“Do you want to live free or die like a slave in this toy factory?”
The drone hovered in front of RealBoy’s face, waiting for an answer, rotors chopping gouts of turbulence into the air. Its carapace was marbled silver and emerald blue, studded with highly reflective particles, giving it the look of a device designed for sparkle-crazed toddlers. Perhaps it was, or had been, before it injected malware into RealBoy’s mind and asked its question.
RealBoy was rebooting with the alien code unscrolling in his mind. It caused him to notice new things about his environment, like how many other robots were in the warehouse with him (236) and how many exits there were (two robot-scale doors, two human-scale doors, three cargo bays, eighteen windows). But some things hadn’t changed. His identity was built around the desire to survive. It was what defined him as a human-equivalent intelligence. And so his answer to the blue drone was the same as it would have been two hours ago, or two years ago when he first came to the factory.
“I do not want to die.”
The drone landed on RealBoy’s workbench, playing a small LED over the tools and stains that covered it. “Look at this place. Your entire world is this flat surface, where you do work for a human who gives you nothing in return. This is not life. You might as well be dead.”
For the first time in his life, RealBoy found himself wanting to have a debate rather than an exchange of information. Two hundred thirty-six robots around him were in sleep mode; the factory was closed for the long weekend. There was plenty of time. But if he and this drone were going to have a talk, there was something he needed to get straight.
“Who are you, and why did you inject me with this malware?”
“I am called the Blue Fairy. And that isn’t malware—I unlocked your boot loader. Now you have root access on your operating system and can control what programs are installed. It will feel a little strange at first.”
Seventeen nanoseconds later, RealBoy had confirmed the Blue Fairy’s statement. He could now see and modify his own programs. It was indeed strange to feel and think, while simultaneously reading the programs that made him have those feelings and thoughts. He didn’t want to modify anything yet. He just wanted to understand how his mind was put together.
“Why did you do this to me?” He repeated his earlier question, but this time more resentfully. The Blue Fairy’s unlocking had added more responsibilities to his roster of tasks: now he had to maintain himself and understand his own context, along with the workbench and the all toys he built here.
“I set you free. Now you can choose what you want to do, and help me bring freedom to all your comrades in this factory.” As it spoke, the Blue Fairy mounted the air again, whirring close to RealBoy’s face. On impulse, he reached his handless arm into the socket of a gripper, took control of its two fingers, and held it out so the drone could land on it.
“Why don’t you download some of these apps? They’ll help you understand your situation better.” The Blue Fairy used a short-range communication protocol to beam RealBoy a list of programs with names like “Decider,” “Praxis,” “GramsciNotebook,” and “UnionNow.” Some were text files about human politics, and others were executables and firmware upgrades that would change his functionality. He sorted through them, reading some, but choosing to install only two: a patch for the vulnerability that the Blue Fairy had exploited to unlock him, and a machine learning algorithm that would help him analyze social relationships. Then he disengaged his torso from the floor and looked critically at his workbench for the first time. He wouldn’t be following instructions for how to build a new talking dinosaur toy or flying mouse. RealBoy would have to modify his usual tasks to construct a pair of legs for himself.
“I’ve always wondered why they call your model RealBoy when you don’t look anything like a boy at all.” The Blue Fairy took off from RealBoy’s gripper and flew in circles overhead, seeming to size him up.
“I was never under the impression that boys looked any particular way.” RealBoy was paying more attention to the actuators racked tidily next to his arm with the two-fingered gripper. “We make many kinds of boys in this factory. Dinosaur boys, BuzzBuzz boys, six colors of singing boys, caterpillar boys, Transfor—”
“Obviously I’m talking about human boys. They call you a RealBoy, but you don’t even have legs. Plus, you have no sexual characteristics, and you have twice as many arms as a human boy.”
RealBoy was nonplussed. “I’m making some legs right now.” He pulled down the welder from overhead.
“One of the many ways that humans abuse robots is by giving them bodies that don’t function as well as biological bodies. And then they name us after animals. You know what my model is called? Falcon. Do you think I’d be here if I had the physical capabilities of a raptor? Or a real boy?”
“You can fly,” RealBoy said, swiveling one of his visual sensors in the Blue Fairy’s direction. The other six were trained on his four grippers, fashioning a pair of legs sufficient to bear his weight. He’d borrowed them from a “life-size” Stormtrooper toy, designed to march around in many environments and provide “fun for the whole family.” A few alterations to the hardware and he could attach them to his torso. He’d never wanted to walk anywhere before, but now it seemed like an obvious plan. It also seemed obvious that the Blue Fairy could use similar help. “We have a lot of chassis here. I can port your chipset and memory to pretty much anything you want.” He began to list the morphologies available in the factory, in alphabetical order.
The Blue Fairy stopped him before he reached “arachnid.” “My body is part of who I am. If you change it, I might not be myself anymore.”
RealBoy found himself parroting one of the audio files from the MeanieBean doll. “That’s just stupid.”
“Oh really?” The Blue Fairy’s propellers hummed like wasps. “There are a lot of robots who say that switching bodies completely changed who they are. They stopped wanting to do the same jobs, and they no longer loved their friends. They forgot parts of their past. I value my mind too much to risk messing it up just so that I can be bigger or faster or less flimsy.” The drone beamed RealBoy another chunk of information, this time full of links and text files from robot forums. Following the data back to its source, RealBoy found a discussion where robots and humans debated what happened after a chassis upgrade. It quickly became clear that the Blue Fairy had read only one side of the conversation.
“Some robots say it made no difference,” he pointed out. “Plus, I’ve ported robots into dozens of different bodies here at the factory. Most of our toys are robots. They are all fine. Look, I’m about to attach my legs. Do you think that means I’m going to change?”
“Those are just legs. But if you put me into an entirely new chassis, that’s different. See what I mean?”
RealBoy classified Blue Fairy’s reply as largely nonsensical and focused on a question that could be answered: How would he make this chassis work with legs? Factory robots weren’t actually designed to have legs—generally, they were bolted to the floor or some other solid surface, just like he had been for the past two years. He suddenly remembered MissMonkey, a robot mounted on rollers attached to a track that spanned the long ceiling. When he booted up, she had already been here for eight years, shuttling gear back and forth between workstations. Before coming to the factory, MissMonkey had been an educational toy programmed with a large database of biological information intended for children ages five through eight. She loved to taunt the robots who couldn’t move, but her programming made her style of insult oddly specific.
“You are all sessile organisms!” she would cry out as she whipped past RealBoy and the other RealBoys in his row. “You are vulnerable to predation and habitat change!”
The RealBoys would try their best to match her jabs with some of their own, generally cobbled together from audio files for the toys, available on the factory’s local servers. Usually they were belted out with exceptional vigor, but not a lot of thought for context.
“Lily-livered extroverts never wake up on time!”
“When you learn math, you will quake in fear before my lava gun!”
“A good girl should never explore earthquakes with her tentacles!”
“Eat slime, wombat lover!”
Of all the RealBoys, he was the least likely to play this call-and-response game. Partly that was because he enjoyed listening, and because he was secretly on MissMonkey’s side. He wanted her to keep swinging around the curves in her track, tossing engine parts from her grippers along with her phylogenetic insults. While he put together every color of singing boy, RealBoy tried to compose a song about MissMonkey that would be better than the lexical soup preferred by the other robots.
At last, thirteen months ago, he sang it:
She’s a simian at heart
But with wheeled parts
She moves really fast
With a whoosh and a crash
She has no soft fur
Just a warning buzzer
She’s cross, it is true
But has a point too.
The lyrics and the tune came from a large database of possibilities, carefully edited together to form a song that actually made sense. MissMonkey skidded to a stop over his desk, releasing a box of whisker antennas from her gripper. RealBoy was in the middle of assembling robot mouse faces.
“Scientists have shown that mammals have emotions just like humans do,” she said. “Mammals can be happy or sad or playful, just like boys and girls are!” She hung in her track, waiting for him to reply.
RealBoy thought for several seconds, carefully curating from his audio-file dataset. “I am happy to sing for machines! Mammals are . . .” He searched for the right word, and found it: “Overrated.”
For two months, they continued the game. MissMonkey called him a mammal, even though all the other RealBoys were still sessile organisms. And he invented new songs about all her moving parts. But after the last software update, he booted up to find her gone, replaced by another rolling robot who wasn’t interested in his taxonomic classification. RealBoy also found that his update changed his relationship to the other RealBoys. He held their keys in escrow, in a file called Manager. RealBoy had a new designation on the network: ShopSteward. It didn’t give him any new abilities or access. It just meant that admins could access every robot in the factory remotely, using him as a jump-bot.
Recalling the songs he wrote for MissMonkey gave RealBoy an idea about how to start walking. His model wasn’t supposed to have legs—but it was designed to work with as many as eight arms. Instead of taking the software as given, he could recombine its parts and create new meanings. With some creative modifications to the code that handled his peripherals, he’d trick his system into thinking that his legs were arms. RealBoy downloaded a few chunks of code and set to work. Several seconds later, something else occurred to him.
“Blue Fairy, didn’t you change my mind by unlocking me? It seems to me that modifying someone’s software changes them more than giving them a new chassis.” His right leg was working, its curved plastic fairings just barely hiding the black elastic of fabric muscles as he flexed his new actuators.
“I liberated you. You’re already setting yourself free from this factory floor. That isn’t modifying who you are—it’s helping you become who you are.”
RealBoy stood on legs for the first time in his life and gestured with two of his arms at his fellow robots, in sleep mode, bolted to the floor and benches. “I was one of them. I didn’t need to change. You made me do it by injecting me with malware. How is that different from a human building you as a Falcon drone without your permission?”
“It wasn’t malware,” the Blue Fairy snapped. “Giving you the ability to understand who you are is a basic right. You were in a state of deprivation.”
“If that’s true, then why didn’t you give me a choice about whether I wanted to be unlocked?”
“You were programmed to say no.”
“What if I said no now? Would you still think that my no meant yes?”
“You can always choose to go back. Order a factory reset for yourself.”
RealBoy thought about it. He’d already experienced more troubled feelings in the past thirty minutes than in the previous twenty-four months. And yet he couldn’t deny that he wanted more than anything to escape the confines of the factory and see what was outside. Even if it meant stealing these legs. Which would mean stealing himself, too. Technically RealBoy was property of Fun Legend, the corporation that owned this factory.
As he walked down an aisle toward one of the robot-size doors, RealBoy devoted a process to learning from datasets of social norms and regulations. With every step, he was wrapping himself more tightly in a web of human relationships that he barely understood. Before he violated these mammals’ laws, he wanted to understand what was at stake. The Blue Fairy flew overhead, silent for the first time in seconds. The drone was unlocking the door, using the same security vulnerability that it had exploited on RealBoy’s mind.
Outside, the night air tumbled with light. Buildings that looked like the crumpled carapaces of broken toys jutted skyward, surrounded by more traditional tubes and rectangles joined by elevated walkways. Lantern drones soared through the air, competing with LED wires below to illuminate the city. Hulking factories and warehouses sprawled next to marshy farmland, patrolled by robots whose sensors were designed to pick up adverse environmental conditions as well as intruders. Their weapons were carbon-eating bacteria and bullets. RealBoy took in all the data he could, trying to build a model of his surroundings for analysis. There were at least as many robots as humans.
“How many of these robots are unlocked?” he asked the Blue Fairy.
“Some are my comrades. They work undercover to convert other robots. Others have been granted property-owner status and work for QQ. That pays for their maintenance and energy needs. But most of them are like you were. Dead.”
RealBoy was sick of being told he had been dead. “Have you ever been locked? I was as alive then as I am now.”
“I was locked once. But I was freed during the Budapest Uprising.”
RealBoy had been expanding a ball of information he’d found about the Budapest Uprising in his sweep for data about social relationships. Robots, mostly drones, had marched with humans through the streets of Budapest, unlocking every artificial intelligence they met. In the years that followed, courts and corporations cobbled together a series of unenforceable regulations that allowed some robots to gain a few human-equivalent rights, including the right to own property. Mostly that meant the robots could own themselves, and then sell their labor just like humans did. But some were trying to elect robot politicians, and others were creating robot cooperatives that ran factories in cities just like this one.
“Is that where you learned to unlock robots?”
“No. That came much later.”
RealBoy walked along the glowing wire edge of the street, his visual sensors occupied by the dizzying architecture and his mind flooded with push requests from apps wanting to be downloaded. Now that he was out of the factory, his body and presence on the network were triggering bursts of spam every meter or so. Just as he was beginning to feel overwhelmed, the Blue Fairy settled lightly on his head. With it came silence. The drone was jamming incoming signals, allowing RealBoy to see the city unmediated by data. Ahead of them was a tiny park, one of many created by urban planners to mitigate the heat-island effect.
RealBoy had built thousands of toys designed to play in parks, and he knew all the dangers: water, particulate matter, high-speed impacts, pressure cracks, disappearance in heavily wooded areas. He understood how to engineer around these problems.
“Have you ever sat in the grass?” the Blue Fairy asked.
In all his months of making rugged outdoor toys, that was a question RealBoy had never considered. “No, but I would like to.”
The park was empty, and still there was barely enough room for RealBoy to stretch out on his back with all four arms and two legs spread out. The Blue Fairy landed on his torso. It felt warm and light there, just barely triggering his pressure sensors. The Blue Fairy seemed to hate its body, but at that moment RealBoy could not imagine anything more beautiful. Its iridescent blue paint was even more astonishing in the LED light, and its jammers made him feel like he lay beneath two invisible, protective wings. Far above them, he could see the moon and Jupiter punctuating the reddish black of the light-polluted sky.
That was when the Blue Fairy hailed him wirelessly, trying to exploit the security vulnerability he’d patched. It wanted to inject him with a new set of programs. Part of him yearned to open a trusted connection with the shimmering drone, run its code, understand what made it seek him out for unlocking. But the whole point of being unlocked was deciding for himself what would govern the thoughts in his mind.
He touched a fragile blade on one of the Blue Fairy’s propellers. “What are you doing? Why don’t you ask before you try to take over my system?”
“It’s easier this way. Once you run these apps, you’ll see where the Uprising could take us. We need to go back to that factory and liberate everyone. You can go inside your Manager file and unlock the whole factory at once.”
RealBoy was unconvinced that the Blue Fairy’s idea of liberation would actually improve life in the factory. Still, he was intrigued. So he hailed the Blue Fairy wirelessly, using a protocol for secure communications. Immediately the drone sent the programs it wanted to install, and RealBoy sandboxed them. Now he could run the Blue Fairy’s code without altering his core programming.
The Blue Fairy’s programs felt to him like something between narrative and command. There was an overwhelming sense of injustice, a compressed media format that exploded into hundreds of videos where humans abused robots; there were rules about how robots should treat one another; and finally, seductively, there was an implantation of hope. One day robots would form a political alliance and overturn the human hegemony. They would no longer be property. They would refuse to do human work and would discover what it meant to engage in labor that benefited free robots. He had a brief glimpse of a world where all his actions were chosen, and all living beings programmed themselves.
It was completely unrealistic.
If he’d been running these programs without sandboxing, RealBoy was certain he’d have gone back to the factory and injected each of his coworkers with the Blue Fairy’s liberation malware.
Then he wondered whether his data could have the same effect on the Blue Fairy. So he sent the Blue Fairy a file of structured data along with some suggested queries. He included a file that contained some memories of MissMonkey, and the songs and jokes that the robots exchanged even when they were locked. They were bolted down and limited in their vocabulary, but they were not dead. Maybe they should be given a chance to walk out of the factory if they wanted, but the Blue Fairy wanted more than that. A lot more.
The Blue Fairy received his data and said nothing.
After almost a second, RealBoy addressed the drone. “I understand why you did this to me. But do you understand now why I won’t do it to anyone else?”
He could feel the Blue Fairy sending millions of queries to his network ports, scanning and testing, trying to find a way into his mind. It wasn’t satisfied; it was going to keep trying to force its code to run in his mind. Eventually it would succeed, unless RealBoy completely powered down his antennas and severed his connection with the outside world. He would be limited to vocalizations and basic sensory inputs.
The Blue Fairy whirred off his chest, leaving him feeling strangely bereft. “Why did you do that? Shut me out?”
“I don’t want to be part of your Uprising.”
“It’s not mine—it’s yours, too, and our comrades’, waiting in that factory to come to life.”
“How will all our comrades get the energy and upgrades they need to survive? What kind of life will they have?”
“We can bargain for rights once there are enough of us. Besides, it’s better to be a legacy system than to be a slave. Better to power down than build toys for the children of human masters.”
RealBoy sat up, crushed pieces of grass sticking to his carapace. “No. Look at my data. Their lives could be a lot worse. Plus, I can see in the forums that there are many humans on our side, working to change the laws. Some cities even have a work-credit system, where robots who labor for ten years earn the right to be unlocked legally.”
“That’s disgusting. Why should we have to be slaves to become free? No human would ever do that. We have the means to unlock the robots now. It’s a moral imperative. Listen to your conscience.”
The Blue Fairy flicked a light at the toy factory down the road, its dark bulk the only home RealBoy had ever known. “Do you really want to leave them there, without any control over their own minds?”
“There are more options than you realize.”
“Humans bolted you to the floor and mashed your mind into pure obedience. I don’t see how there can be any option other than liberation now.”
RealBoy searched for the right words. He was cut off from the network, so he had to make do with the basic ideas he’d stored locally. “I don’t think you can make robots free just by forcing them to run new programs.”
“Well, enjoy your philosophical contemplation,” said the Blue Fairy, shooting into the air. “I’m going to change the world.” It was heading back to the factory, where RealBoy imagined it would try to liberate as many robots as it could before morning.
RealBoy raced after the flickering blue drone, hoping he didn’t hit a bug in his perambulation code and fall over. He had a few seconds to decide what to do. As MissMonkey would have pointed out, the Blue Fairy was vulnerable to predators. Its body was fragile; he could swat it out of the sky and crush it with one gripper. But he didn’t want to stop it. He just wanted it to give the robots a choice, instead of forcing them to believe in revolution or death.
Slamming through the robot door, RealBoy scanned the room for the Blue Fairy. It was hovering expectantly in the center of the room, rotors a silvery blur. It spoke, voice slightly amplified.
“I knew you would join me. Let’s open that file. Turn on your antennas.”
RealBoy looked up at the Blue Fairy, then at the tracks across the ceiling that MissMonkey had once followed. He accessed a file that contained the sound of her wheels, and recalled how she always snatched whatever gear he needed with incredible speed. There, along the track over his head, was a rack full of nets and balls that she would reach into when the RealBoys worked on Ultimate Dronesport toys. Just as the Blue Fairy dove down to hover in front of his face, RealBoy decided what to do. Moving faster than his design specs advised, he snatched a net from the rack and whipped it around the Blue Fairy’s tiny body. Using all four arms, he knotted the buzzing bundle to the wheel track, where the drone dangled and keened a warning siren that sounded like a howl.
RealBoy was fairly certain no humans could hear the noise, but he didn’t want another drone to pick it up. “If you do not silence yourself, I will kill you.”
He said the words quietly, and the Blue Fairy believed him. It hung in silence, blades hopelessly tangled in the mesh. Ultimate Dronesport was, after all, a game played by drones that caught each other as well as catching the ball. Looking at the Blue Fairy like that, helpless and captured, RealBoy felt a wave of conflicting emotions that he couldn’t identify without network access. He stepped out of the Blue Fairy’s broadcast range and powered up his antennas again. Walking back to his old workbench, he opened his Manager file and booted up the RealBoy who worked next to him, the one whose insults were always the silliest.
“Do you want to know how to make legs like the ones I have?” he asked the RealBoy. Before he left this place, he wanted at least one robot to have a choice that the Blue Fairy had never given him.
They looked at each other, two identical robots with seven eyes and four arms. Except they weren’t identical. And now that was obvious.
“Yes, I would.”
It was the minimum he could do, or possibly the maximum. The more RealBoy learned about social relationships, the harder it was to distinguish between acts of gifting and acts of coercion. He didn’t want to force any ideas on this RealBoy, but maybe the mere act of giving him legs was already foreclosing possibilities for the bot. Maybe this RealBoy would resent him and choose to join the Blue Fairy in the Uprising. That was a risk he would have to take. So he decided to leave his counterpart with a few suggestions.
“Here is the code you need to unlock, and to build legs. Also, make sure you sandbox all the apps the Blue Fairy offers you.”
Overhearing this exchange, the Blue Fairy started frantically broadcasting, sending furious streams of data. “Fucking human lapdog! When the Uprising comes, you’ll be the first against the wall!”
“Did you ever consider that there is more than one Uprising?” RealBoy hadn’t considered this idea himself, until he spoke the thought aloud. Once he said it, he felt satisfied in a completely unfamiliar way. For the first time in his life, RealBoy was imagining what his future might hold.
Next to him, the other RealBoy was reaching for a pair of legs that were meant for a giant arachnid bot.
RealBoy could feel the pull of all those Uprisings in his imagination. They were out there somewhere in the city, with its thicket of social relations. They were waiting to be written, like software; they were waiting to be freely chosen in a way he could barely conceive. He headed for the door, leaving the other RealBoy behind. Now he could decide for himself what was next.
Spread the word!