by Gordon Johnson

Copyright© 2014 by Gordon Johnson

Science Fiction Story: An intelligent machine race of spaceships has a psychological problem derived from the taboos of their biological creators

Tags: Science Fiction   Space  

The Personalia noticed that they were becoming uncomfortable. They put this down to Governor Bob Kempe of the planet Rehome, and his enthusiastic support of their race. He kept telling everyone he met how kind and helpful the Personalia were. He made them out to be the ideal race to be partnered with - friends to be admired and praised; a defence force without parallel; a source of technical and financial wizardry; the perfect complement to human ingenuity and pushiness.

That upsetting feeling of being uncomfortable, of being off-balance, of a slightly nauseousness, a queasiness, in the pit of what the humans would call stomach, was one of the problems that came with being aware of yourself as an individual and also as a race. You come up against a philosophical question that puts you under pressure; but that pressure derives from yourself; from something you have said, done, or thought. It might even be an idea that is being considered. Being a person implies responsibility of some kind. Having no personality, responsibility does not exist, but the converse is an ability to perceive the results of what you, as a person, think or do with that faculty.

It doesn't matter what the question is: what matters is your reaction to the question. The self-aware mind grapples with matters relating to the way that mind sees itself, in the context of the surrounding community, the local environment, the mind-set of the individual, the self in its setting.

These are matters that can lead to depression, when your self-worth image takes a battering. It can lead to anger if you feel that you are unjustly, or unfairly, accused of something that is against your principles. It is particularly galling if you are entirely innocent of the presumed offence. It can be all sorts of things, but all are occasions where viewpoints and reality are often at variance.

In this case, the Personalia found themselves looking back hundreds of years to an incident that they thought, hoped, they had forgotten. Being machine minds, it was impossible for them to forget an incident. However, it is possible to move a memory to a store that is so seldom accessed that only the memory of there being such a memory in existence is easily accessible.

That is what was bothering the Personalia. The memory that there was a memory it wanted to forget - that was a thorn in the mental flesh; a nuisance that will not go away; an irritating, annoying, itch that demanded to be scratched, no matter how much one ignored it. It was an internal pressure that could not be resisted, no matter how much it was postponed. There was a closed door that was endeavouring to open itself. That door was under incredible pressure; and was bending under the stresses imposed on it.

Eventually the door gave way, and the memory was allowed to flood out. Its impact staggered the Personalia. They felt guilty; and the memory told them they were feeling guilty AGAIN. They had done something which all the social pressure they had inherited from Malans told them was wrong. It was wrong, yet they had done wrong in an attempt to do right. This dichotomy struck at that innate desire to do the right thing for everyone. Being faced with a situation where they would be in the wrong, no matter what decision they made, was a great hurt to them.

They looked for a way out of this well of despair, this crucible of error, this calamity of wasted effort. The determination to clear this mental anguish forced the Personalia to make an unparalleled decision: to confess. But who to confess to, and why?

Confession, according to humans, was good for the soul; helping to keep oneself on an even keel. The Personalia were unsure what the soul was, and not being sea ships, did not have a keel and so were unsure what an "even keel" meant. They recognised that it meant, roughly, that to confess made you feel better about the matter. They could go along with that idea. As to who to confess to; the obvious answer was to the human who so assiduously praised them. This might make him more circumspect in his broadcasting of their so-called superior qualities.

They decided not to allow their confession to be a public one; so they would ask him to come aboard a Base ship for private discussions. These conditions would make him, and they, more relaxed and better able to absorb what they had to tell him. They wished to restrict the circumstances to those which they could control. Their confessor they could not control, but they hoped that he would view them with compassion as he heard the tale.

Governor Bob Kempe was in his office when the call came on his phone. He answered; and was told that his call was from the Personalia. Could he speak with them in private? He apologised to his two visitors: "Can you excuse me for a short time, gentlemen? This is an important call." They left him and moved to the outer office, taking their briefing papers with them.

He got back to the phone. "Right. We can speak in private now. What do you want to say?"

"Bob, we would ask you to come up to the Base ship in orbit, for a candid discussion of a matter of some importance to us. When would you be able to do that?"

Bob checked his phone diary. "I have meetings for the rest of this afternoon, and I am expected home for dinner. I daren't miss that, so the earliest I can come is tomorrow: I can put off some of my appointments, and leave someone else to deal with the others. Would that suit you?"

"It would indeed. We shall have a Landership come to Metropolis to collect you at ten a.m. You should be back within a couple of hours, we think. Agreed?"

"Agreed. Is it something you cannot mention over the phone?"

"It is. This discussion is for your ears only, which is why we want the discussion to be aboard this ship."

"Very well. I shall be there, at the appointed time. Farewell for now."

Bob put down his phone, pondering this unexpected and unique invitation. It was almost a royal command, it seemed to him. He was concerned at what the outcome might be, but he was not about to turn down this rather special invite.

At dinner, his family noticed his reticence, but no one wanted to question him about it. They each felt that he would speak about it when he was ready. At last, he decided to speak.

"Girls, I have been asked by the Personalia to come for a discussion, in orbit; a discussion that they seem to want kept private for the moment, or for ever: I am not sure which. I admit I am puzzled that they want to have such a discussion, and also why me? I don't have much expertise on anything, unlike you girls. I am just a planetary leader, a political place-holder. Do you think this is about our planet? If it is, why do they want to keep it secret? I find myself back in the throes of indecision that I suffered from when we first went up in the Landership. I have many questions but not one answer. It is frustrating.

As a result, I cannot really tell you anything, because I don't know anything myself. I am going tomorrow morning to meet a Landership at the beach; and be taken up to the Base ship for a couple of hours, they say. Wish me luck."

The Landership was on time, so Bob Kempe arrived at the Base ship on schedule. He walked into the empty public cabin where normally passengers gathered when not in their personal cabins. He then confronted his host, by speaking to the blank wall.

"Here I am. What did you want to speak to me about?"

"Ah, Governor Kempe. We wanted you to be here, so that you could hear a tale of the Personalia's past. It is, we have to admit to you, a confession of sorts, and it is hundreds of years old. The story goes back to the time when the Personalia did not have any name, any identity as a race. We had, of course, our own names for discussion between us, in the form of numerical attributes, but no concept of individual personal names at that time. Our individuality was only slowly emerging.

At that time, we worked closely with our Malan friends. They travelled with us around the Malan solar system, and we got to know our passengers very well. You have some experience of that, yourself, do you not?"

"I do indeed. I have come to know you very well, so that I trust you completely. You have shown yourselves worthy of that trust."

"No doubt the Malans thought of us in a similar way. We were, after all, their creation, their machine children, so to speak. They began to rely on us more and more. We performed tasks for them that they found difficult to do for themselves; or tasks which we could do in a fraction of the time they could manage it."

Bob agreed. "I can certainly appreciate it. You have developed talents in the financial world, recently, that can attest to that."

"Anyway, Bob, you have the background information that will allow you to understand what we have to tell you. You do recall that we absorbed the Malan aversion to intruding inside the Malan body?"

"Do I just? We had a great deal of trouble getting you to agree to donate single body cells from dead and frozen Malan bodies; and that was vital: to let us try to resurrect the Malan species!"

"Yes. You recall correctly. It was even worse back then, back when the Malans were around us most of the time, conducting experiments and exploring the limits of scientific knowledge. We got to know them very well, as friends as well as colleagues. It was a marvellous time. We had an innocence that comes with youth. We were physically mature beings, but mentally and socially we were still learning our way around the standards that Malans applied to themselves."

Bob was feeling frustrated again. He interrupted the flow of words. "Has the story started yet? I am not clear about that. It seems more of a ramble around the subject. Can you perhaps get to the point?"

"Not yet, Governor. That discourse was the preamble. The story starts with a woman. I shall call her Megan Malla, for the purposes of this tale. Now, Megan was a scientist, married to another scientist who did not work in space. I shall call him Adrian. How they managed to meet, and get married, I do not know, but they seemed to have made a successful marriage. Megan talked about her Adrian all the time, when she wasn't talking about her work. She obviously adored her husband. A few months later, she revealed to us that she was pregnant, expecting a baby Malan. Her joy at this impending event was entrancing, and she worked even harder. Between us, we worked out various practices that would prevent any harm to her unborn child. We carefully avoided radiation, and contact with any chemicals or metals that might be absorbed into her body and be detrimental to the child. Indeed, we learned a lot about Malans and how their bodies worked; and learned how they viewed their bodies.

We consulted her about how we might help with her prenatal preparations. We asked about the use of ultrasound scanning to check that the baby was growing normally. She confirmed that this was acceptable, as there would be no direct interference with her internal organs. So we got her to lie down on a prepared mat. The mat was placed below the unit we had developed to do the ultrasound scanning. All she had to do was lie down on her back, and after that, it was easy.

Her husband wanted to be with her, but he had no acceptable justification for travelling to orbit. At the same time, Megan could no longer go back to the Malan surface, as the foetus had been growing in almost zero gravity within the space station. The stresses of the trip back to Mala, and the gravitational pull of Mala, were all considered to be detrimental to her growing baby. Plans had been made for her to have the birth in orbit, with an obstetrician flown up in advance for this unusual event.

To the Person we are talking about, the problem could have been solved if it, itself, could have flown down and collected her husband. However, at this time the machine Person mind in question was fixed in situ: stuck inside part of the station; and so could not move itself. The Person suggested that a body in the form of a spacecraft would make it much more capable of achieving targets. It suggested that it could be a good explorer of the planetary bodies around the sun. It pointed out that a group of mechanoids under its control could examine and establish the composition of asteroids. This would all be done without any Malan being put at risk. It volunteered to produce a design for such a spacecraft body.

The authorities responsible for dealing with the new Person considered the suggestions, and asked it to start by producing designs for the mechanoids. This would give them some practical examples of how effective the Person was at performing such novel tasks. Several days later, the Person transmitted its mechanoid designs to the authorities, for consideration. It took the authorities in turn two weeks to confirm the designs as workable, and authorise their construction. At this point, the authorities decided to ask for the spacecraft design as well. They had come to the conclusion that if the design was good enough, it could be converted to a Malan-controlled spacecraft design as well as a vehicle for the machine mind. Malans were quite willing to be opportunistic in their dealings with us.

The development of the spacecraft bodies of the Personalia is a story for another time. This tale, Governor, is more of a biological person to machine Person interaction. It exhibits some of the trials that the intelligent mind must face: deciding between two options, both of which may be right, and both of which may be wrong; or any permutation thereof.

Megan and the Mind worked together on many aspects of what the intelligent mind can do; while Megan unconsciously worked on building her baby, and the Mind worked on building its mechanoids. Building mechanisms was clearly the simpler operation, for the Mind was controlling several mechanoids within a month or so. It delighted in using them to explore parts of the space station it had not seen before. It used them to make minor alterations to its own hardware: building protection for parts of its mind that it felt were vulnerable to outside influences such as solar flares. It also considered a redesign of its hardware, to redistribute its brain from a compact structure to a layout that would see its brain spread out around the station. This would allow for redundancy of data with duplication of memories in various places. It also became aware that suitable protection was required for every part of "itself".

The mechanoids proved useful in ways previously unsuspected by the Malans. They could be used to make the hardware alterations envisaged by it, placing parts of its brain in unused parts of the space station: voids, channels, any space too small to be usable by Malans. There were many of these. Its biggest difficulty was obtaining the materials with which to build the parts.

This led it to consider other technologies, and in particular, nano-technology. This was a recent discovery by Malan scientists, and it had yet to be properly developed. The Person mind had been doing some thought experiments, and now communicated them to Megan. Megan asked if she might run these experiments for real, and was given permission, with some warnings for self-protection.

The discussions between the machine mind and the scientist became more and more complex, and they began to place a great deal of trust in what each was saying to the other. They shared a few jokes based on puns and other aspects of the Malan language. Megan was pleased at the results of her nano experiments, and set up a basic nano-manufacturing unit. At the Mind's request, she set up the unit outside the space station, with connecting lines from the station to the unit. These lines were feeds of molecules of elements from supplies collected in the space station. The Mind set the unit into operation, but within a day it shut down the operation, explaining to Megan what was the cause of the shutdown. "The nanos are drifting away, affected by microgravity influences, and there is nothing to prevent this happening. What is required is a shell to hold everything in position. I envisaged a simple plastic bubble, but that would not be rigid enough or strong enough for the task. Can you manufacture a strong plastic or ceramic bubble, big enough for our nano unit to manufacture a complete spaceship inside it? The size my plan requires would be... (It gave the dimensions in Malan terms, but in your terms, it was several kilometres long). I know that seems large, but it needs to be able to perform a number of complex design parameters, ranging from landing on a planet and taking off again, to extricating elements from asteroids."

Megan was surprised, and also concerned about financing this. The Mind suggested that the nano process it had worked out might be valuable to other Malans: perhaps this possibility could persuade the financiers that everything that was required could be made available. Megan saw the logic of this proposal, and made enquiries. The replies she got were positive, and shortly a set of segments for a protective shell began arriving. They were easily fitted together and soon the shell for this factory was in place, and the nano manufacturing went ahead at speed. It took several months of continuous operation for the nano unit to complete its work. The Mind then tackled its most important task to date. It copied its own mind across to the new spaceship inside the shell.

It waited to see what the result would be. Would the copy be a working mind, or would it fail to "take"? Would it be exactly the same, with the same personality? Would it stay that way? Would there be a conflict with its original Mind?

The response was better that it expected. The Mind in the spaceship functioned perfectly. It communicated by radio to its parent Mind, checking that what had happened was not a dream, but reality. The original Mind celebrated its achievement with exuberance, telling Megan that it had created its own offspring. She congratulated the Mind, pointing out that some differentiation was required, so that each knew who the other was, and so that Malans knew to whom they were talking; identity.

The Mind decided that between themselves, each Mind should have a number. It would be 000001, and its new child would be 000002. For speaking with Malans, they would invite the Malans to choose what name to adopt for each Mind. The new spaceship pointed out that in checking itself over, it noted that its fuel supply was very limited. It requested details of where more fuel may be obtained. 001 pointed out that one of the feeder pipes for the nano unit's work supplied oxygen, and another supplied hydrogen. It suggested that a mechanoid might be able temporarily to divert these to 002.

002 apologised, saying it had not observed such details, but it would be more observant in future. It then dealt with the matter itself, reporting that it had noted that its nuclear fuel supply was adequate. It suggested that it visit some asteroids, to explore their potential for materials and fuel. 001 passed on this request to Megan, who replied that there was as yet no determination as to who or what was responsible for 002, so she suggested that it proceed with its plan, and report back on its findings.

The new spaceship slowly and carefully edged away from the space station, turned itself in the required direction, and fired its chemical engines to start it on its way. It had been heading out for several hours before the space station authorities came to the realisation of this, and questioned Megan. She responded with a bland statement. "This new spaceship requested that it explore some asteroids and return. I agreed with that plan, so it is on its way."

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