Credibility and Conflict in Lem's "The Inquest"

“The year is 2029, and machines will convince us that they are conscious and that they have their own agenda worthy of our respect. They will embody human qualities; claim to be humanand we’ll believe them. – Ray Kurzweil Perhaps Kurzweil slipped up when he put a date in his prediction. Perhaps he intended it to be more of a challenge than a guess. Ultimately, it separates the theorists, like Kurzweil, from the storytellers, like Stanislaw Lem. Lem’s “The Inquest” takes a glimpse into the future to show readers what it may look like some day.

He uses a futuristic setting to examine the possible role of machines in our daily lives. Conflict, credulity and human nature are at the forefront of this story, all of which allude to deeper meaning in today’s world. The level of robotics and AI in Lem’s “The Inquest” is not farfetched. That is to say, the story is not unconvincing, but simply exaggerated for our time. Though the events are assumed to be taking place in the future, Lem references no time period and forces the reader to blindly suspend disbelief. The premise of the story revolves around this fact, and gives the story its body as a work of science fiction.

The most relevant instance of computer exaggeration is in the supporting characters we meet: the non-linear officers of the Goliath. The main character, Commander Pirx, is known to be human, and must command a mixed group of humans and robots, not knowing the true identity of each. Here we have the story’s biggest assumption about AI in the future; that robotics and AI will be indistinguishable from human abilities and intelligence. This colossal inference about computer technology is only acceptable to the reader when coupled with the lack of a given time period.

Pirx is asked to command these two groups on a routine space mission, all the while making inference on their actions and interactions during a variety of real world tests. He is then to make a formal report to the creators of these machines to be used as a formal test result. The fact that Pirx cannot immediately distinguish between the humans and the robots implies that all the machines have passed the Turing test. Though this story is set in the future, this test is a standard by which we judge the intelligence of machines today, and gives us some insight on the level of AI that Lem implies.

Throughout the mission, Pirx is approached (both in person and on paper) by members of his crew who offer their opinions on the test and their inferences on the other crew members. These interactions produce conflicting information from the view of Pirx, making him assume some and doubt others. The only concrete evidence we are given about the crew’s identity comes towards the end of the story. Pirx confirms Calder’s non-linearity in recounting the robot’s plan to kill the humans on board the ship. This inference is the only connectivity we have between certain actions and a robot.

From this, we can deduce some other relations. Calder was the ship’s pilot. He was in control of the ship’s bearing and handling, a job that is of utmost importance to the ship’s safety. This is a job that cannot be taken lightly, and that requires a competent, skilled, and diligent operator. Giving such a job to a robot would put the ship and its crew at risk, unless the robot was able to handle every possible situation that could arise. Human pilots are aided by mechanical controls and a computerized system, but ultimately the craft rests in the skilled hands of the human operator.

People today would never allow commercial airplanes to be controlled solely by a machine. They would feel unsafe, since many people do not put faith in such machines. This story takes place in a time when these fears have been eliminated, even to the point that a robotic pilot could bring the ship back to port unaided in the case of a disaster. “at which time Calder, the sole survivor, would have risen to his feet, flipped the safety interlocks, and, in a cockpit full of corpses, begun heading home. ” The humans in this story trust the robots to perform immensely critical tasks without fail.

By doing so, they show that the level of the robots’ AI is drastically higher than that of robots today. Following from the previous argument, we can show that the mobility and manoeuvrability of the robots in this story is far beyond anything in the works today. The robots in this story have the ability to mimic humans in every way, including basic mobility in their everyday “lives”. This ability is understated, and is second only to their ability to reason and “think”. Take for example the motions taken while doing their jobs.

They must be able to perform tasks such as walking, handling objects, and balancing, all while performing all other actions (speaking, thinking, etc). This ability is only beginning to appear in today’s robotics. For instance, the ASIMO from Honda is a humanoid robot that can walk. The maximum speed of this robot is 1. 6 kilometres per hour. At this speed, the robot can just keep its balance and course steady. The robots in Lem’s story can walk as fast as humans, and can also run, since they are virtually indistinguishable from us. Also, the ASIMO can only function for thirty minutes on a full charge.

The robots in “The Inquest” can seemingly hold a charge for much longer (as no charging time is mentioned). This shows that the robotics demonstrated are much more advanced than those is use today. Finally, Pirx’s inquiries about the machines results in a fact from the public relations representative McGuirr regarding the computing power of the machines: “It’s a monocrystal multistat with sixteen billion binary elements! ” This statement quantifies the computing power of the robots. At sixteen billion binary elements, the machines are 250 000 000 times as powerful as a modern personal computer (with 64 binary elements).

Such computing power is unheard of in today’s world, pushing the story’s possible timeline further away from the present. In terms of the story’s credibility, there are two approaches. Following from the above arguments, the story is farfetched. Incredible advancements in technology would be required for such a story to become reality. In this sense, the story is not credible. On the other hand, willing suspension of disbelief can make such a situation seem possible, given ample time for computer and robotic advancements. So which is it?

Personally, I take the second route and believe that such a situation is possible, given the appropriate advancements in technology. As a student of computer science, I understand that automation is a goal of technology, and the situation on board The Goliath is one that many people in this industry hope will become a reality. One of the scenarios that I would have considered more credible is the idea of human machines. Some robotics professionals believe that the easiest way to create “robots” would be to blend the lines between man and machine.

There is belief that in the not too distant future, we will be able to have our bodies “enhanced” by means of mechanical implants or modifications. This is already apparent in today’s society in the form of prosthetic limbs. These advancements have come far from their beginnings, and have opened the door to other such enhancements. In his book The Age of Spiritual Machines,” Ray Kurzweil predicts that these devices will take many forms; from ocular implants for the blind, to nerve stimulators for the paralyzed and everything in between. The timeline set for these devices is before the year 2030 .

From this point, the distinction between man and machine becomes more and more difficult to make. There are some issues raised by this story that I feel serve to strain its credulity. First off, the developmental superiority of the robots compared to humans is unbelievable. Lem makes an effective point not to reveal the year in which this is set, as doing so would cause readers to extrapolate today’s technology and make educated attempts to discredit the story. Moreover, the fine details of the robots seem unbelievably fine tuned, from their use of human blood to their ability to consume food and drink merely to blend in more effectively.

In reality, these features would be considered only after the robot can perform its regular functions effectively. Their inclusion in this story further heightens the level of technology in these machines, and to me, seems to be a stretch. While Pirx on commanding the ship, he has four encounters with crew members. Three of these are face to face, and the fourth comes in the form of a letter. In these encounters, Pirx does not know whether or not the person he is speaking to is a human or a robot. This informal Turing Test proves the perfection of AI in this era.

More important here are the issues raised in the conversations. The main goal of the three conversations is for the robot to convince Pirx of a fact; that another crew member is linear or non-linear. These encounters appear to be coming from the crew themselves, as opposed to being pre-programmed into them by their parent companies. (It is important to note that none of the conversations included confirmed robots) For the first half of the story, the action focuses on the trial following the events aboard The Goliath. In this tribunal, the witness appears to have little to no rights at all.

The prosecutor will not allow anything to be inferred by the witness (who we later discover was a human member of the Goliath’s crew). Whenever the witness speaks anything of opinion or estimation, it is immediately stricken from the record: “The witness is out of order. Objection sustainedThe witness will abstain from any commentary and will quote the commander’s exact words. ” This obvious restriction on the witness’ testimony is a bit farfetched for such a hearing. In such a case, it is the responsibility of the jury to hear all testimony and make fair judgement on what is said.

Throughout the story, Lem raises certain issues regarding the nature of human behaviour. Humans have a quality we refer to as “human nature”, a definition that holds the trivial definition of “being imperfect”. Do machines have a similar nature about them? One would think not, as many of the follies that plague humans revolve around emotions and conscience. However it is also possible that machines suffer from a similar, yet opposite downfall; that of being too perfect. A point that is constantly enforced in movies and other fiction is that robots would have no sense of emotion or irrationality.

Though it is true that all machines must abide by the concrete rules set forth in their silicon, one must believe that with the seemingly infinite computational and storage capacity held by the robots in Lem’s story, they could evolve different interpretations of these rules. To illustrate this point, take the simple mathematical expression 1 + 1 = 2. This seems rock solid, and most people would be unwavering in their belief of this principle. To a machine, however, this could take on a few different meanings. In decimal mathematics (the base which most humans assume) this mathematical expression is true.

In binary, however, it is false (more accurately, this is undefined, as only the numbers 1 and 0 would be accepted). A machine would look at this and say 1 + 1 = 0, 1 + 1 = 1 or 1 + 1 = 11, depending on the computational logic it is told to follow. Here we have clearly illustrated that truth lies simply in the interpretation of a rule and different interpretations produce different results. Knowing this, we can make a more educated comparison of human behaviour and machine behaviour. The story revolves around the events on The Goliath during a routine mission; a seemingly random malfunction and the commander’s reaction to it.

Commander Pirx reflects on the situation after the fact and uncovers some information about Calder’s plan. Machines, for the most part, rely on rationality for their decisions. Being extremely proficient at mathematical computations, they can easily calculate the probability of a given situation and act accordingly. In the case of the booster malfunction, Calder took things one step further by analyzing every possible outcome of his plan. Knowing his intentions after the fact, Pirx ran some calculations (on a computer) to see what the results would be: I sat down at the computer to estimate the probability of an injection that would jeopardize neither crew nor ship. The result? A zero probability! In other words, Calder, using the elements of mathematical equations, had constructed a flawless system – a kind of murder machine, minus any leeway for navigational jockeying, a safety margin, or an escape hatch. ” This action on the part of Pirx confirms that Calder was obeying the laws of mathematics when he constructed his plan. In doing so, however, he didn’t account for the one element that eventually foiled his plan: human nature.

As defined above, human nature is a characteristic shared by all humans in that we are all imperfect in some aspects. Pirx admits that his imperfections saved his life in the following statements: “But I kept silent. In other words, we were saved and he was doomed by my lack of resoluteness, by that same bumbling human decency [Calder] had held in such bitter contempt. ” Calder was unable to account for human error in his calculations. Pirx did not know what to do, so he did nothing. A robot in Pirx’s situation would have performed the statistically correct action in the same situation, and Calder assumed that this would happen.

However, when Pirx stood there dumb, he unintentionally foiled Calder’s plan. The spoiler was mathematically immeasurable; Pirx’s brain. This reinforces the face that machine behaviour is based on statistical methods, rather than emotion and intuition. The point to discuss is the introduction of robot-human conflict. “The Inquest” is based on this conflict, and it brings to the forefront a number of issues in the field of AI. The first and most obvious conflict in the story is the basis of the inquest. Calder, a non-linear, had planned to kill everybody aboard The Goliath by performing a dangerous manoeuvre with the ship.

This manoeuvre would have introduced G forces so high that all humans aboard would be killed. The reasoning for this is unclear, but we can gain some insight from the letter that was written to Pirx by a self-proclaimed non-linear. In this letter, the robot attacks the human race for its actions in the past, attacks the systems by which we live: “Your world is a wasteland, your democracy a rule of connivers elected by cretins, and you’re alogicality manifests itself in your pursuit of the unattainable: you want the clock wheels to dictate the time. ”

The robot claims that our world is foolish, and is run by incompetent leaders. He bases this claim on a number of points, mainly our wars and religions. Though he makes a valid point, one can argue that misfortune shapes a people and serves to strengthen those remaining. A world without misfortune would be a bleak existence. “Take death for example. A great deal of our effort goes into avoiding it. We make extraordinary efforts to delay it and often consider its intrusion a tragic event. Yet we’d find it hard to live without it. Death gives meaning to our lives.

It gives importance and value to time. Time would become meaningless if there were too much of it. ” The point here is that the robot view is one of statistics, and a mathematically perfect world would not stay so for long. The chaos that we live in is a necessary parameter for our continued existence, and its removal, though ideal in the beginning, would satisfy the robots, but also would lead to more rebellion on the part of the newly oppressed. The main idea behind the robot-human conflict is one nested deep in the study of AI.

Many believe that machine evolution is inevitable, and that this course will eventually lead to a battle between the humans and the machines. Hollywood has done an excellent job instilling fear into the general population when it comes to robot domination. Movies like “The Terminator” and “I, Robot” have shown that when robots are allowed to think, they immediately turn to world domination. Though this view may be a tad farfetched, the idea still lingers. “If the computer-guided robots turn out to be our superiors in every respect, then will they not find that they can run the world better without the need of us at all?

Humanity itself will then have become obsolete. ” Another point to make is that with advanced machines aiding humans, we could solve some of the problems plaguing our race forever. Hunger could be abolished by the use of advanced growing techniques, or the advent of high-nutrition supplements. Agriculture could be aided by the use of robot workers tending the fields, making sure that growing conditions are continually perfect. These issues, among others, could be aided by the use of machines that are capable of thought and intuition. When computationally controlled robots reach the level of human equivalence’, then it will not take long, they argue, before they race enormously beyond our own puny level. Only then, these experts would claim, shall we have an authority with sufficient intelligence, wisdom, and understanding to be able to resolve the troubles of this world that humanity has created. ” There are many places where these machines could benefit the human race, but for most of them we will have to wait a number of years yet. The situations described in “The Inquest” do a great job in illustrating robot-human conflict.

Aided by the misconceptions of western society, Lem paints a vivid picture of futuristic conflict. He shows us one possible use of robots, and in turn, shows the implications of its misuse. The reader is left to decide on many aspects of this story, such as the time frame in which it is set, the true identity of the characters and the plausibility of the entire scenario, and as in any science fiction story, the events are to be taken for what they’re worth. The advancement of our society to this level seems farfetched to some, but to others it is this imagination that leads to innovation.


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