‘Robot and the Professor’. A short story by Phil Jones

‘Robot and the Professor’ by Phil Jones

It’s 2033 and it is Lucas’s 2oth birthday, but celebrations will have to wait because he has a busy day ahead at college. A major assignment needs to be handed in at the beginning of his class and after that, he needs to write an exam for a self-interest online course that he’s been taking over the past couple of months. If he passes this exam, he’ll get another Digital Merit Badge that he can add to an ever-growing roster of his lifelong learning achievements.

Lucas finds that a combination of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) with traditional in-class delivery modes is a good balance for his learning style. In fact, most people prefer to learn this way, despite the earlier doom and gloom scenarios of the demise of bricks and mortar colleges due to MOOCs. Human nature wins out again. Most people still don’t have the self-motivation to succeed online, and many simply want to be with other people in a classroom setting, especially with all the technologies that have reduced face to face social interaction. In 2033, colleges and universities are thriving, as they have become focused on teaching ‘Change Management’ and ‘New, Creative and Innovative Thinking’ skills. There is a reason for this. Learning to adapt to change and generating new ideas are really the only key skills that set apart a human from a humanoid. These skills have become increasingly important lately, as robots are replacing humans at an unprecedented rate in all sectors of the economy. It is not enough to think outside the box; humans must now think outside the bot.

Survival of the fittest has now become survival of the humans. The doomsday asteroid named Apophis, for unexplained reasons, has begun to alter its course. Scientists now fear that this change in direction could bring it dangerously close to the earth’s atmosphere within the next five years. If that wasn’t enough to worry about, there is now growing concern about a recent ‘accidental’ discovery by synthetic biology researchers at a lab in Canada. It seems that they have discovered a way to replicate a human brain. All of the data that makes this possible is transferable onto a small 500 zettabyte chip which could easily be transplanted into a robot making it…well, almost human-like.

Lucas runs up the front steps of the college and walks through the front doors where ‘Mr. Walmartian’ greets him. He’s a humanoid robot, much like his counter-bots that have replaced most of the humans working in large retail stores. ‘Cygnus X-1’, a.k.a Mr. Walmartian, has social intelligence capabilities as well as the ability to communicate with students in any language. What makes Mr. Walmartian such a popular greeter with students is that he can address each of them by name through facial recognition. He has also been pre-programmed with each currently registered students course schedule, academic standing, exam schedules, and even assignment due dates.

“Good morning Lucas!” says the robot. “Don’t forget that your assignment is due today at 1pm in room 222…and happy 20th birthday!”

An encounter at college with a humanoid robot like Mr. Walmartian is nothing out of the ordinary for Lucas, after all, most of the college faculty and administrative staff that he will encounter today are humanoid robots.

As Lucas heads to his classroom, he realizes that he forgot to register for another self-interest course. He could do it electronically, but since he is already walking directly past the registrar area, he’ll do it now. As he approaches the registration window and looks at the humanoid robot, resembling a woman in her mid 40’s, he has a flashback of the day when his mother came home distraught from work. After 10 years of working in that same Registrar’s office, she, along with most of her co-workers, were ‘terminated’ and replaced by these robots. It just made good business sense; a robot’s productivity far exceeds that of a human. These robots work 24/7, don’t make errors, and they don’t take any sick days (a quick ‘reboot’ sees to that). Additionally, at a cost of only $15,000 per robot, the return on investment is recouped in no time.

Lucas’s mother had thought of re-applying for another job at the college, but she didn’t want to go through the humiliation of being interviewed by a humanoid robot; that would just ‘add salt to the wound’.

Lucas continues walking down the hall. He passes a robot tour guide that is finishing a college tour with a small group of prospective students. They are now heading to an area where the students will have the opportunity to talk to the college’s RWP (Robot Workforce Planners). As students answer their RWP’s questions, the robot is internally processing the information to formulate a customized Workforce Skills Profile for the student. At the end of the discussion, the robot gives each student a recommended career path. With a 99.2% student retention and academic success rate, most students take the robots advice and are registered into a program.

“Before you go, hold up your mobile device in front of my right eye.” instructs the humanoid robot.

Real-time job openings, based on the student’s unique skills profile, are then automatically downloaded onto the device for the student to pursue if they wish. As the next person in line approaches, the robot already knows she is ‘Ananya’, an international student from India. All of the names, faces, and profiles of those who are registered on the tour have already been entered into the robot’s system.

With a few minutes to spare, Lucas decides to grab a quick lunch at the cafeteria before his class.  As he approaches the counter, a robot scurries past him to clean up a spill on the floor in front of him. As the robot carries out the task, Lucas can’t help but notice how spotlessly clean the cafeteria is. Robot cleaners are everywhere as they clean the floors, take away dirty trays and dishes, and empty the garbage recycling stations.

“Hmmm. What to order?” Lucas ponders.

But there is no need to think. The humanoid robot cook behind the counter knows exactly what his food preferences are, and it is also aware of his allergy to shrimp. The robot suggests a menu item that Lucas may enjoy today and he agrees and orders it. Within seconds, the robot chefs in the back have prepared his lunch. It’s a soup recipe retrieved from the robots database of all the best-rated online recipes in the world and of course, it is made to perfection. As Lucas waits for his lunch, he runs into one of his friends.

“Are you going to the 3D hologram rock concert tonight?”

“No”, replies Lucas, “I’m just going to chill out and check out a band playing at the college tonight. They’re called ‘The Botles”, have you heard of them? You know, it’s that humanoid robot band that looks and sounds exactly like the Beatles?”

“Oh yea” replies his friend, “they’re pretty cool…ok, let’s holograph each other tomorrow then…by the way, that’s a pretty f***ing cool electronic tattoo you got there!”

As Lucas leaves the cafeteria, he simply makes a swiping motion with his mobile device in the wireless ‘hot spot’, pays, and heads off to class. On the way, he stops at one of the many Infobot Stations that are located throughout the college, replacing what was once called the library. ‘Dewey Decimal’, Lucas’s favorite infobot, has gathered all of Lucas’s earlier research requests, which are now ready for instant download onto his mobile device.

“Thanks Dewey” says Lucas, “I’ll connect with you again on ‘aBot-Face’ when I need some more research done!”

Entering the classroom, Lucas swipes his card that keeps track of his attendance and then places his digital paper on the scanning station for marking. He then gets seated, turns on the tabletop tablet, takes out his haptic pen, and unrolls his digital paper. Standing at the front of the classroom is Professor Roboto P.H. Jones, the most technologically advanced humanoid robot ever designed and built by the PHJ Robotics Corporation.

“Welcome everyone…but first, a word about our sponsor” says the professor, “Today’s lesson is brought to you by the PHJ Robotics Corporation, the global leader in robotics and in supporting lifelong learning for all humans. Let’s begin our class.”

Looking at the PHJ Robotics Corporation logo on the side of the professor’s shoulder, Lucas smiles as he reminisces about his childhood when he played with PHJ’s ‘RoboBrainStormers’ and built his first toy robot. A lot has changed since then. Who knew back then, that producing those small toy robots, would be just the beginning of PHJ’s future domination of the entire robotics industry?

Class begins. All of the course content and course objectives that Professor Roboto P.H. Jones will be delivering today has been written by robots and pre-programmed into his internal chip by the sponsor of the course. Soon after the lesson starts, a question is asked by one of the Chinese students regarding the hours of the 4D printing lab. There is no hesitation in receiving the answer from the professor, first spoken in Chinese and then quickly followed up in English.  Every possible question and scenario that could possibly be asked by a student, in any language preference, has been pre-programmed into the humanoid robot.

Knowing that the students still like a bit of ‘edutainment’, Professor Roboto P.H. Jones has been programmed with an endless database of personal anecdotes and stories that can be instantly retrieved to match the content being discussed at that time. As well, real-time news feeds from social networks are injected verbally or visually as needed during the delivery. Once in a while, a joke will be put into the mix. They’re always funny too, because the jokes are selected from a database of the top rated and funniest jokes in the world. By the end of class, Lucas’s assignment has been scanned and marked, and his grade has automatically been downloaded onto his mobile device. Any student that didn’t score well on the assignment will be directed to the tutoring services department for additional help by a humanoid robot tutor. Unlike human tutors of the past, this robot can almost instantly detect a student’s preferred learning style as well as any learning disabilities (there is even a tutoring department dedicated to students with forms of autism). From there, the robot tutor formulates and implements a 100% effective tutoring strategy.

Lucas picks up his assignment and looks at his mark. “Objectives achieved”, it states, followed by constructive feedback. The grading system that his parents grew up with was abolished years ago, after several ‘grade inflation’ scandals at the world’s top colleges totally discredited the entire concept of giving grades. Grades don’t matter now anyway, since everyone learns at their own pace. Plus, these days you have to prove you have the skills and knowledge that you say you have before you’ll even get an interview. The humanoid HR robots will make sure of that during a rigorous screening process.

As he leaves the classroom, Lucas swipes his card again, keeping track of his location within the college in case of emergencies. Now it’s time for him to go and earn that Digital Merit Badge! As he enters the ‘Khan Online Centre of Excellence’ to write his exam, he walks under a floating 3D holographic sign that boldly states:

Robots Are People Too!

The sliding doors close behind him.


Now it’s time to put on my headphones, turn out the lights and listen to ‘iRobot’ by the Alan Parsons Project.

“The only thing that really separates a human person from a humanoid robot is 60 chemical elements. Don’t tell that to the robots.” –Phil Jones, Professor

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  1. Very interesting story. The question that kept repeating in my mind as I read this was: what do the robots need humans for now?