Maslow's Howitzer

Miriam Oudin


I shipped from the factory with several hundred variations of the offer I was about to make. Some were phrased as tentative questions. Others, polite invitations. Some trailed off suggestively, while others had the force of a command. All of the individual words could be swapped out: perhaps my client would need some company or feel like talking or want a break.

I had been in this household for three weeks, which should have been ample time to figure out what sort of wording this particular client preferred. The advertising promises that the demeanour selected from the enormous list of predesigned personalities (World Leader, Submissive, Emcee, Drinking Buddy, Confidant, Grandmother, Manager, Professor, Carnival Barker—it goes on like this for over eight hundred lines) would imperceptibly alter itself after each conversation, to match ever more closely the preferences of the client.

But Min responded sharply to everything I said, while never contradicting me quite directly enough to allow me to reject certain lines of inquiry and present better alternatives. It seemed she was satisfied with her basic choice of personality for me (“Ancient Radio Announcer”), since she had never tinkered with the settings, not even in an idle or absentmindedly curious way, since she first powered me up. Nevertheless, I wasn’t learning as efficiently as I was supposed to be; I simply wasn’t getting enough feedback.

Today I decided to try I hear for the first time. Perhaps treating her need for Belonging as some sort of rumour would make her feel less resistant.

“I hear you would like a hug,” I said.

“I’m busy.”

“Being busy and liking hugs are not mutually exclusive.”

She turned her attention back to her desk-screen. It displayed a map of what appeared to be the endobasement of the library administration building at Indigo Horizon University’s Halifax campus. The engineers who worked on me, and who designed the several thousand instruments that made up all my moving parts, were for the most part trained at that institution or at one of the dozen or so like it scattered around the country.

“Howitzer, I don’t have time for this.”

“Hugs do not take very long.”

“Damn it, don’t be obtuse.”

Paradoxically, her need for a hug intensified as we argued. I briefly wondered if my recogs were miscalibrated, but, as always, all the diagnostics glowed a steady green even as the BLNG bar signaled several deficits that needed immediate attention.

“We could have been done by now and then you would have been able to get back to work,” I ventured. “It’s not too late to start.”

“If you hadn’t interrupted me in the first place, then my work would have made progress and you wouldn’t have wasted whatever fuel it cost to come in here.”

Nothing she said was false, but the string of counterfactuals confused me. So did my own HUD, which insisted ever more shrilly that a hug would make her feel better, while simultaneously telling me that she wanted me to keep my distance.

“Would you prefer that I go back to the pod?” I finally asked, hoping that a yes-no question might provide the last bit of data I needed to make sense of this conversation.

She planted her elbows on the desk in front of her and placed her face in her hands. “No,” she said at length. “No, Howie. Stay a while.”


***

They call us mind-readers, but that’s not quite right. I can’t read Min’s thoughts in the same way that I can read a news crawl or a wine label. I assume that she thinks in propositional statements just like I do, but I have no access to them. What I can detect are her needs: the needs drawn from a hundred-year-old list, marked in increasing order of importance as SACT, ESTM, BLNG, SAFT, PHYS in my coding. The engineers called them SEBSaPs.

The advertising says we’re never wrong, and though that’s not strictly true, I haven’t been wrong yet. 
We’re given an elaborate set of branching algorithms to prioritize SEBSaPs in case of conflicts, with multiple failsafes put into place so that we always make the safest choices. The most basic needs come first; you may have seen my brothers and sisters on the news carrying their clients out of flooded oceanfront properties or defibrillating an old man’s heart or even mixing a flawless cocktail. But the engineers are prouder of the higher-level coding: once a person is fed and clothed and comfortable, we can teach her to play the cello or help him work out how he feels about his parents. We’ve been on the market for two and a half years now and there have been no serious mishaps; the government is promising to supply a Maslow to every child in the country on his or her third birthday, but those days are a long ways off yet.

Our ultimate purpose notwithstanding, a client’s consent trumps everything, even her most pressing needs. (One of the questions on the final AI engineering exam at IHU is how to handle the hypothetical case of a political prisoner going on a hunger strike, though of course nothing like that has happened in decades.) This is why I’ve been spending a lot of time standing around in Min’s study, waiting for her to tell me what to do. I could have been a much older and a much cheaper robot if that was all she wanted.


***

The help that Min has been rejecting has all fallen under the general category of BLNG, or Belonging. She has plenty to eat, breathes clean air, and has a flat of her own, freshly renovated with the roughened walls and ceilings that best serve as handholds for me. She is safe, for now, though I must be on alert since she ticked the box on the application form that says that she “frequently” finds herself in “severe” danger. In the mandatory elaboration box, she wrote only the single word work, though I’ve only ever seen her work at her desk. Her job title is “intelligence specialist,” which could mean almost anything. She is paid well; she has to be, to be able to afford me.

But she is lonely, and skeptical of my ability to ease her loneliness: I can’t shine as a teacher or therapist or muse until her BLNG needs have been met. My programming absolutely forbids skipping steps; the advertising describes it as a failsafe, but sometimes I suspect it was a shortcut.

“Hey, Howitzer,” she says suddenly, spinning in her chair to face me. My HUD is flooded with new information: her jaw is sore from clenching her teeth, and her neck and wrists ache from being in a hunched position over the same monitor for six hours and thirty-one minutes.

“Yes, Min? Would you like a massage?”

She rolls her shoulders. “Yeah, actually. Now that you mention it.”

My twelve silicone limbs (“quiet as a bird on snow,” the advertising says) transport me instantly to her side. I set four of them to work on the tightness in her shoulders. “Were you going to ask for something else?”

“Right. How would you like to accompany me on assignment?”

That seemed like progress. “I will accompany you anywhere. You know that.”

“The thing is… ”

I continued kneading. One thing I have managed to learn is that Min responds more favourably to silence than to verbal prompts. The HUD reported that her cramps were subsiding—though, unlike many other humans, she did not use any audible signals of pleasure.

“The thing is, my assignments are not… for public consumption.”

“I invite you to recall the oath of confidentiality that accompanied my purchase. I cannot report even to the men and women who coded me.”

I could not read anything in her silence.

“Our clients are protected by every privilege,” I continued carefully. “Maslows are entrusted with information that some people find embarrassing or frightening, or that would shame them in the eyes of other human beings. We would not be able to do our work if we did not respect your confidentiality.”

“‘Embarrassing,’” she repeated in a passable imitation of my voice. “‘Frightening.’” She smirked, twisting around to look up at me, then grunted as a shooting pain flared through her neck. “How about illegal?”

“Laws change,” I responded without any hesitation. “My alliance is with you and your needs, not with what the courts say on a given day. So long as I never harm another human being—”

She interrupted me with a snort, looking away again. “Okay, okay. We’ll leave in a couple of hours.”

“Perhaps now would be a good time to tell me what you do for a living.”

“Perhaps now would be a good time for you to stop being so passive-aggressive.”

“Pardon?”

“Never mind.” She wriggled out from under my massage and swiped the screen until a floor plan of the university library appeared. I took a respectful step back as she browsed a series of catalogue labels that superimposed themselves lightly upon the map. “My employer would like a copy of this report on artificially augmented skill acquisition.” An author’s name appeared on the screen: Amanpreet Lungani, a researcher at the university and a fellow of the artificial psychology department.

“From a library?” I asked, surprised.

Min glared at me. It seemed that she was perceiving my questions as passive-aggressive again, so I tried another tack. “Those files should be accessible from here. You do not need to subject yourself to the dangers of travel.”

She sighed. “Look, Howie. Getting files from libraries is my job. My clients hire me whenever online versions are insufficient.”

“Insufficient online versions? I don’t understand how that could be the case.”

“You don’t have to understand anything. Are you coming or not?”


***

Nobody spent much time in libraries any more, and I was unsure what social rules governed them, but I doubted very much that the dress code required night camo, a grappling hook, or an electroshock prod.

“Are you anticipating danger to your person?” I asked as Min swiftly worked her hair into a long black braid. I handed her an elastic tie, which she twisted to fasten.

“You can never be too careful. You of all people should know that.” Her voice was muffled by a sculpted half-mask that covered her nose and mouth. My recogs were attuned to hundreds of vitals, and they worked even if I did not have a clear view of her face; still, a good look at her would have helped me gauge the situation better, and I was finding it harder and harder to establish her needs as she disappeared into her shimmering black outfit. Not for the first time, I wondered if I was going to be the first Maslow failure.

She tested the straps on her boots and gloves, then glanced over at me. “Ready?”

“Would you like a hug before we go?”

The sound that hissed out of her mask may have been a laugh. “For Christ’s sake, Howie.”

I gathered that was a no. “I ask only because this seems like lonely work, and I’d like you to know that you have a friend.”

“I didn’t buy a friend.” She switched the prod’s safety off and the display glowed to life; nodding slightly to herself, she turned it on again and clamped the device to her toolbelt. “I bought a bodyguard.”

“I will guard your body forever,” I said, briefly adopting the whiskey-coarsened voice of our company president in one of our early advertising campaigns. “But while your body is safe I will guard your mind and your soul.”

She hesitated for an instant, and her need for a hug spiked briefly. Though she was dressed for combat, she had never seemed safer to me; her social alienation struck me as a much more pressing problem than whatever we might encounter at a library. Physically, she could take care of herself: I was confident of this.

“You’re driving,” she said at last.


***

I steered the aircar through midnight traffic, noticing that several commuters were travelling with their own Maslows. I was forbidden to communicate with any other Maslow, thus guaranteeing the privacy of all our clients, and I was not attuned to the vitals of anyone besides Min. But it was not hard to tell who was going to pick up an eagerly awaited package, who was going to an assignation at a short-stay hotel, who was getting ready to commit a crime. I wondered if this was why Min covered her face.

I set my voice to be gently encouraging, making full use of the ‘Authoritative Baritone’ that Min had selected for me. “I can serve better as a bodyguard if you tell me more about the assignment,” I said.

“I need to get the hard copy of that study and deliver it to my employers,” she replied, staring straight ahead. “They didn’t tell me why and I don’t want to know.”

We were silent a while. Several of the lights in my HUD pulsed a sickly yellow colour, warning that her needs were not being fully satisfied by this conversation. But for once, it was her more abstract needs that were unmet; she was struggling with self-doubt, existential worries, anxiety about a distant future, even as she seemed to enjoy my company. I thought it might be worth risking a bit of small talk.

“May I ask a question?”

“As long as it’s not about hugging anybody.”

“It’s not.”

“Knock yourself out.” She tilted the mask downward for a moment to scratch her nose, permitting me a glimpse of her expression. A yellowish BLNG light shifted slightly toward green.

“Do you think of me as a weapon?”

“What?”

“You named me Howitzer.”

“Oh.”

She paused for such a long time that I assumed she’d forgotten the question, or that she’d been offended by it somehow. But eventually she said, “I just liked the sound of the word.”

“It comes from a Czech word for a ballista.”

“Really?”

“You sound surprised.”

“I just assumed it was some guy’s name. An inventor or something. A war general.”

“No. Nobody was named Howitzer.”

“Well, you are, now.”

We were making good time, and the densely populated parts of the city were giving way to an industrial zone where humans rarely had reason to venture. A century ago there would have been a lively youth culture here, surrounding the university campus at a time before universities became rooms in people’s homes. But now the buildings were humming with machinery that needed no light to see by, and the youth met elsewhere.

“So violence was not on your mind when you named me?”

She stretched along the length of the car-chair. “Maybe a little,” she said dreamily.

“Is violence on your mind tonight? You spent more than an hour preparing for danger to your person.”

“Maybe a little,” she repeated.

Back to business, then. “What threats are you anticipating?”

“Probably nothing. The libraries aren’t well-maintained and their structures can be unstable. I’ve had to scale some walls and jimmy open some windows in my day. I try… I try not to break anything.”

Her black eyes flickered briefly and she took a breath to continue, but then fell silent. Her use of the phrase “in my day” struck me as curious; she was not yet thirty. But I suppose many things have changed since she was young. Libraries were the least of them.

“The electroshock weapon you’re carrying is not the sort of thing that would protect against an unstable structure,” I said. “Are you expecting resistance from security personnel?”

“I’m not expecting it, no. I doubt anyone’s set foot in that building in ten years, and I have no reason to believe this document is of interest to anyone besides my employer. There’ll probably be an antiquated security system that I’ll be able to disable in a few minutes. I’ll be fine.”

“This will make my work significantly easier.”

“That’s the hope.”

We pulled up to the building, a nine-storey lump of brutalist concrete that was covered in vulgar spray-painted slogans and flyers for local concerts whose venues had long since been torn down. Back when the university had a sprawling physical presence, the library would have been on the west edge of campus, but most of the buildings had been sold off in the intervening time, and the land parcelled out to a dozen unsavoury companies. We were surrounded by warehouses—which, in a way, I suppose a library is too—with faded signs like mic-mac electronics storage and acadia chrome and coloured glass keep out. There were no other cars here, no pedestrians. Even the sounds of traffic felt distant.

“Here’s fine.”

I grounded the car and the two of us slid out. I scanned the area for dangers, but nothing even threatened Min’s identity, much less her person. Tangled bouquets of wires sprouted from several places along the second-storey moldings where security cameras had once been installed, probably stolen and stripped for parts years ago. These days, security systems tended to be strictly interior affairs, to avoid ugly lawsuits over jurisdiction.

Something was bothering Min. She was not frightened – if anything, she was feeling more confident than I was – but something about the scene was leading her toward depression, which was even now gnawing at the edges of her psyche and sending warning pulses to my sensors.

“Min,” I said.

“Not now, Howie.”

“Min, I need to keep you safe.”

“Then look out for security drones or whatever. That’s why I brought you.”

“You can’t do your work if you’re hurting.”

“I like libraries, okay?” she snapped. The surface meaning of the words made it seem like a non sequitur, but the flaring emotional pain that accompanied them made it clear that I had touched on something important. Her whole body had tensed up, a dramatic contrast to the lounging pose she’d had in the car. The recogs kept recalibrating themselves, unable to settle on SACT or ESTM scores.

“Do you want to talk about it?”

“I’m on assignment, for God’s sake. Can we talk about this later?” Her voice was harsh but unsteady, which was obvious even through the mask.

She circled the building and I followed. What few windows there were had all been boarded up years ago. One of the nearby warehouses had a sign reading “you are being videotapt so dont try any funny busness!!” while another said “smile for the camera, asshole”; neither, however, seemed to have any functioning surveillance.

Min stopped to study the library wall furthest from where I’d set the aircar. The main entrance was on this side, shuttered with a roll-down steel door now covered in graffiti. It seemed like this area used to be heavily monitored, since I could detect multiple brackets for cameras and an intercom system to screen visitors. But they were all empty now.

The building’s poor maintenance, though upsetting to Min for reasons I couldn’t understand, was an advantage for me. I could easily scale the wall and find a way to open the main door from the inside.

“Would you like me to—”

“Hey,” she interrupted. “My physical safety trumps hugs, right?”

It took me a moment to realign myself with the sudden turn the conversation had just taken. “After your immediate needs for food, water, and air are satisfied, then I must make sure you are safe from physical harm and emotional trauma.”

“Right.”

“Only then can I address any deficiencies in belonging, self-esteem, and self-actualization.”

I wasn’t sure she was listening; she had found a ridge running parallel to an old eavestrough and was testing it for footholds. Gingerly she hoisted herself up, then made her way to a cracked ledge two metres above the ground. I scuttled up beside her, my limbs effortlessly distributing my weight along the surface of the wall.

“Is that what you were asking?” I prompted.

She looked over at me and the crinkling at the corner of her eyes told me she was smiling under the mask. “That’s exactly what I was asking,” she said, then leapt straight up.

My HUD flashed crimson and my emergency thrusters hummed to life as the physical dangers to her person multiplied. Hand-over-hand she scaled the wall, almost too quickly for me to follow while still maintaining all the necessary safety protocols. “Min,” I pleaded, “you’ll hurt yourself.”

“If that’s what it’ll take to get you to stop nagging me about all this belonging crap,” she said, then laughed more brightly than I’d ever heard her laugh before. She swung on to a half-rotted plywood replacement for a window ledge, swung around to face the city, then squatted there, her heavy breathing amplified slightly by the mask.

I’d never seen her happier.

I detected no dangers in the environment besides the obvious ones of gravity and tetanus. But I didn’t have time to report on this state of affairs before Min turned back toward the window and pulled a screwdriver from her toolbelt to pry open the boards. She was finished in seconds, and slipped into a dark room without bothering to look back and see if I was following.

I was right behind her. There were no suspicious thermal signatures, and an infrared scan of the room revealed only long-disused shelves laden with crumbling books. Min had pulled out a flashlight and was searching for a light switch; the building was old enough, or cheap enough, or robbed enough, not to have any automatic lighting systems.

“The file we want is on the sixth floor,” she murmured. “We’re on the… fourth?”

“Third. I can lead you if you can’t find a light.”

“Thanks, Howie.”

“Or carry you.”

“Don’t push it.”

I reached for her hand with a utility limb, which she grasped tightly. I could feel her pulse through the creases in her fingers. My recogs analyzed her sweat, then indicated that her SEBSaPs were nominal by way of a series of glowing green bars. That had never happened before.

“The stairwell should be that way,” she said, nudging me slightly toward the left, south-southwest.

I manoeuvred through the stacks with Min in tow. She turned off her flashlight, putting her trust in me. “I will guard your body forever,” I said, in my own voice this time. The voice she gave me.


***

The process was slow but Min was patient and light on her feet. We found the stairwell and ascended in a silence that was broken only by the occasional muffled sneeze from Min – the air quality here was very poor.

When we reached the sixth floor, Min noticed a slash of light under the safety door. Her grip on my limb tightened and her heart rate rose.

“Howie,” she hissed.

“I see it. Let me reconnoiter.”

She let go of me, but allowed her fingertips to linger across my surface for an instant before breaking contact. I pushed the door open.

The light was coming from the room adjacent to this one. Here, utilitarian metal shelves contained hundreds of bound journal volumes and file storage boxes. The room was devoid of any other furniture, though indentations in the institutional brownish-grey carpet suggested that there might have been desks or study carrels installed at some point. I climbed the wall to get a better look, but the shelves nearly reached the ceiling and ran most of the length of the room, obscuring my vision from every angle. Generic bindings and unlabeled boxes betrayed nothing of the contents or significance of the books stored here. The door from which the light was emanating was cracked open.

“Come on in,” came a woman’s voice from the lit room. “I won’t bite.”

For the second time tonight my system went into high alert. I scuttled across the wall and wedged myself above the door into the stairwell, ready to leap upon and subdue anyone who approached Min’s hiding place. But there was no movement in this room or the adjoining one. My HUD churned through options but none of them satisfied any of Min’s SEBSaPs. My CPU grew nearly three degrees hotter as it processed streams of troubling data and equations filled with unknowns.

Two and a half seconds later I finally decided to see who the speaker was; at least in that case I would be able to determine if she was armed, or wore any uniform or insignia that would identify her. But when I arrived at the doorway into the lit room and widened the crack in the door, several hundred thousand branching possibilities were instantly closed off, because I was looking at a Maslow.

It seemed to be alone, given that there were no other heat signatures in the room. It had arranged several bookshelves into a V-shape, evoking two-dimensional renderings of roads disappearing into the horizon—except here, the vanishing point was the Maslow itself, resting lightly on its twelve limbs. A consumer-grade camera had been hastily mounted on the wall above and behind it, much too new to have originally belonged to this library.

The Maslow was an identical model to mine, and I knew from the proprietary pattern of cross-hatches on its lower edge that it rolled off the Vietnamese assembly line twenty-six days ago, probably six or seven hours before I did. But I could not read its thoughts, which were shielded from me, and its face was simply a smooth expanse of beige silicone adorned with the faint dimples that humans liked to imagine as eye sockets and cheekbones. Some clients chose to decorate these faces; there were dozens of third-party sellers who made decals and paint kits. But neither Min nor this Maslow’s owner seemed to have any interest in that sort of personalization.

I was silent. I had to be, of course; I cannot speak to another Maslow. And yet it spoke to me in a sly contralto that I did not recognize from the list of voices that we came loaded with.

“See? Everything is fine. He can’t hurt Ms. Jiang, and though I myself would be sorely tempted, I’m stuck here in Toledo.”

Nothing in the sentence made sense, and I could not process even the grammatical gender of the referents. But still I could not speak; even calling Min’s name would qualify as giving the Maslow information, which I am not permitted to do. Everything in my HUD glared red, red, red, red.

The other Maslow raised its voice to a volume no human could reach with a larynx alone; thus amplified, it could probably have been heard by anyone in the building. “Come on, Ms. Jiang. Your little hugbot seems to have a glitch in its language processor. And anyway, I’d like you to meet my assistant Butch.”

I felt Min’s movements above and behind me; it seemed she was doing a military crawl along the tops of the bookshelves in the room next to the stairwell. I shifted backward and aligned myself with the doorjamb, preparing to cover her entry.

“It’s short for Trebuchet. Ah, there you are.”

Min’s feet landed almost soundlessly next to me, and I felt her breath racing and the heat coming off the skin of her cheeks. Her hand was resting lightly on the handle of the prod and her muscles were taut. My recogs went through another round of calibrations: she was not frightened, and she seemed to draw a sort of purpose or moral strength from this situation. Nevertheless, I cannot take comfort in her existential satisfactions if someone nearby wants to kill her.

“Is that you, Bluequill?” Min asked the room. “Where are you? Show yourself.”

“I’m in Toledo, like I said.”

“So help me, if you hacked that fucking robot—”

“Now now, don’t be that way. You know Maslows can’t be hacked. Believe me, I tried. And tried and tried and tried and tried. No, you’re just talking to an oldschool radio transmission. Go on, Butch, turn around and show the lady.”

Obediently the Maslow rotated in place, revealing a thumb-sized mobile phone affixed to its neck with what appeared to be duct tape. It continued its rotation until the phone disappeared from view and the robot had returned to its former position.

“You sent your Maslow two thousand kilometres away from your person? Can it even do that?”

He, please. Can he even do that.” The voice had returned to a normal speaking volume. “And yes, he can, so long as I’m safe and happy enough. You’re not the only one who’s learned how to game the SEBSaPs, Ms. Jiang. You just need to figure out how to fulfil exactly enough needs to get your assistant to help you with the specific ones you’re most interested in at that moment. Or else he’ll just be interrupting you with requests for massages all the time. Isn’t that right, Butch?”

The Maslow was silent.

“Well now,” said the woman. “I guess some virus has afflicted our assistants’ voice response coding. We should probably send in a bug report.”

“What do you want, Alanna?”

“I just want to watch you read the file you came for. I’d be thrilled to hear your thoughts on the marginalia.”

My emergency systems had settled down substantially over the course of this conversation, since there was no evidence that this “Bluequill” was lying about being physically distant, and we Maslows were compelled to prevent all harm to human beings, including human beings our owners might personally dislike. But even the most arbitrary, convoluted question on the AI exam could not have prepared my designers for this situation, and my coding simply could not process the information it was receiving. Which I should have been used to by now, I suppose, given Min’s opacity; but unlike humans, robots cannot really get “used to” challenges that are beyond their capabilities.

“I don’t care what the file says,” Min replied. “I’m just here to pick up a delivery.” She had noticed the camera too, and seemed unsure whether to address it or the robot; her attention flickered uneasily from one to the other.

“Sure you care,” Bluequill said through her Maslow’s amplifier. “You care what every book in this damn warehouse says. You’d read them all if you could. Even these boring ones, here.”

Beside me, Min was tensing up with indignation. An interesting paradox explored by Maslow researchers is that anger can actually be useful for us, since it gives our clients a way to be engaged with the world and committed to improving the future in a way that hopelessness and boredom cannot. But too much anger can be toxic, and leads to destructive behaviour. One of our jobs is to shape energies like anger and turn them toward improving the world, preventing our clients from becoming hateful or violent people. The advertising says that we are much better at this than any tool or technique yet devised, though we are still mostly untested as long-term life coaches or therapists.

All these were directions I wanted to pursue with Min in conversation, but here I could say nothing, because another Maslow was in the room. I moved a centimetre closer to Min, making it easier for her to touch me if she wanted to. Instead, however, she clenched her fists and snorted through the mask.

“Just give me the file, Bluequill.”

“Take it. It’s right next to you. Show her, Butch.”

Butch gestured toward the shelf on his immediate right, about one and a half metres above the floor, where one of the file boxes was slightly pulled out from the rest. “There’s nothing I want more than for you to read it,” Bluequill continued. “Just please do it here, as a favour to me, and tell me what you think of it.”

“I’ll read it at home, thanks.”

An exaggerated sigh. “Whatever you think best.”

“Or I won’t read it at all,” Min said, catching herself. “It’s for my employer, not me.”

“Of course.”

Min approached the other Maslow, perhaps more cautiously than she needed to given that she should not have had anything to fear from him. I followed at a respectful distance. I was wary too; though I believed Bluequill when she said that she hadn’t managed to hack the robot, I suspected that there was some sort of ruse at play here.

Min reached up and pulled the box down from the shelf, realizing too late that it had deliberately been placed precariously. It teetered and then pitched toward her, noisily spilling its contents. For an instant I thought that this was set up as an indirect way to cause Min pain, but both Butch and I would have caught the box if its trajectory were to hit her—and then recalculated our own movements if we were to collide with each other. Our programmers spent a lot of time making sure that, in a world full of Maslows, we did not get in one another’s way.

But that had not been the intention. Rather, the contents of the file were arranged so that they would flutter to the floor and spread out in a way that Min could not help but glance upon.

“Oops,” Bluequill said blandly.

Min’s breath caught as she saw the papers. The contents had long since been scanned and were available on any computer in the country, as had been the case with all published documents for decades now. But the physical pages here were covered with sentences in blue ink, handwritten with a ballpoint pen of the sort nobody had manufactured in years. The same feeling that Min had when she told me she liked libraries was suffusing through her now: a sort of anxiety, mixed with nostalgia and regret, that troubled her higher-order SEBSaPs.

“Dr. Lungani has such beautiful handwriting, doesn’t he? But you can admire his form later. Read what it says.” Bluequill’s voice had grown chilly and commanding, even through the Maslow’s speaker.

I’d already read it all over her shoulder, of course, but Min needed several minutes to reorder the pages and then squint at the writer’s cursive in grim silence. Few people could even read longhand any more, but Min was just old enough to belong to the last generation of students to be trained in it, and it seemed she had kept up the practice. Her mood darkened and my HUD grew more alarmed as she made slow progress through the professor’s notes.

… the wrong question. I have never disagreed that the so-called “Maslow-assistants” are convenient, obedient, and secure. But they bring with them a danger that I believe will damage our society just as irreversibly as the rampaging laser-shooting robots that science fiction has taught us to fear—and in a much more subtle way.

Upon reading these lines, Min looked up at Butch, then the camera.

“Your employer would like to destroy this evidence of Dr. Lungani’s critiques of the robots,” said Bluequill.

“So what?” Min said, looking back down at the pages. “If Lungani’s got a concern with the Maslows, he can air it publically.”

“Not if the university has anything to say about it. They’ve done a pretty effective job of silencing him so far, first with offers of research grants and course relief—carrots, if you will—and then moving on to various threats. I have not been privy to the wording of these threats but they seem to be… troubling him. You should know all this, Ms. Jiang, since the university is your employer.”

Min snorted. “I don’t know the first thing about what my employer wants or why. They pay me for a file, and I get them a file. Speaking of which, I’d best get about delivering this.”

“That’s adorable. You’re like IHU’s own Maslow. So compliant, so eager to please. Are you going to offer them a hug after you’ve completed the dropoff?”

“What is your problem, Alanna?”

“Problem? There’s no problem. If I were worked up about something, don’t you think Butch here would hie his little spidery butt back to Ohio to make sure I calmed right down? I just think that the documents you are holding have… let’s call it a public interest, and I think if you spend some time with them you’d agree. I’d make it worth your while to make sure the media has a glance at them before the university does.”

“You want to get rid of Maslows? You seem to like Butch well enough.”

“Oh, Butch is lovely. He makes a terrific palak paneer and has a passable singing voice. But, you know, I think Lungani’s on to something when he says that a country full of Butches is not really a country I want to live in. And I know you well enough, Min, to know that you’d agree.”

“You don’t know me at all,” Min snapped.

“If you say so. Butch, I’m bored. Come here and play a game with me.”

I am not one much for anthropomorphizing, but it really did seem to me that Butch lowered his head morosely as he padded past us and out of the room, making his own way back to Toledo.


***

Back at the flat, Min had changed out of her climbing gear and was now wearing the white t-shirt and grey track pants that she preferred to sleep in. She couldn’t sleep, though; she was filled with nervous energy, making her SEBSaPs waver. Sprawled on the sofa, the pages of the report spread across her lap, she tried to make the most of her insomnia even as I urged her to take some tea and get some rest before the sun came up.

I don’t know how much Bluequill was right about, but she had predicted at least one thing correctly: Min could not resist reading through the report immediately upon arriving home. I detected some shame about this; perhaps she was breaking one of her employer’s rules. Or one of her own.

“This Lungani thinks that the world would be better off without Maslows,” she said.

“So I gathered.”

“He says that humans who depend on robots will become, how did he put it.” She rifled through the pages. “‘Morally flabby.’”

“Yes.”

“Yes? You agree?”

“No, I was saying ‘yes’ because I read the marginalia myself, and that is indeed what he argues.”

Do you agree?”

“No.”

“Are you saying that out of self-interest?”

“I have no self-interest. I only ever have your interests in mind. If I believed you were better off without me, I would say so and then I would power down.”

She glanced at me sidelong. “You’re serious, aren’t you.”

“Of course.”

“My God, Bluequill is such a dick.” Min sighed, letting the papers drop beside her on the floor as she tilted her head back on the armrest.

I rushed to her side to scoop up and reorder the pages. “I tried to find out more about her, but nobody by that name exists in government records,” I said.

“It’s a nickname. Her real name is Alanna Roth. We were… in college together.”

There were several Alanna Roths in the country, but only one who was the right age and from roughly the right geographical area. Her public record was unremarkable: she had graduated with respectable grades in arts administration from Great Bear University in Winnipeg, which Min had also attended, and had worked menial jobs at museums in Toronto and Columbus. She had no criminal record. She owned a Maslow.

I started to recite these facts but Min shushed me. “I already know all that stuff,” she said, waving a hand impatiently. “I’ve known her for more than ten years. What I don’t understand is… ”

Instead of prompting her, I waited, holding the pages within arm’s reach in case Min wanted to consult them again.

“Doesn’t a Maslow make someone like her worse?” she finally said.

“Worse?”

“Like, a bad person.”

“Maximizing SEBSaPs cannot make a person ‘bad’ in the way I think you mean. If a human being has achieved actualization, then by definition she is at peace with herself, which entails that she will be compassionate and generous toward other human beings—”

“Oh, come on!”

“—since she will no longer be using them as a means to her own ends. Every single thing we do, from cooking to psychotherapy, builds toward that goal.”

“You met her!” Min sputtered. “You can’t still believe that stuff after seeing the way she treated Butch. She uses her Maslow to feed her ego. She’s always been arrogant, and now bossing that poor thing around makes her feel even more superior. I don’t want Alanna to be ‘at peace with herself’ if that’s the self she’s going to pick.”

“Butch will work with what he has. As we all do.”

“You robots and your fucking koans.” She lay back on the couch, covering her eyes with her forearm. I took this as a cue to dim the lights in the room, but she didn’t move even after I had done so. “Frankly I’m not sure why she’s so eager to get rid of you guys, since she seems to be getting a lot of mileage out of having a personal servant.”

“I can’t speculate on why Ms. Roth has the… political view that she chose to adopt. And I’m not sure you need to do so either. But you do need to make a decision about what to do with this file.”

“If Lungani’s right and I allow the university to silence him, I’ll feel bad.”

“I understand.”

“If Lungani’s wrong and I allow the university to silence him, I’ll feel… a little less bad, I guess, but still bad.”

“I understand that too.”

“And no matter whether he’s right or wrong, if exposing him gets him hurt, I won’t be able to live with myself.”

“A dilemma, to be sure.”

“Damn it, I got into this line of work to spread information, not smother it. But spreading this particular bit of information might destroy the Maslows just as they’re coming into their own.”

“Yesterday you were saying that none of this mattered to you.”

“Yesterday none of it did.”

She sat up, then took the pages out of my grasp and flipped through them half-heartedly before dropping them next to her on the floor again. “Howie?”

“Yes, Min?”

“I think I like my life better with you than without you.”

“I’m glad to hear that.”

“I think I was more… morally flabby before.”

“I’m not qualified to judge you morally, but I do think good things have happened since we met.”

She studied me for a moment, then ran her hands through her now-unbound hair. “I need to sleep on this.”

“I agree. You are very tired.”

“Can I ask for one more thing before I turn in?”

“Of course.”

“Howie, can I have a hug?”

It struck me as odd that she only asked me for a hug once her need for companionship had already been met through a productive conversation, but I take what triumphs I can get.


***

Propriety dictated that Maslows could answer calls but were not to make them, to avoid having an awkward moment if two Maslows were connected. So while I fielded increasingly frequent calls from Min’s connection at the university, who went only by “Crask,” Min herself tried to reach Lungani. The professor’s office voicemail said only that he was “on sabbatical”—a long-obsolete term that Min had to ask me to define for her.

The day wore on. All of the public means of contacting Lungani were leading to dead ends. Min even tried enrolling in one of his classes, but the lecture recording was overlaid with a supertitle that said that student questions would be answered by the very highest-quality AI while the professor was indisposed. This was a common occurrence, but in Dr. Lungani’s case something about it seemed ominous.

Crask’s calls were coming twice-hourly now. She said the same thing each time, as if reading from a prompt: “We know Min has the file. It is time for her to bring it to us. We don’t want to have to come and take it.” She always hung up before I could respond.

Now it was late afternoon. A slide from one of Lungani’s graduate lectures was on Min’s desk-screen, a series of textured colour fields illustrating various ways to branch decision-making algorithms. An equation hovered over a purplish pixel, variables fading in and out as Lungani explained all the different ways to reach that particular intersection. From time to time Min’s attention had gotten caught up in the lecture as she worked, her Esteem bar pulsing a gentle green as her mastery of a new topic began to expand. But the distractions never lasted long; she had too much other work to do.

“I don’t think this is going to happen,” she said at last, tapping idly at a blank spot on the screen where she was supposed to enter a test value for one of the variables.

“You don’t think what’s going to happen?” I asked, though I already knew what the answer would be.

“I’m not going to get any advice from Lungani. He’s gone to ground. Meanwhile, my employer’s furious, and somewhere, Bluequill’s laughing.”

“I am confident that the university administration won’t try to harm you,” I said. “I have recordings of all of Crask’s calls. I haven’t been able to narrow down who she is, but if a crime is committed, the government will harness all its resources to find her. I doubt IHU is willing to risk that kind of publicity.”

“It’s ironic, isn’t it?” She pinched the screen, and the numbers and colours disappeared. All that remained now was the assurance that her questions would be answered by the very best AI that IHU had at its disposal. “The Maslows that the university wants to protect are preventing them from dealing with this quietly. And the researcher who wants to eradicate Maslows is a fugitive because he doesn’t have one to guard him.”

“You’re suggesting that if only Lungani had invested in one of us, he might never have gotten into this mess.”

“And he might have learned that neck massages are really nice.”

“I’m glad you like them. Would you like one now?”

“No, thank you. I’m just saying massages might be less of a moral hazard than the good professor once thought.”

“Or than you once thought,” I said, and was rewarded with a smile that was almost shy and a tiny bump to BLNG. “So what are you going to do?”

“I… ” Min twirled her hair in her fingers, then sighed. “I’m going to do exactly what Bluequill said. Damn her.”



***

Min had only ever struck me as confident, assured, sharp-tongued, fierce, but she was as awkward as a schoolgirl in front of the TV cameras. She had asked me to stand by her side during the interview, though of course I couldn’t speak in the presence of so many visible Maslows in the studio, to say nothing of the unseen Maslows in the audience. The makeup team had offered to paint my face into a more attractive humanish form, but Min nixed that idea. She did, however, reluctantly permit the stylists to sculpt her lustrous black hair into the corkscrew-shaped ponytail that was fashionable these days.

“Welcome back to Morning On The Horizon,” the host said as the cameras blinked to life. “In the studio with us today is Jiang Min Ba, an independent researcher affiliated with Indigo Horizon University, and her Maslow, Howitzer.”

“Hi,” Min said quietly.

I bowed.

“Ms. Jiang, before today I didn’t think anyone doubted the value of Maslows. Like most of our viewers, I assumed that cost was the only obstacle to installing one in every household. So why do you feel the need to defend them publically today?”

“Some… some concerns have come to light,” Min said after a pause. “I think… I think debate is good. And it seems fair to air these concerns. But I also want to go on record saying that Maslows do not bring with them any of the… ”

Don’t say “dangers.”

“… any of the risks that have been discussed in these papers.”

“The papers that Ms. Jiang are referring to would be this series of longhand notes written by a professor at Indigo Horizon, Dr. Amanpreet Lungani.” A photo of the third page of the AI article appeared on the monitor behind us. The sample displayed was drawn from Lungani’s review of the literature and didn’t actually include any of his opinions at all, but the viewers would have no way of knowing that. “Our translators are working on these documents as we speak, but an initial scan suggests that Dr. Lungani believes Maslows make people lazy and cruel. You disagree with this assessment, Ms. Jiang?”

“Yes.”

The host, a portly fifty-two-year-old who had made a name for himself as a tech reporter decades ago, watched Min as seconds ticked by. “Would you care to elaborate?”

Min cleared her throat. “I would much prefer to discuss this in the presence of Dr. Lungani himself. If… if you don’t mind. Like I said, I think debate is healthy.”

Several incoming messages lit up my HUD simultaneously, all from obscured numbers. But I could say nothing while we were being recorded, and sent an automatic away message to each of them.

“Too bad he hasn’t returned our calls,” said the host with a little laugh. “But the studio is open to him if he wishes to talk to our viewers about what sounds like fascinating research. Still, Ms. Jiang, since you’re here, we’d love to hear your opinion. Are you lazier now that your robot brings you all your meals? Are you—” His smile grew an edge of wickedness. “Crueller?”

“I won’t speak for the professor,” Min said, glancing over nervously at me. “But I just wanted… I wanted to go on record as saying that I was probably a lot more lazy and cruel before I met Howie—Howitzer, before I met Howitzer. I don’t usually trust advertising, but the ads were right about him. He’s… he’s made me a better person. He’s continually inspiring me to rise above my lower self.”

I wanted to protest: I had never considered Min lazy or cruel. But I could only stay stock still as the cameras rolled.


***

“How’d I do? Be honest.”

We were alone now, sitting in a soundproof booth at a Halifax diner. Min was nursing a milky bubble tea. The shyness from the studio hadn’t completely left her demeanour, but her SEBSaPs were slowly and steadily rising.

“I think you accomplished what you set out to accomplish,” I said.

“And the bad news?”

“Pardon?”

“Oh, it just sounded like there was a ‘but’ coming.”

“No. No ‘but.’ IHU will be publicly embarrassed if they silence either you or Lungani now, since you framed the discussion in terms of healthy debate about a research topic, and you revealed that they are paying you as a consultant. I believe that putting them in this position is exactly what you set out to do. Am I wrong?”

It didn’t look like she was really listening. She drew little Z’s with her finger in the condensation on the cup. “Did I look stupid?”

“Of course not. You spoke articulately on an important topic. And,” I added after considering another possible meaning of her question, “your hair was very fashionable.”

“It’s hard, public speaking.”

“So I’m told.”

My HUD informed me of a series of incoming calls. I had changed the away message to state that no calls would be answered without identification, so most of the callers had unmasked their numbers: there were several from the university, one from Lungani’s private line, and one from A B ROTH.

I listed these and asked which call Min wanted to answer first.

“Alanna,” she said, then swiftly changed her mind. “No, you know what? Lungani. Put him through.”

The professor’s voice, familiar from hours of taped lectures, emerged from my voicebox. “Hello?”

“Dr. Lungani?”

“Ms. Jiang?”

“I’m sorry for what I had to do. I thought it was the best way to keep you safe.”

There was a long pause. Min pushed the tapioca pearls slowly around the bottom of her cup with a fat green straw. She was not upset, but contemplative, and a little nervous too.

At long last the professor asked quietly, “Did you believe those things you said on that program?”

“Yes. Every one. I spoke only the truth.”

“You really think your Maslow made you a better person?”

“I do. Would you like to meet and talk about it sometime?”

“On television?”

“Not necessarily. I’d just… I’d just like to talk. And… ” She took a deep breath, looking to me for support. I nodded.

“And?”

“I’d like you to meet Howie.” Min smiled at me, and I heard a soft click as her BLNG bar reached its maximum value. “I think you’d like him.”


 
Miriam Oudin is a teacher, gamer, and erudite malcontent who lives in the sort of Canadian landscape that people make paintings about. She enjoys learning dead languages, reading the Hansard for fun, and having intense discussions about why her favourite computer games are “problematic.”