the road, the autopilot in the car keeping us perfectly in place in the thick traffic, the mild autumn sun shining down in what was likely to be one of the last really perfect days of the warm season, I settled back in the car seat, reflecting on the irony of having a net worth of over seventy million dollars, and going shopping on an allowance at the age of 42.
Ted and I had made our fortunes in the robotics business. The two of us were, quite frankly, among the best in the business at both the hardware and software aspects of it. We had met in college, when we were both part of a student team setting up one of the first self-organizing neural network models, and we had been married upon graduation. We had worked at several of the major robotics corporations before joining with several other specialists and some daring venture capital to form our own firm, Consolidated Robotics.
Out work was almost legendary, and I knew I was not just blowing my own horn to recognize that. But no question about it, INGA was in a class by herself. She was beyond question the most successful AI-robot Ted and I had ever designed and built.
"Mom," Stephanie pouted, "it's perfect! Why can't I get it?!"
I sighed. "Well, technically you can get it," I told my 12 year old daughter, "it's your decision."
Stephanie brightened. "Thanks, Mom!"
"But remember," I added, as she reached for the snug denim shorts (far too short for a girl her age in my opinion!), "you have to get INGA's approval to actually wear it."
My daughter paused, looking at the shorts she was holding in her hand, looked back at me with stricken eyes that made me at once wish to hug her and giggle, and then with an exaggerated sigh she put the snug shorts back on the shelf.
"She'd never let me wear 'em," Stephanie admitted. "She's worse than you were, sometimes I think it was easier when you were in charge!"
I felt a little funny hearing my daughter say that, it still felt strange to be reminded that I wasn't in charge anymore, even after two years!
"Hey., Mom," my 16 year old daughter called out to me from the head of the aisle, holding up her communicator, "you beeped me?"
"Yeah, Staci," I replied. I held up the blouse I had been looking at, and asked her, "What do you think?"
"Nice," she grinned. "That color would match your eyes, I'll bet Dad would love it!"
I blushed a little at her insinuation, was I imagining things or were teenagers getting awfully knowing these days?!
"Well, the thing is," I said to my daughter, as I held up a box I had been carrying "I already bought these shoes, and if I buy the blouse too I'll have used up my entire allowance for this trip. So I was kind of wondering...?"
My daughter grinned in 16 year old amusement and said cheerfully, "So you want me to loan you some money, Mom?"
I sighed and blushed a little more as I nodded and asked, "Could I?"
"How much do you want to borrow?"
"How about...$50.00 and I'll pay you back next month when we out regular monthly allowances?"
"Welll...." Staci said, looking thoughtful, "I suppose I could do that...but if I do that means I'll have to put off buying those new bracelets I wanted. So I'll tell you what I'll do, Mom. I'll loan you fifty today and you can pay me back sixty on Allowance Day."
"Sixty?! But that's-I mean-"
"Take it or leave it, Mom."
I sighed. I really wanted the blouse, and the occasion I had in mind wearing it was before our Allowance Day, so Staci had me, if I wanted it I had to borrow the money, I knew Stephanie was no use, she spent every penny IGNA allotted her.
Staci, on the other hand, had a more frugal nature, she'd always been turned that way, she was loaning her siblings money even back when our family was more or less normal, when INGA had put Ted and me on an allowance she'd merely seen another opportunity to extend her dealings.
"Oh all right," I replied. "It's a deal, you brat!"
Staci got out her purse and gave me $50.00, and I blushed at the humiliating feeling of borrowing money from my sixteen year old daughter because I'd overspent my allowance! At age 42, no less!
As she handed me the money, Stephanie looked at the green notes and said, "Sis, do you think you could loan me 20?"
"You already owe me over a hundred, Squirt," Staci smiled. "Sure you want to go in deeper?"
"Awww, it's not fair!" Stephanie pouted. "You always have money!"
"I get the same allowance you do, kiddo," Staci responded. "I'm just smarter than you!"
"Come on, girls," I told them as they continued to bicker, "let's go pick out our new TV unit."
"What do you think, Mom?" Stephanie asked me. "It's got a nice big projector, we could see the hologram from all over the rec room!"
"Yeah," I replied, "but the console is so ugly!"
That was true, while the TV did have a wonderfully clear, crisp holographic image, the projector itself was designed along the lines of some hideous black and grey 'modern art' style form. I was leaning more toward a more traditional cabinet, the image quality was nearly as good and the cabinet would not look so out of place in our rec room.
When I said as much, Stephie rolled her eyes and said, "Who cares how it looks?! The image is terrific!"
"So?" I asked sourly. "No matter how good the image is, the reruns of I Love Lucy and Andy Griffith won't be any newer. They were running those all over the place when I was your age, and they were already ancient!"
We ended up compromising, choosing a unit that I thought was kind of ugly, but better than that hideous black thing, and which had a decent image. I figured maybe Ted and I could tinker with the projector to get a better 3D image eventually, when we had a few spare minutes.
We stopped at a fast food place for lunch, and as the service bots took our orders, I saw a familiar trademark on them: Consolidated Service Robotics, 'CSR'. It was a familiar trademark because the company in question had been founded by my husband and myself, shortly before we got married.
Ted and I had met in my freshman year of college, when he was a junior mechanical engineering student with a straight A average and a flair for original design that had already been noticed, and I was a geeky, coke-bottle glasses wearing electronics and computer whiz. I met Ted and fell for him within a week, but it took a little longer for me to catch his eye away from an annoying redheaded cheerleader he was seeing. I was kind of new at the game back then...but I won.
We found we made a good team professionally as well as personally, something about our combined minds 'clicked' in ways that enabled us to produce new technical ideas the way a politician produces spin. We were only in my sophomore year when we took out our first combined patent, and less than a year later we were doing cutting-edge computer programming, creating new forms of software and 'soft hardware' that were simply unprecedented back in 2016.
In grad school, we were doing work so advanced compared to our age-mates that we caught the attention of both the government and several major companies, and our patents were already starting to bring in some serious cash. Our decision to specialize in robotics came at just the right time, the robotics industry and the 'robotics revolution' of the late teens were just starting to take off in earnest, and Ted and I were in at the ground floor of the revolution.
We got married when I was still in college at age 20, and I was pregnant with our first chiild before that year was out. I was waddling through the labs eight months pregnant when the inspiration came to me that offered Ted and me the tempting possibility of true artificial intelligence. Not just the simulated, half-assed pretend version that had been called 'AI' for decades, but potentially the real thing!
As Thomas Edison reportedly said, genius is '1% inspiration and 99% perspiration'. He was right, if anything he understated the matter. Ted and I took a big, big gamble when we realized the potential of my idea, we hocked what little property we had, borrowed money from our friends and from some 'angel investors' who had seen previous ideas of ours work out, and founded our own company, Consolidated Service Robotics.
I had heard that about the time I was born, venture capital for new startups was almost laughably easy to get, the so-called 'dot.com' revolution that eventually ended in a crash. I couldn't remember it, I was born in 1996 and the crash came at about the time I first realized I was good at math in first grade. By the time Ted and I were starting out, capital was a lot harder to get, and the demands on it were higher. It took Ted and me three years of hard work, 14 hour days, and endless beating of our heads against the wall to convert my first inspiration into a working, crude, but recognizable AI...one about as smart as a typical dog or cat.
All the while we were doing this, we were raising our oldest daughter Maria, and I was pregnant with Staci when we finally achieved that first, seminal working AI breakthrough. Ted often jokes that I do my best thinking when I'm pregnant, or at least I think he's joking.
That first AI was crude, unstable, but unmistakably the real deal. It was several orders of magnitude beyond any other computer system built at that time, and the spinoffs from it turned CSR from a struggling startup to a major success, our company was worth billions and Ted and I were now millionaires several times over.
Ted and I were good at all aspects of robotics, we were involved in the design of the bodies, the hardware of the brains, and the programming and configuration of their AI cores. Our new bots were not bright compared to people, but they could learn from experience and they had personalities that could be configured for optimum results during design. Our robots became waiters, cooks, butlers, factory machines, and the military was a big customer, too.
That first AI was a super-mainframe the size of a house, two years later we had refined the technology to the point that a computer the size of a washer-dryer was almost as smart as a human. Another year and we had AI brains of human capacity ready to fit into human-sized bodies, and we'd been able to create bodies that were convincingly human-sized to house them.
Remember when I said Ted joked that I do my best thinking when I'm pregnant? Well, as it happens I was pregnant with Staci when I first had the idea for a robotic nanny. I had been running crazy for years trying to be Mommy at home and co-chief of R&D at the office. I found myself wishing I had a robot nanny to take care of the details of life, and it hit me that our AI tech made that possible, that that there might just be a market for the product.
That was in 2026, when I had the first germ of inspiration that would lead to INGA.
Once I thought of it, one night while trying to do four things at once and cursing the fact that I had outgrown my maternity pants again, the idea wouldn't leave me alone. It appealed to me on several levels.
To the businesswoman in me, the appeal of the idea was that I was quite sure that if Ted and I could make it work, the market potential was there. There's a unique thrill in seeing a product succeed, in knowing that someone appreciates one's skill and vision enough to pay out money to make use of the idea.
To the harried mother in me, the idea of an inherently reliable, trustworthy, and effective nanny, one that I could know had no dark secrets and could count on because the nanny was designed to be a good nanny, was deeply appealing. I had three kids and was pregnant with the fourth, and trying to pack 40 hours of work and like into every 24. I needed reliable and effective help, and I knew other moms (and dads) did, too, to say nothing of teachers and doctors and nurses and many other people who could use that sort of help.
Of course, along with that and not least was the sheer technical challenge of the whole concept! In 2026, I could see a robotic nanny of the sort I was envisaging as a definite theoretical possibility, but actually making it work promised to be one of the biggest challenges Ted and I had ever undertaken. Neither of us was ever any good at resisting tricky, fascinating technical challenges, we thrive on them. We both love our work, we get the same kick out of science and engineering the most people do out of sports and shopping, I think.
It took us a year to take the idea from premise to the earliest stages of practical research, and another year during which we were also working on other ideas, to lay out the first crude designs. It rapidly became clear that the various challenges of making this idea work would mean that this would be the most complex and subtle robotics project we'd ever embarked upon. A robot nanny had to be smart, and trustworthy, and had to have a body that could do the work of the job, too, and had to look the part enough to be useful, too.
By 2029, we'd created a few unsuccessful prototypes, none of them were close to good enough, but we learned a lot from them, and the spinoffs went into our other projects, making the company's robots better in general. Bit by bit, the steady improvement in our work (and advancing technology generally, of course we drew on other people's work too) brought my initial vision closer and closer to reality.
Ted invented a new kind of robotic 'skin' that was as flexible as human skin, and was even warm and soft to the touch (though it didn't look human, it was a wonderfully aesthetic reflective gold or silver color, we could make it in either color). I designed a frame that could duplicate the full range of human motions, based on the human skeleton (though the 'bones' were made of plastics, composites, and more sophisticated materials). Working together, we developed a voice synthesizer far superior to anything made up until then, we could now give our robots an almost superhuman vocal ability.
The brain was my personal pet project, I created and refined and improved on successively better AI models, personally supervising every step from initial coding to hardware installation, our test-bots got brighter and brighter, and the spinoffs enabled our other robot lines to reach levels of popularity we'd never imagined a few years before. CSR robots started turning up in all sorts of unexpected niches, and the money was pouring into the company's coffers.
And we needed it! The robot nanny project was proving to be incredibly costly, the subtle sophistication necessary to enable a machine to do what came so easily to humans wasn't cheap. To my disappointment, it became clear that my robot nanny would, at the least, start out as a rich person's luxury, there was no way to make them cheaply yet, we couldn't mass produce AI at that level of sophistication, we had to 'grow' them from careful programming and training and experience, though once we did we could 'clone' the AI into a new brain and create a new bot sharing the old bot's experiences. It was effective...but slow.
By this point Ted and I were no longer in sole control of the company, we'd had to take our stock public back in the '20s, and though we were among the largest shareholders, we did have a board to deal with, and the CEO of CSR, Daniel Drew, was in the odd position of sometimes answering to us and sometimes laying down the law from the stockholders or pointing out economic reality when Ted and I got too far off into techie dreamland.
(A dedicated 'techie' like Ted or me can, if we let ourselves, slip into such fixation on our projects that abstractions like 'money' come to seem unreal...until suddenly there's not enough of that abstraction anymore, at which point we get jerked painfully back to Earth. Part of Daniel's job was to make sure we didn't drift that far out.)
Luckily Dan was good at his job, he managed to keep the balance between Ted and me and our voracious appetite for money and equipment, a Board that had an eagle eye on the bottom line, and a government that both wanted our products and insisted on endless niggling rules about public safety and reliability. He understood just enough of the tecnical stuff to follow Ted and my explanations, and he could speak our language well enough to let us know when we could push the board or the regulators...and when we had pull back or be pushed back.
In 2034, what Ted and I thought was the first 'sales ready' version of our robotic nanny was completed, and we were pleased with ourselves, thinking we'd really outdone ourselves. Unfortunately, we were about to experience one of those moments when Dan had to explain that the rest of the world wasn't quite as impressed with us as we were.
"What do you mean, they're not ready?!" I remember protesting when Dan told us that the Board had voted to suspend our nannybot project. "I think Ted and I are better equipped to judge that than anybody on the board, most of them think a field-effect transistor is a farm implement!"
Dan laughed good-naturedly, as he usually did at my outbursts of temper. Between Ted and myself, I'm the more volatile, I have to admit it and usually I'm secretly a tiny bit proud of it. But anyway, Dan didn't take my response to his surprise announcement personally.
"I take it," Ted said more calmly from where he was sitting beside the master programming terminal, "that you're not talking about the technical side of the matter."
"Right you are," Dan said. He had come to our private lab at the main CSR facility to give us the Board's bombshell, the only people in the room were my husband, Dan, and myself...and the new robot, if you count it as people. Normally I'd have unhesitatingly referred to a robot, any robot, as an 'it', but this one was different in some basic way, that I will admit partly had to do with what it, or she, looked like.
The new robot was standing motionless in the midst of our lab, still undergoing various checks and refinements. It was, by far, the most human-appearing robot we'd ever designed and built, Ted and I had really gone all out on every aspect of the project, and I have to say we'd outdone ourselves, even in terms of the aesthetic side.
This robot looked exactly like a human woman, cast in perfectly polished silver. Oh, she, I mean it-or heck, I'm just going to say 'she' from now on, if only because it seems more natural now in retrospect, OK?
Anyway, like I was saying, the near-finished result of our several years of work looked like an unusually tall and perfectly proportioned human woman, cast in mirror-polished silver, every detail perfect. This was clearly visible because as yet the robot wore nothing, and we'd made her anatomically perfect. Imagine a statue made of frozen quicksilver, and you had the six foot tall form Ted, Dan, and I were looking at in the lab that evening.
The only colors other than silver were to be found in optical sensors, located where a human would have eyes, and her 'hair' analogue, and her 'nails'. The 'eyes' of the robot were emerald green on a silver 'eyeball', with a very faint greenish glow behind the irises.
The robot's analogue of hair was made of a sophisticated variation on her 'skin', which appeared to be (and was not) made of shimmering metallic gold. Her shimmering (literally!) hair flowed down past her shoulders in a cascade of metallic gold, matched by a patch of gold where her legs came together. I told you we made her anatomically correct!
On the tips of her silver fingers and toes were red 'nails' that looked as if they were perfectly trimmed and painted. The colors could be varied from red to any other color, or turned pale white to resemble uncolored human nails. This last was a purely decorative touch on my part, I'd set the nails on 'candy red' to match my own favorite nail polish color on a whim.
The robot was on-line and its AI was 'awake', but it had no orders as yet and no personality programming, so it had no 'desires'. The machine was simply standing there, waiting for us to give it a reason to do anything, absent that it simply stood there waiting.
Dan whistled, and asked, "Did you two intentionally give her a figure like a supermodel? I'm not sure if that would be a good move in terms of sales psychology, men might like it but I'm not sure their wives will!"
I giggled. "Actually, her figure is completely average, Dan."
Dan blinked. "Really? Could have fooled me, and I go to the beach every chance I get!"
Ted laughed. "We programmed the molds to use an average of the measurements of the general female population, and when we did we got that. We didn't know it at the time, but what is often called a 'perfect figure' for either sex actually approximates the average of the population pretty well. All the different ‘too skinny’ or ‘too fat’ or other specific forms average out to what you see.
"We didn't realize it until the robot emerged from the mold looking like that, though! Jan was mad a hornet!"
I blushed and laughed. "Well, it looked like you were playing a fantasy game with it, you have to admit!"
"Well, anyway, the Board is worried about public perceptions," Dan said, tearing his eyes away from that silvery vision of female perfection. I had noticed that Ted sometimes seemed to have a similar reaction to our creation, and made a note that the robot needed some clothes, as I listened to Dan's explanation.
"The thing is, people have a hard time believing that a machine can be a good nanny for kids, or effectively teach them or supervise them safely. You two say you're sure this machine can perform as advertised?"
"Absolutely!" I exclaimed, and Ted nodded.
"Well, I have to tell you the Board wants more. They want you to prove your confidence."
"How?" Ted asked.
"Use the machine yourselves," Ted replied. "Let it supervise your own kids for six months, just as if you'd hired a nanny. That might make an impression on the Board, I can tell you nothing else is likely too. They've got visions of supersized lawsuits dancing in their heads, and it's blocking out everything else."
When I heard Dan's test, I laughed with relief. That was easy, I had, after all, designed and built the robot in part for just that purpose, I wanted a robot nanny to help me out with my own kids. Ted and I agreed to the test, because we really were confident in our creation, and that was how the machine, which we decided to call INGA, came to be the kids' nanny.
We had the programs ready, it was the work of a week to upload them and bring the AI to readiness. The kids were less sanguine about the idea of having a machine in charge when we weren't there, but they had little say in the matter, and to my delight, after a few tiny glitches at the beginning, it worked beautifully.
It was about three months after that that things changed in a way I had never imagined.
The INGA Nannybot was working out great. Ted and I had designed and built her as the prototype of a new series of high-end, AI-operated family service robots, she was the best we'd ever built in almost every aspect of her design, implementation, and operation. From her human-flexible body and artificial silvery nanotech 'skin' to her human-equivalent AI core to her nearly inexhaustible power supply, she was practically a work of art!
When we'd introduced her to our four kids, who were 10, 12, 14, and 17 at the time, they'd had their doubts about the idea of having a robot supervising them when Ted and I weren't around. With us as parents, they'd grown up around simpler robots, it wasn't the machines themselves they were uncomfortable with, but they were used to giving orders to machines, under Ted and my supervision, not having machines in charge of them. It made very little difference, though, because they didn't get a vote in the matter!
I have to admit I got a kick out of the looks on their faces the first time they saw INGA. We'd clad the robot in a nanny's uniform, which consisted of a black knee-length skirt, with a white ruffle under it, a black sleeveless top, and practical black slippers that she wore outdoors. On her metallic-gold hair was a matching cap, she looked the ideal of a nanny, if one's ideal of a nanny was a statuesque six foot tall silver-skinned female robot!
At first, we didn't really leave INGA in charge, whenever Ted and I were not present she was monitored by an advanced surveillance system we'd installed in the house, that led us monitor every room in the house at any time, to make sure everything was working as should be, and any time we weren't watching directly was recorded for later review.
The robot did show a tiny few glitches, all of them minor, but the AI's neural net learned at a geometric rate, within a few weeks of starting, INGA was performing as well or better than any human nanny could be expected to perform, and the kids had learned that it was best not to cross her, both because Ted and I insisted on backing her decisions, and because she proved quite capable of enforcing her own decisions, just as I'd set up her programming to be able to do.
I was delighted, the recorded data was adding up to prove that the project was viable, even Dan was saying that he thought we'd be able to use this record as proof of concept enough to overcome the doubts of some of the other board members.
It was during a long holiday weekend that the big surprise happened. The CSR labs were closed for the holidays, and Ted and I were home for the Labor Day weekend, which had turned out to be a dreary, rainy period that had everybody pretty much housebound when we had all been planning on a picnic. The weather forecasts had been calling for warm and sunny, and come the day it was cloudy and drizzling.
I guess I was in kind of a bad mood, I'm an energetic person by nature, I don't deal all that well with boredom, and I was kind of bored that day. I'd gotten into snappish arguments with Ted and Brad and Maria, I was clicking through the hundreds of holovision channels and finding nothing worth watching, and I was really annoyed about the weather and the way our picnic plans had gone sour.
It also seemed kind of hot to me in the living room, at one point I got up to check the thermostat and discovered that they had indeed been turned up by several degrees, the glowing yellow digits on the display told me as much. I dialed it down, and went to the kitchen for a snack, and returned to try again to find something worth watching on the HV.
After a moment I found an old romantic movie from the late teens, one of the first movies to star Lindsey Lohan in her thirties after her big comeback, and I remembered liking it. I was just settling into my recline and getting comfortable, munching on my roast turkey sandwich and relishing the taste of the hot mustard, when I realized I had started to sweat again.
I checked, and sure enough somebody had turned the thermostat back up. I turned it down again, only to see the digits go right back up almost the moment I took my fingers off the keypad. I knew what that meant, of course, somebody was using one of the other control pads elsewhere in the house, and I had an idea who it had to be.
Sure enough, I found my daughter Staci, who was 14 then, in the kitchen, and she had just altered the temp again. Staci is a bit cold-natured, takes after a her father, and she and I, both a little frazzled from the rain and the frustrating day, started to snap at each other, and I'm afraid I lost my temper and used some language that a well-bred grown woman should not use, especially not in front of her teenaged daughter!
It was then that I felt a pair of warm-but-metallic fingers catch my ear, and heard a family, sternly sweet artificial voice say, "JANET! That will be enough of that kind of language!"
What followed seemed to happen so fast that by the time I quite realized it was happening, it was too late to stop it! INGA had grabbed my by the ear, just as she would have a little kid under the same circumstances, and was dragging me toward the bathroom with gentle, but utterly irresistible, force. INGA was not superhumanly strong, but she was about as strong as the very strongest human males. I didn't have a chance of resisting her pull!
Moments later, with me still sputtering in shock at this development, we were standing in front of the sink in the downstairs bathroom, and INGA had picked up a bar of soap, and right there and then my robotic creation proceeded to wash my mouth out with that ghastly-tasting soap bar, as if I were just one more of her charges being dealt with for having a foul mouth!
Where I was sputtering before in shock, now I was gasping and sputtering at the horrible taste of soap, something I had not experienced since I was really a little girl, it had been a favorite of my mother for dealing with potty mouthed kids. But now I was tasting it again at age 39!
"Janet," INGA said firmly to me, as I fumed helplessly, a soapy film in my mouth, "in this house, well-bred members of this family simply do not speak to other members of the family that way! It is uncivilized, immature, and unacceptable!"
I was in shock, for some reason my nannybot had suddenly started treating me as if I were one of her charges! i was too stunned to quite process the whole situation, and my concentration was not helped by the horrible lingering taste of soap in my mouth!
INGA lectured me rather severely, in that sternly-sweet voice I had worked so hard to design and program, and then she finished by informing me that I was confined to my bedroom for the next hour!
By now I had gotten over my shock enough to protest, but it did me no good, INGA caught me by the ear again, and marched me up the stairs to the master bedroom, and sat me firmly on the bed, shutting the door behind her as she left with a final admonition to think about my behavior!
What the Hell?! I remember thinking in stunned amazement. What kind of malfunction could cause a behavior error like that?!
I decided that there was nothing to be gained by just sitting there in shock, but just as I was out the door and heading down the hall, I saw INGA reappear at the top of the stairs, my husband Ted in tow by the ear, just as I had been a few minutes earlier!
My mouth fell open, and I almost giggled because the site was so funny, my big, strong husband being pulled along by our own robot with a hand to his ear, but as her glowing green eyes fell on me I heard her snap, in her impossibly smooth voice, "JANET! What are you doing out of your room, it's only been 12 minutes!"
I gasped and started to protest, but somehow I couldn't find my voice. It was all the fault of _her_ voice, it perfectly captured the tone of an aggrieved authority figure, every disappointed, angry mother, every grade school teacher catching a student into mischief, it was all those rolled into one, and it cut right past my defenses, for an instant I was a naughty little girl again, and a moment later INGA had put Ted in our bedroom with me and informed me that we were both confined there for the rest of the afternoon!
I understood why her voice was so effective, I'd spent weeks carefully calculating the tones, programming the AI to blend them to produce exactly that psychological effect, it had been a lot of work and I'd had to really sweat to make the program operate just so...and now my own work had just made mincemeat of my will power, I had done a good enough job that it even worked on me!
I heard the click of the door locking as INGA shut the door this time.
As Ted and I stared at the door, I asked him, "What happened with you?"
"I was working to adjust one of the servant 'bots," my husband said, still sounding stunned, "and INGA pointed out that I was violating the safety regulations since I wasn't wearing insulated gloves. I mean yeah, but it was just a routine adjustment, and when she told me I had to, and I mean she said I had to, either stop what I was doing or put on the gloves.
"I thought it was some kind of glitch, and started to ignore it, and the next thing I knew she had marched me up here by force, lecturing me every step of the way about the safety protocols for working on machinery!"
I sighed, and told Ted of my own experience with our suddenly bossy creation. When I mentioned that our robotic masterpiece had actually washed out my mouth with soap, as if I were a little girl, I could tell he was torn between amazement and amusement.
I couldn't really entirely blame him, as I thought about what I must have looked like while INGA was soaping me, I almost had to giggle myself. But it was still embarrassing and bizarre!
"Well, we'd better get this taken care of," Ted said. "Let's go reset INGA and try and figure out what's happened to he-ah, I mean it."
I shrugged and nodded. As my mate and I started to do it, though, we discovered to our dismay that the door would not unlock! Ted pressed his finger to the print-reader repeatedly, getting no response. I tried it myself, and the door remained stubbornly shut.
"Of course," I groaned, as the explanation hit me. "INGA has override control over the electronic locks, remember? So she can enforce it if she puts one of the kids in their rooms! I never stopped to think about putting in an exception for ours, she's overridden the button! We're stuck in here until she lets us out!"
I collapsed on the bed, wondering how we'd managed to get ourselves so completely trapped into the working of a malfunctioning robotic logic loop! I mean, Ted and I are the best of the best, and here we were, locked into our own bedroom by an unruly robot we'd built!
We debated calling out for help, my pocket-com was lying on the table in the living room, but I assumed Ted had his.
"Nope," he laughed ruefully. "INGA took it away from me when she confined me to the bedroom! She said I wasn't to use any of the electronics, I'm 'being punished'."
"Hmm...I wonder if..."
I got up off the bed and padded over to the computer terminal in the corner, and sure enough, it was dead. INGA had disabled it. It was one of the standard punishments for naughty kids in her programmed repertoire, actually, confining the unruly brat in a bedroom with nothing to do but sit and think. I'd programmed and installed the software and hardware to let INGA do this myself. I'd just never figured on being one of the brats in question until now!
We spent an hour or so trying to guess what had gone wrong in INGA's AI to produce this weird result, but with no instruments and data to work with, it was mostly wasted time.
(It probably sounds as if we were remarkably calm, but really, INGA wasn't malfunctioning all that much, she was doing precisely what she was built to do, in fact, just doing it to the wrong people. I was sure it wasn't a major problem, just an annoying and weird glitch.)
After about an hour of fruitless speculation, we lay there bored, we had no paper books and the computer wasn't working, the holovision set wasn't working, no radio, just nothing. But it was about then that we reminded ourselves we could always entertain ourselves another way.
In fact, for some reason I felt remarkably horny, if I must be so brazen as to say it, and when I began to nibble at Ted's ear playfully he reacted fast, apparently he was turned on too! We didn't worry too much about why we were both in the mood just then, it was too much fun to just go with the flow.