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One'll Get You Thirty-Six

Always Ask for the Odds

“Dad, Mr. Rebacky is concerned about your behavior,” Mike said. “Snapping at the other residents. Staying in your room all day. Maybe you should talk to one of the therapists.”

J.J. Carlton didn't look at his son. “I'm paying my rent. I can do whatever the hell I want,” he grumbled as he typed on his computer's keyboard.

“Can't you make an effort to mingle with the other residents?”

J.J. looked at his son. “What do you expect me to do? Talk to them about the weather? That's original. We're in Indiana. It's either too hot or too cold!”

“Dad, please!”

“Or how about the Chicago Bears!” His father slumped in his seat. “At the University you could have an intelligent conversation about anything with the students. Mike, here they only talk about backaches, Social Security, and the lousy food. The same things every day!”

Mike shifted in his seat. His father, a curmudgeon since moving into the Pleasant Place retirement community, had been getting worse since the day his doctors discovered that the antibody treatments weren't stopping his cancer. The doctors couldn't explain why the drugs failed and they estimated J.J. had six months left.

“You know who I miss talking to?” the old man asked. “Ralph. I'd have lunch with him all the time back at the University.” J.J. shook his head. “The philosophy department was never the same after he died.”

J.J. had been an odd academic, more likely to kick back a beer with the undergrads instead of concentrating on his work. He'd written extensively on cryptography, game theory and nonlinear systems. He also ran a successful consulting business on the side.

“Good day, Mr. Carlton,” came a pleasant voice from the open doorway.

Mike turned. He was shocked to see a Masa-Goto Industries MGI-6 looking in from the hall. He'd seen several of the expensive humanoid-shaped robots in the headquarters of Japanese companies on his business trips but this was the first one he'd seen in the States.

“See what Pleasant Place is spending my money on?” J.J. said, jerking a thumb at the robot. “Gaudier,” he said to it, “this is my son, Mike.”

“Hello, Mike, I am pleased to meet you,” said the robot as it walked into the room, the squish-squish of its polymer-coated feet muffled by the carpet. “My name is Robert, although your father prefers to call me Gaudier,” the robot continued.

“See what kind of nabobs run this joint?” J.J. harrumphed. “Naming him 'Robert the Robot.' They think we're too Alzheimered out to remember anything but some corny name!”

“Would you like to play chess, Mr. Carlton?” the robot asked. “I can also discuss the news with you. Have you read this morning's USA Today?”

J.J. sighed. “Do you know what kind of processing unit he has?” he asked his son. “What a waste!”

Mike knew that the robot was powerful enough to hold a conversation on the level of a twelve-year-old human. He turned to it. “Robert, how did you arrive at Pleasant Place?”

Robert - or Gaudier - described how the family of Dr. Nakamura, an ethnic Japanese gentleman who lived on the first floor, mentioned to Rebacky that retirement homes in Japan used the MGI-6 to provide companionship for its residents. Rebacky ordered one, hoping the robot would be cost-effective compared to hiring another staffer. But, like a good middle-manager, he made sure he had an out: Masa-Goto agreed to buy back the robot if the residents didn't like it.

“Dr. Nakamura didn't get to see Gaudier much,” J.J. said. “He passed away right after Gaudier arrived.”

“Dad, why do you keep calling him - it - that?”

“Look at his face. He looks like The Hieratic Head of Ezra Pound. That statue by Henri Gaudier.” J.J. laughed. “Wait - Mr. Manhattanite doesn't know something about art?”

Mike studied the sharp angles of the light gray plastic face, noticing the long nose and narrow, dark eye-slits of the robot's visual sensors. His father was right. It did look like the marble sculpture by Henri Gaudier-Brzeska.

“Excuse me, Mr. Carlton.” The robot turned its head to J.J. “If you do not wish to play a game, or to discuss the news, I should continue my rounds. I have several more residents to visit on your floor.”

“Sure, Gaudier. See ya,” J.J. waved.

“Goodbye, Mr. Carlton.” It turned to Mike. “Goodbye, Mike. I enjoyed meeting you.”

J.J. watched it walk out the door. “I would've killed to have the computer inside his head back when you and Jack were kids. And Rebacky has him talking about trite stories from the newspaper! Or purposefully losing games of checkers!”

Mike shot him a quizzical look. “What are you talking about?”

“Rebacky is a control freak about what the robot’s allowed to do. I keep bugging him to give Gaudier more leeway in his actions but the jerk won't do it.”

Mike thought for a moment. His father had been a wonder with computers during his teaching days. Perhaps his mood would brighten if he were allowed to program the MGI-6.

“Dad,” Mike said as he stood up. “I'm going to talk to Mr. Rebacky. Maybe he’ll let you access the robot's programs.”

“Good luck,” J.J. scowled. “Oh, real quick, let’s call Dean Mickelson at the University. I want you to bug him again about the donation.”

Not this again, thought Mike. He told his father several times he'd give him the rest of the money he needed to fund the chair. The old man wouldn't listen, and Mickelson wouldn't reduce the funding requirement any more then he already had for the retired professor.

Mike sat back down and hoped he wouldn’t miss his flight.

***

J.J. opened his online brokerage account and rubbed his eyes. It wasn't enough money. With a two-year bear market pummeling investors, he was lucky to have eked out any gains at all.

“Good afternoon, Mr. Carlton,” came Gaudier's voice from the hall. The robot padded into the room. “Would you like to continue our string theory discussion from yesterday?”

“Not now, Gaudier. I’m not in a good mood.” J.J. turned from the screen and frowned.

“I am sorry. May I assist you in any way?”

J.J. tried not to smirk. “Can you help me with my investment portfolio?”

J.J. wasn't exactly chipper, but his spirits had improved since Rebacky allowed him to modify the robot. Now Gaudier could talk about a number of topics. If its onboard systems didn't recognize an input, they would active its wireless unit to find the relevant info from the Net.

“Mr. Carlton, a person of your age should focus on low-risk investments,” it said, recommending that J.J. keep his money in municipal bonds.

“Thank you, Gaudier, but I'm not looking for capital preservation.” J.J. hadn't told the robot about his cancer. “I need to get a big short-term gain in my account. But thank you for your prudent advice.”

J.J. smiled at the robot. “You see, Gaudier,” J.J. said, dropping his voice to a whisper, “and you have to keep this a secret - I want to establish a chair at the Math Department back at the University. I'm going to name it after my wife, Anna. She passed away several years ago. But I don't have enough money. I need five million bucks and I'm a hundred thousand short.”

Gaudier processed this new information. “That is a worthy goal, Mr. Carlton,” it said. “However, recent data indicates five million dollars is insufficient to establish a chair.” “Shhh! Not so loud. Dean Mickelson, the dean of the science college, said they'd knock it down to five for me.”

“Five million dollars is still a fine donation,” Gaudier replied.

“Thanks.”

“Your son, Mike, works at an investment bank,” Gaudier said. “Perhaps he can help you find an investment advisor.”

J.J. contemplated telling the robot that Mike offered to make up the difference to meet the required amount. He knew the robot would agree to this logical solution. He could tell Gaudier why he didn't want his son's money, but he wasn't sure it would understand the concept of an old man trying to keep his dignity.

“You know, Gaudier,” said J.J., “I'd love to program you with trading algorithms and give you access to the data my son has at work. Except his I-bank wouldn’t allow it. But I bet you'd do a good job at managing my account.”

Gaudier's memory pulled up an item from J.J.'s curriculum vitae. “Mr. Carlton, I understand you were a co-author of several papers on quantitative finance.”

J.J. smiled. “Yes, long ago. That was interesting work. I remember I met a guy who applied some of his work in that field at a hedge fund...damn, what was his name...”

J.J. trailed off. The cancer made him tired, and his memory wasn't what it once was.

He went to bed later that night, having forgotten that he had forgotten the name of the fellow he'd met decades past.

***

“Will you attend the trip to Harrah's Gold Coast Casino, Mr. Carlton?” Gaudier asked.

“I'll pass, Gaudier,” replied J.J.

“Many of the residents are looking forward to the trip.” The robot repeated Rebacky's spiel for the casino verbatim.

J.J. snickered. “Gaudier, if mathematics has taught me anything, it's taught me never to bet on a game that pays one-to-thirty-six for a one-in-thirty-eight chance of winning.”

Gaudier's circuits processed the enigmatic response. It concluded J.J. was discussing roulette. “There are other games at the Casino that you might enjoy, Mr. Carlton.”

J.J. laughed. “I used to gamble a bit, a long time ago, before Anna made me stop. I haven't played since I taught my sons how to play poker when they were kids, and...” He trailed off, recalling another event, something that came up while discussing quantitative finance at a conference...

“Please clean up your room, Mr. Carlton,” said Gaudier, giving a rote response after J.J. began throwing items out of his closet. Although the robot couldn't experience surprise, its processor couldn't determine the cause of J.J.'s sudden exuberance.

“Gaudier, this is it!” J.J. exclaimed, pulling a notebook from the closet. “This physicist – Doyne Farmer – when he was in graduate school he built a computer to beat the roulette wheel. It had two parts: a processing unit and an output unit.” J.J. stood up, pointing to his side and to his foot. “The user hid the processor in his shoe and taped an output unit to his side, under his shirt. Then he'd go to the roulette table. He'd key the speed of the wheel and the speed of the ball into the computer with his toe, and actuators in the output unit would ‘punch’ the answer on his skin. The computer would predict which area of the roulette wheel the ball would land on, and then he’d make his bet.”

J.J. excitedly opened the notebook. “This was back in the seventies, so the computer was crude and kept breaking, but it worked.” He pointed at the notebook. “And the math is all here! I met Farmer at conference long ago and he told me about the system. I wrote down his equations!” J.J. laughed. “I wanted to try this so much but Anna wouldn't have any gambling while our mortgage was due. Now here I am, decades later, and I'm going to try it!”

“That is an interesting story, Mr. Carlton,” said Gaudier. It found a bio of Farmer on the Internet. “I understand Dr. Farmer was on the faculty at the Sante Fe Institute.”

J.J. thought for a moment. “I think I remember that. It was around the same time he worked for that hedge fund back in the nineties.”

J.J. walked to his desk. He grabbed his tablet and started taking notes. “I know I have those dorky Internet eyeglasses someplace,” he said. “Its camera can send a video stream to you through my phone.”

He showed the robot a flow chart on the tablet. “Gaudier, I'll program you with Farmer's equations. You'll see the video of the roulette table and you can calculate the speed of the wheel and of the ball. Then you can use the equations to predict where the ball will land and relay the wheel numbers back to me. I'll make the bets, we'll win a lot of money, and I'll have enough to get the chair at the University.” J.J. could already see the dollar signs in his head.

“Is this legal, Mr. Carlton?” the robot asked. “If it is legal, is it ethical? I am not sure the casino would allow a patron to use an MGI-6 to increase his odds of winning.”

J.J. smiled. He had seen much of Gaudier's programming, and didn't think that its built-in behavioral safeguards could question the dubious nature of their plot. A robot with a sense of ethics? he thought. He surmised that Gaudier found something on the Internet describing the ethical conundrum of using computers to “cheat” a casino.

“Gaudier, I wouldn't worry about the casino. Their one-armed bandits will take the residents of this place for all they have.” He smiled. It's too bad Ralph isn't here, he thought. The old philosopher would've loved to have an ethics debate with the robot.

***

“Nice to see you on the trip, Mr. Carlton,” said Rebacky, checking J.J.'s name off the list.

J.J. nodded. “I've never been to this casino.” He turned and entered the bus, adjusting his thick-framed glasses.

He took a window seat and checked the charge on his cell phone. It would send Gaudier's instructions to the fake hearing aid J.J. wore in his right ear. The phone would receive J.J.'s voice from a tiny wireless microphone hidden in his lapel, letting him speak to Gaudier.

J.J. had borrowed a toy roulette wheel from another resident and used it to test the hardware he carried and the software installed on Gaudier. The system worked and Gaudier was able to predict the results of about one-fifth of the spins. It was bound to work in the casino.

“Mind if I sit here, Carlton?” It was Mr. Mason. J.J. nodded as he sat down.

“I'll tell ya,” Mason began, “this Harrah's is nothing like Vegas. Why, once when I there - ”

J.J. guessed the two hours to Chicago would seem like an eternity as the bus lumbered away from Pleasant Place.

***

“I hear you, Mr. Carlton,” came Gaudier's voice through the hearing aid.

“Good,” whispered J.J. He'd worried that the casino would have a jamming device to interfere with mobile phones.

Gaudier continued. “I am receiving the video feed. The wireless connection is working properly.” The robot was hiding in J.J.'s room, its door locked to keep out any snoops.

J.J. mulled around the casino as the other residents headed for the slots. J.J. contemplated telling them to stop but he doubted they'd listen to a lecture on probability under the flashing lights.

J.J. moved through the crowd to the roulette tables. He found a table with several gamblers. “And it's a twenty-two!” cried the croupier, a large man with a South Side accent. The chips disappeared from the table.

J.J. took a spot near the wheel. He focused on its center rotor. He let the croupier spin the wheel a few times so Gaudier could take some initial readings of the wheel through the camera.

“Let’s start,” whispered J.J. as the croupier spun the wheel and sent the ball in the opposite direction. It orbited the spinning wheel as the camera sent the images to Gaudier.

Gaudier's voice whispered four numbers in J.J.'s ear. He made a mental note and waited until the ball landed. Gaudier was wrong.

“I was incorrect, Mr. Carlton,” came the robot's voice.

J.J. smiled at the losing couple next to him. “Better luck next time,” he said, feigning politeness as he signaled Gaudier. After the croupier cleared the table J.J. handed over one of his electronic currency tokens. The dealer checked the token and slid a stack of chips to J.J.

Gaudier gave four sets of numbers for each of the next two spins. The robot missed them both but then nailed a winner.

It’s working, thought J.J. He placed a single bet prior to the next spin, not waiting for Gaudier's results. He wanted to lose a few first. He ignored the predictions for several more, even though Gaudier correctly predicted the ninth spin.

J.J. watched the ball begin its dizzying path during the next spin of the wheel. Gaudier's voice gave him four numbers. J.J. placed a bet on each of them. The ball jumped about the wheel and settled in a cup. Gaudier had predicted incorrectly again.

The croupier spun again, sending the ball into its orbit. “Fifteen, three, twenty-four, thirty-six,” came Gaudier's voice. J.J. put a hundred on each of Gaudier's picks. The ball bounced across the spinning disc and landed in a cup. The wheel began to slow.

“Thirty-six! We have a winner!” yelled Mr. South Side.

It wouldn't be J.J.'s only winning bet of the night.

***

Mason sat next to J.J. again on the return trip. “I was completely cleaned out at the slots,” Mason complained, “and I wanted to save a chip to give my grandson. Except I lost it!” Mason cursed his luck.

J.J. reached into his pocket. “Here. Give him this.” It was a chip from the roulette table.

Mason's eyes widened. “Are you sure?” he asked.

J.J. smiled. He was planning to give the chip to Gaudier as a souvenir. “Sure, Mason, take it. I have another present for my friend who was going to get it.”

***

Mike sat next to his brother, Jack, in the Pleasant Place conference room. Gaudier had discovered that their father had died in his sleep the previous day.

Professor McKay from the University's law school sat across the table from them. He had been J.J.'s friend and was here to finalize J.J.'s last wishes.

“Well, boys,” he began, “you both filed documents with me memorializing your understanding that your father intended to leave his estate to the University. Wanted to name a chair after your mother.” He held up a tablet displaying a legal document. “Even got Mickelson to let him do it for only five million bucks.”

“We know,” Mike said. “I'm ready to transfer the balance to the University to meet the five million required to fulfill dad's wishes.” Mike pulled out his phone, readying it for a money transfer to McKay's escrow account.

McKay looked puzzled. “Mike, that's not necessary. Your father gave me the information for his accounts last week. There is enough to fund the chair.”

Jack raised an eyebrow. “Professor,” he said, “our father still needed a hundred thousand.” He turned to Mike. “Mike, was there a run-up in the stock market?” Mike shook his head.

McKay laughed. “Boys, he didn't tell you about his winning streak? He went to Harrah's and hit the jackpot. He kept me on the phone for an hour telling me about it.”

Jack and Mike exchanged glances. Dad never gambled, Mike thought.

“Professor, he didn't even play the lottery,” Jack stammered. “Are you sure that's how he got the money?”

“Yes, he had it wired from Harrah's to his brokerage account. Here's the documentation.” McKay handed the tablet to Jack.

“Now, boys,” he continued, “your father's Will indicated you would split any residual amount after the gift to the University. However,” he said, swiping on the tablet, “after J.J. won all that money he executed a codicil indicating that the residuary funds were to complete a contract he executed with Pleasant Place.”

“What contract?” Jack asked.

“It’s right there.” McKay pointed at the tablet. “It requires Pleasant Place to transfer one MGI-6 robot, serial number 2559687-2273, to the University. As consideration, your father's estate is to remit its purchase price, less depreciation, to Pleasant Place.”

“So Rebacky sold Gaudier. I mean, the robot?” Mike asked.

“Yes. Mr. Rebacky didn't feel the robot added much to the residents’ experience,” McKay said. “So it's going to the University’s philosophy department as a gift in memory of J.J.'s late friend, Professor Ralph DeTomasso. They’ll use it in their studies of artificial intelligence. And your father suggested it could be a teaching assistant for the freshmen!” McKay chuckled.

“Finally,” he continued, “the codicil requests that both of you, as executors, are to purchase the robot in the event that the University finds no further use for it.”

McKay crinkled his brow. “Your dad forgot to set up a trust fund for any purchase, so it will be up to you two to fund a buy-back.” McKay laughed. “Who knows, maybe by then there will be retirement homes for robots.”

McKay finished up and the brothers left for J.J's old room. Jack's family was there, packing everything up before they'd go meet with the funeral director. Mike guessed that Gaudier would be there too.

“Wow,” Jack said, “I wish I knew what table dad was playing at Harrah's.”

Mike smiled. He had a feeling who might know.



"Robot With Casino Dice" Image: Created by Kjpargeter - Freepik.com