Friday, November 28, 2014

Artificial Stupidity

Its fiction Friday.

This is an entry for the Pod and Planet Fiction Contest in the "Things that Make You Swear and Curse" category. I was writing a serious short story that involved rogue drones. I wrote something that made me laugh and deleted it from that piece as it was humour in the wrong place. That gave me an idea, but could I write a comedy piece about that idea in only two days and make it work? You can be the judge! 3205 words.

Artificial Stupidity

"Hoyere Kerlela?"

Hoyere stood as the man entered reception and called his name.

The reception for CreoDron was huge. A large window looked out into deep space and a Hobgoblin II hung in the air above a cascading water fountain. On a space-station, a rare luxury. However it was fitting for one of the largest mega-corporations of New Eden and the biggest manufacturer of drones in the cluster. It was big, it was bold, it was hideously expensive.

"Welcome to the CreoDron family, I'm Gaull Mounch and will be giving you the guided tour of this facility." the man stated.

It was Hoyere's first day in employment. He'd just finished university doing a degree in applied artificial intelligence. CreoDron had approached him just before the final exams and offered him a job, no matter what his final results. He'd heard about the large mega-corps with university lecturers on the payroll. Their job was to tip them off about exceptional students so they could approach them and make them offers before they'd even thought about a job. It made sense to 'reserve' the best and the brightest before they could start looking around the competition.

However, Hoyere had some reservations about how things had played out. He thought of himself as neither the best nor the brightest. His test-scores were positively mediocre. His practical exams had not gone any better. For the final project an AI student would team up with an applied robotics student. They would present a combined final project with the former programming the AI and the later building a functioning android. Hoyere had been teamed up with a very talented lady called Gryve from the robotics course. She had built an exquisite robot, as expected being top of her class. Hoyere had done his best, but during the scoring the university judging panel had asked the android a question that had caused a conflicting logic loop. The android had paused for five seconds, lifted its arms to its head and promptly ripped its own head off and hurled it at the lead judge. The only reason Hoyere had scrapped a 'D' grade was the other two judges didn't like the lead judge and thought it was funny that he had been knocked out by a students project throwing its own head at him in frustration.

As they entered the lift Hoyere replayed that moment and it sent a shiver down his spine. There were a dozen other students on the course all better than him. Why didn't CreoDron offer them a contract. Why him, who couldn't even program an android not to rip its own head off when it got asked a difficult question. Hoyere gazed out of the glass fronted elevator that ran up the side of the station giving amazing views of the green and yellow Gallente nebula. "Why me?" repeated in his head as he gazed at the spectacular scene in front of him.

Finally the glass front was replaced by cold, hard tritanium and the doors opened. There was a security station in front of a large set of blast doors.

"Here, put this on." Gaull said as he handed Hoyere a clip-on ID badge.

Hoyere fastened it to his shirt pocket as they exited the lift and walked towards the blast doors. The wide room had two yellow and black warning lines three metres apart between the two opposite doors. Two pairs of drones were stationed either side of the walkway and tracked them as they walked. Hoyere noted that they had loudspeakers affixed to them, otherwise they were the deadly armed combat drones used by starship captains throughout the cluster. Half way across a robotic voice called out.

"Intruder detected!"

Hoyere froze on the spot.

"Don't worry. Happens all the time. They get easily confused and don't get a clear scan on the badges." Gaull said casually indicating he should continue. Hoyere looked at the weapons on the drone that were pointing directly at him.

"Trust me. Just ignore them. They are for show." Gaull continued.

Hoyere took a step forward. The other three drones were ignoring him, but the last one was tracking his every movement.

"Halt! I am authorised to use deadly force if you continue!" the voice of the drone called out. Hoyere froze again.

Gaull looked back and shook his head.

"Seriously. It won't do anything. Now come on, we need to do the tour."

Hoyere looked at the drone. The multiple barrels on its twin guns slowly rotating as if ready to fire. He took another step, sweat dripping off his forehead. On the second step the drones guns started spinning at full speed. By the third step Hoyere was worried about soiling himself.

"Engaging target!" the drone announced and Hoyere heard the tell-tail sound of an electro-magnet discharging. He screamed as he heard the weapon fire. He screamed for three more seconds before he realised that one, there was no sonic boom of a super-sonic railgun charge discharging from the barrel, and two, he wasn't dead, even though he clearly heard the railgun magnetic-field discharge.

"OK now? Believe me?" Gaull asked tiredly.

Hoyere sheepishly walked forward.

"Stop! I really mean it!" cried the drone in its robotic voice sounding desperate "Stop right there or I'll be..... I'll be very, very angry!" its guns still rotating at speed and the pop of the electromagnetic discharge still sounding.

"What happened....?" Hoyere stammered.

"Oh, that? Yeah, the initial idea was to have those four drones guarding the entry to the main R&D facility. However, after the third death of an employee and/or visitor we removed all their ammo. They are more for show these days." Gaull explained passing though the blast doors on the far side of the security bay, the drone still screaming empty threats. They entered a large room with several tables and vending machines. It looked like a typical employee rest room. A large holo-disk player was showing the latest mind-clash league game from the Caldari premier league. Empty plates and cups littered the tables. It looked like break had just finished.

"This is our rest room. Each of the doors access the various departments. To your left is admin and the offices, ahead is engineering R&D and to the right is AI R&D. Would you like a drink?"

"Erm, coffee please." Hoyere replied.

They walked up to one of the large vending machines.

"Chicken soup." Gaull said to the machine and it whirred into life.

"You have a 50 credit a week allowance and your ID badge holds your balance. You can add more yourself though the employee self-care system."

There was a thud and a cup dropped from the machine into a holder. Gaull picked it up and passed it to Hoyere. He looked in the cup wondering why he'd given him chicken soup when he asked for coffee. Was this some sort of test? Was he Measuring his reaction when someone does something wrong. However, when he looked into the cup he saw black liquid. He discreetly sniffed as Gaull asked the machine for a triple espresso with double cream and 5 sugars. It looked like coffee, it smelt like coffee and when he brought the cup to his lips, it tasted like coffee. A second thud indicated that Gaull's drink was ready. Hoyere glanced down at what looked like a cup of black tea.

"These are not the drinks you ordered." Hoyere stated matter-of-factly.

"Ah yes, sorry should have explained. The machine has a glitch in the AI. The company tried to save money by implementing one of our drone AI's into the vending machines. It didn't really work. You need to ask for the exact opposite of what you want. A triple espresso with double cream and 5 sugars gets you a black tea with no sugar. A chicken soup gets you...."

"A black coffee." Hoyere finished taking a sip "However I'm not sure I'd class the opposite of black coffee as being chicken soup!"

Gaull smiled. "Well that's what the machine thinks anyway. You get there by trial and error really. Just do not ever order an apple juice whatever you do. Shall we?"

They approached the office door and entered a modern busy office. Hoyere surveyed the dozens of cubicles with staff hard at work. They passed booth after booth. Some were working on terminals. Some had their feet on their desks talking into headsets. Gaull paused to speak to a colleague, Hoyere took the opportunity to listen in to the conversation going on behind them in one of the cubicles. A woman who looked entirely bored was painting her nails whilst talking on a headset.

"Yes sir. We understand that. However if you read the manual we do not guarantee that any commands given to one of our award winning light scout drones will be obeyed fully. No sir. No we don't sir. If you read section three point five point two in the Hobgoblin MK VIII owners manual you will see that we advise captains and capsuleers to think of instructions given to the drones as friendly advice and not official orders. That way the captains are less disappointed. You see its not as bad when you think of it that the drone didn't take your advice and attacked someone else rather than it ignored a direct order from its Captain. Good day."

"This way!" Gaull said as he started off again obviously finished with his colleague.

As they reached the centre of the office Gaull pointed out the various sections. He noted Human Resources, Finance, Orders and Billing, Quality Control and the Complaints and Customer Services section where they had just been stood. Complaints and Customer Services appeared to be the largest section by a magnitude.

"Right that's the boring admin sorted. Shall we get one with the more interesting parts. First, Engineering!" Gaull said leading them back out the way they came.


They stood in the decontamination room as the blue light swept over them. Gaull had explained that it removed all static and dust particles from them and allowed them to enter the clean environment of the engineering research and development section. As the light faded the door at the other end opened. They stepped out into a large high-tech laboratory and testing facility. Men and women in starched white lab coats milled around holding large datapads. There were holographic representations of drones slowly spinning above desks as teams of scientists pointed and discussed. Some tables had actual half built drones, circuits and wiring exposed as scientists poked and prodded the internal systems.

Gaull led them to the first section.

"This is Dr Dunier Allellarie. He's in charge of improving kinetic impact resilience. Doctor, this is Hoyere a new starter today!"

The Gallente man approached. He was short, balding and overweight with a pair of thick rimmed glasses. All things that modern medicine could treat.

"Greetings and welcome to the family." the doctor greeted Hoyere with a warm smile.

"Good to be here Doctor. Kinetic impact resistance? Is that to improve the armour against hybrid weapon attacks?" Hoyere asked.

The doctor looked at him strangely.

"Well no. Its for when they collide with things." he said slightly slowly as if stating the obvious.

"Collide with things? What things?" Hoyere asked confused.

"Well everything. Each other, the ship they are supposed to be defending, the ship they are supposed to be attacking, asteroids, stations, the launch tube on the way out, the launch tube on the way in, each other."

Hoyere wondered what this doctor had been drinking. Surely drones weren't that clumsy, and why did he say 'each other' twice?"

"Oh right." he replied not quite understanding what the doctor was on about.

Gaull led him on to another section. There were several scientists looking at a 3D holographic model of an Ogre heavy done.

"So we could put a power-shunt between these two relay arrays. When the heavy goes wandering off on its own accord, we can divert more power to the engines when the owner realises its going the wrong way and get it to return faster?"

Hoyere realised two things at that moment. Firstly these scientists were expecting the drone to fly off in some random direction for no reason at all and two, he recognised the voice.


Gryve turned around and looked at Hoyere raising both her eyebrows.

"Hoyere! What are you going here?" she asked shocked and surprised.

"I work here!"

"How?" she said looking confused.

"What do you mean how? They approached me and gave me a job." he said.


Hoyere suddenly was silenced. She asked a question he didn't have an answer to. He just stood there dumbfounded. Gryve appeared to be looking over his shoulder and Hoyere looked back at Gaull. For a second he thought he saw Gaull shaking is head quickly and making a "no" shape with his lips. He gave Hoyere a smarmy smile and quickly made their excuses.

The remaining stations they visited all appeared to be doing similar tasks. Designing engineer improvements for issues with the drones that shouldn't be issues. A drone shouldn't just fly off in a random direction like some toddler without adult supervision. It shouldn't crash into things. It should follow orders and attack the target it was instructed to, not decided on its own someone else was a better target and go off after them. However the entire engineering R&D division appeared to be doing just that.

Gaull led him back into the break room and towards the final door.

"Here we are! Your new home away from home!" Gaull announced as they entered the large room.

It looked like a standard office. Cubicles with terminals filled most of the space. A wide range of nerdy looking people glanced up from their work.

"Here is where you'll be working. AI R&D." his guide said as a paper Merlin soared overhead across the office.

Hoyere looked around. Most of the desks appeared to be empty. Those who were there didn't appear to be doing a lot. The occupied desks were full of toys and gizmos. Gaull led them up to the largest cubical where a geeky older man was sat.

"Bavet. Here is the fresh blood you were promised. Hoyere is fresh from university so go easy on him." Gaull laughed.

The man stood and inspected Hoyere over the top of his glasses.

"Welcome to the cutting edge of drone programming young man. I hope you are ready for this!" he greeted Hoyere warmly shaking his hand.

"I'll do my best sir." he replied glancing around and really wondered if this was cutting edge as he saw one man fire another paper Merlin at the back of a colleague's head two cubicles down. There were 'words spoken' as the paper glider struck home.

Gaull welcomed Hoyere to CreoDron one last time and left, leaving him with Bavet. The older man showed Hoyere to a cubical that was already kitted out with an advanced terminal and a variety of what appeared to be toys. Hoyere picked up a Quafe branded foam ball launcher and looked at his boss quizzically.

"Son, programming AI is not science, its an art. You need to be creative. This is not like any other office. We want it to be fun and engaging! Now put the toy away, sit down and I'll show you what you'll be working on."

Hoyere sat in the chair and the terminal scanned his presence and logged him in automatically. His current assigned task popped up immediately. There were several reports of Ogre class drones flying off in random directions when they had been ordered to orbit the mothership. He was to assess the AI code and improve it where possible. He glanced at the lines of code and scratched his head.

"This is strange. Why are we using these custom algorithms. Why aren't we using a Kepler-Orysis hybrid algorithm to control vector decision making?" Hoyere asked. He instantly got worried as the entire room suddenly fell silent. His boss looked at him in horror. Hoyere stood up and noticed everyone else had stood too looking over their cubical walls towards him with shocked faces.

"Come with me son." his boss said and walked towards the dimly lit far corner of the room. Hoyere followed worried about what he had said wrong.

In the corner of the room were six cubicles on their own. A rope cordon stopped them from approaching to near. Above the desks a sign hung from the ceiling "Advanced AI Development". Hoyere noted the desks were covered in dust, they hadn't been used in years. The older man sighed as they stopped.

"Many, many years ago we were looking to make the most advanced drones in New Eden. Drones that were true fire-and-forget. Captains and Capsuleers alike could launch these and not bother about giving them commands at all. They would be so intelligent they would assess the situation and do the most appropriate task. However, a few months after launch we realised, too late, that we had done too good a job. That these drones were too intelligent. In fact most were more intelligent than the captains and capsuleers using them. Most rebelled not wanting to work with dumb humans and in some cases dumber capsuleers. They escaped."

"Rogue drones." Hoyere stated.

"Yes, rogue drones." his boss confirmed. "There were inquires and finally CONCORD issued directives controlling drone based AI to prevent it ever happening again. The penalties for making drones that have the potential to go rogue are staggering and would ruin even a mega-corp. We need to give the drones enough artificial intelligence to do their job, but we cannot make them intelligent. Do you understand?"

Hoyere nodded as he walked back to his desk. As he sat down he had an epiphany. That was why he was there. That's why CreoDron recruited him out of all those in his class. They didn't want the best, they wanted the average. They had to keep their drones just on the right side of stupid. Drones that wandered off in random directions or that would attack the wrong target were a problem, but not as big a problem as them becoming self-aware and going on a human-killing rampage resulting in fines that would financially ruin the corporation. They wanted him. They wanted an AI that when confronted with something it couldn't comprehend would rip its own head off, not become self-aware and question its own existence. As he realised this a paper Merlin drifted lazily into his cubical and struck him on the head. Ignoring the task on the terminal in front of him he grabbed the Quafe branded foam ball launcher and stood, taking aim in the direction the paper Merlin had come from, waiting for the target to try again.

Several cubicles down Bavet stopped typing the report he was working on for a second as he heard the distinctive pop-pop-pop of the Quafe launcher firing and someone swearing from across the room. He smiled, knowing yet again, from the long list of possible candidates, he picked the right one.


  1. I still wonder what You get when ordering apple Juice.

  2. Just don't drink the *cloudy* apple juice. The vending machine might just be connected to the Health Labs.