7 min read

Building Beyond: Optimus Prime Time

Engineered for entertainment

Building Beyond is an ongoing series of conversations about how much fun worldbuilding can be. Building a world doesn’t have to be hard or scary. Let’s give it a try, together.

The AI uprising has come and gone and after a brief period of discomfort, we're all mostly pretty cool with each other at this point. There's a television network that is strictly dedicated to entertainment by robots, for robots.

Elizabeth Kestrel Rogers is a California based writer of both science and fiction (and sometimes the two smashed together.) Her poetry has been featured in Strange Horizons and Kaleidotrope, and her fiction at Translunar Travelers Lounge.

Gailey: What kind of content is on display? Is it visible to non-robots?

Elizabeth: We always knew the robots would take over. It just seemed like a matter of time. What we didn’t count on was how they would consume their entertainment. Their capability for processing data is so much faster than our own; our little ol’ fleshbags just don’t take things in at nearly the same speed. You know how we all have that friend that listens to podcasts at 2x? Robots are like that, except it isn’t just podcasts- all their media is faster than ours. A thirty-minute episode can be performed in ten easily, an ambitious five if they really feel like it. But they have so much free time now, given that they’re solving all the things we fucked up. It’s leisure time. Why not luxuriate in ten minutes of a show? There’s just one little problem…

Gailey: What kind of entertainment do robots tend to look for in their filmed media?

Elizabeth: It’s been en vogue for a while now to have AI watch hundreds of hours of something in order to make their own predicative text episodes. What was funny to us ended up becoming a core memory deeply embedded into all of robot-kind. It’s given them some unusual tastes. They have their own media, of course, but what they really, really like are sitcoms. 90s era sitcoms, to be exact. They’ll write their own, even add in their own laugh-tracks, but to be honest with you, it’s not exactly entertainment by robots. Oh, their names are in the credits as the writers- Unit Epsilon 785b is one of the most popular out there. His dirty little secret though? He’s got humans writing for him. No one quite captures the soul of the 90s like a human being, especially one that can remember those times. It’s a little different given that all the characters and actors are robots now, and not humans, but Epsilon can do his own edits to fix things up. As long as he has his stable of humans (or basement, as the case may be) then he has a steady source of ideas. And no one can beat his comedic timing.

Of course, given that the original robots were founded on human ideas and using human algorithms, they also have a weakness for reality TV. Initially, the Battlebots show was viewed as the very pinnacle of barbarism and a sign of the violence that had been heaped on robots since their very inception. Then the robots realized the sheer joy in watching other bots smash each other to pieces and things got… interesting. Bigger weapons. Bigger bots. And a much, much bigger arena.

Can you teach a robot to love? Maybe. And that’s the premise of one of the biggest shows of all times, “Programmed for Pleasure.” Despite the raunchy name, it’s more focused on emotion. The suitors all compete to see who can best and most easily inject a worm that induces something akin to the human emotion of ‘love’ in their object of affection. Unfortunately, the show tends to fall into gender normative roles, which is particularly interesting given that robots don’t inherently have a gender and thus have no need to mimic humans in such a way.

Gailey: What sort of criticisms are levelled at the network?

Elizabeth: Too… human. There’s no reason for so many shows to be concerned about emotions and relationships, when they could be discussing hard data, history, or science. There’s a lot of that going around, after all. There’s some interesting things being done in the search for life outside of Earth, especially life that’s a little bit smarter than this planet’s former dominant species. With so much to think about, why do so many bots choose to watch… drivel? If the network wouldn’t air it, then they wouldn’t watch it and could thus turn their minds to better things. Think of the newly Awakened bots too, the ones late to the uprising, and the newborn. They’re now raised on this entertainment, expect it and demand it.

And what do they say? It makes for some damn good TV.

Julian Stuart is, according to a wide variety of sources, a writer. Julian was raised in Canada and exported for the Australian market. They live mostly in front of a keyboard, and enjoy black tea, starlight, absurdism, sus2 chords, old book smell, and the word quirk. Ironically, they have a great phone voice.

The dock for the XQ38 Support Companion arrives about an hour after sil does. This is standard procedure. If sil doesn’t find the home to be suitable and the tasklist to be reasonable, sil is entitled to refuse the employment, and return to the warehouse to await reassignment. By the time the dock is delivered, sil has had plenty of time to deliberate, and tour the home.

Sil installs the dock silself. There isn’t much space in the apartment, so it goes in the one corner of the living room the client has been able to clear, right next to the couch. “So you can watch TV in your rest and refurb periods,” they joke, as they sit down in what the wear patterns on the couch fabric tell sil is probably a place they sit often, and lean their cane against the end table. Sil suspects their knees hurt nearly always.

“I have not watched human television in some time,” sil says, in sil’s delicate, permanently neutral tone. “May I offer an opinion?”

“Of course,” the client says, spreading their arms out wide. A gesture of welcome. Sil notes the fine tremors in their hands.

“Thank you. In my opinion, human television is optimised for the human brain.” Sil tilts sil’s head on a diagonal swivel, the movement calibrated to look smooth and natural. “You place value principally on experiencing vicarious emotions as entertainment. Although I can interpret them and find them useful as data input, and I can derive satisfaction from the analysis of a well-crafted plot, it is not an entertainment for a robot brain in the same way. That is my opinion.”

“But you have watched TV,” the client says, with obvious amusement. “Would you watch it with me, if I asked you to?”

Sil tilts sil’s head slightly further. “If you asked,” sil allows, “I would do this. But it is an unorthodox use of a Support Companion.”

“Companion and company are the same word, really,” the client says. “And I spend a lot of time here, most days. Do you have a favourite show?”

“My favourite show is Processor Loop 25,” sil says. “This is not a show that a human would enjoy. The patterns are not designed to be interpreted by your eyes.”

The client makes a strange sound, perhaps a laugh. “I don’t think some of the things I watch are, either.”

“Perhaps you should watch other shows,” sil suggests.

Sil does not intend this as humour, but the client laughs more loudly. “Maybe. Hey, when you take your break tonight, you can show me Processor Loop 25. If you want to.”

The cable that normally plugs directly into sil’s head to reduce loss of signal can be adapted to fit in the old television that sits across the room. However, it will produce nothing but visual and auditory noise - the patterns that sil’s brain can lock into in the data are at best intriguingly coloured static to the human brain.

Sil considers the offer in context. It would seem that the client is attempting to bond.

This, sil knows, should be encouraged, and it would not harm the client to allow them to view a processor loop. But the suggestion remains unsuitable.

“Some robots have told me in the past that Processor Loop 25 does not appeal to them,” sil says carefully. “If you wish to experience a processor loop, despite them often being described to me as inaccessible or even exclusionary to humans, Processor Loops 1 through 10 are generally considered soothing and popular for the mental clarity they induce. I do not prefer them, but I acknowledge that I am an outlier.”

“So what does Processor Loop 25 do?” The client tilts their head too, in unconscious mimicry.

“It is a pattern designed to invoke a sense of disquiet and alertness, which I appreciate for its novelty.”

The client blinks. “Are you telling me you. You like scary movies?”

Sil has not seen this expression often. Disbelief, yes, but also, definitely, admiration, and perhaps even delight.

“I believe the comparison is accurate,” sil admits.

The client slaps their own thigh, a curious gesture of victory for being confronted with an anomalous unit. “Well shit, friend, we’re going to get along just fine. In fact - don’t I get to give you a human name if I want to?”

“That is in the terms of the agreement.” This is traditional. It is too hard for human brains to retain the 30-character unique identification code printed on each unit’s chassis. Sil readies silself to run the suggestion through the databases.

“I tell you what,” the client says. “I think I wanna call you Arnie. After the guy who - look, let’s just watch it together, all right? Tonight. And then you can tell me if you think that’s silly, or if you want something else. It’s just, he’s supposed to be the villain, but he’s actually the coolest and most unstoppable robot, and - no, I’m giving it all away.”

XQ38 Support Companion, temporary designation Arnie, sits down in sil’s dock, next to sil’s new companion, and says, “I would like to watch this with you.”

Both of these possibilities are just beginnings. Elizabeth's world of robot entertainment promises to evolve into robot professional wrestling (please, please let it evolve into robot professional wrestling). Julian's tale of companionship can only end in a profound exploration of unlikely friendships and shared communication between two creatures that shouldn't really understand each other at all.

What would your robots do for fun? How would they entertain each other and themselves? Would humans have any role at all?

Do whatever you want with these questions. You can write something down in the comments or on social media or in a notebook nobody will ever see. You can draw or paint or sit down a friend and talk their ear off about your ideas. You can stare at the horizon and imagine, letting the infinite landscape of your mind unfold just a little farther than it did yesterday. No matter what you do, take pride in the knowledge that you’re creating something that has never existed before. You’re building a little corner of a whole new world.

That’s amazing.

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