#FridayFlash: Robot Money

On a warm February day in Philadelphia, just on the corner of N 6th and Arch St., as the sun slanted across Independence plaza, a robot found a $100 bill. The corner of the torn and soggy banknote was peeking from under a pile of melting snow, the last gray and gravelly remnant of the only snow that had fallen in the winter of 2034.

The robot was not programmed for much independent planning, but like all courier bots, it was linked to CarryMan Incorporated's central computers over the Philadelphia Center City WiFi Network. It took less than 30 milliseconds for the robot to report the unusual sight to Central and to get instructions that allowed it pick up the $100 bill.

With the smooth grace of piezofibronic musculature, the robot shifted its bag of documents from one shoulder to the other, then bent, wiped away the snow and lifted the bill. The robot's eyes and tactile scanners weren't designed for nanometer-scale resolution, but that wasn't necessary to tell that something was wrong.

Another consultation to Central with new information: the bill was counterfeit. Although it had the right engravure, holoimprint and ink conductivity, the embedded RFID nanochip cluster was flickering chaotically. Amid the static-filled, buzzing scanresponse, the cluster was reading as that of a $1 bill. Central concluded that the time spent in the salty slush must have caused the chips to reset to their hardcoded defaults, wiping away the viral spoof code the counterfeiter must surely have embedded. With that code, any bill scanner would have read the bill as a real $100; without it, it was a mismatch like a cowboy hat on the offset engraving of Benjamin Franklin.

The robot queried again: What now, Central? What now?

Evidence of a misdemeanor (not perpetuated by a CarryMan's owner) could be reported to the Philadelphia Police Department at earliest convenience. However, evidence of a felony had to be reported at once. (A case pending before the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals dealt with whether the CarryMan's owner's connection with the suspected felony had any bearing on the reporting requirement.)

Central thought for a moment, then directed the robot to turn onto Arch St. and enter the Federal Building. While the robot was walking up the gray granite steps, glinting wetly in the February sunshine, Central composed a draft press release and alerted a human in the CarryMan Inc. PR/SM Department. The situation had real potential: a CarryMan robot, setting aside its normal tasks in order to turn in the phoney $100 bill directly to the U.S. Secret Service. As a combined CableNews/Facebook/MindBlast media campaign, the matrix of "robot helping law enforcement" and "CarryMan can handle the unexpected" was a good combination.

Through the big glass doors went the robot. Through the metal detector, through the positron emission tomography array, and up to the information desk.

Central had already sent a note to the Federal Building's main A.I., telling it to expect the robot and explaining about the counterfeit bill. The man at the information desk read the result of the conversation between CarryMan's Central and the USSS's mainframe A.I. The robot was directed to take the phoney bill up to Agent Michelle Argilente, Room 462.

Four minutes later, the robot stepped off the elevator on the fourth floor and turned without hesitation to the right. (Central had requested and received a floor map from the building A.I., which it had passed along to the robot.) In the time it took the robot to move from the elevator area to Room 462, the human in the CarryMan PR/SM Department read the draft press release from Central, made a few word changes and approved it for release as soon as the USSS took possession of the phoney $100 bill. The tweetstream update cloud would be released to all the social media sites 120 seconds after that.

The door to Room 462 was an old fashioned manual door of wood and frosted glass. With a gentle, controlled hand, the robot knocked on the door frame. A woman's voice gave permission to enter.

Seated behind one of six desks was Agent Argilente, identified by the I.D. keycard clipped to her blouse and by the nameplate on her desk. Agent Argilente turned away from the note on her screen, written by the building's A.I. and amended by her boss and by the agent down at the information desk. She stood as the robot entered, clearly aware that CarryMan Incorporated might use a video recording of this moment in a public service ad campaign. A thirteen-year veteran of the Secret Service, Agent Argilente had seen plenty of viral videos of uniformed cops being unnecessarily rude to robots who were just doing their jobs. Such things made bad press for the offending department and punitive amounts of extra paperwork. With a polite expression, she held out her hand for the counterfeit bill.

The robot stepped forward and jammed its left hand into Agent Argilente's neck, hard enough to stab through the trachea and crack the vertebrae in back. With its right hand, it smoothly slipped Agent Argilente's Glock from her shoulder holster. Before any of the other five agents could draw or even move from their seats, the robot fired TAP-TAP, TAP-TAP into the heads of Agent Tomas Corjesu and Special Agent Jennifer Cho. Special Agent Shandi Jenkins also got a TAP-TAP, but the second round went into her shoulder, not her forehead. The robot's aim was thrown off by the firing by the two remaining agents, whose names the robot was unable to read from their I.D. keycards.

Still clutching the phony $100 bill with the viral code-modified nanochip cluster, the robot fell to the floor under the hail of heavy, copper-jacketed slugs, its higher computational functions lost in the shattered, sparking ruin of its chest. The last command in the hijack instructions the robot got from the bill's rogue chipset was to crosslink its main gelcell batteries and release a guaranteed-1000-day energy supply all at once. It took less than 100 milliseconds for the robot to override the safety interlocks and initiate the simultaneous crosslink, as directed.



For more than five seconds, CarryMan Central alternated queries directly to the robot with queries to the Federal Building's A.I., trying to determine A) why it had lost touch with the robot, and B) if it could move on the press release and PR/SM media campaign. The building A.I. told Central that it had a report of shots fired on the fourth floor, but before it could send any additional information, the building A.I. also went offline. A quick check showed that the A.I.s of the surrounding buildings were also offline.

After a full fourteen seconds of thought and analysis, Central drafted a new, very different press release and sent a Red Flag e.mail to a human at the PR/SM Department.

===== Feel free to comment on this or any other post.

18 comments:

  1. Clever story, Tony! Liked it very much.

    Um, wanted to mention: "... Eight Circuit Court of Appeal dealt with wether ..." Looks as though your "h" key is misbehaving.

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    1. Sorry. That should be "EightH Circuit Court of AppealS dealt with wHether"

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  2. What a diligent program that fellow is!

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    1. Robots are VERY committed to their assigned tasks. Not so good at questioning their instructions, but still...

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    2. Maybe some day we'll design a moral virus to re-code them, or give them a conscience bug.

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  3. I feel sorry for the robot. And for Central. Oh, and the poor agents too. Good use of time and techno terms btw!

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    1. Thanks, Pete! This will certainly change some things in how robots are regarded.

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  4. I always think of the germs we humans transmit on banknotes & the circulation of money and you just delivered a wonderfully imaginative updating of that anxieity!

    marc nash

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    1. So long as nobody engineers one of those brain-controlling viruses in a biological version, we should be OK. 8-)

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  5. Holy moly, what a twist! How different things would have been, had a regular human found the note.

    One more bobble, I think: the parenthetical "(although that annoyed the agent on uniformed attendant)" didn't quite parse for me, after repeated attempts. Central has not provided further instructions.

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    1. Excellent catch, Larry, thanks. I fixed it.

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  6. Tony,

    What a great read. The transition from Courier to Terminator was flawless. Totally did not see that coming!

    The exploit itself was also amazingly clever.

    Well done!

    All the best,
    Paul

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  7. Great story! The twist got me good! That poor robot, it was just doing its job... sorta.

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  8. Ha! Another PR triumph, eh? :)

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  9. What a way to spread a virus!

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  10. Brilliant twist Tony, and interesting piece.

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  11. What a right old CarryOn that was. I continue to love the names you give your characters, Tony; I always assume there's a reason behind them. Google will be taking another hit in around fourteen seconds from now.

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