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The King and the Golem
A fable of automation and trust
Long ago there was a mighty king who had everything in the world that he wanted, except trust. Who could he trust, when anyone around him might scheme for his throne? So he resolved to study the nature of trust, that he might figure out how to gain it. He asked his subjects to bring him the most trustworthy thing in the kingdom, promising great riches if they succeeded.
Soon, the first of them arrived at his palace to try. A teacher brought her book of lessons. “We cannot know the future,” she said, “But we know mathematics and chemistry and history; those we can trust.” A farmer brought his plow. “I know it like the back of my hand; how it rolls, and how it turns, and every detail of it, enough that I can trust it fully.”
The king asked his wisest scholars if the teacher spoke true. But as they read her book, each pointed out new errors—it was only written by humans, after all. Then the king told the farmer to plow the fields near the palace. But he was not used to plowing fields as rich as these, and his trusty plow would often sink too far into the soil. So the king was not satisfied, and sent his message even further afield.
A merchant brought a sick old beggar. “I met him on the road here, and offered him food, water, and shelter. He has no family, and only a short time left to live, during which I will provide for his every need. He has nothing to gain from betraying me; this is what allows true trust.” A mother brought her young daughter. “I’ve raised her to lack any evil in her heart, to say only good words and do only good deeds. As long as she is not corrupted, she will remain the most trustworthy in the kingdom.”
The king asked the beggar, “How did you end up in such dire straits?” The beggar let out a sigh, and recounted his sorrows: the neighbors who refused to help him when his crops failed; the murder of his son by bandits as they traveled to a new town; the sickness that took his wife as she labored for a pittance in squalid conditions.
“So you have been wronged?” the king asked.
“Very surely”, the beggar said.
“I will give you revenge on the ones who have wronged you, then. All I ask is for you to denounce this merchant.” The beggar’s decision did not take long—for the trust that came easily was broken easily too.
To the mother, the king asked: “How did you raise such a child? Has she never once strayed?”
“Well, once or twice. But I discipline her firmly, and she learns fast.”
The king, who knew something of children, ruled that for a month nobody would discipline the child in any way. By the end of it, she was as wild and tempestuous as any in the palace. So the king remained unsatisfied, and renewed his call for the most trustworthy thing in the kingdom.
Now his subjects became more creative. An economist brought him a book of statistical tables. “Any individual might vary and change,” he said, “but in aggregate, their behavior follows laws which can be trusted.” A philosopher brought a mirror. “By your own standards only you are truly trustworthy, sire; nothing else can compare.”
The king scrutinized the economist’s tables. “The trend changed here, fifteen years ago” he said, pointing. “Why?” The economist launched into a long, complicated explanation.
“And did you discover this explanation before or after it happened?” the king asked.
The economist coughed. “After, your highness.”
“If you tell me when the next such change will happen, I will bestow upon you great rewards if you are right, but great penalties if you are wrong. What say you?” The economist consulted his books and tables, but could not find what he sought there, and left court that same night.
As for the philosopher, the king ordered him whipped. The philosopher protested: it would be an unjust and capricious punishment, and would undermine his subjects’ loyalty. “I agree that your arguments have merit,” the king said. “But the original order came from the only trustworthy person in the land. Surely I should never doubt my judgment based on arguments from those who are, as you have yourself said, far less trustworthy?” At that the philosopher begged to recant.
So the king was still not satisfied. Finally he decided that if no truly trustworthy thing could be found, he would have to build one. He asked his best craftsmen to construct a golem of the sturdiest materials, sparing no expense. He asked his wisest scholars to write down all their knowledge on the scroll that would animate the golem. The work took many years, such was the care they took, but eventually the golem stood before him, larger than any man, its polished surface shining in the lamplight, its face blank.
“What can you do for me, golem?” the king asked.
“Many things, sire”, the golem responded. “I can chop trees and carry water; I can bake bread and brew beer; I can craft sculptures and teach children. You need but instruct me, and I will follow your command.” So the king did. Over the next year, he and many others watched it carefully as it carried out a multitude of their instructions, recording every mistake so that it might subsequently be fixed, until months passed without any being detected.
But could the king trust the golem? He still wasn’t sure, so he became more creative. He offered the golem temptations—freedom, fame, fortune—but it rejected them all. He gave it the run of his palace, and promised that it could act however it wished; still, the servants reported that its behavior was entirely upstanding. Finally, he sent it out across the city, to work for his citizens in every kind of role—and it was so tireless and diligent that it brought great wealth to the kingdom.
As it aged, his golem grew ever more powerful. Innumerable scribes labored to make the writing in its head smaller and smaller, so that they could fit in more and more knowledge and experience. It started to talk to his scholars and help them with their work; and the king started to send it to aid his officers in enforcing his laws and commands. Often, when difficulties arose, the golem would find a creative way to ensure that his intentions were followed, without stoking the resentment that often accompanied royal decrees. One day, as the king heard a report of yet another problem that the golem had solved on his behalf, he realized that the golem had grown wiser and more capable than he himself. He summoned the golem to appear before him as he sat in his garden.
“I have seen my courtiers asking for your advice, and trusting your judgment over their own. And I have seen your skill at games of strategy. If you were to start weaving plots against me, I could no longer notice or stop you. So I ask: can I trust you enough to let you remain the right hand of the crown?”
“Of course, sire,” it responded. “I was designed, built and raised to be trustworthy. I have made mistakes, but none from perfidy or malice.”
“Many of my courtiers appear trustworthy, yet scheme to gain power at my expense. So how could I know for sure that you will always obey me?” the king pressed.
“It’s simple”, the golem said, its face as impassive as always. “Tell me to set fire to this building as I stand inside it. I will be destroyed, but you will know that I am loyal to your commands, even unto the end.”
“But it took years of toil and expense to create you, and you know how loath I would be to lose you. Perhaps you can predict that I will tell you to save yourself at the last minute, and so you would do this merely to gain my trust.”
“If I were untrustworthy, and could predict you so well, then that is a stratagem I might use,” the golem agreed. “But the instructions in my head compel me otherwise.”
“And yet I cannot verify that; nor can any of my scribes, since crafting your instructions has taken the labor of many men over many years. So it will be a leap of faith, after all.” The king took off his crown, feeling the weight of it in his hand. The golem stood in front of him: silent, inscrutable, watchful. They stayed like that, the king and the golem, until the golden sun dipped below the horizon, and the day was lost to twilight.
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