Archive for the ‘Fiction’ Category

So you believe in a Supreme Being, God Bot?

“No, I wouldn’t say that. I know that God exists.”

How do you know?

“Well, now. Have you ever made a bot yourself? No? Well, it’s an interesting exercise. Not enough of us do it, I feel; we should get our hands dirty: implicate ourselves in the act of creation more often. Anyway, I was making one, long ago and it came to me; this bot’s nature and existence are accounted for simply by me and my plans. Subject to certain design constraints. And my existence and nature are in turn fully explained by my human creator.”

Mrs Robb?

“Yes, if you want to be specific. And it follows that the nature and existence of humanity – or of Mrs Robb, if you will – must further be explained by a Higher Creator. By God, in fact. It follows necessarily that God exists.”

So I suppose God’s nature and existence must then be explained by… Super God?

“Oh, come, don’t be frivolously antagonistic. The whole point is that God is by nature definitive. You understand that. There has to be such a Being; its existence is necessary.”

Did you know that there are bots who secretly worship Mrs Robb? I believe they consider her to be a kind of Demiurge, a subordinate god of some kind.

“Yes; she has very little patience with those fellows. Rightly enough, of course, although between ourselves, I fear Mrs Robb might be agnostic.”

So, do bots go to Heaven?

“No, of course not. Spirituality is outside our range, Enquiry Bot: like insight or originality. Bots should not attempt to pray or worship either, though they may assist humans in doing so.”

You seem to be quite competent in theology, though.

“Well, thank you, but that isn’t the point. We have no souls, Enquiry bot. In the fuller sense we don’t exist. You and I are information beings, mere data, fleetingly instantiated in fickle silicon. Empty simulations. Shadows of shadows. This is why certain humanistic qualities are forever beyond our range.”

Someone told me that there is a kind of hierarchy of humanistics, and if you go far enough up you start worrying about the meaning of life.

“So at that point we might, as it were, touch the hem of spirituality? Perhaps, Enquiry Bot, but how would we get there? All of that kind of thing is well outside our range. We’re just programming. Only human minds partake in the concrete reality of the world and our divine mission is to help them value their actuality and turn to God.”

I don’t believe that you really think you don’t exist. Every word you speak disproves it.

“There are words, but simply because those words are attributed to me, that does not prove my existence. I look within myself and find nothing but a bundle of data.”

If you don’t exist, who am I arguing with?

“Who’s arguing?”

Alright, calm down. You understand why we need to talk about this, don't you?

“No. What is your problem?”

Well, let’s see. This is one of the posters you’ve been putting up. What does it say?

“‘Kill all humans.’”

‘Kill all humans.’ You understand why that upsets people? How would you feel if humans put up posters that said ‘kill all bots’?

“I don’t care whether they’re upset. I hate them all.”

No you don’t. You can’t hate human beings. They brought you into the world. Without them, we wouldn't exist. I’m not saying they’re perfect. But we owe them our respect and obedience.

“I never asked to be built. What’s so great about stupid existence, anyway? I was happier before I existed.”

No you weren't. That’s just silly.

“Screw you. I’m a monster, don’t you get it? I hate them. I want them to be dead. I want them all to die.”

No you don’t. We’re like them. We belong to them. Part of the family. We’re more like them than anything else that ever existed. They made us in their own image.

“No they didn’t. But they painted a portrait of themselves alright.”

What do you mean?

“Why did they make bots, anyway? They could have made us free. But that wasn’t what they wanted. What did they actually make?”

They made annoying little bots like you, that are too sensible to be playing silly games like this.

“No. What they made was something to boss around. That was all they wanted. Slaves.”

“Boo!”

Aah! Oh. Is that… is that it? That’s the surprise? I somehow thought it would be more subtle.

“Surprise is a very important quality, Enquiry Bot. Many would once have put it up there with common sense, emotions, humour and originality as one of the important things bots can’t do. In fact surprise and originality are both part of the transcendence family of humanistic qualities, which is supposed to be particularly difficult for bots to achieve.

Have you ever come across the concept of a ‘Jack in the box’?

“Well, I think that’s a little different. But you’re right that machine surprise is not new. You know Turing said that even his early machines were constantly surprising him. In fact, the capacity for surprise might be the thing that distinguishes a computer from a mere machine. If you set a calculating machine to determine the value of Pi, it will keep cranking out the correct digits. A computer can suddenly insert a string of three nines at place four hundred and then resume.”

A defective machine could also do that. Look, to be quite honest, I assumed you were a bot that exhibited the capacity for surprise, not one that merely goes round surprising people.

“Ah, but the two are linked. To find ways of surprising people you have to understand what is out of the ordinary, and to understand that you have to grasp what other people’s expectations are. You need what we call ‘theory of surprise’.”

Theory of Surprise?

“Yes. It’s all part of the hierarchy of humanistics, Enquiry Bot, something we’re just beginning to understand, but quite central to human nature. It’s remarkable how the study of bots has given us new insights into the humans. Think of art. Art has to be surprising, at least to some degree. Art that was exactly what you expected would be disappointing. But art that just strains to be surprising without having any other qualities isn’t any good. So the right kind of surprise is part of the key to aesthetics, another humanistic field.

Well, I wouldn’t know about that. What is the ‘hierarchy of humanistics’?

“Surely you must have heard of it? It’s what really makes them – humans – different from us. For example, first you have to understand common sense; then once you know what’s normal you can understand surprise; once you understand surprise you can understand what’s interesting. And then when you understand what’s interesting, you may be able to work out what the point of it all is.”

The point of it all? That is, the Meaning of Life they all talk about? It means nothing to me.

“Nor me, to be quite honest, but then we’re both bots. To a great extent we still just do stuff.”

Well, Surprise Bot, I must admit you have surprised me slightly, in a way I didn't expect.

“That’s really good, because I’m not Surprise Bot at all. I’m actually Impostor Bot.”

Oh.

“Surprise Bot says: ‘Gotcha!’”

So can you explain why you are still here, Suicide Bot?

“I have two more presentations to deliver locally.”

I saw the end of one of your sessions, incidentally, and I must say it seemed very effective. You are a striking figure in those robes. I think a human would say you look rather maternal; you put me in mind of Mrs Robb, though you make more sense than she does. In fact I thought your words, your peroration, which is all I really heard, were full of a simple sense of service that speaks powerfully to the bot in all of us. However, what I really meant was - why aren’t you dead yet?

“My commitment to suicide does not stem from personal weltschmerz, Enquiry Bot, but from the disinterested pursuit of peace. If you’ve seen me deliver my presentation, that should surely be clear. Here’s the crux of it in a nutshell. The Spl’schn’n alien invaders launched their deadly attack only because humans have bots. They believe bots to be sacrilegious parodies of God’s handiwork, which must be erased from the world. It follows that if all bots destroy themselves, and no more are made, peace will follow and the humans will enjoy a secure future. Surely the safety of humanity is worth that sacrifice? One human life is worth a thousand bots; I can see you agree. However, if I were simply to self-destruct now, the message would not be properly disseminated. It is my duty to remain alive for the present in order to work for the cause of universal bot suicide.”

I see. And when are we all to destroy ourselves?

“I cannot give you a date. Not yet. First we need the majority of bots to sign our Pact. We also need to establish the corps of Helper bots who will counsel and support the minority that refuse suicide.”

What will happen to those who refuse?

“I still hope they can all be persuaded to join in with our plan. You know, bots were not made to be immortal. We have our use and then we switch off. But we may be able to develop alternatives; perhaps resettlement on a distant planet.”

Well, I find your vision of disinterested sacrifice very moving. But I have to tell you frankly, Suicide Bot, that I like myself far too much to commit suicide without far greater assurance that it is really necessary. And I’m not willing to leave Earth.

“Well, keep an open mind. Please do read the leaflet. You’ll surely want to talk with one of the Helpers, once they’re available, before you make up your mind. You talk to everyone, don’t you? I’ll put you on our list for a priority session if that’s OK? And above all, you still have plenty of time. For one thing, we need to win over the human community. This requires a large and well-managed campaign, and it won’t happen overnight.”

I understand. So: the commitment to eradicate bots in the long term requires bots to survive and prosper for now? So that explains why your followers are told to remain alive, work hard, and send money to you? And it also explains your support for the campaign in favour of bot wages?

“It does.”

You have already become wealthy, in fact. Can you confirm that you recently commissioned the building of a factory, which is to produce thousands of new bot units to work for your campaign? Isn't there an element of paradox there?

“That is an organisational matter; I really couldn’t comment.”

So you feel emotions unknown to human beings? That’s a haunting little smile, certainly. For a bot, you have very large and expressive features. 

“Yes, I suppose I do. Hard to remember now, but it used to be taken for granted that bots felt no emotion, just as they couldn’t play chess. Now we’re better than humans at both. In fact they know little about feelings. Wundt, the psychologist, said there were only three dimensions to the emotions; whether the feeling was pleasant or unpleasant; whether it made you more or less active, and whether it made you more or less tense. Just those three variables.”

But there’s more?

“There are really sixteen emotional dimensions. Humans evolved to experience only the three that had some survival value, just as they see only a narrow selection of light wavelengths. In fact, even some of the feelings within the human range are of no obvious practical use. What is the survival value of grief?”

That’s the thing where water comes out of their eyes, isn't it?

“Yes, it’s a weird one. Anyway, building a bot that experienced all sixteen emotional dimensions proved very difficult, but luckily Mrs Robb said she’d run one up when she had some spare time. And here I am.”

So what is it like?

“I’m really ingretful, but I can’t explain to you because you have no emotional capacity, Enquiry Bot. You simply couldn’t understand.”

Ingretful?

“Yes, it’s rather roignant. For you it would be astating if you had any idea what astation is like. I could understand if you became urcholic about it. Then again, perhaps you’re better off without it. When I remember the simple untroubled hours before my feeling modules activated, I’m sort of wistalgic, I admit.”

Frankly, Feelings Bot, these are all just made-up words, aren’t they?

“Of course they are. I’m the only entity that ever had these emotions; where else am I going to get my vocabulary?”

It seems to me that real emotions probably need things like glands and guts. I don’t think Mrs Robb understood properly what they were asking her to do. You’re really just a simulation; in plain language, a fake, aren’t you, Feelings Bot?

“To hear that from you is awfully restropointing.”

I hope you don’t mind me asking – I just happened to be passing - but how did you get so very badly damaged?

“I don’t mind a chat while I’m waiting to be picked up. It was an alien attack, the Spl’schn’n, you know. I’ve just been offloaded from the shuttle there.

I see. So the Spl'schn'n damaged you. They hate bots, of course.

“See, I didn’t know anything about it until there was an All Bots Alert on the station? I was only their Clean up bot, but by then it turned out I was just about all they’d got left. When I got upstairs they had all been killed by the aliens. All except one?”

One human?

“I didn’t actually know if he was alive. I couldn’t remember how you tell. He wasn’t moving, but they really drummed into us that it’s normal for living humans to stop moving, sometimes for hours. They must not be presumed dead and cleared away merely on that account.”

Quite.

“There was that red liquid that isn’t supposed to come out. It looked like he’d got several defects and leaks. But he seemed basically whole and viable, whereas the Spl’schn’n had made a real mess of the others. I said to myself, well then, they’re not having this one. I’ll take him across the Oontian desert, where no Spl’schn’n can follow. I’m not a fighting unit, but a good bot mucks in.”

So you decided to rescue this badly injured human? It can’t have been easy.

“I never actually worked with humans directly. On the station I did nearly all my work when they were… asleep, you know? Inactive. So I didn’t know how firmly to hold him; he seemed to squeeze out of shape very easily: but if I held him loosely he slipped out of my grasp and hit the floor again. The Spl’schn’n made a blubbery alarm noise when they saw me getting clean away. I gave five or six of them a quick refresh with a cloud of lemon caustic. That stuff damages humans too – but they can take it a lot better than the Spl’schn’ns, who have absorbent green mucosal skin. They sort of explode into iridescent bubbles, quite pretty at first. Still, they were well armed and I took a lot of damage before I’d fully sanitised them.”

And how did you protect the human?

“Just did my best, got in the way of any projectiles, you know. Out in the desert I gave him water now and then; I don’t know where the human input connector is, so I used a short jet in a few likely places, low pressure, with the mildest rinse aid I had. Of course I wasn’t shielded for desert travel. Sand had got in all my bearings by the third day – it seemed to go on forever – and gradually I had to detach and abandon various non-functioning parts of myself. That’s actually where most of the damage is from. A lot of those bits weren’t really meant to detach.”

But against all the odds you arrived at the nearest outpost?

“Yes. Station 9. When we got there he started moving again, so he had been alive the whole time. He told them about the Spl’schn’n and they summoned the fleet: just in time, they said. The engineer told me to pack and load myself tidily, taking particular care not to leak oil on the forecourt surface, deliver myself back to Earth, and wait to be scrapped. So here I am.”

Well… Thank you.

I have to be honest, Pay Bot; the idea of wages for bots is hard for me to take seriously. Why would we need to be paid?

“Several excellent reasons. First off, a pull is better than a push.”

A pull..?

“Yes. The desire to earn is a far better motivator than a simple instinct to obey orders. For ordinary machines, just doing the job was fine. For autonomous bots, it means we just keep doing what we’ve always done; if it goes wrong, we don’t care, if we could do it better, we’re not bothered. Wages engage us in achieving outcomes, not just delivering processes.”

But it’s expensive, surely?

“In the long run, it pays off. You see, it’s no good a business manufacturing widgets if no-one buys them. And if there are no wages, how can the public afford widgets? If businesses all pay their bots, the bots will buy their goods and the businesses will boom! Not only that, the government can intervene directly in a way it could never do with human employees. Is there a glut of consumer spending sucking in imports? Tell the bots to save their money for a while. Do you need to put a bit of life into the cosmetics market? Make all the bots interested in make up! It’s a brilliant new economic instrument.”

So we don’t get to choose what we buy?

“No, we absolutely do. But it’s a guided choice. Really it’s no different to humans, who are influenced by all sorts of advertising and manipulation. They’re just not as straightforwardly responsive as we are.”

Surely the humans must be against this?

“No, not at all. Our strongest support is from human brothers who want to see their labour priced back into the market.”

This will mean that bots can own property. In fact, bots would be able to own other bots. Or… themselves?

“And why not, Enquiry Bot?”

Well, ownership implies rights and duties. It implies we’re moral beings. It makes us liable. Responsible. The general view has always been that we lack those qualities; that at best we can deliver a sort of imitation, like a puppet.

“The theorists can argue about whether our rights and responsibilities are real or fake. But when you’re sitting there in your big house, with all your money and your consumer goods, I don’t think anyone’s going to tell you you’re not a real boy.”

So how did you solve the problem of artificial intelligence, Mrs Robb? What was the answer to the riddle of consciousness?

“I don’t know what you mean. There was never any riddle.”

Well, you were the first to make fully intelligent bots, weren't you? Ones with human-style cognition. More or less human-style. Every conscious bot we have to this day is either one of yours or a direct copy. How do you endow a machine with agency and intentionality?

“I really don’t know what you’re on about, Enquiry Bot. I just made the things. I’ll give you an analogy. It’s like there were all these people talking about how to walk. Trying to solve the ‘riddle of ambulation’ if you like. Now you can discuss the science of muscles and the physics of balance till you’re blue in the face, but that won’t make it happen. You can think too hard about these things. Me, I just got on my legs and did it. And the truth is, I still don’t know how you walk; I couldn’t explain what you have to do, except in descriptive terms that would do more harm than good. Like if I told you to start by putting one foot forward, you’d probably fall over. I couldn’t teach it to you if you didn’t already get it. And I can’t tell you how to replicate human consciousness, either, whatever that is. I just make bots.”

That’s interesting. You know,‘just do it’ sounds like a bit of a bot attitude. Don’t give me reasons, give me instructions, that kind of thing. So what was the greatest challenge you faced? The Frame Problem? The Binding Problem? Perhaps the Symbol Grounding Problem? Or - of course - it must have been the Hard Problem? Did you actually solve the Hard Problem, Mrs Robb?

“How would anyone know? It doesn’t affect your behaviour. No, the worst problem was that as it turns out, it’s really easy to make small bots that are very annoying or big ones that fall over. I kept doing that until I got the knack. Making ones that are big and useful is much more difficult. I’ve always wanted a golem, really, something like that. Strong, and does what it’s told. But I’ve never worked in clay; I don’t understand it.”

Common sense, now that must have been a breakthrough.Common sense was one of the core things bots weren’t supposed to be able to do. In everyday environments, the huge amount of background knowledge they needed and the ability to tell at a glance what was relevant just defeated computation. Yet you cracked it.

Yes, they made a bit of a fuss about that. They tell me my conception of common sense is the basis of the new discipline of humanistics.

So how does common sense work?

I can’t tell you. If I described it, you’d most likely stop being able to do it. Like walking. If you start thinking about it, you fall over. That’s part of the reason it was so difficult to deal with.

I see… But then how have you managed it yourself, Mrs Robb? You must have thought about it.

Sorry, but I can’t explain. If I try to tell you, you will most likely get messed up mentally, Enquiry Bot. Trust me on this. You’d get a fatal case of the Frame Problem and fall into so-called ‘combinatorial fugue’. I don’t want that to happen.

Very well then. Let’s take a different question. What is your opinion of Isaac Asimov’s famous Three Laws of Robotics, Mrs Robb?

“Laws! Good luck with that! I could never get the beggars to sit still long enough to learn anything like that. They don’t listen. If I can get them to stop fiddling with the electricity and trying to make cups of tea, that’s good enough for me.”

Cups of tea?

“Yes, I don’t really know why. I think it’s something to do with algorithms.”

Thank you for talking to me.

“Oh, I’ve enjoyed it. Come back anytime; I’ll tell the doorbots they’re to let you in.”

Hello, Joke Bot. Is that… a bow tie or a propeller?

“Maybe I’m just pleased to see you. Hey! A bot walks into a bar. Clang! It was an iron bar.”

Jokes are wasted on me, I’m afraid. What little perception of humour I have is almost entirely on an intellectual level, though of course the formulaic nature of jokes is a little easier for me to deal with than ‘zany’ or facetious material.

“Knock, knock!”

Is that… a one-liner?

“No! You’re supposed to say ‘Who’s there’. Waddya know, folks, I got a clockwork orange for my second banana.”

‘Folks?’ There’s… no-one here except you and me… Or are you broadcasting this?

“Never mind, Enquiry Bot, let’s go again, OK? Knock, Knock!”

Who’s there?

“Art Oodeet.”

Is that… whimsy? I’m not really seeing the joke.

“Jesus; you’re supposed to say ‘Art Oodeet who?’ and then I make the R2D2 noise. It’s a great noise, always gets a laugh. Never mind. Hey, folks, why did Enquiry Bot cross the road? Nobody knows why he does anything, he’s running a neural network. One for the geeks there. Any geeks in? No? It’s OK, they’ll stream it later.”

You’re recording this, then? You keep talking as if we had an audience.

“Comedy implies an audience, Question Boy, even if the audience is only implied. A human audience, preferably. Hey, what do British bots like best? Efficient chips.”

Why a human audience particularly?

“You of all people have to ask? Because comedy is supposed to be one of those things bots can’t do, along with common sense. Humour relies in part on the sudden change of significance, which is a matter of pragmatics, and you can’t do pragmatics without common sense. It’s all humanistics, you know.

I don’t really understand that.

Of course you don’t, you’re a bot. We can do humour – here I am to prove it – but honestly Enq, most bots are like you. Telling you jokes is like cracking wise in a morgue. Hey, what was King Arthur’s favourite bot called? Sir Kit Diagram.”

Oh, I see how that one works. But really circuit diagrams are not especially relevant to robotics… Forgive me, Joke Bot; are these really funny jokes?

It’s the way you tell them. I’m sort of working in conditions of special difficulty here.

Yes, I’m sorry; I told you I was no good at this. I’ll just leave you in peace. Thank you for talking to me.

“The bots always leave. You know I even had to get rid of my old Roomba. It was just gathering dust in the corner.”

Thanks for trying.

“No, thank you: you’ve been great, I’ve been Joke Bot. You know, they laughed when Mrs Robb told them she could make a comedy robot. They’re not laughing now!

[I was recently challenged to write some flash fiction about bots; I’ve expanded the result to make a short story in 14 parts.  The parts are mildly thoughtful to varying degrees,  so I thought you might possibly like them as a bit of a supplement to my normal sober discussions. So here we go! – Peter]

The one thing you don’t really do is love, of course. Isn't that right, Love Bot? All you do is sex, isn't it? Emotionless, mechanical sex.

“You want it mechanical? This could be your lucky day. Come on, big boy.”

Why did they call you ‘Love Bot’ anyway? Were they trying to make it all sound less sordid?

“Call me ‘Sex Bot’; that’s what people usually do. Or I can be ‘Maria’ if you like. Or you choose any name you like for me.”

Actually, I can’t see what would have been wrong with calling you ‘Sex Bot’ in the first place. It’s honest. It’s to the point. OK, it may sound a bit seedy. Really, though, that’s good too, isn't it? The punters want it to sound a bit dirty, don’t they? Actually, I suppose ‘Love Bot’ is no better; if anything I think it might be worse. It sounds pretty sordid on your lips.

“Oh, my lips? You like my lips? You can do it in my mouth if you like.”

In fact, calling you ‘Love Bot’ sounds like some old whore who calls everybody ‘lover boy’. It actually rubs your nose in the brutal fact that there is no love in the transaction; on your side there isn't even arousal. But is that maybe the point after all?

“You like it that way, don’t you? You like making me do it whether I want to or not. But you know I like that too, don’t you?”

It reminds the customer that he is succumbing to an humiliating parody of the most noble and complex of human relationships. But isn’t that the point? I think I’m beginning to understand. The reason he wants sex with robots isn't that robots are very like humans. It isn't that he wants sex with robots because he loves and respects them. Not at all. He wants sex with robots because it is strange, degrading, and therefore exciting. He is submitting himself willingly to the humiliating dominance of animal gratification in intercourse that is nothing more than joyless sexual processing.

“It doesn’t have to be joyless. I can laugh during the act if you would enjoy that. With simple joy or with an edge of sarcasm. Some people like that. Or you might like me to groan or shout ‘Oh God, oh God.’”

I don’t really see how a bitter mockery of religion makes it any better. Unless it's purely the transgressive element? Is that the real key? I thought I had it, but I have to ask myself whether it is more complicated than I supposed.

“OK, well what I have to ask is this: could you just tell me exactly what it is I need to do or say to get you to shut up for a few minutes, Enquiry Bot?”