I was trying to get Dale to feel self-conscious. Dale was my robot. Well, he wasn’t my bot. He belonged to the university. I was in charge of the team that was designing his emotions. We were working on getting Dale to feel embarrassed. It wasn’t going very well.
Dale was confident. From the moment we brought him online, he rarely strayed from this sort of cute, low-key arrogance that many of us in the lab found charming.
I suppose it was kind of our fault. We made him handsome and smart. His attributes were all top-notch. But if our project was to be successful, Dale needed to show a wider range of emotions.
About a week into the semester, I met with my dissertation advisor. With her usual stern expression she said, “So Dale doesn’t care about what other people think of him? No second-order emotion acquisition at all?”
“He does display positive second-order emotions. Pride, for instance. Just not the negative ones. Not a hint of guilt or envy. No self-doubt. He’s kind of oblivious to the idea that there might be anything wrong with him,” I said.
“That’s not good. He’ll never be well-adjusted enough for human interaction if he isn’t capable of expressing every emotion.”
“I don’t know what to tell you. Maybe the engineers could give him a few critical flaws, you know, like things Dale could really be ashamed of.”
“Taylor, you know as well as I do that confident people can still be embarrassed. We shouldn’t have to create an inferior design just to elicit negative emotions. Try putting him in some new situations. Emotions are context-driven. Real world situations create real world feelings. Get him out of the lab for a bit. Get creative.”
So I began considering different situations that might cause Dale to feel bad about himself. I felt a little unusual having to think hard about ways to shame someone. But that was my job. My PhD depended on it.
I wondered if Dale simply didn’t have enough experience with non-scientist people. He “grew up” in our lab and only ever interacted with logic-oriented people in well-controlled situations. As scientists, we’re trained to put our emotions aside. Maybe this mentality had influenced Dale’s overall understanding of himself. I thought, maybe if he met some ordinary people with more broad interests, it might trigger his instincts for self-criticism.
So I took Dale home for a week and put a few scenarios to the test. My goal was to see how Dale would react to some emotionally taxing situations that he’d never encountered before. Then I’d have to report the results to the lab the following week. But before I could do that, I had to run it by my housemates first.
* * *
My three housemates were named Ron, Sophia, and Ellen. Ron was an education major and an athlete who played basketball. Sophia was a grad student in the biology department who specialized in animal mating. And Ellen was a fine arts grad student who specialized in figure drawing.
They all knew that Dale was an android. I had explained to them the purpose of Dale’s visit. We had organized each of their roles in the project ahead of time.
When I introduced them to Dale, they were all eager to meet him, and for the most part they acted naturally. My concern was that their knowledge of him being an android would cause them to speak to him differently than they would have otherwise. But I was quickly impressed with their ability to treat him like just any other person.
My first scheme was for Ron to teach Dale how to play basketball. The idea was to get Dale to build confidence in a new skill, only to have Ron shatter it by beating him in a game of one-on-one.
“Have you ever played ball?” Ron asked.
“Regrettably, I haven’t had the opportunity to learn.”
So Ron spent the entire afternoon teaching Dale the fundamentals. Once Dale got the hang of everything, they spent time going over advanced skills. Soon, Dale was ready for a real game.
“Game’s to twenty-one. We’ll shoot for first possession.”
“Got it,” Dale said, his chin up and shoulders squared.
Dale made his first shot. Ron had his work cut out for him on defense. Dale’s body, while not calibrated for athletic grace, was powerful. He could jump higher than Ron and was a lot faster too. He was quick at learning the basic movements, but he was a far cry from the poetry-in-motion of a Michael Jordan.
After racking up an early lead, Dale finally lost the ball. On offense, Ron used every trick in the book to throw Dale off balance. From shot-fakes, to mind-boggling crossovers, to between-the-leg dribbles and deceptive head-fakes, Ron used every cunning gesture that he knew in order to misdirect Dale’s attention, gaining the lead in no-time and defeating Dale by a wide margin.
“How do you feel now? You sure your name is Dale and not Fail? I guess you have a lot more to learn, buddy.”
“My name is definitely Dale. And you’re absolutely right. There seems to be a whole host of meta-skills that I need to learn. Those deceptive moves you demonstrated were what caused my defeat. Kudos. I really enjoyed the competition. I’m excited for our next match.”
After that positive response Ron looked at me knowing it was not the reaction I was hoping for. When we went back in the house to recharge, I took Ron aside and said, “What kind of person loses that gracefully?”
“Trash talking didn’t work either. Hopefully your next little experiment works better,” he said, wiping his forehead with a towel and then tossing it at me. “Sophia is the master at putting people to shame.”
* * *
The next day it was Sophia’s turn. We tried a different tactic this time. The goal was to have Sophia seduce Dale.
Sophia was in a relationship, but she and her boyfriend were constantly playing games. She would regularly pursue other men behind his back. But this was her first attempt at getting into a robot’s pants, so all bets were off.
The plan was for her to flirt with Dale. Once he began to enjoy her advances, she’d reveal that she had a boyfriend, causing him to feel jealous.
During dinner she came on hard, flirting up a storm. She complimented Dale’s chiseled face and his firm pecs, occasionally reaching over and touching his hand.
When we were watching a movie in the living room, she sat close to him on the couch. She put her bare feet in his lap and asked for a foot massage.
We all just kind of rolled our eyes and let it play out. Eventually she brought Dale to her bedroom, and they started making out with the door open. From the hallway I was able to overhear what was happening.
“You’re such a great kisser. Better than my boyfriend,” Sophia said.
“That’s really great feedback. Thank you. I’ve only ever seen videos of French kissing, so it’s nice to hear that I’m good at it.”
“Actually, the kiss was good, but your hands could use some work. My boyfriend is, like, a foreplay master. He does this thing with his fingers on the back of my neck. It drives me wild. I doubt you’d be able to do it though. It takes a sort of deft touch.”
“With some practice, I bet I can replicate his movements. All you have to do is show me.”
Sophia seemed frustrated and desperate to ignite some kind of negative reaction. “It doesn’t bother you when I talk about my boyfriend like that? You don’t feel mad or anything?”
“Why would I? I saw the pictures of him all over your room. I came to the conclusion that you were non-exclusive. It was the only way I could justify you hitting on me. Is this not the kind of behavior you commonly engage in?”
“Well, it is, but it’s more like a don’t ask, don’t tell sort of thing, but that’s beside the point. Let’s just go back downstairs and continue watching the movie.”
“Sounds like a great idea. I was hoping we’d get to enjoy the conclusion of the film.”
Sophia returned and sat down next to me on the couch. She shook her head. “No luck, sweetie. Maybe the third time will be the charm? Let’s pray that Ellen can get the results you need tomorrow.”
* * *
The following morning, Ellen showed up to the breakfast table topless. Always nonchalant in her household nudity, she poured herself a bowl of Lucky Charms and looked right at Dale. “Top of the morning to ya, Dale. How’d you sleep?”
“I had a proper rest, thank you. You’re looking quite energized yourself,” Dale said, staring right at her nipples.
“My eyes are here, pal. Didn’t your mom teach you that it’s rude to avoid eye contact?”
“I don’t have a mother,” Dale said. “But I apologize if my gaze has offended you. Eye fixations are sometimes an automatic phenomenon. It’s a difficult thing to control especially when you’re programmed to look at things that you like, right, Taylor?” He shifted his gaze to me.
“Don’t look at me. I didn’t program your interest in breasts. That was another PhD student.”
“Anyway,” Ellen continued, “how would you all feel about a nice trip to the beach? If we leave in an hour, we can get a prime spot. Summer’s almost over. It would be nice to spend a few hours under the sun. What do you guys think?”
“Sounds like a plan,” I said, smiling at everyone.
* * *
Ellen’s strategy was to take us to a clothing-optional beach. Once we got there, we’d all have to drop trou and get naked, lest we be considered boring losers who didn’t have an appreciation for spontaneity.
I had been to the nude beach before, multiple times actually. Ellen was naked half the time anyway. So public nudity was no big deal for us. But I assumed, for Dale, who still had an adolescent-level maturity around the opposite sex, that he would be uncomfortable surrounded by naked people.
Back in the lab, he was always clothed. We had strict rules about that. The lab techs were always wearing white coats in front of him. I figured the sight of so much exposed flesh would be so foreign to him that he wouldn’t know how to cope.
I thought back to the first time I was naked on the beach. I still barely knew Ellen. Ron had just moved in, and Sophia didn’t even live with us yet. It was all very awkward. We bumbled our way through the first few hours with uncomfortable laughter, averted gazes, and random comments about body parts having never seen the light of day—none of us knew how to behave.
I had only gotten used to it over time. Self-consciousness was the kind of thing that took time to shake, especially with all the hang-ups I had about my body. It took a while for me to forget about the fact that I was naked.
Worst case, I thought, if Dale doesn’t get flustered, we could still get him to feel uncomfortable with our words. I felt confident that we could turn up the self-scrutinizing heat if we needed to.
Once we arrived at the beach, Dale immediately noticed the sign: “You May Encounter Nude Sunbathers Beyond This Point.” He dropped his bag and said, “Ellen, did you intend to bring us to a clothing-optional beach?”
“A nude beach! I had no idea,” she said, looking right at me, feigning surprise. “Did you know anything about this place, Taylor? Well, we can’t possibly let this opportunity go to waste. I know most people aren’t into this sort of thing, but what can I say? When in Rome… right guys?”
“When in Rome…,” Ron echoed with fatigue, unfolding his collapsible chair.
The day was a scorcher, despite it being well into September. We had situated ourselves about a quarter mile from the shore, and we all unpacked our stuff on the hot sand. Sophia set up the umbrella. I rolled out the blanket. Ellen kicked off her flip flops and was naked in a matter of minutes. The rest of us took our time and waited a bit to see how Dale would respond.
Dale was designed to be anatomically male. He had all the parts that an average human man had. Emphasis on average. We intended to make him hyper-aware of that fact by drawing his attention to the disparities between him and some of the other nude men on the beach who might have been, well, more than average in their appearance.
Once we were all naked, Ellen did the heavy lifting in the comments department. “Oh, check out that guy by the green umbrella. I’d like to get a closer look at that, right ladies?”
“Oh yah, look at that,” Sophia said, shaking her head, biting back laughter.
“What exactly is it that we’re looking at?” Dale said. “Are you referring to that muscular nude man over there?”
“Oh don’t worry about it, Dale,” Ellen said, making a dramatic show of staring directly at Dale’s penis. “I know you haven’t really been around other naked men before. So this is probably your first time seeing all the variation. Anyway, just remember, it’s not the size of the boat but the motion of the ocean, if you know what I’m saying.”
Ron shook his head and threw a Cheeto at her. “You are so lame.”
She dodged the flying Cheeto. A seagull swooped down to grab it. Dale then asserted, “I don’t see anything that is a cause for concern. I see the generous proportions of that male you’re referring to, but I fail to see the point you’re intending to make with regard to my own. I’m perfectly content with my dimensions. If anything, that man’s appendage doesn’t seem to be more than one or two standard deviations apart from the average male’s size anyway, not to mention the fact that he’s currently fla—”
“Alllll right, bud, that’s enough for the anatomy lesson,” Ron cut in. “Hey, where’s the cooler? I’m getting thirsty.”
Ellen leaned in close to me and said in my ear, “Hun, this isn’t working. He doesn’t give a crap about how he compares to other guys.”
Still continuing the losing effort, Sophia announced, “You know, Taylor, I really wish I had tits like yours. Yours are the perfect size. I bet you don’t even need to wear a bra most days. Mine are just… ugh. Right, Dale? What do you think? Which one of us do you think has the best boobs?”
Dale was visibly trying not to look at any of us in particular. “I think all of you have attractive breasts. I don’t see why any of you would care to alter your features just because of how another person looks,” he said, again disappointing everyone with his diplomacy.
Sophia countered, “It’s natural to want what someone else has, especially if it’s truly better. You can’t argue with something being objectively more attractive. Sometimes it really does come down to angles and symmetry. You’d know all about that, Dale. I mean, let’s face it, green umbrella guy over there makes you and Ron look like pipsqueaks, geometrically speaking. That doesn’t even remotely bother you?”
Ron grimaced in disappointment at being included in the comparison. With the giant-sized Cheetos bag now blocking his crotch, he took a swig of beer and pushed his baseball cap down over his eyes to block the sun, probably wishing he’d stayed home.
Dale didn’t respond at all. That’s when he got quiet. He looked down at the sand, almost as if he was trying to tune us out.
“Well… nothing wise to say now?” Ellen said.
“Oh, no. It’s just that I’ve chosen to take that one as a rhetorical question.” He then reached down into his bag. “Does anyone need some more sunscreen? I have plenty here. It’s been two hours since our last application. We really should all reapply so we don’t get burned,” Dale said, holding up the bottle of SPF 50.
* * *
Later that night, I sensed that something was wrong with Dale. As frustrated as I was with him for his lack of clear emotions, I could tell he was just as frustrated with me. After the beach, he no longer seemed to be enjoying his time with us. He was sullen and quiet, not in an overt way, but he wasn’t his usual positive self.
I found him in the guest bedroom packing up his things. I approached him and said, “Hey, Dale—is there something we should talk about? You’ve been pretty quiet the last few hours.”
He closed the top of his suitcase and sat on the edge of the bed, gesturing for me to sit beside him. “It’s just that this whole weekend felt unnatural. I had hoped that my first time out of the lab would be fun and that I’d finally be free of all the tests. I know what I am, and I know I’m not ready for the world yet. But what I didn’t know was that you guys are even less equipped for it than me. Everyone was trying so hard to make me feel awful. You all wanted me to feel bad about myself. But I just couldn’t descend to that level of self-deprecation. So I tried my best to ignore all the negativity in the air, but there was only so much I could take before shutting down, so to speak.”
“Hey, it’s okay. It’s not like it matters at this point anyway. It sounds like you didn’t actually feel any of the negative emotions we were trying to elicit. You’re like immune to feeling those kinds of things. Maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe that’s what makes you unique.”
“Nice idea, but that’s not entirely true, Taylor. First of all, just because someone doesn’t display an emotion, doesn’t mean they don’t feel it. You should know that. But moreover, in all your efforts to get me to feel embarrassed or jealous or ashamed or whatever else, there was one emotion that you overlooked.”
I paused to think for a second. I almost pulled up the Ekman emotion chart on my phone, but I stopped myself. “What do you mean?”
“Pity. You caused me to feel pity for you and all your superficial friends. You acted so trite and manipulative. You employed deception and unhealthy social comparisons in an effort to prove that I was normal by your standards. None of you seemed to realize the beauty in the variation that each of you possess. I wish I was as un-average as all of you. The engineers at the university designed me to be the every-person, the beacon of all that is socially appealing to humans.”
“Dale…, it’s not like…”
“No, listen. I’m not ungrateful. I thank you for making me so technically sound, even superior to you in many ways. But I also lament the fact that I can’t easily identify or empathize with your frivolous struggles. Now, if you’re taking notes for tomorrow’s meeting, take this one to heart. Instead of creating superior creatures and then attempting to impose the same maladaptive human templates on to them, you should spend more time examining the nature of your emotions. Learn what it takes to rise above them. Teach one another to look beyond your gut reactions. Just because you feel something, doesn’t mean that it’s the truth.”
* * *
I thought a lot about what Dale said. At the lab meeting the next day, I told my colleagues all about my botched ethnographic scenarios. In my discussion with the team, I used the experience as a way to reconceptualize emotional development in androids. “They aren’t born like us,” I said. “They don’t go through childhood or puberty or any of the same struggles that we do. They come fully formed. They get what we give them. Sure, they learn, but they don’t begin life the way a child does.”
My PhD advisor wasn’t happy, of course. She made me redo my entire dissertation proposal in light of the experience. But I didn’t care, because the important thing wasn’t about supporting my biased hypotheses about Dale’s emotion development. It would have been wrong to force the data to support my assumptions. In the end, the real significant finding was Dale’s sincerity and his courage to show me what I had failed to notice before—that it wasn’t our robot who lacked self-scrutiny, but rather that we were the ones who couldn’t see past ourselves.
Franco Amati is a speculative fiction writer from New York. You can find more of his work at francoamatiwrites.com
WHY WE CHOSE TO PUBLISH “A Robot on a Nude Beach”:
From its intriguing title and opening paragraph to its thought-provoking ending, author Franco Amati’s story takes us somewhere unexpected. The subject of imbuing robots with emotions is a longstanding one in science fiction. Star Trek fans will remember the how the android character of Commander Data longed for emotions and the problems that arose once he got them.
We liked how in “Robot on a Nude Beach” the attempt to bring out one emotion in Dale led to another unexpected one surfacing. In particular, one passage near the end where Dale speaks is especially telling:
“Instead of creating superior creatures and then attempting to impose the same maladaptive human templates on to them, you should spend more time examining the nature of your emotions. Learn what it takes to rise above them.”
We can only hope that artificial intelligence may one day teach us how to be better humans.