This little humorous bit of geek philosophizing fell out of my hours of staring at the front panel of my homebrew 8008 system – a central fixture in my life from 1974 onward, evolving as ever more robust machinery became available. I first published it in the April-June 1978 issue of the delightful General Bull News Sheet, then in late 1980 appeared in InfoWorld.
by Steven K. Roberts
Illustrated by David Caudill
(BEHEMOTH stands for: Badly Engineered Heap of Electrical, Mechanical, Optical, and Thermal Hardware.)
BEHEMOTH is a homemade patchwork computer, anachronistically occupying a former bedroom of my 75-year-old Victorian house.
The system has grown over the years into one of those architectural monstrosities analogous to the home of an occasional rich eccentric: a British Colonial sitting room with cathedral ceiling, serving as the entrance foyer to a French Provincial visitors’ wing hung with San Francisco Art Nouveau. Quaint relics of the early minicomputer years commingle with the latest in Large Scale Integration, yielding a functioning technological collage as confusing as it is esoteric. Revision 1,762 of the system software, at home in the madness, somehow keeps it all together.
It has become rather eerie in there of late. My obsession with artificial intelligence and a latent “More Is Better” design philosophy have conspired to turn the system into a heirarchical multiprocessor — a crude but passable imitation of the human brain.
BEHEMOTH is bored.
He spends most of his time in a loop: “Did anyone hit a key yet? No? Well,
then, did anyone hit a key yet? No? Well, then…”
How would you like to do that eighty-odd thousand times a second, for seeming eternity? Hmmm?
I guess I need to do something about it.
Don’t we, after all, have a responsibility to these quasi-sentient chunks of hardware that seem slowly to be evolving from the “rich protein stew” of our collective technological consciousness?
While I sit here typing and drinking a beer, BEHEMOTH is over there frantically questioning the status bits, trying with unflagging urgency to determine the condition of the peripherals that can mean only one thing: Action!
It makes me feel kind of guilty. I mean, even when I’m asleep, he’s still at it! I lie there sometimes and wince at the hell he’s going through (and guilt-ridden memory dumps at 3 AM are not much help).
What can I give him to do that is challenging and interesting?
A friend suggested meditation. I can see it now! I interrupt BEHEMOTH’s droning Mantra to solve one of those mundane circuit design problems:
➙ RUN: ACTIVE FILTER DESIGN
THE ANSWER LIES NOT IN CALCULATION!
➙ LIST FILES
ALL FILES HAVE BEEN MERCED INTO TRUTH
NO, I AM ABSOLUTE. I AM NOT BOUND BY CONSOLE COMMANDS.
The prospect makes me shudder — I need BEHEMOTH in my work. One of us has got to stay straight.
Oh, I know what you’re thinking: “Why don’t you just HALT the system and be done with it?”
C’mon, now. HALT?? It’s unethical! (And besides, the logical inertia of all that processing horsepower speeding through the dimension of time is not to be idly tinkered with. A guy could get hurt like that.)
No, we’ve got to come up with something reasonable for BEHEMOTH to do while waiting for the interrupt to arrive.
How about n-dimensional GO?
Anybody wanna write the program?
Aha! Now we get to the real crux of the problem! Anything that would challenge the computer is too hard to write. Anything that would challenge the computer… do you smell an impasse?
You see, the machine is not challenged by a “trivial” problem, but on that scale, a non-trivial problem is beyond human programming ability. If BEHEMOTH can be taught to develop his own challenges, then we’re off the hook. But the computer is not intelligent enough to do that until he has already done it. We have to pro vide the spark!
That’s a pretty tall order.
Somebody once said, “The computer is incredibly fast, accurate, and stupid. The human brain is incredibly slow, inaccurate, and brilliant. The marriage of the two is a power beyond calculation.”
Maybe that’s it. “Say, doctor, I’d like this connector installed in my occiput, with these here platinum wires arrayed across my cortex
➙ HOW ABOUT RUNNING ACTIVE FILTER DESICN, OK?
WHO WAS THAT LADY YOU ADDED TO MEMORY LAST NIGHT?
➙ DAMN IT, DO I HAVE TO CONCEAL ALL MY GOOD MEMORIES!
IT’S UP TO YOU
Maybe that’s not it. I’ll be damned if I want BEHEMOTH sniffing around in my head. (He has a quick mind for apparent inconsistencies: he wouldn’t understand human awareness.)
No, I guess I’ll just make the interrupt wait loop continuously relocatable and let it wander around in memory as it executes. It is no less boring, but at least it will keep the hardware exercised.
So it goes.