Mew and Squeak

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

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...