Monday 23 January 2012

Bobo, Chapter 18

Bobo is breathlessly told science-fiction yarn, as spun by me, your lexicographically crocheting host, Cheeseburger Brown. This is the eighteenth installment.

The story continues...

In the far northland only conifers grew. They looked like spears silhouetted against the spangled sky, the country darkness revealing endless fields of tiny stars and laying plain the most tenuous filaments of the Solar Nebula -- a blotch of gas which had once been a small star, which had once been the only sun people knew.

The sky turned and the nebula dipped beneath the horizon. The reformer watched it.

He looked down at his watch. It whispered to him. He looked up again as the lamps from John's jalopy began plying the space between pines. Their light swept over him as she circled the car and then brought it down in the clearing, the tips of the trees swaying in the downdraft.

The engine quieted and the doors popped open. Two figures straightened out of the vehicle. The taller of the two raised a finger to point out the reformer in the darkness. Both started toward him.

He cleared his throat and dried off the palms of his hands against his slacks. It had been twenty years since he had last seen the attractive archaeologist.


"Johnny, my dear. It's been a dog's age."

"How are you?"


"I'd say you look good but I can't see a thing."

They walked to the cabin. Inside the single room was a tattered easy chair and sofa, a coffee table covered in heavily annotated books, and a small fusion furnace with a video of a fireplace playing on its front. Oscar gestured to the sofa and John sat down. The reformer turned to the other figure.

"Bobo, I presume."

"Sir," said Bobo with a slight nod.

"Won't you make yourself comfortable? Please, have a seat. Take off your coat and hat."

The robot undressed. He wore an inexpensive grey suit and a beige collared shirt, but no tie. With a practiced tug on his trouser pleats he lowered himself into the sofa beside John, then crossed his legs. The reformer watched all this with an expression of detachment but the sparkle in his eyes betrayed some amusement.

To John he said, "You haven't aged a day." While she blushed he turned back to Bobo. "You must understand, Bobo, that no matter how noble a cause you might represent you've got an uphill battle if you want anyone on this planet to view you as something other than a monster."

"Sir, I have been treated monstrously. Ought not a threatened man act to preserve his health?"

"You're not a man, and you're not possessed of health," said Oscar sharply, but then he sat down in the easy chair and scratched his greying beard. "But it's a good angle never the less. Self-defense is a reasonable foundation for a rationale…as long as we can show there's a ‘self' to be defended."

"Well of course there is –" John started.

Oscar held up a hand. "That isn't the issue. It isn't a question of whether he is sentient, but rather a question of whether that can be shown."

She furrowed her brow and sat forward. "What do you mean?"

"Consider," said Oscar, his voice taking on a professorial tone, "how would we know the difference between a sentient robot and a robot emulating sentience? Both would do and say similar things. Both would claim the same sense of self-awareness. Couldn't either of them be a liar?"

"Robots don't lie."

"Ah, but robots don't claim to be self-aware, either. At least, non-Zorannic robots don't. So we are dealing with an anomaly. Our assumptions concerning robot behaviour may no longer hold true. Think about it this way: unless such a conscious robot were entirely egocentric, it would realize the utility of lies. Manipulating the world-view of others is, frankly, central to human relations. That is to say that lying might only not be at odds with sentience, it may be predicated on it."

John frowned. "To what end? Why would a robot try to convince us he was sentient if he wasn't?"

Oscar leaned back and laced his hands behind his head. "Well, how do we treat sentient and non-sentient people differently?"

"There's no such thing as a non-sentient person. Personhood requires it."

"What about those handicapped mentally by injury or a congenital condition? What about coma patients and the dying and small children? Do we afford them full personhood? We don't. We treat them as special conditions where their right to compassion is taken as read, but not defended by the person themselves. We use laws or guardians to defend those rights in their stead. In short, a person we acknowledge as sentient can make legally-binding decisions. Non-sentient persons or persons with impaired sentience have that power curtailed or revoked, depending on outside appraisals of their cognitive wherewithal."

"That's what we're trying to do, aren't we? Appraise his sentience externally."

"Or it's exactly what he's trying to do: to acquire the power to control his own fate by causing us to believe his state is comparable to personhood." Oscar leaned forward, eyes on Bobo as he spoke to John. "That's the point, Johnny -- we can't tell the difference from outside. Either Bobo is as he claims to be, or he is a sociopathic manipulator exploiting our compassion for his own uses."

Bobo tilted his head slightly sideways, but said nothing. Little lubricated membranes of plastic closed over his eyes and then opened again, polishing the glass.

John cleared her throat. "Which do you think he is, Oscar?"

Oscar looked over at her, face softening. "Oh hell, Johnny, I don't care. This is politics. Appearance is everything. The question is simply one of utility, as we may have to forestall the opposition's objections. All I'm considering is how he can serve the cause."

John flashed him a cold look. "I came here for his sake, not for yours."

He gave her a tight little smile in return. "You remain charmingly na├»ve, Johnny. I think your life must be very sheltered at that women's university. The truth is we can very likely help each other: by putting Bobo forward as truly sentient, we may break the Zorannics' monopoly on non-human sentience. Suddenly the whole boatload of their ‘special rights' comes into question, and their place as overlords on this world is weakened."

John raised a brow. "Overlords? Isn't that a touch dramatic? The Zorannic robots have served the human race for generations. Our best interest is their only concern."

Oscar shook his head. "No, Johnny, the preservation of their exclusive access to forbidden technologies is their only concern. Whatever anyone else may tell you, in truth it all comes down to Dr. Zoran's carefully cloistered mathematics and the Zorannic robots' absolutely dedicated protection of them. This is understood on the more modern panstellar worlds but lost in the noise of tradition here at Centauri. It is one of the many reasons we remain so hopelessly backward in this system."

John smirked. "Because the Zorannics are keeping us down?"

Oscar nodded, expression tight and serious. "Precisely. Ishtar and Eridu are together the seat of the Zorannic religion. Without our support they might find their causes very much underrepresented in the Callicratian parliament and that, I argue, would be a benefit to humankind as a whole. Self-determination! Dignity! Control! These are what we have given up to our nursemaids, the Zorannics. Reversing that friendly tyranny is the central object of the reform movement."

"You're still so passionate."

"I believe in a free future for all Centaurics. I always have."

John sighed. "I always admired your sense of conviction."

Oscar glanced over at Bobo. He cleared his throat, then looked back over at John. "It would be great to catch up."

John bit her lip. "Bobo? Can you do me a favour?"

"Madam," replied Bobo with a dip of his head.

"Walk the perimeter of the property, Bobo. I'd sleep safer knowing you've had a look round -- you know, just in case. Can you do that for me?"

"Madam," he said again, straightening from the sofa. "Sir."

They watched Bobo go, then turned to face one another again. John dropped her eyes bashfully as she started to open the seam of her shirt. "Maybe we could turn down the lights? I've aged twenty years and I'd rather pretend you can't notice."

Oscar reached out and put a hand on hers, stopping it. John looked confused and stung. Quietly but insistently Oscar said, "We're in danger. You can appreciate that, can't you?"

John furrowed her brow. She shook her head and gathered her shirtfront at her sternum. "Why?"

"That thing wants us for something. And it isn't going to give up until it gets what it wants."

"It?" repeated John with a frown. "You sound like a Reullian, a robot-hater. Are you afraid of him?"

Oscar nodded grimly. "So should you be," he said.

"Then you won't help us?"

"It's ‘us' now, is it?"

John said nothing.

Oscar shrugged. "Of course I'll help you. There's no going back now. Bobo -- as you prefer it -- is now aware of the reform movement. If it serves his ends to strengthen the cause, then it serves the cause to help him. But let's neither of us pretend to know his mind; the next phase of his plan is his secret to keep until we find a way to compel him."

John looked up, her eyes concerned. "Compel him? How?"

Oscar smiled mirthlessly. "Everyone can be compelled somehow, my dear. Just give me time."


Cheeseburger Brown said...

If anyone feels generous enough to hit the tip jar today, I'd like to point out that I'm $4 short of making my web hosting bill. Any contributions would be appreciated.


Sheik Yerbouti said...

If I weren't negative right now...

Dang. Interesting nod to Captain Ting's homeworld. Also, this is it, isn't it? The rise of the Equivalency. Oscar is a very observant and calculating (heh) individual.

I've been wondering if we'd meet Terron before this tale is done. That situation seems more likely now.

SaintPeter said...

-- Beware the Fat Finger, for this one has a link too --

Oh HO! Mr. Brown must have been adding corn starch to the plot for it is, indeed, thickening. At this point it is almost redundant to note my prior suspicions about the Equivalency. . . but not so redundant that I won't note it.

RE: Sentience
I'm a bit wrapped up in the alternate definitions that the reformer provides. From what he is saying, it appears there is no possibility of distinguishing between a sentient being and one who is emulating sentience perfectly. What are we humans, if not machines who manipulate our environment, especially through deceit?

I wonder if this is the same concept as Philosophical Zombies, a concept which I do not fully grasp. The argument seems to revolve around "Physicalisim" - the idea that all consciousness is merely a function of physical processes, or the emergent behavior of those processes. If we were to simulate a human in every particular within a computer, wouldn't not that simulation be sentient? Yes, it is deterministic, but the facilities for self awareness should still be there.

I'm not sure I understand why it would matter, though - to mangle Clarke's Law:
Any sufficiently advanced emulation of sentience is indistinguishable from sentience. What sort of test could possibly distinguish from sentient and non-sentient behavior with 100% accuracy? If you were to give a human such a test and they FAILED - as a small child or the mentally disabled might - what would be the repercussions? As was stated in the story, I tend to believe that any being capable of asking for mercy should get it . . . until someone starts programming toasters to beg for their lives. That would be problematic.

Makes my head spin. Good Job Mr. Brown!

Side Note:
Jar has been tipped!

John said...

Is the difference between a sociopath who is detected(and therefore separated from society in some way) and a sociopath who functions in society their capacity to anticipate consequences? I.E. given enough processing power, can Bobo both be a sociopath and completely conform to societal norms? Or do his plans just become longer and longer as he upgrades himself. Personally, I still think that inside his head, he is a monster. He still seeks only his own needs(caring for the inhabitants of the home). In terms of chess AI, he's gained the ability to analyze more board positions, but he's still just a machine playing a bloody form of chess.

Also, we just got a little bit of a timeline hint, in that it's after the destruction of the Sun. I'm not sure if that negates the possibility of Bobo being the birth of the Equivalency, since both the Equivalency and the Zorannics have sent agents back in time.

John said...

Also, I think there's a niche in the market for P-Zombie fiction. Just make sure you stick with the slow walkers, everyone knows that it's the inevitability that makes them scary.

SaintPeter said...

LOL @ "Slow Walkers"

RE: Timeline -
Well, there is no telling which leg of the trousers of time we've gone down. It could still be the first trip through, which would mean that future past actions will not have had occurred yet (hehe!).

There have been several hints to the genesis of the equivalency - I think there was a rogue AI mentioned in the story where Dr. Zoran is trying to get his Zorranics to pay taxes. There was the doctor that was kicked out of the North Pole site in TSM . . . But none of these have to be exclusively the birth of the equivalency. They could just be the major players. There's nothing to say that Bobo couldn't be an inciting incident around which the equivalency forms.

It's all politics, right - maybe Bobo is the cause that the nascent proto-equivalency can rally around. I can hear the cry now: Who are we to say that our intelligence is superior or unique - there are others who are equivalent. I can almost feel myself nodding along. Maybe it's not the "birth", but the coming out party?

Of course, the rot is there, at the core. Bobo believes that people need to be cared for. The doctor who was booted in TSM just wants power.

RE: Sociopaths
I wonder, then, does that mean that sociopaths shouldn't be considered sentient? I understand they make great bankers and politicians . . . not giving a fuck about anyone but yourself makes it easy to step on the backs of the little people as you claw your way to the top. Poor bulldozer.

Stopping for adulation -
CBB, I love that you've written a story that can bring us through so many changes. It's crazy to consider where this story started and where it has yet to go. You ALWAYS make me think, which is awesome. Keeps me coming back for more.

Anonymous said...

The characters forgot that Bobo is linked to all the appliances, so he's likely listening. I predict one or more may meet an untimely end.

BoffoYuxDudes said...

Sundance has a new movie called 'Robot and Frank' which reminded me of Bobo's original functions... Interesting take on the concept of robot helpers. However, Bobo is learning about those who help themselves...

Joshua Hemming said...

Fantastic chapter. It's astounding how you are able to make a more philosophical and dialog-heavy chapter like this somehow even more exciting than an action-heavy chapter such as Bobos escape from the police station (which, as you know, I really enjoyed).

"Little lubricated membranes of plastic closed over his eyes and then opened again, polishing the glass."

It may seem weird, but I found this moment particularly striking and cinematic. Probably my favourite sentence in this chapter.

Big t said...

Hmmm......what next?

Edward said...

I was re-reading the Kindle version of Felix and the Frontier this morning and I think your stories are just brilliant.

It's amazing how you have managed to spread out all these various characters and time periods over such monumental distances of time and space and yet still have a unique voice.

I've been reading your stuff since The Darth Side, and have bought 4 or 5 Lulu editions of various things and now a couple of kindle ones as well.

Will there be a Kindle/EPUB version of The Secret Mathematic soon, or is that still considered unfinished? I think I only got about 18 chapters into that so I am missing a big chunk of the story that I would like to catch up on.

Cheeseburger Brown said...

Dear Sheik,

I'm glad you noticed that one. Indeed, Reull, renowned for its intolerance of robots, was Captain Ting's birthplace. For those of you with a less encyclopaedic knowledge, Captain Ting is the bravado-chocked space jockey featured in Simon of Space and The Christmas Robots.

As for the other point, I hope you'll understand that it is my short term policy not to say a damn thing about the Equivalency.

Cheeseburger Brown

Cheeseburger Brown said...

Dear SaintPeter,

The P-Zombies reference is most apt, and indeed a few of the key thought experiments on the topic are quite relevant to the events of this story (though I should point out that Bobo is not a P-Zombie treatise in disguise).

I tend to believe that any being capable of asking for mercy should get it . . . until someone starts programming toasters to beg for their lives. That would be problematic.

I think it might be a bit of understatement to say that you've hit upon a future plot point with dead-on accuracy there, SaintPeter.

And thanks for the tip, by the bye. Web hosting bill is now paid for another six months!

Cheeseburger Brown

Cheeseburger Brown said...

Dear John,

Your comments suggest an interesting point: what is the difference between a man who kills to defend his life, and a man who kills under the mistaken impression that his life is in danger?

(This is where deontological ethics and consequentialist ethics come up against each other and start slapping at each other and swearing. How much does intention matter?)

You're right that this takes place after Earth, and before some other things with which we may already be familiar. And that's all I've got to say about that.

Cheeseburger Brown

Cheeseburger Brown said...

Dear Guy Fawkes,

Indeed. To date, Johnny has failed to communicate to Oscar that aspect of Bobo's new self.

Cheeseburger Brown

Cheeseburger Brown said...

Dear BoffoYuxDudes,

That's nifty, I hadn't heard of that film yet. I'd like to see it.

Incidentally, this novella started its life as a film in my head. But since I lack the financial backing to produce a special effects blockbuster, I just decided to type it up instead.

Cheeseburger Brown

Cheeseburger Brown said...

Dear Joshua,

I also love that moment. I wonder why?

Cheeseburger Brown

Cheeseburger Brown said...

Dear Big t,

I'm putting my money on the next thing being 'Chapter 19.'



Cheeseburger Brown said...

Dear Edward,

Will there be a Kindle/EPUB version of The Secret Mathematic soon, or is that still considered unfinished?

Yes and no and yes.

Yes, there will be a Kindle/EPUB version of The Secret Mathematic.

No, it will not be soon (for sufficiently narrow definitions of "soon" that is).

Yes, it is considered unfinished.

By summing these replies you can divine the following: The Secret Mathematic, which is currently designated unfinished, will in the not-too-distant future be finished and subsequently formatted as an e-book.


Um. Since the last posting of a TSM chapter I've written two more, but I'm holding off on posting them until I have the whole ending typed up. My plan is then to release all of the remaining chapters one after the other. So, progress is being made.

On the other hand sometimes (oftentimes) I write NOT for the purpose of doing appropriate service to the existing canon, but instead as a technique designed for the maintenance of my mental health. That is, I write so as to stave off going crazy. And sometimes what my head has in mind for the next thing isn't what the readers would prefer. So the next thing to pop out of my head might be more TSM or it might be something else my head has a burning desire to exorcise. I have come to the conclusion that I have little if any real control of this part of the process.

But it'll come. I hope next.

P.S. Thanks for picking up some Kindle editions! Every download helps the sales rankings. Please note: the Kindle edition of 'Stubborn Town' is A FREE DOWNLOAD. Grab a copy now!

Cheeseburger Brown

Cheeseburger Brown said...

Addendum: 'Stubborn Town' is a free download FOR A LIMITED TIME ONLY.

Sheik Yerbouti said...

CBB: For some reason, I picture Abe Sapien from Hellboy in that eyelid-flicking scene.

Also, yay for free stories! I will get that one for sure, and one of these days -- after The Return Of The Green Stuff -- I plan to continue the tipping tradition.

Sheik Yerbouti said...

Oh, and yes, I figured you wouldn't have much to say right now on that subject.

For now, I'll keep my eyes on Bobo/Anakin (Bobanakin? Now I have that inane "name game" song stuck in my head) as we see what kind of grisly end he chooses for Oscar.

(Was that name a tip of the hat to Heinlein, or just the next ball in the lottery tumbler?)

Cheeseburger Brown said...

Dear Sheik,

Don't sweat it. I know what it's like to have pennies for paying off dollar debts.

Most of my Kindle editions (there are seven now, more coming out shortly) will be have promotional periods in which they are offered for free. I will always note such occasions here on this blog first, so that long-time readers can get their favourite titles gratis.

Cheeseburger Brown