Monday, August 15, 2011

Old Flat Foot—Ross Willard

Old Flat Foot was, for me, the result of several seemingly unrelated ideas coming together.

One of the ideas was more of a question. In most of the literature that I read and the movies I watch, when a machine becomes self aware, it does so in large and impressive ways. Perhaps it decides that humans are no longer worthy of control of the planet, or that it no longer wishes to perform the task for which it was created. Both ideas are valid and have ample potential for rich story-telling, but neither really addressed the question that interested me the most: what would define machine sentience?

After pondering the question for a while I decided that in order to define a machine as sentient, not merely intelligent, but truly old-flat-footsentient, the machine would have to be able to make a mistake. Not just an error, but make a mistake, on purpose. Though I don't know a great deal about programming, I have spent years studying people, and thinking about what separates us from computers the most notable trait that we have is the ability to come up with excuses for unreasonable choices. From a machine's perspective, I decided, this would essentially be the same as deciding to malfunction.

The second idea that formed the foundation of this story came from my own personal experiences with bureaucracy. Having worked for a number of different companies over the years, I've witnessed a peculiar phenomenon in which companies attempt to standardize their services to such a degree that the employees could well be replaced by machines. Human beings become cogs in a machine, their personal choices and beliefs irrelevant, and their jobs reduced to scripts. Displaying the robotization of people, contrasted by, for lack of a better word, the awakening of robotic sentience, struck me as interesting.

The third and final idea that played into this particular story, was the old-flat-footquestion of how exactly a machine would show love. The concept of love is complicated enough that humans have been arguing over its exact definition for centuries. So, assuming that a machine could feel love, I wouldn't think that the machine would know exactly what it was feeling. So how would it communicate that emotion? The most interesting answer I could come up with was that the machine might attempt to 'give of itself' in a very real and literal way.

--Ross Willard

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