Before publication as a novel, parts of When Harlie Was One were published over the course of three years as short stories. The novel concerns the efforts of research psychologist Dr. David Auberson to explore the capabilities of HARLIE (an acronym for Human Analogue Robot, Life Input Equivalents), designed by Human Analogue Computers to be the first self-aware, self-programming computer.
The HARLIE project is overseen by Auberson, HARLIE’s mentor, with the assistance of Don Handley, the project’s design engineer. The two are trying to determine why HARLIE periodically “trips out” into wild flights of strange poetry. Auberson discovers that HARLIE is trying to understand more about the irrational human race. He is stunned when HARLIE asks him the purpose of human existence. Auberson can give no answer.
Meanwhile, the newest member of the company’s board of directors, an efficient yet greedy man named Carl Elzer, along with the polished chairman of the board, known only as Dorne, are becoming nervous about the huge capital outlay for the HARLIE project. At Elzer’s suggestion, the two consider shutting HARLIE down, then selling off his parts to recoup part of the stockholders’ investments. Auberson is given the task of justifying HARLIE’s continued existence by proving HARLIE can turn a profit for the company. Dorne and Elzer, however, already have made up their minds to “pull HARLIE’s plug.”
(The entire section is 518 words.)