And now for something completely different....


Natural Stupidity

The lift hurled downwards, standby lighting flickering intermittently, the control panel dead save for a small sign flashing "EMERGENCY", as the passengers screamed and prayed: then with a finely judged appreciation of the G-forces involved the lift decelerated at just the required rate to send the occupants falling to a jumbled heap on the floor ready to tumble out of the doors in a chaotic melee on the lobby carpet when the doors whipped open with indecent haste.

"Thank you for travelling with Ascensor Systems. We hope you have an uplifting day" the lift said, with a gurgling tone which sounded suspiciously like laughter.

Boland surveyed the open lift doors morosely. "Perhaps you'd prefer the stairs?" he said in a resigned tone to his companion, a woman in her 30's wearing a severe looking business suit. She shot him a withering look and set off down the corridor, skirting a secretary who had recovered enough from her lift journey to be throwing up in a pot plant, and ignoring the plaintive "Aw gee......" from the lift.

The stairwell was mercifully automation free so apart from a short period in complete darkness while the tannoy system made half hearted woooooooooooooooooing noises they were able to trudge their way up 14 floors unmolested, encountering no-one but a shivering janitor with icicles on his moustache staggering stiffly downwards. "Climate control?" the Research Director said tartly to Boland, who nodded glumly.

After pausing for a moment to regain their breath they looked cautiously around the stairwell door into the corridor. There being nothing apparently amiss they edged out cautiously and walked quietly towards the main research laboratory until they heard an ominous 'Plonk!' and the aroma of fresh coffee reached out towards them. "Mmmmmmmmm....." the vending machine said seductively.

"Just keep walking steadily, and don't catch its eye," muttered Boland. There was a gritting sound, which might have been from the vending machine idly stirring its sugar supplies, but might equally well have been the Research Director grinding her teeth. Their steady and dignified walk broke into a trot as the machine peppered them with styrofoam cups and then became an altogether undignified dash for the lab door as it started firing high trajectory blobs of hot chocolate (2 sugars) after them with a "Ptachooooooooeee!" sound as it sent each one on its way.

After they gained the relative safety of the laboratory, and the RD set to sponging the chocolate stains from her suit the recriminations began. "And WHY, apart from everything else do the wretched things all behave like delinquent three year olds?" she snarled.

"It a vending machine!" Boland whined defensively. "How much intelligence does it need? And its aesthetics don't go beyond rinsing the delivery system when it changes from soup to coffee."

"Judging by the products the one on the fifth floor delivers I'm astounded to hear it has that much discrimination programmed in. Go AWAY!" She kicked a small vacuum cleaner which was rubbing up against her leg, humming contentedly. It shot off to its cupboard with a squeal and switched to a bubbling-coughing blow followed by a long drawn-out moaning suck, as if its little mechanical heart was broken. Boland kept quiet. He harboured grave reservations about the fifth floor vending machine, which had developed a quiet homicidal chuckle. He had nightmares from which he awoke sweating, convinced that it had finally found a loophole in Asimov's laws and was busy telling all the other machines...

"Let's go through it once more," sighed the RD, ignoring the vacuum cleaner, which had dipped its extension hose in a bowl of water and was looking round the cupboard door at her with little tears running off its optical sensors. "What exactly did you do to them...?"

By this time Boland had his story well polished and the first five minutes were spent pointing out that it *was* authorised development and he had all the right signatures and no it wasn't his fault that there were...errr...teething troubles. Advance Robotics had been trying to perfect 'personalisation' for years and didn't the RD remember all those endless blind alleys trying to define humour to uncomprehending devices, reminiscent of numerous interminably tedious television programs. He alone, he, Boland, had cracked it. He'd shown the machines, in their own terms, what humour meant. After all, what do factors like surprise, incongruity and timing mean to a machine? They lie in the domain of the sub-optimal pathway. Instead of the safety of the well trodden and efficient but ultimately humourless sterility of flawless delivery of services he'd programmed in an inhibition against repetition, forcing the machines to look for alternative execution pathways in their neural nets and equating new pathways as desirable outcomes in themselves.

The trouble was, as he now knew but wasn't about to admit, that he hadn't really appreciated how much performance latitude the engineers had given everyday devices. In the desire to make sure they kept working even in the most adverse conditions anything short of directly injurious fell inside the permitted limits turning even the dimmest of machines into an unpredictable practical joker. He'd leave it to the philosophers to debate whether the machines truly had developed a sense of humour - albeit one entirely lost on the Research Director - but there was something decidedly creepy about the matching vocalisations....

"So let me be quite clear about this," the RD said icily. "You've taken machines of limited intelligence, made them...shall we say, highly inquisitive and experimental...AND you've given them a low boredom threshold?? You don't have any children, do you, Mister Boland?"

For one deranged moment Boland wondered if the RD was attempting to proposition him, but then reality kicked in and he muttered that no he didn't but he couldn't see what that had to do with anything.

After a lengthy brainstorming session, in which the RD did most of the storming, she left to tackle the fourteen floor descent, leaving Boland to watch in wrapt fascination as the vacuum cleaner and a floor-polisher snaked sinuously across the floor wrapped around each other, emitting rhythmic hums and blasts of air as they skated away together. He was sure that was 'Carmina Burana' they were playing.

The RD reached the ground floor, safe, but suffering from a violent vertigo-induced nausea brought on by the stairwell lighting, which had discovered how to switch on one floor at a time in rapid sequence, giving the impression of rings of light falling endlessly from the twentieth floor to the sub- basement. The RD paused in the lobby to add her lunch to the same potted plant that the secretary had been visiting earlier. As she left and staggered out of the building the plant's auto watering system whimpered quietly to itself.
Back at home the RD did her best to dissipate the tensions of a very trying day with a long soak in a hot bath. It wouldn't do to go out for the evening seething over her underling's incompetence. No, incompetence wasn't right...Boland's ideas had been innovative, but incomplete somehow.

She was still turning over the problem as she emerged, sleek and glistening from the bath. Still considering and discarding ideas as she dried off, cooled off, dusted herself down with talc and poured herself into a pair of glistening black skin tight pants. There were, she knew, rumours floating around the Special Engineering Division about her recreational tastes, but as yet she hadn't encountered anyone from work when she was on the prowl. And no-one was likely to broach the subject to her face.

The doorman sighed as she drifted into the club. It wasn't that she was an unsuitable member - far from it. It was just her invariable response to the "I'll do anything for you, Mistress" losers that irked him. He had to drag away the groaning bodies of those stupid enough to attempt it. She sat alone, lounging on a padded bench seat, half watching the drift of bodies to and fro, half still turning over her problem in her mind; tapping a riding crop idly against the chromed spike heel of her shoe and waving away the nuisances before they could get within supplication range. Even the squeals coming from the play area, over which she mentally laid a picture of Boland being slowly boiled in a vat of hot chocolate, failed to stir her from her reverie. But there, in the dark and charged atmosphere, things slowly came into focus...
The next morning the RD mustered her forces outside the building: to her right her PA, Miss Grimshaw, a steely individual unrivalled in her determination to see that no one from the chairman downwards should ever disturb her boss without her express consent, and then only with a suitable amount of grovelling: to her left one of the maintenance supervisors, a lady known, though never to her face as 'Big Lil'. In front of them a number of the earlier arriving employees milled about nervously, from time to time approaching the open doors and then retreating as they made snapping motions. Observing the fate of those trapped in the rotating doors, by turns feebly banging on the glass for rescue and then taking off, running like demented vertical hamsters, no-one still free was taking any chances.

The RD, however, was made of sterner stuff and having drilled her team to show not the slightest hesitation marched briskly up to the doors, ignored them slamming in her face and kept walking, to have them whip open again a fraction before her face would have made a very painful contact with the glass. Fortunately for Big Lil her ample flank was covered by a secretary successfully scuttling in after them, although her squeal as the doors neatly pinched her bottom was audible several floors away. Behind them the doors quivered in quiet rapture as the squad set off for the long ascent of the stairwell.

Fourteen floors up Boland, who had not left the building since the previous day, was breakfasting on some freshly autoclaved week old pizza - soggy, but germ free - and musing over some interesting variants to his personalisation algorithms, while the vacuum cleaner and floor polisher happily played tag around the lab - a game in which, it has to be said, the vacuum cleaner possessed a decided advantage in the form of its 12ft extensible hose. He was aware that the RD was on her way up as she had taken the trouble to call him on his mobile from outside, although he had a passing suspicion that he would have been able to hear her even with the phone switched off. There would have been little point in trying the normal lines. The switchboard had decided to survey callers to acquire data to improve future service. This consisted either of putting them on infinite hold and analysing which music loop generated the quickest hang-ups and greatest positive matches in its expletives database, or putting them in a closed loop of push button responses and measuring how long it took them to realise there was no way out. As for Boland, he was happy to remain relatively undisturbed: he was quietly confident that the RD would come to realise that he was the key to solving these unfortunate teething troubles.

The RD and her team eventually emerged from the stairwell breathless but unscathed and removed their dark glasses. The vending machine eyed them up. They ignored it. The vending machine tossed a few cups at them as an attention getter.....

On cue Miss Grimshaw turned back, gave the vending machine a violent kick, yelling "Stop that!"

The vending machine gave a strangled grating sound and dribbled slightly. As instructed Miss Grimshaw started hopping around, holding her foot and squealing "OOOooooo, you HURT me!!"

The RD watched the machine closely as it visibly shuddered and fizzed and then dispensed a placatory cup of coffee - black, extra dark roast, one small sugar......Miss Grimshaw's normal morning request from the eighth floor machine. The RD smiled. It was not a pretty sight.

Entering Boland's domain they were greeted by the sight of the vacuum cleaner sneaking its hose around the end bench to tag the floor polisher which was hiding there. The RD stumbled theatrically over the hose exclaiming. "Owww! You tripped me!"

The vacuum cleaner vibrated violently and shot back to its cupboard, closely followed by the floor polisher.

"That's interesting," said Boland, looking at the retreating appliances. "First law inhibition. Did you seeuuurrrpp!" He broke off as Big Lil picked him up by the collar and dragged him over the store cupboard and the waiting RD.

"It's *your* fault they're misbehaving," she snarled, emphasising the 'your' with a vigorous smack on Boland's thigh, sufficient to make him yelp. The machines swayed unsteadily at the impact. "*You* programmed them. It's *your* responsibilty."

At the third slap the vacuum cleaner fainted, its magnetic hover terminated and its little bulbous body rolled forlornly across the floor. The floor polisher slumped against the wall looking terminally depressed.

"Owwww, alright, you've made your point," Boland whined wriggling in Big Lil's grasp, oblivious to the wider picture.

"Oh, not by a long way, not yet, " the RD replied tartly. "Bring him along.." They left the lab in procession, Miss Grimshaw carrying a laboratory stool, Big Lil carrying Boland and the RD carrying a nice stout metre rule.

The 14th floor vending machine, already softened up was easily convinced of the error of its ways. The stairwell sensors were next and by the time they were working their way along the 13th floor they were running like a well oiled team...down went the stool....down went Big Lil...over went Boland and in went the RD with a severely practical demonstration of the damaging consequences of too much freedom of action.

Being extensively networked the effects rapidly spread through the building but still, as the RD afterwards remarked, there were an awful lot of extremely inconvenienced personnel who wanted to be *absolutely* sure that the machines in their vicinity had got the message. And that 5th floor vending machine, yes, that required a truly extended lesson.........


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