San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

The Learning Curve

You know how it goes: You spend the first 20 years of your life learning to walk, talk, accumulate knowledge and get a living. And at the other end, you spend 10 years atoning for the bad things you did in between, hoping to cadge a free pass into heaven on the off chance it exists. Then in between, there’s this long stretch when you seem to be too busy raising  a family, assembling a fortune or just keeping your head above water to learn anything new.

So it seems at the time, but in fact you continue to learn valuable lessons from situations rather than direct instruction. I speak with authority on the subject because we at General Robotics, so as to keep down costs, have to pack a whole lifetime of learning into a delicate artificial brain in less than five minutes. And if you go too fast, the damned thing melts and there goes $10,000 worth of gallium arsenide down the drain.

The feed comes from real memories, conformably digitized, so naturally we have to take a peek into the hopper now and again, to make sure the supplier hasn’t slipped in any psych stuff. For example, here’s one I just checked out:

The scene is Sunday afternoon in the pool area of an oil camp in the middle of the Libyan  desert. Six bachelors in their early 20s, all fourble-board derrick hands – a job now considered too dangerous for humans – are sitting around bellyaching about the shortage of girls; there are only three nurses to a hundred rig hands, and all three are beefy old-timers.

Presently, two of the most delectable damsels you ever saw breeze into the club unescorted and, spying the table of wellformed young men, join the group much to the satisfaction of all present. But there’s a hitch: They introduce themselves in Armenian.

Having worked all over the world, the young men can muster maybe six languages among them, but none clicks with the girls, and there is an embarrassed silence while everyone tries to figure what to do.

Then a dried-up, wrinkled old man at the next table,who should have been retired years ago, except he’s the chief paleontologist and they can’t do without him, comes over and greets the handsome strangers in their own language. After jabbering away for several minutes, he evidently points out that the girls are wasting their time with these ignorant clods, and retires with his new friends to the other side of the pool. Feeling as if they have failed some kind of a test, the young men disperse, resolving to do better next time.

So what exactly is the point of installing this kind of memory in an automaton? Like I said, direct commands such as “Be prepared,” coming after several billion bits of instruction code have already been fed in, can start a meltdown. But embedded in an emotional situation, the nearly saturated brain can draw the desired conclusion in the same way as you absorb the lesson of a parable, ignoring the irrelevant details of time and place.

And as to why we supply genuine human memories to nonhuman artifacts, why, we find it makes them practically human.Which, after all, is the object of the exercise.


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