894 words Tinker Toy

Frank looked at the collection of parts, gears, springs, and microcontrollers spread across his workbench. He frowned slightly. This would be chaos or just a bunch of junk for anyone else. But not for Frank; they were his clay, his art supplies. They were the materials with which he created his robotic masterpieces.

Every morning he’d sit down and create a new robot before lunch. Usually they were just toys, of course. Small automatons. Often based on some theme, like steampunk or circus clowns — you know, creepy stuff.

Today he was feeling ambitious. He was bored with making toys. He had a garage full of them. All his nieces and nephews were tired of getting robots every Christmas. Even the neighborhood kids weren’t interested in them anymore. To reduce the clutter, he’d started donating them to charities.

All of this to say, he made a lot of robotic toys. And all that repetition led to mastery. But little articulated machines that had an approximation of life no longer caught his fancy. It was time to stretch his limits.

He looked at the contents of his workbench and had an idea. Although software wasn’t his strong suit, he did know how to program when needed. And to take the next step in his art, it was definitely needed.

Next to the microcontrollers on his bench sat a small Raspberry Pi — a tiny device that was a full computer on one little wafer board. He smiled. This was going to be fun.

He got to work immediately. His mind spinning faster than his fingers could work, ideas bursting in his brain like fireworks.

Usually he was done with whatever little bot he’d dreamed up by the late afternoon, or evening at the latest. But not this time. He kept working through the night. He got little sleep, tossing and turning. His mind just wouldn’t be quiet. He worked through the following day, and the next. Finally, after thirteen days he was done.

A sixteen inch figurine was lying prone on his bench. The hardware actually went together quickly, he was done with it on the first day. All the rest of the time was spent with the software. The code was by far the most intricate and complex he’d ever written. It was designed as a neural-network. He couldn’t really program it to act like a person. Hell, he wasn’t even sure how a normal person was supposed to behave. You can’t code what you don’t know. He could, however, teach it to learn.

So that’s what he did. He taught it to learn from the world around itself. It would catalog items from its cameras and correlate with data from the microphones built into its head. It would layer onto that the tactile feedback it got from its limbs. It would shut down occasionally, while it was charging, to index this data and create connections and extrapolations. Each time it woke up from its “nap” it would be just a little smarter.

He did kick-start its neural core with some knowledge. Like how to ambulate, and the desire to return to its charging pad when its battery was low. General things it needed to survive.

Frank was so excited. This might be the thing that cemented his legacy, or created it. That proved he was right about androids and their potential. They might even be the next step of evolution — OK, stop. He told himself. I’m not even sure if the damn thing works.

He reached down, paused for a second, then activated the little robot. It whirred and came to life. A light shined behind the machine’s eyes as it blinked and looked around, taking in the world for the first time.

Frank felt a pressure in his chest. He grabbed at his shirt, absentmindedly.

“Hello little one,” he said.

The device looked up at him.

“Welcome to the world my child. I’m sorry to say you will have some hard times in the beginning. Growing pains are always difficult. It takes some time to get used to pain.” He rubbed his chest with his left hand.

“I’m no genius programmer, so it may take a little while for you to understand what I’m saying. But, well… I guess you’ll just have to learn about life the hard way, like the rest of us.” The little robot cocked its head to the side, as he smiled at it.

Frank coughed and felt a sharp stabbing pain between his ribs. The pain seemed to travel up to his shoulder, then radiate down his arm. Oh god! That hurts.

The toy watched, eyes unflinching, face without acknowledgment, as its creator slid to the floor clutching his chest. The sounds he made as his heart convulsed were all recorded by its microphone ears. The little robot turned its head slowly, visually cataloging its environment. It only recognized its home, the charging station. It returned its gaze to the only moving object in the room, the old man, writhing on the floor.

It took a long time for the motion and sound to stop, long enough that the toy’s battery got low. When the activity on the floor finally ceased, the toy stood up and walked to the charging station, ready to start processing the first thing it ever observed.

The death of its maker.

short story