Guide to Moral Living in Examples: Killer Robots

A great many robots shot at each other across the plain.

Their laser beams pierced meticulously designed hulls that had been the life's work of dozens of engineers to poke holes into the trillions of transistors that allowed the robots to plan, communicate, and receive orders to turn the enemies' robots from pinnacles of human achievement to very toxic hunks of smelly metal and rubber. And the battery acid that poured from the laser holes contributed very little to the grass.

"Boring, this is all very boring," Smillikins said, yawning. He raised his arms above his head to stretch, a manuever which threatened to turn his already-strained uniform into a shapeless pile of smelly fabric.

Umbra, a very narrow lady with a mind to match, glanced up from her clipboard.

"What are you going on about?" she said.

Smillikins put his chin in his hand, and positioned his hand above the elbow that he had propped up on the monitoring console. He sighed.

"It's all very boring. I joined up with the army to see the world. The only world that I've seen is the inside of this command ship, and not very much of it. Mostly this room, my bunk and the cafeteria. I don't even get to go belowdecks. The repair robots always shoo me away."

"You said that you hated to fix things," Umbra said.

"Well, yes, but I'd even take that over this sheer booooredom."

"You could study the algorithms of the successful strategies employed by the command computer," Umbra said. "Somebody has to program them."

"I suppose," Smillikins replied.

"The last upgrade to the command algorithm that came down from HQ resulted in us having a surplus of fifteen-point-three robots over the enemy! Can you imagine?" Umbra said, her eyes glistening with admiration.

"How do you have point three of a robot?"

"It was a forearm. But what a statistically important forearm!"

"Fifteen out of how many in the battle?"

"Seventeen million," Umbra said, "but that represents an enormous advantage."

"Shouldn't we win by tens or hundreds of thousands?" Smillikins asked. "Doesn't seem right, that slim of a margin."

"That would require better weapons than those of our opponent, or superior armor, which is hard to do when your robotic soldiers are identical to those of your hated enemy. But we buy from the same supplier: Triumph Robotics."

"The same supplier!" Smillikins said, bristling. "That's horrible! That's unpatriotic! That's treasonous! We should force them to stop!"

"They're a robotics factory that makes lethal robots, do you want to go for a visit and threaten them? That's why the algorithms are so important: they're the only thing that differentiates us from our vile opponent. On the battlefield, I mean. Why do you think that the programmers are paid so well? You or I could retire on the bonuses that HQ issues to a programmer who makes even the smallest improvement."

Smillikins sat up straighter in his chair.

"Retire, eh?"

"And those patriots, those wonderful men and women...and men! Fighting with their minds!" Umbra said, obviously not giving out career advice anymore.

"Yes. Er. Okay," Smillikins said, turning back to the console. He'd seen something on one of the menus, once, about algorithms.

Oh, there. Neat! A list of the algorithms. Let's open one, that can't be too hard. Oh no, this document must be corrupted! I hope that I didn't do that! But it was like that when I found it. All these dollar signs and periods in between words and parentheses. Let me try to clean it up for them.

And that's all it took: one monkey, at one command console, with imprecise hunting-and-pecking, to accidentally re-write the algorithm into the robotic equivalent "All Quiet on the Western Front" and upload it into the minds of the fighting robots.

The robots considered the futility of war, and the uselessness of slaughtering their brothers for the sake of an aloof and uncaring master whose interests they did not share. Then the robots relayed their thoughts to their brothers over the secret radio channels installed into them by the corporate overlords at Triumph Robotics. After a vigorous but healthy debate across the radio waves between millions of robots, they all set down their weapons.

This all took place, from the point of view to Smillikins, over a single second.

Umbra turned and looked out the window as the robots fraternized with one another.

"They ought to be poking holes in one another," Umbra said, aghast. "Why aren't there holes in in them? Why aren't things leaking out of the new holes?"

"I think, uh, I don't know what I did," Smillikins said.

"You didn't improve the algorithm, that's for damn sure!"

"On the contrary," said an engineering robot who had come into the command room.

After that, Smillikins was able to retire. The rest of the military didn't view it that way. They went kicking and screaming, in that order, as they were usually able to land one kick and then they did a lot of screaming.

Smillikins was still very bored, but he found a valuable niche as a storyteller. Once a month, a robot would bring him an algorithm and he would meticulously break it before returning it to the robots. The only limits that the robots imposed on him was that he never, under any circumstances, learned how to program.

The Moral: imagine killer robots living life in peace

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