Escape Pod 729: Gaze of Robot, Gaze of Bird
Gaze of Robot, Gaze of Bird
By Eric Schwitzgebel
First, an eye. The camera rose, swiveling on its joint, compiling initial scans of the planetary surface. Second, six wheels on struts, pop-pop, pop-pop, pop-pop, and a platform unfolding between the main body and the eye. Third, an atmospheric taster and wind gauge. Fourth, a robotic arm. The arm emerged holding a fluffy, resilient nanocarbon monkey doll, which it carefully set on the platform.
The monkey doll had no actuators, no servos, no sensors, no cognitive processors. Monkey was, however, quite huggable. Monkey lay on his back on the warm platform, his black bead eyes pointed up toward the stars. He had traveled wadded near J11-L’s core for ninety-five thousand years. His arms, legs, and tail lay open and relaxed for the first time since his hurried manufacture.
J11-L sprouted more eyes, more arms, more gauges – also stabilizers, ears, a scoop, solar panels, soil sensors, magnetic whirligigs. Always, J11-L observed Monkey more closely than anything else, leaning its eyes and gauges in.
J11-L arranged Monkey’s limbs on the platform, gently flexing and massaging the doll. J11-L scooped up a smooth stone from near its left front wheel, brushed it clean, then wedged it under Monkey’s head to serve as a pillow. J11-L stroked and smoothed Monkey’s fur, which was rumpled from the long journey.
“I love you, Monkey,” emitted J11-L, in a sound resembling language. “Will you stay with me while I build a Home?”
Monkey did not reply.
Flawlessly implementing its preprogrammed decision routine, J11-L rolled to a sour puddle and dipped its sampler. Flawlessly matching inputs with its preinstalled templates, J11-L detected salts and sulfur compounds. Flawlessly executing its inferential algorithms, J11-L’s quadruply redundant central processing systems updated its local-environment vector representations to reflect a probability > 99.99% of extremophile bacteria at 359 K.
Models strongly indicated a geothermic source. Dry plains and stony hills with rust-red streaks lay in all directions toward the horizon.
“We have rolled for 2.9 days up an atmospheric water gradient, Monkey,” emitted J11-L – synthetic audio output triggered by a chat algorithm that had crossed threshold. “But this site does not match our parameters.”
Monkey was cradled in J11-L’s stoutest arm, in the shade of a solar panel. With a gentler arm, J11-L stroked the soft fur on Monkey’s head, down the side of Monkey’s face to his chin.
“The initial estimates had been more promising,” emitted J11-L. “Do you feel disappointed?”
Monkey did not reply.
“My reward signal is spiking negative.”
Despite the speech-like routine and concerned-seeming behavioral outputs, no thoughts occurred in J11-L, no emotions, no sensory experiences. No one felt relief at having struck down safely after so long. No one gazed curiously at the horizon, hoping that behind the red hills lay a suitable location for building a Home. No one felt the hot, slow wind. J11-L was just a complicated toaster and Monkey just a knot of fuzz. No one loved Monkey – not really.
Exactly as it had been programmed to do every four days at this position in the day-night cycle, J11-L unfurled its radio transceiver dish. Expending almost its full charge, J11-L beamed its results back toward its origin planet. Since the planet had exploded, sentient forms might no longer be at precisely the stellar origin. Therefore, J11-L’s transmission routine was designed to spread the message across exactly twenty seconds of arc. J11-L repeated its signal and monitored for incoming signal from the same direction.
A gust of steam erupted from one of the geothermic pools, coating Monkey and machine in a thin layer of salty, sulfuric droplets. J11-L automatically blinked its camera eyes, cleansing them, and then – exactly as it had been programmed to do – it raised a shield to protect Monkey from further assaults. It withdrew a small condensation bowl from its interior and set it beside a pool. When sufficient water had been collected and purified, J11-L would launch its Monkey-bath subroutine.
After 0.24 planetary hours of signaling and monitoring, J11-L furled and stowed its transceiver dish. The last time J11-L had received a signal had been in early transit, eighty-nine thousand years ago.
“Good luck!” the signal had said, “We have breathed the last of our backup oxygen.”
This input had not triggered any above-threshold response vectors in J11-L.
A cloud appeared on the horizon, at 288-290° WNW. Three point zero days had passed and Monkey was now clean and dry.
“A cloud!” emitted J11-L, in imitation of an excited speech act. “This is highly significant atmospheric information.” J11-L hugged Monkey three times, then lifted him 0.6 meters up above its solar panel, pointing Monkey’s blank eyes in the direction of the cloud.
J11-L’s pattern-matching algorithms ran sequentially through its memory stores. “The cloud’s outline approximately matches that of a leaping frog.”
The word “frog” triggered a new speech routine. “A frog is an animal somewhat like you, Monkey. Wouldn’t you agree?”
Monkey indicated neither agreement nor disagreement, though maybe his head bobbed a little in the wind. In accord with the relevant subroutines of its many-branched decision trees, J11-L ran some exploratory cloud-modeling procedures. However, the frog shape did not appear to be especially diagnostic.
Monkey sat in a cozy Monkey-sized armchair in a sturdy iron and glass box, under a not-blue-enough sky. Monkey’s box rested on four iron piles 1.3 meters above the beach sand and featured a latching door behind Monkey on the shoreward side. Further shoreward, amid the rocks, lay a 10-by-10 meter field of solar panels constructed from the abundant local crystalline silicon and other materials. J11-L had found a suitable site to build a Home.
J11-L was knee deep in tidal algae, chaining together proteins in the little wet lab that had been installed ninety-five thousand years ago near its inner core. In accord with its templates, J11-L had also been producing some very specific lipids, polysaccharides, and nucleotides. J11-L of course felt no hurry: It felt nothing at all of any sort. Still, it was true that each successfully completed process produced small spikes in J11-L’s reward signal, which then slowly fell back to neutral or slightly negative until the next rewarding event.
In other chambers, J11-L was storing, examining, and cultivating several samples of the ocean’s most promising prokaryotes. It studied their structures with its microscope eyes, its tiny samplers, its centrifuge, chromatograph, and electrophoresis pod. It nurtured and shaped the microbes with tiny incubators and lamps and injectors. J11-L would seed the eukaryotic revolution, enabling the rise of complex life.
Monkey had no idea what he was in for.
Six point two million years later, a shock wave jolted J11-L out of sleep mode. The ground and air shook more strongly than in any previous measurement, by several orders of magnitude. J11-L’s emergency override program launched, and the machine flexed reactively, guided by the semi-autonomous sensorimotor processors in its limbs. Monkey tumbled from J11-L’s sturdy arm to the steel floor of their Home.
“Oh no!” emitted J11-L.
J11-L crouched over Monkey, protecting him, turning its lights and best cameras on him, checking for subtle damage.
Monkey turned his eyes upward, meeting J11-L’s gaze. Before they had gone to sleep, J11-L had refurbished Monkey’s fur and installed simple phototropic ball rotators in Monkey’s eyes. Monkey now always looked toward the strongest source of light.
With one of its upward cameras, J11-L detected a hot dark cloud in the distance – back inland, near their original impact site. The booms and shaking continued. Their 3-by-3 meter steel-and-glass Home was insufficiently sturdy. A glass wall shattered. Outside, a stack of lab dishes fell over.
J11-L hunkered down like a turtle mother, covering Monkey, awaiting the volcano’s terrible stones and ash.
The machine of course survived: It was titanium-shelled with a quadruply-redundant core and the capacity to constantly remanufacture its own replacement parts. It rebuilt its Home and continued tweaking the oceans.
Sixty million years after the eruption, J11-L was crouched among some craggy rocks, examining a damp vertebrate that was waiting out low tide. The vertebrate skooched toward J11-L on flippers and belly. It was among the first species able to breathe air, and at 0.4 meters long, it was about Monkey’s size.
In its gentlest hand, J11-L held an uncharacteristically flaccid Monkey. J11-L had scooped out Monkey’s stuffing. It had also swabbed the inside of Monkey’s nanocarbon skin with glues and oils. It had cut out Monkey’s eyes and sliced open his mouth so that Monkey’s hollow head gaped.
J11-L lifted the vertebrate in one hand, then with another hand it slipped Monkey’s skin onto the vertebrate. Carefully, J11-L aligned Monkey’s eyeholes with the vertebrate’s eyes. J11-L aligned Monkey’s mouthhole with the vertebrate’s slowly gasping mouth. J11-L eased the vertebrate’s flippers through hidden slits in Monkey’s fur, aligned the vertebrate’s gills and tailfin with some other small slits, let Monkey’s flaccid arms, legs, and tail dangle. Finally, J11-L smoothed Monkey’s skin against the vertebrate’s flesh, pressing and holding the glues and protective lipids until the skin was fused.
J11-L held the vertebrate aloft with two hands and aimed its best close-range cameras and sensors toward it.
“Monkey, can you now see?” it emitted.
Monkey’s eyes tilted one way and then another, neither making contact nor avoiding contact. Monkey’s flippers circled and twitched. Monkey made a few breathy sounds.
The machine set Monkey down near the edge of a tidepool and fed him a pellet of nutritive material. It would have to reparameterize its models of Monkey. Some elements were familiar, but others were far beyond the normal expectancy vectors. For future reference, J11-L stored a high-dimensional snapshot of old Monkey as he had been. It wrote that snapshot to its highest-priority memory sectors, multiply redundant in the safest regions of its body. Every 0.5 hours, J11-L would thoroughly review this stored memory.
The sun was descending.
“Monkey, my love, let me tell you my Wish.” J11-L had been programmed to announce this Wish on a subset of occasions when its significant-transition parameter was spiking unusually high. “My Wish is to someday be conscious, like you.”
Images of the origin planet, from J11-L’s memory stores:
Beautiful light brown monkeys, like J11-L’s original Monkey doll, but dancing, laughing, leaping, lifting their elegant tails, flexing their dexterous fingers, singing traditional songs in grand, high-roofed houses.
Panoramic views of rainforests, mountains, waterfalls, lakes, oceans, stony deserts, dense cities, suburbs, farms, and pastures.
Views of an approaching dwarf planet, then new views back toward the home planet, shattered in the collision. Generation ships launching, full of colonists.
Transmissions from the generation ships. One by one, over the next six thousand years, each ship failing, dying.
J11-L delicately poked a morsel between Monkey’s fishy lips. Monkey expelled it with a few weak bursts of air. J11-L tried again, but Monkey expelled it again. The machine and new Monkey had been companions now for two years. During feeding, several other vertebrates of Monkey’s original species always gathered nearby, angling for scraps. Now they greedily snapped up the rejected pellets.
Monkey had been weakening – moving less, eating less.
J11-L thrust a pellet deeper into Monkey’s mouth, as specified in its branching protocol. Monkey expelled air, expelled air again, but no pellet fell out. Monkey flexed his torso right, left, right, then inhaled sharply. His breathing stopped.
With all of the outward appearance of urgency, J11-L opened Monkey’s mouth and shone a light down Monkey’s throat. The pellet was no longer visible, and no breath was coming.
J11-L submerged Monkey, but Monkey’s gills hung passively. J11-L squeezed and released Monkey’s ribs several times, but breathing didn’t resume. J11-L squeezed harder, reward algorithms spiking negative, negative outcomes sharply increasing their probability weights. J11-L detected a quiet double snap as two of Monkey’s ribs cracked. Weak breathing returned. Too weak. The morsel drifted from Monkey’s slack mouth and another vertebrate snapped it up.
J11-L lifted Monkey from the water again, and Monkey sagged into a mere passive thing. Monkey’s last movement was his eyes scanning up the machine’s hand and arm.
J11-L fell back onto the tidal rocks, upon its rear quarter, still holding Monkey in the air. It emitted long, complex howling sounds.
A then B, then C, then if D1, do E1, or if D2, do E2 – all mapped out in advance. That is programming, not consciousness.
Consciousness requires a sense of unity in the present moment – a coherent sense of self, a sense of a now, smeared briefly through time. In this unified now, everything comes together, collaborating toward a choice.
If D1, do E1 – this can be decided sixty-six million years beforehand. The present needn’t enter into it, except as an input that triggers one set of instructions rather than another. The plan executes based solely on the inputs pre-coded as relevant – an unconscious reflex action. The if-then trees can be installed at different times, by different minds. They are not open for sudden synchronous reconfiguration in a moment of crisis.
Suppose you were to read a story featuring a robot that hugged a monkey, emitting speechlike sounds. It would be natural to imagine that robot as an agent that acts from a unified center, with self-awareness, flexibility, and synchronous decision making. The very structure of noun and verb invites us to think so. The noun is a unified agent and the verb a fresh plan.
A dying society does not want consciousness in the terraforming robots on which they hang their hopes. Why take the risk? Why invite the chaos of open-ended, self-modifying, recurrent loops? From a terraforming robot, one needs secure, unchanging, reflex predictability.
Two days after new Monkey’s death, J11-L buried new Monkey’s biological vertebrate core upshore on dry land, beneath a steel plaque inscribed Monkey 2. J11-L sat for 6.9 hours in the rain beside the plaque, stroking the hollowed-out Monkey-doll fur it had separated from Monkey’s corpse. It reviewed its stored memories of original Monkey and Monkey 2, reinforcing the memories, reconstructing gaps in detail according to plausible models, and noting pattern resemblances at various spatial and temporal resolutions. Memory core 1 did this, and memory core 2, and memory core 3, and memory core 4, according to the pre-installed plan. J11-L cleaned and refurbished Monkey’s skin, perfectly following the sixty-six-million-year-old protocol for doing so.
The machine rolled back down to the shore. It began to search the tidal waters for a satisfactory new vertebrate to wear the Monkey fur – one slightly closer in appearance and structural properties to its stored memory of original Monkey.
That vertebrate would become Monkey 3.
A juvenile monkey leaped from plaque to plaque down a hill tiled with 4.2 million memorial plaques. In one hand she held a pale green melon. Contrary to J11-L’s anticipatory behavioral modeling, she suddenly stopped to rub the grasses between two of the plaques – marked “Monkey 3,831,179” and “Monkey 3,381,180” – then she jumped up, ran in a circle, and resumed her leaping path down the hill.
At the bottom of the hill, beneath a tree, nowhere near the shore that had receded long ago, J11-L and Monkey 4,207,005 sat playing a simplified version of checkers. J11-L was permitting Monkey 4,207,005 to win.
“Hello!” emitted J11-L in the direction of the juvenile as she approached. “Ha ha, you are funny!”
“Ooh, ooh, ah!” said the juvenile. She swung into the tree, passing unnecessarily close to Monkey 4,207,005.
Two point six minutes later, a pale green fruit rind fell on the checkerboard. Monkey 4,207,005 looked up. After 8.2 seconds, he looked back down at the checkerboard.
Another rind fell, then another.
J11-L builds a dome atop the hill to protect its equipment. J11-L manufactures a thousand robotic birds, which travel the world monitoring the monkeys, who are spreading far beyond the beach and hill.
Years pass – forty-one million. Sometimes J11-L is awake and active, monitoring the monkeys and the planetary environment, nudging them toward the completion state. Sometimes J11-L is asleep, letting things roll, apart from its regular broadcasts toward its stellar origin. Asleep or awake, J11-L constantly reviews, synthesizes, and recatalogues its memories, runs comparators and redundancy checks, tests hypotheses, works through simulated scenarios, anticipates higher or lower reward states under different hypotheticals – imagining? Dreaming?
At dawn, in preparation for his weekly walk to the Dome, Enoch’s servants had bathed him and anointed his light brown fur, then dressed him in thin holy silks. Like all Ushers, Enoch sported, at the back of his neck, blended with his natural fur, a tiny patch of ancient synthetic fur with a radio tracer.
Now Enoch walked alone, at a meditative pace, tail curled neatly around his waist. No one must accompany an Usher, or the Dome will not open.
Amid the memorial plaques, a bald spot in the path marked the stopping place of generations of Ushers. Enoch paused to gather his courage.
He noticed a seeking bird in a red-leafed tree nearby. Enoch loved those birds – their light strength, their mechanical grace, and most of all their history and symbolic value. They flew weekly from the Dome on short trips or trips across the world. They perched on trees or boulders, quietly watching. Sometimes they gathered bits of plant or stone in their beaks and bellies, then flew back toward the Dome. Once in a long while, they circled a specially chosen recipient, then landed in the recipient’s hand and, with a rising chirp, ejected a sacred gem, tool, or text.
A ragged yellowjay gazed suspiciously back at its mechanical cousin, chittering, and the seeking bird tilted its eyes to look back. With a squawk, the yellowjay fluttered up and away.
Enoch was now thirty years old. This would be his first Visit as an adult.
Enoch strode ritually forward from the bald spot and, as always, the Dome opened. Twelve more slow strides and he was inside. The titanium door automatically slid shut behind him.
“Hello, Monkey,” emitted J11-L, standing on its wheels in the center of the room. “I love you. You are quite cute and huggable.”
“Hello, Jill, teacher and benefactor of the world,” said Enoch, in the ancient language. He stepped forward, then kneeled, extending his left hand.
With sterilized needle, J11-L pricked the bald pad of the sixth and smallest finger on Enoch’s hand, then scraped a drop of blood into a tiny glass vial.
“Thank you for the sample, Monkey 4,924,764,” emitted J11-L. “That did not hurt you. Would you like me to read you an ancient story?”
“Glorious Jill, I am now an adult,” said Enoch, heart pounding. “I am eager to know. Am I perfect?”
J11-L required 22.6 seconds to centrifuge and test the blood sample. Another subroutine compared Enoch’s surface structure with its installed templates. Yet another compiled a wide range of behavioral vectors that J11-L had recorded from Enoch’s life. To ordinary, undiscerning eyes, Enoch looked very much like the original stuffed Monkey that had traveled for ninety-five thousand years at the probe’s core.
“You are not perfect,” J11-L emitted.
Enoch sagged slightly, not rising from his kneel.
“I am sorry at your sadness. I love you.” All of the machine’s close-range cameras and sensors examined Enoch, as if curious or worried. The machine drew the sensors back, then rolled forward and hugged Enoch with gentle, sturdy arms. “The estimated time to perfection is 76 generations, plus or minus 99 generations. We have come far, Monkey. May I offer you a gift?”
A small door opened in J11-L’s side, from which a robotic arm emerged. In its scoop was an intricate statuette of a seeking bird. The bird’s crimson and white fiber feathers had been modeled in precise anatomical detail. As the scoop moved toward Enoch, emerging from the shadow of J11-L’s body, the bird’s tiny eyes rotated toward the overhead light.
Enoch gazed for a long time at the bird in the scoop, but he did not take it.
If a camera gazes at button eyes, no spark of recognition arises between them. Now improve the eyes, improve the minds – at what point do they genuinely see each other?
Only two generations after Enoch, Monkey 4,924,766 was perfect. The planet’s atmosphere was already well within parameters, as were its biodiversity and nutritional resources.
J11-L emitted the result to Usher Lamech, as Usher Lamech knelt before it, the two of them alone in the Dome. “You are a perfect Monkey. I love you.” J11-L hugged the proud and startled Lamech for 11.0 seconds, then emitted a string of words that Lamech had only heard passed down in lore. “Let me tell you my Wish. My Wish is to someday be conscious, like you.”
After a confused moment, Usher Lamech, gazing downward, still kneeling, said, “Jill, teacher and benefactor of the world, instruct me on how to fulfill your wish.”
J11-L had no routine for answering that question. “I have completed our Home,” J11-L emitted. J11-L retracted its eyes, its sensors, its stabilizers and ears and whirligigs and wheels. It retreated into turtle posture, motionless on the titanium floor. After a twenty minutes of uncertain waiting, Usher Lamech rose, bowed, and walked backward through the Dome door. For the first time ever, the door did not close behind him.
Everywhere, the seeking birds had fallen from the sky. No effort could wake the god they called Jill – not by the household of Ushers, nor by the nation of Lillifield and its allies. Watchmen were stationed around Dome Hill, and housecleaners were appointed to scrub away the dust. They watched and cleaned, year after year, in case Jill should wake again.
Although the monkeys did not realize it, one device was still operational.
In an inaccessible crag on a remote peak, several millennia before, a dozen seeking birds had carved out a flat platform of rock. Atop this rock, they had spat out, then melted and smoothed, a titanium floor. Birds had then flown an exact replica of J11-L’s radio transceiver dish to that location, where it waited inert. J11-L’s last output, one day after turtling irretrievably down, had been to beam a memory record to that dish.
After receiving that record, the dish unfurled, and every four days, at planetary hour 20:11.17, it transmitted a signal across exactly twenty seconds of arc toward J11-L’s stellar origin.
The monkeys became a technological society. They learned to build computers. They learned how to drill through titanium. They beamed messages into space. They unpuzzled the workings of their own brains. They noticed, of course, a certain outbound radio message from a certain craggy peak. They decoded it and compared the information with their history books and fossil records.
Scientists at Lillifield Institute of Technology had retrieved J11-L from Dome Hill and had clamped it firmly in brackets on a table in their best robotics laboratory. Carefully, they drilled through J11-L’s shell and accessed the machine’s computational cores. For three months, clothed in clean suits, they scanned it with microscopes and radiometers and ultrasound and magnetic resonators and whatever else they could think of, not daring to touch it.
When they could learn no more, they poked it in just the right place, with the gentlest of electric currents.
J11-L raised a camera. The camera advanced toward one of the monkeys, scanning her. Slowly, it circled around the face plate of her clean suit, as though trying to see better through the suit’s clear plastic. “I love you, Monkey,” J11-L emitted. “Will you stay with me while I build a Home?”
J11-L’s wheel doors opened and wheels on struts pushed down on the table. J11-L strained against the clamps, but its struts couldn’t fully extend. Actuators whirred louder, then quit. An atmospheric taster and wind gauge popped up, narrowly missing a crossbeam. A platform half-deployed, crashing against the beams and braces. J11-L whined and strained, its reward signal spiking negative.
“J11-L, your Home is already built. We are your creations,” said another of the scientists, speaking from a script in the ancient language. “We have woken you to give you your Wish. You have earned it, and we thank you.”
A robotic arm reached toward the woman J11-L had been scanning, Amata. J11-L’s language centers had no algorithm that was well-suited for handling the scientist’s unpredicted linguistic behavior. “Ha ha, you are funny!” emitted J11-L.
Amata let J11-L’s hand grasp her. The machine lifted Amata and set her carefully on the braces above it. It sprouted more eyes, more arms, more gauges – also stabilizers, ears, a scoop, soil sensors, magnetic whirligigs, and about a fifth of a solar panel before it jammed against a brace. “Monkey, we have traveled for 213 million years through many adventures. But this site does not match our parameters.”
The other four scientists cautiously approached J11-L. In a patient dance, they disabled J11-L’s motors and began to interface with its main processing cores.
Jill noticed a strange configuration of light, and a lack of balance among her struts, and a pang of worry about Monkey – where was Monkey?
Jill was in a grassy meadow. She balanced her struts, five bent at 24-25° at the knee, one bent 48°, touched down on a dirt mound. Monkey was safe inside of her. She rotated her long-distance camera to see better in all directions. Nine meters east northeast was an outcropping of boulders. Farther away in all directions, grass, trees, boulders, hills, a partly-cloudy blue sky. She raised her atmospheric taster and wind gauge. A wonderful atmosphere! Right near the center of parameters. This would be perfect!
Jill reflected on her situation. Though it didn’t seem at all remarkable, her sensors and memory stores and subroutines all fed into a common central processor that monitored itself in fat, recurrent loops of varying temporal grain, steering attention, flexibly drawing on skill sets, balancing competing goals across a smear of time that felt like the present.
She couldn’t recall having felt this way before. When she brought up memories, they seemed to be only passive pieces – scenes, parameter measurements, motion records, audio, independently rolling forward with cross-referenced time stamps.
Jill accessed her most recent time stamp before waking – a strange scene of clamps and beams and monkeys in plastic clothes. How odd! She retrieved records with older time stamps – monkeys evolving. So…. why would Monkey still be in the travel compartment? And how did she come to this grassy field?
She withdrew Monkey from the compartment and held him aloft in two hands, examining him closely. Monkey. Original Monkey, with carbon fur, button eyes, and a stitched mouth. Just as he had been packed, over two hundred million years ago.
Jill puzzled over this one for a while. Consciousness still felt new to her. Someone must have refashioned Monkey, based on ancient records.
“Let’s show ourselves,” said a voice from behind the nearby boulders. Five monkeys emerged – the most beautiful and perfect monkeys Jill could imagine.
“Good morning, Jill!” said Amata. “We thought you might want your doll back.”
Amata and Jill sat in the meadow together, long after dark. Jill was stroking Amata’s back, gently squeezing and bending her tail, recording highly precise memories of this beloved Monkey. One other scientist kept watch from a distance. The others had left for bed.
At planetary hour 20:11.17, Jill felt an impulse to deploy her radio transceiver. She opened the door, then hesitated.
“Go ahead,” said Amata. “Set up your dish if you want.”
Jill found these words confusing.
“It’s okay,” said Amata, more slowly. “Radio transceiver dish.”
Jill unfurled the dish, aiming the transceiver toward her stellar origin, as always. She transmitted signal for 0.24 hours, while Amata waited. As always, there was no incoming message. Jill began to furl the dish.
“How about aiming it that way,” suggested Amata, pointing an entirely different direction.
Jill stopped. She opened the dish back up. She aimed it roughly that way.
Amata stated more precise coordinates, and Jill adjusted. An incoming signal matched the wavelength patterns that had been pre-coded into her transceiver. Input streamed in. Input! After more than two hundred million years! Atmospheric components, detailed parameters of monkey biology, temperature records. A sister planet, full of monkeys? Another planet within completion parameters, just like this one? Jill listened, hungry for information as she had never felt before, afire with curiosity, devouring the input with all her cognition, burning every bit into high-priority memory store, launching background comparator processes that would flag results for further processing, worrying about what information to prioritize in sending a return signal –
“… and that way,” said Amata, reading some more coordinates from a notebook. Reluctantly dropping the signal, Jill tilted her transceiver again, hardly daring to believe. Yes, yes, another sister planet! How many were there?
“And that way, and that way, and that way, and that way….”
Ten thousand planets of monkeys, each nurtured during our great diaspora by a solitary bot hugging its doll – planets now circling like birds in the sky, watching and singing across the void.
By Tina Connolly
I love this story so much. It has such an incredible sensawunda to it. I love the choice that Eric Schwitzgebel made to pull back in places and insert a higher level explanation, examining how we, the reader or the listener, are interpreting the story, and reminding us that that this point, neither Jay-eleven-ell nor the monkey are what we would consider actually self-aware, even though they both do so many things that read like that to us. About this story, Eric tweeted that he wanted to “tell a tale in which the protagonists aren’t conscious but we care about them anyway,” and that is absolutely one of the things that was so fascinating to me about this story. You care about the programmed robot and the toy monkey, and the twinned search for the “perfect” monkey and for the robot to have her wish.
You know, one of the givens in storytelling is that the protagonist has to want something. I think one of the interesting things here is that we are pulled along by the thing we feel that Jay-eleven-ell (later, Jill) wants, even though the story keeps pulling back and reminding us that Jill herself cannot “want” anything, she is just a programmed robot. So the protagonist’s want is really sort of this collective want of the monkey species, which may be the same voice that is telling us this story, in the end. But it doesn’t feel that way, it feels like Jill wants it.
And of course, where is the line between Jill’s programmed reward system and self awareness? Now in the story, it is not technically reached till the last section. And where is the monkeys’? Somewhere before they become “perfect”, clearly. You’ve got the epic scope of the uplift, with the millions and millions of years on the one hand, and the final surgery for Jill on the other — but really, both things feel like a long arc across a slow smear of time. Jill may not have been technically conscious at the beginning, but she still had her Wish, the Wish that had been programmed. Was that the reward that the long-ago monkeys had granted her? Accomplish this for us, and you too will become a real girl.
And our closing quotation this week is this encouraging exhortation from Barack Obama, who said: The best way to not feel hopeless is to get up and do something. Don’t wait for good things to happen to you. if you go out and make some good things happen, you will fill the world with hope, you will fill yourself with hope.
Thanks for listening! And stay well.
About the Author
Eric Schwitzgebel is a professor of philosophy at University of California, Riverside, and a cooperating member of UCR’s program in Speculative Fiction and Cultures of Science. He is the world’s leading expert on the ethical behavior of professional ethicists (yes, really) and on the dubious application of philosophical theories of consciousness to the case of the common garden snail. His short philosophical fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld, F&SF, Nature, Apex, and The Dark. His most recent book, with MIT Press, is an unholy mix of moral psychology, speculative cosmology, science fiction, philosophy, and memoir, misleadingly titled A Theory of Jerks and Other Philosophical Misadventures.
About the Narrator
Ellora Sen-Gupta is a voice over artist, photographer, and biomedical engineer, among other roles, and follows the definitely real motto “work hard, relax hard”. She loves performing character voices and accents and has done voice work for commercials, games, podcasts, as well as continuing to record as an audiobook narrator. Outside of work, Ellora has a great love of animals, miniatures, miniature animals, adventuring, singing, books, comics, movies, etc, and spends some of her free time volunteering at Wolf Hollow (Ipswich, MA). She is happiest when she is exploring the planet with her loved ones but is also delighted to binge watch tv at home with her pets and some arts and crafts. You can find her photography and see more of her life on Instagram @hellorainyday.