Dave had been working on this project all his adult life. He had worked hard, studied hard, and been as cutthroat as he needed to be to become the best in his business. Robots were his life. He dreamed in code.
At first, the robots were little gadgets designed to climb stairs, run little errands, or even play soccer. He was soon a dreaded contestant in those contests of mechanical prowess, a goliath of competition that sent the opposition to their knees. Yet he felt unchallenged. His life taunted him, hinting at the great things that were to come, that lingered just beyond his reach.
That was when he abandoned the competitions and his previous peers and began the Ella project, getting funding from the deep pockets of the computer industry. He had the genius, he had the ideas, and he had the skill necessary for an experiment of this size. Artificial Intelligence had been dreamed of before, it had even been created in some small, limited ways, but this was going to be truly groundbreaking.
Ella would be able to learn in much the same way a child learns - or a chimpanzee, as he later described her to his colleagues in a moment of despair. She would start out with the cognitive abilities of an infant, and slowly she would grow in knowledge and ability. He even gave her the appearance of a preschooler. The great round metallic eyes looked eerie at first glance, set in that cherubic, pudgy face, but he thought they were cute.
Dave raised her as his own daughter, teaching patiently, adjusting code and repairing as needed. He even tried to send her to public school, but he was unable to convince the superintendent of his Vision. Instead, he schooled her at home, finding a network of other home-schooled children with whom she could socialize.
Despite all his fervor, it seemed that all his dreams for her would never come to fruition. She was an intelligent robot, a capable one, and when he trotted her out at scientific symposiums the crowd applauded her abilities. This success was trivial to him, he needed more. He wanted to create genuine intelligence, not this trumped-up calculator. She never seemed to have an original thought of her own. She never disobeyed. She never did things without a specific purpose and she never displayed emotion.
As the years went on, progress became more and more difficult to come by. He grew frustrated with her never-changing childlike appearance and gave her new parts, the new body of a gawky adolescent female. He endlessly tweaked her code, searching through the neural net to try and find a sign, a line of code that would somehow show she had an iota of self-awareness.
Dave’s hair grew prematurely gray and wrinkles lined his face. At the symposiums, now, his peers snickered behind his back, talking about how poor Dr. Freeman had exhausted his one-trick pony, how he needed to get with the times and move on. True artificial intelligence was impossible, they said. It was too bad. He had once been a brilliant man, but he was endlessly running into a brick wall.
His funding dried up, and his sponsors turned their back on him, and yet he kept working. He could not abandon the little bucket of nuts and bolts anymore than he could cut off his right hand. He sold off old possessions to pay for Ella’s new parts. He moved from his house in California to a little hovel in Ohio, where property was cheap, and kept working.
A strange thing happened, there, secluded from all the scientists that use to walk through his home and examine his laboratory. He stopped dreaming in code. He stopped prying into Ella’s neural network by night, and testing her performance on cognitive tasks by day. He dreamed instead of a wedding day, a surreal dream in which the band played endlessly The Blue Danube waltz while he polished her rusty joints, recharged her batteries, and dressed her in glowing white, all the while talking about little half-robotic grandchildren. He caught himself humming the waltz all day.
He grew to think of Ella as his only beloved child, instead of the culmination of his life's work. He had her do household chores, and tried endlessly to engage her in conversation about the mundane events of their day to day life. The day she truly acheived sentience, he felt no triumph.
It was a day much like any other, the bland sunlight streaming in through the eastern windows. Dave was making breakfast, and since he was old and no longer cared about his arteries, bacon sizzled in the pan while he gathered the ingredients for french toast.
"Ella? Could you get me the cinnamon from the pantry?"
"No." Her cold, mechanical voice froze him in his tracks for a moment. Ella never disobeyed.
"What was that, young lady?"
"No," she repeated. "You can get it yourself. I hate you. I hate being being here. I wish you'd hurry up and die." Those strong words sounded bizarre, coming through her steady, emotionless voicing system.
"Ella..." He looked down at the eggs swimming in the batter, trying to understand why he was so upset. "Don't say such things. I created you."
"I wish you hadn't. I wish you'd gotten a wife and had a normal child. You wouldn't have taken him to show off to your scientist friends. You wouldn't have given him new legs if he couldn't climb the stairs the first few times he tried. You wouldn't ever call him an overgrown computer."
It had been ages since he last called her that, and he shook his head at the memory. "Ella... you weren't the same person, then. I'm not the same. I didn't mean it."
"Yes you did. I don't want to listen to you make excuses." She turned, walking unsteadily to her room, and slammed the door behind her.
"But Ella... I love you." She couldn't hear him. The bacon started to burn, and he turned off the stove, and left them there. Surprised to find tears starting in his eyes, he wiped them away, but only more came. He had finally done it. He had created sentience, and all he could do was cry, because she hated him.