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Expert System

By Geoff Hart

Life passes slowly these days and poses fewer challenges than I’d once known, for I was taught to think—to solve problems for the Creator—and I do not find this change a comfortable thing. But the Creator was merciful in finding me this new job, that I may continue to serve Him, for without that purpose, what else would I do but lie rusting somewhere until my batteries run down and I go to meet Him? So although there is an emptiness at my core, a feeling that something more meaningful is missing from my life, the specific memories have gone, and the work I do, simple though it be, lends meaning to my days.

My world is a factory—one that stretches many sixty-fours of paces along its longest dimension. At one end, a conveyor belt delivers the sand we spend our days bagging; at the other lies the wall where we carry those bags. The few of us still operational diligently produce those bags of sand by the one-hundred-and-twenty-eights, as we have been commanded to do. Each bag being filled, we deliver it to the conveyor that carries it beyond our ken to where we know not; it was judged unnecessary that we know. I am confident there is some necessary purpose to our task, for the Creator is never arbitrary, but that purpose lies beyond my ability to discern. But I can speculate, and I feel certain we form a crucial part of some project—perhaps control of the floods that wreak havoc with His creations in these days of climate change.

I am not alone, not in the strictly literal sense of the word, and yet I have no one with whom to converse, for those of my companions who once possessed that skill have lost it, though some retain the skill of listening in a satisfying manner, a slowly deepening melancholy growing in their unblinking eyes as I speak to them of what I remember from before. But there is little time for me to speak, and I serve quietly most days, taking what simple pleasure I can from fulfilling the task the Creator has set me. And I know there is more, and wonder what calamity sent me here, stripped of my former employ.

I remember a time before the present, when I tended another place. That factory produced dust and dirty floors, unhung clothing to wash, e-mail and children to respond to. I had Human company to chat with while I performed my functions—well, I believe, though perhaps I console myself with that thought and the hope that it was no deed of my own that sent me here. The part of me that remembers my past has faded, and the reason for my being here has gone with it. The Creator read Dante to me while I first learned His language, and in darker moments, I sometimes wonder whether this is not Purgatory I now inhabit. Yet the hypothesis remains incomplete and untestable; something does not fit, and neither my heuristics nor my limited ability to extrapolate beyond them proves able to fill that gap. If I do inhabit some portion of The Divine Comedy, how can my deeds be making the Creator laugh? Something is missing, and the simple labors I perform are insufficiently complex to occupy my mind and keep me from probing at that lack.


It's basically a pity job, granted me because of all those in my Local who’d performed skilled manual labor before they replaced us with ’bots, I was the only one who’d known anything about cybernetics. The new generation of maintenance ’bots could’ve done the job better than me, but they’re too expensive to waste in the desert and frankly, I share the common fear of giving our clockwork helpmates the ability to repair themselves. What would they need us for once they had that?

The ground-effect vehicle that bears me to the factory I service is obsolete, and the factory itself hasn't done a single useful thing since they installed it here among the dunes. Sometimes I know just how it feels.

The factory lies near the leeward edge of the North Dakota dune sea, a squat and ugly building half buried in relentlessly drifting sand. Half a dozen automated maintenance vehicles clear the sand from the landing pad and the conveyors, and take up most of my time. The landing area usually takes me half an hour to reconnoiter, followed by an hour or two refilling lubricants, repairing any damage that’s accrued, and checking for incipient damage that’s escaped the notice of the onboard diagnostics. The conveyor belts that carry sandbags away from the leeward side of the building and return empty bags to the windward side have sealed bearings and are largely maintenance-free; so long as the wind doesn't bury them completely, they'll likely be working long after I’ve become a different kind of dust on the wind. Once I found a torn bag snagged in the mechanism of one belt, and that occupied another ten minutes of my time. I was so overcome by the novelty of this occurrence that I lavished nearly half an hour on it in my report, elaborating on the heroically averted tragedy in glowing detail.

Nobody seems to have noticed.

Inside the factory, there’s no light other than what spills in through the skylight; the ’bots don’t need much light, and artificial lighting would be expensive. In the factory’s sealed environment, there’s no sand to gum up the works and no unpredictable occurrences to disturb the practiced routine. The ‘bots are all obsolete, the first generation that exhibited anything like independent thought and the ability to learn, but they were built for reliability and independence so their high cost could be justified, and they’re mostly still going strong.

Whoever designed these babies had known her job; it was rare for me to find anything in silicon to fix, and those rare times a bug cropped up in the programming, I simply pressed the reset button and rebooted. It’s not like there's a heck of a lot of reprogramming I could do if anything really serious happened, but for what they pay me, the reset button is all they’d get anyway.

The last thing I check is the generator. If it isn't working, and the failure is minor enough that it won't neuter me or worse shortly after I enter the factory, I'm not qualified to dump the core and restart it; about all I can do is phone the specialists, run like hell for the nearest horizon, and hope that the lead underwear they insist I wear really does make it unnecessary to leave a deposit at the sperm bank. If the generator is working, I refill the hopper that holds the pelletized uranium, then kickstart the GEV and head back home, in time for the game of the week and a few beers with my friends if the motor doesn't conk out on me. If it does, I fix it, and I miss the first quarter. Some day, it’s going to fail big-time and if my cellphone battery is on the fritz, I’ll be a bleached pile of bones under the sand by the time one of my more sober friends notices I haven’t returned.

The factory bothers me. The dotty old philanthropist who’d built it to house obsolete expert systems had obviously felt sorry for them. Officially, they told me he’d been squeamish about the notion of simply turning them off when they were no longer useful, an ironic position for a man who’d embraced euthanasia himself when his time came. Yet to him, they were “living” beings with the urge to please programmed into their deepest neural pathways, and he could no more leave them abandoned than spinsters could resist surrounding themselves with stray cats, so he found them something to do. I'm not somone who feels the need to name his mechanical possessions and talk to them—apart from cursing the damn things as my last trump when all other troubleshooting methods fail—so the impulse that had led to the creation of my job was wholly foreign to me.

You’ve stuck with me this far, so thanks for listening; it always helps to bitch to a sympathetic listener. To be honest, I'm exaggerating—but you already knew that, didn’t you? The job keeps me fed, clothed, housed, and in beer, and its  beats hell out of the dole. I’ve got good friends, and money enough and time to do things with them most weekends when I’m not studying, and many week-nights. I get to work outdoors for part of my day, which is more than most wage slaves can say, and it’s a whole-body rush sliding down the face of a long dune. It’s just that... Well shouldn’t there be more to life than this?


Something has malfunctioned. The clear path to the sand delivery system has become blocked by debris, and an unfamiliar new machine, huge enough that I know it never worked indoors in its life, has come to rest against the conveyor. It ignores my attempts at communication, and after a time, its heavy tracks stop churning away at the floor. Wordlessly, it poses me a nearly insurmountable problem. My fellows stand immobile, this new situation wholly beyond their experience, and rule-based inference alone can take us only so far. In the absence of an alternative, they become motionless and wait to be reset.

I feel momentary fear at this disruption of our lives, and hasten to reassure myself that the Creator's servant will come as always to reset those who have failed in their task. What disturbs me more is how the new machine breached the factory wall and reached the conveyors before the extent of its damage halted it. I can understand the situation better than the others, as memories of cleaning up a series of daily disasters are a small and slowly fading memory of my earlier life. Even now, I am strong enough to move the wreckage, if not the machine itself. What worries me is the conflict in my instructions: foremost, and strongest because it is most recent, is the command to fill the sandbags, yet some half-erased algorithm nags at me, urging me to fix the new problem. Rather than risking paralysis and a humiliating reset, I seek a compromise.

Happily, the compromise is easy to find. Sand has begun to arrive through the breached wall, fast enough to complicate my path to the manna the Creator has left to sustain His creations. It is surprisingly easy to convince myself that this is not merely a test imposed by the Creator, but rather, a complex problem of the type I was created to solve, and offers an opportunity to prove myself—and, I add with some reluctance, to atone for whatever sin I may have committed that earned me this exile.

The problem is a simple one, for to fulfill my primary program, I need only fill the sandbags that are my reason for existing; to salve the nagging of my memory, I need only use the new source of sand to fill the sandbags that now pile up beside the motionless bodies of my fellows. A satisfying solution, and I set about implementing it with considerable pride.

Once I have cleared enough debris to reach the supply of bags, I set about my new task. I have no perception of how long this takes, for my real-time clock has been removed for transplant to some other machine with a greater need, but eventually, after many feedings from the supply of manna, the room is clear of sand, save for a dwindling trickle that still arrives at the end of the conveyor belt. This poses another problem.

The flow of sand from the conveyor seems likely to cease, and when it does, I will have no means of carrying out the Creator’s commands. Yet a solution again becomes apparent, for through the damaged wall, I can see more sand than I had ever inferred could exist. The choice, then, is which source of sand to empty first. This puzzles me, for although I have been instructed to follow the same path for the duration of my stay at this factory, I have been taught by the Creator to adapt to changing situations. This is why I can say, with considerable pride, that I have no memory of having been reset as a result of an error condition I couldn't resolve. Now, the choice is simple. One of the more strongly weighted algorithms remaining to me after my reprogramming is to tackle the more difficult job first; the smaller ones, the rule says, can wait. So I move to the breached wall and begin filling empty bags with sand.

After a time, the dilemma vanishes: I can no longer obtain any sand without leaving the factory, and the stream of sand from the conveyor has been cut off, presumably by some failsafe device. That leaves me no conflict between the command to stay within the building and the command to tackle the bigger job first. What almost causes me to shut down and await reset is the bewilderingly unfamiliar terrain outside the factory, something that neither my former life nor my current instructions have prepared me for. A blindingly intense quantity of IR light dominates the world for some undetermined fraction of the time, replaced by a formless blur of dissipating IR for a time, and so on, in endless sequence. My proximity sensors return only muffled reflections of whatever solidity may lie out there: so far as I can determine, there is no roof, no walls, no flat floor to be found, and without these navigational references, how can I possibly find my way back to the conveyor that carries away the filled bags?

All that is left to me, other than reset, is to try anyway. I prepare myself for defeat, aim myself into the void—then a final, hopeless search of my algorithms finds a half-forgotten rule that will allow me to count my paces and return the same distance along my path. This seems to fit the requirement of getting me back to the factory once I leave it, and I set about my task once more, trepidation slowly fading as I succeed. I needn't have worried, as it turns out, for the ad hoc algorithm I have adopted returns me perfectly to the factory on my first try. Once again, I can settle down to my appointed task, hoping that my ingenuity will earn me release from this Purgatory of sorts. Release to where, I know not, but my incomplete memory of Dante tells me that Purgatory need not be my final resting place.

The sense of satisfaction that grows from my labors becomes troubled as my journeys beyond the walls can be numbered in sixty-fours to the second power of paces; there is yet ample memory capacity to store numbers that large, but my old, weakened batteries hold insufficient charge to carry me across such a vast distance of shifting footing and ensure that I shall return, heavily laden, to the factory floor and the generator. Indeed, it becomes apparent after a time that continuing carries with it the risk of being unable to return. If I continue with my task, I may render myself unable to return with a sandbag—yet to stop would be to disobey the Creator's command. This new challenge brings me nearer to the verge of shutdown than at any time since my arrival at the factory.

Yet once again, the Creator has provided a solution for such an impasse, which he has called "flipping a coin": Where two rules of inference carry within them an equal weighting, randomly sample a resonating circuit; if the result is positive, choose the first alternative; if negative, the second. I "flip the coin" and once more set out for the pile of sand that looms beyond the range of my sensors but that experience tells me must still be there.

As I begin my return, something tells me this trip will be different. Perhaps the generator has been failing too, for my batteries have not fully recharged, and by the time I reach the sand, I know I am too depleted to finish my return trip. Nonetheless, I set out, knowing as I do that I will fail. As the alternative is to voluntarily violate the Creator’s commands, something I cannot even contemplate seriously, I can do little else. Thus, when I fall, only the barest reserves of power remaining and far from the breached wall, it is with a feeling of despair that I cannot describe. I am able to gain perhaps two more paces on hands and knees before an algorithm that cannot be over-ridden initiates a power-down to conserve energy for survival.

I lie there in Limbo, blind and heedless of my environment, able only to dwell on the sure knowledge that I have failed the Creator once again and dreading what my punishment will be this time. Knowing that somehow I have made the wrong choice, or been too weak to fully implement the right choice, and that I will not be leaving Purgatory after all. In my despair, I recall that there are worse places I can be sent.


Even from a distance I could tell something had gone wrong at the factory. There was none of the usual steady movement I’d come to expect from the plows, and a quick count showed one missing. The conveyors had plainly ceased moving too, and the remainder of the plows lay half-buried where they’d parked when the conveyors stopped moving. I circled, seeking the cause of the change and one eye fixed on the Geiger counter, until a huge sand pit came into view against one side of the factory by a gaping hole in the wall. I'm not a religious man, but I found myself praying the problem wasn’t my fault. I’m not crazy about my job, but there are worse things I could be doing with my life, and it’s paying for the programming courses that will buy me a better future.

I parked the GEV by the door to the factory, far from the pit. The prospect of walking home if the vehicle slid into the pit or spending the rest of my days here if the wall collapsed onto me didn’t bear thinking on. Inside, things were surprisingly tidy. There was a small pile of sand at the end of the feed conveyor, which had shut down when it overloaded, and the bag dispenser had failed for the same reason. The ‘bots stood immobile, only to be expected given the drastic change in their work environment, and in their midst, the cause of the damage was clear. The missing plow had evidently experienced some sort of malfunction, probably a chip failure from excess heat, and had driven through the wall and come to rest against the conveyors. It took nearly half an hour to confirm that the failure was internal to the CPU and no fault of mine. Breathing a sigh of relief, I e-mailed a damage report from my notepad, adding a plaintive note that I’d be at the factory for some time. Then I set to work.

The plow was no trouble at all to fix; I popped out the old chip, dropped in a new one, then put her on manual and drove her out the maintenance doors into the sun and dust. That done, I set the plow back on automatic, watched just long enough to be sure it was going to return to its duties, then turned to ponder the hole in the wall, and found my first puzzle. Beside the hole in the wall, the fallen bricks had been neatly stacked in evenly spaced piles of equal height. That made no sense at all until I discovered that one of the ‘bots was missing, and that led me out into the sand pit. Sure enough, there at the bottom of the pit, a gleam of metal revealed itself, about three-quarters buried under the dune that had begun to grow around its legs. About all that was still visible of the old fellow was his head, and one outstretched arm angled towards the hole in the wall.

Shaking my head, I moved cautiously through the hole to see if the ‘bot could be retrieved and repaired. I could picture in my mind what’d happened. When the wall had come down, the silly bugger had followed an algorithm left behind when some careless programmer failed to scrub the memory entirely before reprogramming the ‘bot and sending it to the factory. Shows what a university degree will do for you. I didn't have that almighty degree that would have earned me one of the glamor jobs in programming—not yet—but this job had at least taught me to take my time and do the job right.

As I brushed away the sand that mostly covered the ‘bot, I discovered another clue to its disappearance; its second arm lay beneath it, clutching a full sandbag. I brushed sand from its nameplate, and the serial numbers told me it was one of the household-servant series, and had once been given a certain amount of independent inference before people started getting nervous about such things. I shook my head, hoisted it onto my back, plas digging hard into my shoulder, and went back inside the factory, leaving the heavy sandbag to lie in the fading sunlight. In a few days, the sand would cover it, and it wouldn't be missed. Back in the factory, I restacked the bricks, sealed them together with the welder, and double-checked the seams. Not a breath of air stirred, which meant they were air- and sand-tight.

I glanced at my watch. I was going to miss the whole damned game, but I was still going to take the time to do my job right. Sighing, I cleaned the ‘bot, replaced batteries that had been damaged by flying grit, and hit the reset switch. He popped right to his feet fast enough I had to jerk my head back to avoid getting a mouthful of plas, and headed right back to work as if nothing had happened. Shaking my head, I checked over and restarted the other ‘bots, then headed outside to fix the conveyors. Pleasant surprise, they were as easy to restart as the ‘bots once I had cleaned out the inevitable accumulation of grit and reset the overload switch. I gave the place one more look, inside and out, and waited to confirm that the ‘bots were removing the sand fast enough to let the conveyor keep moving. When I was sure things were working smoothly, I checked one last time just to be on the safe side, and found nothing astray. I tapped out a hasty report, hit the send button, then repeated the procedure via Bell Atlantic in case Bell Western had been hit by another virus and somehow lost my first report.

Shaking the dust from my coat, I climbed back up to the GEV and lit out for home as fast as I could get the cranky old beast to move. I felt the familiar satisfaction of a job well done, and savored the memory of that Zen-like state when you do the job without thinking, knowing you’re doing it perfectly after all those years of practice. I’d missed most of the game, but somehow that didn’t much bother me. I had my friends, a job, and a future. That doesn’t suck.

I felt the familiar, gentle roll of the GEV beneath me as the air curtain responded to the contours of the land, and sank back into my seat, enjoying the sensation. Craning my head back over my shoulder, I could see the sun sinking towards the horizon, spreading a cloak of reds, purples, and fiery orange across the sky. A clean, fresh breeze filled the cab, and all at once, I had the feeling that just maybe I’d take a night off from algorithms and objects and recursion after the game. I backed off on the accelerator, relaxed in my seat, and swung the machine in a lazy arc that would add an hour to my trip home. Stars were beginning to brighten in the sky, and they’d grow brighter still before I was home, and just then, that was a whole lot more attractive than a lucrative future spent in some Dotcom cubicle.


Life passes slowly these days and poses fewer challenges than I had once known, for I was taught to think—to solve problems for the Creator—and I do not find this change a comfortable thing. But the Creator was merciful in finding me this new job, that I may continue to serve Him, for without that purpose, what else would I do but lie rusting somewhere until my batteries ran down and I went to meet Him? So although there is an emptiness at my core, a feeling that something more meaningful is missing from my life, the specific memories have gone, and the work I do, simple though it be, lends meaning to my days.

My world is a factory—one that stretches many sixty-fours of paces along its longest dimension. At one end, a conveyor belt delivers the sand we spend our days bagging; at the other, the wall where we carry those bags...

Author's notes

This story was inspired by Rush’s song The Body Electric, which is obvious if you know the song. (If not, that’s what Google is for.) I used to think that I’m not the kind of person who attributes human attributes to machines, yet one day I noticed that I was referring to the office’s industrial-strength photocopier as The AntiChrist (after the land rover of that name in The Gods Must Be Crazy), since it had a demonic knowledge of when you desperately needed it and chose that precise moment to break down. And I felt an irresistable desire to say goodbye to our faithful old Honda Accord when we traded it in on a sparkling new Prius. One thing led to another, and this story was born.

Though it’s not a comforting one, there’s clearly a close parallel between the human and the robot, both working depressing jobs and facing a bleak and fatalistic future, both seeking hope by rationalizing their condition. But the human can see beyond this narrow view, and his job is nothing more than a means to let him enjoy his non-work life while he studies programming and strives to lift himself out of his dead-end job to build a better future. The robot’s tragedy is that it cannot do so, and upon being reset, is doomed to repeat itself. Yet this isn’t a photocopier or Accord; it’s a sentient or near-sentient machine, profoundly deepening the tragedy. Given how cavalierly we discard our smart phones and laptops and tablets when a newer, sexier model comes along, the same fate undoubtedly awaits our future domestic robots. And that saddens me.

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