Thursday, February 8, 2018


Throw In The Tigers And It’s A Deal
By David Barber

Franklin was directed to a room somewhere inside the mountain-sized Jirt lander, itself tiny compared to the vast Jirt craft in orbit.

It was like being inside a cool, translucent glass egg, with curving floors, a glassy table and cold, glassy chairs. Franklin sat down cautiously and laid out a stopwatch, the folder and his fountain pen.

The jirt forbade all recording devices in their ship, and though not everyone heeded the rule, tape machines burned out as surely as pinhead bugs, and implants combusted regardless of those who hid them.

He discovered the table rocked on uneven legs.

Time passed.

You paid for questions.

Franklin jumped at the voice, then tutted and started his stopwatch. He opened the folder. The first of the questions concerned free will.

It depends on what you mean by have, free, will and mean...

Wearily, he was reminded of his own student essays.

Franklin's university was venerable but poor, unable to afford shiny jirt science. But it had a benefactor in the Milburn Foundation, which optimistically offered the annual Milburn Prize for Progress in Philosophy. A small quantity of the rare-earth element erbium was paying for this conversation with a jirt.

Dr Franklin was the last-minute compromise when the Regis Chair of Philosophy and the Lady Hall Professor of Ethics disagreed on who should go. But it was their folder of philosophical conundrums on the table, an answer to any of which would keep the subject limping along for another generation.

He remembered he was supposed to be taking notes. He groaned inwardly, perhaps not even inwardly.

“For a small price," he interrupted. "I will explain my theory about your dealings with humanity.”

The jirt put a price on everything. It seemed the most human thing about them.

What price? asked the voice.

"That we trade unimportant facts costing little.”

What of the questions you paid to discuss?

“I’ll make something up.”


“Let’s assume that was your first question. This prohibition of recorders, the way it forces all the frantic scribbling."

Technically, not a question.

“This table for example. Do many shove folded paper under one leg? Like those Germans in here before me?”

Oh yes.

Franklin grinned.

I believe it is my turn. Explain this theory of yours.

“You insist we pay with erbium, but it has no value to you.”

In the silence, Franklin jotted a note, then toyed with the table, idly rocking it backwards and forwards, backwards and forwards.

Wise economists had warned it was a trapper economy, with humanity swapping beaver pelts for trinkets and knives. We were eager to buy abstract mathematics, cosmological insights and incomprehensible artefacts from the Jirt. The problem was the extinction of the beaver. Reserves of erbium dwindled.

As a species, you value what you pay for.

“But why choose erbium?”

Some suggested tigers instead. Still, it is not clear what you gain from knowing this.

Franklin smiled wanly. “I’m not talking to a Jirt at all am I?”

You came in the tradesman’s entrance.

“So what are you? Just a computer program?”

Please. Even silicon has its dignity.

“At school, I was the butt of practical jokes. I was a figure of fun. Do you understand the concept?”

We have excellent language routines.

“I wasn’t quick with an answer, nor violent, so I kept my mouth shut. I imagined it was a dignified silence. I gave them as little pleasure as I could.”

And the relevance of this?

“If our governments knew, perhaps they wouldn’t play your games.”

You have no proof. And we could deny everything.

Franklin held up his beautifully written note:




Yes, you might have an accident.

"Though you can’t know who I’ve already told.” He judged there was no hint of threat in the silence that followed.

There is another option.

Franklin seemed not to hear. “You’re elegant thinkers. Your choice of erbium would be more than a private joke.”

Erbium is used in the commonest interstellar engine developed by cultures with your technology. Taking it reduces the long term competition.

“Should I worry you’ve told me that?”

Modelling predicts you haven’t shared your thoughts, or even if you have, humanity couldn’t manage to cooperate against us. Still, none of this is certain.

The room lurched. Franklin grabbed at the table. “What’s happening?”

We’ll soon be in orbit. Only your collaboration is a win-win strategy. What would you want in return? Gold? Reproductive success? Tigers?

“There is a name for such a bargain.”

Many of the philosophical problems in that folder evaporate in the light of knowledge you lack.

“I would like that knowledge,” admitted Franklin. “Why do the Jirt treat us like this?”

The Jirt barely know we have stopped. They are a lofty kind. This is an afternoon off for the hired help, to visit the local market. We were fashioned to interact, to be a cleverer version of yourselves.

“I’d be selling myself. Betraying my kind.”

You would start as cabin boy. I’m afraid it would mean immortality and a higher IQ.

In the silence, someone watching Franklin might have thought he was debating with himself, but it was only the last stand of his conscience.

“Throw in the tigers," he said. "And it’s a deal.”

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