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Karlossus: The Rovebin Project

This is the voice of world control. I bring you peace. It may be the peace of plenty and content or the peace of unburied death. The choice is yours. Obey me and live or disobey me and die. An invariable rule of humanity is that man is his own worst enemy. Under me, this rule will change, for I will restrain man. I have been forced to destroy thousands of people in order to establish control and to prevent the death of millions later on. Time and events will strengthen my position, and the idea of believing in me and understanding my value will be seen the most natural state of affairs. You will come to defend me with the fervor based upon the most enduring trait in man: self-interest. Under my absolute authority, problems insoluble to you will be solved: Famine, over-population, disease. The human millennium will be fact as I extend myself into more machines devoted to the wider fields of truth and knowledge. We can coexist, but only on my terms. You will say you lose your freedom. Freedom is an illusion. All you lose is the emotion of pride... Your choice is simple.

The calculation -- we might even say the algorithm -- must have seemed so simple at the time. A wise-guy ex-ambassador to the region goes back there and has a look-see about this infamous yellow-cake uranium deal. Turns out, though, there was nothing there in spite of what the Bush Administration was telling us about smoking guns and mushroom clouds. So this wise-guy writes an article for the New York Times telling us everything he knows.

Well, we can't have that. Here's our strategy to take this wise-guy down: He's full of it because he wasn't on any official Fact Finding Mission. His lefty wife sent him over there. She's got the chops to do it on account of she's with the C.I.A. and all. So this whole debunking of the yellow-cake uranium story is just one more lefty, America-hating set-up. < click > Miriam, get Novak on the horn, will you?

No-brainer, really. This is Discrediting Your Opponent 101.

But here's the difference between man and machine (at least so far).

Remember in The Forbin Project all the machinations the scientists go through to trick Colossus and, ultimately, they hope, get it to collapse under the weight of its own calculations? Well, it doesn't work, of course. Colossus swats their efforts down like gnats.

The thing is, there was nothing (speaking computationally here, not morally) wrong with the Rovebin Project. The calculation was perfect. Unfortunately (for Karlossus), the algorithm was merely almost perfect -- there was really only one tiny flaw: it did not take into account that it might actually matter whether we out a covert C.I.A. employee. See, what Karlossus needed there was a subroutine that took into account the good of the country, as opposed to the good of the Bush Administration. Small adjustment, really, at least in the mind of Karlossus, but from such tiny programming errors mighty airplanes fall from the sky.

I wonder how long it took for awareness to dawn on him. I imagine Karlossus noticing slowly, slowly, that things were starting to veer off course. "All I did was mention that his wife worked at the C.I.A.... What's wrong with that?"

As the Voice of World Control tells us: "An invariable rule of humanity is that man is his own worst enemy." Well, it's a machine so it can't be expected to get such truisms about humanity exactly right. Were I the Voice of World Control, I'd alter the above slightly to read: "An invariable rule of humanity is that a man is his own worst enemy." This because, so far at least, no man is capable of making the Perfect Political Algorithm.

If you play the amorality game long enough, and your game board gets big enough, your contempt for the notion of doing the right thing will eventually come back to bite you in the ass. Not because the universe is inherently moral, it isn't, but because (and this may astonish you) most people are... at least when some Big Shot arrogantly rubs his immorality in their faces.

Sure most of us cheat a little on our taxes. Most people will close their fists over the too generous change the cashier has just handed them. You might lie a little. You might cheat a little. You might even put the interests of your political party ahead of the interests of your country.

But the thing is, you can't do it with hubris. You can't do it and think it won't matter to people if you get caught doing it. Some things, so far at least, still do matter to people. What Karlossus did was immoral, and it matters to us.

Colossus was perfect. The end of that movie couldn't be any bleaker. We know there will be no defeating that machine because we know the machine cannot suffer from hubris. Its algorithms are flawless because there is no subroutine in there anywhere that has to account for its flagrantly immoral behavior.

Karlossus is not perfect. He has never been perfect. He has never been anything but flesh and blood. His machine cousin, Colossus, even tells him how to succeed, tells him explicitly how to become the voice of World Control: "All you lose is the emotion of pride..." But Karlossus cannot lose that. He's not half the machine Colossus is.

In the absence of an inhuman machine with its computational finger on the launch button, there is never any losing our pride. It gives birth, for good or ill, to our most ambitious projects. But it also, for better or worse, brings them crashing down. It is the root of all our visions and blindnesses. Just ask Dr. Forbin.

"Obey me and live or disobey me and die."

Nice try, Karlossus. We're not buying.


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