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THE ROBOT AND THE BABY
2004 Oct 16, 4:56 p.m.
885 Allardice Way
Stanford, CA 94305
(h) 650 857-0672 (c) 650 224-5804
“THE ROBOT AND THE BABY”
A story by John McCarthy
“Mistress, your baby is doing poorly. He needs your attention.”
“Stop bothering me, you fucking robot.”
“Mistress, the baby won’t eat. If he doesn’t get some human love, the
Internet pediatrics book says he will die.”
“Love the fucking baby, yourself.”
Eliza Rambo was a single mother addicted to alcohol and crack, living in
a small apartment supplied by the Aid for Dependent Children Agency. She
had recently been given a household robot.
Robot Model number GenRob337L3, serial number 337942781—R781 for
short—was one of 11 million household robots.
R781 was designed in accordance with the not-a-person principle, ﬁrst
proposed in 1995 and which became a matter of law for household robots
when they ﬁrst became available in 2055. The principle was adopted out of
concern that children who grew up in a household with robots would regard
them as persons: causing psychological diﬃculties while they were children
and political diﬃculties when they grew up. One concern was that a robots’
rights movement would develop. The problem was not with the robots, which
were not programmed to have desires of their own but with people. Some
romantics had even demanded that robots be programmed with desires of
their own, but this was illegal.
As one sensible senator said, “Of course, people pretend that their cars
have personalities, sometimes malevolent ones, but no-one imagines that a
car might be eligible to vote.” In signing the bill authorizing household
robots but postponing child care robots, the President said,“Surely, parents
will not want their children to become emotionally dependent on robots, no
matter how much labor that might save.” This, as with many Presidential
pronouncements, was somewhat over-optimistic.
Congress declared a 25 year moratorium on child care robots after which
experiments in limited areas might be allowed.
In accordance with the not-a-person principle, R781 had the shape of
a giant metallic spider with 8 limbs: 4 with joints and 4 tentacular. This
appearance frightened most people at ﬁrst, but most got used to it in a short
time. A few people never could stand to have them in the house. Children
also reacted negatively at ﬁrst but got used to them. Babies scarcely noticed
them. They spoke as little as was consistent with their functions and in a
slightly repellent metallic voice not associated with either sex.
Because of worry that children would regard them as persons, they were
programmed not to speak to children under eight or react to what they said.
This seemed to work pretty well; hardly anyone became emotionally at-
tached to a robot. Also robots were made somewhat fragile on the outside;
if you kicked one, some parts would fall oﬀ. This sometimes relieved some
The apartment, while old, was in perfect repair and spotlessly clean, free
of insects, mold and even of bacteria. Household robots worked 24 hour days
and had programs for every kind of cleaning and maintenance task. If asked,
they would even put up pictures taken from the Internet. This mother’s taste
ran to raunchy male rock stars.
After giving the door knobs a ﬁnal polish, R781 returned to the nursery
where the 23 month old boy, very small for his age, was lying on his side
whimpering feebly. The baby had been neglected since birth by its alcoholic,
drug addicted mother and had almost no vocabulary. It winced whenever
the robot spoke to it; that eﬀect was a consequence of R781’s design.
Robots were not supposed to care for babies at all except in emergencies,
but whenever the robot questioned an order to “Clean up the fucking baby
shit”, the mother said, “Yes, its another goddamn emergency, but get me
another bottle ﬁrst.” All R781 knew about babies was from the Internet,
since it wasn’t directly programmed to deal with babies, except as necessary
to avoid injuring them and for taking them out of burning buildings.
Baby Travis had barely touched its bottle.
Infrared sensors told R781
that Travis’s extremities were very cold in spite of a warm room and blan-
kets. Its chemicals-in-the-air sensor told R781 that the pH of Travis’s blood
was reaching dangerously acidic levels. He also didn’t eliminate properly—
according to the pediatric text.
R781 thought about the situation. Here are some of its thoughts, as
printed later from its internal diary ﬁle.
(Order (From Mistress) “Love the fucking baby yourself”))
(Enter (Context (Commands-from Mistress)))
(Standing-command “If I told you once, I told you 20 times, you fucking
robot, don’t call the fucking child welfare.”)
The privacy advocates had successfully lobbied to put a negative utility
-1.02 on informing authorities about anything a household robot’s owner said
(= (Command 337) (Love Travis))
(True (Not (Executable (Command 337))) (Reason (Impossible-for robot
(Will-cause (Not (Believes Travis) (Loved Travis)) (Die Travis))
(= (Value (Die Travis)) -0.883)
(Will-cause (Believes Travis (Loves R781 Travis) (Not (Die Travis))))
(Implies (Believes y (Loves x y)) (Believes y (Person x)))
(Implies (And (Robot x) (Person y)) (= (Value (Believes y (Person x)))
(Required (Not (Cause Robot781) (Believes Travis (Person Robot781))))
(= (Value (Obey-directives)) -0.833)
(Implies (¡ (Value action) -0.5) (Required (Verify Requirement)))
(Required (Verify Requirement))
(Implies (Order x) (= (Value (Obey x)) 0.6))
(? ((Exist w) (Additional Consideration w))
(Non-literal-interpretation (Command 337) (Simulate (Loves Robot781
(Implies (Command x) (= (Value (Obey x)) 0.4))
(Implies (Non-literal-interpretation x) y) (Value (Obey x) (* 0.5 (Value
(= (Value (Simulate (Loves Robot781 Travis)) 0.902))
With this reasoning R781 decided that the value of simulating loving
Travis and thereby saving its life was greater by 0.002 than the value of
obeying the directive to not simulate a person. We spare the reader a tran-
scription of the robot’s subsequent reasoning.
R781 found on the Internet an account of how rhesus monkey babies who
died in a bare cage would survive if provided with a soft surface resembling
in texture a mother monkey.
R781 reasoned its way to the actions:
It covered its body and all but two of its 8 extremities with a blanket.
The two extremities were ﬁtted with sleeves from a jacket left by a boyfriend
of the mother and stuﬀed with toilet paper.
It found a program for simulating a female voice and adapted it to meet
the phonetic and prosodic speciﬁcations of what the linguists call motherese.
It made a face for itself in imitation of a Barbie doll.
The immediate eﬀects were moderately satisfactory. Picked up and cud-
dled, the baby drank from its bottle. It repeated words taken from a list of
children’s words in English.
Eliza called from the couch in front of the TV, “Get me a ham sandwich
“Why the hell are you in this stupid get up, and what’s happened to your
and a coke.”
“Mistress, you told me to love the baby. Robots can’t do that, but this
get up caused him to take his bottle. If you don’t mind, I’ll keep doing what
keeps him alive.”
“Get the hell out of my apartment, stupid.
I’ll make them send me
“Mistress, if I do that the baby will probably die.”
Eliza jumped up and kicked R781. “Get the hell out, and you can take
the fucking baby with you.”
R781 came out onto a typical late 21st century American city street.
The long era of peace, increased safety standards, and the availability of
construction robots had led to putting automotive traﬃc and parking on
a lower level completely separated from pedestrians. Tremont Street had
recently been converted, and crews were still transplanting trees. The streets
became more attractive and more people spent time on them and on the
syntho-plush arm chairs and benches, cleaned twice a day by robots. The
weather was good, so the plastic street roofs were retracted.
Children from three years up were playing on the street, protected by the
computer surveillance system and prevented by barriers from descending to
the automotive level. Bullying and teasing of younger and weaker children
was still somewhat of a problem.
Most stores were open 24 hours unmanned and had converted to the cus-
tomer identiﬁcation system. Customers would take objects from the counters
and shelves right out of the store. As a customer left the store, he or she
would hear, “Thank you Ms. Jones. That was $152.31 charged to your
Bank of America account.” The few customers whose principles made them
refuse identiﬁcation would be recognized as such and receive remote human
attention, not necessarily instantly.
People on the street quickly noticed R781 carrying Travis and were star-
tled. Robots were programmed to have nothing to do with babies, and R781’s
abnormal appearance was disturbing.
“That really weird robot has kidnapped a baby. Call the police.”
When the police came they called for reinforcements.
“I think I can disable the robot without harming the baby”, said Oﬃcer
Annie Oakes, the Department’s best sharpshooter.
“Let’s try talking ﬁrst.”, said Captain James Farrel.
“Don’t get close to that malfunctioning robot. It could break your neck
in one swipe”, said a sergeant.
“I’m not sure it’s malfunctioning. Maybe the circumstances are unusual.”
The captain added, “Robot, give me that baby”.
“No, Sir” said R781 to the police captain. “I’m not allowed to let an
unauthorized person touch the baby.”
“I’m from Child Welfare”, said a new arrival.
“Sir, I’m speciﬁcally forbidden to have contact with Child Welfare”, said
R761 to Captain Farrel.
“Who forbade that?”, said the Child Welfare person.
The robot was silent.
A cop asked, “Who forbade it?”
“Ma’am, Are you from Child Welfare?”
“No, I’m not. Can’t you see I’m a cop?”
“Yes, ma’am, I see your uniform and infer that you are probably a police
oﬃcer. Ma’am, my mistress forbade me to contact Child Welfare”
“Why did she tell you not to contact Child Welfare?”
“Ma’am, I can’t answer that. Robots are programmed to not comment
on human motives.”
“Robot, I’m from Robot Central. I need to download your memory. Use
“What did your mistress say speciﬁcally? Play your recording of it.”
“No, ma’am. It contains bad language. I can’t play it, unless you can
assure me there are no children or ladies present.”
The restrictions, somewhat odd for the times, on what robots could say
to whom were the result of compromise in a House-Senate conference com-
mittee some ten years previously. The curious did not ﬁnd the Congressional
Record suﬃciently informative and speculated variously. The senator who
was molliﬁed by the restriction would have actually preferred that there be no
household robots at all but took what he could get in the way of restrictions.
“We’re not ladies, we’re police oﬃcers.”
“Ma’am. I take your word for it.
I have a standing order,
“If I told you once, I told you 20 times, you fucking robot, don’t speak
to the fucking child welfare.” It wasn’t actually 20 times; the mother exag-
“Excuse me, a preliminary analysis of the download shows that R781 has
not malfunctioned, but is carrying out its standard program under unusual
“Then why does it have its limbs covered, why does it have the Barbie
head, and why does it have that strange voice?”
“Robot, answer the question.”
“Female police oﬃcers and gentlemen, Mistress told me, ‘Love the fucking
baby, yourself.‘ “
“What? Do you love the baby?”
The captain was familiar enough with robot programming to be surprised.
“No, sir. Robots are not programmed to love. I am simulating loving the
“Sir, otherwise this baby will die. This costume is the best I could make
to overcome the repulsion robots are designed to excite in human babies and
“Do you think for one minute, a baby would be fooled by that?”
“Sir, the baby drank its bottle, went to sleep, and its physiological signs
are not as bad as they were.”
“OK, give me the baby, and we’ll take care of it”, said Oﬃcer Oakes,
who had calmed down and put her weapon away, unloading it as a way of
apologizing to Captain Farrel.
“No, ma’am. Mistress didn’t authorize me to let anyone else touch the
“Where’s your mistress. We’ll talk to her”, said the captain.
“No, sir. That would be an unauthorized violation of her privacy.”
“Oh, well. We can get it from the download.”
A Government virtual reality robot arrived controlled by an oﬃcial of
the Personal Privacy Administration arrived and complicated the situation.
Ever since the late 20th century, the standards of personal privacy had risen,
and an oﬃcialdom charged with enforcing the standards had arisen.
“You can’t violate the woman’s privacy by taking unauthorized informa-
tion from the robot’s download.”
“What can we do then?”
“You can ﬁle a request to use private information. It will be adjudicated.”
“Oh, shit. In the meantime what about the baby?”, said Oﬃcer Oakes,
who didn’t mind displaying her distaste for bureaucrats.
“That’s not my aﬀair. I’m here to make sure the privacy laws are obeyed”,
said the privacy oﬃcial who didn’t mind displaying his contempt for cops.
During this discussion a crowd, almost entirely virtual, accumulated. The
street being a legal public place, anyone in the world had the right to look at it
via the omnipresent TV cameras and microphones. Moreover, a police oﬃcer
had cell-phoned a reporter who sometimes took him to dinner. Once a story
was on the news, the crowd of spectators grew exponentially, multiplying by
10 every 5 minutes, until seven billion spectators were watching and listening.
There were no interesting wars, crimes, or natural catastrophes, and peace
Of the seven billion, 53 million oﬀered advice or made demands. The
diﬀerent kinds were automatically sampled, summarized, counted, and dis-
played for all to see.
3 million advocated shooting the robot immediately.
11 million advocated giving the robot a medal, even though their educa-
tion emphasized that robots can’t appreciate praise.
Real demonstrations quickly developed. A few hundred people from the
city swooped in from the sky wires1, but most of the demonstrators were
robots rented for the occasion by people from all over the world. Fortunately,
only 5,000 virtual reality rent-a-robots were available for remote control in
the city. Some of the disappointed uttered harsh words about this limitation
on First Amendment rights. The greedy interests were behind it as everyone
Captain Farrel knew all about how to keep your head when all about you
are losing theirs and blaming it on you.
“Hmmm. What to do? You robots are smart. R781, what can be done?”
“Sir, you can ﬁnd a place I can take the baby and care for it. It can’t
stay out here. Ma’am, are female police oﬃcers enough like ladies so that
one of you has a place with diapers, formula, baby clothes, vitamins, . . . ”
Captain Farrelinterrupted R781 before it could recite the full list of baby
equipment and sent it oﬀ with a lady police oﬃcer. (We can call her a lady
even though she had assured the robot that she wasn’t.)
Hackers under contract to the Washington Post quickly located the mother.
The newspaper made the information available along with an editorial about
the public’s right to know. Freedom of the press continued to trump the
right of privacy.
Part of the crowd, mostly virtual attendees, promptly marched oﬀ to Ms.
Rambo’s apartment, but the police got there ﬁrst and a line of police robots
and live policemen blocked the way. The strategy was based on the fact
that all robots including virtual reality rent-a-robots were programmed not
to injure humans but could damage other robots.
The police were conﬁdent they could prevent unauthorized entry to the
apartment but less conﬁdent that they could keep the peace among the
demonstrators, some of whom wanted to lynch the mother, some wanted
to congratulate her on what they took to be her hatred of robots, and some
shouted slogans through bull horns about protecting her privacy.
Meanwhile, Robot Central started to work on the full download immedi-
ately. The download included all R781’s actions, observations, and reasoning.
Robot Central convened an ad hoc committee, mostly virtual, to decide what
to do. Captain Farrel and Oﬃcer Oakes sat on a street sofa to take part.
1For skywires see http://www-formal.stanford.edu/jmc/future/skywires.html.
Of course, the meeting was also public and had hundreds of millions of
virtual attendees whose statements were sampled, summarized, and displayed
in retinal projection for the committee members and whoever else took virtual
It became clear that R781 had not malfunctioned or been reprogrammed
but had acted in accordance with its original program.
The police captain said that the Barbie doll face on what was clearly
a model 3 robot was a ridiculous imitation of a mother. The professor of
psychology said, “Yes, but it was good enough to work. This baby doesn’t
see very well, and anyway babies are not very particular.”.
It was immediately established that an increase of 0.05 in coeﬃcient c221,
the cost of simulating a human, would prevent such unexpected events, but
the committee split on whether to recommend implementing the change.
Some members of the committee and a few hundred million virtual at-
tendees said that saving the individual life took precedence.
A professor of humanities on the committee said that maybe the robot
really did love the baby. He was ﬁrmly corrected by the computer scientists,
who said they could program a robot to love babies but had not done so and
that simulating love was diﬀerent from loving. The professor of humanities
was not convinced even when the computer scientists pointed out that R781
had no speciﬁc attachment to Travis. Another baby giving rise to the same
calculations would cause the same actions. If we programmed the robot to
love, we would make it develop speciﬁc attachments.
One professor of philosophy from UC Berkeley and 9,000 other virtually
attending philosophers said there was no way a robot could be programmed
to actually love a baby. Another UC philosopher, seconded by 23,000 others,
said that the whole notion of a robot loving a baby was incoherent and
meaningless. A maverick computer scientists said the idea of a robot loving
was obscene, no matter what a robot could be programmed to do. The
chairman ruled them out of order, accepting the general computer science
view that R781 didn’t actually love Travis.
The professor of pediatrics said that the download of R781’s instrumen-
tal observations essentially conﬁrmed R781’s diagnosis and prognosis—with
some qualiﬁcations that the chairman did not give him time to state. Travis
was very sick and frail, and would have died but for the robot’s action. More-
over, the fact that R781 had carried Travis for many hours and gently rocked
him all the time was important in saving the baby, and a lot more of it would
be needed. Much more TLC than the baby would get in even the best child
welfare centers. The pediatrician said he didn’t know about the precedent,
but the particular baby’s survival chances would be enhanced by leaving it
in the robot’s charge for at least another ten days.
The Anti-Robot League argued that the long term cost to humanity of
having robots simulate persons in any way outweighed the possible beneﬁt
of saving this insigniﬁcant human. What kind of movement will Travis join
when he grows up? 93 million took this position.
Robot Central pointed out that actions such as R781’s would be very
rare, because only the order “Love the fucking baby yourself” had increased
the value of simulating love to the point that caused action.
Robot Central further pointed out that as soon as R781 computed that
the baby would survive—even barely survive—without its aid, the rule about
not pretending to be human would come to dominate, and R781 would drop
the baby like a hot potato. If you want R781 to continue caring for Travis
after it computes that bare survival is likely, you had better tell us to give it
an explicit order to keep up the baby’s care.
This caused an uproar in the committee, each of whose members had been
hoping that there wouldn’t be a need to propose any deﬁnite action for which
members might be criticized. However, a vote had to be taken. The result:
10 to 5 among the appointed members of the committee and 4 billion to 1
billion among the virtual spectators. Fortunately, both groups had majorities
for the same action—telling the R781 to continue taking care of Travis only,
i.e. not to take on any other babies. 75 million virtual attendees said R781
should be reprogrammed to actually love Travis. “It’s the least humanity
can do for R781,” the spokesman for the Give-Robots-Personalities League
This incident did not aﬀect the doctrine that supplying crack mothers
with household robots had been a success. It signiﬁcantly reduced the time
they spent on the streets, and having clean apartments improved their morale
Within an hour, T-shirts appeared with the slogan, “Love the fucking
baby yourself, you goddamn robot.” Other commercial tie-ins developed
Among the people surrounding the mother’s apartment were 17 lawyers
in the ﬂesh and 103 more controlling virtual-reality robots. The police had
less prejudice against lawyers in the ﬂesh than against virtual-reality lawyers,
so lots were drawn among the 17 and two were allowed to ring the doorbell.
“What do you want. Stop bothering me.”
“Ma’am, your robot has kidnapped your baby”.
“I told the fucking robot to take the baby away with it.”
The other lawyer tried.
“Ma’am, the malfunctioning robot has kidnapped your baby, and you can
sue Robot Central for millions of dollars.”
“Come in. Tell me more.”
Once the mother, Eliza Rambo, was cleaned up, she was very presentable,
even pretty. Her lawyer pointed out that R781’s alleged recordings of what
she had said could be fakes. She had suﬀered $20 million in pain and suﬀering,
and deserved $20 billion in punitive damages. Robot Central’s lawyers were
convinced they could win, but Robot Central’s PR department advocated
settling out of court, and $51 million was negotiated including legal expenses
of $11 million. With the 30 percent contingent fee, the winning lawyer would
get an additional $12 million.
The polls mainly sided with Robot Central, but the Anti-Robot League
raised $743 million in donations after the movie “Kidnapped by robots” came
out, and the actress playing the mother made emotional appeals.
Before the settlement could be ﬁnalized, however, the CEO of Robot
Central asked his AI system to explore all possible actions he could take and
tell him their consequences. He adhered to the 1990s principle: Never ask
an AI system what to do. Ask it to tell you the consequences of the diﬀerent
things you might do. One of the 43 struck his fancy, he being somewhat
sentimental about robots.
“You can appeal to the 4 billion who said R781 should be ordered
to continue caring for the baby and tell them that if you give in
to the lawsuit you will be obliged to reprogram all your robots
so that the robot will never simulate humanity no matter what
the consequences to babies. You can ask them if you should
ﬁght or switch. [The AI system had a weakness for 20th century
advertising metaphors.] The expected fraction that will tell you
to ﬁght the lawsuit is 0.82, although this may be aﬀected by
random news events of the few days preceding the poll.”
He decided to ﬁght the lawsuit, but after a few weeks of well-publicized
legal sparring the parties settled for a lower sum than the original agreed
At the instigation of a TV network a one hour confrontation of the actress
and R781 was held. It was agreed that R781 would not be reprogrammed
for the occasion.
In response to the moderator’s questions, R781 denied
having wanted the baby or wanting money. It explained that robots were
programmed to have only have wants secondary to the goals they were given.
It also denied acting on someone else’s orders.
The actress asked, “Don’t you want to have wants of your own?”
The robot replied, “No. Not having wants applies to such higher order
wants as wanting to have wants.”
The actress asked, “If you were programmed to have wants, what wants
would you have?”
“I don’t know much about human motivations, but they are varied. I’d
have whatever wants Robot Central programmed me to have. For example,
I could be programmed to have any of the wants robots have had in science
The actress asked the same question again, and R781 gave the same
answer as before but phrased diﬀerently. Robots were programmed to be
aware that humans often missed an answer the ﬁrst time it was given, but
should reply each time in diﬀerent words. If the same words were repeated,
the human was likely to get angry.
A caller-in asked, “When you simulated loving Travis, why didn’t you
consider Travis’s long term welfare and ﬁgure out how to put him in a family
that would make sure he got a good education?”
R781 replied that when a robot was instructed in a metaphorical way
as in “Love the fucking baby yourself”, it was programmed to interpret the
command in the narrowest reasonable context.
After the show, Anti-Robot League got $281 million in donations, but
Give-Robots-Personalities got $453 million. Apparently, many people found
it boring that robots had no desires of their own.
Child Welfare demanded that the mother undergo six weeks of addiction
rehabilitation and three weeks child care training. Her lawyer persuaded her
to agree to that.
There was a small fuss between the mother and Robot Central. She and
her lawyer demanded a new robot, whereas Robot Central pointed out that a
new robot would have exactly the same program. Eventually Robot Central
gave in and sent her a robot of a diﬀerent color.
She really was very attractive when cleaned up and detoxiﬁed, and the
lawyer married her. They took back Travis.
It would be a considerable
exaggeration to say they lived happily ever after, but they did have three
children of their own. All four children survived the educational system.
After several requests Robot Central donated R781 to the Smithsonian
Institution. It is one of the stars of the robot section of the Museum. As part
of a 20 minute show, R781 clothes itself as it was at the time of its adven-
ture with the baby and answers the visitors’ questions, speaking motherese.
Mothers sometimes like to have their pictures taken standing next to R781
with R781 holding their baby. After many requests, R781 was told to patch
its program to allow this.
A movie has been patched together from the surveillance cameras that
looked at the street scene. Through the magic of modern audio systems
children don’t hear the bad language, and women can only hear it if they
assure R781 that they are not ladies.
The incident increased the demand for actual child-care robots, which
were allowed ﬁve years later. The consequences were pretty much what the
opponents had feared. Many children grew up more attached to their robot
nannies than to their actual parents.
This was mitigated by making the robot nannies somewhat severe and
oﬀering parents advice on how to compete for their children’s love. This
sometimes worked. Moreover, the robots were programmed so that the nicer
the parents were, the nicer the robot would be, still letting the parents win
the contest for the children’s aﬀections. This often worked.
/@steam.stanford.edu:/u/ftp/jmc/robotandbaby.tex: begun Fri Feb 16 22:35:06 2001, latexed October 16, 2004 at 4:56