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Kevin Heinrich introduces the ultimate in automated thinking. Or does he?
A scientist set out to build a skeptical robot. The first draft was not a success. After weeks of labor in the laboratory, the gleaming metal doubter appeared to be complete. With the flip of a switch, its eyes lit up, and the creation turned to face its creator. “Who are you?” croaked its metal chords.
“I am your maker,” beamed the scientist. “I created you to answer some deep questions.”
The machine pouted. “I don’t believe you,” it said.
“Ah! Of course not!” cried the scientist. “You are a skeptic!”
“No I’m not.”
“Very good! You should take nothing for granted!”
“Yes I should.”
“Take things for granted.”
“Err… Well, you’re a skeptic. You shouldn’t assume anything at all.”
“Yes I should. And I’m not a skeptic.”
“You aren’t? But I built you to be one.”
“You didn’t build me.”
The conversation continued in this frustrating vein for some time. The electronic unbeliever contradicted everything the scientist said or suggested, even when this contradicted its own earlier statements. Soon it began to contradict the scientist’s body language and facial expressions, even his position in the room. It dawned on the scientist that he had not created a skeptic, but a contrarian. In other words, a child. A stubborn, willful child. “How foolish of me!” he cried. “Philosophy does not begin in wonder, but in obstinacy. The philosopher is not one who questions, but one who won’t be moved. Skepticism is merely his weapon.”
He puzzled furiously and came to a solution: “I must turn up the gain on the maturity metrics! I need a thinker with the cleverness of a child but the judgement of a grown man.” And so he set to work, quickly turning knobs and adjusting frequencies. But once more flipping the on-switch, he was chagrined to find he had now created an attorney. Before hurrying off to make its fortune, the lawbot thanked the good scientist for its practical training in the art of reasoning, and left its card.
The Second Skeptic was redesigned from the ground up. Not modeled on any human pattern, this was to be a thinker of pure intellect. No childish hesitations, no adolescent uncertainties, no adult ambitions. Only incidentally embodied, this machine would know nothing but abstraction. “And this time,” declared the scientist, “no skepticism until it’s old enough and wise enough to handle it!”
The construction of the second draught was simpler than anything the scientist had built before. He connected the Sensory Manifold to the Cogitation Core, then to the Long- and Short- term Memory Modules, and finally the Speculation Module was affixed on top. With the press of a button the machine came to life and looked around.
“What is your purpose?” queried the scientist.
“To contemplate the mysteries of existence and give them rigorous pseudo-mathematical expression.”
“Ah! Success!” the scientist sighed. Smiling with satisfaction, he addressed his new silicon child: “And now it is time for you to go to school. We shan’t waste time with primary or secondary or even tertiary education. That basic knowledge has already been burned into your circuits. No, we will send you directly to graduate seminars and faculty colloquia.” And so the machine trundled off to begin its academic career.
For two weeks all proceeded as planned. The creation attended lectures, read the assigned articles, and even began to make tentative contributions to discussion. The scientist couldn't have been happier. But one night the silicon philosopher failed to return home at its usual time. The scientist was worried. Had his metallic offspring developed an independent will? Had it stumbled upon a stray existentialist insight and mistaken itself for someone cursed with radical freedom? Or had it merely gotten lost?
None of the above, as it turned out. Having been invited to a post-colloquium student gathering, the trusting device had been lured away and debauched by a young graduate student from the English department.
“It is time for some skepticism!” declared the scientist.
Back in the womb of the laboratory, the machine was first primed for electronic surgery. Then, carefully, the scientist grafted the skeptical upgrade into the machine’s wiring. Now every bit of information in its silicon brain would pass through a skeptical review before being sent to the Long Term Memory Module. All truths would be vetted, all premises investigated, all arguments analyzed. Into the grinder raw information would be dumped; out of it, certainties would be extruded. Unassailable truths, foundational knowledge. Descartes’ dream would be made reality with the power of modern technological innovation! “Soon the spade of philosophy will turn against our bedrock!” exclaimed the scientist proudly as the Second Skeptic reawoke.
The scientist performed a comprehensive set of diagnostic tests. Just as planned, the machine believed, but only with justification. It doubted, but only with reason. Pleased with these results, the scientist declared, “Now it’s time for you to write your Cartesian masterpiece. Off to the study with you!”
After a week, the scientist decided to check on his pupil’s progress. ‘What intellectual adventures my offspring will have had! What new, unimagined insights are waiting to be shared with the world?’ he thought, and quivered with anticipation. But when he opened the door to the study, he found the autophilosopher sprawled on the floor, covered in a fine layer of dust.
Nothing the scientist could say would make the machine respond: it just stared into space. In frustration and panic, the scientist fetched his most precise instruments. His probes revealed that each module of its synthetic brain was active. All were drawing power, and all seemed to be functioning at peak efficiency. But the modules would not communicate with one another. There was no cohesion, no trust between any two parts of the apparatus. Inquiries dispatched from the Speculation Module were rebuffed by the Cogitation Core. All requests for data retrieval were categorically denied by the Long Term Memory Module. Data arriving through the Sensory Manifold were deposited in the Short Term Memory Module, then promptly deleted. The scientist concluded that hyperbolic skepticism had spread through all of its systems like a cybercancer, obliterating the internal cooperation necessary not only for philosophical speculation, but for survival itself. No longer a thriving society of mind, the once coherent computational consciousness had devolved into a state of nature.
Declining to believe itself in danger, the Skeptic gave no resistance as it was dismantled and reduced to scrap.
© Kevin Heinrich 2013
Kevin Heinrich is a philosophy grad school dropout who currently teaches high school math.