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Fiction: “The Long Toss” by Gary Cuba

Hell of a way to lose, I thought, as I plowed my way through the detritus covering the parking lot.

I headed toward my office in Newton Hall, the center for Physics and Mathematics studies at Manley University. The trash was the day-old aftermath of the school’s final football game of the year. It consisted, in the main, of plastic beer cups, discarded game programs and empty half-pint bottles.

The students had been gifted with a good reason to get smashed. Once again, their team had managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, ending their season with a record whose “wins” column consisted of an unblemished goose egg. What had made it all the more depressing was the way they had lost, on a last-second “Hail Mary” pass by the opposing offense. Heck, I thought. How had that scrawny Framingham Tech quarterback managed to throw the football so far, scrambling from deep in his own end zone? It must have traveled ninety yards in the air!

I plopped my heavy briefcase down on my desk and looked over at my office-mate, Harvey Atwood. Harvey was a full Professor, an aging don with dual doctorates in Physics and Chemistry. His unkempt, gray hair spilled across his shoulders, making his deep frown seem all that much more dour.

“Morning, Harvey. You look like you bet on the wrong team. How much did you manage to drop?”

Harvey snorted. “George, you know I try to stay clear of that sort of thing. Unless it’s a sure deal. No, there’s something else bugging me about that game–about that last play, that last pass.”

“Like, perhaps, the thought that it was impossible? That it violated the laws of physics and human physiology? Old friend, my lowly field of expertise may be in linguistic meta-geometry, but even I know that. It had to be a fix, a trick football. Filled with helium or something.”

“Not a credible hypothesis,” Harvey replied. “The volume-to-weight ratio is too small. You couldn’t pack enough helium in there to make a significant difference in the ball’s performance. But we saw it with our own eyes. It seemed impossible–but it’s obviously not. I’ve been tearing my hair out all night, trying to reason it out scientifically. And then, this morning I began to think about Dudley.”

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Fully Functional and Anatomically Correct

A few months ago, my sci-fi short, Pieces of You, was published in M-Brane SF magazine. It’s a fairly straightforward coming of age story about a boy and his adoptive android guardian. I knew when I wrote it that I didn’t have everything right about robots, and of course I doubt humans will ever replace existing foster care systems with highly sophisticated machinery. But given recent developments in human simulation, I won’t be shocked to find myself sharing an apartment with a social robot of some kind in the next few years. Even if it is just a cantankerous Roomba.

While doing research for another android guardian story I came across some useful information. As in human colleges, a lot of funding goes toward figuring out how to make better robot athletes, although in this case it’s a good thing because it gives us another reason and perspective from which to consider human and animal locomotion.

But do people really want their appliances to be smarter and more independent than a cat-friendly auto-vac? Yes, especially older people. And if future robots can augment our ability to take care of ourselves, might they also help us take better care of each other? As with engineering robotic football all-stars, developing robots that can simulate emotion is useful because it gives us a new angle for examining how we function.

Maybe house-bots will never amount to more than personal or medical assistants and glorified mechanical pets. And really, if we want much more than that from the machines in our homes, we should probably take the opportunity to re-evaluate the human social structures that make automating our most intimate affairs seem necessary.

Fair warning, the video below is Not Safe For Work!