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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics

Friday, September 5, 2014

The First Silicon President: A Science Fiction Story

In the middle of the twenty-first century, the US population grew tired of the endless mistakes of US Presidents. They were tired of the endless budget deficits, the rising national debt, growing unemployment, the endless treasury-depleting foreign misadventures, and the rising tax burdens. So finally the Republican Party decided to take advantage of public disillusionment with the performance of flesh-and-blood commanders-in-chief. The Republican Party nominated a robot to run for President.

The robot was named Johnny Truth, and at first its prospects looked very good. In October the National opinion polls showed that the race was neck and neck, with 48% favoring the re-election of the sitting President, and 49% favoring the election of the slick steel and silicon candidate Johnny Truth. But then the presidential debates came, and Johnny Truth stumbled. His answers somehow seemed too wooden, too mechanical. With a little bit of humor and warmth that was hard for a robot to match, the US President won the debates, and later cruised to an easy win in the election. It helped that he had a clever TV commercial saying, “When the chips are down, you've got to rely on a human,” with a visual showing a robot being repaired.

The Republican Party went back to the drawing board. Programmers and political operatives were brought in to a big strategy meeting.

That's the last time we nominate a robot to run for President,” said RNC chairman Will Dorrit.

No, we had the right approach,” said software whiz Rod Tyler. “We've just got to add new features to the programming. The President won the debates by coming up with a little warmth and humor, which our robot lacked. People voted for the President because they felt he was more like them. But with a few months of work, we can fix that. We can program in warmth and humor to a new robot.”

So what do you recommend, that we reprogram Johnny Truth?” asked Dorrit.

No, he's dead meat in the minds of the voters,” said Tyler. “We need a whole new robot.”

Within a year the new robot was created. They called him Abe Gold. Abe had a way with words. Voters would swear he was just like a real human. He had the personal touch of Bill Clinton, and was wittier than John Kennedy. He cruised through the October presidential debates without any trouble, and won the November election in a narrow victory. 

robot president

Shortly after Abe Gold's inauguration as the first robotic president of the United States, a young programmer named Joe Tucker made a confession to his long-time buddy Paul. The two were chatting in Joe's apartment.

Paul, you wanna know a hell of a secret?” asked Joe. “The fate of Abe Gold is in my sweet little hands.”

What are you talking about?” asked Paul.

I worked on the programming code used by the silicon mind of President Abe Gold,” said Joe. “I secretly sneaked in some 'Easter Eggs.' Do you know what programmers mean by an Easter Egg?”

Nope,” said Paul.

An Easter Egg is a secret piece of programming code hid within some much larger base of code,” explained Joe. “They first used Easter Eggs to display messages announcing who worked on a computer program – they were kind of like credit sequences you see at the end of movies. But an Easter Egg can be anything you want it to be. An Easter Egg can be any command you can think up. I stuffed in some real interesting Easter Eggs into the programming code that controls President Abe Gold.”

So how do you activate these Easter Eggs?” asked Paul.

By visual signals and auditory signals,” explained Joe. “There's one bit of Easter Egg code that I sneaked in that is really funny. Imagine if I ever go to some speech of the President. If I simply hold up a big sign showing a purple circle within an orange triangle, as soon as the President sees that, he'll start yelling out the most obscene messages you ever heard, right then and there. That's the visual signal that activates the Easter Egg code I sneaked into the software in the President's head.”

Joe and Paul laughed hysterically, imagining what it would be like if the President started swearing like a drunken sailor, right in front of some big crowd. After Paul left, Joe remembered the most important Easter Egg code he had hidden within the silicon President's software. It was a secret subroutine that would cause the President to launch a nuclear attack that would lead to a global nuclear holocaust. To activate the code, Joe would merely need to go to one of the President's speeches, and shout out in a loud voice the phrase, “Doomsday Boomsday.”

The next day was a nightmare for Joe. There was a meeting at work, and he was told by management that he would have to spend the next four weeks documenting his code. Now, you can push a programmer pretty far, and he won't complain. You can make him work 90-hour weeks when crunch time comes, and “release day” is near. You can “feature creep” him half-to-death by making him write twenty new program features in three days. You can give him some crummy half-baked sketch of a plan, and ask him to flesh it out into a working, usable program, kind of on a wing and a prayer. A programmer will happily put up with all of those things. But the one thing that will always make a programmer want to kill himself is if you simply ask him to document his code.

After the meeting, Joe called his wife on the phone.

So you're going to the President's speech?” said Joe. “Great, I'll watch it on the company TV at the same time. Now I think it would be fun if you gave me a little 'shout out,' so I can hear your voice on television. So at some point during the President's speech, I want you to shout out real loud the phrase 'Doomsday Boomsday.' ”