ComBot 4000

The ComBot was a mystery to most of the faculty. A few years ago one of the less socially gifted students had presented it with smug ceremony at a meeting of the various department heads. They’d been very proud and everyone had done their best to act impressed but no-one really felt sure why it was there or what it was supposed to do. The Lecturer in Advanced Artificial Intelligence and Robotics had done his best to explain it. She’d even made a Power Point presentation, with animated singing sloths and everything. But the slide show had made little difference. Especially to the Humanities lecturers who took to heckling about half way through, hurling the odd empty beer can for good measure. Ultimately she’d given it up as a futile endeavour and simply assured them that it was really very impressive and made everyone at the university look very smart. Which had gone down well all round. With the vocal exception of the Head of the Theology Department who said he’d seen The Matrix and that it was all going to end in tears.

Controversy aside though the ComBot was kept around, if only because no one could be bothered to throw it away. The student who’d designed it went off into the real world to make countless billions for themselves either designing the software for a large network of porn sites or engineering rockets – no one was ever quite sure which.

The ComBot simply sank into the background of the university. Appearing from time to time without reason or welcome and disappearing in a similarly mysterious manner. Comedy Bot 4000, that was his formal name and, most people assumed, the definition of its existence. That should have been simple enough of course. It was a vague sort of robot, with wheels, mechanical arms and all the usual gubbinz of high technology. But given its somewhat erratic behaviour no one could ever be sure that the title wasn’t a joke in itself. Some of the students liked it however. They adopted it as an unofficial mascot, it was cleaner than a goat after all and weighing about a tonne it was far harder for rival schools to steal. So in an ongoing round of juvenile hazing they tried to make it drink, set fire to it, dressed it up as a cheerleader, tried to molest it as a cheerleader – that kind of thing. The Lecturers sometimes felt that they ought to disapprove but they could never quite tell why, so turning a blind eye became the usual reaction. For its part the ComBot didn’t seem to care about the acts of hedonistic excess over-excited first years visited on it. Although it was hard to say what the machine cared about, if it could care at all. Its behaviour offered few clues as to it’s thought processes. In fact its behaviour didn’t seem to indicate any kind of thought processes at all despite the very clever programming which the only two people smart enough to understand such things insisted had gone into it.

When first told of its existence new students and staff alike generally found themselves intrigued by the idea. A joke telling robot? For the scientists and Philosophers it seemed like Turing’s wet dream, to the Literature and Language students it was either a challenge to their own art or a glorious proof of the evolution of creativity, to the Art students it was just ridiculous enough to be interesting. Such enthusiasm rarely lasted through the initial meetings with ComBot though. Seemingly mute, the machine tended to act out whatever it found funny. Or had been told to find funny. A habit hard wired by it’s creator’s love for slapstick comedy of the old school. But in practice it’s performances were less Keaton and Chaplin and more absurdism gone wrong. Or right, depending on your point of view. Or, for the true cynics, just goddamn annoying.

Where Chaplin could command a laugh with a mere look and Keaton could wow audiences with terrifying stunts ComBot seemed more interested in emulating epileptic fits, or throwing whatever inanimate objects were within reach as far as possible into the sky. The Philosophers loved it. Regularly being sent into gut wrenching paroxysms of laughter. But then they laughed at pretty much anything.

Things came to a head when the ComBot took it into it’s electronic mind to incorporate fire into its routine. Inspired, some said, by those same hedonistic first years who’d found it to be such a convenient object for their own amateur acts of arson. The Head Lecturer in Sociology, once the burns had healed up, was quick to demand ComBot’s destruction. And, despite some resistance from its admirers, his call for revenge on the ‘infernal machine’ were soon satiated.

The AI and Robotics department saw its funding slashed later that year. The first years stole a goat from a nearby petting zoo. Only the Philosophers and a couple of art students mourned it’s passing and, as the Dean could often be heard saying, who cared what they thought?

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