The Legend of King Minsky: an AI parable

Once upon a time, long ago but not that far away, there lived a king named Minsky.  His kingdom was prosperous and his citizens were contented, for the most part, but that was more than you could say for the king.  He had servants galore—chancellors of this and that, ladies and gentlemen in waiting, butlers, maids, footmen, all the way down to the scullery boy who carried out the trash.  But his servants never quite measured up to the king's expectations somehow.  The whole point of having servants, the king liked to say, was so you didn't have to worry about things.  He had enough to worry about already, because his wife the queen had died some time ago, leaving him with a young daughter to raise.  But the more servants he hired, the more problems he had with them.  His grand banquet was spoiled when the kitchen ran out of roast pig.  And the annual ball was a flop because the steward forgot to hire an orchestra.  So one day, when an itinerant magician came to the castle and offered to solve all the king's servant problems, the king was ready to listen.

"For one low price," the magician said, "I can give you the power to change your servants into perfectly obedient machines.  They'll look just like they do now, but you won't have to feed them or let them sleep or rest.  And they will do your every bidding exactly the way you want."

"Hmm," said the king.  "Sounds too good to be true."

"I have references!" said the magician.  And he pulled out a sheaf of letters written by kings of nearby kingdoms, some of whom King Minsky even knew.  They all swore by the magician's abilities and said they were delighted with what he was offering.

"Well, all right, how would it work?"

"We have several options."  After looking at the magician's brochure, the king chose the magic-touch option. 

"Excellent choice!  You won't be disappointed!"  And the king called for his treasurer, paid the high price asked by the magician, and duly received the power named in the contract.

Once the magician got his money, he seemed in a hurry to leave.  Before he went out the door, he called over his shoulder, "Don't forget to read the instructions!  Bye now!"  But the king never was much for reading instructions, and he couldn't wait to try out his new power.

The first place he went was the scullery, where he found the surly, dirty-faced scullery boy.  The king had never spoken to the boy and knew him only by sight.  But this time he walked right up to him and said, "Let me shake your hand!"  The boy held out a soiled hand for a handshake.

As soon as the king's hand touched the boy, something about the boy's face changed.  The surliness left it, but so did anything human.  "Boy," said the king, "I want you to wash your face and hands and do everything the cook tells you, without dawdling around."

In a toneless voice the boy replied, "Yes, Sire."  And the king was pleased to see that the change in the boy's behavior from that moment on was nothing short of miraculous.  Soon the whole kitchen was spotless because the formerly lazy scullery boy not only carried out the trash, but spent all his time cleaning up after everyone.

When he saw this change, the king couldn't wait to shake hands with the cooks and the butlers and the maids, one after the other.  The same thing happened to them.  Each one became the ideal servant.  The butler never dropped a plate again.  The cook never ran out of food, and the steward always remembered everything he needed to.  The treasurer quit making math errors in the accounts.  The king was very pleased with the results overall, although he wondered if he would miss the jokes that the treasurer was in the habit of telling.

Well, you can see where this is going.  Earlier that day, the governess had taken the king's daughter outside the castle for a picnic lunch.  The daughter's name was Persephone, and she was five years old.  Whenever Persephone saw her father, she'd raise her arms up and ask to be picked up, and he'd lift her up and put her on his shoulder for a while.  So that afternoon, the king was standing at his desk talking with the treasurer when the governess brought in Persephone.  King Minsky didn't have time to turn around before his daughter ran up behind him, saying, "Pick me up!" and grabbed him by the hand.

. . . I leave it to the reader's imagination to finish the story.  Needless to say, it doesn't end well, for either the king or his daughter.

At the present time, artificial intelligence (AI) is enjoying an unprecedented boom.  Corporations and governments worldwide are pouring billions of dollars into AI R&D, and products are hitting the market that promise to revolutionize life as we know it, from Siri-like robots to self-driving cars and more.  What the parable is intended to address is not so much any particular AI application, as it is meant to question the philosophy, mostly unspoken, on which much of AI work is based.

This philosophy treats human beings as simply "meat computers" that are no different in principle from a silicon-based computer.  The problem with this philosophy is that it is false. 

Beliefs issue in actions.  If I believe that you differ only in degree, and not in kind, from my cellphone, I am bound to treat you differently than if I believe (as I do) that there is a radical and provable fundamental difference between human beings and every other physically manifested being—animal, vegetable, or mineral.  This difference has many aspects, but in the space remaining I will concentrate on only one:  the ability of our intellects to form universal concepts. 

No computer will ever understand freedom, for example.  AI systems may some day imitate the conversation of an erudite scholar discussing freedom, but that does not mean, and cannot mean, that the computer understands the universal concept of freedom.  The proof of this point is too lengthy to give here, but is contained in Michael Augros' book The Immortal In You.  And I assure you, it is a proof that approaches the mathematical in its rigor.

Remembering this essential difference will be vital to all those who deal with AI innovations, products, and proposals in the future.  And forgetting this difference may land us in the same unenviable position King Minsky was in after his daughter grabbed his hand.

Sources:  If by some mischance you have never heard of the legend of King Midas, whose touch turned everything to gold, the Wikipedia entry about King Midas will remedy that defect in your education.  Michael Augros' The Immortal In You was published in 2017 by Ignatius Press.  For a brief summary of the argument for the immateriality of the intellect (which is why computers can't understand freedom), see the online resource by the late philosopher Mortimer Adler. And in case you are not familiar with famous names in AI, King Minsky is named for the early AI proponent and general gadfly Marvin Minsky (1927-2016).

Karl D. Stephan is a professor of electrical engineering at Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas. This article has been republished, with permission, from his blog Engineering Ethics, which is a MercatorNet partner site. His ebook Ethical and Otherwise: Engineering In the Headlines is available in Kindle format and also in the iTunes store.


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