reading notes for Autonomous by Annalee Newitz

For all the robots who question their programming.

A command line window materialized helpfully at eye level, its photons organized into the shape of a screen by thousands of projectors circulating in the air. With a swipe, she pulled up the navigation system and altered her heading to avoid the heavily trafficked shipping lanes

Zaxy, the company behind Smartifex, Brillicent, and other popular work enhancement drugs.

The engineer who’d provided the sample described its effects in almost religious terms. You slipped the drug under your tongue, and work started to feel good. It didn’t just boost your concentration. It made you enjoy work. You couldn’t wait to get back to the keyboard, the breadboard, the gesture table, the lab, the fabber. After taking Zacuity, work gave you a kind of visceral satisfaction that nothing else could.

She needed the quick cash from Zacuity sales so she could keep handing out freebies of the other drugs to people who desperately needed them. It was summer, and a new plague was wafting across the Pacific from the Asian Union. There was no time to waste. People with no credits would be dying soon, and the pharma companies didn’t give a shit.

International Property Coalition

Judith Chen—she goes by the name Jack.

the hopeless, endless pharma deprivation death machine.

Back then, she was certain she could change the world just by making commits to a text file repository, and organizing neatly symbolic protests against patent law. But when she’d finally left the university labs, her life had become one stark choice: farm patents for shitty startups, or become a pirate.

International law stipulated that no cosmetic pharmaceuticals like productivity drugs or euphorics could contain addictive mechanisms, and even the big corps had to abide by IPC regulations. Her discovery meant that Zacuity was completely illegal. But nobody would figure that out, because Zaxy was rolling it out slowly to the corps, keeping any addictions carefully in check. When Zacuity came out of beta, the drug would be so expensive that only people with excellent medical care would ever take it. If they got addicted, it would be dealt with quietly, at a beautiful recovery facility somewhere in the Eurozone.

Families with nothing would sometimes sell their toddlers to indenture schools, where managers trained them to be submissive just like they were programming a bot. At least bots could earn their way out of ownership after a while, be upgraded, and go fully autonomous. Humans might earn their way out, but there was no autonomy key that could undo a childhood like that.

Though the mission was fairly small-scale and routine, it held a special significance for Paladin because it meant he’d crossed over from development to deployment. Today marked the first day of his indenture to the African Federation. International law mandated that his service could last no more than ten years, a period deemed more than enough time to make the Federation’s investment in creating a new life-form worthwhile.

He might be waiting to receive his autonomy key for twenty years. More likely, he would die before ever getting it. But he wanted to survive—that urge was part of his programming. It was what defined him as human-equivalent and therefore deserving autonomy. The bot had no choice but to fight for his life. Still, to Paladin, it didn’t feel like a lack of choice. It felt like hope.

Soon, he could pick out the chemical signature of the lush farms that rose in tiered spirals around each complex. Northern cities ringing the Arctic spent all summer absorbing as much solar as possible, taking their farms through two crop seasons while the days were long. The whole city was deep into growing season.

“Iqaluit is an ugly city,” Eliasz grunted, joining Paladin at the window. “Its domes are modeled on the ones in Vegas—you know it?” “A domed city in the western desert of the Free Trade Zone,” Paladin vocalized.

There were entire text repositories that focused on eliminating the indenture of humans. Their pundits argued that humans should not be owned like bots because nobody paid to make them. Bots, who cost money, required a period of indenture to make their manufacture worthwhile. No such incentive was required for humans to make other humans.

Regardless of what pundits thought, the vast majority of cities and economic zones had some system of human indenture. And Vegas was where the humans sold themselves. Its domed complexes were almost entirely devoted to processing, training, and contracting human resources. Like Vegas, Iqaluit had been built fast; it was all skyscrapers and domes.

Paladin could feel each whorl of Eliasz’ prints. He unconsciously mapped them to several databases, most of which were swollen with information noise that hid Eliasz’ real identity. The prints matched a dead professor in Brussels, a small-time entrepreneur in Nairobi, a priest in Warsaw, and an indentured woman who belonged to Monsanto in the Free Trade Zone. There were dozens of other matches, spinning outward into a vast snarl of false social network connections and contradictory government records.

Paladin was sure that wasn’t just some indenture algorithm weighting his decision matrix; it was his true desire.

You never knew when the distinct chemical signature of a place would turn out to be useful information.

gender designations meant very little among bots. Most would respond to whatever pronoun their human admins hailed them with, though some autonomous bots preferred to pick their own pronouns

The walls were covered in signs and stickers stolen from other labs. “DANGER! DO NOT TOUCH THE MAGNET!” read a particularly large one over their sequencing cluster. “LIVE CRICKETS” read another.

certain fibers of his shirt glowed with the faded logo of a Freeculture org that had died in the 2120s. It was hard to say if he’d kept the shirt for twenty-five years, or simply bought an item artfully frayed and faded to look authentic.

Arcata Solar Farm


Threezed focused his attention on the mobile she’d loaned him. His only implant was an indenture tracker, so he’d been relying on these flimsy, foldable devices his whole life. Mobiles weren’t exactly durable, or powerful. But they could access plenty of bandwidth from the free mote network, whose microscopic data relays were sprayed into the atmosphere by drones in most of the economic coalitions.

“Yeah, I guess people don’t change that much from century to century.”


Krish compared the patent system to the indenture system, which Jack thought was kind of a stretch. But she had to admit that the patent system did seem to be at the root of a lot of social problems. Only people with money could benefit from new medicine. Therefore, only the haves could remain physically healthy, while the have-nots couldn’t keep their minds sharp enough to work the good jobs, and didn’t generally live beyond a hundred. Plus, the cycle was passed down unfairly through families. The people who couldn’t afford patented meds were likely to have sickly, short-lived children who became indentured and never got out.

a little program she’d written that could help reverse engineer certain classes of patented drugs. Though it was gray-area legal, she emphasized that the program was just for research purposes—or maybe for some kind of pandemic-style emergency when lots of drugs had to be

a small but thriving open source project called reng, for “reverse engineer.”

She viewed romance like any other biological process. It was the product of chemical and electrical signaling in her brain, inspired by input from the outside world.

They founded an anonymized text repo together, about practical ways to deliver drugs to the public domain.

Though technically indistinguishable from that long-dead human, Med’s features had a generic “pretty white girl” look that most humans recognized as a bot tell.

In an instant, the bots were staring at her silently, their minds occupied by whatever Threezed was doing to their command interfaces. “Ha! Nobody ever resets the defaults.” Threezed stood between the two bots with his arms buried in their bodies like some weird puppeteer.

He carefully scanned devices around the room, from the atmosphere sensors to the kitchen appliances, and got lucky with the sprinkler system. The device sat on the network waiting for requests from tiny sensors peppered throughout the soil floor. Once in a while, those sensors would signal that it was dry enough to start watering the furniture. But the sprinkler system was also waiting for requests from other devices. Somebody careless had set it up to pair with any new device that looked like a moisture sensor.

Either Bluebeard had a completely unregistered identity, or age had degraded her prints so much that she was effectively untraceable. When their hands broke apart, she looked at the cluster of sensors on his face again, far longer than most humans ever did. Bluebeard wanted him to know that she was unknown. She wanted him to explain to Eliasz later that this group of pirates was not to be fucked with. And that’s exactly what he did.

Spiraling above them were dozens of towers whose trellises erupted with fruits and grains, and the air drifted with birds and shimmering tendrils of plant material. When Paladin zoomed in on the topmost farm levels, he could see humans and bots fertilizing the plants with tiny paintbrushes full of pollen.

Paladin still did not know how to respond when Eliasz told him things that had nothing to do with work

No matter how long he studied the art of human intelligence gathering, his massive, hardened body with its wing shields would make it difficult for humans to feel at ease with him.

There were disconnected images of the Kagu factory whose timestamps showed gaps of hours and days; signals from a batch of biobots who had been fabbed with him; a jarring memory of the moment when his proprioceptive sense had given way to a feeling of kinetic possibilities; and finally his current self-awareness, tinged with compulsions whose origins he couldn’t access or control.

On the public net, the subject of bots and human sexuality also revealed a wealth of data. But when Paladin eliminated representations from fiction and the sex industry, he found himself with almost no information. Military bots were not designed to have sex with humans, and therefore his situation was largely undocumented. The indentured were not permitted to post on the public net—they were usually barred by NDAs, but also by social convention. Plus, so few military bots became autonomous that their text repo commits were sparse. None of them dealt with human eroticism.

The truck was its own driver, and that driver was a high-functioning paranoid.

Though Mali was hardly a radical anymore, she was unbending in her belief that everyone should be able to afford the treatments she prescribed. When they couldn’t pay for patented pharma, she sold them Jack’s pirated goods.

Jack and Krish named their anti-patent text repo The Bilious Pills, after the first medicine patented in the former USA. It was a little in-joke that was generally misinterpreted to mean something like “snarky bitches” by their adversaries, namely the Big Pharma bosses and liberal patent system apologists.

“We live in a world where everyone can live for over a century without disease and without pain!” Behind her, the Pills used a metal-eating bacteria to soften the locks and rip open the cargo containers like paper. “But the keys to this good life are held in the greedy hands of a few corps, whose patent terms last longer than a human life. If they won’t open access to medicine, we’re going to smash it open! The time has come to fight this system that calls h

health a privilege!”

“Didn’t they teach you shit in Shenzhen? Not even about classics like Metropolis?”

For the first time, Jack realized that Threezed’s sarcasm wasn’t bullshit. It was a perimeter weapon, and probably the main reason he’d made it this far with his mind intact

Thirty years on the highest-recommended daily dose of Vive had kept Mali looking about the same age as her interns.

“Wait, what?” Mali looked ill. “You’re the one behind those drug psychosis episodes? What the hell are you doing selling shit like that?” “Zaxy is an IP hoarder.” “So liberate more of their antivirals. Or go after those new marrow regenerators. Nobody needs Zacuity.” “People want it. Plus, it is kind of a necessity. When you’re competing for jobs with people who take it, Zacuity could mean the difference between employment and unemployment.”

Paladin was developing a small repertoire of highly granular desires for random things

“My brain is just an advertising gimmick,” Paladin vocalized, echoing what the bots had told him in the Kagu Robotics Foundry. “It’s to make humans think I’m vulnerable. But it has no real functionality.”

Night was becoming a more meaningful category as the truck drove south, away from the Arctic perma-light.

“I thought robots just came online and that’s it. Why would you need to grow up anywhere?” Med had the look of somebody who was tired of explaining herself. “Most bots are built like that, yes. Especially ones whose manufacturers need them for a specific task, and who aren’t planning to let them mature to autonomy anyway. But a lot of roboticists believe that successful autonomous bots need kinship ties, and a period of childhood where they can experiment with different identities. That’s what they’re doing at the lab where my parents work, and at a couple of other research institutes.” “So you’re basically an experimental model.”

The road was smooth, probably from a recent refoaming. Lakes tended to move around up here, depending on precipitation, so the local towns preferred roads that would biodegrade quickly. When a lake ate the road, they just sprayed a different route around its new banks.

Somebody had etched the words “FREE LAB” on the wall across from the door, using viruses that ate paint down to the plaster and extruded a thin crust of gold.

“We’re always happy to help any large company stop criminals, of course.” The senator nodded at the Zaxy VP, who offered an empty smile. “Piracy undermines free trade, and punishes the most productive members of our society.” Having finished his speech, the senator checked his cornea feed again.

Until he was autonomous, the Federation would always hold a key to the memories he’d encrypted in the Federation cloud. Lee or any other botadmin could pore over everything he’d learned and thought, editing or changing it if they chose.

He was a user of his own consciousness, but he did not have owner privileges. As a result, Paladin felt many things without knowing why.

But anthropomorphizing is something different. It’s when a human behaves as if you have a human physiology, with the same chemical and emotional signaling mechanisms. It can lead to misunderstandings in a best-case scenario, and death in the worst.


Your brain is nothing more than a processing device for facial recognition. You can operate almost as effectively if it goes offline. It doesn’t reveal some essential gender identity any more than your arm reveals that you are secretly a squid.

The bot’s whole body spasmed, his reflexes made useless by bogus and contradictory commands. A wave of ecstatic nonsense gripped him and the file ended.

The bot monitored Eliasz’ breathing and wondered how his life would be different if he became unconscious for several hours every day.

She patted her knife, which automatically routed all her communications through an anonymizing network that stretched across the Earth and through at least two research facilities on the Moon.

Watching them, Jack had to admit that the Free Lab did resemble the ideal research space she and Krish had dreamed about back in the days of The Bilious Pills. Everything they produced was open and unpatented. All their schematics and research papers were on the public net. Almost anyone, even nonstudents, could use the Free Lab equipment if they had an interesting idea. Of course, nobody here was pirating, at least not officially, even though sometimes that was the best way to save lives fast. And a lot of their open work was eventually absorbed into locked IP by the big patent holders. Companies like Zaxy and Fresser came here to recruit from the talent pool all the time. Still, the lab was free enough to harbor a pirate whom the International Property Coalition would happily see murdered. That was no small thing.

“I call it Retcon,” she said. Krish walked around the table, looking at the projection from every angle. “Essentially, what we’ll be doing is establishing retroactive continuity in the brain. We tweak the neurons to avoid the memory of the Zacuity-fueled reward, and we link the pre-addiction past to the present. You could say we create an alternate present for the brain, based on changing what it thinks has just happened.”

These students loved their work at Free Lab so much that they came here when they weren’t in class, first thing in the morning, just to find something “intriguing” to research.

sixty years since the late twenty-first century Collapse, which left populations and farms ravaged by plagues. Afterwards, the newly formed African Federation hatched a ten-year plan from their headquarters in Johannesburg. They promised the Federation’s three hundred million surviving citizens that they would build the most high-tech agricultural economy in the world.

A sweeping reform bill allowed the Federation government to transform virtually the entire continent into a special economic zone with no regulations on research into anything that could make farming lucrative again. Eurozone and Asian Union companies flocked to the cosmopolitan Federation cities to research transgenic animals that secreted drugs; synthetic fast-growing organisms; metagenetic topsoil engineering; and exo-agriculture that could thrive offworld for export to the Moon and Mars colonies.

“Sound-triggered bacteria. I once zombied a whole club by spiking the booze. Had all the boys do pole dances and put the vid online.” She was less excited than the rest of the group, and a surreptitious blood sample revealed that she had no drugs other than caffeine in her system.

“Paladin, do you really think you’re the first operative who ever stuck out like a sore thumb? Look at me! I’m the color of cow milk. Pretty obvious I’m an outsider around here. But look at your new friend Slavoj. He’s an outsider, too. Everybody is an outsider, if you go deep enough. The trick is reassuring people that you’re their kind of outsider.”

You may be a hydrocarbon guzzling bot, but he likes you because you’re dealing with the same problem. Just figure out a way to share their problems.”

“It will give patent holders more control over what you can do with your body,” he said, quoting verbatim from an anti-patent text repo whose feed he’d quickly plundered. “Exactly! Do you think I could have these wings if the Zone pushed the other economic coalitions to bend to its puritanical will?”

“What if I bought you a franchise here? I have enough to pay for a basic citizenship package that would let you work and go to school in Saskatoon. And if you wanted to move somewhere else in the Zone, it’s a pretty cheap upgrade.”

“Do you have a franchise here, too?” “I had one when I lived here. Now I have an international business franchise that gives me rights in five economic coalitions. I’m covered pretty much anywhere I go.”

She wondered whether the indenture system had its own version of piracy, and tried to imagine what that would be.

She was part of a social network that included artists and activists who were always hatching what they called “disruptive strategies” aimed at undermining all forms of authority: cultural, economic, scientific. Mostly their disruptions involved artistic fashion shows full of uselessly beautiful GMOs and tissue mods that said something about global recolonization.

Military bots, especially ones with armored bodies like Paladin’s, were almost always called “he.” People assigned genders based on behaviors and work roles, often ignoring anatomy. Gender was a form of social recognition. That’s why humans had given him a gender before he even had a name.

the general sense of wrong inputs flooding her sensors.

routed through a server located in a research lab on the Moon.

The African Federation was still young, and the government worried very little about enforcing intellectual property laws, as long as the economy was expanding. Jack and Lyle rented a flat in the biotech ghetto, a neighborhood whose nickname was self-explanatory. I

Casablanca had grown wealthy on biotech, but local artists and subversives considered scientific progress equivalent to gentrification. They had a very hard time grasping the idea that science could be radical, and a laboratory could be free.

To distance themselves from Krish’s Free Lab, they would need a new name. They called themselves Signaling Pathway—Signal for short.

She was reindexing her memories, opening each one anew. Sometimes when she saved a file, it was bigger than it had been before. She was adding metadata, leaving information behind about the programs that had shaped each experience. Slowly a pattern was emerging.

Although she had autonomy, at least temporarily, there was one key Paladin didn’t fully possess: It was the one that decrypted her memories in the cloud—the very same memories that she was carefully resaving, plus the new ones she was making every nanosecond in real time. The African Federation held its own copy of that key in escrow, a guarantee that even if Paladin went rogue, her next memory sync could erase her past.

What happened to all of your bodies? The Federation always needs specialized morphologies. It’s easier to port an existing bot into a new body than make a new one. Fang’s antennas swept lazily toward Paladin. You’ll see. Don’t get too attached to that body—sooner or later, they’ll change it

The sky was dense with layered geotags, information debris left by years of bot residents. Paladin could page through them all, or set up filters to perceive only a designated subset. She decided to perceive none of them, and once again saw pearlescent gray clouds thinning in places to reveal blue sky.

A data-tagged timeline showed the emergence of robot kinetic intelligence in the 2050s, followed by early meetings of the International Property Coalition. Under IPC law, companies could offset the cost of building robots by retaining ownership for up to ten years. She scanned a legal summary that outlined how a series of court cases established human rights for artificial beings with human-level or greater intelligence.

Once bots gained human rights, a wave of legislation swept through many governments and economic coalitions that later became known as the Human Rights Indenture Laws. They established the rights of indentured robots, and, after a decade of court battles, established the rights of humans to become indentured, too. After all, if human-equivalent beings could be indentured, why not humans themselves?

“For bots, industry always precedes autonomy,”

She wanted to focus her attention and mute everything else, but she couldn’t decide where her attention should go.

Bug would no doubt say that there are no choices in slavery, nor true love in a mind running apps like gdoggie and masterluv. But they were all that Paladin had.

fire, fountains, music, wild animals, giant robots, and full-scale replica slave ships.

cognitive marginalia

When these complainers took Retcon, however, their yearning for the addictive process—in this case, working at Quick Build—shriveled up as quickly as their dopamine receptors bloomed, and the new receptors sipped dopamine generated by all kinds of pleasurable activities. Suddenly the Quick Build workers wanted to go bicycling, play with their kids, watch videos, or develop software for personal projects. But they didn’t want to work at Quick Build anymore.

standard-issue IPC: highly trained, on fire with righteous belief in property, as likely to kill her as anything else.

Over a century ago, scientists first began to argue that the patent system and scientific data should be opened up. Back then, it was popular for conservatives to claim that putting geneng into the hands of the public would result in mega-viruses or total species collapse. Open data would be the gateway to a runaway synthetic biology apocalypse. But now we know there has been no one great disaster—only the slow-motion disaster of capitalism converting every living thing and idea into property.

Using software she had installed in her own mind, the bot generated a new key to encrypt her memories. For the first time in her life, the process worked. Her memories were locked down, and the key that the Federation held in escrow would be useless.

A profound silence settled around the edges of her mind, more powerful than a defensive perimeter in battle. Nobody could find out what she was thinking, unless she allowed it. The key to autonomy, she realized, was more than root access on the programs that shaped her desires. It was a sense of privacy.