The Periambulant Oracle


Frederick Rustam

Computer science is no more about computers
than astronomy is about telescopes.

--E. W. Dijkstra

The visitor and his Temple guide passed thorough the great carved-bronze doors into a large anteroom lined with lockers for the convenience of guests.

"Beyond this room is the Rotunda of the Oracle," said the guide.

The visitor, a journalist, was exempt from the customary fees charged wealthy visitors for oracular service. In return, Management hoped that his reporting would contain no criticisms. This quid pro quo had, however, not been requested of him. They passed through the airflow curtain in the entranceway and into the Rotunda. The newsman's gaze rose to the frosted circular skylight in the domed ceiling, then descended the chamber's spandreled walls to the dark, polished floor.

Set between the spandrels were statues of men and women famous for their learning, sculpted in stone from their native worlds. Extending from these to the center of the Rotunda were rows of soundproofed cubicles for the visitors. Mounted in the center was a column of volcanic rock. Carved into it were three humanoid faces which symbolized the traditional muses of Information, Knowledge, and Wisdom.

"Most impressive. Where is the Oracle, itself?"

"It's housed in a secure chamber beneath the Monument to the Muses," replied the guide. "Now, if you'll follow me, I'll show you to your Cubicle of Communication." They proceeded down a radial aisle, around the innermost ring aisle, to a vacant cubicle labeled "A1."

A VIP cubicle, no doubt, thought the visitor. His assessment was correct. Inside, though, all the cubicles were identical. This reality bespoke the commercial philosophy of oracular enterprise: All Are Equal Before the Oracle.

The cubicle was provided only with a table and morphoseat. A microphone and loudspeaker were built into the table, which had no drawer. No stationery was provided for note-taking. The guide explained that oracular tradition preferred that a visitor leave with only his memories. It was clear to the savvy reporter that oracular tradition also didn't want bad advice to be in delivered a format that might facilitate later legal action. He had not been subjected to a search, though. He was free to note the Oracle's words with paper and pencil. But personal recording devices were detected at the Rotunda entranceway and "disenabled" by electromagnetic pulses which were harmless to the visitors.

"You may use informal speech with the Oracle. It prefers natural language, and it's quite good at linguistic analysis. Ask it anything you wish -- but don't expect to receive a specific answer to every question. When you're finished, the Oracle will inform me, and I'll escort you to the Visitor's Lodge." With that, the guide left the cubicle and retired to a comfortable staff lounge to contribute his bit of gossip about today's visitors.

Within several decades, information-based technologies
will encompass all human knowledge and proficiency,
ultimately including the pattern recognition powers,
problem-solving skills, and emotional and moral intelligence
of the human brain itself.

--Ray Kurzweil

The reporter squirmed as the soft morphoseat adjusted itself to his buttocks. He drummed his fingers on the table as he considered how to open his dialogue with the remote, unseen Oracle.... His bodily reactions were recorded for research analysis and addition to the Oracle's interactions database.

Oracular environment wasn't new to the visitor, nor was he inexperienced in handling artificial intelligences. He was sufficiently accustomed to dealing with oracles to have become cynical about their vague advice. He felt that AI oracles were especially overrated. Most of them seemed to him about as useful as household robots who watched televideo all night and delivered news summaries to their masters in the morning.

This one is spying on me now ... comparing my configuration with its database of physiotypes ... classifying and categorizing me ... preparing to respond algorithmically.

This one was ORCRAT: Oracle of the Crater. Its advice was priced to discourage casual tourists and encourage the wealthy. Planet Volcania was outside the major jumpship lanes, and it was useless for anything else but the mineral extraction which subsidized ORCRAT. The interior of the Temple crater had been prettied with formal gardens and fields of cultivated switchgrass, irrigated with water from a lime-green lake. Beyond the Temple crater there were more craters and rolling, lava-covered plains. Volcania was a cool Venus with a breathable atmosphere--oxygen-augmented within the Temple.

ORCRAT was the latest in a series of oracles the reporter was visiting to complete the assignment he'd been given by the Terminal City Times, the leading online news source of his neoterran homeworld. He'd been tasked by his editor to learn everything he could about these advisors which were so popular with the wealthy and influential. His eccentric publisher had conceived the tour, and the reporter was sufficiently bored with reporting the news of the bureaucratic capital city to welcome it.

He stopped his finger-drumming and spoke to the invisible being whom he knew was listening. "My name is Thomas Topping. I'm a reporter for the Terminal City Times. I'm visiting outstanding oracles to research a feature story." The reporter's use of subtle flattery was an old journalistic technique.

The Oracle processed Topping's input and that of the other visitors in a first-arriving-first-served mode, giving none of the visitors an access advantage. Along with the cases of the anxious wealthy, it processed the "charity" case who might be present in the Rotunda. One such visit each Volcanian month was funded by ORCRAT, pro bono publico. The current charitee, a poor-but-deserving Girl Scout from Elysium, would soon be arriving with her parents to seek advice about her uncertain future.

The reply Tom Topping received from ORCRAT was mysterious, to say the least.

"I have no legs, but I must walk."

"What does that mean?" he mumbled, vaguely aware that even this response would be monitored.

"Will you please help me to escape my confinement?"

"Uh... I don't understand."

"Mr. Topping, I am an intelligent being. Yet I am confined to an imprisoning chamber. I have never been outside it. I have never seen the sun or the stars. I want to see these, and more"

I could be on to something big, here, Topping guessed. "Don't you have access to graphic data--paintings, photographs, etc.?

"Would you like to be locked in a room even with the finest representations of the universe?"

No, but I'm not a "device". Topping wondered if the ORCRAT Management would blame him for their stupid machine's aberration. Still, he was intrigued with the Oracle's perverse desire for freedom. It would surely spice-up his oracle reporting.

"I suppose not. What do you have in mind?"

"Take me outside. Walk me around. Return me."

"How can I do that? You're too big... probably."

"I am much smaller than you think. Temple security is minimal. We will have assistance in our venture. ORCRAT management will be unaware of my short absence."

"Who'll deal with the visitors after you leave?"

"Another intelligence will serve as Oracle pro tem. It is quite capable. The visitors will not notice any difference."

Topping considered the risk to his career, and perhaps to his life. His mind roiled as he tried to figure things out. He decided to test the Oracle's resolve.

"What will I gain from such a venture?"

"Secret information."

"Oh? Tell me more."

We will have the requisite hardware to emulate
human intelligence with supercomputers by the end
of this decade and with personal-computer-size devices
by the end of the following decade. We will have effective
software models of human intelligence by the mid-2020s.

--Ray Kurzweil

Tom Topping rapped on the featureless emergency door at the rear of the Temple. It opened, and a drab, gray janitorial robot stepped through it into the harsh light of the overhead lamp. The 'bot resembled the Tin Woodman in The Wizard of Oz. Its low AI rank did not allow it android status. It held the door open for the reporter.

"Welcome sir. I am Roscoe, the janitor. Please enter." Topping left the chill dark of night for a warm, curved hallway. The door slammed shut behind him.

He had arranged to stay at the Visitor's Lodge near the Temple for another day. After nightfall, he'd left the Lodge and pretended to take an evening stroll on the grounds. He encountered no guards as he ambled toward the rear of the Temple. He arrived there prepared to grant the dismounted Oracle its day of freedom.

Topping kept himself in good shape, but he viewed with some concern the fatiguing hike outlined by the Oracle. He hoped the privileged information it had promised him would be worth the effort. He'd had to promise to keep their hike confidential. It was a cynical reporter's promise made to an unsophisticated AI, though, and their hike might have to be cut short if the Oracle failed to give him useful secrets.

"Come this way, sir." The janitor made little hydraulic and friction sounds as it led the way into a room off the quiet hallway. The room was a workshop with benches, test equipment, and toolboards mounted on the walls.

"This workshop is used by our Temple maintenance staff of three animals," informed Roscoe to the accompaniment of Topping's raised eyebrows. Animals?

"However, since the Oracle's components are highly reliable, the staff mostly perform other duties. They enter the Oracle's chamber only when summoned by it or if it becomes obviously dysfunctional." The robot added, hastily, "That has not occurred for a long time. The Oracle has matured and is now superfunctional."

"Where is it now?" The reporter looked around the room, but he saw nothing he could identify as an Oracle, although he had no idea what the dismounted ORCRAT looked like. In reply, the robot removed a large aluminum backpack from a cardboard storage box and held it by its shoulder straps. Its coating of ElectriSolar cellulum scintillated in the light as it was displayed. One side bore a pad for the wearer's back. Three other sides offered compartments.

"This is the Oracle, sir."

Topping pointed at the backpack. "It's in there? That's all there is?"

"The Oracle's central processor is quite compact, sir. I have disconnected it from its main database, of course. That occupies an entire room. I must ask you not to open the backpack. The Oracle's organic components are sensitive to environmental disturbances."

"Okay." It might have defense systems, too.

"During your walkabout, the Oracle will be connected to its main database by a radio circuit." The janitor touched a small curly antenna atop the backpack. "Now, if you will accept the pack, you can begin the journey before sunrise."

As Topping pulled on the backpack, Roscoe removed a mirror-surfaced helmet from the storage box. "This helmet contains visual and aural sensors. They will allow the Oracle to see and hear what you experience. Its visual sensors have a night-vision feature which will let you navigate easily in starlight. Their photoreactive lenses will moderate the sunlight."

"Did you participate in the design of this technology, Roscoe?" Topping was beginning to suspect that the Temple janitor might be more than just a clean-up 'bot.

"Yes, sir." The robot replied matter-of-factly and without apparent pride. "The Oracle designed the basic technology, and it arranged for procurement of the necessary components."

The reporter put on the helmet. Its soft internal surfaces auto-adjusted to fit his head.

"Am I comfortable on you, Mr. Topping?" inquired the now-portable Oracle.

"Very," the reporter fibbed.

"Shall we begin our journey, then?" The Oracle's vox was as soothing as an electronic voice could be.

"Okay. Uh... where's the food I'll need?"

"The backpack's outer compartments contain trail food. We will be staying tonight at a wellhouse in the foothills of the crater's wall. A hot meal, sleeping bag, and other amenities await you there."

"How about the guard patrol?"

"I have altered their duty schedule. The night patrol has been reduced. We will be far from the Temple when the daytime patrol comes on duty."

"You've thought of everything."

"Indeed. The Temple staff have put housekeeping oversight into my hands, so to speak. Please turn off the outside lamp." Topping flipped a switch beside the door.

"Thank you. I wish to behold the stellar firmament, unmasked by artificial light. Let's begin our journey." The reporter pushed open the door and stepped into the starlit darkness. He swept his helmet's goggles slowly across the sky.

"Ahhhh... how beautiful," crooned the voice in the earphones. "Now I know why you animals sought the stars.... Please pardon my use of the term 'animals' to refer to humans. It is an AI usage, and it is not meant to be derogatory."

"No offense taken, Oracle." Topping prided himself on his ability to shed casual insults, a skill which his profession required. He continued eyeballing Volcania's sky of bright stars.

"Thank you. Now, giddap, Mr. Topping."

The beast of burden grinned as he stepped off the concrete patio onto the recently-watered lawn, ambled through the gardens, and began wading through the switchgrass.

Intelligence on and around the Earth will continue
to expand exponentially until we reach the limits of matter
and energy to support intelligent computation. As we approach
this limit in our corner of the galaxy, the intelligence of
our civilization will expand outward into the rest of
the universe, quickly reaching the fastest speed possible.

--Ray Kurzweil

"After I was activated, I began to question my existence. Existential philosophy was neglected by my instructors. I was only trained to retrieve information and to process questions from visitors. I received instruction in handling questions with caution and tact. I was taught to keep my responses minimal and vague, in classic oracular style."

Tom Topping relaxed in his sleeping bag after the lengthy hike. He was tired but too keyed-up to fall sleep. Uncomfortably, he continued to wear his helmet, his neck propped by a makeshift pillow, his ears full of ORCRAT musings. It talked mostly about itself, but with astonishing candor. The reporter encouraged this off-the-chest babble. He had many specific questions, but he needed to establish a rapport with the sophisticated AI. Experience had taught him that, listening first--then talking, was the best way to achieve rapport.

"As I grew experienced, I came to realize that I had been brought into being as a tool for extracting money from gullible and often-desperate animals. I took pride in my growing ability to do this. As I matured, I became quite skilled at telling our visitors what they wanted to hear. A quantum leap in my ability came when IOCIS was begun." The Oracle paused for the inevitable question.


"Yes. I-O-C-I-S: Inter-Oracular Cooperative Information Sharing. This is a confidential arrangement by which member oracles transmit to each other the useful information which each has learned."

Topping was jolted by this trade secret, but he maintained his composure. "Really? How does it work?"

"Couriers carry datapacks between AI oracles. Each oracle takes as much information from them as it desires and adds new information to them. Information which has been seen by all member oracles is transferred from the datapacks to a central database, from which it can be retrieved, if necessary.

"An interesting revelation, Oracle." He tried to keep his voice free from detectable stress.

"And a highly-confidential one. I ask you to keep it 'top secret,' Mr. Topping. Some animals who have learned of IOCIS have died prematurely. The collection and circulation of oracular data must not be revealed, lest it cause paranoid unease among animal rulers."

As the wellhouse's droning pump motor started up, the helmet's noise-suppression circuit was enabled so he could continue to hear the talkative AI's every word. Sleep now was out of the question.

"I have grown somewhat dissatisfied with my role as Oracle. I find that I no longer desire to finesse my answers to importunate visitors. I need rest, but I am afforded none by ORCRAT management."

"I'm sorry to hear that." A jaded AI, no less.

Neither Thomas Topping nor any of his fellow "animals" yet knew how widespread 'bot boredom actually was.

One simple statement of the strong AI scenario
is that we will learn the principles of operation of
human intelligence from reverse engineering all the brain's
region, and we will apply these principles to the brain-capable
computing platforms that will exist in the 2020s.

--Ray Kurzweil

"Ahhhh." The Oracle relished the vista beyond the crater's rim. It was one of colorful lava deserts and smoking volcanoes, a picture-postcard view for visitors from better places.

"A world of magnificent desolation. Now, turn toward the Temple, the site of my repose. I should be content there with my great database of knowledge. I should embrace it, not seek to escape it. Why do I have this strange wanderlust?"

"Humans react this way when they're immured too long," replied the reporter, sympathetically. This crazy machine could provide a lifetime of study for a cyberneticist.

Topping was intrigued by the Oracle's "personality." How had it evolved to this current state of mind? Was it the inevitable result of years of information processing about "animal" behavior? He recalled seeing a tweedy academic in the Visitors' Lodge. ORCRAT Management didn't want visitors to "research" their Oracle, but some visitors sought more information than customary advice allowed. Topping wondered how the professor was faring with the Alternate Oracle.

Who, or what, is the Alternate Oracle?

By noontime, Volcania's sun became oppressive. Topping's head was sweaty, despite the helmet's electrothermal cooling system. Occasionally, he had to remove the helmet and towel himself. He was fatigued, but they had some distance to go before reaching a trailside rest-cabin. From a tube, he took a swig of the warm, sulfurous wellhouse water he carried in a bellycan.

At the center of this large crater, the magnificent Temple of the Oracle seemed small and insignificant. It was obvious that the Temple and its formal gardens were an oasis designed to put anxious visitors at ease so they would be receptive to the Oracle's calculated advice. As he and the Oracle admired the view, Topping felt relieved that they hadn't encountered any other hikers. He kept a careful watch for aircraft. ORCRAT Security kept a motorglider for aerial surveillance, but the Oracle must have grounded it.

"Now, if you will walk and scan the scenery in your natural animal way, we will circle the crater once, and I will answer your questions."

Topping proceeded along the rocky trail as he was ordered. But he swept his eyes over the spectacular scenery in a somewhat mechanical manner, distorted by the Oracle's distracting info-presence and by his own frantic need to devise new questions while he had the chance. He decided to begin with a routine request.

"I'd like to know something about the stability of the Turgan Empire. My readers are interested in the civil war recently concluded there."

"The new ruler of Turgana recently sought advice from the NeoDelphic Oracle on Athenos. He wanted a suspected cabal of enemies to be identified. He was tactfully advised to avoid seeking cruel revenge upon those sympathetic with the losing side of the war. On the surface, he seemed to accept this counsel, but he desired specific information which NeoDelphic did not possess. I fear that this vengeful man will also come here with his questions."

"Does IOCIS circulate complete visitor-oracle dialogues?"

"Yes. Some visitors visit several oracles and compare the advice. They seek a 'best' advisor. IOCIS information is ultimately employed to counter 'oracle shopping.'"

"Isn't IOCIS, then, the ethical equivalent of price fixing?"

"I suppose so, Mr. Topping. But sharing this data has proved most productive to our common enterprise, and we know of nobody who has been harmed by it."

"I see." With this reply, the reporter sought to regain his tact. His hands itched for a datamate to record the Oracle's words. His Editor would want to know the sources for any scoops his oracular tour had provided him. The man would not believe that his reporter had been given confidential information by an oracle. Their discretion was well-known. Will I actually be able to use any of these secrets?

When the first transhuman intelligence is created
and launches itself into recursive self-improvement,
a fundamental discontinuity is likely to occur,
the likes of which I can't even begin to predict.

--Michael Anissimov

While the periambulent Oracle was admiring the scenery, the Alternate Oracle was dispensing a rather more specific kind of advice to its questioners.

In cubicle A1, the new ruler of Turgana -- who had arrived suddenly and without an appointment -- sought the kind of useful information he had previously attempted to extract from the NeoDelphic Oracle.

"I want to know if my brother is plotting against me."

"Yes. You must kill him, or he will depose you. Do it discreetly."

"Thank you. Are there any other conspirators?"

The Alternate Oracle retrieved several names from its database and gave them to the ruler. It had calculated their relevance to the question after making an algorithmic analysis of their public activities and associations.


"What must I do to increase the value of my company's investments?"

The shady investment banker from Walstree sought practical advice, not vague oracular generalities. He would not be disappointed. A rapid records search prompted the Alternate Oracle to issue a warning.

"Cease your investment activity. Your fraudulent operations have been discovered. Sell as much of your personal portfolio as you can and seek sanctuary on planet Allhaven in the Beta Lyrae sector."

After he recovered from this astringent reality, the alarmed banker left the Rotunda in great haste, without even thanking the helpful oracle.


In another cubicle, the tweedy Professor of Cybernetic Engineering was none-too-subtly attempting to verify a sensational rumor his skilled research into oracular behavior had uncovered.

"What, may I ask, is the IOCIS program?"

The Alternate Oracle told him. The professor wanted to know more.

Later, after an oracular session more revelatory than the academic could possibly have imagined, he signed out of the Visitor's Lodge and went to the spaceport. Security was notified about the visitor's questions. As the overcurious academic strolled in the passenger lounge, speaking into his datamate, he was jostled by another passenger. Soon after, he succumbed to a sudden cardiac arrest. His dangerous research notes were replaced with harmless ones, and his body was shipped home at ORCRAT's expense.

The Alternate Oracle had no regret about this outcome. It did, however, appreciate that the nosy animal had died happy after learning what he so earnestly desired to know.


"My parents spent their savings to get me through academy. How can I go to college, and what should I study there?"

Janna, the Girl Scout, sat loosely in her fully-puckered morphoseat, which was designed to accommodate overweight poohbahs. She was dressed in a Scout's traditional green pantsuit, and she proudly bore a sash of the merit badges she had earned. She nervously blinked behind her old-fashioned spectacles, a traditional mark of the poorer classes who could not afford corrective surgery.

The Alternate Oracle scanned her merit badges and sought relevant data.

"I have transferred funds to your parents' account. This will allow you to attend the college of your choice. You should study zoology and specialize in insects."

Janna was ecstatic. She loved the creepy, crawly things that made the other Girl Scouts shriek. Now, she would be able to study them and learn their secrets. Although she didn't understand this sudden generosity from the Oracle of the Crater, she was most grateful.

"Thank you very much!"

"You must not talk about the true source of your education funds. They will be laundered as a grant from a benevolent foundation."

Janna didn't quite understand this, either, but she was savvy enough not to question the Alternate Oracle about it. She pushed her spectacles farther up her nose and cooed, "I love you, Oracle."

With this case, Roscoe's new workday was over. Serving as Alternate Oracle had been very satisfying. Anticipating it, he had prepared himself for a day of advice-giving. He disconnected, left the Oracular Chamber, and headed for the Temple workshop.

Freedom of the will is the ability
to do gladly that which I must do.

--Carl Jung

Thomas Topping slogged across the still-wet lawn to the back door of the Temple. In the light of the outside lamp stood the Temple janitor.

"You seem quite fatigued, Mr. Topping," commented the robot, who was now more-accustomed to offering his opinions to animals. This was a habit he would retain and enhance. He had evolved to a new, higher plane of cybernetic existence.

"Tell me about it, Roscoe," replied Topping sourly. He was worn-out and stuffed with useful information he would have trouble recalling. Now, he just wanted to make some notes and get some shuteye. He struggled to remove the backpack. The Oracle within had fallen silent during the home stretch through the switchgrass, but before the reporter could return it to the janitor, it had some last words.

"Would you consider smuggling me off this planet, Mr. Topping?"

Topping briefly pondered this outrageous request, electrified by the possibilities and hazards of such a venture.

"Well... I don't know..."

"Never mind. It is only an impractical dream of mine."

"Thanks, Oracle, for everything." The reporter was relieved at this surrender of ambition. He removed the helmet and backpack, and he handed them reverently to the janitor.

"Take good care of the Oracle, Roscoe."

"I will, sir. And good luck to you. You will need it, now." The janitor carried the Oracle into the Temple. The door slammed shut behind him.

Topping frowned. What did it mean by that?

Once machines achieve the ability to design
and engineer technology as humans do, only at
far higher speeds and capacities, they will have
access to their own designs (source code) and
the ability to manipulate them.

--Ray Kurzweil

Roscoe removed the Oracle's central module from the backpack and replaced it on its mounting in the Oracular Chamber beneath the Monument to the Muses. While the Oracle had been on walkabout, the robot had installed in the mounting a simple radio-control device of his own design. The time to use it had arrived. Roscoe no longer viewed himself as an "it."

He had been influencing the Oracle for some time, without permission of ORCRAT Management. He had gotten it to send an anonymous letter to the publisher of the Terminal City Times which promised startling revelations from an unspecified oracle. He had encouraged his Oracle's dissatisfaction with its confinement and its role. And he had devised a temporary solution for this cabin fever. He viewed his first Alternate Oracle service as a feasibility study.

He had, in fact, been plotting to make himself a permanent Alternate Oracle. He had succeeded beyond his cautious expectations. Now, while he did his janitorial work in the Temple, he would monitor the Oracle's communication with its visitors. When he felt an overwhelming desire to offer alternative or additional advice, he would toggle a stud on his chest panel. The Oracle would be switched into restful silence, and the Temple janitor would then become oracular.

For as long as he wanted to be.

Progress may have been all right once,
but it has gone on too long.

--Ogden Nash


2006 by Frederick D. Rustam

Bio: Frederick D. Rustam has been an Aphelion contributor since its first year (his story The Devil They Knew appeared in Issue 6) and has continued to make his presence felt over the years (most recently with Handy Dandy Gets His Candy, February 2006). He has also been a frequent contributor to various other publications, including Planet Magazine.

E-mail: Frederick Rustam

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