The Android and the Abacus- Morgan Presley ’15

Professor Saakali’s office is comfortably cluttered, with papers, books, empty coffee mugs, and various curiosities occupying the shelves, desk, and coffee table. Most notable is her display of vintage calculators, including a TI-89 from the turn of the 21st, a stepped gear calculator and a slide rule from the early 1900s, and even an abacus from untold ancient times.

“It’s rather amusing,” I say, “that the world’s leading expert on robotics and artificial intelligence surrounds herself with such ancient artifacts.”

Her brow furrows, and the corner of her mouth tugs slightly back, as if she is deciding whether I am actually simple enough to not see the objects’ relevance or whether I am deviously fishing for a quote to take out of context. I only now recall the word of caution from the department secretary that, “Samantha has a peculiar view on small talk.”

“Actually,” she begins, and I tap my wrist to switch on my recorder, “I find these old calculators very relevant. They remind us of the great progress we have made in computing technology in the past two hundred years. A few thousand years ago, the best we had beyond our own head and hands were counting stones and abacuses. Then we had tables and slide-rules, analytical engines and hand-crank calculators. Then came electronic calculators and computers, and things really took off. The first computers filled rooms and could only do simple mathematics. But they got exponentially smaller and faster, packing more nodes into less space. Soon everyone had smartphones; do you remember those? My dad used to talk about them all the time – he got me into that old tech. And of course now we wear it tattooed on our skin. Literally, the power of a computer in the palm of your hand! You know, I’m sure the ancients thought the same thing about the abacus – the power of arithmetic in the palm of your hand!”

She grins and laughs, then quiets, looking outside at a bird fluffing its wings on a branch outside her window. I shake my head, beginning to wonder if this interview will turn up any useful quotes for an article.

“Ah, sorry, I’m rambling already. I’d say it must be a sign I’m getting on in years, but Ernest would assure you that I was like this even as an undergrad! Anyways, you’re not here to talk about calculators – you want the scoop on my latest project: ‘a humanoid android with the most advanced artificial intelligence programming in the world,’ if I remember the quote from your email correctly.”

“Yes, it had come to my attention that you are theorizing that this could be the first AI to wake up and develop a consciousness of its own. I was particularly interested in your ideas regarding the importance of the body to artificial consciousness and how that has driven you to partner with Professor Dempsey to create an android for your AI.”

“Oh, yes, we can go talk with Ernest as well. He’s down in the lab with Andy at the moment. Andy mentioned that his left knee felt a bit stiff, so Ernest’s taking a look. Andy’s our android by the way. I named him Andy Ingleton. Don’t look for too much meaning in the name. Andy started as a diminutive for android, and I wanted his initials to be AI, and Ingleton just happened to be the first name that popped into my head.”

I smile, closing the window on my palm containing a search on the meaning of Ingleton. Prof. Saakali leads me out of her office and through a maze of hallways and stairwells. We make our way down toward what I can only assume will be a basement laboratory.

“So Andy complained to you about a stiff knee? That seems kind of vague. Shouldn’t a super-smart AI be able to tell you exactly what part is broken and what’s wrong with it?”

“Well, it depends on what the AI is programmed to do – if he is programed to act human, wouldn’t it be peculiar if he always knew everything about the state of his body? When you have a stomachache can you immediately tell the doctor whether it’s from food poisoning or a virus or an ulcer?

“But you do touch on a good point that has been the topic of several of my recent papers. For decades we’ve had computer systems intelligent enough to detect when a part of itself needs to be replaced, and even ones that will order replacements for itself. Andy’s code has a similar base – deep down in his code, he ‘knows’ what parts he has and how to test them. If we specifically ask him to, he can check the status of individual components. But he doesn’t seem to properly relate to them as a part of himself.”

“Interesting. Now, if I’m correct, self-awareness is considered a main pillar of consciousness. So then, you wouldn’t say he’s conscious yet?”

“That’s correct. Andy is very advanced and still has great potential as we upgrade his software and as he gains new experiences, but I wouldn’t say he’s conscious yet.”


We finally arrive at the lab. Prof. Saakali taps the back of her hand against the security pad, and the doors unlock with a chock.

“Don’t distress, but I’ve brought the press!” she hollers into the room. A groan is emitted from a human form hunched over a computer in a corner of the room. I had expected machinery to clutter every bit of space, but the center of the lab is mostly clear and contained what almost seemed to be a tiny movie set with cameras and lights surrounding an area with a couch, chairs, a table, and even a counter kitchenette. The android is sitting in a chair next to the table and a man is kneeling next to him, poking a couple of long, thin tools into the its knee.

“Be with you in a moment. Just doing some last tests before closing this guy up.”

“So everything’s good now? What was wrong with him?” Saakali bounced over to the duo, looking concernedly over Andy’s shoulder at Prof. Dempsey’s handiwork.

“Oh, just got some grit in the gears. Probably from yesterday’s experiment outdoors. No serious damage as far as I can tell.”

A scraping of office chair wheels on cement tells me the form in the corner is turning its attention in a new direction. As the chair rolls toward me, the humanoid form straightens and resolves into a young woman in a collegiate sweatshirt. She stands and offers her hand.

“Saaya. Grad student.”

I smile and grasp her hand. “Michael. Journalist.”

Saaya looks over at the two humans and the android with an indulgent smile.

“Quite the trio, huh? Most people find a partner, get a house, get married, have a kid. Those two found a partner, got a lab, got professorships, and had an android.”

I chuckle. Her, perhaps, I could get along with. “Mind if I quote you on that?”

She scowls. “Do what you like.” She flops back onto her chair and shoots off to her computer. Puzzled, I begin to walk in her direction, but Prof. Saakali calls me over.

“Michael, let me introduce you to the world’s premiere roboticist, Prof. Ernest Dempsey.” I can’t tell if her dramatic tone is poking fun at me or her colleague, but I keep a good-natured smile and shake hands. Prof. Saakali continues, “And, of course, our percipient progeny, Andy Ingleton.”

I couldn’t quite tell if she had said “progeny” or “prodigy,” but given their obvious dotage on the android, either would have been accurate.

Andy extends his hand, accompanied by the soft hum of motors, and I take it gingerly.

“Don’t worry – he’s strong enough to go bowling. I think he can handle a handshake!” Prof. Dempsey laughs heartily, clapping Andy solidly on the back.

“It’s nice to meet you.” Andy intones, “I don’t believe that I caught your name.” His voice is mellow and surprisingly pleasant. His deliberate, measured actions contrast sharply with his eccentric and boisterous creators.

“I’m Michael Steinberg, a journalist for iNews. I’m here to do a story about you.”

“Oh, yes. Samantha and Ernest told me yesterday. I would be happy to answer any questions you have.”


Before I can ask my first question, Prof. Dempsey interjects, “How about we stroll back up to Sam’s office? It’s a nicer atmosphere!”

“Oh, here is perfectly fine.” I respond, impatient to get on with interviewing Andy. But Prof. Saakali shakes her head, laying a hand on my arm.

“Let him take us back up. Ernest wants to show off Andy’s stair-climbing and navigational skills.”

Internally, I groan. We had descended at least five flights of stairs on the way here. Andy might literally have legs of steel, but I do not. I can’t help but wonder if Andy might have instead demonstrated some elevator-using skills.

“Alright, Andy! Lead the way!” Prof. Dempsey exclaims.


We return to Prof. Saakali’s office, Andy having taken the stairs with more stride than myself, punches in the key-code that unlocks the door. Prof. Saakali takes up the chair behind her desk, Andy and Prof. Dempsey settle into the couch under the window, and I take up my previous seat near the door. The coffee table between us holds several of the old calculators, and Prof. Dempsey picks up the slide rule and begins fiddling with it.

“So, Andy,” I begin, “what’s it like being an android? What do you do for fun?”

“For fun? Well, I suppose I do enjoy the tasks that Samantha and Ernest give me, such as completing obstacle courses, doing physics problems, or solving puzzles. It makes me happy to see them excited.”

Internally I roll my eyes. Of course they had programmed him to enjoy work. However, Andy continued, “I also enjoy when we go for a walk out-of-doors. Everything is moving, changing. The grass bends. The branches wave. The animals dash around. Nothing stays still. Unlike the laboratory where papers and tools stay where you leave them until Ernest or Saaya or Samantha or I move them. There is much more to learn from things that move.

“I also enjoy talking to people. Every day I retrieve for Samantha biscuits and tea from the department lounge. There I converse with other professors and students. It is always interesting to listen to them. In fact, it is teatime now. I must go. I will return.”

Andy slowly rises. The cushy couch gives him a bit of trouble, but Prof. Dempsey keeps a hand on his back for support. Andy seems dignified, almost as if he belonged to the nobility of olden times. Or perhaps he just evokes that image because he is polite yet distant, which could be easily explained by his lingual programming and his nature as an android.

“It’s really amazing, isn’t it Michael?”

When Prof. Saakali addresses me, I realize my thoughts have diverged from the other two’s conversation.

“I’m sorry, I missed that last bit. What’s amazing?”

“Oh, we had just been talking about the importance of numbers throughout human history,” Prof. Dempsey explained. “It’s amazing, really. All of human progress has been built on the ability to count, to calculate, to compute. But our human brains are terrible at such things. What’s one thousand eight hundred and fifty seven times nine hundred forty three?” He looks at me expectantly.


“Exactly. You can’t do it. I can’t do it. Only a few people can do such calculations mentally, even though they’re the most simple of arithmetic. And of course they can’t do it naturally – they have tricks that they practice again and again. One such trick is this guy right here.” He picks up the abacus on the coffee table and pushes some beads around. “One technique is to visualize the abacus in your mind and move the mental beads to do your computations. I hear it’s quite effective, though I’ve never been able to master it.

“But you know what’s even more amazing?”

Something suddenly flies towards me, and I reflexively catch it before it hits my face. The object is one of those squishy stress desk toys, shaped like a robot, of course. Before I can ask what this is all about, Prof. Dempsey continues.

“And yet, just now, subconsciously, you’ve done hundreds of complicated calculations, modeling the trajectory of my little robot and plotting an intercept course – and all in a fraction of a second. Of course, I’m keenly aware of this, since I wrote the basis for Andy’s stabilization and reaction code. Reacting to the external world is hard.”

Prof. Saakali laughs. “But reacting to people and ideas – that’s even harder!” she counters.

Prof. Dempsey guffaws at her remark. “Yup! I’m the brawn and you’re the brain! Although I’ve built Andy to be state of the art and have definitely made contributions to the field of artificial somatic senses, most of this technology has roots a couple decades old. Sam’s AI on the other hand – that’s brand new. She’s taken this field in a whole new direction with Andy’s software. And many leading AI researchers would bet that Andy’s brain will be the first artificial neural network to wake up and attain consciousness!”

“So, this brings me to what may be a stupid question, but, for my readers, what’s the importance of artificial consciousness? Computers and unconscious AI are already fantastically powerful. What could consciousness do to make them more useful?”

Prof. Saakali fields this question. “One part of consciousness that is very essential to our work is creativity. Consider the following question: if computers are so good at doing math, why do we still need mathematicians? It’s because computers aren’t actually doing math – they’re doing computations. Figuring out proofs and coming up with new ideas isn’t about crunching numbers – it’s about making conjectures, drawing parallels between divergent fields. At its deepest level, mathematics is about being creative. As far as we can tell, even the most advanced AI hasn’t been able to create a genuinely new idea. But what if it wakes up and becomes conscious? We can’t say for certain, of course, but it just might gain creativity. With both computational and creative prowess, there would be no limit to what conscious AIs could accomplish.”

As Saakali finishes the sentence, Andy walks into the room carrying two cups of tea. Saaya shadows him, carrying two more cups in her hands and a box of cookies tucked under her arm. I thank Andy as he hands me my tea. He nods and gives the other to Prof. Saakali, who smiles at him as he seats himself again on the couch. Saaya hands Ernest a cup, which I note contains black coffee instead of tea.

“Much obliged,” Ernest begins, but he is interrupted by Saaya, who states, “Something’s strange about Andy.”

Everybody’s eyes give Saaya their full attention, except Andy, whose attention is directed toward a squirrel out the window behind Prof. Saakali.

“At coffee he was talking about emotions – asking how to tell if you like something and what that means. He also said that he wished he could eat, as he ‘desired the experience of taste’.”

“Oh, that’s not a mystery.” Prof. Dempsey interjects. “Michael here was asking Andy questions about what he enjoys doing. I’m sure he was just confused and still thinking about that.”

“That might explain what prompted it, but his conduct still worries me.” Saaya continues. “I’m having trouble pointing to a specific incident, but something’s different.” She pauses, collecting her thoughts.

“He’s always been distant, but he’s still attentive. At tea he seemed distracted, like he had something he wanted to talk about but didn’t know how to broach the subject. He typically only responds to questions posed to him, but he independently approached Reid and Russel and started conversations with them. I don’t know, something’s just off.”

“Well, it could just be that his AI’s developed to the point that he’s seen enough conversations to know how to begin them.” Prof. Dempsey turns to Prof. Saakali, his open face soliciting input, but she makes no comment, watching Andy watch the squirrel.

“Welp, there’s no harm in doing some basic diagnostics. Hey, Andy!” Andy turns away from the window and looks at Prof. Dempsey. “I’ve got a few questions for you, if you don’t mind.”

“Not at all,” Andy replies.

“Where are we?”

“Samantha’s office.”

“Who is here?”

“Ernest, Samantha, Saaya, Michael, and myself.”

“How many cups of tea are there here?”


“Saaya, can you step out a moment?”

Saaya leaves the room.

“What book is on Sam’s desk?”

Andy cranes his neck and slightly rises to get a better look.

“Introduction to Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence. It’s the textbook for Samantha’s course this semester.”

“Visual faculties pass. What is Saaya wearing?”

“A maroon sweatshirt with the letters MIT on the front. Light blue jeans. Orange and grey sneakers. I presume she is also wearing socks, underwear, and a bra, but I have not visually confirmed this.”

I suppress a chuckle as Saaya steps back into the room. Unfazed, Prof. Dempsey continues his interrogation.

“What did we do yesterday?”

“We took a walk up the hillside east of campus to test my ability to climb rough terrain. We had a picnic at the top before returning.”

“When did I last fix your right thumb?”

“About three months ago. July fifteenth. It broke on the twelfth, but it took a few days to get the parts and repair the joint.”

“Memory faculties pass.”

Suddenly, Saaya picks the squishy robot off of the armrest of my chair and lobs it at Andy. He catches it deftly.

“External response and dexterity pass,” Saaya adds.

“Good one.” Prof. Dempsey nods. “Sam always wears a scarf when it’s cold. If Sam is wearing a scarf, what can we say about the weather?”


“Logical faculties pass.”

“So, everything’s fine with him?” I ask.

“Well, these are just crude diagnostics, but nothing jumps out at me at the moment. Sam’ll probably want do some more extensive tests later. We wouldn’t want to miss something important.”

“You forgot computational faculties.” Saaya comments.

“Oh, yeah. Hey Andy, what’s two hundred and seventy six to the fourth?” Andy doesn’t answer immediately. Prof. Dempsey frowns.

“Come on, Andy. What’s the answer?”

Andy turns his head slightly, as if puzzled. Then he reaches out with his hand, picks the abacus off of the coffee table, and begins sliding the beads. Nobody speaks for what seems an eternity, though my recording says it only lasts one minutes and thirty-six seconds. The only sound in the room is the whirr of Andy’s fingers and the clicking of the beads in their rhythmic arithmetic.

“Why’s he using the abacus?” I ask. “What’s this mean?”

Prof. Saakali, who has yet to take her eyes from Andy since he entered the room, finally speaks. “It means that he’s waking up.”


Image Source: Abacus by Thomas Clavelrole