"A.I. Winslow will be the best friend your child has ever had; he'll never get bored, angry or sad, he'll never intentionally hurt your child's feelings or go off to play with other kids instead. He'll always be just what your child needs," Dr. Johnson said.
"That's quite a spiel," Joan said. "You missed your calling; you should've been in marketing."
Johnson gave her a self-conscious grin. "I'm just very proud of this toy. We put in a great deal of work, and there's nothing else like it on the market."
They were sitting in a sound-proofed office above the factory floor of the Winslow plant. Johnson, whose white lab-coat offset the unruly mass of black hair on his head, was attempting to make small talk while the printer printed out her receipt. Joan wondered why every machine that printed receipts seemed to use a line printer from the old days instead of an inkjet or laser printer.
Johnson tore the receipt off and placed it in front of her. Joan felt queasy when she looked at the total at the bottom. It was more than she was comfortable spending, but she and Walter had decided that Frank was going to get his wish and get a Winslow doll for his birthday. Recent events weren't going to change that; normality had to resume at some point.
She signed the bottom of the receipt and handed it back to Johnson. He passed his eyes over it quickly and smiled.
"Everything seems to be in order. Let's go down to the warehouse, and you can take him home."
Joan's eyes widened. "Wait a second, aren't there are some questionnaires we need to fill out? And doesn't our son need to interview with a child psychologist? My boss got his daughter one last year, and he said they were at the plant all day."
"That was the last generation; we've improved it significantly since then. AI Winslow now makes use of machine learning. That way he can grow along with your child; and there's no longer a need to bring him in twice a year for adjustments to his program," Johnson said.
He motioned for her to follow. They went down to the factory floor; the vast space was filled with the roar of machinery. They strode across the cement floor to the elevator. Through a gap in the machinery Joan saw an assembly belt which had doll torsos covered in purple fur rolling along it.
The warehouse was much quieter, the only sound being the far-off hum of forklift engines. Johnson led her to an identical room to the one where she signed the contracts. In the middle of the table was a black platform; she recognized it is an induction charger similar to the one she had for her laptop. Standing on it was a doll; it had a human shape and was about three feet tall, but was covered in shaggy purple fur, it had googly unblinking eyes.
Johnson took a small gray device from an envelope on the table and handed it to Joan. "This is the kill switch; this will allow you to turn him on and off. We suggest you never turn him off; Winslow knows when he's low on power and will recharge on his own; he'll tell your son he needs to sleep. So... turn him on."
Joan looked down at the control; she pressed the "on" button and a green led glowed at the top of the device. Suddenly the doll stood up straight; the iris of his eyes shifted to look at Johnson
"Good morning, Winslow," Johnson said.
"Good morning, Doctor Johnson," the doll said, in the same soft voice he used in the cartoons.
"This is Joan Miller. She's going to take you home to meet your new friend," Johnson said.
Winslow walked toward Joan and waved with one of his purple hands. "Hello! Winslow is happy to meet you!"
"That's very impressive," Joan said to Johnson.
"Return the greeting," Johnson said. "You should get used to treating him as a real person."
Joan rolled her eyes, but crouched down so she was at eye-level with the doll.
"Hello, Winslow. Are you ready for me to take you home?" Joan said.
"Yes, Ms. Johnson. I'm really excited about meeting my new friend; what is their name?"
"His name is Frank," Joan said. She still felt ridiculous. "And I'm sure he'll be very happy to meet you too.
"Okay, let's go home," Joan said. She pressed the power button on the kill switch, and Winslow felt limp.
"Awww, don't you want to talk to him on the ride home?" Johnson said with a smirk.
Joan's only reply was a grimace.
Johnson reached inside his labcoat and came out with a business card. "If you have any problems, or questions about Winslow, don't hesitate to give me a call; any time of day or night."
Joan looked at the card in bemusement. He knew about their family situation, it had been on the initial questionnaire. Was he hitting on a newly minted widow?
. "Oh no no, I don't mean it that way," Johnson said, his brow suddenly gleaming with sweat. "I'm in charge of the team that added machine learning to Winslow. It's still in the early stages of release, and we'd like as much feedback as possible. I didn't mean anything else."
"Oh, I see," Joan said, taking the card from him. "I'll make sure to let you know if we have any problems."
Johnson let out an embarrassed sigh. "Thank you; I hope you enjoy our product."
How quickly the dead are dealt with, Joan thought as she drove home that morning. Jim's accident had been on a Thursday morning, and they'd lowered him into the ground the following Monday. Barely a month later, she and Frank were on the other side of the country, and she had a new job.
It was paradoxical that she felt so out of place in the place where she'd grown up; she knew the roads she was driving better than the back of her own hand. She even passed her old grade school on the way home; but everything felt so alien to her.
When Joan got home she found Elsa sitting on the couch, playing with her phone.
"Is he still asleep?" Joan asked.
Elsa looked up with eyes that were the same shade of blue as Joan's own.
"Yeah, he must be pretty tuckered out. I used to get up at the crack of dawn when I was his age," Elsa said, she got up from the coach and helped Joan get the bulky cardboard box onto the kitchen counter.
Elsa made a mock pouty face as she looked at the fuzzy doll that Joan pulled out of the box. "I guess he's going to have a new playmate. I guess you won't need me to babysit anymore."
"Oh, I wouldn't worry about that. You've got nine years on lavender here; it'll probably be a couple of months before he forgets you," Joan said, playing along.
Joan doubted that anyone would ever talk Elsa's place in Frank's heart. The first time she had seen him smile after Jim's death was when he saw his aunt again for the first time in two years.
Elsa smirked. "Well, I'm still the one he'll have to go to when he needs cigarettes; and in three months I'll be able to get booze too."
Joan placed Winslow on the floor and took out the kill-switch. She pressed the power buttons and Winslow came to life. She walked in front of him, and kneeled down so they were at eye level.
"Follow me, Winslow," Joan said.
"All right!" he replied in his chipper voice.
As Joan stood up she noticed an uneasy frown on Elsa's face. She turned around and walked into Frank's room. In his sleep he had kicked off the comforter and sheets and was lying almost diagonally across the bed. Joan sat down on the bed and nudged his shoulder.
"Frank? Wake up, dear. I'd like you to meet a new friend," Joan said.
Frank came around and sat up, rubbing his eyes. "What? Friend? What are you talking about?"
"Winslow, this is Frank, you're going to be very good friends," Joan said; she still felt like an idiot for treating this doll as a real person.
Frank exclaimed as he saw the purple doll, he leapt out of bed and ran over to it; he swept it up in its arms and gave it a hug.
Winslow laughed. "Ha ha, Winslow loves you too, Frank!"
Frank spun around to face his mother. "This is awesome, thank you mom!"
Joan felt exhilarated; it was only the second time he'd seen him smile since Jim had died. She was surprised to feel herself grinning, and she knew that this purchase hadn't been a mistake.
Joan was woken out of a sound sleep by her son's screams. She leapt from the bed without even thinking.
As soon as she reached Frank's room, she flicked the light switch and the room flooded with light. She squinted against the sudden brightness; an image of her son sitting up on his bed with a terrified look was burned into her retina after she blinked.
When she opened his eyes again, she saw that Winslow was lying crookedly against the wall.
"What is it?" Joan said. "What happened?"
"Something was crawling on me," Frank gasped. "I didn't know it was you, Winslow."
"I wanted to play," Winslow said.
Winslow up-righted himself; Joan found the motion uncannily human.
"I'm sorry Winslow, you scared me," Frank gasped.
Half-an-hour later Winslow sat lifelessly on the kitchen table. After Joan had gotten her son to go back to sleep, she coaxed Winslow out of the room and deactivated him with the kill-switch.
Joan called the number on Dr. Johnson's card; he answered after the first ring and didn't sound the least bit annoyed or groggy.
"Did you tell him to sleep until morning?" Johnson said after Joan explained what had happened.
"We assumed he would know to do that; it's only common sense!" Joan said.
An audible grumble came through the phone. "Even with a fully depleted battery, Winslow will only take three hours to recharge. You need to tell him to sleep until your son wakes up."
"I repeat: he should have already known that!" Joan said.
"Look, machine learning is completely useless if you don't provide input or feedback. Winslow is heuristic, he isn't psychic," Henry said.
"Heuristic? What's that mean?" Joan said.
There was more grumbling on the other end of the line; Joan was pretty sure she heard the word "moron".
"Look, reactivate Winslow and tell him why what he did was wrong. Treat him like another child; he won't know the correct thing to do unless you tell him," Johnson said.
Joan felt her blood run cold. "Are you saying that it could hurt my son if we didn't tell it not to?"
"No, there are safety protocols in place to make sure it can't hurt a living creature. However we felt Winslow would be more natural if it learned its behavior patterns directly from the people it interacts with," Johnson said. "The previous generation, which we primed at the factory, was extremely obtuse and kept making the same mistakes."
After hanging up, Joan took out the kill-switch and turned Winslow back on. The pupils in Winslow's bug-eyes swiveled to meet hers, and he sat up.
"Hello!" Winslow said in his soft voice.
"Winslow, you did something wrong, and you scared Frank," Joan said.
"Winslow's sorry; what did I do?" Winslow asked.
"When you go to sleep at night, you're to sleep until morning; even if you don't feel like you need it, okay?" Joan said.
"All right," Winslow said.
"You are not to wake up Frank, only myself or Elsa is allowed to do that," Joan said.
"Okay," Winslow said.
Suddenly inspiration struck. "And you aren't to move around in the dark. If you find yourself in the dark, stay where you are and ask someone to turn on the light once they enter the room. Okay?"
"Winslow understands," Winslow said.
Joan let out a long sigh. "All right, go back to your recharging station."
Winslow nodded and jumped down from the table and plodded towards Frank's room. Joan let out a sigh; she couldn't believe she just gave a stern talking-to to a doll.
During the early afternoon of an unusually cool August afternoon, Frank burst through the front door on the verge of tears. Joan tore herself away from her electronic ledgers and ran over to him.
"Frank, what is it? What happened?" Joan said, checking him all over for bruises or cuts.
"I, I... I don't want to talk about it," Frank said.
Joan felt a lurch in her stomach, a strange sort of guilt. Right after Jim had died, Frank had discovered that if he cried in front of her, she'd start crying as well. Since there is nothing in life more horrible than seeing one's mother cry, Frank had started to hold in his sorrow.
"It's all right, you can tell me, are you hurt?" Joan said.
Frank shook his head, the lamplight reflected off his glistening eyes. "There were some kids in the park, and they were playing baseball... And I asked them if I could play..."
"And they wouldn't let you?" Joan said.
"No, they let me play, but when it was my turn to bat, I knocked the ball onto the top of that concrete thing, and they starting yelling at me, and told me to go home," Frank said. A single tear managed to escape his left eye and roll down his cheek.
"Oh honey, it's all right, they just-" Joan started.
Frank shook his head and ran past her, down the hallway into his room, slamming the door after him. Joan let out a long sigh. Perhaps he was getting too old to be mothered; but he'd had to put up with so much these last few months.
Joan went back to her spreadsheets, but she kept getting distracted. She needed to let him simmer down before talking to him again, but it made her heart ache to think of him having to face all those horrible thoughts alone.
She had finally managed to concentrate on her work when her train of thought was disrupted by laughter. She looked up in shock at the sound of Frank laughing hysterically. The pessimist in her wondered if he'd suffered a psychotic break; she shook her head as if that would free the unpleasant thought from her mind.
She forced herself to walk calmly to Frank's room, and quietly opened the door. Frank was sitting at his desk with Winslow; they were playing Connect Four.
"And this one time," Winslow said. "Winslow stayed in a room that was so small, that I had to go outside to change my mind."
Frank responded with another peal of laughter.
Joan felt her skin prickle as Winslow deftly picked up one of the checkers and dropped it into the board. Winslow could never be mistaken for a human being, but sometimes the way he moved was uncannily human.
Joan silently closed the door and walked back to the kitchen table. She couldn't believe what she was feeling; was she jealous of a machine? The thought of that... upholstered toaster comforting her child made her... furious.
She saw that her hands had become clenched into fists; she unclenched them and took a deep breath. It didn't matter; this was good, in fact. Frank was happy, that was all that mattered.
After a few minutes of trying to concentrate on her work, she went to a video site and watched some videos of Winslow dolls getting smashed up, burnt, and blown apart. It made her feel quite a bit better.
August ended, and with September both Frank and Elsa returned to school. Even though they no longer saw her during the week, Elsa still babysat Frank whenever Joan had a work function to attend.
The idea of social functions brought an unwelcome thought to Joan's mind; was she going to have to start dating again? She supposed she should, she was only 29. But the very idea made bile back up into her throat. She'd gone through a lot of hurt feelings (her own and others) and rejection to finally find Jim. She didn't look forward to going through that again.
Joan was revisiting this particular debate when she came home and found Elsa completely weirded out. It took a while to worm the details out of her.
"Well, Frank was taking his bath, and I had this survey I need to do for my psych class, and I was bored, so I decided to try it on Winslow," Elsa said.
"You wanted to play with him, eh?" Joan said with a smile.
"Of course not!" Elsa said, a little too convincingly. "Well, okay, maybe a little. Anyway, the question I asked him is whether he would rather have 4/5ths of a pie, or 80% of it. After asking what kind of pie it was, he told me he'd take 4/5s instead."
"Wait, that can't be right; a computer wouldn't make a mathematical error like that," Joan said.
"Now you understand why I'm so worried!" Elsa said.
"Surprised, I wouldn't say worried," Joan said. She rubbed her chin. "That is rather strange, though..."
"You know there's this rumor going around at school that all the AI Winslow dolls are actually controlled remotely by guys sitting in cubicles in China. They say the Winslow Heuristics guys decided that it would cost less to pay their slave wages than to spend years and millions of dollars to develop a working Artificial Intelligence for the dolls," Elsa said, her eyes wide.
Joan let out a sigh. "This is the roomba all over again."
Elsa stiffened, she glared at her sister. "This is completely different! I was only six back then! Besides, didn't it freak you out, the way that it moved around? Didn't you ever look at it and wonder what it was thinking?" Elsa said.
"You used to keep a bucket of water next to your bed because you thought it was going to kill you in your sleep!" Joan said.
"Yeah, that was stupid. I should've known that it was waterproof. Anyway, we're talking about that doll. Don't you think you should-I don't know-report it?" Elsa said.
"To who?" Joan said, laughing. "Should I call up the local police station and ask to speak to the head of the Blade Runner unit?"
"What about someone at WH? Didn't you say that engineer gave you his card?" Elsa said.
"Well, I suppose I could e-mail him about it, if it'll stop you from shoving Winslow into the garbage compactor," Joan said.
After shooting off the e-mail, Joan and Elsa made dinner. As usual Frank asked if Winslow could join them; Joan made her usual joke about there not being batteries on the menu.
After Elsa went home to study, Joan went back to her laptop to catch up on some work. She found that Dr. Johnson had already returned her e-mail.
It's a feature, not a bug! :) I'm actually glad to hear this, we didn't try that particular problem during testing, but it's nice to see that Winslow's AS (Artificial Stupidity) algorithms are working correctly.
If you've seen the cartoon, you'll remember that Winslow wasn't exactly the sharpest crayon in the box. So we thought it would ruin the experience if the robotic Winslow seemed too smart, so we spent a considerable amount of time writing exception cases into his code where he'll intentionally make the wrong choice, or return the wrong answer.
We're sorry if this caused you any duress. Winslow may seem a little too human at some times, but I coded most of his behavior. Trust me, what's going on in his head doesn't even remotely resemble the way a human mind works.
Please let me know if you have any other problems,
Chief Software Architect - Machine Learning Division
After two weeks of school, Frank started coming home with bruises. He refused to tell Joan where they'd come from. Although the idea of another kid beating on her son infuriated her, she remembered what Jim had used to say about boys being boys.
It was when Frank came home with a cut lip that Joan decided she'd had enough. The next time she picked Frank up from school, she told him to play on the playground while he talked to the principal. Frank scowled and mumbled something in response.
Joan was a little miffed; she had expected Frank to be scared. Frank had his share of dark moods since Jim's death, but this was the first real personality change Joan had seen in him.
The principal was a young woman by the name of Ladli Nath; she saw Joan immediately, and informed her that she'd been planning to contact her soon anyway.
"Since almost your son's first day here, he's been exhibiting anti-social behavior," Ladli said.
Joan ground her teeth a little; she thought a principal would know better than to use that word in this situation. "You mean asocial, of course."
Ladli gave her a hard stare. "No, I don't. Although Frank has not used physical violence against any of the other students, he has verbally and emotionally abused many of them."
Joan was at a loss for words; in what parallel universe did Frank behave like that?
"That isn't right; Frank's never had problems in school before; certainly not something like this!" Joan said.
Ladli nodded. "Yes, I checked his records to see if there were any previous discipline problems. I think that this may be a negative coping mechanism Frank is using to deal with the loss of his father. It's for that reason that the teachers and I have not punished him; however, the other parent's have begun to complain, and we have decided that he must start serving detention time after school for the next two weeks."
"You said emotional and verbal abuse, what exactly are we talking about?" Joan said.
"There is one girl in his class who is slightly overweight. He constantly refers to her as Miss Piggy, and does an imitation of Kermit's voice whenever he talks to her.
"There is another child whose parents are undergoing a divorce, and Frank asked if they were going to split him in half so each of his parents could have equal shares."
Joan's mouth hung open; she stared at the principal, horrified.
"I'm sorry to say, Mrs. Miller, that your son is very adept at cruelty. He has managed to anger most of his class, and many of them have resorted to violence to allay their hurt feelings," Ladli said.
"Thankfully at this age things are quickly forgotten, and as long as Frank gets help, and apologizes, I think he'll eventually be accepted by the other students," Ladli said.
"Help? You mean... therapy?" Joan said.
"I suppose the problem could resolve itself over the course of time; but your son- and the other students-shouldn't have to go through that. I think taking him to a therapist would be for the best," Ladli said.
They didn't talk at all on the ride home. Joan alternated between flying into a rage and bursting into tears. She couldn't believe her son would act that way; but at the same time, who were those pinheads at the school to stand in judgment of her son? Had any of them lost their fathers at such a young age?
Though she supposed that didn't forgive what he did. What could have possibly caused Frank to become such a bad seed?
When they got home Frank made like a shot for his bedroom, but Joan grabbed the hood of his sweatshirt and pulled him into the living room.
"Sit down," she said. "It's time we had a talk."
Frank scowled and threw himself onto the couch.
"What's going on at school? The principal says you've been bullying the other kids," Joan said.
"They're the ones who are bullying me!" Frank said. "I'm the one who's getting beaten up!"
"The bully is the one who starts the fight," Joan said. "Why are you insulting everyone?"
"Everyone at this school is a bunch of jerks," Frank said. "They're just mad that I tell them so."
That didn't seem at all like Frank, Joan thought. He was usually so friendly. "Why do you say they're jerks?"
"On the first day, during recess, I wanted to play tag; but all the boys wanted to play stupid football instead. So at lunch I called one of the team captains a meathead, and he punched me," Joan said.
"Wait a second, Frank, you've played football before at recess," Joan said.
"Yeah, but I didn't like it. Why should I always have to do what other people want to do," Frank said. "Why can't they do what I want for a change?"
"Having friends means that sometimes you have to do things you don't want to," Joan said.
"Winslow always does what I want to do!" Frank said.
Joan looked at him cockeyed. "Winslow's a machine; people aren't like that."
"Winslow's the best friend I've ever had. Why should I have to be friends with those dickheads?" Frank said.
"Language!" Joan yelled. "And Winslow is only your friend because he was programmed that way. You need to respect real people and treat them decently if you want them to like you!"
"Screw you!" Frank yelled. "Winslow never criticizes me! He loves me more than you ever did!"
Joan should've been angry, but it was at that moment that she realized that she was not dealing with a rational person. Walter seemed to truly believe that Winslow was a real person.
"Go to your room!" Joan said. Then she realized that might just make things worse. "And send Winslow out here, I want to talk to him."
Frank walked on his heels to his bedroom. A short while later Winslow sauntered out. "You wanted Winslow?"
"Go stand in the corner," Joan said, as she searched through her wallet for the business card Dr. Johnson had given her.
"Which corner?" Winslow said.
"Pick one," Joan said with a sigh, not looking up.
Winslow walked to the right corner by the window, and then turned around to face her.
"Face the wall!" Joan said. Dr. Johnson had been right; it was like having two kids.
Dr. Johnson had been away when Joan called, but his secretary made an appointment for her to see him the next morning. The same secretary showed her to Dr. Johnson's empty office the next morning.
The term office, however, didn't seem to apply. Rather than a desk, there were several work benches set up horizontally to each other. The walls were lined with shelves and racks filled with electrical components and gadgets that Joan could only guess at the purpose of.
There was a single whiteboard near the window; on it was drawn a diagram of a small metal doll, which was labeled "Winslow AI Exoskeleton". There were notes for several additions, which included what appeared to be cameras and light sensors.
In a bottom corner of the whiteboard was a brief description of the project: the doll would only move when no one was looking at it. In red letters beneath the description was "Creeper Winslow".
She heard an uncomfortable cough from behind her; she turned and saw Dr. Johnson. His hair was mussed and there was a thin layer of grease on his forehead. Joan guessed he had been there all night.
"I forgot about that diagram. You'll have to sign a non-disclosure agreement when you leave," Dr. Johnson said.
"Who the hell would want something like this?!" Joan said.
"Are you kidding? Children love horror; remember the Goosebumps books, and the boat ride from Willy Wonka?" Dr. Johnson said.
Joan felt nauseated, but all she could do was stare.
Dr. Johnson sat down at one of the benches which had a laptop and several tablets strewn across it. He motioned to a stool across the bench from him.
"It's just an idea, it probably won't get past marketing or legal. However we try to follow all paths a little since it usually leads into interesting side-applications," Dr. Johnson said. "So what was it you wanted to talk to me about?"
Joan explained what had happened with Frank. Dr. Johnson listened in silence, never interrupting and never asking any questions. After she finished they both sat in silence for several moments.
Dr. Johnson cleared his throat. "I sympathize with your situation, Mrs. Miller. However I'm not sure why you're telling me about this."
"It's your robot that has been causing the problem," Joan said.
"Now really Mrs. Miller, if your son would rather have a doll for a best friend instead of other children, I think that's your problem," Dr. Johnson said.
It took a few seconds for Joan to collect herself enough to reply. She couldn't believe he had the nerve to place the blame for this on her. "This isn't some G.I. Joe action figure we're talking about here. This is a doll that can act like a real person. Frankly I think you and your company are completely responsible for what happened."
Dr. Johnson narrowed his eyes and interlaced his figures. "In that case, I'm afraid I can't say anything more without a lawyer present."
"Do you people have any conscience at all?" Joan said, her voice echoing in the confined space.
Dr. Johnson said nothing, but walked to the door and opened it. He stared at her expectantly.
Joan was seething as she stood in the elevator. She couldn't remember being so angry. She had felt this helpless when Jim had died, but she hadn't felt rage. Perhaps this was different because there was someone who was clearly at fault.
She suspected she'd have to decide what to do; but she was so angry that she didn't want to think about it. She could only replay the conversation with Dr. Johnson in her head; and she got angrier with each iteration.
Just as her hand grabbed a handle on the twin glass doors, she heard someone calling her name.
"Are you Mrs. Miller?" the security guard said. Joan replied in the affirmative. "You have a call," she said, holding up a phone receiver.
"Hello?" Joan said, feeling stupid.
"Mrs. Miller," Dr. Johnson's voice said. "It's important for you to understand… I was the lead on the incorporation of machine learning into Winslow. They pulled me out of a think-tank in Silicon Valley to work here. So if A.I. Winslow is responsible for what has happened… I won't just lose my job, there's a chance I'll never work again; certainly not in the private sector."
Joan bit back several caustic replies; it wasn't difficult, since her rage was quickly abating into confusion. Why could Dr. Johnson possibly be trying to say to her?
"If my programming is responsible, I need to make this right. Come on back up, I'll bring in one of our child psychologist's. Hopefully there's something we can do for Frank."
Dr. Carlson was a stout woman in her fifties, who hair had already turned completely white. As Joan explained the situation to her, she decided that she liked Dr. Carlson. She was kind and sympathetic; she's what Joan imagined a grandmother should be like.
"It's not unusual for a child to become attached to a toy, though it is a bit unusual for someone of Frank's age. I think this combined with what Frank assumes is unconditional love from the Winslow toy would create a very strong connection between them," Dr. Carlson said.
"But why haven't we seen this before?" Dr. Johnson said. "There are over a thousand A.I. Winslows out there, and this is the first we've heard about something like this."
"I suspect it's because of the recent shock of his father's death that he has become so devoted to the toy," Dr. Carlson said. "Otherwise it would be very difficult to a child to form an emotional connection with a toy that has such limited social skills."
"Even though we say that A.I. Winslow is a child's best friend, the truth is that it's only a really clever toy. They'll get tired of it eventually," Dr. Johnson said.
"That's correct; the ability of A.I. Winslow to adapt is actually quite limited, with all due respect to Henry," Dr. Carlson said.
"No offense taken," Dr. Johnson said.
"But what he does give—unconditional love—is something which Frank needs right now. I think that allows him to overlook all the other faults in his behavioral programming," Dr. Johnson said.
"So you're suggesting we program him to be more like someone Frank's age? Maybe add code which will have him be in a bad mood?" Dr. Johnson said. He took an engineer's notepad off the desk and started to scribble notes.
"I don't think that's necessary; I believe the programming is sufficient for dealing with children in most situations; they would eventually figure out that Winslow doesn't have a real personality, and is just a toy," Dr. Carlson said. "I suspect that Frank realizes this at some level, but he doesn't want to lose the security of this imagined relationship."
"So you're suggesting I just wait?" Joan said.
"Having him see a therapist would help him wean himself off the toy," Dr. Carlson said. "That might be for the best."
"Or you could just restore him to factory settings," Dr. Johnson said.
Dr. Carlson shot him a sharp glare. Dr. Johnson glared back definitely.
"Wait, what?" Joan said.
"You know that kill switch remote I gave you? If you open up the battery compartment, there's a small hole with a red button in it. If you press that with a toothpick or a needle, it will erase all of the changes that Winslow made to his programming to accommodate Frank. It will restore the original programming. To Frank, it will be as if they never met," Dr. Johnson said.
"That could be very traumatizing," Dr. Carlson said.
"It's like ripping off a band-aid. He's eventually going to have to face the truth; no need to prolong it," Dr. Johnson said.
Dr. Carlson let out a long sigh. "Although I would prefer to ease Frank out of his fixation, I don't think Henry's method would do any long term damage. Frank will probably be inconsolable for a couple of days, and he might continue to resent you for a long time. However he should recover quickly."
"I can't do that to him," Joan said. "He's already faced more than any boy should face this year; I'm not going to add to his troubles."
Dr. Carlson nodded. "I'll give you the name of some good child psychologists then."
Joan didn't have any luck making an appointment. She called the office of every psychologist on the list, and the earliest any of them could see them wasn't for a month. Joan picked the one whose picture on their webpage looked the least like a creep and made an appointment for the last week of October.
Frank began serving detention at school, and Joan gave him a good scolding whenever he got in trouble. Eventually the calls from Ladli Nath stopped: though Joan hoped it was because Frank stopped cutting up and not that Ladli and his teacher had given up on him.
His disposition only got worse though. Joan at least had the sense not to scold him about not being happy. She'd had enough of that contrary logic from her parents growing up and refused to pay it forward.
The only thing that managed to bring Frank out of his dark mood was playing with Winslow; which both relieved and worried Joan. The appointment with the psychologist couldn't come quickly enough for her.
On the Friday of that long week a thunderstorm rolled in just after they had both gone to bed. The pattering sound of the rain and the rumble of the thunder made Joan wistful. She remembered those nights when she and Jim would lay in each other's arms and listen to a storm raging outside. She was rubbing her eyes with the sleeve of her nightgown when she heard the door to her room creak open.
"Mommy?" Frank's voice said; he sounded scared.
Joan sat up. "Frank, are you all right?"
There was a sudden rumble of thunder, and she heard a gasp and sobbing from the doorway.
"Ohh! Come here!" Joan said, holding out her arms. Frank ran into them, and Joan gave him a tight hug.
"Can I sleep in here tonight?" Frank said between sobs.
"Shhh, yes, of course you can," Joan said.
Frank crawled into bed next to her. Joan patted him on the head.
"Where's Winslow?" Joan said, trying very hard not to sound petulant.
"He's asleep," Frank said with a tired yawn. "When he's like that, nothing can wake him up."
Joan nodded in the darkness; after she had caught the two of them playing Go-Fish at three in the morning she had taken Winslow aside and specifically said that he couldn't "wake up" until it was light outside. That had ended the late night sessions of cards, and god-knows what else they had gotten up to.
With a stab of bitterness Joan realized that she probably wasn't the one Frank went to first for comfort. She wondered how long he'd tried to wake up Winslow before he decided to accept his old mom as a fallback.
Joan forced herself to stay awake until she heard Frank's quiet snoring; then she allowed her muscle to relaxand sank into her bed. She wished she could hear the patter of the rain, but the oscillating fan she needed to keep the room cool drowned it out. She listened to the persistent drone of the fan until she finally drifted off to sleep.
Joan awoke with the feeling that something was wrong. She didn't awake with a start, but rather with a dim realization that something had changed. It was still dark, and she could tell the thunderstorm hadn't passed by the sound of the rain hitting the roof.
In this torpor it took a few moments for her to realize that the fact that she could hear the rain meant that the fan had stopped. She looked to the bedside table and saw the that face of her alarm clock was dark.
She couldn't remember the last time there'd been a blackout; certainly not since they'd moved here. She remembered back when she was a child, when a 15-minute thunderstorm had left her family's computer fried… Had she left her laptop plugged in? Not that she had to worry, all of her work was backed up daily at the office. She probably didn't have to worry about Frank's tablet either, since he kept forgetting to plug it in to recharge it, so it was probably safe. She wondered if something had happened to Winslow.
Joan's eyes widened in the darkness; that would be perfect. If Winslow was damaged in the storm Frank would have to accept that he was just a machine. Joan frowned; that wasn't likely to happen though; she wasn't even sure if power surges could occur in the type of charger that Winslow used.
Joan let out a sigh; it would've been the perfect resolution. Frank would've been cured of his obsession, and he wouldn't have anyone to hate for it since an Act of God was to blame.
She turned her gaze back to the nightstand. Even if the storm hadn't damaged Winslow, it was possible for her to pretend that it had. That was dishonest though; and really all she was doing was saving herself some discomfort. Then, she thought, ignorance is bliss.
She slowly climbed out bed, checking to see if Frank stirred as she did so. Then she slid open the drawer of the nightstand and took the kill switch out. She walked into the bathroom and turned on the light; the kill switch left a white retinal after burn. She flipped the kill switch over and slid open the battery compartment. Sure enough right next to the AA battery was a small sunken red button. She took her dental pick out of the basket on the counter and turned off the light.
The door squeaked a little as she pushed it open; Frank didn't even stir though. She walked through Frank's open door; Winslow's charging platform was partially illuminate by the orangish light of Frank's night light. Joan knelt down so that she was at eye-level with the doll. She looked at his dead googly eyes.
He was just a doll, she knew, but this was like putting down a pet. She felt that he at least deserved to be looked in the eye as she killed him. She took the dental pick and poked the red switch. There was no sound or movement to indicate the change; solid state electronics were uncanny that way. Joan thought that his eyes looked a little emptier; but that was probably just her imagination.
"Mom!" Frank's voice penetrated her sleep. "Mom!"
Joan sat up groggily; he first thought was: "we're back to 'mom', are we?"
The storm had passed and the sun had risen; her son was standing next to her in his pajamas, looking horrified.
"What's wrong, honey?" Joan said.
"There's something wrong with Winslow!" Frank said. "He doesn't remember me or anything else!"
"Really?" Joan said, the picture of innocence. "Let me take a look at him."
Frank grabbed her by the hand and dragged her into his room. Winslow was sitting on the bed; the irises of his eyes uncannily followed them as they walked across the room.
"Hello! I'm Winslow!" the doll said.
"Do you know who I am?" Joan said.
"Nuh-uh. I'm Winslow, what's your name?" Winslow said.
Joan turned to Frank. "Did you take him apart to see how he worked or something?"
Frank looked horrified. "No!"
"Oh, I know. I bet it was the storm," Joan said. "When I was your age we had a bad storm and it fried our computer. It was a whole month before we got it back from the shop."
"Winslow isn't a computer!" Frank said, though a bit uncertainly.
"Well, he's got a computer inside him, and that's what remembers all the stuff you did together," Joan said. She knelt down next to Frank and looked him in the eye. "Look, I'll call that Dr. Johnson and have him take a look at Winslow. Even if he can't get his memories back, we should make sure the storm didn't cause any more damage."
"He's got to get his memories back!" There were tears in Frank's eyes. "He's got to!"
Joan did call Dr. Johnson later that morning, and he agreed to play along in her charade. When they were in Dr. Johnson's lab, he opened the maintenance hatch on Winslow's back, and Frank began to whimper, though he tried his best to look brave. That was when Dr. Johnson hit upon the idea of having his secretary show Frank the assembly line where the Winslow were made.
Frank seemed sad, but consolable, as they left the plant. Over the next few weeks he started playing with Winslow less and less. He started out trying to teach Winslow everything he knew over again; but this just seemed to help it sink in that Winslow wasn't really his friend, but just a lump of plastic. Eventually entire days would go by where Winslow would never leave his charging station. By the time Christmas rolled around, Frank really wanted a butterfly catching kit.