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Tideline (Short Story): A Robot as the Ultimate Team Player

Recommendation: Read this, and when you finish wiping the tears from your eyes, go read about human-robot teams

Elizabeth Bear deservedly won a 2008 Hugo for best short story for Tideline, about a loyal Marine Corps robot named Chalcedony, the last survivor of her squad. But the story isn’t a story of weaponization and tactics, like a Bolos novel. Instead it is a bittersweet story of loyalty, art, aging, managing multiple conflicting goals, mentoring, protecting, and all the other ways a robot can be a team player.

It would be a bit of a spoiler to discuss all the ways to love this story, so better to focus on the science.

And science there is, as the story subtly illustrates all of the points in the classic 2004 paper by Klein, Woods, Bradshaw, and Hoffman called Ten Challenges for Making Automation a "Team Player" in Joint Human-Agent Activity. The paper defines what we expect of others on a team and how that translates into what we expect from robots.

To be a team, such as the squad of Marines that Chalcedony was the robot member of, each member has essentially entered into an agreement or compact- perhaps unspoken, but a compact nonetheless- to work together. And more specifically to be mutually predictable, mutually directable, and to maintain common ground. Think of a soccer team- the players can count on each other to fulfill their positions- that’s mutually predictable, to adapt and compensate if a team member is injured- that’s mutually directable, and to understand the game, the plays, what’s going on on the field and with each other- that’s common ground. Now think of the programming challenges in duplicating the team work we take for granted in a soccer team and you have the heart of artificial intelligence research in human-robot interaction and why it is so hard.

As Chalcedony recalls her fallen comrades, it is clear that she has been, and remains, an excellent team player. She knew everyone’s strengths and weaknesses and more touchingly knows about them as people. Her common ground with them, her knowledge of culture and values, now drives her to make necklaces to serve as tangible memorials, each uniquely tailored to the person. The artistic urge is reminiscent of the AIs creating evocative Cornell boxes from the remnants of the Tessier-Ashpool family in William Gibson’s Count Zero.

Not every human-robot interaction is about being a team. When Chalcedony encounters a boy, Belvedere, the emerging relationship is not a team and never becomes one. As noted by other reviewers, it is more of a Shel Silverstein's Giving Tree relationship. No matter, her common ground includes the myths and stories of honor and combat and quests (things that do sound useful for a military robot) and as a result something more magical and special than team work emerges in the rather logical relationship between robot and boy.

Would a robot ever create art to leave behind as a tribute to its team mates? Perhaps not, but if it did, it might be because a thoughtful programmer included Tideline in the common ground for robots and humans. Read the story or listen to it in the We Robots anthology edited by Allan Kaster, and when you’ve wiped your eyes, read the Klein, Woods, Bradshaw, and Hoffman paper on team players and think about the basic compact between Chalcedony, her fellow marines, and humanity.

- Robin

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