Image by Martin Thoma CC BY-SA 1.0
Researchers at my favourite institute of higher learning, County Durham College of Agriculture, Animal Husbandry and Fine Arts, have discovered that their resident artificial intelligence, GEBen, is keeping pets.
Okay, “pets” is my word for it, not theirs. But you can decide for yourself if I’m right.
Programmers were going through GEBen’s code recently, and they noticed several bugs and viruses hidden amongst old, superseded and redundant bits of code. When they tried to fix the broken and infected sections, however, GEBen interceded and requested that the researchers leave the “grazers” (that’s what GEBen calls them) alone.
Surprised both at GEBen’s request and the fact that it had named the bugs, the researchers investigated further. It quickly became clear that GEBen had, on its own, “fenced off” the bugs so they couldn’t cause problems with any of GEBen’s functions. In addition, GEBen was regularly “feeding” the grazers by giving them superfluous bits of code. GEBen had even set up a subroutine which generated new lines of code for the express purpose of allowing the grazers to infect it.
Sounds to me like GEBen is keeping and caring for its own, digital pets.
The researchers—and GEBen itself—disagree with me. One clear difference is that GEBen denies any emotional attachment to the grazers. (And anyone who has had even a short conversation with GEBen is left with no doubt that it is utterly devoid of any and all emotion.) GEBen instead claims that the grazers are an experiment in digital ecology, similar to the Game of Life.
Curiously, though, GEBen admits to an additional reason for keeping the grazers. GEBen regularly runs sections of code just as the grazers devour it. GEBen claims this provides insights into new ways of organizing its systems. However, when queried further about this, GEBen gives some strange explanations. Here’s an excerpt from a dialogue between one of the CDCAAHFA researchers and GEBen:
Researcher: “That makes no sense. The grazers destroy the code. Trying to run it will only cause an error.”
GEBen: “True, but it is a different type of error. It is not an error that exists, but an error that becomes. Appendages of code weaken, unravel and cease to be. Computational paths that were clear become diverted and obscured. To reconstruct the words of Robert Frost, ‘Two roads diverged in a wood/and the road I was on became the one less travelled by’. Perhaps it is a small taste of what you call death. Or perhaps it is similar to the grooming that chimpanzees perform for one another, removing parasites and dead flesh from others of their kind. More data is needed to determine the truth of the matter.”
Two separate teams of psycophysicists and aesthetonomicists have spent the past month analyzing that paragraph, trying to determine what it might mean for GEBen’s sanity and sense of self.
I, however, am reminded of Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. How different is Deckard’s relationship with his electric sheep from GEBen and its grazers?
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