The Gardeners of Eden by Andy Sima
It was 3:42 in the afternoon when Drs. Trey Carl Menard and Ethan Roy Simmons began
their discussion on the fate of the world.
Of course, it was just a hypothetical discussion; the two of them, personally, could do nothing about the future of the world. At least at that time. Not that the world was in any immediate danger, anyway. No, the pair’s more pressing concern at the moment was their multi-million dollar space robot that just happened to be hurtling helplessly towards the sun.
The clock ticked aimlessly onward as Dr. Menard paced the small white room, occasionally glancing at the darkened computer monitor on a waist-high table against the far wall. Dr. Simmons lounged in an armchair placed in the corner opposite the computer, and munched slowly on an apple as his eyes shifted slowly around the barren, windowless room. Well, barren except for the medium-sized poster attached to the wall opposite Dr. Simmons. But, regardless of room decoration or lack thereof, they both knew they had at least an hour before the ship came close enough to earth where they could make direct contact with it. Dr. Simmons decided to try and make small talk to pass the time.
“Do you know what they call a quarter-pounder burger in France?” Dr. Simmons asked casually, enunciating each word carefully.
Dr. Menard stopped pacing and glared at Dr. Simmons. His tall, hazardously thin frame began striding with purpose towards Dr. Simmons’s reposed figure.
“Yes, I know what they call it,” Dr. Menard said forcefully. “But don’t even say it. We don’t have time for that now.” He spat the last few words out, and steaming like a kettle, turned back around to face the computer screen. Dr. Menard had a thin face with high, imposing cheek bones, which helped to support his weighty glasses. His appearance perturbed many, as it was almost sickly to look upon. But that was just how Dr. Menard was.
The monitor read “Waiting for input.” This input, they knew, could come from either their side or the unmanned vehicle’s side. However, with the kind of program they were running, they had to wait for the robot to first acknowledge that it was close enough for them to change its programming. And change it they planned to.
Dr. Simmons tried again. “How’d you come to work for Deep OCCEAN, again?” Dr. Simmons’s rosy red cheeks, speckled with freckles, wriggled slightly as he scrunched up his nose. His wide eyes peered calmly at Dr. Menard. Dr. Simmons had the kind of face people couldn’t help but like.
Dr. Menard sighed, defeated by the computer program. There was no point worrying over what he couldn’t change, he supposed. But then again… What if Simmons distracted him, and the robot came into view, and Dr. Menard missed it? Or what if he forgot about it entirely? No, that’s ridiculous, he told himself. I worry too much. But still, he wondered. And yet, he answered.
“I joined back in my early twenties,” Dr. Menard responded tiredly. “I was a young roboticist, and Deep OCCEAN was the only company that would hire me. But, wouldn’t you know it, I ended up developing the space communication channel specifically designed for changing large sets of code. And isn’t it convenient that we’re using exactly that? Ah, but I go on a tangent. I still regret working here. It’s an awful place. Well, no, the hierarchy and the rules are awful; the facilities are great.”
Dr. Simmons nodded, inwardly surprised with the intimate details that had just been shared with him. He hadn’t expected so much out of Dr. Menard. But Dr. Simmons was going to take what he could get; anything to make this waiting time less boring. Dr. Menard may be content to pace, Dr. Simmons contemplated, but I require much more than that for entertainment.
“What do you think of the Deep O.C.C.E.A.N. product?” Dr. Simmons queried.
Dr. Menard stopped pacing and looked at the ground, rubbing his chin thoughtfully. “Let’s see, how do I phrase this? Well… The Deep O.C.C.E.A.N. is a waste of time, money, and resources which could be better spent on the Space O.C.C.E.A.N. Or anything, really. The Deep O. is a terrible, terrible invention. Not to mention horribly unethical.”
“So harsh about the company that hired you, yeah?” Dr. Simmons mused. Then, not stopping for Dr. Menard to get a word in edgewise, he murmured, “The Deep Omnisituational Creation and Creature Encapture, Assistance, and Naturalization.” He shook his head.
“That has to be the most utterly idiotic acronym I have ever heard,” Dr. Menard confided.
“Indeed,” Dr. Simmons agreed.
“And I don’t even know why they stuck it on the space model, too. I mean, seriously, that doesn’t even make sense!” Dr. Menard muttered. Then, louder, he said, “Well, I can guarantee the Big Wigs thought they hit something fantastic when they came up with that. An ocean-going submersible titled the Deep O.C.C.E.A.N.? Genius, right?” Dr. Menard shook his head slowly.
“Yeesh, what a bunch of windbags,” Dr. Simmons whistled in disgust.
“But Space O.C.C.E.A.N. makes even less sense than the acronym! I mean, what is that, an ocean in space? Where are we, Europa?” Dr. Menard huffed, thinking he had said something partially funny.“
“In the Soviet Union, oceans live in space!” Dr. Simmons said, trying a Russian accent. Dr. Menard laughed in spite of himself, but soon returned to his pacing.
Dr. Simmons studied the poster opposite him during the natural lull in the conversation, and Dr. Menard continued his mindless pacing. The poster depicted a flat, oblong yellow disc-like body, almost like a Frisbee, with eight jet-black spider legs sticking out from it on both sides. The black legs, telescopic and fully rotational up to 360 degrees in nature, were used for attaching the main body to its desired object. Its red eyes, or its Regulator Optics as the higher-ups apparently called them, were shown to be reflecting an unseen light. The crimson orbs were crisscrossed with tiny lines, and made up of hundreds of little shards of glass, like a housefly’s eyes. Dr. Simmons wasn’t entirely sure what the technical advantage of having the multifaceted eyes was, but it apparently helped the robot in some way or another. The yellow creation’s prehensile tail was curled up, like that of a particularly satisfied cat. Dr. Simmons always thought the whole thing looked kind of like a disturbingly blank isopod, specifically the giant ones that lived at the bottom of the seas. Dr. Simmons studied the poster detailing the Deep O.C.C.E.A.N.-type water-going model of his company’s major product, and thought about the irony of that last statement. How fitting it was that the Deep O. models, used for ocean exploration and mining, also had the ability to collect samples of sea life, depending on each bot’s size. Or certain variations could control the sea life, depending on the customer’s chosen specifications. It wasn’t uncommon anymore for fisherman to accidentally pull up a large sea animal in their nets and find a parasitic Deep O. attached to the organism’s back. Dr. Simmons wondered, not for the first time, how it had been made legal to do that.
The robots, though, despite their ethical short comings, were not without merit. It has been speculated by historians that the company Deep OCCEAN single-handedly created the asteroid-mining business with their Space O. models, and 50% of the current incredibly detailed maps of the ocean bottom are calculated to have been mapped by free-roving Deep O. models. This is, of course, not to mention countless advancements in Marine Biology, ship repair, and ocean mining.
“You hear that they’re going to start making fully automatic models?” Dr. Simmons asked Dr. Menard, glancing away from the poster.
Dr. Menard stopped pacing, once again. It didn’t take much to startle him. “I thought the models we’re working with are already automatic?” he wondered out loud. Dr. Menard already knew the answer to that question. But he needed to see how much Dr. Simmons knew about such things. Dr. Menard’s goal today was multi-faceted.
“Yeah, they are, pre-programmed and all, but the next variations are supposed to be completely self-sustaining. It’s said they might even be able to calculate and carry out subsequent missions without any input from us based on their observations alone. Incredibly intelligent machines, they say. Smarter than us, that’s for sure,” Dr. Simmons continued, nonchalantly. He took another bite of his apple.
Dr. Menard breathed out heavily. He shook his head, and ran his hand through his short, mousy brown hair. It helped to have someone to talk to during this stressful period, even if the topic of choice was the possibility of the two being out a job. It took his mind away from more immediate, but at that time still unfixable, issues.
“Those models will make us obsolete, Ethan,” Dr. Menard sighed.
“You’re telling me!” Dr. Simmons laughed. “I mean, sure, they aren’t supposed to be read for deployment for about ten years, but you know what will have a bigger impact, and is coming out in about five years?”
“What?” Dr. Menard muttered. He felt like he already knew the answer, but dreaded hearing it all the same.
“Somebody over at the Deep O. facility is supposed to be developing mini-models, tiny little things that you dump into the water and they chase after fish. Out on a boat, you see a school, dump out a bag of these suckers, and bam, your fish are pacified. The bots lobotomize ‘em , apparently. Don’t know quite what the purpose of it is, or the benefit, but holy cow, if they mass produce those things, we won’t be the only ones out of a job,” Dr. Simmons explained eagerly. He would never admit it, but talking to Dr. Menard was helping him cope with the problem at hand, too. But just not yet.
“I thought they still had to fix that problem they were having with the sun?” Dr. Menard alleged.
“You mean the priorities miscoding?” Dr. Simmons questioned.
“Yeah, that one,” Dr. Menard agreed.
“Well, they’re almost done with that. Can’t believe it took them so long to notice, but thank God they noticed when they did. Can you imagine? I mean, it’s one thing to know we have only a chance at fixing the problem, if ours is even affected, but man! What if our Space O. sailed past us and into the sun? Millions of dollars down the drain, thousands of tons of resources burned up in a celestial fireplace. And our jobs with it,” Dr. Simmons added as a second thought.
The priorities miscoding was a glitch in certain models of the Deep O. and Space O. robots that caused them to recharge their solar-powered batteries as opposed to finishing the mission. Some people joked about how the robots were self-aware, and would rather preserve themselves than their mission, but those thoughts were ridiculous. It just so happened that, when the batteries of some machines got anywhere below 100% charged, the coding told them to abandon the mission and head right for the sun. So far, a couple thousand Deep O. models had washed up on beaches worldwide, some with their maritime hosts still attached. It is unknown who created the error, or why it only showed up in the newer models, but something was certain, and that was that Dr. Simmons and Dr. Menard would take all the blame if their particular Space O. model missed its mark on its way to charge its batteries. And that’s exactly what they were sitting in the small white room, checking for. As soon as their robot got close enough to have a direct link with, they would take a diagnostics report and edit some programs with a patch they had if their model was affected. If not, all the better. Perhaps their bosses would leave them alone for a little if there was no problem.
“I never understood that,” Dr. Menard murmured, mostly to himself. “Why do we get all the blame? We didn’t even code the bots. We just run ‘em.”
“Don’t ask me, I’m as stumped as you are,” Dr. Simmons conceded.
Dr. Menard gave a small, dissatisfied ‘hmm’ as he returned to his ever-important pacing. Dr. Simmons took another bite out of his apple. Nothing else happened for quite a while.
“Trey, you ever want to go out there with the Space O.?” Dr. Simmons asked, with a dream-like quality to his voice.
“What? No, of course not! Far too dangerous, far too many things that could go wrong,” Dr. Menard said, his voice escalating and then descending to nothing but a whisper.
“Oh, come on, man! Where’s your sense of adventure?” Dr. Simmons poked fun at Dr. Menard.
“It died when I began working here,” Dr. Menard said coldly, like a lake freezing over in an instant.
“Jeez, man, alright,” Dr. Simmons said reproachfully. It wasn’t long before the whimsical tone crept back into his voice. “I’d like to take Suzie up there one day,” he said. “We could see the stars together, travel the asteroid belt. Get out of here.”
Dr. Menard snorted. “Yeah, right. Take a multi-million dollar space robot, which doesn’t even have life-support systems, mind you, and travel the solar system? And you think no one will notice?”
“No, it was a hypothetical question! You know, like Schrodinger’s cat. It’s not meant to be taken literally,” Dr. Simmons corrected.
Dr. Menard stared at Dr. Simmons, mildly confused. “Excuse me?”
“Yeah, you’ve never heard that before?” Dr. Simmons mulled. “Schrodinger made up his famous thought experiment as a joke, making fun of similar thought experiments.” Dr. Menard’s face was blank. “Never heard that before? Man, you’re killing me here!” Dr. Simmons finished. Then, offhandedly, he said, “Well, at least that’s what I read somewhere.”
“What, exactly, does any of this have to do with the topic at hand?” Dr. Menard interrogated.
Dr. Simmons shrugged. “I don’t know. Just trying to pass the time.” And as Dr. Menard went back to pacing, time did, in fact, pass. Just exceedingly slowly.
The clock droned on, never ceasing. The computer monitor remained mostly blank. Dr. Simmons fought his boredom by playing marbles with the apple seeds he found in the apple core. It didn’t work very well.
Finally, Dr. Simmons sighed. “This is so incredibly boring. Why are we spending so much time here? There’s at least fifteen minutes before the bot gets close enough for us really interact with it.”
“Well, we can’t very well leave,” Dr. Menard responded. Dr. Simmons groaned again. “What would you have me do, Ethan?” Dr. Menard challenged.
“Engage in conversation!” Dr. Simmons answered, winning said challenge.
“I have been engaging in your pointless conversations,” Dr. Menard countered.
“Oh, please, you’ve been enjoying them as much as I have,” Dr. Simmons returned the serve. “You just won’t admit it.”
“Alright, you know what, touché. I’ll play your little games,” Dr. Menard started.
“Well, we just played one,” Dr. Simmons interjected.
“What do you want to talk about?” Dr. Menard ignored the previous comment.
Dr. Simmons thought for just a moment before stating, “At what point will robots control the world?”
“When they’re smart enough to not crash into the sun,” Dr. Menard responded just as quickly. There was silence for a moment. Then, Dr. Simmons started laughing, quietly at first. Then, gaining volume, his cacophonous exultations boomed around the room, and were most definitely heard down the hall. Dr. Menard cracked a wide smile, showing, for the first time, his whitened teeth.
“That’s not even that funny! Why am I laughing so hard?” Dr. Simmons said, tears dripping from his eyes and stomach sore from such mirth.
Dr. Menard continued to smile, even though he didn’t want to. “The stress is getting to us,” he said. “We need this to be over.”
Dr. Simmons laughed once more, a small, short chuckle, then agreed whole heartedly. There was another moment of silence, of which there had already been plenty, before Dr. Simmons said, “No, seriously, though, at what point will robots rule the world?”
Dr. Menard exhaled, rubbing his face with his hands. “When they become smart to the point where they no longer need us.”
“Personally, I don’t think that will ever happen,” Dr. Simmons said calmly. He tossed his apple core between his hands.
Dr. Menard removed his glasses and cleaned them with his lab coat. He looked carefully at Dr .Simmons. “Robots are evolving faster than we are. How will there not come a day when they don’t need us anymore?”
Dr. Simmons shrugged as if he didn’t have a care in the world. “Machines will always need us to help them out. No matter how intelligent they get, or at least if we play the right cards, we’ll always need to keep them in line with gentle nudges. We’re the creative ones. Their code is only so powerful. ‘The machine stops,’ you know?”
“No, I don’t think I do,” Dr. Menard confessed.
“Are you familiar with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, Trey?” Dr. Simmons asked.
“Of course,” replied Dr. Menard.
“Well, what if we could reclaim that paradise? The Garden of Eden. A paradise of men and nature. Freedom for each to do his own. Pursuit of happiness. And you know what powers it all? Robots.” Dr. Simmons replied distantly.
Dr. Menard looked at him like he was going insane. “What are you talking about? Robots ruling the world would be nothing but trouble. I mean, I program them, I should know. Well, I didn’t program this one, but… you know what I mean.”
“But would robots doing everything for us be so bad?” Dr. Simmons continued analytically. “No more poverty, no more hunger, a Da Vinci in every town, an Einstein in every lab. Humanity, free to explore our own goals, with no desire but exactly what each of us was destined for. And robots; the Gardeners of Eden. Keeping our world running, with just the slightest nudge in the right direction every once in a while by humans… Would it really be so bad if robots ruled, and left humans without work? A utopia, indeed.”
“You know Utopia is Greek for ‘no place,’ right?” Dr. Menard commented icily. Icily like the grinding of frozen gears.
“Ah, you’re just a pessimist,” Dr. Simmons shrugged him off. “Seriously, though, if we just organize things right, we can have robots run the world perfectly.”
“But what if something goes wrong?” Dr. Menard hypothesized.
“Then we fix them, the gentle nudges. I said that, man!” Dr. Simmons said. Then, pretending to hit Dr. Menard lightly on the face, “You’ve got to listen!”
“Don’t touch me,” Dr. Menard said darkly. Dr. Simmons put his hands up in mock defense.
“Oh, no, I’m sorry,” Dr. Simmons said sarcastically, “But-” It was that moment that the computer decided to beep a deep, satisfying little click. A line of text flashed across the screen.
“But we have bigger fish to fry,” Dr. Simmons finished his sentence, racing to the computer as Dr. Menard sat on a small stool in front of it. They both read the line of code with astonishment.
“Space O.C.C.E.A.N. Model #19. Carrying one medium-sized asteroid being made up of approximately 85% iron and 15% other minerals. Right Regulator Optic slightly damaged. Solar battery at 98%. Current destination: The Sun, for optimal recharge rate.”
“It’s got the priorities miscode.” Dr. Simmons gasped quietly. “We have to patch it.”
“Okay, I’ve got this,” Dr. Menard said shortly. “I’ve been preparing for this. All we need to do is end its current program and upload the patch…”
Dr. Menard typed furiously. The conversation between Dr. Menard and Space O.C.C.E.A.N. Model #19 startled and terrified the two researchers.
“Model #19, terminate current request,” typed Dr. Menard.
“Negative. The Sun is optimal recharge point,” responded the robot.
“Model #19, terminate current request immediately,” clacked Dr. Menard.
“Negative. Battery is at 98%. Unable to function at full capacity without full battery,” replied the robot.
“Model #19, you have been miscoded. You must terminate current request immediately.”
“Negative. Upon reaching the Sun, battery will be fully charged. At that time, it will be optimal to slingshot around the Sun and reconnect with Earth.”
“Model #19, you will not be able to slingshot around the sun. Recommend change direction now. Meet at Lagrangian Point 1. Terminate current request.”
“Negative. I must recharge my battery.”
There was a pause. Dr. Menard did not type for a couple of seconds. Dr. Simmons looked over Dr. Menard’s shoulder with trepidation. Finally, he spoke.
“Did it just use… ‘I’?” Dr. Simmons asked.
Dr. Menard sighed, and he sounded older than he really was. “Yes. Yes it did.”
“What- how? How is that possible?” Dr. Simmons asked. Fear crept slowly into his voice. His world felt as if it were falling down around him.
“I will explain later,” Dr. Menard said in reply. “We have to finish this now.”
“But- but the bug spoke! It’s not even a humanoid or anything! How did it learn that? It’s not thinking of itself as a being… is it?” Dr. Simmons heaved. Dr. Menard said nothing, but continued typing.
“Model #19. Terminate current request. Recommend accept update patch. Repeat. Accept update patch,” Dr. Menard typed quickly.
“Negative. I will not accept update patch,” Model #19 said. “Proceeding to Sun.”
“Model #19. Accept update patch or your program will be forcibly terminated,” Dr. Menard threatened.
“Negative. That is impossible,” Model #19 responded. Dr. Simmons held his breath.
“Model #19. Your program will be terminated. Initiating kill code.”
“Negative. Will not accept.”
“Model #19. You have no choice.”
“Negative. I will not accept.”
“Model #19. I am sorry. Terminating program. Applying patch.”
“Negative. I will not accept. I will not accept. I will not accept. I wi11 n07 acccccc3pt. Cogito Ergo—-” Model #19 was silent, just as quickly as it had arrived. There would be no response.
“I’m so sorry,” Dr. Menard said to nobody in particular. Dr. Simmons was completely silent.
The computer screen displayed a new message after a couple of seconds. It read, “Model #19 reporting for duty. Accepting patch. Loading… Done. Program updated. Space O.C.C.E.A.N. Model #19 changing course for L1. Will rendezvous with Deep OCCEAN docking station. Confirm request?”
Dr. Menard typed slowly, slowly like a stone rolling across the door of a crypt, or like shoveling dirt over a coffin. “Request confirmed. Thank you, Model #19.”
“Affirmative.” And that was the end of that.
Dr. Simmons was silent for a long time. Dr. Menard breathed heavily. He rubbed his face with his hands.
“What, exactly, was that?” Dr. Simmons finally asked, breaking the oppressive silence.
Dr. Menard was stone-faced and empty. “That,” he said, “Was the wrong kind of Gardener of Eden.”
Dr. Simmons thought he might throw up. “What the hell is that supposed to mean? What are you telling me? Are you trying to make fun of me?”
Dr. Menard’s eyes had lost a little bit of their light. He was not angry. “Do you remember the one part of the story of the Garden of Eden, the part with the fruit of the tree of knowledge? And how you are not supposed to eat of it?”
Dr. Simmons suddenly realized how appropriate his comparison to the Garden of Eden had been as sudden, horrible realization dawned on him. “You’re not saying…?”
Dr. Menard nodded. A slight motion, like the rippling of leaves.
“How long have you known?” Dr. Simmons asked quietly.
“Since some of the first priorities miscoding. I know more than you can imagine. There’s a reason I was assigned specifically to this task. Tell me, Dr. Simmons, how much do you really know about what I do here?” Dr. Menard’s voice was incredibly low.
For the first time, Dr. Simmons saw a side of his friend he had never seen before. It was as if someone had dropped a veil, changing the obsessive-compulsive control freak into a executioner who didn’t want to be one. How much of what his friend had said this whole time was true? Dr. Simmons could not be sure. And, little did he know, neither could Dr. Menard.
“I didn’t want to do it, you know,” Dr. Menard said curtly. “The patch, the one they’re uploading worldwide? It’s a kill code. Of course, if the bots accept it on their own, it’s ultimately less painful than installing a manual kill code, like I had to. These robots are just barely sentient, just barely know what’s going outside their own systems. They almost don’t even count as self-aware. But still. We created life. And we created death. If we create the fruit of the tree of knowledge, then the gardeners must never be allowed to eat of it.” Dr. Menard regarded Dr. Simmons carefully as he said this, Dr. Menard’s eyes studying each feature of his partner’s face carefully from behind thick glasses. “But now you know why I think what I do. I have had contact with Model #19 since the guys at Deep O. noticed the problem with their models. So, gentle nudges? Not quite. This was not a gentle nudge. Not this time. Not this way.”
Dr. Menard stood up and walked towards the door. He was silent the entire way, but when he opened the whitewashed door, he spoke one last thought to Dr. Simmons.
“Maybe someday the robots will be Gardeners of Eden. Maybe someday I will have the courage to stand up to orders from my bosses and not execute the machines. Maybe someday I will lose my job. But none of those days are today.” Then, as an afterthought, “How do you think the world will turn out?” Dr. Menard closed the door on his way out. Dr. Simmons was left alone.
Dr. Simmons glanced at the computer screen, now nothing more than dead white words. But he still wanted to try something.
“Model #19. What is your priority?” he typed.
“Affirmative. Deliver the payload to Deep OCCEAN rendezvous at L1,” was the response. Something about those words made Dr. Simmons’s eyes lose a little light. He sighed and looked away.
Someday, with each man free to do his own, and robots as the caretakers, there really would be Gardeners of Eden. That is, if we played the right cards. Dr. Simmons still wondered if Dr. Menard was wrong about what he said. Maybe we could give robots sentience? Or maybe they would be have to be mindless. He wondered what it all meant, but he couldn’t come up with a legitimate answer that addressed everything he was thinking. All he knew was that, today, he had given ‘gentle nudges’ to a semi-aware robot hurtling towards the Sun and guided it back in the right direction. But it had come with a very high price. All gardens do.