Jim and Louise have both been in the robotics industry long enough to know a cardinal rule: Live robot demos don't go as planned. They've had a computer-controlled vacuum cleaner kamikaze itself into the nearest wall. They've showcased a robotic walking frame, a device designed to help the elderly get around, that steadfastly refused to avoid obstacles in its path. So who knows — maybe Basil will get stage fright.

With just minutes left before go-time, the couple realizes what's wrong. Jim had accidentally switched two coordinates when he loaded up Basil's concept of the Wynkoop, making the robot mistake left for right. Jim plugs the laptop into Basil's computers and hurriedly resets the code. It looks like everything's all right — until a member of the Friends of Basil realizes something else: "Basil's not 21. Will they serve him?"

They'll just have to find out.

Louise and Jim Gunderson and Basil
Louise and Jim Gunderson and Basil

Whenever Basil's turned on, it takes him a while to come to his senses, as if he's recovering from a long night at the bar. "Did you turn me off again?" he mumbles to no one in particular in a flat, digitized voice that resembles Stephen Hawking's. No need for an answer; he knows he's been out cold and has already begun his wake-up routine.

First he tests his hardware — the equivalent of us wiggling our toes. His main brain, a low-end desktop computer perched on a platform beneath his serving tray, sends test signals throughout his body, through the low-level computer chips one platform down that comprise his brain stem and spinal cord to the motors that power his wheels and the twelve sonars that blink like Christmas lights across his chest. He also checks the voltage on his twelve-volt battery, to make sure he's not hungry. If everything looks good, he announces triumphantly, "I have a body."

It's about a month before the Cafe Sci event, and that body is standing unabashedly naked in the Gundersons' lab. His shiny exterior skin has yet to be fabricated, so his internal tangle of wire and circuit boards is exposed to the world — in his underwear, as Louise says.

Next, he scans through his memory, how the Gundersons have been having him roll this way and that, practicing his obstacle avoidance so he'll be prepared for the Wynkoop's crowded confines. "Initialized episodic memory," he says when he's done, but then seems to realize something. He vividly recalls where he was the last time he was operational, but Lord knows if he's still there. "Where am I?" he asks, almost nervously. The Gundersons tell him by typing the answer into his computer.

Ah. The lab. He knows the lab, the Gamma Two headquarters appropriately located in the Bolt Factory Lofts, a renovated bolt manufacturing plant on South Kalamath Street. If he had nostrils, he'd whiff the aroma of brewing beer wafting over from the nearby Breckenridge Brewery mixed with roasting coffee beans from Dazbog Coffee. He knows this chic industrial space decorated with old toy robots like the back of his non-existent hand; how the two computer workstations, desks covered by sheets of paper tattooed with penciled-in equations and graphs, stand at one side of the room while the mini-machine shop, the work bench and tool cabinet and shelves of electronic miscellanea, occupies the other. In between, he's free to roam about; the only place that's off limits is the second-level office, where bookshelves overflow with treatises on computer programming and neurophysiology, and that's only because he can't navigate stairs. Yet.

Assured everything is in its proper place, the little guy is ready to roll. "My name is Basil," he declares. "What do you want me to do?"

Basil is confident there are people in the room to instruct him. He knows what people look like and that he's supposed to serve them and that he shouldn't run into them. But he has no idea what these particular people plan to teach him today, a list of Cafe Sci-specific functions listed on one of the lab's dry erase boards:

"Apologize to people."

"Ask for beer."

"Don't trip."

And since he doesn't have ears, he can't follow their conversations, a heady concoction of computer science, electrical engineering, neurology, psychology, philosophy and sociology, topped with a dollop of science fiction — but then again, even the average human would have a hard time keeping up.

His memory of these folks is spotty at best. He's pretty certain they're not standing exactly where he remembers they were the last time he was operational, since he's aware that people are more transient than, say, one of the lab chairs, which sometimes get moved, not to mention the walls or workstations, which he knows never move. But he draws a blank about their personal lives, their background and motivations.

He knows nothing of how Louise, then a chemistry undergrad at the University of California, Berkeley, met Jim at the San Francisco magic shop where he was working in 1977 or how they hit it off over discussions of Einstein's gravitational-field theory. It was a match made in intellectual heaven. "If these two get together and start something, everybody had better stand back,'" Robin Felder, a pathology and chemistry professor at the University of Virginia, remembers thinking about the two former UVA grad students. "My mind doesn't completely comprehend how that much intelligence can interact."

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