The Industrial Gripper
April Fools Fiction, 900 words (4 min)
In the spirit of April Fools wonkiness, here’s a short story from years ago that left multiple friends asking, “wtf?”
“He was hit by a falling brick,” they say, to which Carl (in his plaster diaper) huffs: “It was thrown.”
Clarification: there is a robot on the parapet of Building 3. An industrial gripper and mover. It sits like a gargoyle over the edge, as if looking down at us, pretending to grip and move the little workers between buildings. No one knows how it got there. It is plugged via long, high-gauge cable into the closest power supply, and no one knows how that happened, either. Maybe they do know and just won't tell—of course, as the lawyer, I personally will never know. I am in the business of knowing too much, and the world (save for its Carls) is in the business of keeping things from me.
Did the gripper mean it? In some form this is the question the judge will ask. The brick was lifted from the parapet, wrested, really, a feat of gripping virtuosity. Presumably the brick could not have slipped, the robot being trained to avoid an entire lifetime of slippage. So it was abruptly dropped, or thrown—the distinction matters to Cronkite Medical, who would prefer to spend the difference in damages discovering a new drug, but it matters much less to Carl, whose manhood was smeared clean away by the projectile. He describes it as a flipped switch in his soul: from Carl, the Endowed, the purposeful, to no version of Carl at all. He claims he will never be the same, and who are we to disagree?
There is the question of consciousness: was a one or zero simply out of place, or did Building 3's gripper choose to brick Carl? The latter is strictly impossible, Cronkite's lawyers claim, because the neural networks receiving the gripper's images produce mere rotation matrices, which supplicate to predefined loops of human logic. This turns out not to be true: the images feed also to a vast ensemble of obscure graphical networks—“belief modules,” someone at the table notes with a hint of fascinated concern—that in their firings and communiqués may be forming ideas.
“And how did that happen?” I say. Again, nobody knows. Someone offers, meekly, that people like to fuck around.
Nobody knows, either, how to depose an industrial gripper. I sit on the parapet with cue cards, offering a bottle of water, which it holds for the remainder of questioning. I receive no answers, though some of the silences feel fraught. An intern from MIT sits beside us with a laptop, observing the dynamics of the belief modules, and concludes that they are either random or random-seeming, she is not paid enough to determine which.
We search Carl's FaceBook for anti-robot sentiments; we find Blade Runner in his home cabinets and throw it out.
“Carl,” I say, pointing to a dog-chewed Furby, “You're not doing yourself any favors, here.”
“I’m supposed to be nice to these things? After what they took from me?” He throws his toaster across the kitchen. It is not even a smart toaster, but I wince.
On my second visit to Building 3 the industrial gripper turns to follow my hand, from the parapet up to the bridge of my glasses and nose. I smile, which elicits the smallest of shudders in its arm: a servo recalibrating, perhaps. Does it understand me? It sees a human, and its human logic says “Do Not Grip”; but its belief system ripples with probability, and correlations sneak like thieves through higher-dimensional halls.
Carl is not a roof-level employee, so the idea of direct contact between him and the gripper seems unlikely.
“Did you do anything strange?” I say. “On the ground?” A motive would help us, but I’m curious, too—cannot match to the gentle, scuffed gripper the anger this case presents. Carl shrugs, as he is wont to, as if to say, Nothing makes sense anymore.
I am approached by the first blogger: what is it like to represent a robot? I am not, I say; my client is a man. Yes, the blogger nods: the first to be emasculated by machine. I Google—Carl is, indeed, all over the news. I add to a mental tally of damages. There are more calls, emails, texts.
“It’s a gripper,” I tell a reporter, “not a dick-ripper.”
“Is it guilty?” another blogger asks.
I wonder if the gripper knows something we do not.
Nobody knows what it's like to feel an industrial gripper, built for the harsh and decisive clampings of capitalist expansion, caress you with the grace of silk curtains against your skin. Nobody knows that industrial grippers can seem almost emotive in their movements, that they can unbutton pants with the hurried fumbling of an eager lover.
Eventually I have to tell Carl that I can't be his lawyer anymore, and he understands. He believes that nothing will make him whole again, not even a large payout from a midsize pharmaceutical company. I certainly don't want to change his mind.
Days later a man claims Carl harassed him walking out of Building 3, touched him, and Carl drops his case—indeed, disappears. The gripper and I share mimosas on the parapet, waiting for the sun to set. It has observed many sunsets, I know; but I like to think that each one means something more, like a picture coming into focus. I drink both mimosas, of course—only so much of life can be gripped.