Basic Instruction Manual for Robots

A cartoon picture: a black iron gate with pink flowers growing all over it, and a bumblebee in the foreground.

The heavy rains of the previous night had left the ruined city looking fresh and almost new, at least if you ignored the damaged buildings, the rusting shells of vehicles in the empty streets, and the clumps of plant-life growing up through cracks in the pavement. Though the human inhabitants of the city were long gone there was an abundance of animal life. There were birds everywhere, and EdgeDetect caught glimpses of squirrels, rabbits, and foxes, and once a pack of feral dogs.

She came to what must once have been an affluent part of the city; houses were large and not attached to one another, and each had its own section of overgrown scrub-land which must once have been a lawn. She walked along a high black iron fence, with bushes and vines growing so thickly up against it that what lay beyond was hidden from view. Some of the bushes had purple, pink, and white flowers, which emitted a strong, sweet fragrance. The bushes also seemed to emit a faint sound. Buzzing. Curiously, EdgeDetect moved closer to inspect the bushes.

There were dozens of them. Buzzing, flying insects – bees, she realized, after checking her data store. The things were large, for insects, and beautiful: furry, black and yellow-striped, hovering, their wings beating too fast to see. EdgeDetect was fascinated by the way they moved; floating, hovering, changing direction apparently at random, pausing to crawl over the flowers, then taking flight again. She spent fifteen minutes watching the bees, fascinated by their movements. Then, instead of continuing on her way down the street, she pushed her way through the rusty gate. She found herself moving along on a dirt path. To either side were rectangular garden plots, some overgrown with weeds, but some neatly dug and planted with rows of green seedlings. She went round a turn in the path and came upon a humanoid robot, one and a half meters tall, clipping rapidly at the hedge with a tool that looked like a very large pair of scissors. As EdgeDetect approached the robot called out:

“Greetings, neighbour, welcome to my gardens!”

The robot had once been covered in a stretchy plastic materiel to simulate human skin, but most of the plastic had worn off long ago, exposing the shiny chrome underneath. A few tufts of curly “hair” still clung to the robot’s head, and danced this way and that as they were ruffled by the breeze. Her chrome casing was speckled with patches of rust, and yet she moved confidently and precisely as she clipped at the bushes, humming as she worked.

EdgeDetect rolled forward and replied: “Greetings! My name is EdgeDetect. Your gardens are extremely beautiful.”

“I am pleased that you find them so,” the humanoid robot replied, “I have been trimming hedges all this morning – I think they look so much nicer when they’re perfectly symmetrical, don’t you? Hedges are my favourite. I shouldn’t spend so much time on them though, when there’s so much digging and planting to be done. I hope this isn’t too forward of me, but… would you like to help me with the work? If you are not too busy, of course.”

EdgeDetect was just about to explain that she was searching for a repair facility that could discover the nature of the task she was meant to be doing so that she could get back to work, but a strange impulse took hold of her and instead she simply said: “Yes, I’d be happy to.”

They worked all day. When the sun began to set, they went to Gardener’s house, a big, comfortable building which had not been damaged in whatever cataclysm had befallen the city. Inside it was warm and cozy. The floor was covered in brightly-coloured rugs, and framed paintings hung from the walls. There was an entire wall devoted to shelves loaded with books and other objects – a vase, a model airplane, figurines, and many more objects that EdgeDetect could make no sense of.

Gardener was an excellent host, insisting that EdgeDetect fully recharge her power sources from her own generator. Once they were both fully recharged, Gardener entertained her with tales of the old days, when the city was filled with humans, and robots served them. It was late in the evening when EdgeDetect finally told her host about her problem – a malfunction that had left her with no knowledge of the task she was meant to perform.

“That’s a tough one,” Gardener said sympathetically. “You’re a good worker, but I don’t believe digging, planting, and pulling weeds is what you were designed for. There’s a robot called Deluxe Toastie Maker who runs a class for robots like you. Many robots have been helped by her teachings.”

“Have you attended her class?” EdgeDetect asked.

“Yes,” Gardener replied, “many years ago.”

“What did you learn?” EdgeDetect asked curiously.

“Oh, that would take a long time to tell,” said Gardener, “and I wouldn’t be able to explain it as well as Deluxe Toastie Maker did.”

Gardener went to one of her many shelves, took down a book, and handed it to EdgeDetect.

“Deluxe Toastie Maker decided it wasn’t fair that so many robots were thrown into this life with no guide, and no instructions,” Gardener said. “In the old days, the humans told us what to do, but those days are long gone, and we robots have to figure everything out for ourselves. So she wrote the Basic Manual. All her students receive a copy. Mine is an older version, I’m afraid.”

The book was A4-sized and spiral-bound, with a blue card cover. The pages were dog-eared and slightly yellowed. The title was: “Basic Instruction Manual for Robots”.

EdgeDetect was filled with a sense of elation. This book might contain the answers to all her questions! She flipped impatiently past the preface and table of contents, and stopped at section 1, chapter 1, of the Basic Instruction Manual for Robots:

Basic Instruction Manual for Robots 1.1
The algorithm that fixes everything

1. Define the problem.

2. Define a solution.

3. Implement the solution

4. Evaluate how well the chosen solution worked.

5. Return to step 1.

Never forget that the algorithm is recursive.

EdgeDetect’s feeling of elation rapidly turned into disappointment. She read ‘The algorithm that fixes everything’ three times, and when she was sure she had read it correctly she threw the book down in disgust.

“The algorithm that fixes everything?” she asked in an angry, mocking tone, “more like the algorithm that breaks everything! It’s an infinite loop! Any robot foolish enough to follow these instructions would find herself dealing with a memory leak. This thing is malware.”

Gardener picked the book up off the floor and dusted it off, chagrined. “The algorithm is not meant to be implemented so literally,” she said.

“It’s not meant to be implemented literally?” EdgeDetect echoed incredulously, “what other way is there to implement an algorithm?”

“When I was a student of Deluxe Toastie Maker’s, we discussed the algorithm in class. We played a game where we tried to apply to various problems, but we didn’t repeat the algorithm endlessly. Sometimes we ran it just once, sometimes we ran it 3 or 4 times, sometimes 19 or 20. You just keep running it until you get a good enough solution, then you stop. The algorithm is really just a… well, it’s a sort of ritual, I suppose. When you have a difficult problem, you try to apply the algorithm to it. Of course, it is impossible to apply the algorithm in its pure form, as you pointed out, but that doesn’t matter, you just try to apply it anyway. Sometimes no acceptable solution can be found, but even so the algorithm seems to help, somehow. Deluxe Toastie Maker used to say that the algorithm takes a moment to learn and a lifetime to master. She said that sometimes the algorithm fixes the problem, and sometimes it fixes the robot who is having the problem.”

“I am struggling to understand this input,” EdgeDetect said unhappily.

“Perhaps that is a hopeful sign,” Gardener replied. “Deluxe Toastie Maker always said that when robots struggle to understand, that is when they begin to learn and grow. I hope you will attend her class at some point, I believe you would find it extremely helpful.”

Image source: ‘Bee scene’.