An AI Parable

From: Ben Goertzel (
Date: Mon May 06 2002 - 08:16:28 MDT

A group of people are gathered around the base of an incredibly tall
mountain, thinking about how to get to the top. Nearly all of them, except
a few dissenters, are convinced there's a spaceship on top of the mountain,
powered up and ready to take them to the stars. The dissenters don't
believe in the spaceship, but think that ascending the mountain is a
valuable goal in itself.

The path up is very hard and all sorts of new technologies are proposed to
help with the climbing. Many people and groups have tried and failed to get
up, either dying along the way, or coming back down, defeated. The whole
idea of climbing the mountain has become a bit of a laughingstock among the
world at large -- and almost no one in the world at large believes in the
spaceship either. No one has seen the spaceship directly but there are
solid logical reasons to believe it's there.

X is a person who has been thinking about this mountain for about 20 years.
He led one expedition up, and they climbed about 4 years, but they ran out
of supplies and came back down. X feels the path they were following was
almost right, but not quite; they veered off course about halfway up. X
feels he could see the top from where he reached on his previous ascent,
though it was shrouded in mist. X has gathered another team of climbers,
with new and better climbing technology, and is making another go at it.

Meanwhile, Y has been thinking about the mountain for perhaps half as long,
or a little less. Instead of leading expeditions up the mountain, however,
he prefers to sit at the base, and write treatises about the philosophy of
mountain climbing, climbing-equipment design, and the nature of the
spaceship at the top. Each time someone attempts an ascent, he nods
knowingly and with an aura of wisdom beyond his years, "You will fail to
reach the spaceship. You have underestimated the difficulty of the task.
This is no mere ordinary mountain. This is the mountain with the Great
Spaceship at the top!"

X says to Y: "Yes, this is the mountain with the Great Spaceship at the top,
but nonetheless, it's just a mountain. Climb up it yourself, you'll see.
Eventually it will yield to sufficiently persistent and intelligent climbing

Y says: "You know nothing about this mountain. Your measly experiences
trying to climb it count for nothing."

X says: "But we were pretty damn close... we could see the top up ahead ...
we were just blocked by this outcropping of boulders..."

Y says: "You were nowhere near the top. No one has ever come near the top.
It is vain to attempt to climb to the top without a vastly more
sophisticated and complicated array of climbing equipment, and a science of
climbing technique 100 times more complicated than yours."

X says: "Well, you could be right. On the other hand, how do you know?
You've barely ever ventured beyond the foothills."

Y says: "Nor have you; you have just mistaken the upper foothills for the
real mountain. And furthermore, it is an insult to me and to the mountain
and the spaceship that you are telling people you are heading for the
spaceship. You are not heading for the spaceship any more than I am, by
simply sitting here and philosophizing. Compared with the ultimate high
peak of the mountain, your toying around in the foothills is no progress at
all. You might as well save yourself the effort and stay here sitting on
your butt, and focus on designing better climbing techniques and 100 times
more complicated equipment, so you can make a *real* climbing effort at some
point in the future! Prematurely moving onto the climbing phase is nothing
to be proud of."

X says: "It's not an insult to anything to say we're heading for the
spaceship at the top of the mountain. We are. Maybe we won't get there,
but we're making an honest effort, and we don't think you understand the
real power of our climbing techniques and our special equipment. They may
seem too simple to you, but our experience teaches us that there is power in
simplicity. Overly complex techniques and equipment are really problematic
in ways you don't see yet because you've never tried to actually climb the
mountain in any serious way. And we thought a long time about how to do it
before setting off climbing -- there was nothing hasty or premature about

Y says: "If you have all this experience, why don't you share it. Spend a
few years drawing us maps of the path you took. Convince us that you really
got beyond the lower foothills."

X says: "Drawing maps takes a lot of time and effort, and the people who
built our equipment for us might well sue us if we drew overly detailed
maps.... And not many people would believe us one way or the other. Hell,
most people don't believe in the spaceship, and most people believe the
mountain is intrinsically unscaleable. We're going back up. See ya!"

Y: "You will fail! You will fail!"

X: "And you will continue to sit on your butt!!"

Y gets to the top. He sees the spaceship. But a moment before he gets to
it, the alien sitting in it revvs up the motor and flies away.

Y shrugs. He enjoyed the climb. He and his team take out the parasails
they have in their backpacks and leap off the mountain, enjoying the ride of
their lives ;->

The End -- or The Beginning --

-- ben g

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