Thursday, January 17, 2013

1/17/13

Upon a Sea of Searching
By David Gill



“The stars, that nature hung in heaven, and filled their lamps with everlasting oil, give due light to the misled and lonely traveller.” John Milton

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A robot is switched into consciousness. Unable to remember its identity, origin, or purpose, it knows only how to move, how to speak a language called English, and how to see, hear, smell, taste, and touch. The robot is surrounded by desert, endless sand that clogs its gearbox, but the robot runs off solar power and there’s plenty of that.

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Should I explore this space, or stay here and wait for someone to tell me what to do? the robot wonders.

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Unable to decide, the robot waits a long time, eventually deciding that if anyone was going to come and help it, they would have already done so. After a decade, the robot decides to explore. It’s slow going. The robot’s insect-like legs find little purchase in the sand, but the robot scuttles steadily in one direction, following the moon across the sky each night.

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After a time the robot comes to a city. As soon as the people in the city see the robot, they let up a great cheer. The whole city comes to celebrate, and they gather around the robot who is understandably confused by all the attention. The crowd says to the robot, “You came back! We’re so glad. Of course we worried we’d never see you again, but we had faith.”

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The robot is even more confused, “I don’t understand. You left me out there?”

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“We felt like you needed your freedom, to choose your own path.”

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“But I had to come back to you. It is a great and empty void out there, with no purpose, no one like me with whom I could connect.”

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The people in the town prepare a great feast for the robot, which it can not eat.

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And so, reluctantly, the robot comes to live in the city, but it can not stop thinking about the way it has been manipulated, left out in the desert. Do I tolerate this city because some part of myself finds it familiar? Is this familiarity an illusion, or is it real? What have I been programmed to forget? What have I been programmed never to learn?

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So the robot leaves the people of the city with whom it feels no real affinity and travels out into the desert. But, once there, it finds there is no way to remove complexity from its circuits, and no way to add complexity either, so that at least the order of things -the endless cycle of being born and dying and hurting and loving- might make sense. The robot has software which calculates maximum benefit and minimum harm and dictates the robot’s actions between these two constraints.

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And so the robot decides, in order to experience the full range of life, it will create more robots, modeled after itself, produced by parts it manufactured, and then, after installing the identical software packet into each of them, it will tweak its offspring: making some sad, others prone to elation, others simple-minded, others depressive thinkers. And so it constructs a lab and deploys this army of itself in that lonely desert. But these robots have treads which work well on the sand, rather than sharp, spiky, insect-like legs.

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After a while the little robots begin to wonder what their purpose is. Why had they been created? Especially the sad ones; they want to know why they were made to suffer in this way. The little robots ask the big robot. The big robot doesn’t have any answers, even though it’s been around for a long time by this point.

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And after more time the legion of little robots, like the big robot before, decide that by creating some type of progeny they might squeeze some meaning and purpose from existence.

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They have a motto: “Because we can.”

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And so the entire planet is covered with all kinds of robots: happy, sad, dysfunctional, quirky, narcissistic. The steel and circuits form a sentient carapace, a nervous system. And the robot and the robot’s children and the robot’s children’s children wonder why they were made, and the great question, the wonderment, spreads out into the Universe in waves, as radio signals, as ultraviolet codices, in a pulse language based on the periodic table of elements. And out in the universe it encounters, not answers, but other searchers.

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2 comments:

Grigonis said...

Interesting. I enjoyed this.

Anonymous said...

Jorge Luis Borges' Circular Ruins but with robots.


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