15 July 2021
Artificial Condition (The Murderbot Diaries) – Martha Wells
I didn’t need supplies. My system is self-regulating; I don’t need food, water, or to eliminate fluids or solids, and I don’t need much air.
When constructs were first developed, they were originally supposed to have a pre-sentient level of intelligence, like the dumber variety of bot. But you can’t put something as dumb as a hauler bot in charge of security for anything without spending even more money for expensive company-employed human supervisors. So they made us smarter. The anxiety and depression were side effects.
And it sounded like a bot. When humans speak in the feed, they have to subvocalize and their mental voice tends to sound like their physical voice. Even augmented humans with full interfaces do it.
I felt the transport [bot] in the feed again, lurking. I ignored it, though it had to know I knew it was there. In human terms, it was like trying to ignore someone large and breathing heavily while they watched your personal display surface over your shoulder. While leaning on you.
So we watched Worldhoppers. It didn’t complain about the lack of realism. After three episodes, it got agitated whenever a minor character was killed. When a major character died in the twentieth episode I had to pause seven minutes while it sat there in the feed doing the bot equivalent of staring at a wall, pretending that it had to run diagnostics. Then four episodes later the character came back to life and it was so relieved we had to watch that episode three times before it would go on.
After it was over, it just sat there, not even pretending to do diagnostics. It sat there for a full ten minutes, which is a lot of processing time for a bot that sophisticated. Then it said, Again, please. So I started the first episode again.
I jolted awake four hours later, when my automatic recharge cycle started. The transport said immediately, That was unnecessarily childish. “What do you know about children?” I was even more angry now because it was right. The shutdown and the time I had spent inert would have driven off or distracted a human; the transport had just waited to resume the argument.
Onboard the transport I had used to leave Port FreeCommerce, I had compared myself to recordings of humans, trying to isolate what factors might cause me to be identified as a SecUnit. The most correctable behavior was restless movement. Humans and augmented humans shift their weight when they stand, they react to sudden sounds and bright lights, they scratch themselves, they adjust their hair, they look in their pockets or bags to check for things that they already know are in there. SecUnits don’t move. Our default is to stand and stare at the things we’re guarding. Partly this is because our non-organic parts don’t need movement the way organic parts do. But mostly it’s because we don’t want to draw attention to ourselves.
Humans are nervous of me because I’m a terrifying murderbot, and I’m nervous of them because they’re humans. But I knew that humans could also be wary and nervous of each other in non-combat and non-adversarial situations, in reality and not just as part of a story. That was what seemed to be happening, but it let me pretend this was business as usual during one of the rare occasions when clients asked my advice about security.