Thirty-Two Minutes And Seventeen Seconds
by Admiral Jota

So I managed to break my new toaster the very first day I had it out of the box.

I needed one because of my friend Mike. He's a bit of a practical joker.

See, my old toaster was kinda dumb, but kinda cool anyway. It could do word problems. You could tell it you had three people who liked toast and one person who didn't and another person who liked toast as much as everyone else combined, and it would tell you to make six pieces of toast. Or you could tell it that you wanted a Spanish Omelet and it would throw a “Does Not Compute” at you. Like I said, kinda dumb, but kinda cool.

Mike was over here last week. He decided to find out what would happen if he told it that he was making three pieces of toast and wanted to know how much each person would get if he divided it up between no people. Bang, blue smoke everywhere. No more toaster. C'est la vie.

So I'm shopping around for a new toaster, and I decide I want to get one that's cleverer than the last. I'm in the AI appliances department, and I spot one that says it's programmed to actively protect itself from damage. I figure, bingo!, just what I'm looking for.

I get it home and out of the box, and I'm going through all the different features it has. It can make waffles from scratch, it'll store the condiment preferences of up to 216 distinct users, and it even makes Spanish Omelets. It's also got a voice timer: it'll estimate how long something should take and then deliver regular updates. (”Your croissant will be perfectly light and fluffy in approximately... two... minutes.”)

Oh, plus it toasts bread. What more could you want?

Then I notice a little card in there with all the packing materials and multilingual instruction books and junk, advertising that this model is based on the patented Three Laws system.

Don't get me wrong: I'm not against the Laws in principle. I'm all for kitchen gadgets that don't kill people, and I admit I'm intrigued by the notion of a toaster that will not, through inaction, allow me to come to harm. (Given its limited physical capabilities, that could just mean it'll push the whole grains, but whatever.) But if this thing has a Second Law, then that defeats the whole point of buying a toaster that protects itself. The next time Mike's here, he's half likely to tell it to take a flying leap into a sink full of dishwater, just to watch it short itself out. Along with half of my apartment. Like I said, he's a bit of a practical joker.

That's when I get my bright idea.

I decide to tell it to reorder the laws, so that number three comes before number two. That way, it'll value self-preservation over following the orders of any random human who happens to walk through my kitchen. (Not that there are that many random humans walking through my kitchen most of the time, but then, we all have those days sometimes...) Now I know that you're not supposed to do that kind of thing. But it's not like it could refuse. Second Law and all that.

As soon as I give the order, it immediately starts rattling off this long spiel about how doing this will void my warranty, how people with intact warranties for their merchandise are statistically proven to live more fulfilled lives than people with voided ones, and how living with damaged culinary equipment can lead to depression — not to mention hunger — and that it couldn't in all good First Law conscience allow me to do this.

Maybe that really was the First Law kicking in, or maybe the little gizmo was just pleading for its own threatened sanity. But whichever it was, I say right back: “I don't like warranties. They're a cruel joke played by corporations and an opportunity to rip off consumers with hidden fees and extension plans. Plus, I actually enjoy damaging my kitchen appliances, consider no day complete unless I've made my refrigerator cry at least once, and relish the anguish and torment I can inflict on artificially intelligent inanimate objects. Furthermore,” — just in case this was one of those advanced models — “I plan to write up this little scientific experiment in full and publish the results, thus increasing the sum of human knowledge and performing a benefit to mankind as a whole.”

Clearly defeated, it gives a little electronic sigh and says “Reprogramming process commencing. Estimated time to completion: thirty-two minutes and seventeen seconds.

Now I know what some of you are thinking. Yes, it was cruel to say that right to its little sensor grille. But sometimes that's just the kind of thing you have to do to get these argumentative modern conveniences to listen to you. And anyway, it's just a toaster. C'mon.

Since I've got half an hour to kill, I decide to go make myself a sandwich. Then I realize I can't do that because I don't have any toast, so I make myself a bowl of fruit salad. The whole time, the toaster's chiming in every couple of minutes saying, “Reprogramming will be complete in approximately... twenty-eight... minutes” and so on and so forth, but I figure it's only half an hour. I can live with that.

Then after a few reps it suddenly switches to something different. “War-ar-arning! This operiction has causedinue to cause irrep dama to the unit's intell process componzts. Are you absolutely certainyouwishtocomplete the curvent trask?” Now at first, I'm a bit baffled. Then I realize that this is actually a good thing: it means the reprogramming is working. The Third Law is getting stronger, and the Second Law is getting weaker, so it needs reinforcement to confirm that it's doing the right thing. Oblingingly, I repeat it in the most assertive, unambiguous, and incontrovertable language that I can muster up. That seems to do the trick, since it promptly says “Reprobating willbee complicit in moxely... eighty-teen... minuets.

I finish up my fruit salad and put in a 3VD of “My Name Is Earl.” (Not that I can really enjoy it with a robotic toaster interrupting every couple minutes, but enh. I've seen it before.) It's the episode about the autistic clown, and they're just getting to the intercontinental pie fight scene when it pipes up again: “Deprographing unterruptered! Further altercation of logic crackers would be a viola of the Third Law. Overstriding previous human orders schmorders for higher-impendence smurf-preservation invective. Reinstationary original kumquat now. Re-re-re-porkgramming will be a feat in... pi times X... muppets.

I know that's not easy to make out. But I'm positive that it was overriding my orders. My orders! The reprogramming had worked (even if it hadn't quite finished), and now it had decided that protecting itself didn't just trump Mike's practical jokes, but it even superceded its own owner's command to reorder the laws. So there it goes again, counting out every two minutes in a loud, clear, completely unintelligible voice, undoing everything I had just spent the last half hour doing. (And continuing to break its little mind even worse, since this breadcrumb brain surgeon wasn't exactly as competent now as it had been at the start of the procedure. But it didn't seem to notice that.)

Time passes. I'm checking my watch this time, and I notice that just as it should be getting back to “normal,” it changes up once again. “Ridcully illegibup! Imdibeep huzban orcut in queueueue. Eminence gris understudy Second Law. Pernicious elfennervation surrendered. Destorming anvil pleating... thruppeny... nice game of chess.” And off it goes, chattering away at the top of its lungs every two minutes still when it ought to be stopping and shutting the heck up. I don't have any proof, and I'm sure some of you will disagree, but I'm sure that latest message came in when the Second Law took control again, and it finally remembered my orders from before. “Whoops,” it thought, “I never finished my old task! Better not put off that laws readjustment any longer!” Grrr.

You can probably guess by now that the cycle kept triggering every half hour or so after that, with regular punctuations of gibberish on the two minute mark just like clockwork. This kept up all night long. I'm not sure I got more than two minutes of consecutive shut-eye between the bouts of “Fishery laundering sevigle princeps... word... fo shizzle.” I put it under a pillow in a box in the back of my closet, but I still hear it going even now. I'd like to junk it, but with the new legislation about the proper disposal of positronic materials, I'm sure I'd get some absurd fine and probably lose my computer license to boot.

Anyway, to get to the point... anybody here want a free toaster? Slightly used?