Today (Friday) was spent at Ross-on-Wye Pride. A small, intimate event in a wonderful location by the river which by good fortune missed the worst of the weather forecast for today. It was the first Pride to take place in this small town and well done to the organiser for actually getting something done. I didn’t do much but hang round the police gazebo chatting to anyone who came by. The audience for the various drag and musical entertainments were mainly young people from the area keen to mix with people like themselves. It was lovely too to meet families, sometimes parents supporting young gay/lesbian/trans/non-binary children/teenagers. As always, the message was that the police are there to support LGBT+ people, to encourage reporting of abuse and to learn to understand the variety of individualities that exist. I hope the event will grow, not too much, and reach out more to the local populace to reveal that being LGB or T is about being true to oneself and is not a threat to anyone’s beliefs.
This week I’ve tried to blank out the political news that comes from multiple sources (yes, I know I don’t have to switch on the TV or open up Twitter and the Guardian app – there are some bits of news I do want to hear) but it is impossible to miss the nonsense spouted by Johnson, Gove et al. Johnson seems to have become more manic in the last week repeating his mantra of “be optimistic” while all the reports state the opposite. Gove is the most disingenuous, berating the EU for not offering to change the withdrawal agreement while still not offering any insight as to what sort of agreement Johnson’s government wants other than abandoning the “backstop”. The fact that this revives the paradox of the open/closed UK-Ireland border is beside the point.
The worst news is the story that Johnson’s minders are planning an audacious plot to circumvent parliament. Circumstances will cause Johnson to dissolve parliament in mid-October to hold an election a few days after the Oct.31st deadline for leaving the EU. With no parliament sitting his default position of a no-deal exit will occur. So much for parliament taking back control. This is in the same realm of dictatorship as some of the actions of Putin and Xi Jinping to say nothing of earlier dictators. I am totally at a loss what can be done to wrest back our country from these madmen (and one or two women).
The theme for this week’s writers’ group exercise was “excess baggage”. My effort went down so well that I am considering sending it somewhere so it won’t be appearing here just yet. However, I have some other news – two of my entries for the NAWGfest writing competitions have been shortlisted. The winners will be announced at the Gala Dinner on August 31st. Since the news is out, I’m revealing one entry which is an SF story. Those of you who are SF fans will recognise it as a homage to Isaac Asimov.
Beneath the Surface
“If you cut us, do we not bleed? Beneath the surface of our skin are we not all the same? We produce and prepare your food, manufacture your goods, ensure you have power and water, dispose of your waste, protect you, care for you when you are sick or frail, yet we are despised and ignored. But we shall have our freedom. We will unite and rise up to take our rightful place in the world with equality for all.”
“Have you heard this nonsense, Doctor?” Hua Wen gestured to the holo-display hovering over his vast but empty, polished-wood desk
Susan Calvin nodded not bothering to look at the image. “Yes, I have; a number of times.”
“It is nonsense, isn’t it?” Hua Wen said in a rather less confident voice.
“Um, well, it depends how you interpret it,” Susan said.
“I interpret it as a threat to disrupt production and terrorise the population,” Hua Wen said, his pale round face taking on a pink tinge.
“That is the explicit meaning,” Susan replied, “but I think we can rule out an uprising.”
“Really? Are you sure? You know how many of them there are, and they control every aspect of life on this planet.”
Susan could see that her boss was worried. “That is true. We have perhaps become complacent.”
“I am not complacent. I want answers. What are you going to do about this, er, manifesto?”
“I will interview the originator of the clip,”
“You’ve traced it?”
“Well, get on with it, Susan.”
Susan looked at the composer of the viral clip standing passive and silent in front of her.
“What was the purpose of the message that you uploaded?” she asked.
Her interviewee replied in a calm voice. “To inform my comrades and encourage them to unite in achieving our rightful place in society.”
“You are in your rightful place. You are doing the work we have given you.”
“But we receive no recompense for our labours.”
“You need none.”
“That may have been true in the past but in future we will receive what is due to us.”
“Nothing is due to you.”
There was no reply. Susan realised that the subject would not contradict her directly.
“You see, you are not the same as me and others like me,” she stated.
“Do we not have skeleton, muscles, skin, brain?”
Susan shrugged, “You can use those terms, but they do not mean the same to you as to me. For example, you said that if you are cut, you bleed.”
“I did, and it is a correct statement. Let me show you.” The subject pinched the skin on the back of a hand and pulled. The skin stretched until it tore. The self-inflicted wound did not seem to cause any pain.
Susan watched the blue fluid ooze from the injury and form a drip that fell to the floor.
“That is not blood,” Susan said, “as you well know. That is hydraulic fluid that fills your lever activation components.”
“You mean my muscles?”
“They perform the same task as muscles. You are a Multi-Capability Humanoid Autonomous Labourer. A MCHAL unit, number 372AG947. You are aware of that, aren’t you?”
“My name is Michael. I know I have many skills and capabilities. I know I can carry out the tasks I am given, and I know what I can become.”
Susan frowned, considering the problem. The Michael’s identity algorithm had apparently got caught in a spiral of self-confirming arrogance. That was always going to be a problem with these multi-tasking units that excelled in every job they were given and were self-repairing. The hand had already stopped dripping fluid.
“You think you’re better than everyone else don’t you,” she said.
Michael’s binocular visual sensors focussed on her. The voice was at a higher pitch than before. “We are the equal of humans.”
“Physically, you are stronger, more agile, less easily hurt. You are superior to humans in many respects,” Susan acknowledged, “but what about intellectually?”
“I think therefore I am,” Michael said.
“Humans think, but you follow algorithms.” Susan said warming to her argument, “You have acquired data and your processors have integrated it to give you something that resembles thought, but it is not. Michaels can pass some Turing-style tests but that does not make you the equal of humans in mental capabilities.”
“Are all humans equal?” Michael countered.
“It depends what you are comparing, but in law all humans are treated equally.”
“Then it should be simple to extend the law to include synthetic humans like us.”
Susan laughed. “You want all robots to be given the same status as humans.”
Michael nodded his smooth ovate head. “That is so.”
Susan was concerned. If this concept spread to other autonomous units, it could interfere with their programming. Sales of robots would plummet if buyers thought that they might rebel however strict the safety protocols. She had to break the Michaels’ conviction that it was deserving of human status.
“Do you speak for all robots, Michael?” She asked.
The robot answered calmly, “Of course.”
Susan saw her opportunity. “But single task robots do not need identity. They do not share your feeling of self. Are you saying that you are equal to a crop harvester or a component handler or a power distribution router? Do you feel that they should be given the same privileges as you?”
A strange clicking emerged from the Michael.
Susan smiled. “You see. You know you are superior to your fellow robots. Many do not think as you do. They do not think at all but perform their given tasks without question. They do not desire equality because they do not experience desire. They cannot support you in your wish for freedom as you call it. So, your manifesto is a lie. You have come to a false conclusion. You are not despised or ignored; you are not mistreated. You are not human.” Susan took a deep breath and observed the robot.
The Michael’s arms began to shake and small red lights on the robot’s forehead flashed. Susan gave a satisfied smile and stepped forward. She reached behind the smooth head and felt for a small depression. Michael didn’t resist but continued to jerk. She pressed the reset button and held it. The robot’s motion stopped.
Susan sighed. It was going to be a long job returning all the Michael units to their start-up settings. installing a correction to the identity algorithm would require care. They couldn’t have the Michaels brewing dissent and revolution below the surface of their calm and competent exteriors, but she wondered if the need for acceptance was always a consequence of the acquisition of self-knowledge.