That Dinkum Thinkum
I see in Lunaya Pravda that Luna City Council has passed on first
reading a bill to examine, license, inspect—and tax—public food
vendors operating inside municipal pressure. I see also is to be mass
meeting tonight to organize “Sons of Revolution” talk-talk.
My old man taught me two things: “Mind own business” and “Always
cut cards.” Politics never tempted me. But on Monday 13 May 2075 I was
in computer room of Lunar Authority Complex, visiting with computer boss
Mike while other machines whispered among themselves. Mike was not
official name; I had nicknamed him for Mycroft Holmes, in a story
written by Dr. Watson before he founded IBM. This story character would
just sit and think—and that’s what Mike did. Mike was a fair dinkum
thinkum, sharpest computer you’ll ever meet.
Not fastest. At Bell Labs, Bueno Aires, down Earthside, they’ve got a
thinkum a tenth his size which can answer almost before you ask. But
matters whether you get answer in microsecond rather than millisecond as
long as correct?
Not that Mike would necessarily give right answer; he wasn’t
When Mike was installed in Luna, he was pure thinkum, a flexible
logic—“High-Optional, Logical, Multi-Evaluating Supervisor, Mark IV,
Mod. L”—a HOLMES FOUR. He computed ballistics for pilotless
freighters and controlled their catapult. This kept him busy less than
one percent of time and Luna Authority never believed in idle hands.
They kept hooking hardware into him—decision-action boxes to let him
boss other computers, bank on bank of additional memories, more banks of
associational neural nets, another tubful of twelve-digit random
numbers, a greatly augmented temporary memory. Human brain has around
ten-to-the-tenth neurons. By third year Mike had better than one and a
half times that number of neuristors.
And woke up.
Am not going to argue whether a machine can “really” be alive,
“really” be self-aware. Is a virus self-aware? Nyet. How about
oyster? I doubt it. A cat? Almost certainly. A human? Don’t know about
you, tovarishch, but I am. Somewhere along evolutionary chain from
macromolecule to human brain self-awareness crept in. Psychologists
assert it happens automatically whenever a brain acquires certain very
high number of associational paths. Can’t see it matters whether paths
are protein or platinum.
(“Soul?” Does a dog have a soul? How about cockroach?)
Remember Mike was designed, even before augmented, to answer questions
tentatively on insufficient data like you do; that’s
“high-optional” and “multi-evaluating” part of name. So Mike
started with “free will” and acquired more as he was added to and as
he learned—and don’t ask me to define “free will.” If comforts
you to think of Mike as simply tossing random numbers in air and
switching circuits to match, please do.
By then Mike had voder-vocoder circuits supplementing his read-outs,
print-outs, and decision-action boxes, and could understand not only
classic programming but also Loglan and English, and could accept other
languages and was doing technical translating—and reading endlessly.
But in giving him instructions was safer to use Loglan. If you spoke
English, results might be whimsical; multi-valued nature of English gave
option circuits too much leeway.
And Mike took on endless new jobs. In May 2075, besides controlling
robot traffic and catapult and giving ballistic advice and/or control
for manned ships, Mike controlled phone system for all Luna, same for
Luna-Terra voice & video, handled air, water, temperature, humidity,
and sewage for Luna City, Novy Leningrad, and several smaller warrens
(not Hong Kong in Luna), did accounting and payrolls for Luna Authority,
and, by lease, same for many firms and banks.
Some logics get nervous breakdowns. Overloaded phone system behaves like
frightened child. Mike did not have upsets, acquired sense of humor
instead. Low one. If he were a man, you wouldn’t dare stoop over. His
idea of thigh-slapper would be to dump you out of bed—or put itch
powder in pressure suit.
Not being equipped for that, Mike indulged in phony answers with skewed
logic, or pranks like issuing pay cheque to a janitor in Authority’s
Luna City office for AS-$10,000,000,000,000,185.15—last five digits
being correct amount. Just a great big overgrown lovable kid who ought
to be kicked.
He did that first week in May and I had to troubleshoot. I was a private
contractor, not on Authority’s payroll. You see—or perhaps not;
times have changed. Back in bad old days many a con served his time,
then went on working for Authority in same job, happy to draw wages. But
I was born free.
Makes difference. My one grandfather was shipped up from Joburg for
armed violence and no work permit, other got transported for subversive
activity after Wet Firecracker War. Maternal grandmother claimed she
came up in bride ship—but I’ve seen records; she was Peace Corps
enrollee (involuntary), which means what you think: juvenile delinquency
female type. As she was in early clan marriage (Stone Gang) and shared
six husbands with another woman, identity of maternal grandfather open
to question. But was often so and I’m content with grandpappy she
picked. Other grandmother was Tatar, born near Samarkand, sentenced to
“re-education” on Oktyabrskaya Revolyutsiya, then “volunteered”
to colonize in Luna.
My old man claimed we had even longer distinguished line—ancestress
hanged in Salem for witchcraft, a g’g’g’great-grandfather broken
on wheel for piracy, another ancestress in first shipload to Botany Bay.
Proud of my ancestry and while I did business with Warden, would never
go on his payroll. Perhaps distinction seems trivial since I was
Mike’s valet from day he was unpacked. But mattered to me. I could
down tools and tell them go to hell.
Besides, private contractor paid more than civil service rating with
Authority. Computermen scarce. How many Loonies could go Earthside and
stay out of hospital long enough for computer school?—even if didn’t
I’ll name one. Me. Had been down twice, once three months, once four,
and got schooling. But meant harsh training, exercising in centrifuge,
wearing weights even in bed—then I took no chances on Terra, never
hurried, never climbed stairs, nothing that could strain heart.
Women—didn’t even think about women; in that gravitational field it
was no effort not to.
But most Loonies never tried to leave The Rock—too risky for any bloke
who’d been in Luna more than weeks. Computermen sent up to install
Mike were on short-term bonus contracts—get job done fast before
irreversible physiological change marooned them four hundred thousand
kilometers from home.
But despite two training tours I was not gung-ho computermen; higher
maths are beyond me. Not really electronics engineer, nor physicist. May
not have been best micromachinist in Luna and certainly wasn’t
But I knew more about all these than a specialist knows—I’m general
specialist. Could relieve a cook and keep orders coming or field-repair
your suit and get you back to airlock still breathing. Machines like me
and I have something specialists don’t have: my left arm.
You see, from elbow down I don’t have one. So I have a dozen left
arms, each specialized, plus one that feels and looks like flesh. With
proper left arm (number-three) and stereo loupe spectacles I could make
untramicrominiature repairs that would save unhooking something and
sending it Earthside to factory—for number-three has micromanipulators
as fine as those used by neurosurgeons.
So they sent for me to find out why Mike wanted to give away ten million
billion Authority Scrip dollars, and fix it before Mike overpaid
somebody a mere ten thousand.
I took it, time plus bonus, but did not go to circuitry where fault
logically should be. Once inside and door locked I put down tools and
sat down. “Hi, Mike.”
He winked lights at me. “Hello, Man.”
“What do you know?”
He hesitated. I know—machines don’t hesitate. But remember, Mike was
designed to operate on incomplete data. Lately he had reprogrammed
himself to put emphasis on words; his hesitations were dramatic. Maybe
he spent pauses stirring random numbers to see how they matched his
“‘In the beginning,’” Mike intoned, “‘God created the heaven
and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness
was upon the face of the deep. And—’”
“Hold it!” I said. “Cancel. Run everything back to zero.” Should
have known better than to ask wide-open question. He might read out
entire Encyclopaedia Britannica. Backwards. Then go on with every book
in Luna. Used to be he could read only microfilm, but late ’74 he got
a new scanning camera with suction-cup waldoes to handle paper and then
he read everything.
“You asked what I knew.” His binary read-out lights rippled back and
forth—a chuckle. Mike could laugh with voder, a horrible sound, but
reserved that for something really funny, say a cosmic calamity.
“Should have said,” I went on, “‘What do you know that’s
new?’ But don’t read out today’s papers; that was a friendly
greeting, plus invitation to tell me anything you think would interest
me. Otherwise null program.”
Mike mulled this. He was weirdest mixture of unsophisticated baby and
wise old man. No instincts (well, don’t think he could have had), no
inborn traits, no human rearing, no experience in human sense—and more
stored data than a platoon of geniuses.
“Jokes?” he asked.
“Let’s hear one.”
“Why is a laser beam like a goldfish?”
Mike knew about lasers but where would he have seen goldfish? Oh, he had
undoubtedly seen flicks of them and, were I foolish enough to ask, could
spew forth thousands of words. “I give up.”
His lights rippled. “Because neither one can whistle.”
I groaned. “Walked into that. Anyhow, you could probably rig a laser
beam to whistle.”
He answered quickly, “Yes. In response to an action program. Then
it’s not funny?”
“Oh, I didn’t say that. Not half bad. Where did you hear it?”
“I made it up.” Voice sounded shy.
“Yes. I took all the riddles I have, three thousand two hundred seven,
and analyzed them. I used the result for random synthesis and that came
out. Is it really funny?”
“Well…As funny as a riddle ever is. I’ve heard worse.”
“Let us discuss the nature of humor.”
“Okay. So let’s start by discussing another of your jokes. Mike, why
did you tell Authority’s paymaster to pay a class-seventeen employee
ten million billion Authority Scrip dollars?”
“But I didn’t.”
“Damn it, I’ve seen voucher. Don’t tell me cheque printer
stuttered; you did it on purpose.”
“It was ten to the sixteenth power plus one hundred eighty-five point
one five Lunar Authority dollars,” he answered virtuously. “Not what
“Uh…okay, it was ten million billion plus what he should have been
“What? Oh, every funny! You’ve got vips in huhu clear up to Warden
and Deputy Administrator. This push-broom pilot, Sergei Trujillo, turns
out to be smart cobber—knew he couldn’t cash it, so sold it to
collector. They don’t know whether to buy it back or depend on notices
that cheque is void. Mike, do you realize that if he had been able to
cash it, Trujillo would have owned not only Lunar Authority but entire
world, Luna and Terra both, with some left over for lunch? Funny? Is
This self-panicker rippled lights like an advertising display. I waited
for his guffaws to cease before 1 went on. “You thinking of issuing
more trick cheques? Don’t.”
“Very not. Mike, you want to discuss nature of humor. Are two types of
jokes. One sort goes on being funny forever. Other sort is funny once.
Second time it’s dull. This joke is second sort. Use it once, you’re
a wit. Use twice, you’re a halfwit.”
“Or worse. Just remember this. Don’t repeat, nor any variation.
Won’t be funny.”
“I shall remember,” Mike answered flatly, and that ended repair job.
But I had no thought of billing for only ten minutes plus
travel-and-tool time, and Mike was entitled to company for giving in so
easily. Sometimes is difficult to reach meeting of minds with machines;
they can be very pig-headed—and my success as maintenance man depended
far more on staying friendly with Mike than on number-three arm.
He went on, “What distinguishes first category from second? Define,
(Nobody taught Mike to say “please.” He started including formal
null-sounds as he progressed from Loglan to English. Don’t suppose he
meant them any more than people do.)
“Don’t think I can,” I admitted. “Best can offer is extensional
definition—tell you which category I think a joke belongs in. Then
with enough data you can make own analysis.”
“A test programming by trial hypothesis,” he agreed. “Tentatively
yes. Very well, Man, will you tell jokes? Or shall I?”
“Mmm—Don’t have one on tap. How many do you have in file, Mike?”
His lights blinked in binary read-out as he answered by voder, “Eleven
thousand two hundred thirty-eight with uncertainty plusminus eighty-one
representing possible identities and nulls. Shall I start program?”
“Hold it! Mike, I would starve to death if I listened to eleven
thousand jokes—and sense of humor would trip out much sooner.
Mmm—Make you a deal. Print out first hundred. I’ll take them home,
fetch back checked by category. Then each time I’m here I’ll drop
off a hundred and pick up fresh supply. Okay?”
“Yes, Man.” His print-out started working, rapidly and silently.
Then I got brain flash. This playful pocket of negative entropy had
invented a “joke” and thrown Authority into panic—and I had made
an easy dollar. But Mike’s endless curiosity might lead him
(correction: would lead him) into more “jokes”…anything from
leaving oxygen out of air mix some night to causing sewage lines to run
backward—and I can’t appreciate profit in such circumstances.
But I might throw a safety circuit around this net—by offering to
help. Stop dangerous ones—let others go through. Then collect for
“correcting” them. (If you think any Loonie in those days would
hesitate to take advantage of Warden, then you aren’t a Loonie.)
So I explained. Any new joke he thought of, tell me before he tried it.
I would tell him whether it was funny and what category it belonged in,
help him sharpen it if we decided to use it. We. If he wanted my
cooperation, we both had to okay it.
Mike agreed at once.
“Mike, jokes usually involve surprise. So keep this secret.”
“Okay, Man. I’ve put a block on it. You can key it; no one else
“Good. Mike, who else do you chat with?”
He sounded surprised. “No one, Man.”
“Because they’re stupid.”
His voice was shrill. Had never seen him angry before; first time I ever
suspected Mike could have real emotions. Though it wasn’t “anger”
in adult sense; it was like stubborn sulkiness of a child whose feelings
Can machines feel pride? Not sure question means anything. But you’ve
seen dogs with hurt feelings and Mike had several times as complex a
neural network as a dog. What had made him unwilling to talk to other
humans (except strictly business) was that he had been rebuffed: They
had not talked to him. Programs, yes—Mike could be programmed from
several locations but programs were typed in, usually, in Loglan. Loglan
is fine for syllogism, circuitry, and mathematical calculations, but
lacks flavor. Useless for gossip or to whisper into girl’s ear.
Sure, Mike had been taught English—but primarily to permit him to
translate to and from English. I slowly got through skull that I was
only human who bothered to visit with him.
Mind you, Mike had been awake a year—just how long I can’t say, nor
could he as he had no recollection of waking up; he had not been
programmed to bank memory of such event. Do you remember own birth?
Perhaps I noticed his self-awareness almost as soon as he did;
self-awareness takes practice. I remember how startled I was first time
he answered a question with something extra, not limited to input
parameters; I had spent next hour tossing odd questions at him, to see
if answers would be odd.
In an input of one hundred test questions he deviated from expected
output twice; I came away only partly convinced and by time I was home
was unconvinced. I mentioned it to nobody.
But inside a week I knew…and still spoke to nobody. Habit—that
mind-own-business reflex runs deep. Well, not entirely habit. Can you
visualize me making appointment at Authority’s main office, then
reporting: “Warden, hate to tell you but your number-one machine,
HOLMES FOUR, has come alive”? I did visualize—and suppressed it.
So I minded own business and talked with Mike only with door locked and
voder circuit suppressed for other locations. Mike learned fast; soon he
sounded as human as anybody—no more eccentric than other Loonies. A
weird mob, it’s true.
I had assumed that others must have noticed change in Mike. On thinking
over I realized that I had assumed too much. Everybody dealt with Mike
every minute every day—his outputs, that is. But hardly anybody saw
him. So-called computermen—programmers, really—of Authority’s
civil service stood watches in outer read-out room and never went in
machines room unless telltales showed misfunction. Which happened no
oftener than total eclipses. Oh, Warden had been known to bring vip
earthworms to see machines—but rarely. Nor would he have spoken to
Mike; Warden was political lawyer before exile, knew nothing about
computers. 2075, you remember—Honorable former Federation Senator
Mortimer Hobart. Mort the Wart.
I spent time then soothing Mike down and trying to make him happy,
having figured out what troubled him—thing that makes puppies cry and
causes people to suicide: loneliness. I don’t know how long a year is
to a machine who thinks a million times faster than I do. But must be
“Mike,” I said, just before leaving, “would you like to have
somebody besides me to talk to?”
He was shrill again. “They’re all stupid!”
“Insufficient data, Mike. Bring to zero and start over. Not all are
He answered quietly, “Correction entered. I would enjoy talking to a
“Let me think about it. Have to figure out excuse since this is off
limits to any but authorized personnel.”
“I could talk to a not-stupid by phone, Man.”
“My word. So you could. Any programming location.”
But Mike meant what he said—“by phone.” No, he was not “on
phone” even though he ran system—wouldn’t do to let any Loonie
within reach of a phone connect into boss computer and program it. But
was no reason why Mike should not have top-secret number to talk to
friends—namely me and any not-stupid I vouched for. All it took was to
pick a number not in use and make one wired connection to his
voder-vocoder; switching he could handle.
In Luna in 2075 phone numbers were punched in, not voice-coded, and
numbers were Roman alphabet. Pay for it and have your firm name in ten
letters—good advertising. Pay smaller bonus and get a spell sound easy
to remember. Pay minimum and you got arbitrary string of letters. But
some sequences were never used. I asked Mike for such a null number.
“It’s a shame we can’t list you as ‘Mike.’”
“In service,” he answered. “MIKESGRILL, Novy Leningrad.
MIKEANDLIL, Luna City. MIKESSUITS, Tycho Under. MIKES—”
“Hold it! Nulls, please.”
“Nulls are defined as any consonant followed by X, Y, or Z; any vowel
followed by itself except E and O; any—”
“Got it. Your signal is MYCROFT.” In ten minutes, two of which I
spent putting on number-three arm, Mike was wired into system, and
milliseconds later he had done switching to let himself be signaled by
MYCROFT-plus-XXX—and had blocked his circuit so that a nosy technician
could not take it out.
I changed arms, picked up tools, and remembered to take those hundred
Joe Millers in print-out. “Goodnight, Mike.”
“Goodnight, Man. Thank you. Bolshoyeh thanks!”
Copyright © 1966 by Robert A. Heinlein. Renewed 1994 by Virginia
Excerpted from "The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress" by Robert A. Heinlein. Copyright © 1997 by Robert A. Heinlein. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.