The Machine Wore Makeup
by Walt Giersbach
“Help me, please, Mr. Stark,” Harrison Connor, Jr. said on the phone. He choked on the next words, “The police call it murder, and I’m desperate.”
Harrison’s late father had been my college roommate before he went into cybernetics at MIT and I, to Harvard Law. Loyalty was reason enough to drive from Boston to the son’s place in Concord. Second reason: my law office was like a coffin with the ends knocked out, still flooded with memories of my divorce.
I hadn’t seen Harry since his dad’s funeral about four years earlier. The kid was a good-looking guy, intense, and a writer of historical works. Young Harry was in his mid-20s and living in his late dad’s three-bedroom colonial.
“There’s a... situation,” he said, opening the front door. “My assistant who’s been working... helping me... she’s accused of manslaughter.”
“Harry, let’s sit down so you can explain what’s happened.”
He ushered me inside, took a deep breath and collapsed onto a French Provincial chair. “My assistant, Soldana, answered the door,” he blurted. “This guy — batshit crazy — rushed in, screaming that I was the spawn of the devil. Spawn, would you believe it? Had a knife. Soldana—”
“Wait, Harry, who’s Soldana?”
“I thought I told you: my assistant.”
“Where’s this assistant now?” I got out my notepad. “And Soldana’s last name?”
“Just Soldana. No last name. In police custody downtown.”
“What do you mean, ‘No last name’?”
Harry looked away. Someone who’s witnessed a murder can be a nervous wreck, but not evasive unless there’s more to the incident. “She’s... um... an android.”
“Harry, excuse me, you want me to represent a damned robot?”
“Not a robot! Soldana’s the finest artificially intelligent replicant the world has ever seen. She opened the door when this madman rang the bell. He saw me and began screaming that my dad was an affront to nature... an abomination. Waved a knife. Soldana killed him dead. With a pencil, a No. 2 Eberhard-Faber through the eye. Now, please get Soldana out of jail so I can go on with my life.”
“Back up a minute, Harry. Is Soldana its first name? A trade name?”
“Her only name. She was designed by Dad’s inventor friend in the Marunouchi section of Tokyo. She — excuse me if I refer to her as ‘she’ — she’s an amazingly advanced form of artificial intelligence. Heuristic—”
“Excuse my ignorance, Harry. Heuristic?”
“She’s a self-teaching replicant. She can learn and act independently, doesn’t need programming like some chess-playing robot. She’s a thousand times better. After Dad had his heart attack, she was the one who called me, stayed with me during the funeral, helped me get through my grief.”
* * *
I asked to see my new client, unsure of what I was getting into. The officers at the Massachusetts Correctional Institution in Concord were polite but gave me the fish eye.
“Miss Soldana? I’m George Stark. I’ve been hired by Harry, your boss, as your legal counsel.”
“Thank you, Mr. Stark.” Standing in front of me was one of the most exquisite young ladies I’d ever seen, tall when she stood up, looking smart in her prison smock, slightly Asian in appearance, with long dark hair. Her English was impeccable and, though unaccented, it was almost as if I was speaking with Siri on my cell phone. This was not a human being.
“There will be a trial but, first, I need some basic information. You worked for Harry since his father’s passing?”
“I am happy to work with him. I make his coffee, clean his clothes, do research for his work — or research I expect he will need. Currently, he’s investigating Ming Dynasty explorations around the world in 1421.”
“He pays you?”
She smiled. “There is no pay, because I have no needs, except to recharge my batteries.” She pulled up her smock’s sleeve and showed me a small outlet in her armpit.
“A basic question, Miss Soldana, where’d you come from?” I couldn’t help calling her “Miss.” In spite of her looking very human, I resisted asking where she was born.
“I was manufactured by a cybernetics engineer in Japan.”
“So you have no Social Security number? Visa? Birth certificate?”
This time she gave a quirky laugh. “Of course not. I was shipped to Concord in a packing crate.”
I was beginning to like this marvelous hunk of machinery. Her packing crate reference reminded me of my office. She reminded me that it had been a year since my wife sued for divorce because of my career obsession. This creature brought back memories of a brighter life.
* * *
The judge was elderly, the kind of New England gentleman I’ve met often. He was clearly uncomfortable with this case. “First, the court well tolerate no outbursts. This case has received an undue amount of publicity, and I won’t let it interfere with justice. The state will now make its opening remarks.”
“Your honor, may it please the court,” the prosecutor said, “this is not only a case of a machine gone mad. It’s an offense against humanity.” He cleared his throat. “We have a unique case of an out-of-control machine that killed a human being.
“The deceased may have been misled into thinking Mr. Connor is an agent of the devil, but we have laws to prosecute any misdeeds. We do not tolerate having the defendant’s machine — whether a robot or a remote-controlled weapon — do our killing on a whim.”
He went on at length and then sat down, smiling in satisfaction.
“Good people,” I said, “we have many things to decide, but they won’t all be decided at this trial. You’re not asked to judge an attractive young woman, but an artifact acting alone, one that’s as unfeeling as your toaster oven.
“First, what rules govern our machines? If a self-driving car rolls over a child to avoid a crowd of jaywalkers, do we put the automobile in jail? Prosecute the owner of the car? Or the car’s manufacturer? We have entered an entirely new world requiring us to rethink our laws of guilt.”
Soldana smiled guiltlessly. She might as well have been daydreaming of whatever androids dream of. Perhaps electric sheep.
“I’m asking you to find the defendant not guilty because, first, it is a machine and not a person, all appearances aside. Two, there is an ancient law called the deodand. A deodand is literally something ‘given to God.’ That is, it is an object that becomes forfeit because it caused a person’s death. The law goes back to 11th-century England.” I didn’t mention that the law had been abolished in 1846.
“Men and women of the jury, if an ax slips and kills a poor logger, you can’t condemn the ax to punishment. In a similar way, Soldana was acting nobly to protect its employer.”
The court erupted in an uproar, the judge threatened to clear everyone out, and he ordered me and the prosecuting attorney to the bench.
“What the hell do you mean, bringing up 11th-century law?” he demanded.
“I mean that the self-directing android Soldana cannot be found guilty according to the antecedent of the deodand. Now, the Massachusetts legislature may decide to create new laws of robotics. For example, an artificially intelligent android must be subject to the laws of its operator.
“Second, perhaps, the artificially intelligent replicant must always disclose that it isn’t human. And, third, it can’t retain or disclose confidential information.
“We’re in a new age, sir. With minimal research, Soldana found that you’ve been asking Amazon Echo’s Alexa about a land deal that’s favorable to you, and,” I turned to the prosecutor, “Soldana tells me you’ve been offered a tidy contribution — under the table — to fund a political campaign.”
* * *
The decision of “not guilty” headlined the news for an entire week. The Legislature debated creating a special committee to investigate the morality and justice of artificial intelligence. I was kept hopping from interview to interview.
“Well, Soldana, you must be pleased,” I said after I got back to Harry’s home. He and I were enjoying an 18-year-old Scotch while Soldana recharged her batteries.
Soldana smiled enigmatically. “To paraphrase Mr. Shakespeare, ‘If you prick us, we do not bleed. If you tickle us, we do not laugh. If you poison us, we not die.’ However, I am particularly pleased that—”
Harry interrupted. “What she’s saying, Mr. Stark, is that Soldana is learning to be human. And she’s accepted my offer of marriage. I’ve found peace — and love — in a difficult world. I hope you’ll accept my next request. Help me challenge the laws of Massachusetts so Soldana and I can be married.”
Soldana touched Harry’s shoulder. Her face was radiant. “There is a whole new world ahead of us.”
“And perhaps also for this lonely lawyer, Soldana,” I said. “Let me know if you have a nice android friend.”
Copyright © 2017 by Walt Giersbach