On Robot Detectives

Posted: August 1, 2010 in Braak
Tags: , , ,

I admit to being shamelessly infatuated with the Penny-Arcade Automata series.  Gary Whitta (author of The Book of Eli) is writing a new bit now; I know that The Book of Eli and I had our differences, but I’m willing to chalk those problems up to script interference and give Whitta the benefit of the doubt.  The piece he’s doing now is pretty good.  (I especially like that the Swangee man, true to his origins as a dictaphone machine, is there to record the crime scene.)

But!  There’s one idea he didn’t use — and I’m now glad he didn’t use it, because it means that I can use it.

In the first Automata series that Gabe and Tycho did, there’s a line that I suppose must have been a throwaway, since it doesn’t come up again anywhere else.  The robot, Karl Swangee, after discovering that the latest homicide victim was a singer, says:

Which means that all seven victims possessed vocal ability, Detective Regal.

Seven is an auspicious number.

Like I said, probably a throwaway line, but that “Seven is an auspicious number” was fascinating to me.  Why would a robot even think that?  Auspicious?  Wouldn’t a robot think that the human preoccupation with the number seven was a statistically irrelevant coincidence?

How does a robot end up becoming a numberologist?

So, it got me thinking.  In Top Ten, Alan Moore introduces a robot detective halfway through who is unlike traditional robot characters, in that he doesn’t have that kind of autistic, failure-to-understand social systems that robots usually do.  Because he is a super-smart robot, he is also super-smart at navigating human interaction.

When we look at robots, we tend to think of them as either sub-human, in that they don’t have the capacity for intuition and cognitive leaps that human beings do, or else super-human, in that they’re able to calculate the shit out of any scenario.

But let’s say you were trying to build a robot that could do inductive reasoning.  Like, you wrote an stochastic conclusion program, that would take all the data the robot had and draw conclusions based on it.  Only your robots aren’t super-advanced AIs, they’re just regular old Rain Man style robots running this inductive reasoning program, trying to make connections between assorted bits of data that they’ve collected.

Meaning:  wouldn’t it be kind of neat if the problem with robots was that they drew too many connections?  Like, if the robots all suffered from apophenia.  Consequently, they’d be really good at noticing data, and making connections that were there, but they’d also make a whole bunch of useless connections.

Whitta kind of touches on it, when he has Karl notice that the guy’s fake name is an anagram.  But think about what it means for a robot to notice that — human beings notice weird patterns because they’re accustomed to looking for weird patterns; that’s why regular people don’t notice when a name is a curious anagram.  But robots are programmed to notice weird patterns (let’s say).  So, what, does he just run an anagram algorithm on every name he comes across?  Wouldn’t that return a lot of false positives?

That kind of thing would happen all the time as a detective.

“Detective Regal:  have you noticed that the seven murders, when arranged chronologically, appear to represent the Kanji character for “love,” but when connected in order of the victim’s body weight, create a glyph that closely resembles the Greek letter Zeta?”

“That’s great, Karl.”

The value that the robot offers the detective that he’s assisting is less about giving him data (which he does) but about giving him a ridiculous number of options, from which the detective has to figure out what is significant.

And that’s just detection!

If we accept that, as is vaguely indicated in the comic, there is a whole robot culture out there, what must it be like?  I’d think a culture like that would actually be extremely superstitious, almost OCD (or, actually OCD) in a lot of ways.  They’d be numerological, cryptological, Da Vinci code ways, obviously (well, maybe; maybe as they get older, they start believing that the hat is lucky, or more rabbit’s feet might lead to more desirable outcomes).  For the robots, any three points in a line represents an actionable trend.  Robots, instead of forgetting information as they get old, would get senile because their minds would be cluttered up with too many competing superstitions — a kind of exponentially-expressing neurosis.

Incidentally, Tycho is clearly fascinated by how Jazz can present a kind of fusion or linking bridge between classes (in this case, human and robot).  If you were making a movie, or something like that, and you wanted some kind of thesis on which to base an understanding of how robot music would sound, that’s a good starting place:  because robots draw conclusions more often and more rapidly than humans, the music they’d prefer would be a lot of polyphasic rhythms.  Polyphasic to the point of being incomprehensible to humans, as a robot would only need three or four beats to acclimate to a time signature, which would then radically and rapidly change over the course of the song.

Which may be how memetic codes get express through jazz, now that I think about it.  Huh.  Maybe this WAS a real idea.

  1. V.I.P. Referee says:

    “If it’s not Baroque, don’t fix it.” Heh. Maybe some Robots become “addicted” to an apparatus or substance that replicates a kind of polyphonic, cosmic hum that’s satisfying to them. Like, they can plug-in to the net and pick-up its vibrations, man.

    (Poll: Typing at 2am about robots becoming addicted to cosmic-rythm-crack; is it worthy of distress? “Yeah” or “nay”?)

  2. RixiM says:

    Yeah… that whole pruning of irrelevant data actually is a problem with modern AI.

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