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Kuttner’s Ego Machine Takes a Playful Look at AI and the Human Brain
This is, above all else, an entertaining story. It centers around Nicholas Martin, a hapless play-write and producer who appears at the end of his professional and personal rope. His attitude towards his employer, towards his love interest, towards the robot that he finds in his office-it’s all hilarious. The somewhat frantic pace of the story and the rapid, stream-of-consciousness narrative from the main character gives the whole story a slapstick veneer that translates quite well.
But, at the core, there’s a robot attempting to unlock the full potential of what is arguably a very addled and confused brain. With public companies creating direct computer-brain interfaces, and the augmentation of human consciousness with AI just around the corner, the core theme of this story hits home in modern times.
What would you do, if a robot from the future offers you the promise of unlocking your potential?
Henry Kuttner wrote far too little before his early death in 1958. He and his wife, C.L. Moore, are credited with some of the finest works of fiction that came out of the early to mid 20th century. He wrote under several pseudonyms, and his Ghalleger stories, published under the name Lewis Padgett, are the prototype of the crazy inventor character arc. Ghalleger would invent high-tech solutions to problems, with the assistance of his robot, while black-out drunk. When sober he would have no idea how he had managed them. Kuttner is the epitome of tight, fast prose, and cut his teeth in the Lovecraft Circle where he met his wife.
The Ego Machine
By Henry Kuttner
Nicholas Martin looked up at the robot across the desk.
“I’m not going to ask what you want,” he said, in a low, restrained voice. “I already know. Just go away and tell St. Cyr I approve. Tell him I think it’s wonderful, putting a robot in the picture. We’ve had everything else by now, except the Rockettes. But clearly a quiet little play about Christmas among the Portuguese fishermen on the Florida coast must have a robot. Only, why not six robots? Tell him I suggest a baker’s dozen. Go away.”
“Was your mother’s name Helena Glinska?” the robot asked.
“It was not,” Martin said.
“Ah, then she must have been the Great Hairy One,” the robot murmured.
Martin took his feet off the desk and sat up slowly.
“It’s quite all right,” the robot said hastily. “You’ve been chosen for an ecological experiment, that’s all. But it won’t hurt. Robots are perfectly normal life forms where I come from, so you needn’t—”
“Shut up,” Martin said. “Robot indeed, you—you bit-player! This time St. Cyr has gone too far.” He began to shake slightly all over, with some repressed but strong emotion. The intercom box on the desk caught his eye, and he stabbed a finger at one of the switches. “Get me Miss Ashby! Right away!”
“I’m so sorry,” the robot said apologetically. “Have I made a mistake? The threshold fluctuations in the neurons always upset my mnemonic norm when I temporalize. Isn’t this a crisis-point in your life?”
Martin breathed hard, which seemed to confirm the robot’s assumption.
“Exactly,” it said. “The ecological imbalance approaches a peak that may destroy the life-form, unless … mm-m. Now either you’re about to be stepped on by a mammoth, locked in an iron mask, assassinated by helots, or—is this Sanskrit I’m speaking?” He shook his gleaming head. “Perhaps I should have got off fifty years ago, but I thought—sorry. Good-bye,” he added hastily as Martin raised an angry glare.
Then the robot lifted a finger to each corner of his naturally rigid mouth, and moved his fingers horizontally in opposite directions, as though sketching an apologetic smile.
“No, don’t go away,” Martin said. “I want you right here, where the sight of you can refuel my rage in case it’s needed. I wish to God I could get mad and stay mad,” he added plaintively, gazing at the telephone.
“Are you sure your mother’s name wasn’t Helena Glinska?” the robot asked. It pinched thumb and forefinger together between its nominal brows, somehow giving the impression of a worried frown.
“Naturally I’m sure,” Martin snapped.
“You aren’t married yet, then? To Anastasia Zakharina-Koshkina?”
“Not yet or ever,” Martin replied succinctly. The telephone rang. He snatched it up.
“Hello, Nick,” said Erika Ashby’s calm voice. “Something wrong?”
Instantly the fires of rage went out of Martin’s eyes, to be replaced by a tender, rose-pink glow. For some years now he had given Erika, his very competent agent, ten percent of his take. He had also longed hopelessly to give her approximately a pound of flesh—the cardiac muscle, to put it in cold, unromantic terms. Martin did not; he put it in no terms at all, since whenever he tried to propose marriage to Erika he was taken with such fits of modesty that he could only babble o’ green fields.
“Well,” Erika repeated. “Something wrong?”
“Yes,” Martin said, drawing a long breath. “Can St. Cyr make me marry somebody named Anastasia Zakharina-Koshkina?”
“What a wonderful memory you have,” the robot put in mournfully. “Mine used to be, before I started temporalizing. But even radioactive neurons won’t stand—”
“Nominally you’re still entitled to life, liberty, et cetera,” Erika said. “But I’m busy right now, Nick. Can’t it wait till I see you?”
“Didn’t you get my message?” Erika demanded.
“Of course not,” Martin said, angrily. “I’ve suspected for some time that all my incoming calls have to be cleared by St. Cyr. Somebody might try to smuggle in a word of hope, or possibly a file.” His voice brightened. “Planning a jailbreak?”
“Oh, this is outrageous,” Erika said. “Some day St. Cyr’s going to go too far—”
“Not while he’s got DeeDee behind him,” Martin said gloomily. Summit Studios would sooner have made a film promoting atheism than offend their top box-office star, DeeDee Fleming. Even Tolliver Watt, who owned Summit lock, stock and barrel, spent wakeful nights because St. Cyr refused to let the lovely DeeDee sign a long-term contract.
“Nevertheless, Watt’s no fool,” Erika said. “I still think we could get him to give you a contract release if we could make him realize what a rotten investment you are. There isn’t much time, though.”
“I told you—oh. Of course you don’t know. He’s leaving for Paris tomorrow morning.”
Martin moaned. “Then I’m doomed,” he said. “They’ll pick up my option automatically next week and I’ll never draw a free breath again. Erika, do something!”
“I’m going to,” Erika said. “That’s exactly what I want to see you about. Ah,” she added suddenly, “now I understand why St. Cyr stopped my message. He was afraid. Nick, do you know what we’ve got to do?”
“See Watt?” Nick hazarded unhappily. “But Erika—”
“See Watt alone,” Erika amplified.
“Not if St. Cyr can help it,” Nick reminded her.
“Exactly. Naturally St. Cyr doesn’t want us to talk to Watt privately. We might make him see reason. But this time, Nick, we’ve simply got to manage it somehow. One of us is going to talk to Watt while the other keeps St. Cyr at bay. Which do you choose?”
“Neither,” Martin said promptly.
“Oh, Nick! I can’t do the whole thing alone. Anybody’d think you were afraid of St. Cyr.”
“I am afraid of St. Cyr,” Martin said.
“Nonsense. What could he actually do to you?”
“He could terrorize me. He does it all the time. Erika, he says I’m indoctrinating beautifully. Doesn’t it make your blood run cold? Look at all the other writers he’s indoctrinated.”
“I know. I saw one of them on Main Street last week, delving into garbage cans. Do you want to end up that way? Then stand up for your rights!”
“Ah,” said the robot wisely, nodding. “Just as I thought. A crisis-point.”
“Shut up,” Martin said. “No, not you, Erika. I’m sorry.”
“So am I,” Erika said tartly. “For a moment I thought you’d acquired a backbone.”
“If I were somebody like Hemingway—” Martin began in a miserable voice.
“Did you say Hemingway?” the robot inquired. “Is this the Kinsey-Hemingway era? Then I must be right. You’re Nicholas Martin, the next subject. Martin, Martin? Let me see—oh yes, the Disraeli type, that’s it.” He rubbed his forehead with a grating sound. “Oh, my poor neuron thresholds! Now I remember.”
“Nick, can you hear me?” Erika’s voice inquired. “I’m coming over there right away. Brace yourself. We’re going to beard St. Cyr in his den and convince Watt you’ll never make a good screen-writer. Now—”
“But St. Cyr won’t ever admit that,” Martin cried. “He doesn’t know the meaning of the word failure. He says so. He’s going to make me into a screen-writer or kill me.”
“Remember what happened to Ed Cassidy?” Erika reminded him grimly. “St. Cyr didn’t make him into a screen-writer.”
“True. Poor old Ed,” Martin said, with a shiver.
“All right, then. I’m on my way. Anything else?”
“Yes!” Martin cried, drawing a deep breath. “Yes, there is! I love you madly!”
But the words never got past his glottis. Opening and closing his mouth noiselessly, the cowardly playwright finally clenched his teeth and tried again. A faint, hopeless squeak vibrated the telephone’s disk. Martin let his shoulders slump hopelessly. It was clear he could never propose to anybody, not even a harmless telephone.
“Did you say something?” Erika asked. “Well, good-bye then.”
“Wait a minute,” Martin said, his eyes suddenly falling once more upon the robot. Speechless on one subject only, he went on rapidly, “I forgot to tell you. Watt and the nest-fouling St. Cyr have just hired a mock-up phony robot to play in Angelina Noel!”
But the line was dead.
“I’m not a phony,” the robot said, hurt.
Martin fell back in his chair and stared at his guest with dull, hopeless eyes. “Neither was King Kong,” he remarked. “Don’t start feeding me some line St. Cyr’s told you to pull. I know he’s trying to break my nerve. He’ll probably do it, too. Look what he’s done to my play already. Why Fred Waring? I don’t mind Fred Waring in his proper place. There he’s fine. But not in Angelina Noel. Not as the Portuguese captain of a fishing boat manned by his entire band, accompanied by Dan Dailey singing Napoli to DeeDee Fleming in a mermaid’s tail—”
Self-stunned by this recapitulation, Martin put his arms on the desk, his head in his hands, and to his horror found himself giggling. The telephone rang. Martin groped for the instrument without rising from his semi-recumbent position.
“Who?” he asked shakily. “Who? St. Cyr—”
A hoarse bellow came over the wire. Martin sat bolt upright, seizing the phone desperately with both hands.
“Listen!” he cried. “Will you let me finish what I’m going to say, just for once? Putting a robot in Angelina Noel is simply—”
“I do not hear what you say,” roared a heavy voice. “Your idea stinks. Whatever it is. Be at Theater One for yesterday’s rushes! At once!”
St. Cyr belched and hung up. Martin’s strangling hands tightened briefly on the telephone. But it was no use. The real strangle-hold was the one St. Cyr had around Martin’s throat, and it had been tightening now for nearly thirteen weeks. Or had it been thirteen years? Looking backward, Martin could scarcely believe that only a short time ago he had been a free man, a successful Broadway playwright, the author of the hit play Angelina Noel. Then had come St. Cyr… .
A snob at heart, the director loved getting his clutches on hit plays and name writers. Summit Studios, he had roared at Martin, would follow the original play exactly and would give Martin the final okay on the script, provided he signed a thirteen-week contract to help write the screen treatment. This had seemed too good to be true—and was.
Martin’s downfall lay partly in the fine print and partly in the fact that Erika Ashby had been in the hospital with a bad attack of influenza at the time. Buried in legal verbiage was a clause that bound Martin to five years of servitude with Summit should they pick up his option. Next week they would certainly do just that, unless justice prevailed.
“I think I need a drink,” Martin said unsteadily. “Or several.” He glanced toward the robot. “I wonder if you’d mind getting me that bottle of Scotch from the bar over there.”
“But I am here to conduct an experiment in optimum ecology,” said the robot.
Martin closed his eyes. “Pour me a drink,” he pleaded. “Please. Then put the glass in my hand, will you? It’s not much to ask. After all, we’re both human beings, aren’t we?”
“Well, no,” the robot said, placing a brimming glass in Martin’s groping fingers. Martin drank. Then he opened his eyes and blinked at the tall highball glass in his hand. The robot had filled it to the brim with Scotch. Martin turned a wondering gaze on his metallic companion.
“You must do a lot of drinking yourself,” he said thoughtfully. “I suppose tolerance can be built up. Go ahead. Help yourself. Take the rest of the bottle.”
The robot placed the tip of a finger above each eye and slid the fingers upward, as though raising his eyebrows inquiringly.
“Go on, have a jolt,” Martin urged. “Or don’t you want to break bread with me, under the circumstances?”
“How can I?” the robot asked. “I’m a robot.” His voice sounded somewhat wistful. “What happens?” he inquired. “Is it a lubricatory or a fueling mechanism?”
Martin glanced at his brimming glass.
“Fueling,” he said tersely. “High octane. You really believe in staying in character, don’t you? Why not—”
“Oh, the principle of irritation,” the robot interrupted. “I see. Just like fermented mammoth’s milk.”
Martin choked. “Have you ever drunk fermented mammoth’s milk?” he inquired.
“How could I?” the robot asked. “But I’ve seen it done.” He drew a straight line vertically upward between his invisible eyebrows, managing to look wistful. “Of course my world is perfectly functional and functionally perfect, but I can’t help finding temporalizing a fascina—” He broke off. “I’m wasting space-time. Ah. Now. Mr. Martin, would you be willing to—”
“Oh, have a drink,” Martin said. “I feel hospitable. Go ahead, indulge me, will you? My pleasures are few. And I’ve got to go and be terrorized in a minute, anyhow. If you can’t get that mask off I’ll send for a straw. You can step out of character long enough for one jolt, can’t you?”
“I’d like to try it,” the robot said pensively. “Ever since I noticed the effect fermented mammoth’s milk had on the boys, it’s been on my mind, rather. Quite easy for a human, of course. Technically it’s simple enough, I see now. The irritation just increases the frequency of the brain’s kappa waves, as with boosted voltage, but since electrical voltage never existed in pre-robot times—”
“It did,” Martin said, taking another drink. “I mean, it does. What do you call that, a mammoth?” He indicated the desk lamp.
The robot’s jaw dropped.
“That?” he asked in blank amazement. “Why—why then all those telephone poles and dynamos and lighting-equipment I noticed in this era are powered by electricity!”
“What did you think they were powered by?” Martin asked coldly.
“Slaves,” the robot said, examining the lamp. He switched it on, blinked, and then unscrewed the bulb. “Voltage, you say?”
“Don’t be a fool,” Martin said. “You’re overplaying your part. I’ve got to get going in a minute. Do you want a jolt or don’t you?”
“Well,” the robot said, “I don’t want to seem unsociable. This ought to work.” So saying, he stuck his finger in the lamp-socket. There was a brief, crackling flash. The robot withdrew his finger.
“F(t)—” he said, and swayed slightly. Then his fingers came up and sketched a smile that seemed, somehow, to express delighted surprise.
“Fff(t)!” he said, and went on rather thickly, “F(t) integral between plus and minus infinity … a-sub-n to e… .”
Martin’s eyes opened wide with shocked horror. Whether a doctor or a psychiatrist should be called in was debatable, but it was perfectly evident that this was a case for the medical profession, and the sooner the better. Perhaps the police, too. The bit-player in the robot suit was clearly as mad as a hatter. Martin poised indecisively, waiting for his lunatic guest either to drop dead or spring at his throat.
The robot appeared to be smacking his lips, with faint clicking sounds.
“Why, that’s wonderful,” he said. “AC, too.”
“Y-you’re not dead?” Martin inquired shakily.
“I’m not even alive,” the robot murmured. “The way you’d understand it, that is. Ah—thanks for the jolt.”
Martin stared at the robot with the wildest dawning of surmise.
“Why—” he gasped. “Why—you’re a robot!”
“Certainly I’m a robot,” his guest said. “What slow minds you pre-robots had. Mine’s working like lightning now.” He stole a drunkard’s glance at the desk-lamp. “F(t)—I mean, if you counted the kappa waves of my radio-atomic brain now, you’d be amazed how the frequency’s increased.” He paused thoughtfully. “F(t),” he added.
Moving quite slowly, like a man under water, Martin lifted his glass and drank whiskey. Then, cautiously, he looked up at the robot again.
“F(t)—” he said, paused, shuddered, and drank again. That did it. “I’m drunk,” he said with an air of shaken relief. “That must be it. I was almost beginning to believe—”
“Oh, nobody believes I’m a robot at first,” the robot said. “You’ll notice I showed up in a movie lot, where I wouldn’t arouse suspicion. I’ll appear to Ivan Vasilovich in an alchemist’s lab, and he’ll jump to the conclusive I’m an automaton. Which, of course, I am. Then there’s a Uighur on my list—I’ll appear to him in a shaman’s hut and he’ll assume I’m a devil. A matter of ecologicologic.”
“Then you’re a devil?” Martin inquired, seizing on the only plausible solution.
“No, no, no. I’m a robot. Don’t you understand anything?”
“I don’t even know who I am, now,” Martin said. “For all I know, I’m a faun and you’re a human child. I don’t think this Scotch is doing me as much good as I’d—”
“Your name is Nicholas Martin,” the robot said patiently. “And mine is ENIAC.”
“ENIAC,” the robot corrected, capitalizing. “ENIAC Gamma the Ninety-Third.”
So saying, he unslung a sack from his metallic shoulder and began to rummage out length upon length of what looked like red silk ribbon with a curious metallic lustre. After approximately a quarter-mile of it had appeared, a crystal football helmet emerged attached to its end. A gleaming red-green stone was set on each side of the helmet.
“Just over the temporal lobes, you see,” the robot explained, indicating the jewels. “Now you just set it on your head, like this—”
“Oh no I don’t,” Martin said, withdrawing his head with the utmost rapidity. “Neither do you, my friend. What’s the idea? I don’t like the looks of that gimmick. I particularly don’t like those two red garnets on the sides. They look like eyes.”
“Those are artificial eclogite,” the robot assured him. “They simply have a high dielectric constant. It’s merely a matter of altering the normal thresholds of the neuron memory-circuits. All thinking is based on memory, you know. The strength of your associations—the emotional indices of your memories—channel your actions and decisions, and the ecologizer simply changes the voltage of your brain so the thresholds are altered.”
“Is that all it does?” Martin asked suspiciously.
“Well, now,” the robot said with a slight air of evasion. “I didn’t intend to mention it, but since you ask—it also imposes the master-matrix of your character type. But since that’s the prototype of your character in the first place, it will simply enable you to make the most of your potential ability, hereditary and acquired. It will make you react to your environment in the way that best assures your survival.”
“Not me, it won’t,” Martin said firmly. “Because you aren’t going to put that thing on my head.”
The robot sketched a puzzled frown. “Oh,” he said after a pause. “I haven’t explained yet, have I? It’s very simple. Would you be willing to take part in a valuable socio-cultural experiment for the benefit of all mankind?”
“No,” Martin said.
“But you don’t know what it is yet,” the robot said plaintively. “You’ll be the only one to refuse, after I’ve explained everything thoroughly. By the way, can you understand me all right?”
Martin laughed hollowly. “Natch,” he said.
“Good,” the robot said, relieved. “That may be one trouble with my memory. I had to record so many languages before I could temporalize. Sanskrit’s very simple, but medieval Russian’s confusing, and as for Uighur—however! The purpose of this experiment is to promote the most successful pro-survival relationship between man and his environment. Instant adaptation is what we’re aiming at, and we hope to get it by minimizing the differential between individual and environment. In other words, the right reaction at the right time. Understand?”
“Of course not,” Martin said. “What nonsense you talk.”
“There are,” the robot said rather wearily, “only a limited number of character matrices possible, depending first on the arrangement of the genes within the chromosomes, and later upon environmental additions. Since environments tend to repeat—like societies, you know—an organizational pattern isn’t hard to lay out, along the Kaldekooz time-scale. You follow me so far?”
“By the Kaldekooz time-scale, yes,” Martin said.
“I was always lucid,” the robot remarked a little vainly, nourishing a swirl of red ribbon.
“Keep that thing away from me,” Martin complained. “Drunk I may be, but I have no intention of sticking my neck out that far.”
“Of course you’ll do it,” the robot said firmly. “Nobody’s ever refused yet. And don’t bicker with me or you’ll get me confused and I’ll have to take another jolt of voltage. Then there’s no telling how confused I’ll be. My memory gives me enough trouble when I temporalize. Time-travel always raises the synaptic delay threshold, but the trouble is it’s so variable. That’s why I got you mixed up with Ivan at first. But I don’t visit him till after I’ve seen you—I’m running the test chronologically, and nineteen-fifty-two comes before fifteen-seventy, of course.”
“It doesn’t,” Martin said, tilting the glass to his lips. “Not even in Hollywood does nineteen-fifty-two come before fifteen-seventy.”
“I’m using the Kaldekooz time-scale,” the robot explained. “But really only for convenience. Now do you want the ideal ecological differential or don’t you? Because—” Here he flourished the red ribbon again, peered into the helmet, looked narrowly at Martin, and shook his head.
“I’m sorry,” the robot said. “I’m afraid this won’t work. Your head’s too small. Not enough brain-room, I suppose. This helmet’s for an eight and a half head, and yours is much too—”
“My head is eight and a half,” Martin protested with dignity.
“Can’t be,” the robot said cunningly. “If it were, the helmet would fit, and it doesn’t. Too big.”
“It does fit,” Martin said.
“That’s the trouble with arguing with pre-robot species,” ENIAC said, as to himself. “Low, brutish, unreasoning. No wonder, when their heads are so small. Now Mr. Martin—” He spoke as though to a small, stupid, stubborn child. “Try to understand. This helmet’s size eight and a half. Your head is unfortunately so very small that the helmet wouldn’t fit—”
“Blast it!” cried the infuriated Martin, caution quite lost between Scotch and annoyance. “It does fit! Look here!” Recklessly he snatched the helmet and clapped it firmly on his head. “It fits perfectly!”
“I erred,” the robot acknowledged, with such a gleam in his eye that Martin, suddenly conscious of his rashness, jerked the helmet from his head and dropped it on the desk. ENIAC quietly picked it up and put it back into his sack, stuffing the red ribbon in after it with rapid motions. Martin watched, baffled, until ENIAC had finished, gathered together the mouth of the sack, swung it on his shoulder again, and turned toward the door.
“Good-bye,” the robot said. “And thank you.”
“For what?” Martin demanded.
“For your cooperation,” the robot said.
“I won’t cooperate,” Martin told him flatly. “It’s no use. Whatever fool treatment it is you’re selling, I’m not going to—”
“Oh, you’ve already had the ecology treatment,” ENIAC replied blandly. “I’ll be back tonight to renew the charge. It lasts only twelve hours.”
ENIAC moved his forefingers outward from the corners of his mouth, sketching a polite smile. Then he stepped through the door and closed it behind him.
Martin made a faint squealing sound, like a stuck but gagged pig.
Something was happening inside his head.
N.T. Narbutovskih is a bestselling author and writes in the tech and security fields. His work has appeared in Metastellar, Air and Space Power Journal and Over the Horizon Journal for both fiction and non-fiction, and he has spoken on leadership and geopolitics at the USAF Squadron Officer School and NavyCON. His first book, Steel in the Blood, has received rave reviews and is available now wherever books are sold. Join his mailing list for exclusive early access and an opportunity to pre-order his next book at Narbutov.com.