Engineering Ethics Blog: The Legend of King Minsky: An AI Parable


Once upon a time, long ago but not that far away, there
lived a king named Minsky.  His
kingdom was prosperous and his citizens were contented, for the most part, but
that was more than you could say for the king.  He had servants galore—chancellors of this and that, ladies
and gentlemen in waiting, butlers, maids, footmen, all the way down to the
scullery boy who carried out the trash. 
But his servants never quite measured up to the king’s expectations
somehow.  The whole point of having
servants, the king liked to say, was so you didn’t have to worry about
things.  He had enough to worry
about already, because his wife the queen had died some time ago, leaving him
with a young daughter to raise. 
But the more servants he hired, the more problems he had with them.  His grand banquet was spoiled when the
kitchen ran out of roast pig.  And
the annual ball was a flop because the steward forgot to hire an
orchestra.  So one day, when an
itinerant magician came to the castle and offered to solve all the king’s
servant problems, the king was ready to listen.

“For one low price,” the magician said, “I
can give you the power to change your servants into perfectly obedient
machines.  They’ll look just like
they do now, but you won’t have to feed them or let them sleep or rest.  And they will do your every bidding
exactly the way you want.”

“Hmm,” said the king.  “Sounds too good to be true.”

“I have references!” said the magician.  And he pulled out a sheaf of letters
written by kings of nearby kingdoms, some of whom King Minsky even knew.  They all swore by the magician’s
abilities and said they were delighted with what he was offering.

“Well, all right, how would it work?”

“We have several options.”  After looking at the magician’s
brochure, the king chose the magic-touch option. 

“Excellent choice!  You won’t be disappointed!”  And the king called for his treasurer, paid the high price
asked by the magician, and duly received the power named in the contract.

Once the magician got his money, he seemed in a hurry to
leave.  Before he went out the
door, he called over his shoulder, “Don’t forget to read the
instructions!  Bye now!”  But the king never was much for reading
instructions, and he couldn’t wait to try out his new power.

The first place he went was the scullery, where he found the
surly, dirty-faced scullery boy. 
The king had never spoken to the boy and knew him only by sight.  But this time he walked right up to him
and said, “Let me shake your hand!”  The boy held out a soiled hand for a handshake.

As soon as the king’s hand touched the boy, something about
the boy’s face changed.  The
surliness left it, but so did anything human.  “Boy,” said the king, “I want you to wash
your face and hands and do everything the cook tells you, without dawdling
around.”

In a toneless voice the boy replied, “Yes,
Sire.”  And the king was
pleased to see that the change in the boy’s behavior from that moment on was
nothing short of miraculous.  Soon
the whole kitchen was spotless because the formerly lazy scullery boy not only
carried out the trash, but spent all his time cleaning up after everyone.

When he saw this change, the king couldn’t wait to shake
hands with the cooks and the butlers and the maids, one after the other.  The same thing happened to them.  Each one became the ideal servant.  The butler never dropped a plate again.  The cook never ran out of food, and the
steward always remembered everything he needed to.  The treasurer quit making math errors in the accounts.  The king was very pleased with the
results overall, although he wondered if he would miss the jokes that the
treasurer was in the habit of telling.

Well, you can see where this is going.  Earlier that day, the governess had
taken the king’s daughter outside the castle for a picnic lunch.  The daughter’s name was Persephone, and
she was five years old.  Whenever
Persephone saw her father, she’d raise her arms up and ask to be picked up, and
he’d lift her up and put her on his shoulder for a while.  So that afternoon, the king was
standing at his desk talking with the treasurer when the governess brought in
Persephone.  King Minsky didn’t
have time to turn around before his daughter ran up behind him, saying,
“Pick me up!” and grabbed him by the hand.

. . . I leave it to the reader’s imagination to finish the
story.  Needless to say, it doesn’t
end well, for either the king or his daughter.

At the present time, artificial intelligence (AI) is
enjoying an unprecedented boom. 
Corporations and governments worldwide are pouring billions of dollars
into AI R&D, and products are hitting the market that promise to
revolutionize life as we know it, from Siri-like robots to self-driving cars
and more.  What the parable is
intended to address is not so much any particular AI application, as it is meant
to question the philosophy, mostly unspoken, on which much of AI work is based.

This philosophy treats human beings as simply “meat
computers” that are no different in principle from a silicon-based
computer.  The problem with this
philosophy is that it is false. 

Beliefs issue in actions.  If I believe that you differ only in degree, and not in
kind, from my cellphone, I am bound to treat you differently than if I believe
(as I do) that there is a radical and provable fundamental difference between
human beings and every other physically manifested being—animal, vegetable, or
mineral.  This difference has many
aspects, but in the space remaining I will concentrate on only one:  the ability of our intellects to form
universal concepts. 

No computer will ever understand freedom, for example.  AI systems may some day imitate the
conversation of an erudite scholar discussing freedom, but that does not mean,
and cannot mean, that the computer understands the universal concept of
freedom.  The proof of this point
is too lengthy to give here, but is contained in Michael Augros’ book The Immortal In You.  And I assure you, it is a proof that
approaches the mathematical in its rigor.

Remembering this essential difference will be vital to all
those who deal with AI innovations, products, and proposals in the future.  And forgetting this difference may land
us in the same unenviable position King Minsky was in after his daughter
grabbed his hand.

Sources:  If by some mischance you have never
heard of the legend of King Midas, whose touch turned everything to gold, the
Wikipedia entry about King Midas will remedy that defect in your
education.  Michael Augros’ The Immortal In You was published in
2017 by Ignatius Press.  For a
brief summary of the argument for the immateriality of the intellect (which is
why computers can’t understand freedom), see the online resource by the late
philosopher Mortimer Adler at



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