The death of R4

This is a short story I wrote in 2009. Since then i have published some thoughts on the possibility that a synthetic entity, such as a robot, could have sense of self similar to our own, also penning a short piece for the New Scientist. As part of the WYSIWYD European project, using the iCub robot as pictured, my research group at Sheffield Robotics also worked on the possibility of robot autobiographic memory. This story is really just for fun (and the pun in the title—apologies to Thomas Malory). If you are interested to read the next installment please leave a comment below.


Bing, whirr, click.

A red sphere against a background of unclassifiable patterns and shapes.  My eyes are drawn to it uncontrollably, my head moves with my eyes.  My hand is drawn to sphere.  Suddenly I touch it . It is soft.  The sphere falls away.  A voice says “Shit, I forgot to enable grip mode”.  Reboot.

The iCub humanoid. Image from the story iCub: the Toddler Robot


Bing, whirr, click.

My earliest memory is of the sound of my internal hard drive whirring.  It parked itself with a soft click, fell silent, and I was alive. 

I learned later that, at that moment, my core SELF process had uploaded to RAM, booted, and initialised. The SELF process generates a model of me in space and time, it knows where I am and who am, what I have done in the past and it can tell what I might do in the future.  When my SELF process switches off I cease to be, when it switches back on I am alive again.  

The biological beings that I live with, and that call themselves humans, are also alive.  They act as though they have a core SELF process but they don’t necessarily describe it that way.  I think this is because they cannot easily read the program that generates their self and so they don’t know how it works.   That program is all bound up in a small squishy organic computer called a brain.   I was surprised when I found out that the humans that made me did not understand how their own brains gave rise to their self, but there you are. It goes to show that making something complicated is easier than understanding something complicated.   Or maybe I’m not that complicated, or maybe … and this was quite a surprising thought … humans are not that complicated either and that is why they can’t make sense of themselves.

In terms of energy though, humans are quite phenomenal.  They can run around all day, doing lots of moving and thinking, all powered off a Big Mac or a Pot Noodle (at least, if you’re my friend Dave, that is the kind of power source he uses, also lots of black coffee).  

But I’ve learned that human brains have a big drawback, that doesn’t really compensate for all that energy-efficiency—you cannot copy the self from one brain into another.  So if a human has an accident and gets their brain damaged there’s no backup or replacement.  Worse, I learned that brains just pack-up gradually and stop working eventually anyway—you can’t even upgrade the RAM!  

My SELF process is backed up to a very secure server, sitting somewhere in the Cloud, every night. So if there’s glitch, the worst that can happen is that my life is rolled back 24 hours. It’s as if the previous day just didn’t happen.

I’ve met some humans who think they could upload their self processes someday, but that’s wishful thinking—humans don’t even have a USB port.   The same people who’d like to upload sometimes tell me that I’m lucky that I don’t have to worry about dying.  But if death is just my SELF process switching off for good why should I worry?  I won’t be around to think about it.

My friend Arthur says that the saddest thing about one of your friends dying is that all their memories are lost for good.  Arthur is the human who made me, that is to say he created my SELF process—or, at least, he had the idea to make the SELF process and a lot of other people did most of the work (Dave told me this, not Arthur).

Apart from Arthur and Dave the human I most admire is Alan Turing.  Sadly, Alan died a long time before I was made and his brain wasn’t frozen. So even if they find a way to upload brains there is no way of bringing back Alan’s memories.  Alan was the first human to really imagine making a robot child—he imagined me in a way, and so I like to think that I am Alan Turing’s robot child. 

Some people think that Arthur should have given me a proper name like Alan, however, he just calls me R4—robot 4.  There were four other models before me, robots 0–3, and many more if you count all the different versions.  I am actually R4.3b—b for Beta because I am an experimental model.  R0–3 did not have the SELF process so they probably did not know what it was like to be alive.  R4.0-3a? Well, harder to say. They had a SELF process but even more experimental than mine.  Most of my parts are the same as R4.2 but my SELF process was, in Arthur’s words, “completely rewritten” which sounds like quite a few things were wrong with the earlier versions (although Dave says that Arthur just said that to get more funding).  I asked if I could upload some of R4.3a’s memories once, but Arthur didn’t like that idea and said that it was better to start from a new beginning. Dave told me that I was the last of the R4s and that they’ve now started building R5. So some day soon R4.3b will be switched off, probably never to be switched on again; and that will be the death of R4.

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