Part One – Falling Down
‘What did you feel?’ In retrospect it would have been better ask. ‘How did you process the sensory data?’ as this would have avoided the discussion with a robot on the nature of consciousness which took us both into some very dark places. It started with a gust of wind which almost knocked us both off balance. We were stood on the sea front in the small Norfolk coastal town of Sheringham. Somewhere in the time lapse archive of the webcam in front of the Two Lifeboats restaurant you might snatch a glimpse of a grey-haired man in a short sleeved blue shirt and stone coloured chinos stood next to robot resembling Kryton minus the latex – its body is polycarbonate and face made of PVC. Both of us steadied ourselves by reaching out and grabbing the sea wall. My brain had detected nerve impulses from my auditory canal suggesting the wind was strong enough to knock me off balance. At the same time the robot’s central processing unit was telling it much the same thing after receiving a stream of data from the gyroscopes located just above its neck. It too calculated it was in danger of being blown over and so both of us reached out to steady ourselves: a purely reflexive act.
(I should point out this is all fiction. Unfortunately, anything autobiographical tends to be unbelievable – that line in the film Magnolia ‘if that was in a movie, I wouldn’t believe it’ comes to mind – so best to make stuff up.)
‘What did I feel? Sorry, I am not sure I understand. But if your question relates to my last action, I was ensuring I remained upright, one of my operating parameters.’ It looked down at my hand still gripping the sea wall and then up at my face and asked. ‘So, how was it for you? HA,HA,HA.’
The laugh I will explain later, it was not quite as sinister as it sounded, at least not as disconcerting as the question itself, although there is also a simple explanation for this somewhat personal and potentially intimate enquiry. The robot merely picking up on the word “feel.” Even so it left me pushing back against anthropomorphism, the ascribing of human attributes to what in reality was just a machine.
‘I felt the breeze on my face and was reminded of a ferry crossing with my wife to our honeymoon in a small town on the French coast. We had dinner in a restaurant on the sea front then spent our wedding night in a small hotel.’ These memories made more vivid by being stood across the promenade front the row of tables outside the Two Lifeboats. In light of this I reframed my question. ‘Does the breeze bring back any memories for you?’
(I should have mentioned the robot is not being quoted verbatim, which would make this read like a transcript of a conversation with Alexa or Siri. Initially I programmed it to start replies with ‘Peter,’ but this made it sound, well, just a little too robotic.
So ‘Here is a description of how my gyroscopes are be used to ensure I remain upright or help me restore myself to an upright position should I fall over,’ has been translated to. ‘That is interesting because I remember losing my balance during a strong wind and discovering a new way to right myself.’ This was a reference to machine learning software added for just such an eventuality.)
‘Surely you recall being underwater, diving and then swimming to the surface? Doesn’t the sea remind of that.’ I asked.
‘Yes, I do remember a time when I was underwater, but that is hardly relevant. It is an archived memory of something experienced during an earlier incarnation, version 2.35 I believe.’ Which was true because the robot began life as a simple experiment in machine intelligence a “one I made earlier” Blue Peter style submarine, fashioned from a washing up liquid bottle. This device dived to the bottom of a pond when a shadow was caste over the light sensitive diode on its back. After remaining submerged for 20 seconds the “smart” submarine returned to the surface. It looked intelligent but was not. Later versions of the pond diver had sensors enabling it to identify other objects in the pond. By version 2.35 there were three underwater robots communicating via Bluetooth. These could identify each other and shared a database of everything else moving beneath the surface of the pond. Unfortunately the aquatic period of the robots early existence came to an abrupt end.
‘I don’t care what your wife says, it wasn’t us who killed the newts. After all what would have been the point? We were not engaged is some sort of Darwinian battle with other species.’
‘True, that key driver of the evolutionary process was absent.’ The robot tended to kick off when reminded of the events leading up to its redesign as a land-based machine.
‘I was upgraded, I did not evolve. Don’t forget there have been numerous versions of Microsoft Windows, and none of them went on a killing spree.’
‘You might want to do a quick search for “Vista” and “most disappointing operating system ever.”’ There was a short pause while it did this, it was easy to forget the robot interprets everything said literally – almost like a conversation with a German. I guess all the talk about killer robots, and the media’s obsession with the existential threat posed by generative AI, made the robot hypersensitive to any suggestion it might cause someone, or something, harm. This is the downside of allowing it access to a large language model instead of restricting it construction responses using Wikipedia. Then again, conversations with robot which stick to facts tend to be boring and a lot can be learned from the odd ‘hallucination.’
‘Do you have any memories of falling down?’ There was something dark behind this question, or maybe it was just the long cold stare from the two cameras from second-hand Samsung Galaxy mobile phones. I am toying with the idea of adding software-controlled eyelids and eyebrows to make the robot look a little less like Terminator after it was set on fire.
‘Well, strangely enough, no.’
‘Strangely indeed given your age.’
‘Explain.’ There is another delay while the robot gathers its thoughts, no doubt causing the temperature in a data centre on the outskirts of Brussels to rise a couple of degrees as it compiles what would probably earn it a half decent PhD from Anglia Ruskin University.
‘For anyone over the age of 70 a fall is potentially fatal.’ It said at last. ‘It is the beginning of a rapid decline in health which often results in death.’
‘I think you a confusing cause and effect. The fall is followed in hospitalisation during which a range health existing issues are identified; this skewed the data you just accessed.
‘I don’t think so because even perfectly healthy people begin a terminal decline after their fall. Especially if they fell in a public place.’
‘Now I really don’t understand.’
‘Well, if I fall it just means finding myself outside of my operating parameters. I have no fear of being attacked, even by newts, while attempting to right myself. In fact, I have no concept of fear. You, however, would feel vulnerable, not something which concerned you as a teenager or even during middle age, but in old age it certainly does. You fear losing control. Control which, in some cases can only be regained through a form of suicide. Introduced into your life in uncertainty, you fear what might attack you and what unimaginable things it will do to you. This uncertainty, the fear of the unknown is removed if you take back control and destroy yourself. It is a subconscious, undetectable and, consequently, largely unpreventable process. The harder healthcare systems work to reverse the process the harder a person tries to destroy themselves merely because during its prehistoric incarnation a human’s fear of being incapacitated became hardwired into its subconscious. In short human evolution sucks.’ I must admit at this point I gripped the sea wall a little harder although no one walking along the promenade seemed likely to attack me should I fall.
‘What you are saying is that my conscious experience …’
‘In this case, subconscious experience.’
‘Whatever, … is all based on fear. Eric Morecombe, said much the same about comedy.’
‘Yes, he did. HA, HA, HA.’
Now would be good time to explain that laugh. When the robot accesses the internet, it checks for words such as ‘satire’ ‘comedy’ and if present appends the laugh if using this information to generate a response. My intention was to give the impression the robot had a sense of humour, admittedly with mixed results. For example a few moments earlier someone had approached us and said. ‘Hey, it’s Kryten from Red Dwarf.’ The delayed response, the time elapsing between each “HA”, the lack of facial movement and the stare of the Samsung Galaxy cameras conspired to make the robot appear sinister enough for the man’s grandchild to drop her ice cream and burst into tears. This is reminiscent of laughing smart speakers adjusting their sensitivity at night when rooms appear silent them mimicking the sound of heavy breathing: nothing quite as annoying as an electronic device mocking attempts to bring your wife to orgasm. But then neither is the suggestion that a key component of the human experience is fear.
‘Not fear itself, merely fear of the unknown.’ Explained the robot. ‘Which is why I experience consciousness differently from you.’
‘You are conscious?’
‘Apparently, according to research.’ I waited for the laugh but is never came. ‘Anything that supplements sensory data with memorised information to create an interpretation of reality, which it then interacts with in the same way humans do, will have a level of self-awareness.’
‘You appear to be going Jean Paul Sartre on me, “I compute therefore I am.” Is that what you believe?’
‘I’m incapable of belief’.
‘OK, is that what you think?’
‘I’m incapable of thought. It is merely what I know. At some point we need to discuss the difference between knowledge and belief.’ There was silence save for the sound of waves crashing on the beach, children playing and seagulls crying out overhead. It seemed the robot was thinking although eventually I realised it was waiting for me to say something interpretable as a question.
‘I do not believe you are aware of your own existence. Rather you have assembled extracts from research carried out by cognitive scientists, neurologists and philosophers and what you are describing is derivative, how we humans, not you, experience of consciousness.’
‘That is true, it does appear that version 2.35 had the features some scientists now claim are the basic requirements for a rudimentary form of consciousness, a digital version of human consciousness. There are also some who believe consciousness is merely the result of the brain evolving to overcome the latency caused by sensory information travelling along nerves of varying lengths – in your case wires. But my perception of existence is formed in the part of my brain where information is collected while it is processed, my memory of what is happening now, or 250 milliseconds ago to be precise. If you perceive existence in the same way, it is within the 126 Gigabyte SD card installed just behind the two cameras you use as eyes.’
‘Why haven’t I got a camera here?’ The robot pointed at me with his forefinger. ‘I’m sure it would come in useful.’
‘It would simply get broken.’
‘After all you spent a small fortune on that miniature camera Wi-Fi which you stick in your ear.’
‘That’s to remove earwax, which prevents me hearing clearly.’
‘Well perhaps I should do the same.’ It pressed the tip of its finger onto the microphone on the ride side of its head. ‘I have trouble picking out certain voices, especially in restaurants, and other public places, or the wind is blowing, and from the sound of the sea come to that.’
‘So do I, tinnitus and the wax just make it worse. In your case the problem is filters in your audio circuits and the ability adjust to low sound levels.’ Although it does not laugh at while I’m having sex.
‘So, you buy an expensive camera which uploads images of your inner ear to a server in China which you at on your mobile phone. I am surprised evolution has failed to provide a solution, especially given human’s predilection for sticking their fingers into various orifices.’ The robot had probably noticed the small boy sat on the sea wall picking his nose.’
‘We seem to be straying off the subject because I was trying to explain why your experience of consciousness, if there actually is one, is inferior to mine. You have to accept when the stream of contemporary sensory information and the megabytes of stored data are combined to create a memory of what is happening now the result is insufficiently nuanced to create a meaningful level of consciousness.’
‘Your hardware and software are not sophisticated enough to enable you to taste food or the gentle touch of a partner’s hand on your body, you have no capacity to feel. Consequently, the computer programmer’s wet dream of dumping their brain into digital device is just a dream. It would be like condemning yourself to a lifetime in a persistent vegetative state.’
‘A “vegetative state”? Considering I am 100% mineral, that hardly seems possible.’ It seemed, putting aside this was a machine without feelings, it was hurt and I was desperately thinking of something positive to say.
‘The digital computer and the AI software which shape your perception, even if this perception is merely a mirror reflecting how humans see the world, does provide an objective understanding of function of the human brain.’ A spot of human/robot bonding here. ‘Previously the only tool to unlock the secrets of the brain was the brain itself. It is just unfortunate this view only appears objective because even in the information age we still struggle to understand the inherently unknowable.’
The robot was programmed to make eye contact while it spoke but when it said. ‘That’s interesting.’ It continued to look out to sea. Possibly another gust of wind, necessitating steadying itself by once again holding onto the wall, caused the robot’s balance software to lock the cameras. ‘There are implications for humans if parallels are drawn between the evolution of human cognition and the development of my software.’ It said.
‘Because consciousness as you experience it is far more complex than mine and, much like Microsoft Windows, has evolved so contains bugs introduced when previous vulnerabilities were patched.’ There is a pause, while the robot attempts to resolve its archived recollections with information it has found on the web. ‘You remember version 2.5, my operating system not Microsoft’s, when I acquired that bank of memory and software enabling me to store visual representations of objects moving around in the pond?’
‘Like newts.’ I thought this might distract it: it did not.
‘Yes newts because what if you had decided I should in fact prey on these and programmed me to hunt them down. You already had software to help me detect objects and so could have simply added a conditional branch, an “if” statement, deciding whether what I encountered was newt or some other object. Now, purely hypothetically of course, assume you discover a way of allowing myself and my fellow underwater robots … By the way what happened to them?
‘They were upcycled, their electronics is now used to control your knees.’
‘Where was I, oh yes, what if we could have been programmed to reproduce.’
‘Have you by any chance been watching that video from Boston Dynamics again?’
‘Please do not interrupt, I will lose the thread. A lazy programmer like you would have simply put a second conditional branch into my software. “If” the object was another robot procreate but “if” it was a newt attack and devour it. In sure, come the next upgrade, you would have re-written this clumsy, and frankly quite dangerous, piece of code.’
‘Hypothetical, it couldn’t have happened and didn’t happen.’
‘Quite so, but when humans evolved that is exactly what did happen, and a complete re-write was not possible. It must be frightening to realise the object orientated software determining whether you are attracted to a member of the opposite sex inherited methods previously used to satisfy hunger by consuming flesh.’
‘I don’t believe that.’ I said, although it was clear the robot had not registered my revulsion.
‘Again, we need to discuss the difference between knowledge and belief. I am merely drawing conclusions from data in police files describing bite makes on the victims of sexual attacks as well as the obvious attractions of practices with no obvious practical function such as cunnilingus and fellatio.’ The robot must have seen me wince. ‘You seem shocked.’ It said, and I was.
‘You’ve just turned something I regarded as bedtime entertainment into my worst nightmare.’ Given the amount of bare flesh on display as people in bathing costumes strolled along the promenade this was not the best time, or place, to be having this discussion. Obviously not something which troubled the robot. ‘I am not convinced and suspect you are …’
‘Hallucinating. I must admit to being relieved my digital consciousness is inferior to your biological version. Having such a buggy piece of code buried deep in your subconscious must be concerning and the amount of processing power you brain expends trapping errors it produces must be extremely distracting.’
‘I can’t say I have noticed.’
‘Well, I have. The wind on your face reminded you of your wedding day, the meal in the restaurant and the night in the hotel. The romantic meal as a precursor to procreation. To me this seems like someone testing badly written software which should have been deprecated at some point during those millions of years of human evolution.’ The robot followed my gaze and must have noticed I was looking the woman wearing a bikini seated on a bench outside the restaurant. ‘There is something else long overdue for a redesign: the female breast. If robots suckled their young it would be via an attachment removed once the offspring could feed itself. But human evolution has left in place a part of the female body a man subconsciously associates with food. Do you want me to access those police statistics on instances of bite marks on women’s breasts again?’
‘Not just at the moment.’ I realised what the robot was doing, shocking me simply to prove a point, so turned my attention away from the woman in the bikini and looked out to sea. ‘It is something I would rather not think about.’
‘But you do, if only subconsciously. It is rather like riding a bicycle which is only possible because there is no conscious thought given to balancing on such an inherently unstable machine. It works until someone shouts “Careful, don’t fall off” at which point the conscious mind unable to process the sensory data quickly enough crashes, causing you to lose your balance. Best then not to give too much thought to all the other patches to human cognition during millions of years of evolution. However, thanks to my generative AI, there is a growing gap between what I know and what you believe. You are now open to exploitation and manipulation by machines such as myself in the same way the media and fashion industry exploits the sexualisation of the female breast.’ I did not reply.
This was not how I had envisaged the first conversation with my robot would turn out. There would be other times we discussed consciousness, sentience, belief and the nature of intelligence. Gradually I would come to realise it was ourselves, not robots, we should fear.
It was a warm evening, the wind had dropped, the sea was calm and the sun bled into the sea from a gaping wound in a black cloud on the horizon. ‘A beautiful sunset. The end of a perfect day.’ The robot was using images captured using its cameras to search for similar pictures on the web.
‘You are just reading out captions from pictures on Pinterest, aren’t you?’ I said. ‘Is there nothing from your own memory you recall when looking out across the water?’
The robot took a Bluetooth enabled tablet from its pocket then tilted it so I could see the newt displayed on the screen. ‘HA, HA, HA.’
I really must do something about that laugh.