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Michelangelo’s Chisel

The Renowned Computer Scientist lectured too close to the Great Lecture Hall’s badly tuned PA system’s microphone, his popping glottal stops tapering into buzzy reverb and irksome lispy squeals. He appeared to have cut his own hair with scissors several sleeps prior and not tended to it since. He was, if not pubescent, then very cleanly shaven. Blackheads and pimples punctuated his jaw line like coded instructions. His crinkled navy seersucker jacket struck me as an upscale restaurant’s evening loaner in the context of his shiny dun cords as he peered through horn-rimmed spectacles. In the contingency of confrontation by a machine in need of guidance, a thin stack of punch cards bowed slightly in the confines of his shirt pocket. The clock behind the lectern read 3:25. Wherever it was being written, my test was almost over. Fuck psychology, I thought. Fuck death and dying.

The Renowned Computer Scientist was engaged in saying, “Let us consider the example of chess. Today a computer can play a perfectly legal, almost credible, game of chess. It knows the rules, can examine thousands of possible positions and make defensible decisions based on predetermined values.”

I yawned. Not because I was sleepy, but because everyone else’s yawning had reduced oxygen levels in the room.

“But,” he continued with a piercing squawk of feedback, “it will never play the game as we understand and experience it. It will never cherish the art of chess. It will always play by rote. Yes it might become adept at following instructions, but it will always just be following instructions. And so although it’s not out of the question that a very powerful and”—and here he spread his arms as though to take a bow or perhaps be crucified, then thrust out his bony chest as if to receive a medal—“properly programmed computer might someday challenge and even on occasion defeat an expert, the machine itself could take no more credit for its achievement than could, for instance, Michelangelo’s chisel.” Here he paused to let the beauty of his metaphor sink in and give our ears a rest.

In the ensuing silence I realized that the obscenities bombilating in my head were in fact also dribbling and sputtering from my lips. A girl stoically scribbling in a spiral notebook to my right, and three quarters of whose ninetieth percentile volume of body fat appeared distributed between her knees and hips, shifted away from me as best she could. But I have always hated when religious vanity hobbles scientific imagination.

“A computer,” he continued, “is a calculator. It can manipulate data according to prescribed steps to arrive, predictably and consistently, at other data. But it will never make that transcendental leap of faith.” Here he paused to discreetly scratch his nose.

“Proceeding with the example of chess,” he continued after examining his fingernail, “a computer might determine that some tactical sequence of exchanges and checks can win a knight, but it will never intuit—as in feel—that it is worth sacrificing a knight to increase strategic pressure on an opponent’s queenside. A computer might find the correct move; but it will never discover the underlying truth of a position. And”—and here again he paused to prepare us for something exceptionally profound—“as creative, living beings, we know the correct decision is not necessarily the best.”

At this juncture, his epiphanies now too poignant to bear, he removed his thick glasses to rub his eyes. Though the Great Lecture Hall was designed as an amphitheater so that, even standing, at the nadir of its concavity he was lower than the majority of us, speaking as from the bottom of a broad tureen or weak gravity well, it was as though he looked down on us. And we up at him in reverent appreciation. “No tool,” he finally said returning his eyewear to his face, “shows so clearly what it means to be human.” Blinking, he cast his gaze heavenward that further truths might rain down on him. After a painful moment there came sporadic applause that failed to ignite from a handful of ancient academics sitting mostly in the front row. Probably philosophers.

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1 Redstone Science Fiction #2, July 2010 | Redstone Science Fiction { 07.01.10 at 12:58 am }

[…] Michelangelo’s Chisel by Christopher […]

2 The Great Geek Manual » Free Fiction Round-Up: July 5, 2010 { 07.06.10 at 4:03 pm }

[…] “Michelangelo’s Chisel” by Christopher Miller at RedStone Science […]

3 Matthew Sanborn Smith { 07.07.10 at 12:59 am }

Great story. I loved that everyone in the story bought into that future. Thanks!

4 Christopher { 07.08.10 at 8:19 am }

Thank you, Matthew. For reading and for your kind remarks.

Thank you too, Sarah, for your complimentary remarks regarding the piece over in your essay thread.

5 Heating Up | The Blog at GateTree { 07.09.10 at 9:35 pm }

[…] us the traffic push we needed. The stories we published are quite good. I love the weirdness of Michelangelo’s Chisel and the clever metafiction of Elevator Episodes in Seven Genres. Quality essays and our science […]

6 J.R. MacLean { 09.01.10 at 7:41 am }

Nice work, Chris. Enjoyed it thoroughly.