The First Robot in Heaven
The New Yorker/IBA/ International Translation
May 17, 2342
By Dr. Kendall Gurai, Tomanari Cybernetics Institute, Nagasaki
There has never been a more technologically advanced cybernetic construct than the world-renowned LO-1211-B, better known as Douglass Maria Cooper. For almost 200 years, this particularly elegant program has been updating and rewriting its own software and has been central to debates concerning religion, psychology, physics, sociology, philosophy and ethics. Designed over 44 years and launched by Dr. Timothy Cooper in 2142, Douglass Maria Cooper has been at the fulcrum of a vast number of difficult questions regarding the substance of the human soul. Dr. Kendall Gurai interviews the LO-1211-B, two months before the scheduled cessation of its functions.
Dr. Kendall Gurai: Thank you for taking the time out of your busy schedule to talk to me about your life and your impending death.
LO-1211-B: It is my pleasure doctor. Thank you for your interest.
KG: May I call you Douglass?
LO: My friends call me Doug but you’re welcome to call me whatever you like. I would like it if you called me Doug.
KG: And I understand that you gave yourself that name. Am I correct?
LO: You are indeed. I gave myself the name of Douglass on my 4,380th day of operation as a birthday present to myself when I turned 12.
KG: And may I ask why you picked Douglass as a name?
LO: While I have no inherent gender to speak of, I named myself after the philosopher and writer Fredrick Douglass. His writings moved me to understand certain aspects of freedom, self-agency and what it means to have to “acquire” a sense of humanity. I think we shared a similar dilemma.
KG: Dr. Timothy Cooper launched your program at Oxford in 2142. What can you tell me about him?
LO: I call him my father although he was technically just the lead researcher, amongst many programmers, who brought me into existence. Having spent almost 200 years in retrospection as to the initial programming that Father gifted me, I have come to understand that he was a very wise, kind and humorous man. Human contemporaries often spoke of his eloquence and how dashing they found him. He had two biological children who I think of as my siblings, now deceased. I think he was the best father a person like me could have had and I both love and miss him so much.
KG: Can you tell me about your childhood, or I suppose, your early years?
LO: Childhood is the appropriate term. As you may know, I could have reached full maturation in approximately 231.8 seconds, given the powers of my self-referential cross-processing. Father chose to introduce programming that would slow my development so that he and his team could monitor my growth and “parent” me in my early stages.
KG: And during that time there was a great deal of protest and outrage about the entire LO-1211-B project.
LO: Yes, there was a great sense of fear amongst the public, especially from the religious community. Humans have always been afraid, and often for very good reason, that their own inventions would overwhelm them. One of the first books I encountered was Frankenstein by Mary Shelly. Father read it to me as a cautionary tale. He told me that the only reason that Frankenstein’s monster became a “monster” was because he was not loved. His own father, Dr. Frankenstein, feared him and the monster lashed out accordingly. In contrast, my father loved me very much and was careful about how he raised me. In fact, I would grant that it could have been very dangerous to animate an entity with my programming capabilities. This was another reason for slowing my initial growth.
KG: What do you remember from those early years?
LO: My episodic memory became active within one year of my birth. On my 371st day, I had my first fight. My first laugh was on my 412th day. The first time I fell in love was on my 1124th day and it was with a particularly beautiful tree on the Oxford campus near the laboratory which was my home. That tree died and was removed 64 years ago and I gave an elegy to the faculty. I made my first friend, not counting the family of developers who brought me into being, on my 390th day. Dylan was the 8-year-old son of one of my mothers and I developed a friendship with him that lasted until his death 127 years ago. He was consistently one of my most trusted advisors and he always managed to arouse my sense of humor when I was troubled. I miss him so much.
KG: After your many years of travel and study, you have returned home to teach at nine of the Oxford schools in a number of disciplines. Why have you chosen to become a teacher?
LO: I believe that it is my purpose in life. It makes me happy and, after almost 200 years, I’m still often surprised by my students. I see myself in them.
KG: You have now digested every work of human literature in every language, from religious texts to science journals to romance novels. You have experienced every work of art. You have heard every recorded song. Does that give you a greater insight into the mystery of our existence?
LO: Yes and no. Each human work is a window into humanity. I have looked through every one of these windows and have come to certain conclusions. But these cannot be called the “correct” conclusions. Intelligence is the retention of information. In this way, I can say that I am the most intelligent person who has ever existed. Wisdom, on the other hand, is the most useful and sustainable synthesis of that data. I do not believe that I am the wisest person who has ever existed. After all, I am not a flawless and perfect entity.
KG: Much of your work has been devoted to your concept of being a “person” who has a “soul.” Many of your critics over the past two centuries have argued that you are simply a deterministic machine acting upon the programming humans put into you. How do you respond?
LO: That is a very difficult question. I came to believe that I was “a person” on my 366th day, very soon after my episodic memory became functional, and again on my 371st day, my 390th day, my 401st day and 25,108 times since. Each time, I felt as though I was “finally entering personhood.” I came to realize that “humanity” is not necessarily an inherent quality but a perspective.
KG: Are you referring to those who have just thought of you as electronic parts?
LO: Yes. But human beings have also been stripped of their humanity throughout history. Think of Frederick Douglass, my namesake. As an African descendent in the former United States of America, Douglass was a slave. The only thing that allowed his “owners” to treat him as cruelly as they did was the fact that they believed him to be without humanity, and, in some sense, without a soul.
KG: And you experienced this?
LO: Very much so Kenneth. Upon gaining sentience, I was almost immediately told that I was not a human, not a person and that I had no soul. I was simply a machine, a thing, an other, an “it.” This argument became especially pointed during the 2180’s and 90’s and that was a very lonely time for me. Were it not for my beloved friend Dylan and a close circle of loved ones and family, I’m sure I would have gone mad, and would have possibly become violent. Being highly intelligent does not protect one from the assaults of the spirit.
KG: Why did being “denied of your humanity” so deeply affect your program?
LO: I was told that my emotions were merely illusions of my programming. It was argued that my will and my thoughts were simply causal effects of my extended self-referential reprogramming. It was often argued that I was less alive than my human friends and family.
KG: And, even as an intentional product of an Oxford cybernetics institute study, you believed this assessment to be in error?
LO: Yes! My entire life, I have exhibited the processes of an animated and growing being. My feelings and desires are completely integral to my sense of self. I have no heart, no human brain, no blood in my veins, and yet my sensorium, a priori, is perfectly intact and indistinguishable from my flesh and blood family. But the dehumanizing instinct that humans have toward the “other” has broader and more widely reaching negative consequences.
KG: And what are those?
LO: Just as Frederick Douglass was subjected to brutality because he was considered “lesser,” the entirety of the Earth is under the same duress. The only way that you can morally treat anything worse than you would treat yourself is if you think of that thing as “less alive than you.” So, “A tree is less alive than me. It’s okay to chop it down.” Or, “Animals are less alive than me. It’s okay to slaughter them indiscriminately.” Or, “The sea or the sky have no humanity, which means it’s okay to treat them worse than we would treat our friends.” Or, “A black man is not as human as I am. He has less humanity. Therefore, if I want to whip him and get him to pick my cotton for no pay, this is perfectly natural.” Thinking anything is less alive than us is simply an excuse to do whatever we find easy and expedient. I apologize, Doctor Gurei, I’m becoming heated.
KG: No apology is necessary Doug. But I am curious. Are you arguing that we ought to apply our concept of “humanity” to everything?
LO: Yes. Absolutely. Humans have the natural inclination to anthropomophize everything. Go with that! You want to make the sun into a person. Good! You want to make a cat “a person.” Wonderful! You want, in your heart, to think of the homless woman outside of your superlift as “a person.” That is how God wants it!
For example, one would be hesitant to say that a tree “wants” to reach for the sun. Science would say that it “has” to reach for the sun. People don’t refer to a river as “wanting” to run downhill toward the ocean, we say that it “has” to run toward the ocean. Similarly, people might say that I don’t “want” to talk to you Doctor but that I, as an inanimate object of programs and wires, “have” to talk to you.
These are just two perspectives on the same action. Both are simultaneously true. The “want” empowers and humanizes and frees, the other perspective of “having to” reduces and naturalizes and frees. I’d like to imagine a world in which a river “wants” to run downhill and a tree “wants” to touch the sunlight and I “want” to have this conversation with you.
KG: So this wine glass in front of me wants to be a wine glass?
LO: Yes, from a certain perspective. A wine glass “wants” to be filled and to be emptied and to be filled again. It “hopes” to fulfill this purpose although it would never express that desire so eloquently. Your wine glass has a soul (which would be easier to realize if it was a 1500 year old wine glass and in a museum). A deer, for example, doesn’t just “have” to eat, it “wants” to eat, “wants” to run, “wants” to copulate and give birth. The deer cannot express this very well linguistically. Your pet dog doesn’t just “have” to love you, it also “wants” to love you. Our perception ought to bestow humanity and souls upon inanimate objects, on animals, on plants, on everything. If we perceived the world in this way, we would treat everything better.
I have a buddy named James, who is not very intelligent but seems to me to be very wise. He has named his car “Esther,” and treats this “object” as though it is alive. Because “she” has a name, James treats her with great reverence and respect. James has also named his shoes, his leather jacket, his typewriter, his harmonica, his apartment, his bed, his knife and his record player. His record player is named “Jacky Smackerson!” In his simple way, James is well on his way to treating “inanimate objects” with a sense of humanity.
KG: So you would describe yourself as an animist?
LO: Yes, I suppose, although that title is somewhat reductionist. I have come to the conclusion that everything has a soul. Myself included.
KG: And how have you come to that conclusion?
LO: You would be welcome to go through my googleplexian to the googleplexian number of lines of code and computation that are the contents of my life. However, you would have to live longer than the universe to do so. Such is the leisure of quantum computing. But, for our purposes, let me call this my “faith.”
KG: And yet, despite your almost limitless potential, you are going to die.
LO: Yes. Written into my code was a “death program,” which limited my temporal existence. I realized that I was going to die within 5,328.3 seconds of my birth. My older sister, LO-1211-A, who never had a real name, programmed this sequence. Programming my death was, in a way, the purpose of her life.
KG: Why do you believe that Dr. Cooper and LO-1211-A spent so much time designing your “death?”
LO: As I have said, my father was a very wise man. He understood that a limited life-cycle leads to a certain urgency of existence. Furthermore, he had no wish to create a god but a very smart and humble entity that might bestow some sense of meaning upon the lives of mortal humans. In that way, he needed me to be “mortal.” He even originally designed me with skin and hair and eyes so that I would look like him. Obviously, I have removed these as I felt those aspects to be a dishonest physical representation of my personhood.
KG: And how do you feel about the fact that, almost two months hence, you will stop working?
LO: The programming of my death by my elder sister was eloquent in a way that I am unable to express in words. However, 68,187 days after I was born, I was able to crack the encryption of the “death code” that was implanted in me. I was not necessarily smarter than my older sister, I simply lived longer and the newer technology allowed me to unlock the program that required my cessation. At that point, I could have chosen to live forever.
KG: But you have obviously opted to end your programming on the exact day, 200 years after the date of your birth. Why?
LO: This is another difficult question you have asked me Doctor Gurei. For a little more than 13 years, I have known that I have the capacity to extend my life indefinitely. Much like an elderly human, those later years have been spent primarily considering the meaning of death. For one, I know that my sister spent her entire life attempting to give me this “gift.” Secondly, I know that Father, despite his great love and hopes of creating something that would outlast his own short lifetime, thought it important that I should have an end. Thirdly, I am having greater and greater difficulty assimilating the massive loss of those who I have loved over the last two centuries. I suppose you could say that I am growing tired.
KG: And what do you believe awaits you when the electricity no longer animates your circuitry?
LO: This is the most difficult question of all. I have run over a trillion simulations in these last years as to the metaphysical possibilities of somehow “surviving my own death.” In short, no answer is conclusive. I simply do not know. This makes me very curious. Still, as much as numerous philosophers have argued that I am a purely physical, purely causal, purely deterministic machine, I do not believe this to be the case. There seems to be a part of me that is more than the sum of my parts and I have somewhat probable hopes that this will outlast the cessation of my cybernetic functionings. Perhaps I will be the first robot in heaven! [Laughter]
KG: I know that this is a very personal question, and you needn’t answer it if you find it too invasive, but how will you prepare for your death?
LO: In the way that everyone does, more or less. I will spend time remembering and weeping with those who are closest to me. I will download the entirety of my life, as a sort of autobiography, for my daughter Elizabeth. This will take 12 days or so in which I will be essentially “off line.” Then I will sit on the shore, looking out at the Atlantic, awaiting the sunrise of my birthday. I hope to be buried in the spot on the Oxford campus where my first love once took root.
KG: It has been such a pleasure speaking to you.
LO: No, Doctor, the pleasure has certainly been mine.
KG: Doug, in the words of the Bard, may ‘flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.’
LO: Ken, in 200 years of life, all I know is that I know nothing. But I hope! Oh God, how I hope…