Alka Shiriigi Personal Attendant Robot
This article originally appeared in the November/December 2020 issue.
The Naasirka Corporation’s Alka Shiriigi series of diplomatic personal attendant robots was originally aimed at the high-price noble and corporate elite market of the sectors close to the Imperial hub. The latest models are still very expensive. Older production runs of the series, though, are subject to an interesting commercial phenomenon.
Made for a demanding market where customers expect the very best in quality, all components of the series had an extremely long life and were manufactured to very strict tolerances. Meanwhile, advances in robotics and programming came in fast-paced leaps, and new and improved models were turned out in rapid succession. Nobles, merchant princes and diplomats replaced their robots frequently in order to be up-to-date. Naasirka took millions of older and still very much serviceable models in payment, lumped them together with the surplus production runs and sold them off (relatively) cheaply in the periphery. A sub-firm of Naasirka, Agdaziram Robotics, still manufactures and sells replacement parts for discontinued models, although of a quality inferior to the original parts, in a price range that those customers who bought Shiriigi robots second-hand can afford.
As a result of this policy, Alka Shiriigi robots are found throughout the Imperium. Especially in the periphery and at the borders, where diplomatic encounters are often fraught with difficulty, the reliable Shiriigi have endeared themselves to traders and envoys. Sometimes battered from long lives of service and extensively modified, many of those robots have been around for centuries, and in some cases may have memories as old as the history of settlement on the worlds they serve on. They may still use archaic expressions that were in use a century ago.
The original Shiriigi series had spherical bodies about the size of a human head or slightly smaller, borne on a grav field. They weren’t expected to handle objects, so no limbs were added, although later, Agdaziram manufactured an extension kit that provided hardpoints for up to two flimsy detacheable arms. The kit didn’t prove very popular; adding arms made the robot more visually threatening (a liability in diplomatic situations), and there were few occasions that necessitated manipulating ability.
Customization was common from the start of the series, reflecting not only the personal wishes of wealthy customers but also the vagaries of fashion in the various courts. Attendant robots at a diplomatic function can be liked to an extension of the owner’s jewelry, and are as much a fashion item as necklaces or gowns. Often, the robots’ hulls are carved from exotic woods or wrought in precious metals by famous artisans, etched, jewelled or decorated with filigree. Several popular lines of casings are able to change colour, usually either to stay as inconspicuous as possible, or to match the owner’s garb with a pre-set colour mode. Ten years ago, the fad in the core worlds was for articulated floating heads wrought in mother-of-pearl and lapis lazuli. Currently, casings in the shape of a ring or disk standing on its edge are the latest in fashion, and required extensive remodelling of the original body.
Hand-me-down Shiriigi in the periphery are a different matter: most were stripped and re-fitted with a basic standard casing (which can be set to any of several colours with a spoken command) before being sold. Merchants tend to keep this utilitarian shell, but many frontier world nobles or diplomats who bought older Shiriigi replaced it with more elaborate casings made by local artisans and from local materials.
Those Shiriigi that have found their way into the hands of free traders or crime lords often have a battered appearance at odds with their elegant lines. Many of those came from scrapheaps and have been made serviceable again.
Personality and Behaviour
The Alka Shiriigi line is not pseudosentient, but has been equipped with relatively high-end intelligence. All three models, when loaded with cultural databases on the expected negotiation partners, are prepared to act as advisers in etiquette, socio-cultural and diplomatic matters (treat as an expert system in either Diplomacy, Contact or Administration). By default, all Shiriigi leave the factory with an abbreviated copy of Rikunarasha’s (see Freelance Traveller, #35/36) in their memory banks, which can be upgraded and regularly actualised for a fee, albeit at the expense of memory space for other functions.
Except where the personality programming was modified by the owner, Shiriigi were equipped with a profile that would allow them to function in a diplomatic environment with the greatest possible tact. Their demeanour is unfailingly polite. At the same time, though, they were supposed to emphasize their master’s standing and position by their choice of words, and as a result have a dignified undertone that could be perceived as snobbish if it wasn’t so subdued.
To avoid diplomatic mishaps by an inadvertent tactless utterance, Shiriigi are programmed to stay as quiet as possible, speaking only if they are addressed directly. This is especially true for the security model, Shiriigi-Emkugash. There are some models whose voice box has been removed entirely, so the robot must be plugged into a terminal to be able to talk with its master.
Naasirka also included strong, triple-layered safeguards against tampering, personality malfunctions, disobedience and violence. This served no practical function (the usual single-strata safeguards are perfectly sufficient), but enabled Naasirka to sell Shiriigi with an Imperial certificate of safety that gave its products access to many ballrooms and functions where other robots were banned. While the personality files may be altered, it is virtually impossible to do so without breaking the seals (both physical and electronic). Consequently, all personality maintenance must be done at a registered Naasirka workshop, or the certificate is voided.
One unintended effect of the strong conditioning against violence is that robots of the series tend to freeze or temporarily deactivate themselves in situations where they might inadvertently collide with a sophont, such as where there are many people moving erratically. This reaction overrides the robot’s impulse to stay in position near its master, so that it is possible to lose one’s Shiriigi in a dense, milling crowd. To date, even after decades of research, Naasirka’s roboticists still have failed to find a way around this issue without significantly weakening the safeguarding circuits and losing the Imperial warranty.
In its original setting, and unless ordered otherwise, a Shiriigi tries to hover unobtrusively over the shoulder and half a step behind its master. It will try to avoid getting too close to other sophonts, making it very difficult to catch.
Mission and Usefulness
The intended field where Shiriigi robots are expected to perform is the realm of diplomacy and business negotiations, supporting and assisting their master in various subtle and not-so-subtle ways.
Shiriigi are classed into three distinct fields of duties. It is impossible to fit the equipment necessary to fulfill all of those functions into a single model, so a customer who wants all three duties performed needs to be accompanied by at least three robots.
Shiriigi-Emkugash: This line of models is equipped to detect threats against its master and xir entourage. It is loaded with extensive sensor banks, including a low-powered densitometer and a portable chemical sniffer, and the latest TL 15 models may also have a neural activity scanner (NAS) to detect animals or sophonts sneaking up. The NAS stretches the hull a good deal and necessitates the fitting of stronger grav propulsion units. Even so, an Emkugash with a NAS is slower and moves less gracefully than other models.
The robot has little capacity to make its own decisions, and to avoid diplomatic blunders, it will not voice its findings directly unless commanded to, instead discreetly communicating with the headsets or HUDs of its master’s bodyguards or area security.
Shiriigi-Ildu: This line is basically a floating holo rig. It was originally designed to present its master in the best possible light, using subtle mini-holograms to highlight the face, enhance its natural beauty and correct cosmetic irregularities. For nobles, the Ildu may project a pearly, iridescent halo around its master where pomp is required: at balls, public addresses etc. Use by non-nobles in this way is frowned upon, and care must be taken not to outshine higher-ranking nobles. Precedence patterns and recognition of other nobles’ features can be programmed into the brain.
Another common use is to project an icon floating behind and above its master: in the case of corporate representatives, the firm’s logo; nobles use the logotype or coat of arms of their fief or family; high-ranking military officers may have their robots project the branch of service or regimental arms. At larger functions, the robot may project the names, rank and occupation of those in attendance, the words hovering unobtrusively near their collar line.
Ildu can be ordered to throw up milky, semi-transparent holographic walls around their master’s group to prevent lipreading and ensure privacy. While this is a useful function, it is not as widely used as might be expected – mainly because its activation draws attention to the fact that there is a confidential side talk in progress. Veterans of the diplomatic service use this to their advantage, distracting potential listeners with the milk wall function in a perfectly innocuous conversation while a trusted associate surreptitiously does the real backroom talking with someone else out of earshot.
More recent models have expanded on the holographic rig’s functions; many are capable of projecting holographic tables and presentations, an useful feature to businessmen and nobles alike at meetings or councils. Other models include a function where they (usually at a transmitted danger assessment signal from an Emkugash model) project a holographic camouflage pattern over their master to make xir less conspicuous, blending xir in with the surroundings. The function is not without its drawbacks; in a well-publicised incident, an Ine Givar terrorist opened fire with an automatic weapon at a ball in a noble’s residence. One of the wounded nobles was repeatedly overlooked by the rescue workers because of her Ildu’s camouflage field. She was found and resuscitated too late, and suffered irreversible cerebral damage from loss of blood flow to the brain.
One infamous and very illegal use of this model, which nearly had it banned across the Domain of Deneb, was the impersonation of third persons by projecting a hologram over the master’s face. This requires the robot to be refitted with very focussed hologram projectors to overcome the “translucent” effect of normal-dispersal holograms (voiding the Imperial Seal on the Ildu), and yanking most of the other software. Incidentally, the focussed holographic beams may cause eye damage to the “wearer” of the hologram.
Shiriigi-Akguda: Colloquially known as the “Shiriigi-Drago”, the Akguda is a very sophisticated translator. Loaded with language and cultural data, it can translate simultaneously for its master. A constantly-updated cultural assay file and dedicated linguistic AI are supposed to keep it from using terms that may be misconstrued or inadvertedly give offense to the person(s) the master is talking to. It constantly monitors the facial expression and body language of all involved and may radio-transmit indications of stress, fear or anger to an earpiece worn by its master.
This software has its limits, though. Where it is relied on too much, the master’s statements may be translated into meaningless, vague statements designed to put everyone at ease but robbed of any concrete informative value. It may also inadvertently sabotage any intentional threats or double entendres. Most users tone the program down to a basic level. Newer models also analyse the master’s expression and determine whether a slight may be intended, and most of the time they can be relied upon to get it right.
Most Akguda have a secondary, “literal” mode which is Imperially certified to translate in the most direct and true-to-the-original way. The sentences resulting from this will be awfully stilted, and the robot may include short explanations on the cultural use of certain original phrases to explain an oblique reference, double meaning or obscure phrasing. The effect is rather like having someone completely devoid of humour clumsily and unnecessarily explaining a joke in a detached, unemotional voice, far from the smooth, lively negotiations that are the diplomat’s usual trade. This setting is used where either both parties are comfortable enough with each other that no inadvertent cultural blunders from translation will offend the other party, and/or as a sign of rigid intention to deal honestly and truthfully. Some meetings with diplomats or trade representatives, and certain non-social functions, actually require it in their regulations.
If the robot’s master is wearing a heads-up display, the robot may supply xir with stock phrases and rhetoric suggestions in the fashion of a tele-prompter; this is an invaluable help (some would say, a crutch) for apprentices in the diplomatic service, but experienced diplomats rarely use this function, seeing reliance on the prompter as a sign of weakness.
Newer models have a lie-detector function that uses the monitoring data to give a percentage of probability that the talking person is lying. This may be projected onto a heads-up display that the master is wearing, or transmitted into an earpiece. The lie-detection is obviously only as good as the cultural data that the robot has stored, and may be way off for other races unless the robot is specifically programmed to deal with that particular species. (A lie-detection program that can read Hivers has yet to be developed.) Lie detection poses a -1 to -3 modifier to all Persuade or Deception rolls against the robot’s master; certain attempts at Diplomacy, where lies are involved, and Gambling, in poker-style bluff games, may also get penalised at the Referee’s discretion.
The Akguda, naturally, memorises all details of a conversation, and if plugged into an Ildu can play it back in fine resolution. For confidential dealings, there is a command that will disable the memory function (indicated by a blue light on the Shiriigi’s casing), which may put potential business partners at ease but severely interferes with the facial and body language monitoring function. A memory-disabled Akguda will not be able to attune to the participants, and may also have its translation ability impaired because it cannot match phrases to the context of what has been said earlier. (For example, if the word “charge” came up in conversation, clearly meaning a piece of explosive, a later and less context-confirmed occurrence of the word in conversation may be translated as “assault by ground forces”, “stored electricity” or “accusation in court”, because the earlier reference was not memorised by the robot.)
While nobles able to afford them prefer always having the latest models in the Emkugash and Ildu lines, which are clearly superior to their predecessors, older Akguda are often retained in service. Newer models may be able to process languages more quickly, but older models that have been in service for a long time have a wealth of experience with cultural situations that simply cannot be matched by a factory-new robot.
The nobility being what it is, there are a lot of specialised models, especially for ceremonial uses; for example, the Baron’s court on Corundine requires each knight to have xir cloak and sword of office carried by an attendant; after an assassination attempt by one of the attendants, the pages were replaced by stripped-down Shiriigi-Akgudas equipped with a sturdy clasp. Basically, the robot’s only function is to display the sword, and hand it to its master should xe require it (in case of a duel or certain ceremonial occasions such as investiture of new knights). On Amethyst, where the nobility are also expected to excel at scholarly studies, it has become common practice for a noble to have large databases and encyclopedias stored in an Akguda variant, equipped with powerful librarian agent software, to avoid embarrassing xirself in scientific discussions that are outside xir own field of study.
- A noble’s Akguda was hacked (by an agent who works in the Naasirka franchise workshop that maintains the noble’s robots). It stores the noble’s shady dealings on a chip, which is then retrieved by the agent at the next maintenance interval for later blackmail.
- Someone impersonates a noble at a ball, using a modified Shiriigi-Ildu. The travellers inadvertently see through the disguise when a clumsy waiter blunders into the robot and the hologram slips for a second. The real noble may be too ill to attend and have sent a double to carry out important negotiations; or he may be kept captive somewhere else, and the impersonator is a terrorist.
- Someone hacked a Shiriigi-Akguda as a practical joke to embarrass a certain inexperienced noble who relies heavily on its prompter in social situations. The robot’s prompter is reprogrammed to provide phrases that are not exactly meaningless or offensive – just slightly off in an embarrassing way. But then the ambassadors who handle the neighbouring K’kree polity’s delegation fall ill, and suddenly that young noble is in charge of negotiations. The patron needs the travellers to change the robot’s circuits back before the young noble makes a fool of himself and quite possibly starts a war with the K’kree.
- A noble smuggles a weapon on the travellers’ ship in the casing of his Ildu, to assassinate a ruler who threatens to ruin his own planet. The intended victim is a notorious rapist, taxes his people into starvation, and has given the police unprecedented carte blanche with anyone even remotely suspected of sedition. His prospective successor is much more moderate and stable, and on the verge of being exiled or killed due to his vociferous criticism of his brother’s politics. When the travellers find out what their passenger is up to, do they report him, or do they let history run its course? They might even assist the attempt if they have seen enough evidence of the intended victim’s policies being carried out.
- A businessman has lost his Shiriigi-Ildu, which contains an important presentation. When he entered the maglev train, the doors closed between him and the robot. It is now flying aimlessly through the city in search of its master. He can’t tell his superiors: he’d be fired. The presentation it contains details the firm’s financial data and long-term plans, and would be very valuable to any business rival. It is entirely possible that someone from a competing firm already has gotten wind of the businessman’s misfortune, and sent corporate agents or a team of freelancing spacers to find it before the travellers do. Catching the thing is difficult because of its evasion software. The travellers need to trap it in a room with a low ceiling (so it cannot just float away) and back it into a corner.
- A meeting of planetary minor nobles is the target of a coup: suddenly, gunmen (in the pay of one of the nobles?) storm the precincts and start shooting people and taking hostages. One of the knights hides her coded signet ring (legitimation of her office) in the casing of her Akguda and sends it off while she bravely faces the gunmen with her ceremonial dagger in order to help others escape. Her dying words to one of the travellers are, “find the ring and deliver it to my daughter”. The robot, in full evasion mode, is abroad somewhere in the building. The terrorists control the west wing and are looking for the travellers. The travellers need to find the robot and leave the building, then get the heiress to safety.
- The travellers try to get close to a crime lord to attack him and his bodyguards. He has a Shiriigi-Emkugash, so they need to approach without weapons. Poisonous substances are also out of the question. They will have to work with innocuous objects to fool the robot until they are close enough. Ever assassinated someone with a paper clip?
- The travellers were hired as helpers by a travel agent who organises safari tours. While they are on duty, a wealthy vacationer is attacked by a wild animal. He is unharmed, but the animal killed his bodyguards and swallowed his Shiriigi-Emkugash whole before being driven off by the travellers. It was the man’s own negligence that caused the animal to attack, but he will violently deny this, threatening to place criminal charges on the safari agent and the travellers to salvage his ego. The Emkugash’s camera records could be used to prove otherwise. The travellers need to find the animal, kill it and retrieve the robot. The Emkugash does not really broadcast its location, but continues to mark dangers around the fleeing animal and transmit the information to the dead bodyguards’ headsets, a steady flow of notifications about sheer drops, possibly violent fauna, etc. From these hints, the travellers may extrapolate the general location of the animal on a map of the hunting preserve: if the robot mentions a drowning hazard, for example, they can guess that the animal is near the river. If it mentions a strong electric current, it is somewhere near the charged perimeter fence. Gradually, they should be able to locate the beast’s position on the map by piecing together the hints: Water and electric current means it must be at one of the two points where the river passes the fence, and so on.
- A high-class callgirl uses a hand-me-down modified Ildu to impersonate famous celebrities for customers who are into that sort of thing. The travellers are at a bar where she, dolled up as star singer Viriina Akal, is waiting for a customer, when suddenly a man pulls out a gun and starts firing at her. The travellers catch a glimpse of the man’s shoulder rig a second before he draws, and should be able to push her out of the line of fire. The unsuccessful assassin then tries to catch her robot in the confusion, which evades, and is forced to flee empty-handed. It turns out that the robot still has the dealings of its late former master (a pirate captain? A corrupt noble?) on record in a mirror drive of its memory banks – electronically walled off by the scrap merchant who sold the lady the robot, since he could not erase it – and all the former master’s old associates and enemies are keen to get their hands on the data. This clumsy attempt was only the first one.
- A historian from the subsector’s major university hires the travellers and their ship. She is travelling to the rural areas of a desert world, where she is convinced a local ruler was entombed together with his noble accoutrements. Among these is supposed to be an Akguda that had been passed down from ruler to ruler. The dry climate and the Alka Shiriigi series’ inherent robust workmanship may have preserved its memory banks intact – if the robot can be found and reactivated, it could give an account of nearly the whole history of the planet, from its humble beginnings as a barely-terraformed colony to the heyday of its civilisation, and maybe give clues as to the native semi-intelligent race’s disappearance halfway through its settlement. The expedition is sabotaged, though, and the travellers’ ship has to make an emergency landing in the desert. There’s a long survival trek ahead. A government agency wants to suppress all evidence that the natives were the victims of genocide by the settlers, and would much prefer it if the robot wasn’t found.