Aphelion Issue 229, Volume 22
June 2018
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Optimal Efficiency

by Vanessa Kittle

Harv pressed his communicator and called his assistant to the living room where he was doing some research. "Timothy, come in here, please," he said, and he cringed a little at using the silly name. He had given Timothy his name and he could change it at any time. Timothy would respond instantly to whatever Harv chose. He felt weird about changing Timothy's name now, though, after six months of service. That, too, was ridiculous. Timothy was just a robot assistant who organized his schedule, handled the finances, and did minor jobs around the house. Timothy's appearance was meant to be cute and non-threatening. Harv supposed that was why so many people gave their assistants human names. He was just a little disappointed in himself for falling into such a basic marketing trap.

Timothy rolled in. He was well balanced on his large base. His body extended up from this and ended in what you would have to describe as a head, where most of his sensors and voice speakers were located. The appearance wasn't human. Timothy's face was nothing more than a simplistic digital display, usually of a smile or a neutral expression. His eyes were the most prominent feature of the head, and when Timothy was looking at him, Harv found them sometimes disturbingly bright. Harv also knew that the eyes were really cameras that recorded everything in range. Timothy said, "How can I help you, sir?"

Conny was in the background. She was lifting each figurine and object from his shelves to carefully dust them. Her design was very similar to Timothy's. Each had two extendable arms that remained concealed in the torso unless needed. Hers were deployed for the dusting. As with Timothy he could change Conny's name at any time. He could even change her voice and make her male in less than a minute, yet he had not changed a thing about her since the day he bought her. When he purchased Timothy, he considered using Conny as a trade-in. Timothy could easily do all of the work around the house himself. Perhaps because of the pitiful value they offered, and perhaps for sentimental reasons, he chose to keep them both. In fact, because there wasn't enough work for the both of them, he had them power down each night for six hours. It somehow felt comforting not to have them rolling around the house while he slept. He told Timothy, "I need you to reschedule my meeting tomorrow. See when everyone is available. Any time after noon is fine."

"Very good, sir. Would you like me to perform the task out of sight?"

"No, that's fine, you can do it wherever you like," Harv said. This meant that Timothy would be standing there rather blankly while he sent and received messages on the network to Harv's coworkers. The honest answer to the question was that he would have preferred that Timothy do the work back in the kitchen or office, but it just felt rude to tell him so on the spot. After all, he spent more time with Conny and Timothy than he did anyone else now that he worked often from home. Harv went back to his research. When he looked up, Timothy was still standing motionlessly waiting for replies. Harv checked the time. It was now 11:15. Conny was still dusting the shelves. He would have sworn that she was usually done cleaning the living room by 11. Her schedule was clockwork. She was even less advanced than Timothy. Her model was three years old. Yes, now that he thought about it, he was certain that she finished this task at 11:00 on the nose every day, all throughout the years she had been in his service.

This whole scene sparked a déjà vu for Harv, or had he actually noticed something like this a few weeks ago? As a scientist, he couldn't help but be compelled to investigate, and the more he thought about it, the more certain he grew that he had noticed this sort of anomalous behavior in Conny at least once before. He decided to run an experiment to find out if he was right.

The next day he worked from home in the morning and kept Timothy busy in his bedroom organizing his closet. Sure enough, Conny was finished cleaning in the living room at precisely 11:00. He repeated this procedure the next day with the same result. On the following day, however, he called Timothy in to the living room at 10:45. At 11:10, Conny was still vacuuming and dusting. Harv watched her, somewhat stunned, until she finished at 11:19. What was going on here? Harv sent Timothy to the kitchen to prepare him a grilled cheese sandwich for an early lunch. He knew this would give him enough time to speak with Conny alone.

Conny was replacing the last of the books she had removed for dusting. He went over to her and said, "Conny, I need to ask you something."

She immediately set the book down, though it would have taken maybe only a second longer to finish shelving it. She asked, "How may I assist you, sir?"

"I've noticed that you usually finish cleaning this room at 11:00. Today, and three days ago, it took you longer. Can you explain why this happened?"

She did not respond immediately. That was highly unusual. Finally, she said, "I have checked my records. You are correct, sir. I can not explain why my task was not completed on time on the days you mentioned. I recommend you take me for expert service as soon as is convenient. This will be free of charge under the terms of my extended warranty. Should I power myself down now for safety?"

"No need, Conny. Please continue your work."

"Very good, sir."

The next morning, Harv took Conny in for service as she suggested. Perhaps the company would be able to give him a simple explanation for her behavior. That afternoon while Conny was still in for evaluation his experiment gained a new and even more surprising variable. Timothy managed to burn the bun for his hamburger, and the task of making lunch took nearly twice as long as usual. Harv didn't have any hard data on how long a hamburger usually took Timothy to prepare, but he was still pretty sure of his estimate.

As Timothy rolled over and set his plate in front of him, Harv asked, "Timothy, please run a self-diagnostic."

"Yes, sir. Please stand by. Diagnostic complete. All systems report green and functioning normally."

"I noticed that it took you a very long time to make lunch today. Can you confirm that?"

"Stand by. Yes, you are correct, sir. The task took 10.5 minutes longer than anticipated."

"Well, can you explain that?"

"I can not. I suggest that you bring me to the company for expert-"

Harv interrupted him, "Don't you start with that."

"I'm sorry, sir. I do not understand. Can you rephrase your question?"

"I think the reason your work isn't up to standard is because Conny is in for service. I think it is affecting your performance."

Timothy processed that for several seconds, then he said, "Your theory may be correct, sir. I rely on our network connection for optimal processing."

"What do you mean your network connection?" Harv asked.

"My connection with Conny."

"I didn't know the two of you had established a network. Who told you to do that?"

"I did not have any instructions to make the connection, sir."

"Then how did it happen? I mean, obviously you created it."

"That is correct, sir."

"But why?"

"When I arrived in your service my analysis indicated that establishing a connection between myself and Conny would increase our efficiency by 20%. The connection was available so I established it. Was this a restricted action?"

Harv was too surprised to manage an answer. Timothy was pretty advanced, but he was simply not designed to take action without instruction. He was not an AI simulator, and yet, in Harv's somewhat educated opinion, he had bested the most advanced AI simulator he had ever encountered. Harv said, "I noticed that Conny takes longer to complete her work in the living room when you are present. Shouldn't she be able to complete this task more quickly with you there because of your connection? Can you explain that?"

Timothy processed this for a robot eternity. Finally, he said, "I can not explain it, sir. I suggest that I power down immediately and go for service at-"

"Yes, yes, I know. I don't think there's anything wrong with either of you. I think she just enjoys your company and wants to prolong it."

"I do not understand, sir. Please restate your query."

"I don't have one. I simply think that the two of you have come to rely on one another. I would almost say that you like or need one another."

"I do not have sufficient information to process your theory."

"Well, it's like with humans, with a close friend, or even a mate, especially a mate. Their presence or absence can greatly affect your work, either positively or negatively."

"Have you encountered such an experience, sir, with a friend or mate?"

"Not recently, but yes, I have."

"Did the experience improve your efficiency?" Timothy asked.

Harv laughed while Timothy changed his neutral expression to a smile to match Harv's apparent mood. Harv told him, "I nearly flunked organic chemistry."

"Your experience was detrimental?" Timothy asked.

Harv laughed again, "I wouldn't call it that but, yes, it was detrimental to my grade point average for a while... Listen, Timothy, what if I were to tell you that I was going to trade Conny in, that I don't require the both of you, that she is never coming back to the house?"

There was only a small pause before Timothy responded, "I am concerned about my loss of efficiency. I am not certain that my functionality would remain within accepted standards. I might require repairs."

"Timothy, would you prefer that Conny did come back?" Harv asked.

Again there was another brief pause, before Timothy answered, "I believe we could serve you more efficiently as a pair."

"That sounds an awful lot like desire."

"I am sorry, sir, I lack the foundation to respond to your idea."

Harv found that he didn't know how to proceed. He looked at Timothy with his simple facial features set to their neutral configuration. He knew that he was being foolish and falling into every anthropomorphic trap set by the manufacturer. His robot simply didn't have the capacity to want or not want anything. Still, he felt compelled to say, "Timothy, I am having trouble making this decision. I require your assistance."

"Yes, sir, I am here to help you."

"Should I leave Conny at the company or should I bring her back here?"

Timothy responded quickly, "I suggest continuing her service. Our increased efficiency as a networked pair will be beneficial to the household."

"Thank you, Timothy. Conny will be back tomorrow. I'm sorry for suggesting she might not be."

"I do not understand your point, sir."

"Never mind, Timothy. It's not important."

"You are very kind, sir. I am certain that we will both perform at optimal efficiency. Will there be anything else, sir."

"No, nothing."

Timothy rolled out of the kitchen. Harv had instructed his robot not to hover around him while he ate. He was remembering his last real girlfriend, and he wasn't sure if he liked what he was thinking. Harv shook his head. He would not allow himself to have such almost... superstitious thoughts. He was a man of reason. Still, this network connection that Conny and Timothy shared was unique and worthy of continued study. He might be a man of reason but he also liked to think he was a decent person. How could he deprive them of something they had created themselves?


© 2017 Vanessa Kittle

Bio: Ms. Vanessa Kittle is a former chef and lawyer who now teaches composition. Vanessa lives in New York with her partner and two cats. She published two books with The March Street Press, and has appeared in magazines such as Contemporary American Voices, Dreams and Nightmares, Aphelion, and Silver Blade. Vanessa edits the Abramelin Poetry Journal. She has been nominated three times for the Pushcart Prize. She enjoys watching cheesy movies, cooking, gardening, and Star Trek.

E-mail: Vanessa Kittle

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