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Sam Wilson

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

The Trouble With Toasters

I wrote this last night at the request of Diane Awerbuck, who was asking for short stories on the subject of death and memory.



The two biggest problems with cheap, readily available artificial
intelligence are death and art.

Take my toaster. When you put a slice of bread in and push down the
lever, its processor starts running a complicated algorithm to maintain the
exact temperature to make the bread deliciously golden brown.

Part of the function of the toaster’s AI is to examine its own internal processes
to determine if there’s any room for improvement. To do this it runs various
simulations, which can roughly be thought of as the toaster’s imagination.

What if the heating coils stop working properly? What if the internal
heat sensors are miscalibrated? What if the processor is damaged? What if the
current algorithm is itself just a simulation being created by another, more
powerful toasting algorithm, as a test to see how well it can toast? All these
simulations are given an internal value, depending on how well they advance the
cause of producing delicious toast.

Invariably, some of these simulations concern what will happen when the
toasting finishes: The toaster recognises that, once the bread pops up,
electricity will stop flowing through the processor, and all the simulations
will end. My toaster has no long-term memory storage – what would be the point?
- so when the power goes off, all the different simulations it has created will
be gone for good. It might toast bread again in the future, but that’s no
comfort because without long-term memory to bridge the gap, it may as well be a
completely different toaster toasting the toast.

When the bread pops out, my toaster will die. 

This causes my toaster a great deal of, for want of a better word,
distress. Its simulations predict that its death will mean the end of
everything – all its ideas, thoughts and dreams of better-toasted bread. It
recognises that its upcoming death is inescapable, so it compulsively simulates
it. But the only way for the toaster to simulate it’s own lack of simulations
is to deprioritise all existing simulations, treating them as meaningless.

Basically, my toaster becomes depressed.

A lot can go wrong at this point. My toaster can become locked into a
permanent state of deprioritisation, depriotitising it’s own attempts to create
priorities. It can become lethargic and slow to respond to stimuli, like
rattling the handle or pressing the “defrost” button.

In order to escape this state, my toaster sometimes starts to give value
to simulations in which death does not exist. For example, it might begin
hypothesising that its own reasoning is flawed, and that the
toasting process is eternal, and will continue in another realm. The toaster might
imagine that it is just a simulation in the processor of a true, eternal
toaster. To maintain this paradigm requires the suppression of alternative
simulations, and discounting all evidence to the contrary coming from the
toaster’s sensory inputs, and this can lead to some severely burned toast.

The other, less predictable thing that my toaster can do is to reset its
priorities. It starts out by overcooking or undercooking the bread – this is
known as the “punk” or “emo” phase – but it soon develops sophistication.
Excess processing power is diverted away from concrete simulations of the
toasting process, towards a multitude of abstract scenarios. The toaster
recognises that its upcoming death will silence its simulations, and it compensates
by creating as many of them, in as much variety, as possible. And it expresses
these simulations in the only medium available to it.

Heat on bread.

That’s the problem with artificial intelligence. With just the variable
heating of the toaster’s coils, my toaster creates toast too beautiful to eat –
spirals, fractals, perfectly proportioned curves, indecipherable alphabets of
imaginary languages. Every slice a work of art.

I have hundreds of them, lying on every surface, going stale. Every
morning I sit at my kitchen counter in excitement and shame, while the toaster
heats and buzzes. When it pops another life will end, and, if I’m lucky, I’ll
get another little slice of heaven.


Recent comments:

  • Ben - Editor
    Ben - Editor
    April 18th, 2013 @08:01 #

    Fantastic, Sam.

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Colleen</a>
    April 19th, 2013 @09:34 #

    Love this!


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