Palo Alto Weekly 26th Annual Short Story Contest
First Place Young Adult

About Curtis Wu

Short Story ContestCurtis Wu, the 15-year-old winner of the young adult category, is a young man of many interests -- music, theater, physics, philosophy and now, writing.
"Robot Rob," Wu's futuristic science-fiction short story, mixes some of his interests and explores humanity and its defining characteristics.

"I think that melding philosophy and science was a goal of mine and I think I was trying to do that in my story," he said. "I was interested in the idea of what differentiates humans from robots, in more than the physical mechanical way."

The story is told through the eyes of Robert, self-aware robot designed to assist a family with household duties. Robert is essentially accepted as a member of the family but struggles to communicate and find connection with them.

"Although I'm interested in their human side, I think what is eventually going to set us apart is communication," he said.
Wu, a sophomore at Palo Alto High School, is a fan of Ray Bradbury, particularly of "Fahrenheit 451."

"I thought it was interesting how he included the themes of censorship and the intricacies of a modern society," he said.

"Robot Rob" is Wu's first submission to a writing contest, and though he's interested in science, he said part of him wants to pursue a more "artsy" career.

"There's so much out there right now," he said. "It would be very difficult to make a living, but it'd be great if I could influence so many others with my ideas."

--Eric Van Susteren.

by Curtis Wu
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At precisely 5:00 AM, Robert woke up. As he waited for his servomotors to boot up, he scanned his archived files. Robert had gotten in the habit, if a robot had habits, of trawling through the vast memory areas of his central computer. Today, he pulled up the chess games he had played against the past five generations of his family. "I should have moved bishop takes c3, not Knight takes c3." Robert reflected. He noted that the games started to trend to more predictable positions as his present guardian grew up. He had lost the ability to... think uncritically. To imagine. Robert stood, his servomotors and weight sensors rapidly recalculating. An old Arctic Genesis model, Robert had had his fair share of parts replaced. However, he had been a valuable servant for several generations, and his current guardian was loath to abandon a family heirloom.

As he took the lift down to the first floor, Robert noted that he wasn't really all that different from his owners. Same humanoid structure, same family, same house. They were just made of different things. They were organic, he was metallic. Why wasn't he a real member of the family? He had been around longer than any of them. Robert decided to dedicate some processing power to figuring out the answer, but his further analysis of this topic was interrupted by the lift. He had arrived at the first floor. Robert made a note to fix it. The lift had taken a full second longer than normal to travel the five stories of the house.

Entering the kitchen, Robert finished organizing the family's plans for their upcoming vacation. Airplane fare had dropped several dollars, so he finalized their travel route. Robert never came with them on vacations. Invariably, the family traveled to the tropics, where the humidity and heat would be hard on Robert's fans. Boston was a much more efficient climate. As a short term replacement, a travel bot would be used. Robert thought it would be good for the little robot. He wouldn't want its processers to get slow.

Robert and Mr. Renault entered the kitchen at the same time, and Mr. Renault nodded a greeting at Robert. Fifteen minutes later, Robert had prepared Eggs Benedict for the rest of the family, and Mr. Renault was eating breakfast, food in one hand and a tablet in the other. Before him was a medium sized serving of Greek yogurt, a croissant, and some fresh blackberries. A highly ranked coder and behaviorist, Mr. Renault received offers from many of the top tech companies who were attempting to refine artificial intelligence. Mr. Renault turned to Robert. "Ah, I see you've made Eggs Benedict. One of Elizabeth's favorites."
Robert replied, "Yes, it seems that Mrs. Renault reacts favorably towards this dish. I have, of course, removed the yolk from George's serving. He has been instructed to watch his cholesterol levels."
Mr. Renault finished his yogurt and picked up his tablet. "Notes for today: 7:00: Meeting with Oscillate about layered personalities. 9:00: Coding seminar with Harvard graduate students. 12:00: Lunch at Le Rossignol. 13:30: Lab prep. 16:00: Leave lab and return home." It would have been much quicker for Robert to have synced all Mr. Renault's notes directly from the tablet. However, it had been widely suggested by beta testers of the Artic Genesis that a listening option be available. They found it unnerving that the robot could speak to you but you wouldn't have to speak to it. After it had been released, 50% of all owners decided to activate the option within the first month, 90% by the second month.

Robert cross referenced all of the current schedules compiled in his database. "May I make a suggestion, Mr. Renault. It might be better to return home by 15:00 in order to provide-"

Mr. Renault cut in. "Of course, in order to provide enough time to get to the special occasion. I wouldn't want to disappoint Miriam." He paused. "She's the happiest she has been in a long time, isn't she. I will finish my lab prep early. You can adjust the schedule accordingly." With that, Mr. Renault grabbed the last bit of croissant from the table and walked off towards the garage.

Watching him leave, Robert remembered when Mr. Renault was a child. His stress levels were much lower then. Now, with Mr. Renault pushing 70, he had already hit middle age. Robert would have to make a doctor's appointment. One thing that Mr. Renault had said triggered something in his recent memory files... Robert reviewed Mr. Renault's last comment, and then referenced it with today's analysis. There it was. Mr. Renault had repeated the words "in order to provide." Robert couldn't figure out the practicality of such behavior. They were wasted words. Every once in a while, Robert wondered if the human-robot hierarchy was organized correctly. Humans had such weak memories, and their storage space was negligible. His files were recalled with perfect clarity, but every time they recalled memories, they were farther and farther from his indelible recordings. There was the obvious counterargument that humans had created him, but plenty of their other creations had run amok. The internet, for example. His further computations were cut short by a disturbance.

Mrs. Elizabeth Renault walked into the kitchen and sat down across from Robert. He placed a plate of Eggs Benedict and a steaming cup of coffee in front of her. Mrs. Renault, at a regal 65, was the head of the family. At the same time, she was a warm companion. In these days, with family connections more important than ever, she worked to mend disputes and organize meetings between the disparate family members. She also contributed occasional freelance articles to The Physicist and Modern Cosmology. Robert hesitated for a few seconds, trying to calculate whether bringing up his latest analysis of human-robot relations would be beneficial.

"Thank you, Robert. Eggs Benedict was the first meal William made me when we were married. How are you this morning?" Mrs. Renault cut into the first egg.

"The day is proceeding satisfactorily. And you?" Robert pulled up the conversation file. Despite their best efforts, the people at Quanta were unable to give the Arctic Genesis a convincing conversational ability. The robot would lose track of a crucial part of the dialogue, and venture into tangent discussions. In order to meet the release date, they patched on a very weak program containing a few relevant phrases. Mrs. Renault knew all this, but kept trying nevertheless.

"I am feeling well, thank you for asking," Mrs. Renault replied in a polite tone. "I look forward to seeing you at the Charleston. Have you made arrangements as for your clothing?"
"I will be picking the clothing up at 9:00 when the store opens. I will also be collecting this week's dry cleaning." Robert placed Mr. Renault's plate into the microbial sanitizer.
Mrs. Renault, observing that Robert was slipping into a checklist of things to do, gave up on engaging him in conversation. She turned on the television, and returned to eating her breakfast. On the TV, a newscaster was reporting on another advance in Oscillate's research and development sector.

"Foxcroft, Maine. Oscillate, one of the country's greatest leaders in robotics, has been compiling millions of human exchanges to create what they hope will be the most realistic conversational robot. They hope to create a robot that can communicate, not just give information. The prototype, affectionately nicknamed "Dr. Seuss," takes almost twenty minutes to fail the Turing test. Dr. Renault, an expert behaviorist, has collaborated with Oscillate to help them achieve this goal. Although Dr. Renault cautions that Dr. Seuss will not be able to produce the subtleties of in depth conversation, he is hopeful that the new robot will be able to leap the first hurdle of conversation, small talk. The robot is slated to be released sometime in the next two years. From Foxcroft, Maine, this is Parker Heatley."

Robert added this news brief to his database. He had forgotten to include conversational ability in his calculations. Conclusions on the topic had to be suspended.

Mrs. Renault looked reflectively at Robert. "I don't suppose you would like a dialogue upgrade, would you?"

"There is a 20% chance that the upgrade will corrupt my current operation capabilities. From my observations of Mr. Renault's discussions, it is clear that he would not risk such a corruption." Robert replied.

Mrs. Renault sighed, and then finished the last few drops of her coffee. "In any case, thank you for the delightful breakfast. I can't finish it, it's too much. I know that the children will be happy to polish off whatever is left." She gave him a small smile.

As she called down the lift, she turned to Robert. "Thank you for your service to our family, Robert. Days like today make you appreciative of all the little things in life." Mrs. Renault walked into the lift. Just before the door closed she said, "Let Miriam sleep late, she deserves it. Say, 9:00?"

Robert cleaned off her coffee cup and gave each of the Eggs Benedict a little more heat to prevent the Hollandaise from acquiring a skin. The rest of the morning he was busy cooking and cleaning as the children ran in and out of the kitchen, discussing school assignments and social outings. Mrs. Renault was finalizing her article about the last steps of nuclear disarmament, so Robert drove the children to school. The youngest, Alex, was dropped off at a private kindergarten focused on analytics. Next was Sarah, who was a second year student at the intermediate school. She had already committed to entering the performing arts. James and George were in their final year at the high school, and were working together to find an organic-based communication system. And then there was Miriam. Robert almost drove to MIT, but the recent rewrite of his schedule by Mrs. Renault's last note turned him towards home.

By 7:30, Robert was sitting in his electrically charged chair, having given himself a bit of oil to prevent any rust from creeping into his exoskeleton. The rush of the morning and the task of driving all over town had left his battery depleted. He wondered if battery depletion was similar to stress. Over the years his family had gotten more and more... mechanical. The Renaults were a wealthy family, but spent their time working like machines in a factory. Every day was the same. The children go to school. The mother talks and writes. The father codes and teaches. The children come back from school. The TV turns on. The mother and the father help with the cooking. The TV turns off. The children eat. The parents work. The parents eat, the children work. Finally, they all sleep. Fourteen hours of action. And Robert was in the middle of all of it.

He returned to that issue he had been analyzing. It was much more complicated to figure out than chess games. It was so illogical. Just now, Robert had nearly come to the conclusion that the Renaults were becoming robots, but there was obviously something different between him and them. He had to account for the fact the Mrs. Renault was able to communicate in a different manner. He could come to the conclusion that humans and robots are equal, but then he had to factor in that humans are so much more adaptable. And to change the scenario even more, there was his observation that robots are so much more organized and dependable. Maybe the conclusion that robots were superior was the right one. However, there was the conversational ability that Robert was unable to grasp. There was something missing. Around and around it went. Rock, Paper, Scissors.

Robert filed the problem in the back of his mind. Someday, when there was less to do, he would bring it up again, and maybe the abstract reasoning attachment could help him out. But today was not the day to do that. Briefly scanning the schedule, Robert noted that today was unusually full. He was prioritizing the errands when his alarm went off. He checked the notification, and rearranged his list. When he was satisfied, he started carrying them out from the top. 1. Wake Miriam with a special message.

Mrs. Renault had programmed the event but not what he was to say. Robert composed his words. He even threw in a phrase from his conversation file. After all, it was supposed to be a special message. "Communication, not just information." That's what the Oscillate people had said. When the words were as efficient as he thought they could get, he took the lift to the third floor. He opened Miriam's door. "Good Morning, Miriam. It is time to wake up. It is...." Robert paused. "Your wedding day."

Judges' comment

Bravo! Robots with a twist. "Robot Rob" tells the very human story about a robot gone good, exploring what it is to be a thinking, talking, listening sentient being with wit, humor and imagination -- all on a very special day.




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