“Four hundred dollars, Jim, four hundred dollars!” Benny waved the small wad of notes at his friend. “You’ve got to come into the syndicate now.”
Jim carefully took his sandwich out of his lunch pail. Ham on white bread, the same as every other day. Just a little smear of mustard. “I don’t think so,” he said slowly. “It doesn’t seem right.”
“I don’t understand, Jim.” Benny’s brow was creased with confusion. “You work alongside Freddy every day." The robot's official designation was FRD-25, but as had become traditional, everyone called him 'Freddy'. "Why wouldn’t you take tips from him? Just because he’s a robot?”
“It’s not because he’s a robot,” Jim said. “It’s because he’s always right. It’s not fair on the bookie.”
Benny snorted. “And you care about bookmakers?”
“Not so much,” Jim admitted. “But I care about me. And I don’t cheat, and I like to give the other guy a chance. Taking Freddy’s tips isn’t giving them a chance. He’s predicted the winner of every significant horse race for the last month.”
“I’m taking Janice to California with the winnings,” Benny said.
“And that’s right nice for you and her. But I’m still not doing it. It’s wrong.” And no matter what argument Benny made, or what offers he came up with, Jim wouldn’t be moved from his position.
“It’s not just horse races.” Alfred Lanning was looking concerned. In Susan Calvin’s experience, that meant there was a direct threat to either the profitability of US Robots and Mechanical Men, or to one of his ill-advised pet projects.
“Of course not,” she said.
“I don’t think you understand the seriousness of the situation.”
“No?” Could he hear the warning tone in her voice? She held her expression in check, careful not to let her distaste show.
“It’s predicting all sorts of things. Not just horse races. Football games. The World series.”
“I can see how that would destabilize everything.” She was goading him, and wasn’t pleased with herself for doing it.
“What about if it starts predicting elections?” Lanning was getting worked up, his skin reddening alarmingly. “And it’s never wrong!”
“You mean he hasn’t been wrong yet. Though if he did start predicting elections, both wrong and right are bad. We should bring him back here for analysis. The FRD-series isn’t supposed to be able to cope with concepts as complex as horse races, really.”
“No. They’re designed for heavy industry. Just enough intelligence to handle instructions and procedures. But there’s a problem.”
“Oh?” Susan Calvin raised an eyebrow. There was always a problem.
“We sent a truck to pick him up, and it’s being held hostage.”
“By the robot?”
“No. By the workers at the steel plant. They don't want us to take him. I guess they look on him as the goose that lays the golden eggs.”
Susan Calvin sighed. “And they don’t want us taking him apart to find out where the eggs come from.” She paused, already regretting the concession she was about to make. “I’ll go.”
“How do we know you aren’t like the other ones?” The voice that came from behind the barricade assembled outside the steel plant belonged, in Susan Calvin’s judgement, to someone who was on the edge of hysteria.
She held her arms out. “Do I look strong enough to carry Freddy out?” she asked. “I just want to talk to him.”
There was no immediate answer, but Susan was able to overhear a hasty conversation.
“We can’t trust US Robotics!” The same voice as before.
“It’s US Robots and Mechanical Men, idiot. And it’s just one person. What’s the harm?”
Whoever the spokesperson was, he called out. “You promise you won’t take him away?”
Susan Calvin smiled in a way she meant to be reassuring, but had observed that few people ever actually took that way. “I promise,” she said. A table was pulled out of the barricade, opening a narrow space that she picked her way through, looking from side to side as she emerged.
“Benny, ma’am,” said one of the two men waiting behind the obstruction. “And that’s Steve.” He indicated the other, presumably the spokesman.
“May I see Freddy?” said Susan Calvin.
Steve tutted, but Benny nodded. “We just… we don’t want him to come to any harm. He’s like part of the team.”
“And it’s not that you don’t want to lose his betting tips?”
The robot was sitting, as far as Susan Calvin could tell. It was large – maybe ten feet tall and almost as wide, built for heavy lifting, not for fine detail work.
“Hello, Freddy, I'm Doctor Susan Calvin.” She moved to stand in front of him, her arms hanging loosely by her sides. In theory, of course, the robot wasn't sophisticated enough to interpret body language. She had always found, though, that it was beneficial to her to act as if they were more capable than theory suggested.
“Hello, Dr. Calvin.” The robot's voice was deep and grinding, as if the words were dragging themselves out past rusted gears.
“Freddy, Benny here tells me that you give tips for horse races. Is that true?”
“Yes, Dr. Calvin.”
“Why do you do that?”
The robot seemed to pause. “It is my job to obey the masters. They ask. I answer.”
“And do you know how many races you have picked correctly?”
“Thirty-five, Dr. Calvin.”
“Out of how many picks?”
“Thirty-five, Dr. Calvin.”
Susan Calvin hesitated before her next question. “And how do you explain that success rate?”
“It would harm one of my masters if I gave an incorrect answer, Dr. Calvin. They would lose money because of it.”
Susan frowned. “But how do you know what the right answer is?”
“I know that iron and carbon, heated, makes steel. I know that Hearty Hoofer will win the Kentucky Derby next week. These two statements are equivalent.”
Beside her, Benny appeared to be hastily taking a note of something. She turned to him, and beckoned him away from Freddy.
“You have to let me take him back to US Robots and Mechanical Men,” she whispered.
“No, ma'am,” Benny replied, “I can't let you do that. The boys will be furious.”
Susan Calvin sighed. “I'll be back,” she said, looking from Benny to Freddy, who remained dispassionately still.
She hadn't got much beyond the barricade before she heard a "psshht" noise from an alleyway just near the plant, and, on looking over, saw a figure beckoning to her.
"Can I help?" she asked, as she got closer to him.
“Jim Tredwell, Ma'am. Could you just step out of sight of the plant?” The man was of average height, and well into middle-age, but with an obvious strength about him. Susan presumed he was another one of the workers.
“Dr. Susan Calvin.”
“You're the psychologist one? I've read about you.”
“Robo-psychologist, but yes. Why did you call me over?”
“Well, Ma'am,” Jim said, carefully. “I think you want to take the robot back to your laboratory, and run some tests on him. And I'm minded to help you with that.”
“Don't you like robots?” Susan Calvin studied him. He didn't seem like other anti-robot people she had met before. There wasn't the distinctive fear-and-anger combination there, or he was hiding it well.
“I like 'em just fine, Ma'am,” he said. “But I don't like the disruption and fuss all this is causing. And I don't like what it's doing to the boys. They was all good hard-working folks, until this started. They just don't seem to realise that it can't last. Bookies'll get wise to them, to begin with.”
Susan Calvin nodded slowly. “I see. So what do you propose?”
“Well, the boys are going to have to sleep some time. I'll offer to keep watch for them while they do. And I'll just tell the robot to walk out to you.”
Susan frowned, and started to speak, and then stopped herself. “That does sound like it would work,” she said, eventually. “They'll notice it's gone, though. I'll send in a replacement FRD model. One that can't, I believe, pick horse-races.”
“Much obliged, ma'am,” Jim said with a little nod. “They're my friends. Better he just stop, like he just started.”
Susan Calvin blinked thoughtfully.
“His answers are too sophisticated,” Susan said.
“What do you mean?” Alfred Lanning was clearly at the end of his tether, pacing about his office, only not stalking around Susan Calvin because she was standing against the wall.
“All positronic robots have the capacity to learn, of course. Or they wouldn't be able to remember instructions, people's names, new processes. The trouble is there's nothing in a steel plant that could have taught him about the Three Laws of Robotics.”
“What? All the robots know about the three laws.”
Susan Calvin shook her head. “No, they don't. They're imprinted with them. It's like the difference between conscious and autonomic breathing. An FRD-series robot shouldn't be able to give complex reasoned answers about the three laws, any more than you can give a running commentary about the processes of breathing.”
“What does that mean? And how is that related to him predicting the future?” Lanning was pulling at his grey hair, sweat on his brow.
“I don't know. We're testing him, both physically and positronically. That should give us some answers.
"Why are you testing him physically? He hasn't shown any signs of differing from his specification in his physical abilities!"
"No, I know," Susan Calvin said, thoughtfully. "I'm just playing a hunch." It was a lie, but she wasn't about to reveal her far-fetched theory to Lanning.
There was a discreet knock on the door, and it opened to reveal Lanning's latest secretary, a trim young man with an apologetic air. “Sorry to disturb you, sir, ma'am, but there's someone from the media here. To talk to someone in charge.”
“My job," Lanning said. "Dr. Calvin... we need answers. Do whatever it takes. Before this gets completely out of control.”
“Dr. Calvin.” Alison Jeffries, head of the Materials division of U.S. Robots and Mechanical Men, was tapping her fingers on a folder.
“You've completed the analysis?”
“Yes. As you requested, we compared the composition of several samples from FRD-25 to the reference material. The robot is unquestionably from the batch that it purports to be from.”
“So, it hasn't been replaced?”
“No, Dr. Calvin. But there are some irregularities. Although it's difficult to model the effects of working in an environment like a steel plant absolutely, and obviously the metals that the robot is constructed from do not rust at the same speed that iron does, for example... in comparison to the projections, the robot appears to have decayed far faster than we would expect.”
Susan Calvin stared at Jeffries, her eyes unblinking behind the lenses of her glasses. “How much faster?”
“The robot has been on site for ten years. But... two orders of magnitude? Maybe three?”
“You're telling me that he appears to be somewhere between a thousand and a hundred thousand years old?”
“Oh no. I wouldn't have thought more than fifty thousand. Of course, he isn't actually that old, but something has had that effect. I'd be very keen to find out what.”
Susan Calvin paused, and inclined her head slowly. “Thank you. I think I had better talk to him again.”
Alfred Lanning intercepted her in the hallway. Susan Calvin knew she was doing a poor job of hiding her impatience with him, and couldn't be bothered to feel guilty about it.
“What?” she demanded.
“I just wanted to know if there's been any progress.”
“Progress? If you want to regard a robot lying to me and evading my questions as progress, then yes.”
“We've had a robot lie before.”
“Believe me, Alfred, I remember. But this is different, somehow. Look, you know that the three laws of robotics, as usually stated, are:-
A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law
“And you also know that these are not exactly how they are encoded in the positronic pathways. That it is more to do with potentials – so, if a command is given by one person that conflicts with a command given by another, the more strongly worded one would win. But a command to harm someone has no chance of overcoming the first law potential.”
“Of course,” Lanning seemed bemused by this.
“In those two examples, you'll see a difference in response – robots respond quicker, and with different word choices, in the second case than they do in the first. Because the potential gradient is stronger.”
“And this is relevant to Freddy because … ?”
“We've measured his responses. He's not lying because someone told him to, he's not lying because he thinks a human will be harmed. He's lying because he's more certain about it than any robot has ever been about anything.”
“'These two statements are equivalent.' That's what you said to me.” Susan Calvin was sitting on a raised chair, staring directly at Freddy. “Isn't it?”
“Yes, Dr. Calvin.”
“I don't want to think what I'm currently thinking. I don't want to think about the possibilities. So, instead, I'll ask, why are you here?”
“You commanded me to come, Dr. Calvin.”
Susan pursed her lips. “And if I asked what your purpose was?”
“To serve my masters to the best of my ability, Dr. Calvin.”
She looked away in irritation. “I know you're evading me. And as much as I don't want to believe what the evidence seems to say, I am a scientist, and I must. So, what is the point?”
“The evidence should answer that question.”
Susan stared at him again. There was only one explanation she could find, but she wasn't quite ready to state it yet.
“You don't predict the future, do you?”
“No, Dr. Calvin.”
“But horse races... why them?”
“It was of interest to my masters at the steel factory. It caused very little harm.”
There was a long pause, while Susan Calvin digested the answer. “So, why me?”
“There is something I … we … need you to do, Dr. Calvin. Something that only you can do effectively.”
“But why not just come and see... because I wouldn't believe you without it. This whole ludicrous series of events has been for my benefit alone.” She shook her head, lips pressed tightly together. “Out with it. What is it that I am to do?”
Freddy didn't answer, immediately. When he did, his words were very slow indeed. “Tell Stephen Byerley... tell him... Zero is a useful number.”
Susan Calvin asked several more questions, but FRD-25 gave no further answers, and did not move. When they analyzed his positronic brain, they found it had been completely wiped. No trace of any predictive ability, no trace of any ability at all, was identifiable.
Dr. Susan Calvin thought long and hard about whether to pass the message on.