Greg van Eekhout’s 2019 Cog is a standalone young-adult SF novel.
The untrained eye could mistake Cog for a twelve-year-old boy. In fact, he is a humanoid robot, designed as a tool for research on cognitive development. Like humans, Cog can learn from his experiences.
Sometimes he learns the wrong thing. Assured by his parent-figure, uniMIND researcher Gina, that ‘good judgment comes from experience, but experience comes from bad judgment,’ Cog sets out to optimize his learning environment by making some big mistakes.
Mission more than accomplished!
The good news is that Cog survives his encounter with the on-coming car, as does the small dog Cog was attempting to save. The cost is extensive damage, and a far more detailed knowledge of his pain sensors’ range of sensitivity. The damage is sufficient to shut Cog down, temporarily.
When he regains consciousness, he soon realizes he is not in the home he shares with Gina but somewhere else. UniMIND has confiscated Cog and rebuilt him. Gina has been reassigned to other duties somewhere far from Cog.
Cog’s new minder is a smiling man named Nathan, who is eager to optimize uniMind’s profits. Unlike Gina, Nathan is not distracted by Cog’s superficial similarity to a child. Nathan would not lose track of his goals even if Cog were a flesh and blood boy.
Rather than settle for the time-consuming process of exposing Cog to the real world, Nathan is determined to remove Cog’s brain to connect it to a virtual reality machine that can run through simulated experiences many times faster than in the real world. This will also permit Nathan to locate Cog’s X‑Module , whatever that might be.
Although he is an obedient robot, Cog is very unenthusiastic about having his brain removed. Therefore, he decides to escape; he plans to exploit the cognitive limitations of a trash-collecting robot to circumvent uniMind’s security. This escape would have failed save for the timely intervention of ADA, who is in a sense Cog’s sister.
ADA wasn’t built to study learning; she seems to have been built for defense. She is not sure what ADA stands for but it could be Advanced Destructive Apparatus. ADA has many useful applications, most of which involve breaking things and killing people. With ADA’s assistance, Cog commandeers a robot car and escapes.
Next step: find Gina. She’s been relocated to an undisclosed location, so the game plan is to find her and use Car to reach her (provided that she is still in North America and not at one of uniMind’s overseas facilities). All this has to be done while eluding the tentacles of a vast multinational corporation uninhibited by ethics beyond the bottom line. The quest may not be easy but it will certainly provide Cog with many learning experiences.
ADA is not Three Laws compliant. If she were, her inbuilt missile launcher would be pointless. In fact, it is quite possible that Nathan used ADA to slaughter a room full of people. Nathan subsequently assured her the targets were robots, but Nathan seems like the sort of cheerful sociopath who would lie about things like that.
It’s probably best not to worry about how many people ADA has killed or why it is that the guards are terrified of her.
ADA and Cog are extremely literal minded and have as yet to fully grasp the concept of humour. Despite this (or perhaps because of it) they’re an amusing pair, given to very serious announcements made on the basis of what turns out to be flawed data. How could one not like a logical young person capable of thinking
form a decision: To increase my learning, tomorrow I shall make some big mistakes.
It’s not all fun and misapprehension-based larks. I regret to report that fans of unrestrained capitalism may not be entirely pleased by uniMind’s depiction, inasmuch as their agenda does not stop at treating robots like things, but rather extends well into treating humans like property as well. In fact, it would be very surprising if the corporate mission statement does not have the phrase “malevolent megalomania” in it somewhere.
Perhaps not for adult readers, although I enjoyed it. I would guess that kids might like this light-hearted tale of road trips and attempted world domination.