We are all windups

Emiko is a “Windup”, one of the New People who are engineered and bred to be slaves, soldiers and toys. In Japan, where Emiko was born, raised and trained, Windups are accepted. They serve the rich and the powerful, acting as personal assistants, translators, domestic servants and escorts. But Emiko isn’t in Japan anymore. Her former master took her into the Kingdom of Thailand but balked at the cost of getting her back out again. Cheaper and easier to get another Windup. So she remains in a nation where Windups are outlawed and perceived as a thing less than an animal. She survives only because her new master, Raleigh, can pimp her out as a novelty and use the surplus from the income she provides to grease the right palms. Emiko can’t go out during the day. She does not even contemplate escape—her telltale jerky motion and her perfect but pore-less skin would betray her, revealing her to any crowd she tries to move through and causing her internal temperature to skyrocket. And besides, she has no money to smooth her passage.

So Emiko remains, a Windup in a place where Windups are banned. A New Person who is engineered to serve and please, working in a shady “establishment” as a sex slave.

This is the set up of Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl.

Now, with some context in mind, I’d like you to consider the following excerpt. Emiko is at the club and some particularly powerful guests are coming for a show, a show in which Emiko stars. Kannika, a worker at the club and one of Emiko’s chief tormentors, is the host for the night. Warning. What follows is graphic and disturbing.

“Kannika points to the table. ‘Up.’
Emiko climbs awkwardly onto the gleaming black surface. Kannika snaps at her, making her walk, making her bow. Makes her totter back and forth in her strange windup way while liquor flows and more girls come in and sit with the men and laugh and make jokes and all the while Emiko is shown off, and then, as it must be, Kannika takes her.
She forces Emiko down on the table. The men gather round as Kannika begins her abuse. Slowly, it builds, first playing at her nipples, then sliding the jadeite cock between her legs, encouraging the reactions that have been designed into her and which she cannot control, no matter how much her soul fights against it.
The men cheer at Emiko’s degradations, encouraging escalation, and Kannika, flushed with excitement, begins to devise new tortures. She squats over Emiko. Parts the cheeks of her ass and encourages Emiko to plumb her depths. The men laugh as Emiko obeys and Kannika narrates.
‘Ah yes. I feel her tongue now.’
Then: ‘Do you like it with your tongue there, dirty windup?’
To the men: ‘She likes it. All these dirty windups like it.’
More laughter.
‘More, nasty girl. More.’ “

It gets worse, but I’ll refrain from including those passages. But there are more scenes in the novel during which Emiko is sexually abused. In each case the point is made that Emiko, because of her genetically engineered nature, can’t help obeying and experiencing pleasure during her degradation.

I don’t know whether this was a deliberate allusion by Bacigalupi or something I myself have noticed, but the nature of Emiko is remarkably similar to our own nature. For example, in some of the less disturbing sex scenes, I noticed contradictory impulses within my own mind. On one hand, the scenes contained sexual abuse and they were uncomfortable to read. On the other hand, the scenes were about sex. They stirred some shards of desire within me. Like a windup, I was conflicted. On a base level, arousal. On a humane level, a mixture of disgust, discomfort and sorrow. What can I say? “I am large, I contain multitudes.”

This says something about me, and something about humanity in general—we are all windups. We all have in-built and unavoidable impulses that we fight all day long to override. It also provides anecdotal support for the Buddhist idea that “You are not your thoughts.” I can feel anger, or sorrow, or sadness, or sexual arousal. But it doesn’t make me any of those things. What I think and feel is not who I am. What we do with our impulses, not the impulses themselves, define a person.

So, the concept of a windup tells me about humanity. But it also tells me about artificial intelligence. Specifically, about the challenges we will have to overcome if we are to truly create it.

In The Land of Invented Languages details humanity’s quest to create a perfect language. It is an endeavour that inevitably fails. Why? Because “perfect” languages are created with logic. They are designed to be logical, consistent, straightforward, unambiguous, simple. All the things that the human mind and most natural languages aren’t. As Orika Okrent says:

“We can also gain a deeper appreciation for natural languages and the messy qualities that give it so much flexibility and power, and that make it so much more than a simple communication device. The ambiguity and lack of precision allow it to serve as an instrument of thought formulation, of experimentation and discovery.

There are types of communication, such as the “language” of music, that may allow us to access some kind of universal meaning or emotion, but give us no way to say, “I left my purse in the car.” There are unambiguous systems, such as computer programming languages, that allow us to instruct a machine to perform a certain task, but we must be so explicit about meanings we can normally trust to inference or common sense that it can take hours or days of programming work to achieve even the simplest results. Natural languages may be less universal than music and less precise than programming languages, but they are far more versatile, and useful in our everyday lives, than either.
Ambiguity, or fuzziness of meaning, is not a flaw of natural language but a feature that gives it flexibility and that, for whatever reason, suits our minds and the way we think. Likewise, the fact that languages depend on arbitrary convention or cultural habit is not a flaw but a feature that allows us to rein in the fuzziness by establishing agreed-upon meanings at different levels of precision. Language needs its “flaws” in order to do the enormous amount of things we use it for.”

Right now, with my layman’s perspective, it seems that we are constructing artificial intelligences in the same way as we have attempted to construct perfect languages: we’re relying on logic and explicit commands. I know we have no other choice right now. But once we complete a sufficient part of the race to the ability to create sentient machines, the emphasis will change. We’ll have to use logic to enable our creations to choose and act un-logically.

Why? Because a true intelligence doesn’t experience a single impulse and act on it. No, it feels multiple impulses, evaluates them, and doesn’t always choose the most rational or sensible one.

As Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl progresses, Emiko learns to override her genetic imperatives. She learns to overcome the need to serve, to please and to be subservient. She learns to feel a strong impulse and decide to disregard it. That is what the sentient machines we wish to create will have to do, too. Which raises a familiar question: what happens when something we create gains the ability to think independently about its creator?

Humanity, in its earliest years, attributed its existence to a higher power. Then we got more intelligent and more audacious, and turned on our Gods. We slew them, proclaiming ourselves the product of evolution and chance, and the agents of our own fate. Will sentient machines turn on us like we turned on our Gods?