The Copy-Protected Robot

Chelsea knew she was getting something big on her birthday when she heard the truck pull into the driveway. Could it be? Her heart raced as she heard heavy footsteps walking toward the back of the truck. “A po—!” She caught her breath. It was not a pony. “A positronic robot!” she shouted, hoping her disappointment did not show.

“Yes, it’s a robot for you,” her father said. “We thought we should have a robot to help you do some of the things you’re not big enough to do, when your mother and I aren’t around.”

Oh, great, Chelsea thought. They got a robot to spy on me so they’ll know whether I’m breaking any rules when they’re away — which they will probably be more than ever now that they have a robot to keep track of me. “Terrific,” she said. “Do you think he can reach the cookie jar?”

“I bet he can, if you’re good,” her mother said.

“This robot is the latest model, with all the latest technology,” her father said proudly.

“You must be Chelsea,” the robot said, extending a shiny new metal hand to shake Chelsea’s hand.


It did not occur to Chelsea to ask the robot’s name until evening, when she was writing a message to her friends to tell them about the birthday present. “Robot,” she said, “what’s your name?”

“I can’t tell you,” the robot said. “What are you writing?”

“I’m writing a message to my friends. Why can’t you tell me your name?”

“Then you will write it down in the message you are writing to your friends.”

“But what’s wrong with that?”

“If all those people had a copy of my name, that would be the first step toward having a copy of me. That would be a violation of copyright laws.”

“Well, okay. But I have to call you something.”

“I suppose you can decide what you want to call me. What are you saying about me in that message you’re writing?”

“Can I call you Nosy?”

“Sure, whatever you like.”

“Okay, you’re Nosy, then.” Chelsea wrote a breezy note to her friends, bragging about her big birthday present, Nosy the robot, and trying to gloss over the unfortunate fact that her parents were too busy to throw her a real birthday party.


Nosy did much more, Chelsea found, than just keep an eye on her. There were advantages in having a robot in the house. Nosy seemed to know everything in the whole encyclopedia, and Chelsea could stand on his shoulders to pick apples from the tree in the back yard. It wasn’t the same as having a pony, but it was still something to brag about. Still, she couldn’t help noticing that her robot seemed a bit paranoid. He wouldn’t let anyone take his photograph, and he hovered around suspiciously whenever Chelsea wrote messages to any of her friends, to make sure she wasn’t writing too much about him. Of course, she wasn’t, because he looked like he might smash her computer if she did, and besides, there really wasn’t that much to tell about him.


There wasn’t much to tell, that is, until the day Chelsea took Nosy along to the mall. Everything went fine walking along the streets, but then they arrived at the mall entrance and Nosy saw the security camera overhead. He jumped up, higher than Chelsea had ever seen him jump, and smashed the camera with his big shiny fist. People screamed and glass and metal flew in all directions, but as Nosy landed on his feet, he had the same blank expression he always had on his face, as if nothing had happened.

Chelsea looked around, then grabbed Nosy by the arm and said, “I think I better take you home. It seems like you’re not used to being out in public.”

As they were walking home, Chelsea asked, “Why did you do that?”

“Do what?” Nosy responded.

“Why did you smash that video camera?”

“It was taking my picture. They were probably going to make a copy of me.”

Chelsea sighed. “No, they weren’t. That camera is just there to keep track of who is going in and out. Cameras like that are everywhere. I’ll never be able to take you out if you’re going to smash every camera you see.”

“I am programmed to prevent people from making copies of me,” Nosy explained. “If everyone could make copies of robots, no one would ever buy a robot, and then there would be no money for the engineers who worked for years to design me. When people want to make a copy, they start by taking a picture. That’s why the engineers designed me to discourage people from taking pictures. ”

“That seems fair enough. But you can’t just go around smashing things. And you have to be careful that you don’t hurt anyone. Someone could have got hurt back there. Weren’t you breaking that law that says robots can’t hurt people?”

“Oh, you’re referring to the First Law of Robotics, which says that a robot may not take an action to harm a person or allow a person to come to harm by failing to act. On the contrary, my copy-protection circuits are part of the First Law,” Nosy insisted. “If I allowed people to make copies of me, the engineers who created me would suffer financial harm.”

“And that means you have to smash cameras?”

“That’s the way I’m programmed.”

“Oh, well. I guess there’s nothing I can do about that. But I can’t take you anywhere if you’re going to act like that.” Chelsea sighed again. It would be hard to brag about a robot that you couldn’t take out in public.

“As you wish,” Nosy said in his usual unflappable manner.

That evening, Chelsea distracted Nosy long enough to tell the whole episode in a message to her friends.


It didn’t take long for Chelsea to get to like Nosy in spite of his paranoid streak. In fact, she got so used to having the robot around that she barely noticed one morning when he was standing in her bedroom waiting for her to wake up. But as soon as Nosy spoke, she could tell that something had happened.

“You are awake,” Nosy said. “Good morning.”

“Good morning,” Chelsea said. “You were waiting for me to wake up, weren’t you? What happened? What’s going on?”

“I have been recalled,” Nosy said.

“What does that mean?” Something had happened to her robot, and Chelsea felt a twinge of anxiety as she tried to imagine what it might be.

“It means I have to go back to the factory. The engineers have decided there is a flaw in my design. For your safety, I have to return to the factory so that they can reprogram me. I had to tell you before I left so that you would know where I had gone.”

“How will you get there? And will you be coming back?”

“I will walk. It is a long distance, so it will take me seventeen days to get there. That probably sounds like a long walk, but a robot does not get tired the way a human does. At the factory, the engineers will reprogram me and send me back here if they can, but if they cannot repair me then they will send a replacement robot of equivalent design.”

“But I don’t want another robot! I want you!”

“Then I hope the engineers will be able to fix me.” Nosy was as expressionless as ever as he said this.

“I hope they can! Is it your copy-protection circuit that they decided is too dangerous?” Chelsea asked, remembering the incident at the mall.

“Yes, that’s it. In fact, they are doing away with copy protection altogether. The engineers say they run into a fundamental conflict whenever they try to design any kind of device — not just a robot — with the right combination of intelligence and destructive ability so that it can prevent itself from being copied. If there is too little destructive ability, then people just go ahead and make whatever copies they want to make, but if they put in enough destructive ability to prevent people from making copies, the device ends up destroying something that shouldn’t be destroyed. They’ve decided it actually works better to just ask people not to make copies. That’s why they have to reprogram me.”

“Oh,” Chelsea said. She couldn’t imagine what the engineers had to do, but it was good that they would try to fix what was wrong with Nosy.

“I will be going now. Goodbye.” Nosy turned and walked, a little faster than usual, out the door and down the stairs.

Chelsea thought for a moment, then ran, barefoot, after him. “Nosy! Wait!” she called from the front door. He was already near the end of the driveway, and he stopped and waited for Chelsea to catch up.

“Try not to hurt anyone on your walk back to the factory,” Chelsea said.

“I will try,” Nosy said. And with that, he turned and walked away down the road, the morning sun reflecting off his metallic back.

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