Saturday, October 20, 2018

The Killer Sexbots

Yeah, sexbots are a thing, as Tom Jurgen finds out in his latest case.

The Killer Sexbots, Part One

Rich Dietrich slurped the last of his coffee. Almost finished with the last update. He hoped those bastards in D.C. appreciated it. A few more hours . . .
            His doorbell buzzed. What the hell? One of the things he liked about working at home was no interruptions. And working in his underwear.
            He grabbed a pair of gray sweatpants. In his bare feet, he staggered to the door. He wasn’t sure when he’d gone to bed last. Once he finished these last few bits he could sleep for a long time.
            Dietrich peered past the chain on his door. “Yeah? What the hell do you . . .” He stopped. “Oh. Sorry.”
            She had short blonde hair—and an even shorter skirt. “Hi. Rick Dietrich?”
            “Uh, it’s Rich.” He unhooked the chain and held the door back. “Can I help you?”
            “Oh, sorry. Rich.” She smiled. “My name’s Val.”
            “Hi, Val.” He grinned. “What do you—need a cup of sugar or something?”
            “No.” She shook her head and opened her small purse. “This will just take a minute.”
            Dietrich stared at the knife. “What—”
            Val jabbed it into his throat.
            “Unngh . . .” Dietrich staggered back, the hardwood floor spinning below his feet. He felt his head hit, and gazed up at the ceiling fan, spinning around over his head. How could . . . this happen?
            Val stared at him until he stopped breathing. Then she slipped her knife back into her purse and backed out of the door.
           
Lynda Daugherty was convinced her husband Earl was cheating on her. “I don’t know—it’s just a feeling.” She was an attractive woman in her 40s, and lived with her husband in a small house in Glen Ellyn. “He’s just acting—a little different lately. I ask him about it, and he shuts me down. I’ve just got to know.”
Tailing cheating spouses is a big part of my life—Tom Jurgen private detective. So we discussed the case and my fees, and she wrote me a check.
            The problem with tailing someone is that it’s time-consuming and expensive for the client. The problem was worse because Daugherty sold real estate, which meant he was in and out of his suburban office all day. We agreed that I’d trail him every other day for a week, and decide whether to continue after that.
            So I sat in my Honda on Monday outside their house in Glen Ellyn and waited for Daugherty to head for work in his Kia. Fortunately his office was in a strip mall a few miles away, so I could park and wait without being too obvious. The first day he went out twice to show off houses to young couples. Nothing kinky that I could see—if they were having three-ways iside the homes, they were quick about it.
            On Wednesday I borrowed my girlfriend Rachel’s Prius, just in case he noticed my Honda. But Daugherty spent six hours in his office, only going out for lunch, and then went right home.
            Two days after that—Friday—I was back in my Honda. Daugherty left for his office at 10 a.m. At 12:30 he drove to a Wendy’s, and after his lunch he got into his Kia and drove a few miles down the road to an industrial park in Wheaton, the next suburb west of Glen Ellyn. I followed him down the driveway until he got to a gate.
            He slid down his window and talked into a speaker. A moment later the gate lifted, and he drove through.
            Nuts. The park had three buildings that I could see, and maybe more behind them. Daugherty pulled up to the second one, four stories high with a sign I couldn’t make out. Now what?
            So I pulled up to the gate and slid my window down. “Hello?”
            “Yes, sir?” The voice was male, polite. A video camera loomed over the gate.
            “I think my GPS screwed up. Is this where, uh, Bowie Electronics is located? Its headquarters?” I’d been listening to David Bowie on the radio.
            “No, sir, this is Lawson Industrial Park. Do you need directions somewhere?”
            I sighed. “No, thanks. I must have made a wrong turn.”
            I backed up and turned around.
            Unfortunately, the park was in a wooded area, and there was no place close to park. I finally found a gas station where I could use the restroom, fill up Rachel’s tank, and call my client.
            “I’ve never heard of it,” Lynda Daugherty said. “Maybe he’s got a client there?”
            “It seems like an unlikely spot for a tryst.” But I was curious. “Look, I don’t think I can pick him back up after this. I should go back home and see if I can find out anything about this place.”
            She groaned. “Okay, I guess. But we should talk on Sunday. This is getting too expensive.”
            “I understand.” Sometimes these things just don’t work out. “I’ll be in touch.”

Back in the apartment I shared with Rachel on Chicago’s north side, I opened and beer and fired up my computer in our shared office. Rachel was on the phone with a client.
            She’s got short red hair, hazelnut eyes, and nice legs. She was wearing shorts and a black T-shirt. “Right, Adam. Right. Next Tuesday. For sure.” She hung up. “Asshole.”
            “Working all weekend again?” I typed in my password.
            “If they’d stop changing things on me every two hours . . .” She gulped some water. “What about you? Did you snap any naughty pictures?”
            “No, darn it.” I clicked for a search. “I lost him in an industrial park. Now I just have to figure out if there’s anything in there that would give me a lead, like ‘Afternoon Delights Inc.’ or ‘Whores-R-Us.’”
            “Good luck with that.” She swung around and hunched over her computer. “Dinner’s going to be takeout. Your pick. Not pizza.”
            “Thai food.” I typed “Lawson Industrial Park” into the search engine and swigged my beer.
            I got lucky right away. The search engine’s maps function gave me a bird’s-eye view of the complex, and I could immediately find the building Daugherty had parked at—imaginatively named “Building 2.”
            A few clicks got me to a list of Building 2’s tenants.
            I spent half an hour looking at websites. Most of the organizations weren’t really “industrial”—a few financial services offices, a staffing and recruitment agency, and even a real estate place. Maybe that’s where Daugherty had gone. I made a note.
            Then I got to a place called “Yanna AI.” It claimed to be doing “cutting-edge research on artificial intelligence, virtual reality, lifelike robots, and more.”
            I clicked through. Artificial intelligence, check. They had all sorts of software useful for customer service interactions and the like. Virtual reality, check—mapping technologies, interactive videos, and more. Likelike robots . . .
            “Oh. My. God.”
            Rachel turned in her chair. “We’ve talked about talking while I’m working.”
            “Check this out. You’re going to want to see it.”
            With a sigh, she stood up and leaned down over my chair. “Hey! You’re not supposed to watch porn while I’m in the same room! Or ever, but I know what men are like.”
            “It’s not porn. Well, it is, but . . .” I finished my beer. “These guys make sexbots.”
            An experimental technology, ran the text below the pictures. Still in its early days. But Yanna AI is developing the next generation of companions for human comfort and support.
            “Yuck.” Rachel leaned closer. “Let me see.”
            There were four female models: Amy, Eve, Myn, and Val. They were posed against a white background, in tight tank tops and snug shorts. Amy was a brunette, Eve had a long black ponytail, Myn was Asian, and Val was blond.
            Two male models showed up below them: Ben and Dan. Ben was African American, with a broad muscular chest, and Dan was slender and white. They both were Speedos.
            I zoomed in on Dan. “That do anything for you?”
            Rachel licked her lower lip. “Not my type. I like a guy with a little more meat on his ribs.” She nudged my side. “Plus, there’s something off. In the eyes.”
            “Welcome to the uncanny valley.” The closer we get to realistic humans in CGI and VR, the farther away we get from faces that look human. Maybe they could fix it in the next Star Wars movie, but for actual human models? Something’s always a little off.
            “Let’s zoom in.” Rachel took the mouse. I expected her to check out Ben, but instead she zeroed in on Amy and clicked a button.
            “Hi! I’m Amy.” Her lips moved naturally, like a normal human’s. “I’m designed for conversation and companionship. I hope to be ready for activation in the next nine months. Please check back for updates.” She smiled. But her eyes were out of focus, and her face seemed out of synch with her words.
            “Huh.” I looked at the other models, but I didn’t dare click on any of them with Rachel right over my shoulder. “I have to think about this.”
            I had no evidence that Daugherty had gone here. The real estate office was a much more logical destination. The only reason I was on this case was because Lynda Daugherty was suspicious. How could I ask her about her husband having sex with—a sexbot?
            I backed out of the website. “Let’s order dinner.”

Allison Keyes finished her coffee and put the breakfast plates in the sink. Her two kids were downstairs, watching TV. She hated letting them, but she needed some quiet before she took them to school.
            Dave was already gone. He was a salesman at a car dealership. Allison got to work at home, doing programming for a tech firm in D.C.
            It didn’t matter that her job was more demanding. They needed both incomes and more to keep up.
            The doorbell rang. What the hell? 8:30 on a Saturday morning. Maybe it was Sandra, next door. She always wanted Allison to take care of her kids. Well, not today. No way.
            She stalked to the door. But it wasn’t Sandra. It was some tall blonde woman, in skintight jeans and a blazer over a sheer, almost transparent shirt. She had a small purse slung over one shoulder.
            “Hi!” She smiled. “I’m Val.”
            “Hello.” Allison stared. “What can I do for you? Are you lost?”
            “No, I’m fine.” She reached into her purse. “This will only take a minute. . . Allison.”
            Allison saw the long thin blade. “Wait—what are you—”
            Val stabbed her stomach, twisting deeply. She watched Allison fall, blood pumping from her body. Then she dropped her knife back into her purse.
            “Mom?” A child called. “Mom, are we going to go?”
            Val closed the door.

The Killer Sexbots, Part Two

On Monday I called my client and told her what I’d learned.
            Sexbots were apparently a thing. I’d done a lot of research on Saturday, and although I couldn’t quite believe that robots disguised as humans could ever actually fool anyone . . . well. I’d seen some strange things in my career. Like vampires, zombies, and giant mutant ninja chickens. Anything seemed possible.
            “What are you saying?” Lynda Daugherty kept her voice low. “I thought Earl was just screwing his secretary! Now you say he’s doing it with . . . robots?”
            “I don’t know.” I paused. “There’s a real estate office inside Building 2. He might have gone there for a meeting, but it’s a whole different outfit. Business development, not homes, like your husband deals with mostly. Maybe he’s . . . screwing someone in there. But I can’t find out without going in somehow. To check Yanna AI out.”
            “I don’t know. This is getting too expensive, like I said. Maybe I should just end it here.”
            “Sure.” I breathed a sigh of relief. I like getting paid, but this case seemed to be going nowhere. “Your check covers most of it. I can just send you a bill for the rest—”
            “No, wait.” She sighed. “I can pay you for one more day. If you can find out about that place.”
            “I’ll see what I can do.” I wondered how I’d get into Yanna—and how I’d convince Rachel to let me do it.

I considered pretending to be a reporter doing a story on AI and sexbots—I used to be a reporter, after all—but that seemed risky. Being a private detective involves a certain amount of misrepresentation, but outright lying can backfire in a big way.
            So in the end I called and told the receptionist that I was a consultant (sort of true) working for a client who wanted more information about the sexbots (also true) and who might be interested in investing in one—or possibly the company (okay, definitely not true, but two out of three isn’t so bad, is it?).
            Rachel rolled her eyes at her desk as I hung up. “Okay, you’ve had vampires and demons and flesh-eating fungus—oh, wait, that was me—so I guess you’re allowed a little fun for once.” She jabbed at finger at me. “A little. Got it?”
            “I won’t have fun at all,” I promised.
           
So on Tuesday I drove out past Glen Ellyn to the Lawson Industrial Park again, stopped at the gate, and told the speaker I had an 11 a.m. appointment at Yanna AI.
            I parked, checked in at the first-floor desk, and took an elevator up to the third floor. Yanna took up the entire space. I introduced myself to a middle-aged receptionist. She buzzed someone and told me to take a seat.
            The workplace—what I could see and hear of it—was quiet and clean, with biege walls, green carpeting, and shoulder-high cubicles. I heard laughter from one corner, and a mild curse closer by. A typical office.
            A tall man, slightly balding, walked to the front desk. “Mr. Jurgen? Mike Moniz.”
            We shook hands. Moniz wore a T-shirt, blazer, and jeans—the very model of a modern IT executive. He led me to an office with a plaque mounted next to the door: “Michael C. Moniz, V.P.—Sales.” Well, that figured.
            “What can I tell you, Mr. Jurgen?” We sat down.
            “Well, my client is very interested in your line of, uh, lifelike humans, but for obvious reasons he’s a little reticent about being open about them. He’s reasonably well-off, not married, a little shy around the opposite sex. So I have to keep a wall between him and you—for now.”
            Moniz smiled. “That’s our target market. Although I have to say that none of our models are likely to be available for purchase for at least another year.”
            I nodded. “So the, uh, models on your website aren’t fully operational yet?”
            “They’re, let’s say, functional. I don’t know if they pass the Turing test or anything . . .” He chuckled. “But we have to do a lot more work and testing before making them publicly available.”
            “Makes sense.” I leaned back. “How do you, you know—make them?”
            Another smile. “Of course, much of that is proprietary. I can tell you that we use the most advanced synthetic materials for the skin, and the latest robotic technology for movement. And we’ve got a top-notch group of programmers creating the AI interface.”
            All pretty standard, and it told me nothing. “Why are you here instead of in Silicon Valley?”
            “Dr. Yanna grew up in Illinois. He spent some time in California, sure. But he wanted to be near his family. And . . .” Moniz leaned forward. “You can find just as much talent in Chicago as anywhere else. You know?”
            I nodded., thinking about the people who’d worked on Xan—an alien entity from billions of light years away. “Absolutely.”
            “Now . . .” Moniz pushed his chair back and stood up. “I bet you’d like to see the prototypes.”
            I grinned. “Sure. I was hoping for that.” I could feel Rachel’s punch from miles away.
            Moniz led me through the cubicles to one side of the office, where he unlocked a thick door with a key card. “No pictures, no recording all right?”
            “Yeah.” I held out my phone. “You want to take it?”
            He shook his head with a smile. “Not necessary.”
            Beyond the door we started walking through a combination workshop and operating room. Lockers lined one wall for a few yards. On the other side, technicians peered at monitors and tapped keyboards, and lots of tech equipment sat on tables or inside transparent storage units.
            On top of one table lay Ben, the black model. A thin sheet lay across his waist. The skin on one leg had been pulled back, revealing a shell of light plastic that had been opened as well. I saw a network of fiberoptic cables and some other stuff around a metallic legbone.
A technician was replacing what looked like a watch battery neat to the knee. “Hi, Mike.” She was a young African American woman in a lab coat.
            “Hi, Steph. Just showing a potential customer around. How’s Ben?”
            “He fell in a test. Just replacing a battery, but then we’ve got to reboot the gyros. He should be ready for another walking test in a few hours.” She glanced at me. “Hi. Stephanie.”
            “Tom.” I stared at the robot. Ben looked completely human—although his eyes were wide open, staring at the ceiling. I’m definitely heterosexual, but I had to resist the urge to ask Stephanie to move the towel.
            “Over here . . .” Moniz moved me along. “Let’s take a look at Myn.”
            Myn was the Asian model. She was standing upright in a slim, one-piece bathing suit. Her eyes were wide open too, her face expressionless.
            “Activate.” Moniz waited a moment. “Hello, Myn.”
            Her eyes blinked. “Hi, Mike. How are you?” Her face swung toward me. “And who’s your friend?”
            “This is Tom. Do you mind if he asks you a few questions?”
            “Of course not.” She leaned back against a table. “Do you mind if I sit down?”
            She perched on the edge of the table. Moniz smiled. “Go ahead.”
            “Hi, Myn.” What to ask? “Do you like it here?”
            “It’s okay.” She nodded. “I’d rather go outside, but they say I’m not ready yet.”
            “What you like to do outside?”
            “Meet people. Everyone here is nice—except for Brian, he’s rude—but I want to get to know more people.”
            “How is Brian rude?”
            “He touches me inappropriately. I told him to stop, but he keeps doing it.” She frowned.
            “Goddamn it.” Moniz pulled out his phone and tapped a number. “Felipe? You need to talk to Brian about Myn. Yes, again.” He hung up. “I’m sorry, Myn. We’ve talked to Brian about this. It won’t happened again.”
            “It’s all right.” She smiled. “I like meeting new people.”
            “Thank you, Myn.” Moniz nodded. “Deactivate.”
            “It was nice meeting you, Tom.” Then her eyes went blank.
            “So they’re programmed for . . . honesty? Ethics?” I folded my arms.
            “They’re programmed to learn from experiences. It’s one of the big challenges, but we’re moving ahead in different ways.” Moniz stilled looked pissed. “But we don’t want to market our products to the BDSM crowd. That’s just bad PR.”
            Right. “I get that.”
            We veered around a corner, past a room marked CT-1. A heavyset woman in her late thirties walked out, her face flushed. She was followed by a female technician with one hand on her shoulder. “This way, Ms.—” She saw me. “Ma’am.”
            “Right.” The woman smiled at me. “Hi, there.”
            I glanced at Moniz. “More testing?”
            He grimaced. “I forgot to make you sign the nondisclosure agreement. It would be nice if you didn’t share whatever you see in here online.”
            I shrugged. “My client wants this as quiet as you do. But . . . what was that?”
            “It’s what you think. We recruit volunteers for . . . tests of the models. They sign NDAs.” He shook his head. “I’m going to have to talk to Dr. Yanna about this.”
            Volunteers. Like Daugherty? “I just need to report to my client. I’m not going to go to the media.” That was perfectly true. “Is that really . . .” I looked at the woman walking away, swaying from side to side. “What your customers can expect?”
            Moniz smiled. “That’s what we hope. Let me show you . . .”
            A few more steps down the hallway, and Moniz stopped. “This is the real work.”
The model Eve lay on a table, her body covered with a white cloth. Her scalp had been removed, and two techs were delicately inserting a chip into a tiny port at the base of a small white globe that glowed and pulsed with energy.  Fiberoptic cables wrapped down around a spinal cord.
“What are they doing?”
“Just some reprogramming. Like you saw, we want our models to be consistent.” Moniz gave me a mild push. “Let’s look over here . . .”
But the next table was empty. Moniz growled. “Wait a minute.” He swung around and pointed at a technician hunched over a computer. “Diane? Where is Val?”
Diane looked up, annoyed. She had short blond hair and thin glasses. “Ross took her out for some tests. I don’t know. I’m working on Eve’s nipples.” She wiped her forehead. “It’s going to take a while.”
            “Damn it.” Moniz pulled his phone again. “Felipe? Ross took Val out. Who authorized that? What? Goddamn it.” He looked at me. “Okay. I’m sorry, but the tour is over. I hope you’ve learned what your client needs to know. And I hope you can keep all is this quiet. We’re a legitimate company. This is not all we do, it’s a sideline. You can tell your client whatever you want, as long as you understand—”
            I held up a hand. “It’s okay, Mike. I’ve got everything I need for my client. It would be nice to talk to Dr. Yanna. Is that okay?”
            Moniz sighed. “He’s very busy. It was nice meeting with you.”
            “Same here.” We exchanged cards—mine was a generic “consultant” card I kept for situations like these. Then I found my own way out.