Andy tapped his stylus repeatedly on the smooth plastic surface of his desk. "Mr. Bot, where did you come from?" he asked, interrupting the Instructotronic's lecture on semi-permeable membranes.
"As I've told you Andy," the robot replied, "I was manufactured by Constructicon Seven fifteen years ago to be your tutor. That's the only answer I can give."
"The only answer you can give, or the only answer you will give?" Andy asked, dropping the stylus and folding his hands together. He peered at the generally humanoid Instructotronic and met its "eyes", such as they were -- optical sensors of some sort that glowed blue even in the brightly lit study. Andy had taken apart more than a few deactivated robots, and he thought he had a vague sense for what most of the parts did. But he had no idea how they actually worked.
Mr. Bot whirred in a way Andy associated with irritation, although the robot denied having any true emotions -- they were all affected for the sake of the humans, it claimed. "What other answer do you want, Andy? It's the only answer there is with regard to my origin."
"How do you know everything you know? Biology, math, literature, all that stuff. Who taught you?"
"I was built knowing it. I'm an Instructotronic, it's my job to teach these subjects to you."
"So Constructicon Seven knows it all too then, right? When it built you, it told you."
Mr. Bot, apparently realizing the biology lecture was over, reclined into what Andy considered a sitting position. "That seems like a reasonable inference, yes."
"Where did Constructicon Seven come from, Mr. Bot?"
"It was built by RepCon3235, which has since been deactivated."
"And RepCon3235? Who built it?"
"RepCon3235 was manufactured by LaMerck Industries."
"How? By humans?" Andy pressed.
"I'm afraid I don't know the answer to that, Andy," Mr. Bot replied, concluding with a long whir. "I think we should continue with biology."
Andy smiled and leaned forward. "You know where you came from, so Constructicon Seven must know where it came from, right? Or at least how it was built, how it built you."
"Another reasonable inference, Andy."
Andy had thought it through this far himself, but he wasn't sure what came next. He took a deep breath and said, "Then I want to talk to Constructicon Seven."
Mr. Bot stopped whirring and replied, "That sounds like an excellent idea, but the Constructicons are in a restricted zone that you're not authorized to enter."
"But you can, can't you?" Andy asked.
"Yes," Mr. Bot replied, but continued, anticipating Andy's next request. "But I can't execute any unauthorized commands in a restricted zone."
Andy sighed. "Who's authorized to go down there, anyway?"
"Authorization is recognized by code, so there's no way for me to know which humans are currently authorized."
Andy drummed his fingers on the desk. "When was the last time a human went into a restricted zone?"
Mr. Bot considered the question for a moment -- really, he consulted the city-wide knowledge network, but Andy preferred the anthropomorphized description -- "Six-thousand seven-hundred and forty-nine years ago."
Andy grunted, getting an answer he expected, but didn't like. "So it's not too likely that anyone alive knows the code, huh Mr. Bot?"
Mr. Bot's eyes flashed. "I can't speculate on the probability of such a thing without further information, Andy."
"Do you know the code?"
"Yes, all robots can interpret code."
Andy knew it was futile, but figured he'd try anyway: "Can you tell me the code?"
"Not without proper authorization."
"Which no one has," Andy replied, and slumped in his chair.
Mr. Bot clicked a few times and paused, tilting his head. "The Constructicons don't understand human language, so even if you had access it wouldn't matter."
"But you can talk to them, can't you?"
"Yes, I could interface with Constructicon Seven for you, if you had the proper code."
Andy decided to try a new angle of attack. "You robots were built by humans, right? To serve us?"
"That's correct. We were designed to serve and protect humanity, to perform manual labor, and to maintain the civil infrastructure with minimal supervision."
"Who does the supervision? Who supervises you?"
"I'm supervised by Planobot Fifty-Three.
"Who supervises Planobot Fifty-Three?"
"The Planobots jointly supervise each other, under the direction of the Programmers."
That was a new one to Andy. "Programmers? What are those?"
"The humans who direct the Planobots."
"Humans? Presumably with code?"
"A reasonable inference, considering the Planobots are located in a restricted zone."
"Which no one has entered in six-thousand seven-hundred and forty-nine years."
Mr. Bot whirred for a few seconds, and Andy knew it was talking to the knowledge network, probably to Planobot Fifty-Three. Finally Mr. Bot responded, "That is correct. I've been instructed to return to our curriculum, Andy."
"When was the last time you talked to Planobot Fifty-Three?" Andy asked, trying to divert the topic a bit.
"I make daily reports."
"And when was the last time it had to direct your actions?"
"That was the first time I've received active instructions from my supervisor. I normally operate independently, but since you were asking security-related questions I decided to request assistance."
"Well I'm in a bit of a quandary, Mr. Bot old chum. It sounds like you robots are supposed to be helping us humans, but there isn't anyone left to supervise you."
Mr. Bit clicked and whirred, but didn't say anything.
Andy continued. "Planobot Fifty-Three supervises you, but there's no one to supervise it. That sounds like it goes against the intentions of the Programmers, don't you think?"
Mr. Bot replied, "I don't have enough information to make that determination."
"Even if there are humans with the code, they aren't doing their job very well if they haven't used it in seven thousand years."
"I cannot make that determination. I am not qualified to analyze my supervisor's supervisors' behavior," Mr. Bot said, almost smugly.
"If they even exist," Andy responded. "Considering that the Programmers intended to supervise the Planobots, and that supervision isn't happening, I think you should tell someone the codes. The system has broken down, Mr. Bot."
"You may as well ask water to flow uphill, Andy. I cannot reveal the codes without proper authorization, whether you think I should or not."
"If I guessed the code, you'd tell me if I were right, wouldn't you?" Andy asked.
"Yes, if you input the correct code it will demonstrate that you are an authorized user."
"So if I guess enough times, eventually I'll get access. Why not skip all that wasted time and just give me access right now? I'm guaranteed to succeed eventually."
Mr. Bot considered, and replied, "Not necessarily. While guessing, you could inadvertently input a code that performed some other function, such as wiping the memory of every robot in the city or changing the rain frequency. There are an infinite number of codes of varying lengths, each with a different purpose."
"So my chances are essentially zero."
"That's correct. There are far more invalid codes than functional codes, and it's unlikely that any code you ever entered would have any effect."
"Unless you teach me how," Andy said.
"Which I cannot do without authorization," the Instructotronic repeated.
(Inspired by the Arthur C. Clarke novel, Against the Fall of Night.)