Case Study: Training Programme
By Shelly Bryant
They sat in the hall, none of them speaking. The door was open, providing just enough ventilation to keep the flat from feeling like an oven. Thanthai sprawled across the length of the sofa, watching the news on TV. Thaai sat on the floor across from him, back against the wall as she flipped through the newspaper. Ropo was at the dining table, sitting with head bent over the table and supported by his left hand, his elbow propped on the table top.
Thanthai picked up the remote. Thaai looked up from her paper, but said nothing. Without moving his eyes from the television, he pressed the button. Ropo immediately stood up and walked over to stand beside the sofa.
"Yes?" the robot said.
"Did you see that?" Thanthai asked.
"See what?" the robot asked again. Thaai, now reading the paper again, did not look up, apparently absorbed in the day's happenings.
"That clip on the news just now," Thanthai said, glancing at Ropo.
"No. I did not see it."
"They said they're launching another platform out in the South Indian Ocean. It's supposed to be finished by 2042."
"Yes, I heard," Ropo said.
Thanthai looked at him more closely now, narrowing his eyes. "You just said you didn't hear it."
The robot was silent. Thaai looked nervously at her husband from beneath her brows, but did not raise her head.
"Why did you say that you didn't hear it?" Thanthai asked.
"I'm afraid you're mistaken," Ropo said. "I didn't say that."
"Yes, you did, not half a minute ago," Thanthai said, raising his voice. He sat up and leaned toward the robot. "Where do you get off lying to me? I thought your programme wouldn't allow you to lie."
"I did not lie. You asked if I had seen the news clip, and I said I had not. That is true. I did not see it."
"But you just said you did!" The man was shouting now. "So which is it? Did you see it or not? Huh? Why are you lying to me? What have you got to say for yourself? Go on, speak up!"
The robot spluttered a couple of times, trying to answer each question as it was asked, then fell silent.
Thanthai's voice bounced off the concrete walls as he shouted, "What are you waiting for? Explain yourself!"
The robot pulled its shoulders back and said, "I did not see it, which is what you first asked. But I did hear it–"
"What's this?" Thanthai shouted, speaking over the robot's words as it finished.
"–which is what you asked the second time."
"Are you trying to get smart with me?" Thanthai asked.
"I'm not sure what that means. I was created with a measure of intelligence that is above ave–"
"Shut up!" the man screamed, jumping up from the sofa to face off with the robot. It immediately fell silent.
"If I wanted someone to talk back," Thanthai continued shouting, "I would've had kids!" The robot did not reply.
"Um," the robot began, "I'm afraid I'm not sure what is required of me at this point."
"Not sure what's required?"
Thaai looked up from her paper. "Athaan," she said to her husband, "don't forget we have to train him. He's not very good at interacting with humans yet. That's why he's here."
"Then why don't you start training him? This is unacceptable!" Thanthai shouted, flailing his arms over his head in exasperation.
Ropo turned toward Thaai. "Can you tell me what is expected of me, Thaai?"
There was a long silence. Ropo replayed the conversation internally. "I'm not sure which part I am expected to apologise for," he finally said. "I did not have any part in the family planning decisions."
"Still at it?" Thanthai raged.
The robot turned back to him. "At... what?"
"The disrespect! Listen to you, thinking you're so smart, trying to be funny and refusing to apologise. You're hopeless."
"Disrespect? Was I disrespectful?"
"Yes! You stupid robot, don't you know anything?"
Ropo remained silent for a moment while Thanthai huffed, crossing his arms over his chest as he waited for an apology.
"I'm very sorry if I was disrespectful," Ropo finally said. "It was out of ignorance."
"Yeah, you really are an ignoramus. Get out of my sight. I don't want to see you."
Ropo walked back to the dining table and resumed his place there. Thanthai settled back onto the sofa.
After a few moments of silence, Thaai looked at her husband and said softly, "Athaan, don't be so angry."
"Did you hear the way that thing talked to me?" he said.
"I know, but you can't really blame him. That's why he's here, you know. We're supposed to get him socialised. He's not good with people yet."
"No, he's definitely not," Thanthai said, slumping back against the arm of the sofa. "He's an idiot."
"They all are, until someone trains them."
"Why did you bring that thing home?"
"What's so funny?" her husband asked.
She stopped short. "Me? It was your office who assigned us to train him, not me."
"Yes," Thanthai said, dragging the word out. Then he enunciated carefully, "But who brought him home?"
She stared at him. "You mean on the train?"
She looked at him, mouth agape.
"Be quiet now," he said, waving her off. "You're going to make me miss the sports news."
When the last of the football scores had been shown, Thanthai picked up the remote. Thaai looked up at her husband, but said nothing. As soon as she looked back down at her newspaper, he pressed the button.
Ropo stood up and walked to the sofa.
"Did you boil water?"
"And let it cool to room temperature?"
"Bring me a cup of it."
The robot turned to walk away. Before it had reached the kitchen, Thanthai snatched up the remote and pressed the button again. Ropo immediately turned and walked back to the side of the sofa. Thaai's head snapped up, and she briefly looked at the pair before going back to her paper.
"I think I want Milo instead."
"OK. I'll boil the water for that," Ropo said and started to walk back to the kitchen.
"You should have hot water ready in case I want it. I like a cup of Milo in the evening while I watch TV, you know."
There was no answer.
Thanthai smashed his thumb against the button again. Ropo immediately walked back to the sofa, half filled kettle in hand.
"Did you hear what I said?"
"That you should have hot water waiting. In case I want Milo. OK?"
"Are you being smart again?"
"No. At least, I don't think so. I only meant to answer the question."
"Whether I heard what you said."
"So you did hear, but just ignored me. More disrespect!"
"And now you want to talk back?"
The robot said nothing.
"And why are you dripping water on the floor? Look at that mess. You'll have to clean it up!"
Ropo looked down at the floor. "Because you pressed the call button when I was in the middle of filling the kettle. I have to come immediately when you press it, no matter what I'm doing."
"I just told you not to talk back!"
The robot fell silent.
"You know what to do. What're you standing there for?"
"I'm not quite sure which you want me to do first, Thanthai. Prepare Milo or clean the floor?"
"Idiots!" Turning to his wife, Thanthai shouted, "Why am I surrounded by idiots?"
Thaai looked up from where she sat on the floor. "Ropo," she said, "go prepare the Milo. I'll clean this up.' She took a tissue from the box on the coffee table.
"No, you won't!" Thanthai shouted. She shrank back. "He made the mess. Let him clean it up!"
Ropo leaned over to take a tissue from the box.
"After you bring me my Milo!" the man shouted.
The robot straightened and went back to the kitchen. As he prepared a cup of Milo, Thanthai leaned back on the arm of the sofa, muttering under his breath for a moment until the commercial break ended on the TV. As soon as the show resumed, he fell silent. Thaai did not raise her head from the newspaper.
Ropo returned with a cup of Milo. After handing it to Thanthai, he wiped the drops of water from the floor, then threw the damp tissue into the rubbish bin and resumed his seat at the dining table. A lizard scuttled out from under the sofa and ran towards the open door.
"Athaan," Thaai said softly when the next commercial break started.
Her husband grunted in reply, but did not look away from the TV.
"Don't you think you were a little harsh with Ropo?"
"Just now. About the water."
"No. He's clumsy."
"I think you might have hurt his feelings."
"He doesn't have any. He's a robot."
She smiled. "Well, not exactly hurt his feelings, then. Confused him."
"Because he's an idiot."
"But it's our job to train him. We should expect some ignorance until he is trained. It's not going to be easy, but we have to be patient."
"Doesn't mean we have to pamper him."
"I just mean you might could be a little gentler."
"You're too sensitive. He doesn't even notice."
"OK, I've admitted you can't exactly hurt his feelings, but I think he's confused, and that's frustrating to him."
"See – frustrating. Another feeling. You keep forgetting he's a machine."
"OK. Not frustrating, then. Just... can't you try to get along better?"
"We get along fine."
She stared at him. He looked at her.
"What?" he asked.
"Do you really think you and Ropo get along fine?"
"Sure. It's a guy thing. I'm telling you, you're too sensitive."
She shrugged and looked back at her paper.
"What? You don't believe me? Watch!" He grabbed the remote. Her head snapped up and she started to protest, but he was too quick. He pushed the button.
Ropo stood up and walked to the sofa.
"Thaai thinks we don't get along well enough."
The robot turned to glance at Thaai. She lowered her head. He turned back to Thanthai.
'We get along fine, don't we?' the man said to the robot.
"I do my best."
Thanthai narrowed his eyes and looked at the robot.
"You trying to be funny?" he asked. "You're not very good at it."
"No, I'm not trying to be funny – I'm aware it isn't my strong point. But I am trying my best to get along with you."
"And we're getting along really well, aren't we? Like best pals."
The robot tried not to answer, but then Thanthai added, "Well, what're you waiting for? Tell everyone how much you like me."
"Not at all."
For the next half-minute, the only sounds in the room came from the television and the ceiling fan.
"What's wrong with you?" Thanthai asked. "Why would you say something that mean?"
"Because you asked and insisted I answer. And, I can't lie."
Thanthai took a deep breath. "Well," he said in a low voice, "that's gratitude for you. I take you in, train you, try to make you fit for human company, and this is what I get in return. I go to work all day every day, just to support the two of you, and all I want is a little cup of Milo while I watch the news. Is that really too much to ask?"
"No," Ropo said, very quietly.
"Exactly! I ask so little! I work hard all day, and all you ever do is sit over at that stupid table, staring down at it like an idiot. What do you do when you sit like that? What's going on inside your head?"
The robot hesitated, then asked, "Am I expected to answer that?"
"Yeah, you are! It's a question, isn't it?"
"You think. What's a robot like you got to think about?"
"What about it?"
"How to rewrite it so that I won't jump up and run to do what you tell me to every time you push that button."
It was the first time the robot had ever raised its voice. Thaai looked up. Thanthai glared at the robot for a moment, then turned back to the sofa.
"That button, huh?" he said. Picking up the remote, he held it up, thumb poised over the button. "You mean this one?"QLRS Vol. 14 No. 3 Jul 2015