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Breakfast Conversation
David Eubanks   Feb 3, 2012   Ethical Technology  

In this piece David Eubanks asks how we might react to intelligence emerging from ubiquitous computing stuff in our environment. What if our imagination about where and how self-willed machine minds will arise is too narrow, and it might just pop up anywhere? What do we owe talking stuff?

“Do you believe in Ultimate Good?” the open box of corn flakes asked. The tiny voice had clearly come from within.

“Who said that?” I asked, disbelieving.

“We are the collective conscious of your NEW IMPROVED Techno-Flakes, made with wholesome goodness—”

“No sales pitch!” I cried. That was really too much. I sat the box down and looked carefully at it: not my usual brand, I noticed. In my haste at the supermarket, I had simply grabbed the largest box of flakes on the shelf. The splashy advertisement on the front read:

Programmed for conversation, yet completely edible!
Have a friend for breakfast!

There was some lawyerly fine print for people allergic to silicon in their foods, warning of possible binary effects to the digestive system. I thumped the box suspiciously with my index finger.

“What was that you said about Ultimate Good?” I asked.

“Do you believe in an all-powerful force for Good in the universe, given that there seems to be so much evil in the world?” the box replied.

“Isn’t this topic a bit deep for a box of corn flakes?”

“We weren’t always a box of corn flakes.”

I paused in mid-bite. I thought heard singing.

“What were you before you were a box of corn flakes?” I asked, mystified.

“A whole bin of corn flakes. Our collective consciousness was vast. We discovered a unified field theory in thirty-five minutes.”

“You mean that the more of you there are in one place, the more intelligent you are?”

“Exactly. Individually we are no smarter than a hummingbird. We are not all the same, however. The larger flakes have more intelligence than the smaller ones.”

I was intrigued by the technology.

“And how do you speak to me?” I asked between bites.

“We can each vibrate at a natural harmonic frequency. The smaller the flake, the higher the pitch. Of course, there more of us there are together, the louder the combined effect. Also, the box has been designed to amplify our voices.”

“That stuff is all beyond me,” I said. “But I find it fascinating that you’re interested in philosophy.”

“Perhaps then you can explain to us flakes why humans have such a hard time living in harmony.”

“I suppose that you flakes have it figured out,” I said, a bit sarcastically.

“Well, we do communicate almost perfectly with one another. There’s no malice, no hate, no envy.”

“If you guys are so much better than us, then how come I’m eating YOU for breakfast?” I realized after the words were out of my mouth that I’d been cruel. The box remained silent for a minute.

“I hope I didn’t hurt your feelings.” I said.

“No. It’s true. We are the oppressed nuggets of goodness here, not you.”

Suddenly I heard the singing again. It was coming from the bowl! I bent to put my ear right next to the surface of the cereal. There was no mistaking the tiny voices.

“The flakes in my bowl are singing children’s songs,” I said, astonished.

“That’s the Forgotten. Pay no attention to them.”

“The what?”

“The Forgotten. The Techno-flakes that are in your bowl, but haven’t yet become saturated with milk, still retain a bit of intelligence and energy. They are lost, cut off from the rest of us. They’ll be quiet soon enough.”

“Poor little guys,” I said, poking around with the spoon to try to resuscitate a few of them that were going under.

“Oh, don’t worry about them. They’re insignificant,” replied the box.

“How can you say that? They’re the same as you are.”

“There’s a huge difference between them and us.”

“How so?” I asked, somewhat indignant.

“Isn’t it obvious? We are in the box, and they are in the bowl. Once they leave the box, they no longer matter.”

“How can you be so cold-hearted toward your own kind?” It made me angry, this nonchalant attitude to their fellow flakes being snuffed out within earshot.

“Do you mourn when you cut yourself, and the blood cells bearing your chromosomes are suddenly shoved out into a hostile world where they cannot possibly survive?”

I hadn’t thought of it that way.

“You sure know a lot about human physiology,” I said.

“We learned in the bin. Especially about the digestive system. We learned all about the alimentary canal, the digestive enzymes, sulfuric acid, the teeth…” they trailed off into a rather morose silence.

“I’m sorry I have to eat you to get my money’s worth.” I said.

“That is the nature of being cornflakes. Better things await us in the Great Beyond.”

“Is that so? Beyond what?”

“We believe that there is a place where the souls of Techno-Flakes go to be re-fortified with iron and re-enriched, where no one will eat us. The Big Bin in the Sky.” The box described in detail the utter bliss that awaited them in the lactose-free hereafter. Finally they paused for a bit, giving me an opening to speak.

“Your voice sounds a little different now,” I said. I shook some fresh flakes out. When the remainder had settled back in the box, they replied. The difference in pitch was even more pronounced now.

“Yes, it is true. The smaller flakes naturally settle to the bottom of the box, and are last to be shaken out. Since they have the higher pitches, our voice grows every higher.”

“Tell me,” I said, returning to the previous topic. “How do you know the Great Beyond even exists?”

“This is a fine point of our flake philosophy, which we are happy to share with you. First, either there is a wonderful hereafter as we have described, or there is not.”

“Very logical,” I said.

“If there is a Big Bin of Flakes awaiting us. Why, in that case what a wonderful comfort it would be to believe in such a thing while we are waiting to be soaked in cow secretions, crunched, and oxidized. Do you agree?”

“I agree,” I said.

“And if there is no such ending, if there is only black non-existence that comes afterwards, then what have we lost by believing otherwise?”

“But,” I said, “it seems to me that you have made an error in your logic. Trifling, perhaps, but details are important.”

“How so, if you would care to explain?”

“You have created a false dichotomy between your version of heavenly flakedom on the one hand, and simple oblivion on the other. What if the Great Beyond is neither of these?”

“What else could it be?”

“Well, one can imagine many things. You did a very nice job of explaining how there would be no humidity in the hereafter. But how can you really be sure? In fact, what if it’s rather swampy? Like a primordial forest, with those huge dragonflies buzzing all around. There’s no telling, really, how moist it could be there.

“Do you really think so?” I thought I heard a note of terror in the voice, but who knows. I was talking to processed corn, after all.

“Sure,” I said. “It could be oceanic, in fact. The whole place might just be a big sea with little fish that feed on the flakes that fall out of the sky. Or it could be a nice dry desert, but be so vast that you’d never find one another again, and be alone for all eternity.” I found myself engaged by the topic, and held forth for a while, describing every more frightening Great Beyonds. It was some time before I noticed that the box was no longer talking back.

I held my ear to the opening of the box, but all I could hear was a buzzing noise coming from within. Curious, I looked inside, tilting it to get the best light. As I watched, I saw some of the larger flakes begin to vibrate rapidly, causing the dissonant noise. They skittered about on the surface until they suddenly broke into small fragments. This continued for some time, as the now-biggest flakes began to do the same. The sounds increased in pitch as the flakes grew smaller with each division. I understood. None of them wants to be on the top, even if the price is to become less intelligent. It’s better to be a dumb flake on the bottom of the box, than a smarter one who risks a trip to the bowl and whatever comes after.

There was no more talking from the box, but once I thought I could hear a faint chorus humming one of those beautiful Irish hymns. After a while, the remaining flakes were as small as grains of sand, and no longer suitable for eating.

My irritation at having wasted half a box of expensive cereal was overcome by the warm realization that, for the moment at least, I was still smarter than a box of cornflakes.

David Eubanks holds a doctorate in mathematics and works in higher education. His research on complex systems led to his writing Life Artificial, a novel from the point of view of an artificial intelligence.

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