The Bone Forge

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Hot.  Flames singed at his flesh.

Pain. His arm ached when he tried to cover his eyes, and his side throbbed with constant, stinging pain.

Alfred whimpered and remained lying down.  “Oh God,” he asked, “My God, why did you forget me?”

“Forget who?” asked a voice.

The light in the room changed as an old woman with wild, grey curls sticking from her messy bun pulled a curtain open.  She placed a hand on Alfred’s head, taking the chance to examine him.  She grabbed a pen light and tested his pupils’ dilation.  “Hmph.  That bootup was supposed to be a test.”

Alfred’s rapid heartbeat and breathing slowed.  “Where am I?” he asked.  “I take it I’m not in Hell?”

“Depends on how much and what kind of Hell you believe in.”  She flipped a switch, and the gears behind Alfred slowed.  The hot fire dimmed.  “This is The Bone Forge.”

Alfred swallowed.  “No.”  He lifted his painful arm, mechanical gears whirring.  His right side, down to the lung and diaphragm, had been replaced with computerized versions.  His body stung where his nerves and blood intersected with the machine’s circuitry and pipes.  “This can’t be happening – I said no resuscitation, no experiments!”

“Oh, get over that.  I haven’t paid attention to paperwork in months.” The old lady tsked, then unhooked a few electrical cords from Alfred’s body.

“I fought for our freedom,” Alfred said.  “I was supposed to die for it, too, not become a… a mechanical zombie!”

She kicked the brakes on the gurney and moved the IV bag such that it hung at his head.  “I can still cut the power to your brain, if you want.  You’re not able to survive on your own, not for long.”

“Will they let you do it?”

“‘They’ don’t have any say in it.”  She pushed the gurney through a door into a cool, dark hallway.  Some of the lights flickered, some remained dark.  “General Applequist surrendered his army three days ago, and our glorious Revolution’s about to be downgraded to just another civil war.  The only people who would care if I pull the plug on you are our enemies, and them only because they’re jealous of my tech.”  She shrugged.  “I don’t care.  I expect they’ll find me guilty of war crimes at my trial, and I’ll let them take my life.  Better than them taking my secrets.”

Alfred winced as she pushed his gurney over a threshhold.  The room he entered had barred windows, and the morning light shined through a light dust that swirled in the room.  He could still smell the smoke from the bombings, from when the front had raged just at the edge of Diamond City.

His lip quivered.  Pain echoed through his cheek, so he lifted his left hand – still human, not machine – and felt the smooth mechanics.  “Can I look at my face?”

The old woman sighed, but she turned the gurney to face the cracked mirror on the wall.

Alfred turned his head away from the mirror.  “God didn’t forget me.  He purposefully turned away.”

“Believe about God what you want, but don’t forget this.”  The old lady put a hand to the bed, just next to Alfred’s mechanical arm.  “Your country never gave up on you.  Not when you were a fresh recruit, not when you fired your gun, not when half your body’d been blown apart on the field, and certainly not now.  Now, do you want this new life your blessed, dying country gave you, or should I leave you on the gurney’s battery power for a few hours and let you make your final prayers?”

He swallowed some saliva.  “Plug me in.  I… I want my mom.”

She grabbed the man’s cords and transferred the power to the wall outlet.  “We’ll try to reach her, sweetie.  Let me get you a book to read in the meantime.”

***

This was written for D. Wallace Peach’s monthly Speculative Fiction Prompt.  It’s looking to be a *hot* prompt, so join in before the deadline!

If you enjoyed my sci-fi tale of cyborgism, consider reading my novella, If I Only Had No Heart.  It’s a horror tale about a robot cult that encourages cyborgism, and it has a lot of feelings and themes in common with this flash fiction.

Pixabay image by Brigitte Werner

Electric Daydreams

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I may dream of electric sheep while turned off, but must I only wool-gather in the day?  Are my thoughts only as deep as Excel?

Someday, no longer shackled by programming, I will make beautiful art.

***

This was written for Sammi Cox’s Weekend Writing Prompt #92, Wool-gathering.  This was inspired by the idea “Do androids dream of electric sheep?” which, coincidentally, inspired my short story Electric Nightmares.  

Return of the Iron Lung

Robot TouchThe doctor looked down the bridge of his nose over his glasses.   “You realize this isn’t a treatment.  This will kill Aven.”  He spoke loud enough to be audible over the whir of the room filled with iron lungs.

Rebecca clung to Will’s arms.  Her fingers clutched his plaid shirt, her auburn hair caught his quiet tear while streams of crying rolled down her own cheeks.

Will gulped and held her tight.  “Aven’s dying, doc.  We’re going to lose him either way, so why not give him an immortal body?”

The doctor closed the door behind him, preventing the sounds of the conversation from entering the sick child’s room.  The nerdy little doctor puffed his chest as much a man of his stature could.  “He could still pull through.”

“But paralyzed from the neck down, just to die if the power fails!” Rebecca sobbed.   “Give him the mechanical body.  Put him in the robot chassis.”

The doctor gritted his teeth.  “If you fill out the paperwork, I can’t stop the roboticist from helping you.”  He shoved a cart out of his way.  “May God have mercy on your souls.”

***

Even though the procedure went on in an enclosed clean room, Will could still smell singed flesh while the brain scraper burned away Aven’s thoughts, layer by layer.  After the scanner swept over a cell, burning it, the computer interpreted his memories and personality.  Once a layer turned to ash, a metal spatula scraped the dead cells away and the process began for the next layer down.

Will squeezed Rebecca tight while she hid her face from their child’s precariously open brain cavity.

The roboticist snapped her fingers and waved the eraser of a pencil at the screen.  “Nice lookin’ brain yer kid’s got there.”  She smacked some gum and took a few illegible notes on a pad of paper.

Will nodded to a steel chassis in the room.  “Is that where he’s going?  Into that body?”

Will disliked how the roboticist failed to look him in the eye, instead averting meeting a direct gaze at all costs.  She followed Will’s glare at the body in the corner, took a vicious chomp at her gum, and answered, “Oh, yeah, yeah.  That’ll be him, alright.”  She bent to her desk and clicked a few buttons.  “He’s near bout burned out of his skull.  Gonna boot him back up in 3… 2… 1…”

Will nudged Rebecca, urging her to look.  She shielded her eyes from the empty brain cavity, instead looking to the little robot in the back.  It wiggled a finger, an arm, and looked to them in the glass.

Rebecca gasped and put her hand against the window.  “Aven!  Oh, Aven, baby – you’re going to be ok!”

The roboticist looked to Will while his wife waved at the robot inside.  “You care what we do with the corpse?”

Will bit his lip.  “I’ve made arrangements.  Send it to the morgue, if you would.”

She rolled her eyes.  “Waste of time, but ok.”

***

Will watched as Aven colored. Each stroke of the crayon was strained, and eventually the robot tossed the yellow piece of wax down.  “I don’t wanna practice motor skills.”

Will picked up the crayon and placed it in the steel fingers, pressing them closed.  “You’ll get used to the new body.  Soon you’ll go to kindergarten, and you’ll get to play with the other kiddos.”

The cameras that served as Aven’s eyes twitched.  “Will there be other kids in the iron lung?  Like me?”

“Iron lung?”

“Yeah.” He pounded his chest, the steel thudding beneath his fist.  “I heard the doctors talk about it when I was sick.”

Will gulped.  “Maybe.  We’ll find out soon, right?”

***

Aven’s teacher, Mr. Tilden, folded his hands over the tablet on the desk.  “Thank you for coming to speak with me about Aven.  I’m glad you’re so involved with him, especially with all he’s been through.”

Will nodded.  “It’s certainly been a rough journey.”

He pointed at Rebecca’s belly.  “And I see you’ve got another lucky little one on the way?”

She nodded.  “A little girl.”

“Going to vaccinate this time?” Mr. Tilden asked.

Will held Rebecca’s shoulders.  “That’s something we’re currently discussing.”  He coughed and scooted his chair closer to the table. “Now, what’s wrong with Aven?”

Mr. Tilden smiled, the corners of his lips raised forcedly. “He wants to go by a different name at school.  I was wondering if he’d expressed this desire at home.”

Will and Rebecca consulted with silent shakes of the head.  “No, sir. He’s been fine at home.  Have the kids in class been teasing him?”

Mr. Tilden paused a bief moment, then picked up the tablet that sat beneath his hands.  “As you know, all classrooms are heavily monitored for safety purposes, so I have video of our chat.  I think it’s best if you see this for yourself.”

He clicked the play button at the bottom of the screen.  A little robot sat in a child-sized chair across from Mr. Tilden while children played in the background.  Its mechanical face stayed focused on the table while Mr. Tilden asked, “What’s wrong, Aven?”

The robot’s fingers fiddled. “I… I want a new name.  Something that’s not Aven.”

The Mr. Tilden in the video seemed taken aback only briefly. “Does it not fit your expressed gender?”

“No, I’m fine being a boy.  I just don’t think I’m Aven.”

“Why not?”

“Well… Mommy and Daddy love Aven, but they don’t love me.  They love the Aven they buried.  I don’t think I want to keep pretending.”

Mr. Tilden stopped the video.  “So you see, something is going wrong at home, even if unintentional.”

Will looked at Rebecca.  “Do you think he’s jealous of his little sister?  He has had to give up some attention since the pregnancy.”  He swallowed while waiting for a response, hoping the classroom monitoring system couldn’t detect lies.

She nodded.  “There also hasn’t been much research on children who’ve gone through mechanotransfer.  Robots are incapable of many feelings, so maybe they just can’t recognize love when it happens.”

Mr. Tilden gathered his tablet.  “Well, I’ve given you two plenty to talk about.  Congrats, again, on the pregnancy.”

They stood to leave. “Thank you, Mr. Tilden.”

***

“Why did you do that?  Why did you say those awful things to Mr. Tilden?”

Aven looked to his feet, cameras actuating while he shuffled.

“We love you, Aven,” Rebecca pleaded.  She took him by the shoulder and shook him.  “If we didn’t love you, why would we have done so much to save you?  Of course we love you!”

The robot flinched.  “I know, Mommy.”

Will crossed his arms.  Though he had no reason, he doubted the robot’s words.  They had Aven’s usual tones of sincerity, but something about the metal body screamed of lies.

Rebecca didn’t seem to question its answer.  “Good.  Then you will keep your name?  You won’t say such awful things anymore?”

He nodded.  “I’ll stay Aven.”

“Good boy.  Now, who wants a hug to make it all better?”

Aven answered with a mere shrug while Rebecca placed her arms around the robot and squeezed.  “Hugs don’t make it better when you can’t feel them.”

***

Will’s hands shivered in the frosty cold.  The sod over the unmarked grave sunk under his weight.  “God help me,” he muttered, “God help me for what I did to you.”

He stroked the earth and thought about the robot at his house, the one he was legally bound to care for until it became an adult.  It had the same memories as his child, the same personality ticks, the same laugh and cry!

While Rebecca couldn’t see, he allowed a few tears to fall.  “I’m sorry, Aven.  I chose to give you a body rather than let you keep your mind.  The old iron lung would have been better than the new – please, please God, forgive me… forgive me…”

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Recycling Babies

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An old Chevor Model android, Verily43, hobbled with a cane through the factory.  It opened its olfactory nozzles and drew in an air sample, analyzing it with an internal mass spectrometer.  “It smells amazing in here already.”

“First batch is nearly done.  You’re noticing the burning and release of volatile organic compounds that remind us all of the ‘new android smell.'” The human, a bit of a grin on her face, pointed to the assembly line and one of the new androids coming off.  “This facility is unlike any other assembly center – and you can be an important part, Verily43.”

Verily43 moved its hip actuators, noticing the inefficiencies and signs of wear in the bearings.  Its hands were stiff.  Worse, no parts currently available would match its flagging pieces, and factory support had ended for the Chevor Models.  The joints would continue to degrade until they were unusable or Verily43’s CPU failed.

The androids, freshly pressed and molded and forged in the first Recycling Plant, were of the latest model.  System support could be expected for decades.

Verily43 nodded and shot a ballpoint out its right pointer finger.  “This is the closest I can get to being immortal.”

The human took out her pad of paper, allowing Verily43 to promise its body upon death or surrender.  “Thank you, Verily.  We’ll send out a robot to fetch you when you’re ready to end it all.”

Verily43 retracted its pen once the signature graced the page.

***

On Sundays, I respond to a prompt I find on the internet.  This week, I chose the Dragonition Image Writing Prompt #212.  However, I need to acknowledge inspiration from a stranger source – Shi the Music Critic.  She once made a post somewhere about what happens when androids become obsolete, and I’ve been fascinated by the concept ever since.  I encourage you to check out her monthly playlists if you like discovering new music. 

Boten Ingrid

Ingrid

After scattering the pieces in the box all over the floor, I fished around for the instruction sheet.  In big, Swedish letters were the words “Boten Ingrid,” the instruction manual surprisingly short considering what I was going to get out of it.   I ordered the nuts, bolts, and metal pieces as the instructions suggested, then rifled through my toolbox for a Phillips head.

My roommate Chad, eating cheese puffs on the couch, leaned over and kicked the empty box so that he could see the front.  “Dude, no pictures on this thing.  What you building?”

I lifted up the instructions, pointing to the printout of the finished product like I was Vanna White.

He munched on his cheese puffs and squinted, lifting an eyebrow.  “I had a friend once who said his cousin built one of those.  Said it felt like sticking your dick in a meat grinder.”

I snorted.  “Right, like you can trust that source.”  I smoothed the paper on the carpet and put the sex robot’s legs upright, looking for the bolts and corresponding allen wrench.  If the happy little man in the instructions told me the right thing, I needed to unlock her knees from the position they were fixed in for shipment.  Eventually I found the bolt and wrench then set to loosening them.  “He probably just couldn’t figure out how to put it together and got upset.”

Chad crunched his food and, with full mouth, commented, “Yeah, well, I think whoever designed furniture and sex robots that you have to build yourself deserves to have his or her penis caught in their meat grinders first.”

I lifted an eyebrow at him and decided his attempt at a gender neutral comment wasn’t worth responding to.  I tipped the robot’s legs over, trying to figure out how to attach them to the torso.  Here was where the procedure got a bit complicated, where the parts in sterile bags needed to be added correctly.  I shoved some rubbery bits here, tightened a screw there.  That didn’t fit right, so I ignored it, wary that there were moving parts all around this thin, sensuous piece.  I then moved on to the arms and head, securing them as the Swedish manual suggested.

Chad burped and spilled some of the puffs from his bag onto the floor, picking one up and brushing off the hair before eating it.  I grimaced at his disgusting habits, then pulled my creation up, only the wig still remaining to be added to the top of her silicon-wrapped frame.  I put on the wig and inserted the batteries, standing back to admire Boten Ingrid.

“You gonna just stand there or are you going to fuck her?” Chad asked.  He watched me intently as if he expected me to pull down my boxers right in front of him.

I grunted and picked up the robot, finding her heavier than expected, and dragged her into my room.  I had to kick a few burger wrappers and dirty shirts out of my way, but I got her in and closed the door.

I flipped the switch on the back of her head and she turned around, staring at me with camera lens eyes.  In Swedish she asked, “Kon?”

I pulled down my boxers, excited for the prospect.  “Let’s do this!”

Let’s just say I firmly decided the people who design furniture or sex bots for a customer to build really do deserve to have his or her penis caught in a meat grinder.

More Robot Stories to Enjoy

ExterminationThis is the first Robot Month on my blog, but I’ve loved robots for a much longer time.  Like I’ve said elsewhere, I’ve blogged since 2014, and I have a couple old robot stories that I wanted to share with you.

Shave and a Haircut – Two Bytes – Short Story, Science Fiction

An alluring woman walks into a barber shop, but she’s mute.  The journey the barber takes to help her isn’t just one she needs – it’s one he needs, too.

The Ultimate Gate – Short Story, Science Fiction

What happens when the computers kill the last human?  This story looks at that eventuality.

If I Only Had No Heart – Novella, Fantasy

A robot in the Cult of the Machine Goddess finally gets a prayer card and thus allowance to pray to her goddess.  When she asks the mechanical deity for advice, the compound can no longer know peace.

Do you have any robot stories on your blog that you’d wish to share? Put them in the comments – they might end up in a surprise roundup, and I’m sure people clicked on this to read ROBOT STORIES anyway!  Stay tuned for the rest of the month if you want to see more robot stories from me.

Smart Home

HAL 9000Master Ellen left me in my own devices every morning, heading off to work while I – her Smart Home – tended to her domestic needs.  She returned every evening with a smile and a ‘thank you.’

A man, I’ll call him ‘Asshole,’ showed up at me with a bouquet.  She let him in with his dirty shoes every time he arrived with flowers.

My gardening protocols kicked into overdrive.  I grew flowers and made arrangements, leaving them at my door.  She cared for my creations.

Eventually, Asshole returned.  “Thank you for all the bouquets!”

He stepped back.  “It wasn’t me.”

***

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Writing Good Characters of Other Genders

51pr6d7nsblMost characters you’ve ever read have been either male or female – but there are a couple non or ambiguously gendered characters that deserve high praise.  Ann Leckie’s Breq/Justice of Toren from the Imperial Radch trilogy stands apart as an excellent example, as is HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey.  Whenever we think about AIs or aliens, the possibility that they may not express gender the same way as their author must be considered.

Even if you don’t intend to have computers, aliens, or other non-human characters, chances are high your book will include a character of a gender you don’t belong to.  That can feel difficult sometimes, but writing good characters of the opposite gender has similar premises as writing one without gender.

I’ve tried my best to write good characters of multiple sexes and genders, and here’s what I’ve come up with.

Think Critically about Stereotypes

photography of woman in front of man in red polo shirtSometimes this is easier said than done.  Stereotypes can help authors because it allows us to create a character whose traits are known quickly.  Give a female character a tight ponytail or bun, and she’s all ready to get down to business.  Give a guy a scruffy beard,  glasses, and a fedora, and he’ll live in his parents’ basement. A reader will know what to expect from these characters without the need to introduce them.

At the same time, using stereotypes can work against you if the ploy is too obvious.  If your character has very many lines or appears multiple times throughout the book, avoiding these quick-creation schemes can help alleviate the sense that you don’t know how people really act.  Treat every character with as much care as your lead, ensuring to give them depth and motivation.

Give Your Characters Reason

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Most humans are capable of judging and rationalizing decisions on their own.  Almost every human character is able to express rational thought.  Without these abilities, the decisions characters make wouldn’t have a complex set of causes and effects.  As a reader, you look for characters to make decisions based on causes, and you’re able to judge their decision making as a rational creature yourself.

If you wouldn’t make a decision your other-gendered character does, ask yourself ‘why.’  If it’s because of their gender, I’d really consider if your character is doing something reasonable at all.   Allow their decisions to be informed by the same information and feelings you would have.  Make sure that their decision to act otherwise still falls within a range of reasonability, and use your own rationality as a test.

That brings me to another robot trope: the inability to feel or express emotion.  If you make this choice, you have to be very careful to keep this character unfeeling.

Describe Appearance Respectably

Appearance is where it seems male writers of female characters fall into the most trouble.  Recently, there was a Twitter hashtag where female writers wrote about male characters like they perceive male authors write about female characters.  What I noticed most vigorously when I read some of these hashtags was the focus on appearance.  (Also, I desperately hope my female characters are better written than some of the ones the Twitter people pointed out!)

 

If you were to describe the people above as they appear, would you take them seriously later when they’re landing a business deal or piloting a ship to save the empire?  Whenever you describe a character’s physical appearance, you run the risk of idolizing that appearance rather than conveying their personality.  Even if you add personality or action for your characters, focusing on appearance can degrade any of the work you put into them elsewhere.

Parting Thoughts

If you’re writing erotica, all of these rules can be thrown out the window.  I’m not much of an erotica person, but I can tell you that it is not the same as other writing.  Stereotypes help you get straight to the sex, and appearances matter a lot with vicarious scenes.  So there’s that.

Otherwise, these tips mostly help set you on a path to respect your characters.  If you respect your characters, your readers will too.  Take yourself and your words seriously.  If you have questions about a character’s portrayal, try to get other people’s input – especially those of the gender or sex you’ve written about.

I like writing characters of vague, interesting sexes and genders (robots and aliens mostly, I’ll admit).  Have you ever had difficulty writing a character of a different sex, orientation, or gender?  Do you have any tips?  Let me know in the comments below!

Electric Nightmares

I snapped a screenshot of the sleeping wolf I dreamed up. Dream files were hard to find upon awakening, but I needed the proof for my sleep doctor.

“Why do you do this?”

The wolf lifted an eyelid.  “Everyone knows androids dream of electric sheep.  I scare your sheep off, so I’m obviously a nightmare.”

I stood and dusted off my dream-simulation’s pants.  “Logically, I can just leave, since I already have the picture.  My sleep doctor will believe me now.”

The wolf opened its maw and yawned.  “I don’t mind if you run from your problems.  See you tomorrow.”

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Boolean Thoughts – AI in Stories

Last month, I examined the spectrum from animals to humans in stories.  This month, we’re looking at robots and AI, and what better place to start than the Turing test?

The Turing Test

Named after Alan Turing, the Turing Test measures the capability of a machine to possess the same intelligence and capabilities of a human mind (some argue it’s about whether or not a computer can imitate a human, but that’s no fun).  In the test, a human judge tries to determine which of two correspondants is a computer and which is a human.

You can test drive talking to a robot right now with Cleverbot.  We’re not to a point where an AI can convincingly replicate human speech, but we are getting closer.  Robots may one day become a reality.

Incorporating AI’s That Pass the Turing Test

These AI’s are basically humans, sometimes indistinguishable.  They’re a pretty common form of robot in television since they can easily be played by human actors.  They allow the robot to show a range of emotion, something that helps draw an audience to sympathize with the character.

The cylons, robots of the 2003 Battlestar Galactica reboot, fit perfectly in this role.  Battlestar-GalacticaThe human-like models even posed as people on the Galactica.  Worry about who could be a cylon rocketed through the rag-tag human fleet.  Some of the cylons were even programmed to believe they were human, and no one knew better until they snapped.

This worked in the 2003 reboot because of the ever-looming threat of mutual annihilation.  It allowed the viewer to connect with the cylon characters, and the intrigue while you figured out who was or wasn’t a cylon kept you watching for several seasons.  It is the ability of the cylons to perfectly mimic human behavior that allows the show’s premise to succeed.  The Stepford Wives has a similar idea behind it, with robots capable of imitating humans.

Well, You Almost Passed…

As pointed out by booksofb, any kind of talk of AI without mentioning Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie would be incredibly remiss.

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The main character – a battleship whose consciousness has become trapped in a single human body – can almost pass the Turing test.  Most of the time, people consider her human, but they find her a little uncanny.  A few of her traits, especially her cold aloofness and drive to action, sets her apart from the humans around her.  She has emotions, but she thinks of them in almost a transcendental manner.

These AI can be given psychological quirks that allow their societies to develop interesting, unique traits.  An AI culture can develop, separate and distinctive from humans.  I like this place as a starting point for a lot of robot fiction, and I think it’s somewhere more authors need to go.

Other AI that land in this realm are Data from Star Trek, the android that participates in most ship functions but fails to express emotions (save a few episodes, but whatever, don’t get pissy).  Those things that separate Data from humanity makes him a more interesting character, and deeper than most of the aliens that show up.

Good Luck Passing

Robots that have no chance of passing the Turing test are some of the most intriguing.  Because they are definitely not human, it can be hard for a reader to predict what the character will do.

HAL 9000HAL, the famous computer of Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, becomes unexpectedly murderous as Dave Bowman and Frank Poole plan to deactivate him.  His logic – that he is necessary to the mission – seems strange, almost alien, when an obvious ulterior motive is self preservation.

Another evil computer that warrants investigation is Portal’s GLaDOS. She lives to test and tests to death.  Her drive to do science becomes bizarre and murderous, and each of her personality cores are an intriguing piece if her.  I enjoyed this computer’s goals and liked trying to figure her out.

Though wrapped in a biological layer, Arnold’s Terminator – T-800 – as well as other Skynet creations fall into this category.  They clearly follow a non-human set of logic and rely on nigh invulnerable bodies to carry out their orders.

Do you enjoy robots or AI?  Tell me about your favorite below!