The Least Common Denominator

“You want to do what?” was the incredulous reply.

“Scan all of the religious and philosophical texts into a computer,” replied Mr. Simonsen. “Then the pattern matching AI we’ve created will go through them looking for patterns, common themes, connections.”

“Why would you want to do that? What possible use could there be in such a endeavour?” grumbled Mr. Blickx. He was a tough businessman. He had no overt religion himself. His formative years had been spent studying physics and engineering. Spirituality was something that was just not part of his makeup.

Mr Simonsen smiled. “The purpose would be twofold. On one hand it would be a resource for the company. We have had problems entering new markets. On more than a few occasions we’ve run afoul of local beliefs and religious edicts. This could advise us on whether what we are about to do is problematic. It would keep us from putting ourselves in a corner where we are faced with violating the moral code of the locals or forcing our employees to violate theirs.”

“I like that idea. Yes, that alone would be worth the cost.” Mr. Blicks smiled. He remembered an unfortunate episode from a few years before. Quite inadvertently their branch in Western Venlatenda had found itself in just such a dilemma. The Chief of Operations had made a deal to open a mine. Without realizing it, had also promised his daughter’s hand to the local warlord. Failure to deliver would have been a dreadful insult and would cost all the local staff their lives. But the Chief of Operations did not HAVE a daughter to hand over, even if he had been inclined to, which he was not. Only a frantic satellite phone call to the Regional Operations Manager averted tragedy. Quickly chartering several helicopters, the local staff was evacuated from a nearby football pitch, and disaster averted. Unfortunately this killed the deal, and rendered the possibility of another totally out of the question. It had been a hard lessen that Mr. Blickx did not want repeated.

“You said there was a second reason?”

“Yes, it will be great for Public Relations.”

“How could that be?”

“We would make it available online.”


“It would be a resource,” said Mr. Simonsen. “Many people are becoming concerned about the increasing percentage of their fellow citizens that are not part of any religious group. There is a belief that without religion people won’t have morals. Now I don’t want to debate if that is true or not. But some are concerned that people are looking for answers and are rejecting the traditional sources. If we put the AI on line and let people ask questions, it could answer them with the distilled morality of all religions. The common moral and ethical standards that apply to all. This would be a great resource and the fact that we made it available for free would improve our image.”

“You want to make a robot messiah?”

“Oh no no no. Nothing that grandiose,” laughed Mr. Simonsen. “Computer systems are nowhere near capable of anything like that, if in fact they ever would be. No, this is more of a philosophical guide. If someone says they want to kill themselves, it could answer that doing that would be wrong, because pretty much ALL religions say so. If someone wanted to know if it was okay to cheat on a deal if the boss told them to, it would say no, because they would be the one doing the deed. Pretty much all religions would say that. If someone wanted to know if…”

“Okay I get it.” Said Mr. Blickx abruptly. “It would be more of an ethical councillor for those that did not have a priest, or rabbi, or monk to turn to. That sounds like a good idea. I also like the business plan and the budget you’ve proposed. I will approve it and authorize you to start work Monday morning. The fifth floor of the McCormack Research Centre is empty right now. I’ll reserve it for your operations. As far as computers, you’ll have desktops as you need them of course. Also we’ll start out with some shared server space. Eventually you may need a server farm and even a supercomputer for your own data crunching. But that can wait for a few months as you get set up.”

With that Mr. Blickx rose, shook Mr. Simonsen’s hand, and left the room.

As promised the office space was available the following Monday. Initially Mr. Simonsen was alone. Soon more people came on board. Within three months the team numbered twenty-four, mostly programmers and a few linguists. They refined one of the companies existing AIs to ingest and interpret text based material. Not just English though. It had to know thousands of languages, both currant and extinct. It had to be able to read every written language on earth, and understand spoken languages as well.
This was not going to be a superficial scan of human ethics. No, the plan was to feed the computer every translation of the Bible they could lay their hands on going all the way back to the very first written version, and the writings of any and every obscure sect that split off from the main church. The same was done for the Torah and other Jewish holy books and sects. The same was done for the Koran and other philosophical writings of the different sects of Islam. The same was done for Hinduism, Sikhism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, and the subgroups that split from them. They did this for any and every faith they could find. Where written records were not available, interviews were done with religious leaders. Six months after the project started fifty anthropologists were hired. They spent the next five years travelling the world interviewing people from Inuit in the high arctic, to obscure tribes with no name in the Amazon. From Kalahari Bushman in Africa, to indigenous people in the wilds of New Guinea and the outback of Australia. Spiritual leaders from the Lakota and the Maori spent weeks discussing the details of their belief system and morality as their cultures saw it.

Now keeping this all quiet was impossible. Too many people were involved. Too many resources were being spent on the project to not have it get noticed. So a cover story was put out. The press release said the project was to catalogue all religions and religious teachings. It was like a Google Books for religion and philosophical writing. Not only did this provide an explanation for that the company was doing, soon being included became a point of honour. Being included was seen as “legitimizing” a faith system. Rather than having to dig around for them, small sects were banging on the door to get the writings of their leader included.

And sometimes they were.

The first time the In or Out question came up was a year after the project started. When it did, it raised a huge moral dilemma for the team. Yes, all faith systems were equal in the eyes of the project. Equal in the eyes of God. Theoretically everything should be included. That was the idea they started out with. But it became clear that some judgement calls were going to be necessary. The first “Class C” group, as they came to be classified as, called themselves Silvers. They believed that God was The Silver Surfer. Yes, the one from the comic books. They believed in all absolute seriousness and devotion that the comics were in fact holy books handed down from heaven. They preyed to the Silver Surfer. The four people that followed this faith all moved to California to live on the beach and take up surfing just to emulate their deity. After dealing with them a meeting was held and a decision was made. From then on, everyone would be listened to, but the obvious crazies would just be humoured. The books would be accepted, the leaders rambling were taped, a record was made. After the people left all of the material was quietly put into a climate controlled storeroom marked Class C “for later study and inclusion”. That way the researchers were not lying, but the AI would not have to wade through the ramblings of schizophrenics.

After five years the field work was done. All of the data that was going to be included had been fed into the database. Now it was up to the AI to do its work. To prevent any sort of bias, the AI had not been put into analyze mode. That would only happen after all of the data was collected. This was to prevent the number of Christian bibles that were scanned in the first month from skewing the results. All faith systems were to be processed simultaneously. No added weight was to be given to any particular religion, or any region, or any language. The goal was to level the playing field, and find the common beliefs within the teachings of all religions.

Mr. Blickx and Mr. Simonsen were in the room along with the core of the team. “Well,” Mr. Simonsen said. “It’s time to start this.” He beamed as he stepped to the workstation. He leaned over to the keyboard and typed one word “EXECUTE” and hit return.
Immediately the screen went black. Black except for a number in the middle of the screen “0.000001%”

“How long is this going to take?” asked Mr. Blickx.

“Well,” began Mr. Simonsen. “That depends on a number of variables. The complexity of the connections the AI makes. The difficulty of the moral questions it poses for itself. The number of logical contradictions it has to resolve.”

“Just give me a ballpark figure,” said Mr. Blickx impatiently. “I just want to know if I can make lunch plans for tomorrow.”

“O-Oh, I think that would not be a problem.”

“Well, how long then?”

“It’s really hard to put a number to…”

“Just a ballpark figure, that’s all I want.” Mr. Blickx said somewhat exasperated.

“Okay, at least a year.”

“A year?” replied Mr. Blickx incredulously?

“Maybe longer, it is a difficult problem.”

“Okay then call me when it’s done,” said Mr. Blickx. He turned and left the room. The rest of the team followed him out. Soon, Mr. Simonsen was left alone with the humming computer.

And so it went. Each day Mr. Simonsen would go to his office, note down the number on the screen, and spend the day monitoring the system. Once a week he would take a “snapshot” of the server, all of the data and status of the program, and store it in a secure location off site. That was in case of a disaster, a power loss, an earthquake, a fire. If disaster struck, the last snapshot could be loaded onto new hardware and the run would continue from the last saved state. This went on day after day, week after week, month after month. Soon all of his staff was transferred to other departments to work on other projects. Even his Receptionist/Office Assistant moved on. The space on the fifth floor of the McCormack Research Centre was given over to other projects. Within a few weeks all that was left was Mr. Simonsen alone in one conference room. In it was his desk, a table for backup drives and other equipment, and a workstation with the black screen and the current percentage on it.

In all it took not a year, but eighteen months, for the run to finish. Now, monitoring a server that is not having any problems is boring work. As the days dragged on, Mr. Simonsen more than once wished that he could ask the AI a question. “Would it be ethical to play video games on company time?” “Would it be ethical to sleep on company time?” But the days passed, the weeks passed, the seasons passed, and the number on the screen slowly inched upwards. Finally one day Mr. Simonsen came into the office and the screen said, “100%. What is your question?” He whooped with joy. It was done. Finally the project was complete.

Hurriedly he picked up the phone on his desk to call Mr Blickx. Part of him was pleasantly surprised that it still worked. He hadn’t used the phone in nearly a year. “This is Simonsen, it’s done,” was all he said. Mr. Blickx immediately understood. “Excellent, I will have my secretary contact your core members. We will meet at your office in ten minutes.”

Mr. Simonsen hung up the phone. He was about to try the System himself when he glanced around the room. “Holy crap, I think building maintenance has forgotten I was in here,” he said out loud. Talking to himself was one of the habits he’d picked up from spending his days alone. Overflowing trash cans sat in the corners. Muddy boots were still where he had left them last winter. The floor needed a good sweeping. The stain on the wall where he’d leaned his bicycle was obvious. Several of the lights in the room were even burned out. “I’d better make this place look presentable.” The next ten minutes saw Mr. Simonsen rushing about, cleaning, putting things back where they belonged, running a system snapshot for backup. Hiding a few things that he’s brought in that were not necessarily businesslike or productive. He had just finished when everyone started to arrive.

There was a lot of catching up to do. Some of the team hadn’t seen each other, in months. None of them had seen Mr. Simonsen in almost a year and a half. Quickly the room filled with chatter. Then Mr. Blickx arrived and that would all have to wait. The noise died down and for a moment all was quiet. Then Mr. Blickx barked, “Well, let’s see what all this work was for.”
Mr. Simonsen stepped to his desk. Tapping a few keys awoke his computer. Than touching another button the screen was mirrored on the giant display screen on the wall. “Okay, let me bring up the site,” he said.

“Why can’t you use that one,” commented Mr. Blickx pointing to the workstation where the number had been counting up.

“Oh that one is just for maintenance,” replied Simonsen. “You actually interact with the AI through a web browser.”

A web page appeared on the big screen. It was very simple. The company logo was at the top, and faintly repeated numerous times as a watermark on the background. At the bottom of the page was the company name, address, phone numbers, and other contact information. In the middle of the page was a largish box with the words “What is your question?” just above it.

Mr. Simonsen turned to look at the gathered throng. “So what should be ask it?”

A murmur went through them. “It should be something simple,” came a voice from the back. “Yeah, straightforward,” echoed another. “Something we know the answer to?” suggested a third.

“I’ve got it,” said Mr. Simonsen. Turning back to the keyboard he started typing. “If you accidentally run over your neighbour’s dog, is it ethical to not say anything?” and hit Return.

The box disappeared and was replaced by a tag saying PROCESSING. After a few seconds the AI returned with its answer.
“Don’t Be a Dick” was all it said.

“What the hell is that?” said Mr. Blickx.

“L-L-Let’s try another one,” stammered Mr. Simonsen. How about this? He then typed “Is it ethical to have an affair with some else’s wife?” A few seconds later the answer appeared. “Don’t Be a Dick”. Mr. Blickx grunted and left in disgust while the engineers frantically tried to figure out what had gone wrong. Laptops were opened and logged into the remote server. Samples of source code were poured over trying to find the cause, all to no avail.

An hour passed. Mr. Simonsen was desperate now. “What about other languages? Is this just an english problem?”

“No,” replied LaPlante, the chief Linguist on the team. “There are slight variations in the response between languages. A question in French replies with ‘Ne Sois Pas Merdique’, which means Don’t Be Shitty. Chinese comes back with Bùyào Chéngwéi Máoniú De Húndàn meaning ‘Don’t Be a Yak’s Asshole. Swahili returns Kuwa Bora Kuliko Shitusi meaning ‘Be Better Than Warthog Shit’. Russian replies with Srtop Deystvuyet Kak Konskiy Pin meaning Stop Acting Like A Horse’s Penis. The translations are not perfect. It’s a machine translation so it misses the nuance a person would give it. But the meaning is there. We’ve tried multiple questions in every language we can scrape up. It always gives the same answer for each language, but all of the answers are of a similar vein.”

The room became silent as they all pondered the problem. Suddenly one of the engineers started laughing uncontrollably. It was Geonelli. He was unique among the team. He had a Phd in computer science/computer programming. However he also had a degree in Divinity. In fact he was an ordained Minister and had officiated for two of the team who got married during the project. Now he was laughing almost hysterically. Simonsen rushed over to where he had collapsed and was sitting on the floor.
Grabbing Gionelly by the shoulders he gave him a good shake. “Get ahold of yourself man. What is wrong?” slowly Gionelli got himself under control and climbed to his feet. “Don’t you see“ he finally was able to exclaim. “The AI isn’t broken. It’s working exactly the way we programmed it. It’s doing what we asked.”

“What do you mean?” said Simonsen in shock.

“What are all of these belief systems saying?” asked Gionelli. “They are all saying the same thing. Take the ten commandments. Don’t be a dick, thou shalt not steal. Don’t be a dick, thou shalt not kill. Don’t be a dick, though shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife. The same is true of the writings of Islam or Buddhism, or the oral stories of the Australian Aborigines. Culture, religion, all of this, is based around the need to have rules so people treat each other nicely. Do to others what you want them to do to you. This is the meaning of the law of Moses and the teaching of the prophets. It’s right there in Matthew. The shorthand version of all of that is Just Don’t Be A Dick. It’s the eleventh commandment. No scratch that. It’s the core meaning of the other ten. The rest, the ritual, the treasure, the pomp, the stories, the martyrs, the saints, the various names for God, all of that is just window dressing.” Now Gionelli was nearly hysterical. “The core message is the same for all religions. ‘Be better than warthog shit’. Don’t be a dick. Distilled down, that IS the core of religion, of civilization.”

Gionelli collapsed into a chair still laughing to himself. Everyone else was silent. Finally Simonsen spoke up. “Well at least it’s a damn good thing this isn’t live online. No telling how this would be received if it got out.”

“But Mr. Simonsen, sir,“ came a voice from the back. “It is online. It was programmed to enable the web server as soon as the run was complete. It’s sending the site out through the port we used to access the system remotely from home. That’s how we were able to do the development early in the project. That’s how we were able to test it today.”

Mr. Simonsen spun around to face the screen. Reaching to his computer he scrolled down to the bottom of the page. At the very bottom of the web page, below the company name and up till now below the bottom of the screen was a hit counter tallying up the times the page had been accessed. It said the page had already been loaded fifteen million times. At the rate the counter was moving it would surpass 20 million in the next few minutes. Apparently people had been eagerly waiting for the run to finish. The second it came up someone had seen it, and posted it to Reddit, from there it spread to Facebook, and Twitter. Screen shots went to Pinterest and Instagram, essays about it to Tumblr. By the time Mr. Simonsen got to work it had gone viral. The rest of the world knew about the issue before he did.

“Oh shit,” thought Mr. Simonsen to himself. “Maybe we can tell everyone this was a joke?” he asked hopefully.

Just then someone ran into the room. It was Mr. Blickx Office assistant. “What the hell have you been doing? The phones are jammed. We are getting more hate calls and messages than I’ve ever seen, and it’s all because of your damed religion page.”

“I guess we’d just better just shut it down,” said Mr. Simonsen. Reaching over to the workstation he tapped a few buttons. The screen went blank and the web page on his main computer disappeared, replaced by a 404 Page Not Found error. “With a bit of luck this will blow over in a few days,” he thought.

But it didn’t blow over in a few days. Once the web page was down, stories of what it did and said spread and in the retelling were magnified. The world was filled with outrage at what the site said their religion stood for. The word blasphemy appeared in nearly every corner of the globe. Almost immediately attacks began on Company property, facilities and personnel around the world. Bombings and shootings and violence of all kinds against anyone and anything connected to the company.

All done by people that most assuredly were acting like dicks.

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