Animal Training For Robots

[Inspired by recent research to simplify robot training: “Using animal training techniques to teach robots household chores.KurzweilAI News. 18 May 2016. Web. 21 May 2016.]

Leena followed the robot on day one of its chores. It had spent a week exploring her home. Three buttons waited on her wrist display. For finding the right task, the right tool, and the right room, she was expected to press “Reward.” The quadruped found the full laundry basket in the bathroom, picked it up in a complex splay of its three front appendages, and trotted back down the hall. Three accomplishments, three reward presses.

It carried the basket into the kitchen and set it in front of the dishwasher. Leena was quick to press “Punish.” The robot shivered.

Christopher asked the home agent to turn up the music. Still not loud enough. “Louder!” He moved with the rhythm as if the percussion was using him as sticks.

“Can you dance?”

The robot nodded.

“Dance, robot, dance!”

It moved, but he thought it could do better. He pressed punish on his wrist display when it didn’t hit the beat to his liking. He pressed reward when it randomly hit the beat with its flailing appendages and four hopping legs. It improved rapidly, and kept improving long after he stopped pressing buttons.

Robot and man danced well into early morning.

Not doing anything right. A lemon? Lei found he pressed punish often. He disliked doing so immensly. In the garden the robot tried to trim the trees first. First! Punish. He called out “You must mow the lawn first.” It moved uncertainly toward the garage. Punish. Did not check the gasoline level. Punish. Could not find the gasoline can in plain sight. Punish. Could not take off the cap. Punish. Pushed the mower out of the garage and down the concrete sidewalk instead of immediately onto the grass.


Lei added “robot mower” to his list of future purchases.


The three buttons did not seem to be working. The robot had explored Tisha’s studio quickly. On the day it should have started completing chores among the paints and canvases, it wandered slowly instead. She tried punish a few times, reward, the other button. Nothing happened. The robot seemed to be functional. Her wrist display seemed to be functional and could find no problems with the interface to the robot.

She stopped trying. She watched. Tisha watched the robot step through her studio even more slowly than it had during the familiarization week. It stopped frequently. Appreciated her art. Shivered.

You like the punish button. You like how the robot reacts. You wish you had a punish button to give to other people, one that sent a signal to your body and froze you in your tracks. To contemplate. To reason out the problem. To be afraid to move until you got it right. You would have to get it right. But you would get it wrong. You would take a step, then another, pick up a tool, walk into the desired room, and just as soon as you lifted the tool, you would be punished. You would shiver, delighted.

María doesn’t have time. She wants Emilio to take charge of the robot. That’s his thing. She’s got her things. She pressed for time and Emilio looks at her as if horrified. “You want me to train el robot?”

“Sí? Why not?”

He swallows.

“Mira, you wanted it. You train it.”

“I did?”

Emilio, she realizes, is standing on the other side of the room, as far away from the robot as he can get. She points at his wrist with anger, whirls around, and flies out the front door cursing.

Emilio, he realizes, is alone with it. He shivers.

StoryADay May 2016 Day 21

Published by

Richard Leis

Richard Leis is a writer and poet living in Tucson, Arizona. His poetry has been published in Impossible Archetype. His essays about fairy tales and technology have been published on Tiny Donkey and Fairy Tale Review’s “Fairy-Tale Files“.