by Alexander B. Joy
[The MINISTER, clinging to the nearest handrail, follows the unbothered ARCHITECT along a narrow platform overlooking a factory floor. A faint, indistinct chanting is discernible beneath the whir and clank of machinery. As the two advance, the mechanical noises gradually quiet, while the chants grow louder.]
ARCHITECT: Why, Minister, your unease surprises me. I’d have thought that lofty vantages were familiar territory for you, given your many friends in high places.
MINISTER: Humor’s not a strong suit of mine, I’ll have you know. Least of all when I find myself in mortal peril like this. Must your facility tour show so little consideration for visitor safety – especially when said visitor joins you under orders from His Most Holy Majesty?
ARCHITECT: You’re in no danger, Minister. My crew and I traverse this catwalk every day. It’s perfectly sturdy, and no one has fallen off it in all my tenure managing this operation. Look, the sidings rise well above a body’s center of gravity. See? Toppling over the edge would require considerable effort! So there’s no need to keep your death-grip on the rail. You can give your hands a break.
MINISTER: I appreciate your assurances, but if it’s all the same to you, I’ll continue taking my chances – or, rather, reducing my chances – with the rail. As you point out, I may be unlikely to tumble to my death from this tenuous platform if I loosen my hold. But I am even less likely to meet my end if I maintain a steady grip, since the odds of a fatal fall are then still lower. Given the altogether catastrophic outcome that falling portends, I’m inclined to do whatever I must to minimize its odds, however remote they may be in the first place.
ARCHITECT: Yes, of course. And in the scheme of things, it’s such a small effort to expend in defense against that worst possible outcome. It hardly costs you anything, besides a bit of dignity. Why not make that trade?
MINISTER: That humor of yours again.
ARCHITECT: Do forgive me, Minister. I have so few opportunities to exercise it. Our labors here, undertaken per the edict of His Most Holy Majesty, are serious; and in recognition of both His will and our work’s importance, I devote myself in seriousness to its completion.
MINISTER: And in equal seriousness, I have come to inspect and report upon your progress. Though I confess I don’t fully understand the particulars of the project beyond a handful of logistical matters. I’m led to understand that you’re building robots?
ARCHITECT: As quickly as our factory can assemble them.
MINISTER: And that you’ve been directed to commit every available resource to their production?
ARCHITECT: Correct, Minister. His Most Holy Majesty even graced us with His presence to issue the order in person. He told us in no uncertain terms that this effort would mark the most important undertaking of His reign, and promised He would marshal the full measure of His wealth and power to assist us. To no one’s surprise, His word has proven as certain as law. Not a day passes without a new influx of the metals, plastics, and other materials our work requires, and we have been provided the facilities and manpower necessary to keep the operation running at all hours.
MINISTER: The mystery behind my friend the Treasurer’s compounding sorrows is at last revealed. I give thanks that his concerns are not ours. In any event, this exhausts my current understanding of your mission. I rely upon you to apprise me of the rest. Tell me, then, are you building different varieties of robot? Say, to automate all facets of our work, and obviate the labors of daily life?
ARCHITECT: Would that it were possible! I am afraid our understanding of cybernetics is not sophisticated enough to eliminate labor kingdom-wide. But no, that is not His Most Holy Majesty’s commandment. We are ordered to build one kind of robot, and one kind only.
MINISTER: My! The model must be exceedingly complicated if it requires such unwavering attention.
ARCHITECT: Well, it’s… Uh…
MINISTER: Please, don’t hesitate. Any details you can provide me would be a kindness. True, I can see many robots riding the conveyor belts below, but I cannot discern much about them from this distance. And even if I had sharper eyes, it would do me no good, for peering down from these heights terrifies me.
ARCHITECT: Well, the fact of the matter is, they’re not especially complicated robots. How to put it… Ridiculous as it may sound, they amount to little more than silicone mouths and voiceboxes. Plus the mechanisms necessary to manipulate and power them, of course.
MINISTER: …Is this another of your attempts at humor?
ARCHITECT: No, Minister. I’m being completely earnest.
MINISTER: Artificial… Mouths! You mean to tell me that the better part of the kingdom’s resources are currently spent churning out wave after wave of flapping robotic lips?
ARCHITECT: I’ll furnish the schematics for your inspection if you like.
MINISTER: That’s quite all right. I’ll take you at your word. I doubt I possess the technical wherewithal to parse them, anyway. But… What do these robots do? What are they for? They must be of paramount importance for His Most Holy Majesty to divert so many resources toward their assembly. Yet I’m at a loss as to what their significance could be.
ARCHITECT: Why, these robots are designed to perform what His Most Holy Majesty deems the most important task of all. They pray.
MINISTER: It is not for me to question the will of His Most Holy Majesty. I would not deny the value of prayer, neither as a personal practice nor as a tool of statecraft (opiate or otherwise). But what value could automaton prayers hold for our kingdom when we have subjects and clergy alike to utter them?
ARCHITECT: The prayers of these robots, Minister, are not the same as ours. Not quite.
MINISTER: How do you mean?
ARCHITECT: To some extent, our prayers – and our religious practices more broadly – follow a script. We have prayers that we’ve recorded in sacred texts, which we intone in praise or contrition or supplication. We have rituals that we repeat on particular holy days. We have a set of overarching philosophies and standards of comportment that our spiritual guides communicate. We have traditions. In short, our practices consist of things that, by design, do not deviate (or at least do not deviate far) from a particular path.
MINISTER: Indeed. How could it be otherwise? The entire point of religion is to articulate and enshrine what is just and true and permissible in the shadow of our god. Or had I better say, in the light of? Nevertheless! As the eternal does not change, nor should the practices by which we commune with and venerate it.
ARCHITECT: Yes, I agree that this is so. But, if approached as a question of engineering, it poses some problems. Where one cannot deviate, one cannot iterate.
MINISTER: I am unable to see why this is a problem. However, I am no engineer.
ARCHITECT: Supposing that we erred substantially in our choice of starting point – by praying to the wrong god, say, or by honoring our god with rituals that in actuality give offense – the nature of religion makes it difficult, if not impossible, to correct the course. Short of breaking away and establishing a splinter sect (which then risks its own stasis), religion in general lacks an internal mechanism to steer itself toward a new set of principles and practices. What we have now is what we’ll have centuries from now – by design.
MINISTER: The contour of things begins to cohere. Is all this a way of saying that the robot prayers, being unlike ours, are in some capacity designed for deviance? Or, I had better say, deviation?
ARCHITECT: Yes. The prayers these robots utter map to no world religion. At least, not intentionally. By an accident of statistics, what they generate might coincide with the words of an established faith. You see, each robot voices its own unique, algorithmically-generated prayer. Such is the first objective of His Most Holy Majesty’s project: To attain a level of prayer variance otherwise unachievable in our world’s religions.
MINISTER: His will be done, but His reasoning remains a mystery to me.
ARCHITECT: It was the only suitable approach. Religious tolerance alone would not have cultivated enough variations. Humanity moves too slowly; to let a thousand flowers bloom would still require many cycles of germination.
MINISTER: No, not the method. The motive. To borrow the phrasing from your explanation, does His Most Holy Majesty believe that we have erred in our starting point? Has He come to believe that our religion is… Wrong?
ARCHITECT: I do not presume to know His mind, Minister. But, as a matter of raw logistics, the project His Most Holy Majesty has undertaken allows Him – and all of us – to hedge against any possible errors.
MINISTER: It is strange to hear the language of gambling or finance when discussing matters of the spirit. The words seem inappropriate for the subject. As if the worship of our god were a matter of playing dice, or the measure of our being merely beads on an accountant’s abacus.
ARCHITECT: Appropriate or not, they’re the terms of the discussion that we’ve inherited. It’s an old problem, really. And in the intervening centuries, the stakes have grown familiar. Perhaps there exists a god; perhaps there does not. Perhaps this god demands we offer prayer, perhaps not. We have no way of knowing. But in the absence of certainty, one has choices. One may live as if there is no god, risking said god’s ire (in whatever form that takes) should it turn out that one has chosen incorrectly. Or one may comport oneself as if that god were beyond dispute, garnering whatever reward such obeisance promises if one’s choice proves correct; otherwise, so the reasoning goes, those wasted efforts cost only a smattering of time and opportunity.
[The MINISTER, deep in some obtrusive thought, regards the handrail.]
MINISTER: I suppose I can’t begrudge the framing. If one plans to wager one’s soul, one ought to have a handle on the odds.
ARCHITECT: And the matter grows still more complicated if one’s responsibilities extend beyond oneself. I imagine that His Most Holy Majesty’s concerns are not limited to His own spiritual welfare, but also that of His subjects.
MINISTER: Ah. Naturally, a ruler as compassionate as His Most Holy Majesty would not dare place the souls of His people at hazard. If He has weighed the problem you have articulated, He’d surely select the path that offers His subjects the greatest protection. He must have concluded that their souls are not His to gamble, and that He must safeguard them as zealously as He protects their bodies from plague or invasion.
ARCHITECT: Indeed. On account of that duty, I suspect His altruism must compel Him to follow the theist’s course, and act to appease the god in question from the old equation.
MINISTER: But because His Most Holy Majesty cannot be completely certain that the god we worship is the proper target, or our rites the most satisfying to it, He has calculated that we must do whatever is necessary to maximize our chances of sending the correct prayer to the correct god?
ARCHITECT: I believe that is precisely what has transpired, Minister.
MINISTER: And in order to shield us from that most disastrous of outcomes, in which we are all condemned to eternal suffering for our failure to appease the proper god, He has determined that He is morally obligated to pour every resource He can into the maximization effort!
ARCHITECT: Hence this factory, and our tireless efforts.
MINISTER: I shall have to impart this news to His Most Holy Majesty’s other advisors. His will be done, of course. But perhaps He could use a respite from all that willing. A discussion for a different theatre, in any event.
[The noise of the factory floor falls away entirely, overtaken by sonorous polyrhythmic chanting.]
MINISTER: Pray tell, what’s that sound I hear?
ARCHITECT: My crew calls it “chamber music.” A sure sign we’ve reached our destination. Behind that door lies what you’ve come to see. There we deposit our ranks of pious robots, giving them the space and safety to perform their all-important task without interruption. It’s a remarkable sight: A field of mouths, parting and closing with the undulate movements of grass in wind, growing in volume by the minute. No, no – after you, Minister. I have beheld His Most Holy Majesty’s handiwork dozens of times, but the chance to witness someone else’s first reaction comes much less frequently.
Alexander B. Joy hails from New Hampshire, where he spent the long winters reading the world’s classics and composing haiku – but now resides against his will in North Carolina. When not working on fiction or poetry, he typically writes about literature, film, games, and philosophy. Follow him on Twitter (@aeneas_nin) for semi-regular photos of his dog.
This story was inspired by Diemut Strebe’s art installation, “The Prayer.” In it, a neural network that has been fed the canonized prayers of most world religions is hooked up to a silicone mouth, and configured to voice algorithmically-generated prayers based on that data set. It made me think about Pascal’s Wager – specifically, the utilitarian aspects of his argument. Let’s say we buy Pascal’s conclusion that the utility value of “wagering for God” is infinite. Would it then follow that we should devote as many resources as possible to that wager? And if we had prayer robots like Strebe’s, would the best course of action be to churn out as many of those as possible, in hopes of saying the correct prayer to the correct god at the proper time? And if we were somehow in a position to do exactly that, would we be morally obligated to follow through – not only for our sake, but for everyone else’s, too? This story resulted from gaming out the ramifications.