The Advisory Boar

By Abhijit Menon-Sen <ams@toroid.org>

A Fairy Tale

1996-10-01

A short while ago, in a forgotten land, lived a fairy. She was, contrary to popular supposition, not young beautiful and kind, but fat, short, ugly and severe. Her land was a beautiful land, where everyone worked together for the good of the land and each other. This poor fairy protected her people from the charms of the evil, rich witch. The fact that the witch was evil should tell you all about her. She was a capitalist witch trying to destroy the economy of the land. Quite unlike her fiercely communist counterpart, the witch was slim, tall and beautiful. Several of the more impressionable workers fell under her spell and gave up their socialist ideals for more worldly ones. Since only the hard-headed party workers stuck to their ideals, the usually hard-working nation began to show signs of discord.

The fairy noticed something was amiss when her leprechauns began to show signs of disobedience and inefficiency, both of which the fairy hated. Unbeknownst to her, they were falling for the witch and her ideas. The usually docile leprechauns were fast being transformed into evil little entrepreneurs, ready to start production of capitalist propaganda booklets. After certain discreet enquiries, she came to the conclusion that someone was infringing on her territory. The poor fairy was, understandably, a member of the fairies' union. What this association lacked in funds, they made up for in goodwill and organisation. The fairy appealed to them for help against the rich witch. After lengthy deliberations, they decided to wage war. A nationwide emergency was declared and the process of liquidating the witch was begun. Several enthusiastic young members were overheard by the press saying that things would soon become too hot for the witch to handle. Of course, because of the emergency, they could not print this information.

This was not easy. The witch, after such an encouraging response from this land, had no intention of leaving. She had grown eviller and richer than ever, and commanded a large army. When she heard rumours about the attack, she flew in a whole contingent of junior capitalists (Shelved elves, limp imps, chrome gnomes, evil weevils and gobbling goblins).

The war, like many other wars, was very boring to watch. Though the fairies' union succeeded in sowing the seeds of discontent among the workers whose hearts the witch had so insidiously won over, the witch was strong enough to resist any uprisings. However, when the witch became old and fat from her profits, the workers drummed her out of the land. Her refusal to allow them to produce for anyone but herself shattered their dreams of a free market economy and gave them the courage to act against her.

After a brief session of massive restructuring, everyone breathed a sigh of relief at the once more orderly state of the land. The fairy returned triumphantly to her club, The Antibodies Association, while the witch and her cohorts plotted revenge at their club, Viruses and Bacilli Private limited.

Mew and Squeak

1996-01-01

In a small room in a small building, a man was playing god. The man was a brilliant scientist, but he was generally considered utterly insane. The institute had only accepted him with obvious reluctance. He had a small room in one of the smaller buildings at the institute. The building was full of long white corridors and featureless white doors. The whole place was incredibly silent and disorienting and intimidating. His room, unlike all the other extensively (and expensively) equipped ones, was completely bare when he got it.

True to his general image of insanity, the first thing he did was to paint the room black and paper over the window. He brought in a table, and placed it in one corner, brought in a computer and placed it on the table. He closed the door, and spent the rest of the day drawing what looked like a plan of the room. He spent an afternoon in a hardware store, and emerged with an incredible array of, well, hardware. He returned to his room and set to work, making his room look like a carpenter's shop. When he finished, he cleaned up the room. Vague outlines of his work began to emerge from behind a haze of sawdust. A gigantic pane of perspex covered most of the floor. Under this roof, an incredibly complex multi-level maze had been built. The sides of the maze were all black, and any one part of it closely resembled any other part. In the little remaining space inside the room, there was a device which resembled a production unit hooked up to the computer on the table, which is exactly what it was.

For the next week, he sat down at the computer and worked at some esoteric looking designs and several intimidating equations. Occasionally, he broke off to devour a soggy slice of pizza (with chocolate sauce). The production unit started chugging out something that looked vaguely like a post-impressionistic rendering of a cat. Then it produced something that did not look like a mouse. He looked at his creations dubiously, and then labelled them carefully, to avoid confusion as to their identities. That afternoon, he went to the pet shop and bought a cat and a rat. For the next month, he conducted a series of increasingly complex experiments with the cat, the rat and the maze. People who looked in occasionally shook their heads in disbelief at the man who knelt peering closely at a reflecting sheet of glass. After that, he worked for another month at his mechanical cat and mouse. At the end of it all he released them into the maze at different positions and started testing his creations.

He was mostly unsuccessful at first, but as he went on, the better his mechanical animals became. They managed to negotiate more and more complex mazes, mazes that changed while they were in it, mazes that had intentional distractions in it. With a startling lack of originality, they were affectionately called 'Mew' and 'Squeak'. They both got better and better at their cat-and-mouse game, until one day their creator had to acknowledge their intelligence and the fact that they were better than any known organism at solving mazes. He had created artificial life!

He got the Nobel prize for his work soon enough and became famous all over the world. His colleagues looked at him with respect and spoke with hushed voices whenever he was around. But he did not let all this get to his head, and continued work with mew and squeak, improving them and producing new models. He published papers and papers on their behaviour and intelligence. He conducted experiments on collective intelligence and competitiveness, on emotions and the evolution of intelligent behaviour.

Though he had made several new models of mew and squeak, he still harboured unscientific and rather illogical feelings of attachment towards the originals. One afternoon, he decided to leave the lab and go home to rest. He shut down the computer, removed Mew and Squeak from the maze, switched them off and locked them in a cabinet. Then he walked out of his room, carefully locking the door behind him.

He walked down the blank white corridor, took the left door at the far end, then turned right and walked down the stairs...