Monday, November 19, 2007

A Brief Anecdote Featuring Robert Sheckley

I only met Bob Sheckley a few times, maybe half a dozen over the course of a decade or so. Most of those times were in the company of a certain person who had a regular convention habit of sharing a certain illegal herbal product with Bob and other cohorts. I’m leaving out all identifiers, therefore, not because I think said person would mind, but simply because of politeness and discretion.

Euphoria leads to chatting and speculation, and at one point I mentioned to Sheckley my notion of “simulated intelligence.” The idea there is that while actual intelligent machines seem to be damn difficult to make, it appears that it’s pretty easy to fool people into thinking that something is intelligent when it actually isn’t. For the record, I was thinking of the early computer program Eliza, which didn’t exactly pass the Turing test, but did have some fraction of the people who dealt with it think it to be a person.

At the dark heart of all the is the notion first that people are easily fooled, and second that we all have spent a certain amount of time pretending to be smarter than we really are.

By way of explanation, I suggested that you might have several robots, a cooking robot, a nanny robot, and a medic robot, each with a simulated intelligence for its assigned task. But having the wrong one “clean and dress” a wound, or “clean and dress” the baby, might lead to some unfortunate results.

Sheckley told me, “That’s a pretty good start, but to make that a classic Sheckley story, you’d need to have at least such three situations, each building on the previous one, but more extreme, then you’d need the final twist that reversed everything that the reader had been expecting.

And I thought, “Crap! He’s got me dead to rights.” Much later, I realized that I’d also been pretending to be smarter than I really was, and Sheckley had, ever so politely, brought that to my attention.

Still, the simulated intelligence idea has some merit. Besides, I’ve just had a parallel universes idea that might have the right stuff, even down to the reverse twist at the end. The real question though, is would anyone buy a new Sheckley story, now that Bob himself is gone?


airira said...

Actually, yes.
I was a close friend of Bob's and I have already written one story starring Bob himself which I read at Bob's one year memorial here in Portland (December, 2006). I am also working on several others in the same milieu.
In fact, Bob's wife, Gail, and I have talked about the idea of an anthology of Sheckley-style stories written by other writers.
Best of luck to you.

James Killus said...

Good to know and I'm pleased to make your acquaintance, even if it's only by htp/ip packet delivery.