The ‘Why’ Behind B

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May 23, 2024

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Anastassia Lauterbach

B from Romy and Roby book series.

“The only great export item from Russia has always been emigration,” B. often repeated to The Girl, Romy, and Roby when they visited him and his Samowar in the tiniest house of Newmarket, a little town close to the Alps.

B. was born in Moscow in 1958, a year after the World Festival of Youth and Students, when tens of thousands of young people came from all over the globe to celebrate friendships and a new era of coexistence between East and West based on mutual recognition. His childhood was happy. He loved playing Cossacks-Robbers with a gang of his schoolmates, listening to how Yevgeniy Yevtushenko and Adrey Voznesensky read their poems at the Mayakovsky statue or helping his mother to queue for boots, soap, or pork sausages. He remembered his Mum saying that the only queue one should never join was to see the cadaver or a murderer. She meant the compulsory queue to the Lenin Mausoleum, of course, and he understood not to repeat this wisdom to anyone on the playing ground.

B. excelled at collecting old paper from the neighbours to gather a coupon for buying one or two books by James Fenimore Cooper or Mayne Reid. In return for old copies of “Pravda,” he imitated any voice heard on the radio. Hence, people kept their waste paper for him to pick up. B. was in the second grade when Moscow witnessed a trial of Yuly Daniel and Andrey Sinyavsky. Still, he has never forgotten his mother, a professional interpreter from French and German, sobbing in the corner of the kitchen of their communal apartment, a place they shared with four further families. He remembered how she took out an old suitcase and hidden a 1962 copy of “Novy Mir,” a literary magazine, inside it. “They will forbid Alexander Solzhenitsyn again,” she said. She was right. “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” has never been mentioned in his school.

At fifteen, B. surprised his mother by running away and trying to enter the School of Submarines without success. She did not punish him but bought him a manual on building radio equipment. At 17, he passed the exams to join Moscow Aviation Institute to become a radio engineer. At the same time, he engaged in a self-education program, learning German, French, and Polish from the books his mother kept in the suitcase under her bed. At the same time, he got interested in philosophy and the history of literature. His book of poems, “While Queueing For Something,” circulated secretly in Moscow. His poem “A Literature Nobel For Sovjet Jokes” was denounced as anti-Sovjet. He was declared a social parasite and exiled into the Archangelsk region to work on a farm.

When he returned five years later, he found his mother’s grave and their room occupied by a former neighbour, so he needed to live in a five-square-meter room in a dorm. At 22, he resumed his studies in radio engineering and was granted a degree two years later. The faculty sent him to work for the Pulkovo Observatory without realizing that he was already a member of the clandestine Human-Right organization, the Helsinki Group. (It was initially set up in 1979 to monitor compliance with the international Helsinki Accords from August 1975 and report Soviet human rights abuses.)

B. was denounced to the authorities by his colleague, put into a mental hospital, diagnosed with sluggish schizophrenia, and, after extensive treatment with neuroleptics, asked to leave the country. He departed to West Berlin with a one-way ticket and a handbag containing one PJ, one brown suit, a toothbrush, and five volumes of Samoylov, Pushkin, and Hemingway, Faulkner, and Salinger in Russian translation. Once he landed and registered, he took a bus to the cemetery in Berlin Tegel to visit the grave of Vladimir Nabokov, a member of the Provisional Government and father of the famous writer of “Lolita” and “Pale Fire.” Ever since, whenever going to a new city, he researched about Russian emigrants visiting and maybe dying there. “Nothing is as beautiful as San Michele,” he repeated with passionate certainty, referring to the cemetery in Venice, a place of graves of poet and essayist Joseph Brodsky, a medicine and father of Russian Ballet Seasons Serge Diaghilev, and composer Igor Stravinsky.

B. spent one year in Western Berlin working for the Technology University working as a mechanical engineering lab technician, and occasionally translating for the city’s criminal police department before one encounter changed his life. He worshipped music and attended a concert by Herbert von Karajan, who conducted Mussorgsky, Ravel, and Wagner. He was lucky to receive an autograph from the grand maestro, who spotted his old shoes and inquired what he was doing for a living. The evening ended in a Berlin bar, with shots of iced vodka, stories, and discussions on Shostakovich. One week later, B. arrived in Salzburg and started working in the ORF Landesstudio 1 as an audio engineer on a new technology, the compact discs, which von Karajan endorsed only a few years earlier.

In 2024, when B. joined the Romy & Roby family, he was already retired.

His early interest in philosophy and literature and his dissident past brought him to study ethics. In the first year of his retirement, B. went to the United States for the first time. He visited Princeton to attend lectures by Stephen Kotkin on Stalin. Kotkin served as the director of the Russian and Eurasian Program. Accidentally, he saw an open lecture announcement for Peter Singer, Professor of Bioethics. A vegetarian for over two decades, B. swallowed Singer’s “Animal Liberation” (1975) overnight. Since then, he has never missed any of Singer’s publications. Romy’s ability to speak, as supernatural as they might have appeared, didn’t surprise B. in the slightest.

In only a couple of weeks, B. became a close family member. Enormously knowledgeable about literature and philology, he often discussed poetry and language with Mum. “Russian is a language providing a lot of freedom to poets and writers to play with the word order,” he used to say. He told Mum about Andrei Belyi, a Russian symbolist Poet, and Mathematician, who wrote an essay on the deviations of Russian iambic verses following mathematical rules. 2

While observing Roby’s evolving abilities, he started to ponder what kind of ethical considerations might apply to someone like him. For him, it was only a question of time before Social Robots moved into schools, shops, entertainment, and medical facilities and became human companions. Knowing and appreciating Singer’s work on Animal Welfare made B. consider whether some of this research would cross-pollinate the nascent Technoethics field, especially regarding Artificial Intelligence and Robotics.

In further volumes of “Romy and Roby,” we will discover what kind of books on animal cognition and behaviours influenced B.’s thinking and contributed to his view on theories of intelligence and consciousness. In the picture, he reads an English translation of Ludwig Huber’s “The Rational Animal.” Ludwig’s work and views are featured in the Episode Nine of the podcast, “AI Snacks with Romy & Roby.”

Let’s name a few sources that enabled B.’s views on machine ethics.

The first ethical code for AI systems was introduced by Isaac Asimov in 1942.
The famous science-fiction writer formulated his “Three Laws of Robotics” in “Runaround.” In “Robots and Empire” (1986), these were complemented by a fourth law. Altogether, the four laws are as follows: 3

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to be harmed;
  2. A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the first law;
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the first or second law;
  4. A robot may not harm humanity or, by inaction, allow humanity to suffer harm.

Undoubtedly, the laws in place could not anticipate all the complexities and scenarios that arise from human interaction with intelligent machines. In “Romy and Roby and the Secrets of Sleep,” B. doesn’t doubt Roby is as alive and intelligent as any other family member.

In the third part of “Romy and Roby and the Secrets of Sleep,” Roby recovers from his injury, which he suffered in the fight with the fraudster Dr. Green. Mum’s colleague, the Lab’s CTO, talks about Roby creating knowledge and – while arguing that – puts him into the context of David Deutsch’s theories and studies.

B. is a long-term fan of David Deutsch, a visiting professor of physics at the Centre for Quantum Computation, part of the Clarendon Laboratory at Oxford University, and an honorary fellow of Wolfson College, Oxford. Deutsch works on fundamental issues in physics, particularly the quantum theory of computation and information, especially constructor theory, which he proposes as a new way of formulating laws of nature. Deutsch is considered the father of quantum computing.

B. loves David’s books, “The Fabric of Reality” and “The Beginning of Infinity.” Deutsch believes that knowledge creation is the most significant phenomenon in the Universe. As he points out, knowledge is highly underestimated, and its creation must follow the same structure around the Universe or the multiverses.

The family sees Roby as capable of creating new explanations. Explanations are statements about what there is, what I do, and how and why. This ‘why’ makes Roby unique. It makes him the only machine capable of comprehending something and creating new explanations. Without the ability to develop new explanations, current AIs cannot build fundamental knowledge.

Once machines are capable of explaining – and hence – become universal constructors or knowledge creators – humans must change the ways they treat them. In Deutsch’s opinion – and B. is very aligned with this view – it would be unethical to enslave such intelligent machines.

In the second book, “Romy and Roby and the Power of Cure,” B. will rise in prominence while arguing that humans must develop an engineering framework to avoid suffering in intelligent machines. He will rely on the writings of Thomas Metzinger, who claimed in 2013 that society should adopt, as a fundamental principle of AI ethics, a rule against creating machines capable of suffering. Metzinger’s argument is simple: suffering is wrong; it is immoral to cause suffering, and therefore, it would be immoral to create machines that suffer. 

We will see how B. applies winning arguments from bioethics to the creation of AIs. At the same time, he will contribute to solving pressing issues related to modern data technologies.

While the story moves forward, B. will develop a theory on how to avoid data and algorithmic biases in the context of AI. Besides, he will wonder whether embedding Large Language Models into any AI application might enable better documentation and, hence, explainability of this application.

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1 Interview with Matthias Röder, Managing Director of The Karajan Foundation, May 11 2024

2 See Nila Friedberg, Constraints, Complexity, and the Grammar of Poetry. From the boo ‘Formal Approaches to Poetry.”

3 See here.


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romy and roby and the secrets of sleep book cover

Book 1

Romy & Roby And the Secrets Of Sleep.

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