Saturday, August 16, 2008

Murray Leinster's "A Logic Named Joe" (short story, artificial intelligence, humor, free): Exploits of a super-intelligent but ethics-less AI


Fact sheet.

First published: Astounding Science Fiction, March 1946 (as by Will F Jenkins).
Rating: A
Added to the list of stories from Campbell's Astounding.
Download full text, or MP3 audio (dramatized).
Related: All stories of Murray Leinster.

I liked this story because it's a fun & light read - sometimes hilarious. But that's not the normally cited reason when I looked up others' posts on the story - it's the technology prophesy (see below) in the story that gets often cited.

Story summary.

It's the story of Joe, a machine with an interface somewhat akin to a modern internet-connected PC. A manufacturing defect has turned Joe into a very competent AI - but one without any sense of human morals or ethics, or of survival.

At some level, there is a similarity with Jack Williamson's "With Folded Hands". Machines in both stories are in service of humanity - though with different motives. Both lead to undesirable results.

Joe is neither malevolent not benevolent. It just wants to stay busy - so it infects every computer on the public network to offer a very useful service to their human users: ask any question, & Joe will answer it!

Chaos reins as Joe begins offering very effective advise on how to murder someone or rob a bank without getting caught, what the bank balance of your neighbor is, design of a device that will brainwash the population of a city to adopt your religion, ...!!

"Ducky", the narrator & "a maintenance man for the Logics Company" who earns his living "servicing logics", will ultimately identify Joe & take it out of system by seeking Joe's own help.

Technology prophesy.

The oft-cited distinguishing feature of this apparently very famous story is: it describes something akin to modern internet-connected PCs. The story was written when neither the word "computer" nor "software" were in widespread use. In fact, the story uses the word "logic" to describe both the computer & the software.

While there is justification for this praise, it foretells future only in the sense of Jules & Michel Verne's "In The Year 2889": wild & intelligent imagination imposed on foreseeable technology.

Computers of this story, where any details are provided, are in fact very outdated; what is up to date is the effect & the way they are used - something where even modern systems have some catching up to do.

You need to tinker with hardware to change programs - like in Arthur Clarke's "The Nine Billion Names of God". While a lot of families have one of these machines at home, they are big clunky things - except for a rather modern viewscreen/keyboard interface (no pointing device or GUI). A big "tank" holds the guts of the system, & "plates" in it store data. If you have physical access to the machine, you can switch the power on/off. When on, it's always connected to the sole big worldwide network - no way of disconnecting it from network, or connecting it to a different network! There is a notion of user identity, but apparently the machines believe you won't lie. "Censor-circuits" built into the machine filter the kind of information it will reveal (ha ha).

These prophesies may be of interest to computing historians. For me, the fun part is reason enough.

Collected in.

  1. Murray Leinster's "A Logic Named Joe" (collection).
  2. "The Best of Murray Leinster" (ed J J Pierce).