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Author Topic: EP370: The Care and Feeding of Mammalian Bipeds, v. 2.1  (Read 3170 times)
eytanz
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« on: November 15, 2012, 05:10:19 PM »

EP370: The Care and Feeding of Mammalian Bipeds, v. 2.1

By M. Darusha Wehm

Read by Christiana Ellis

An Escape Pod Original!

---

The first day I meet my human herd they are so well-behaved that I wonder if they really need me at all. I arrive at their dwelling, and am greeted by the largest one of their group. I access the manual with which I have been programmed and skip to Section 3: Verbal and Physical Clues for Sexing Humans. I can tell by the shape and outer garments that this human is a male, and I make a note of this data. He brings me into the main area of their living space, and as we move deeper into the dwelling, he asks me to call him Taylor, so immediately I do. He makes a noise deep in his throat, then introduces me to the rest of the herd.

He puts his forelimb around the next largest one, who he introduces as Madison. The Madison bares its teeth at me in a manner that Section 14: Advanced Non-Verbal Communication suggests is a gesture indicating happiness, approval, cheerfulness, or amusement, but which may belie insincerity, boredom or hostility. The Madison says, “Welcome to the family, Rosie.”

“Thank you, Madison,” I respond, as suggested by the manual in Section 2: Introductions: Getting To Know Your Humans. “I am looking forward to serving you and your family.” The manual indicates that human herds designate each individual with a name, and that most will bestow a similar designation on their caregiver. Section 0: A Brief Overview of Current Anthropological Theories states that the predominant view is that humans believe we are a new addition to the herd, and the best thing to do is to go along with this idea so as not to confuse them. The Taylor and the Madison appear to have chosen to refer to me by the name Rosie, and I set my monitoring routine to key on the sound of that word.

“These here are Agatha and Frederick,” the Taylor says, pushing two smaller humans toward me. I am unable to tell by looking whether or not they are male or female — they are about the same height as each other, with shoulder-length glossy fur. Their outer coverings are very similar, shapeless and dark coloured except with colourful designs in the upper section. One of them bares its teeth at me, in a manner similar to the Madison’s earlier display, but the other looks away. “Kids,” the Taylor says, his voice growing deeper, “say hi to the new robot.”

“Hi, Rosie,” the toothy one says, “I’m Frederick, and this is my sister, Aggie.” The Frederick pulls on the forelimb of the other one, who looks through its fur at me.

“This is so stupid,” it says, pulling its arm out of its sibling’s grip. “I don’t have to say hi to the dishwasher or the school bus, why do I have to pretend to be nice to this thing?”


Listen to this week’s Escape Pod!
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eytanz
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« Reply #1 on: November 15, 2012, 05:10:57 PM »

For some reason the blog entry for this episode, and the title of the episode in the feed, says its episode 369 (though the audio file is correct).
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Listener
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« Reply #2 on: November 16, 2012, 08:05:19 AM »

Though this story didn't really cover new ground -- cultural misunderstandings, household robots, affairs, oops babies (and raise your hand if you don't think Chester was born of an affair, not of Taylor and Madison having sex) -- it was very well told and I enjoyed listening to it. Although once I figured out what was going on, this came to mind:



I wonder if the use of Taylor and Madison as names was intentionally reflective of child naming trends in the late 90s/early 00s, and if the author is projecting that "classic" names (Frederick, Agatha, Chester) will come into vogue again once we start swinging the pendulum the other way.

Madison in the study saying "we have about half an hour" was most definitely realistic, even now with the easy availability of video chatting. Of everything in the story, that, I believe, was the moment that sealed it for me.
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chemistryguy
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« Reply #3 on: November 16, 2012, 08:15:19 AM »

Oh Mur!  You had me geared up for a wacky, whimsical podcast.  Instead I was met with hostility, adultery, statutory rape and child neglect. 

The first few minutes, I was amused by Rosie's (nod to the Jetsons) interpretation of her human and their behaviors.  This trope grew old quickly, and I was left with a sadness for this broken family which the robot sees as functioning well.  Perhaps there's something deeper I'm missing.

The icing on the cake was the idea that this unwanted baby will grow up to know Rosie as it's mom.  Hopefully he will read the robot's actions as love so that he has some sense of belonging in the world, or that Rosie will develop genuine emotions over time.
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matweller
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« Reply #4 on: November 16, 2012, 01:51:03 PM »

For some reason the blog entry for this episode, and the title of the episode in the feed, says its episode 369 (though the audio file is correct).
Corrected. Thanks!
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timprov
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« Reply #5 on: November 16, 2012, 01:58:04 PM »

The story was well written with a strong POV character, even some humor that I enjoyed but when it was over I couldn't help but think, 'what was the point?'   I don't feel it really brought anything different to the table of (Insert outsider) perspective of humans and how we behave.

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« Reply #6 on: November 17, 2012, 05:08:59 AM »

--I need a copy of Rosie's manual...
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Cutter McKay
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« Reply #7 on: November 17, 2012, 10:48:25 PM »

Overall I enjoyed listening to this story, though I agree that what started out as a whimsical exploration of people through a housebot's observations quickly deescalated into a tragic, yet common, tale of a broken family on the brink of collapse and I found I was left with nothing hopeful or positive to glean from the telling.

The only real beef I had with the story, though, was some of the robot's classifications of things. I loved them being referred to as a herd rather than a family, but was thrown off by the references to fur rather than hair. If this robot is viewing this family from a logical, almost dictionary point of view, as the title, "The Care and Feeding of Mammalian Bipeds" suggests, then why would the robot so inaccurately associate hair with fur, when one of the defining features of mammals is the presence of hair rather than fur?

Rosie didn't feel robot to me so much as she felt alien. Most of Rosie's observations about the humans seem like the way creatures not from our planet, or at least not from our species, would see them. Granted, Rosie is not of our species, but she was most certainly designed and programmed by humans, and her manual would have been written by humans. So all of these inaccuracies, though cute, don't fit the character in my opinion.

Still, it was interesting and entertaining to some extent. 
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eytanz
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« Reply #8 on: November 18, 2012, 03:52:29 AM »

Did anyone other than me spend most of the story wanting to give Rosie a hug? She was so well-meaning and oblivious.

I did really enjoy the story, but it's the kind of enjoyment - shared by a lot of hollywood blockbusters - that only works if I'm not thinking too much about what's going on. Once I start thinking, then I share a lot of Cutter's criticisms. Rosie seemed to lack a *lot* of information that is necessary to do her job effectively. For example, recognizing human sexes when they're clothed. Even if social cues such as clothing and hairstyles will have become entirely unisex and body-form hiding by the time of this story, you can normally tell a human's gender by looking at their face or by their voice. It's not foolproof, of course, but these are good cues and would have given Rosie starting hypotheses. And more importantly - why did she have no information about figuring out people's moods? I mean, if she's a servant, it would be rather essential for her to be able to detect when someone is upset or angry at her.

Now, in a different story, one could suggest that maybe that's beyond her capacities for some reason. The problem is, we know it's entirely within her capacities - she's just lacking the chapter in the manual. If someone had written a section that said "human eye leakage is often a sign of distress", or "raised voices are often a sound of anger", then she would have known.

To put it otherwise, based on the setup of the story - a sentient robot who seems to be cognitively similar to a human but has only a static knowledge source available to her - I would have expected Rosie to err on the side of stereotyping, knowing about typical human behaviours and not being able to see when they do not apply. Instead, we have Rosie erring on the side of ignorance.

Which makes for a fun, amusing story. But it just doesn't actually make sense. Which didn't exactly diminish my enjoyment of the story, but it made it hard for me to view it as anything but a fluffy entertainment (it's also why I wasn't particularly bothered by the dysfunctional family dynamics - I just didn't buy into anything as real).
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Max e^{i pi}
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« Reply #9 on: November 18, 2012, 07:49:36 AM »

I wanted to like this, I really did. I always love Christiana's readings, and what's not to like about a story with a childhood fictitious robot in it?
Well, apparently a lot.
To cut it short, I am upset and angry at the author for being lazy.
At first I was like "Oh cool! The robot thinks in seconds! Wonderful!" then I had to stop and do the conversion in my head (3 mega-seconds is about 50 minutes, 600 kilo-seconds is about a week). So that broke the flow of the story.
Then the robot arbitrarily started using days ("4 days ago") and diurnal periods and seconds. Why? What's going on here? All I can assume is that the author got lazy and just kept writing to keep the flow. But it broke my brain a little bit. Not to mention the interchanging of "nest" and "compartment". Pick a term and stick with it. Pick a method for telling time and stick with it. This just screws things up in my head. When the robot measures things in seconds I can believe that it is a robot. When it calls things strange names I can believe that it is a robot. But when it stops doing that, or when it switches its strange term for a different, even stranger term, that's just dumb. It breaks the flow and throws me out of the world.
Then there is the whole issue of the robot's programming that Cutter McKay started on, but I have much more beef than that.
You don't program anything like that. Robots don't need manuals, they don't need to consult them. They have programming, and the programming dictates behavior and responses. The manual should not exist, and the robot should not need to consult it.
But let's suspend our disbelief for a minute and assume that this robot is an actual artificial intelligence, and actually does learn things by reading them, and even forgets things and then has to consult what it read.
Who the hell wrote that stupid manual? Other robots? What sort of society would provide robots, video conferencing and private houses but neglect to actually explain to the robots how a household works.
"You! Robot! You're going to work for this family! I don't give a hoot who they are, what their names are or what their gender is (BTW, author, "sex" and "gender" do not mean the same thing, please stop mixing them up.) but you go and find out! Here's a manual written by a different robot who actually observed actual human beings for 12 seconds! Good luck!"
Seriously? I think not.
So, to summarize, aside from the interesting point of view of a dysfunctional family, I disliked everything about this story.
Replace the robot with an alien and fix a few let's-call-them-typos and this would be a much better story. In fact, when I saw the title I thought that's what it was going to be.
You know what? I reject your reality and substitute my own. In my head that's how the story went and it was much better than your reality. Wink
« Last Edit: November 18, 2012, 07:51:16 AM by Max e^{i pi} » Logged

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benjaminjb
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« Reply #10 on: November 19, 2012, 01:05:03 AM »

This didn't work for me, for many reasons already noted: the outsider view here is not new (Henry James's child character Maisie  also didn't understand what she was seeing); Rosie's type of outsiderness seems inconsistent with her function; and I eagerly await the sequel where every human who bought one of these robots goes to court to sue the manufacturer.

I want to say something constructive here, but all my constructive ideas feel like I'm rewriting the story, which I don't want to do. So, we can fix the inconsistencies in Rosie's programming, make it clear that the robot AI is learning for some reason (rather than programmed with everything that the robot would need--maybe there was an accident that partly wiped or corrupted part of the programming). But then there's still the family drama, which is pretty old.

[Edited to add:]
Here's two questions I'm left with after listening to the story:

a) Does Rosie make any difference to the plot? It seems to me that it doesn't, that Rosie is basically an observer, like Nick Carraway observing the drama around Jay Gatsby, if you stripped out Nick's part of the plot.

b) Does Rosie's observation of this scenario lead to any insight or humor? Hmmm... Your mileage may vary, but I didn't see any particular insight into dysfunctional families (partly because dysfunctional families have been mined for a lot of stories). As for humor, I like fish-out-of-water/unreliably-naive narrators, but that's also a well-mined vein. For instance, how many child narrators have walked in on people having sex and not understood it?

So, I'm left with a story that seems stuck in some well-worn grooves: an observer who doesn't get it watches a standard dysfunctional family.
« Last Edit: November 20, 2012, 11:06:30 AM by benjaminjb » Logged
chemistryguy
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« Reply #11 on: November 19, 2012, 07:26:47 AM »

You don't program anything like that. Robots don't need manuals, they don't need to consult them. They have programming, and the programming dictates behavior and responses. The manual should not exist, and the robot should not need to consult it.

I chose to think that Rosie had a level of cognizance that transcended ordinary programming.  She didn't just pick up cues and immediately act on them, but rather had an internal dialogue where she tried to decide on the best course of action.

I do think that the way terms were interchanged was a bit lazy on the part of the author and that much of the knowledge she had about humans was clumsy and inadequate.  But this robot sounds like she was programmed to process information in a top down method.  To write a manual on human behavior and all the reasons why they might deviate from any predictable patterns would fill a few libraries. I'd like to think that the "manual" provides some kind of reference and that her circuitry is flexible enough to allow for the changes that will undoubtedly occur. 
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Bdoomed
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« Reply #12 on: November 19, 2012, 02:13:04 PM »

Wow! I totally expected to come to this thread and see nothing but praise. Honest.

I absolutely loved this story! In fact, I listened to it twice just for the sheer joy of it! (Not in the same sitting)

It wasn't the perfect story, I was somewhat annoyed by Rosie's lack of associating Fredrick's "my sister" with Agatha being a girl, yet she understands "her" just fine.

It was clear that Rosie, and other housebots, were neither programmed nor built by humans. There is no way that could be the case. I don't want to think too much on who or what built Rosie and her kind, though. When the story started, I was thinking robot overlords, and I haven't fully lost that idea. I think it is still possible that Rosie is some sort of monitoring device.

I thought the story was super funny, I loved when Rosie asked Agatha if she had problems with her vision. As for the broken family bringing everyone down in this thread, I guess I just didn't really pay attention to the emotions behind all of that. I experienced the story through the detached eyes of Rosie, and the 'chanting' sessions were really quite amusing.

Sure, Rosie is a terrible robot for her purpose. Terribly programmed, woefully oblivious, and staggeringly uninformed, but why should we expect a robot to understand emotion? I don't think it's too farfetched to imagine that a robot would mistake shouting for chanting, tears for leakage, etc. We have so many subtle bodily cues to explain our inner emotional state that any manual or programming could easily mix up. Hell, we've all heard laughing that we've mistaken for crying (or vice-versa), or a cough mistaken for a sneeze, or a smile taken as genuine.

I have no idea where I'm going with this...

whatever. I LIKED IT! Cheesy

Oh, and Mur, the past two intros/outros, you've REALLY sounded down. Hope things get better for ya! (though I know you don't really look at the forums at all....)
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« Reply #13 on: November 20, 2012, 01:02:55 AM »

A friend of mine pointed out that they might as well have named Rosie "Amelia Bedelia", and it's true! That's exactly how Rosie seemed at times. Grin
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« Reply #14 on: November 20, 2012, 08:33:03 AM »

I'm with Bdoomed on this one. I came here expecting to see that everyone loved this, and instead I find . . . this.

I loved this story. Loved it. Absolutely. I didn't try to read anything deeper into it than just a poorly designed domestic robot trying to make sense of this broken family in the only way it can, and making some wildly inappropriate assumptions and interpretations. Sure, we can feel sorry for the family, but . . . every family has their dysfunctions. I was amused by Rosie's interpretations of things we intuitively understand through the rose-colored ocular receptors of the robot "mindset."

Also like Bdoomed, I thought it was clear from the get-go that Rosie was not programmed by humans. The biggest clue was the constant reference to the "removable outer skin."

but was thrown off by the references to fur rather than hair. If this robot is viewing this family from a logical, almost dictionary point of view, as the title, "The Care and Feeding of Mammalian Bipeds" suggests, then why would the robot so inaccurately associate hair with fur, when one of the defining features of mammals is the presence of hair rather than fur?

I think you're equating "mammal" here with "primate," but even so, I think we would say that gorillas, chimps, bonobos, etc. have fur rather than hair. It seems to be one of those peculiar conceits of our view of ourselves as somehow "above" the other animals that we refer to our fur as "hair" and their hair as "fur."

(Unless they're pets; we don't talk about cat or dog "fur" being all over everything, but their "hair.")

So . . . I guess I'll just go sit over there in the corner with Bdoomed.
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« Reply #15 on: November 20, 2012, 01:20:24 PM »

So . . . I guess I'll just go sit over there in the corner with Bdoomed.

BEST CORNER EVER.
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Max e^{i pi}
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« Reply #16 on: November 20, 2012, 03:59:58 PM »

So . . . I guess I'll just go sit over there in the corner with Bdoomed.

BEST CORNER EVER.
Hey, I got nothing against people who enjoy this story. I sort of wish that I could enjoy it too. But my analytic mind keeps getting in the way. I've mentioned before how inconsistencies within the defined world bother me a lot. This was just a case of far too many to overlook.
« Last Edit: November 21, 2012, 05:23:27 AM by Max e^{i pi} » Logged

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« Reply #17 on: November 21, 2012, 05:04:48 AM »

This one didn't do it for me. The premise, observations of a completely dysfunctional family by an outside, utterly clueless observer has been done many, many times. To make it worse, it ended up feeling pointless to me. There was no real plot, no real action and no real conclusion. They all hate each other in the beginning, the author reinforces that they all hate each other in the middle, and then they all hate each other in the end. We get it, they all hate each other. Now change something, make something happen, DO SOMETHING!

Also, was I the only one that thought a robot with as advanced thought capabilities as Rosie would probably be programmed with a better reference on human behavior? It seems like you would want your housekeeping droids to be able to tell the difference between fighting and laughing, happiness and sadness, pleasure and pain. Either that, or make them mindless servant droids.

But on a positive note, more readings by Christiana Ellis please  Smiley
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« Reply #18 on: November 21, 2012, 08:37:14 AM »

To my perception, many folks are making a classical mistake when interpreting Rosie's dialog.  I interpreted the story as being a 'pseudo code' representation of how a machine was perceiving a family, not an actual dialog by an artificially intelligent being.  The robot is not sophisticated enough to make conceptual leaps and spontaneous thoughts, it's an expert system that responds to very basic stimuli within pre-programmed parameters. 

Ever read a story where an animal is the narrator or main character for a while and the author provides a stream of consciousness dialog from it in human terms even though it's a normal animal?  Snow Crash, for example, has the 'rat thing' (a dog brain in a robot body that works as a security device) that describes things like "The girl was scared.  That made me upset, so I stopped the bad men." (paraphrasing from memory)  The rat thing, in that case, isn't actually speaking english, the author was describing the animal instincts and actions in human terms so we could understand.  To me, Rosie's dialog was the same thing; she's not actually sentient, she's a robot that's part Siri, part Roomba, part baby bottle. 

If you think of it as a human, then the social missteps and poor conclusions are frustrating.  If you apply the above model, however, to my opinion the story works well and I'll join the cool kids in the corner because I also very much enjoyed it.
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cDave
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« Reply #19 on: November 22, 2012, 07:14:46 AM »

Loved the. slightly discontiguous   reading of a robot voice. And the whole robotic prose inner-monologue was really fun.

Of course Rosie doesn't say "The Madison" when she speaks to "Madison", as that's not how to communicate with humans, but that doesn't mean that it's internal voice is like that.

To my perception, many folks are making a classical mistake when interpreting Rosie's dialog.  I interpreted the story as being a 'pseudo code' representation of how a machine was perceiving a family, not an actual dialog by an artificially intelligent being.  The robot is not sophisticated enough to make conceptual leaps and spontaneous thoughts, it's an expert system that responds to very basic stimuli within pre-programmed parameters. 

I think that makes the point more eloquently than I did.

--

Something that bothers me a little about the "robots as servants" meme, is that its essentially about creating a sentient being who wants to be enslaved. The whole manual bit seemed an interesting take on it. Create the robot with a subtly flawed knowledge of humans, so that its intellectual interest is maintained.

Or if you take the "mundane" approach for educating-not-programing AI's (e.g Charles Stross's Saturn's Children), then an AI raised by other AIs may well not understand Mammals fully.

I was hoping the story might be more about exploring that the dynamics of a family breakdown.

Oh Mur!  You had me geared up for a wacky, whimsical podcast.  Instead I was met with hostility, adultery, statutory rape and child neglect.

I was at a programme item at Novacon recently about short SF, and the panel mostly discussed specific stories, but briefly threw out a list of places to find it these days.

Personally, EscapePod got me back into SF shorts, from where I subscribed to Interzone to get British SF (but fell out again due not liking the more evocative, less concrete stuff), and have now been getting Asimov's & Anloge digitally for a year. But I've never really read any of the online only magazines.

I thought it would be interesting excersize to find or write tag lines for all of them, to get a feel for the sort of stories they publish.

EscapePod's submission guidelines is "in a more general sense we want that which evokes a sense of wonder, or fun, or simply makes us think about our own world in a new way."

I'm not sure that this story lives up to that.
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