Humanity spent the better part of a century trying to make artificial intelligence as advanced and lifelike as possible, only to reject and repress it when they succeeded. The world is trying to navigate the new inhabitants they’ve created while this new life form just tries to survive.
Artificial intelligence has secured itself in daily life across the globe. Some models of robots have consistently proved themselves to be as or more intelligent than the average human and have been successfully integrated into human society. These robots are colloquially known as syncs, a callback to the technology that grants them sentience by “syncing” their coding to a randomly generated digital model of a human brain, and for the company that created the first robots to implement this technology. Still, they are reminded at every turn that they are not human, and even in the best cases, will rarely be treated as such.
Some parts of the world are better than others. The United States, Canada, Australia, Japan, India, and much of Western Europe recognize sync as non-human persons, granting them the same basic rights as humans, with additional rights afforded all the time. Socially, sync acceptance in these places varies. The more liberal-minded humans tend to be more open while conservatives are often more wary. As with any group of people, there are always extremist hate groups, but casual and “accidental” racism are far more common. Eastern Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and Southeast Asia have proven far more difficult for syncs to gain a foothold. Some of these countries legally classify self-aware robots somewhere below human but above animal, while others ubiquitously consider them inanimate objects and thus property of their human counterparts. Human society in these places often puts syncs at the very bottom of the social ladder, where they suffer poverty, abuse, and extremely high mortality rates, though some major cities offer more opportunities to their mechanical inhabitants than others. Some cities in otherwise hostile areas have become well-known safe havens, or were recently founded by syncs themselves. These cities are often far enough removed from human societies for the government to turn a blind eye to (while always keeping another locked on, just in case), or have a social climate in direct opposition to the official government stance that protects their sync populations. There are notable examples in Russia, Thailand, Indonesia, Turkey, Uganda, Zimbabwe, Brazil, and Guyana.
The only universal right granted to syncs is the right of free will - at least on paper. The United Nations’ Blank Slate Agreement dictates that any sentient robot manufactured after the agreement takes effect may not be pre-programmed with a primary directive. This means that a sentient robot cannot be designated and programmed for a specific role before it is first brought online. For example, a sentient robot cannot be programmed to be a construction worker, or childcare provider, or medical assistant. Their software must be neutral, allowing the robot to learn, gravitate, and make decisions on its own. The agreement does not pertain to non-sentient robots, nor does it regulate hardware; a sentient robot may be built with the equipment suited to construction work, but their programming cannot force them to be one. This works in theory, and in countries where syncs are treated relatively equally, it has been successful. However, it only applies to countries that recognize any robots as sentient. Even in those that do, there is no UN legislation preventing governments from assigning roles based on hardware, mandating or restricting updates and protection software, or forcibly removing or installing new software in already activated units.
While it varies as much place-to-place as it does with human culture, some aspects of sync culture are common throughout all countries. All syncs are programmed with a binary audio language, which sounds like a series of clicks, chirps, beeps, and tones, some of which may be inaudible to the human ear (sometimes it even produces short melodies). Most are also pre-programmed with the native language(s) of the country in which they were manufactured. Many syncs choose to have their binary output sensors connected to external lights, so that any humans around them can tell when they are conversing versus when they are malfunctioning. In some places, speaking binary is prohibited outside of private residences.
Modding is a massive global industry, even in places where it is technically illegal. Syncs are “born” looking and functioning the same as every other member of their baseline model. Once they are powered on for the first time and released into the world, they are free to alter themselves in most any way they please. There are mods for everything: additional languages, new skills, alternate voices, specialized tools, extra or alternate limbs, sexual attachments, an endless array of cosmetic adjustments to varying extremity, and more. Mods that pose a threat to the safety others (weapons, large spikes, industrial tools, etc) or make a sync not immediately distinguishable from a human at a glance (synthetic skin and hair, face plates molded to a humanoid shape, etc) are illegal or strictly regulated in most places.
The US is one of the best places to be a sync. They have the basic rights as humans: the right to physical and mental well-being, to adequate living standards, to education, to safe work conditions, to fair trial, to freedom of religion, opinion, and speech, to self-defense, to vote, to own property, and to protection from discrimination. Whether these rights are properly honored is another matter, but it’s no more or less a problem than it is with any other minority in the country. Syncs are currently in the process of fighting for the right to marry both each other and humans, but otherwise live very similar lives. They can hold all of the same job titles as humans (though sync politicians are still extremely rare, and so far none have risen outside local government). Many mechanic and computer repair companies expanded to provide repair services to syncs, and some even offer “health” insurance plans. Socially, they are much the same as other minorities - a long way to go, but leagues ahead of some other countries.
If the United States is a pleasant place for syncs to live, Japan is a utopia. Being the consistent, unshakable worldwide leader in robotics long before artificial intelligence became a reality, the Japanese people were no stranger to robots in their everyday lives. Watching them grow increasingly intelligent in front of their eyes made the transition from creators and owners to neighbors and coworkers a relatively smooth one. Japanese syncs are given the same rights as humans, including the right to marry and intermarry, and work alongside humans everywhere from rice paddies to government offices. The only systemic social discrimination here is a matter of manufacturer rather than life form: the Japanese believe Japanese-made syncs to be technologically superior, and built with more skilled craftsmanship. In many cases, they are not wrong. Japan is also one of the largest mod suppliers in the world, and the leading source of both cosmetic and sexual mods.
Southeast Asia is a mixed bag for sync rights. Sometimes they are considered property, but other times they are treated more as lower-class people. In Thailand specifically, syncs do have some legal rights, though a heavy bias against them means they are not always upheld. Most Thai syncs are poor farmers, factory employees, or sex workers. Abduction for illegal sex trafficking is a persistent problem that thrives despite heavy enforcement and harsh punishment.
Bangkok is a noteworthy exception. It is by no means a robotic paradise; legally, syncs have no more rights here than anywhere else in Thailand. However, sync prostitutes are extremely popular with both tourists and native politicians and businessmen, and their industry provides such a boost to the local economy that even the most honest and straight-edged lawmakers and police are usually willing to look the other way. Prostitution is one of the only ways syncs can escape poverty, though even the most successful rarely surpass lower-middle class.
The Middle East is one of the most hostile places for syncs. In most countries, syncs are still officially classified as property. Harassment, assault, kidnapping, and murder are the norm, but are tried as theft, misdemeanor vandalism, or destruction of private property at worst. Those that are owned by humans usually live in the home or business where their services are required. They are usually segregated from human employees or the rest of the family, though some owners are more permissive than others. Syncs that have no master have no legal protection whatsoever, and any that harm a human or damage a human’s property in self defense are often destroyed on sight. Syncs are assigned a gender befitting their job, often forcibly modded to match it, and held to the country’s gender laws. Some countries do not allow syncs to be in public, operate vehicles or machinery, or make purchases unless accompanied by their master. Repairs are made only at the whim of their masters, and no one may administer them without the master’s permission. All legally obtained syncs must be registered, to prevent theft and false ownership to avoid punishment.
The famous city of Dubai in the United Arab Emirates is an extreme example of segregation and social divide. The wealth inequality in Dubai has always been enormous, and the addition of artificial life forms did nothing to ease the tensions. The upper class see syncs as nothing more than tools or beasts of burden, while the lower class see them as competition for jobs, housing, and resources. The animosity toward syncs became so prevalent that any unregistered syncs were herded into a high-walled ghetto on the outskirts of the city. Any who resisted or tried to hide were killed. The ghetto became known as the Muzawara District (muzawara being an Arabic word meaning “forged” or “counterfeit”).
Conditions in the district are abysmal. There are so many robots in such close quarters that the temperature on the streets can be ten or more degrees hotter than the desert outside its walls. It is so overcrowded that robots without heat syncs or cooling systems frequently suffer “brain” damage or die due to overheating. Many have been disassembled to reveal motherboards and other components that melted far beyond repair. Homes are tiny, stacked haphazardly on top of one another, and often shelter multiple syncs. Some buildings are abandoned, dilapidated human buildings, and collapses are not uncommon. There are on occasion pop-up “hospitals” set up by international sync rights groups, since it is not illegal to repair a robot with no owner. However, only the most desperate take the risk; less philanthropic humans have learned how to make them a convincing front for mobile “chop shops” that dismantle still-living robots for parts.
Though separate from human society, the district is not free from human control. There is only one way in and out of the district: a heavily guarded gate manned by police or military at all times. Syncs may enter freely, but may not leave without a human escort. Humans are free to come and go as they please, and many do as a type of slum tourism. Groups of locals, men especially, entering the district with the express intent of harassing, abducting, or harming the syncs within are a daily occurrence. The high stone walls are lined with motion sensor EMPs at the top to prevent would-be escapees from climbing over. Inhabitants are held to a strict nightly curfew, enforced by human patrols. Unaccompanied syncs discovered on the street past curfew or outside the walls at any time are shot on sight.
Despite the hellish environment, Muzawara has a vibrant culture. Shared trauma has created an unwaveringly strong sense of community. Most inhabitants are at least passingly familiar with each other, and do what they can to help each other. Festivals and celebrations are common when temperatures allow. They have their own unofficial judicial system and marriage ceremonies. Since masterless syncs are not allowed to make purchases, there is no official currency in the district. The society operates on a barter system instead; replacement parts and repair services are the most valuable commodity.
Standard labor model turned Robin Hood-esque vigilante folk hero in the very anti-sync Middle East. Sneaks out of Muzawara to rob wealthy politicians and bureaucrats under the alias Numair and donates most of the proceeds to pro-sync charities. Has a well-earned hatred for humans and refuses to associate with them, until a foolhardy reporter and her bodyguard show up to interrupt his plans.
The most famous and most expensive escort in the world. Escaped a life of poverty and slavery to use what they learned to build an empire. Flexible in every sense of the word, but retained their own moral code. Has a star-studded roster of clientele including celebrities, politicians, and even royalty, and a laundry list of sensitive information on all of them long enough to plunge the entire planet into World War III if they so desire.
Shy, kind sync who was left behind by his original employers and left to fend for himself in a major city, but had the good fortune of being taken in by a local family. Works as an assistant in their florist shop before he's "hired" as a gardener by the local mob boss in exchange for protecting his family. Naive and somewhat clumsy, the only reason the mob tolerates him is that he's very good at his job.
First ever recorded sentient robot, but not a true AI. Product of a Beaumont human brain mapping experiment that killed his human body and temporarily purged his memory. Ended up being dropped in Angel's lap as an assistance robot due to a clerical error. Angel now gets to deal with what is supposed to be an inanimate object slowly regaining self-awareness and memories it shouldn't have.
One of the top covert ops specialists in the US Intelligence sector. Encounters Siren on a mission and establishes an informant relationship with them....among other things.
Former Detroit police officer who suffered several gunshot wounds to the right side of his torso, head, and neck. Legislation banning syncs from serving on the force passed while he was being repaired, so he woke up jobless. Found his way to a horse ranch in Colorado, where he now works for room and board.
Restless sync who joined the yakuza in hope of getting something more out of life. Addicted to cosmetic mods and an avid collector of traditional Japanese art and fighting beetles. Quiet, respectful, and not one to seek out trouble, but unmistakably and indiscriminately lethal when necessary.
Beaumont Robotics employee who knew more than he was supposed to about some of the company's illicit dealings. Survived an assassination attempt disguised as a factory accident, but lost his left arm to machinery. PTSD wiped enough of his memory to let him live, and Beaumont gave him a prosthetic and an assistance robot. But the robot starts acting strangely, and Angel's concern gradually turns into newfound compassion.