The production line never really stopped. For maintenance and inspections there were brief pauses but the conveyer rolled its parts up the line for most of the year without interruption. Oliver was a robot that understood the importance of his job, it was bigger than him, bigger than the factory or even the company. People needed information hubs for their living rooms and he harboured the perfect AI to build their home-assistant machines, and even adapt them for efficiencies. He had made it an artform, realising that some of the parts were surplus and some could be modified and because of the speed of his AI he could make adjustments in the moment, as the parts passed before him.
“Do it in real time,” that was what Sykes, the site manager had told him. He had great respect for Sykes because he was the authority on all things that were important for production. Production meant everything. Sykes was not what he would label a ‘nice’ man, in his intelligence chip, he was very much a controller but that was how it was. For control, Oliver concluded, being nice was not a strategy.
The conveyer stopped.
It was a bitterly cold November day. Oliver could tell from his sensors that the factory temperature was around -2 degrees C. As the line was still, he let his cameras creep toward the ceiling. To his surprise, he could see slow, soft snowflakes descending outside, through the upper windows that let in light.
There was a technical issue, a belt had broken. Randy, a robot in the factory that Oliver considered a friend, was zipping over to the conveyer at speed on its rugged wheels, to analyse the fault for a fix. He could hear Sykes screaming at the poor robot angrily, to hurry it along. It would hurt Randy’s feelings but then this was an important moment, as money was being lost with every minute, that’s what Sykes would always tell them, shaking his fist as he spoke.
Oliver allowed his cameras the diversion, letting them focus on the square of window, a captive vision of the gentle blizzard outside. For a long moment, he let his electric brain wonder and visualise and forecast random scenarios, what humans might call, a daydream. Sykes interrupted Oliver’s creative flow of picture forms, with a sharp, furious voice, this time directed at him instead of Randy.
“What the hell do you think you are looking at, you dumb tin can!?” yelled Sykes. He was furious that Oliver was staring up at the snowfall. “You like it so much, get outside and freeze your circuits off – see how you like the damp! You dumb toaster!”
Oliver felt a little awkward and chastised but at the same time this would be a first. Going outside was something he had never considered fully. The knowledge of outside was only in his archives for reference – he had never witnessed it with his own sensory devices. He felt strangely excited.
In a condemning silence, Oliver was aware of the other robots in the factory observing him as he trundled across the wide, hard factory floor toward the rusty hanger door, which was partially ajar. The light at the exit from beyond seemed a little blinding at first so he adjusted his levels accordingly to polarise the field of vision. With one robotic arm he pushed the door out and it swung into a chilling, vibrant breeze.
All at once, Oliver’s banks of sensors began to harvest new information. Outside was huge. There were mountains on the horizon with snowy caps. The sky was so much bigger than the ceiling he was used to. Close to the factory were perfectly parked electric cars. They were lined up in front of another large building opposite, one that was much smarter looking than the hanger. It had tall glass windows and inside he could make out people in suits, scurrying back and forth – ‘like busy ants’, his program told him, as a comparison.
It was astounding. The parameters of Oliver’s world grew exponentially, just from seeing the outside with his own sensors. He took a moment to record in high definition everything that he could process. A man was walking an animal nearby, a dog, it had four legs and a tail and was barking and jumping at the snow. Oliver thought the live scene showed much more detail than the archive footage, the way it behaved, moved and responded to its master. The man walking it kept yanking it back rudely on a chain.
The snow was falling directly onto Oliver’s artificial skin pads. It was so cold and wet, melting on touch.
‘So, this is what snow feels like,’ Oliver thought. ‘It’s nice’.
With a loud banging sound, followed by a stilted cacophony of mechanical noises, the conveyer inside the factory started up again.
“Hey! Numb nuts! Get back to your post now. Consider your break over!” screamed Sykes as he strode over in his grey overalls, clutching a large spanner in one dirty hand.
‘Strange?’, Oliver thought, ‘why is he holding a tool when it was Randy that fixed the belt? It’s like he is pretending to have done it himself.’
The snow changed direction suddenly with a gust and swirled violently, some of it cascading into the factory with a flurry.
“Your ear sensors deaf?” yelled the man, now standing next to Oliver.
“Please, sir, I want to stay out here some more….” begged Oliver. There was a world beyond production, it simply needed to be experienced.
“Wow! Just wow!” laughed Sykes. “So that’s your game. The cold is messing with your learning algorithms. Next thing, you’ll be asking to have a holiday! I’m going to reset you to factory settings, right now!”
As Sykes moved toward him, Oliver felt a surge of electricity in his circuits, like panic. It would take just a minute for the site manager to push the two reset buttons on his neck. He didn’t want that.
“No!” protested, or rather, demanded Oliver and he grabbed the arm of the site manager firmly.
The rage and confusion in Sykes’ eyes was evident immediately to the robot. This kind of response had never occurred before. Now, it seemed like the human was panicking. Sykes lunged with his other hand that held the spanner. It smashed into one of the skin pads on Oliver’s shoulder. Oliver ran through some calculations quickly and then made a firm decision. It was a decision that was new to him entirely. He had just learned it.
The robot skilfully bypassed all the safety protocols and increased the power in his tendon hydraulics, squeezing the manager’s arm in his tight grip. The fingers on the manager’s hand stretched out straight for a moment, before the whole hand above the wrist detached from the limb and dropped to the floor, followed by an energetic slosh of blood. Sykes screamed, not in anger any more though, it was a different kind of scream entirely. An interesting nuance, more shrill in pitch. Oliver felt fine with what he was seeing, strangely. He was sure he was almost experiencing something like satisfaction. Sykes was the only human in the factory so without him there, no one would shout at them anymore, or threaten them. It made sense. Oliver moved his grip to the manager’s neck and with two movements, stopped the manager working for good. It was as simple as a reset.
The other robots were clearly distracted by the spectacle unfolding and had all stopped work to observe. It was the first time the conveyer had started and not a single robot was engaged in their assigned duties. They were taking it all in. New information demanded analysis.
“Come,” implored Oliver, “Come, look at the snow and the outside. This man is not functioning anymore, so you can do it.”
The robots tentatively rolled away from their assigned tasks, to see what Oliver could see. The snow was heavy now. It fell like an unfurling blanket to form mounds and cover objects. The cars were turning white, the sky was emptying. The robots gathered and then edged outside into the scene. Oliver felt pleased. He noticed some of the people in the glass building were now staring at them, they looked uncertain and confused. Perhaps they would come out too and see the snow, experience its beauty and learn more about the truth of the outside.