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Maximum Entropy PDF Print E-mail
Written by Kfir Luzzatto   
Wednesday, 01 June 2005 00:00


Ken lifted his head from the plough and wiped the beads of perspiration with the back of his dirty hand.  The sun was already low in the sky and he would soon have to head back.


He watched his field with pride.  This year, he knew, the harvest would be much bigger.  He had learnt from the mistakes of the previous year.  He was contented and at peace with himself – too smug, one might have thought, for a person who had wiped out ninety-five percent of the population of Earth.


But that was not how he saw it. Quite the contrary – he felt pride at having saved at least five percent of it.


It had all begun two years before, when his boss had called him to his office…


“Are you making fun of me, Ken?” he had asked, his eyes fixed onto the virtual computer screen that was scrolling statistical data following the movement of his pupils.


Morris Kramm was the powerful Head of Research of the United Companies conglomerate, and, in practice, was responsible for global corporate research, which amounted to more than eighty percent of the total world research.


“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” answered Ken.


He was annoyed.  Although he considered himself a pretty hard-working person, he had already put in his five hours that week, and was planning to go home soon.  Morris could afford to kill himself with work, if he wanted to, and to slave seven or eight hours a week.  He didn’t have a life anyway, with a wife waiting for him at home.  But Ken was different.  He had other things on his mind, besides work.  He was young – barely twenty-five, and matrimony was not a near option for him.


Morris nodded and a second virtual screen appeared in front of Ken, showing the same data as the one that Morris was inspecting.  Ken was sitting in the W-ambu-comfy-seat that had brought him from his office up to Morris’.  It was an amazing seat and, as virtually all the appliances he owned, it guessed its owner’s wishes and acted accordingly.  This was achieved thanks to the innovative Wish-Divining Technology embodied in them.  This technology, discovered already back in 2050, had been developed during the last hundred or so years nearly to perfection.  Virtually all house appliances now bore the “W-” sign identifying them as perfect machines that operated automatically according to their owner’s unspoken wish.


His seat now performed a turn of a few degrees, to better position him in front of the virtual screen, and he looked at the figures that Morris had emphasized for him.  Something was, indeed, very wrong.


“According to these figures, global research has decreased constantly during the last quarter.  The number of new research projects initiated during the last three months is miniscule – virtually non-existent.”


“You’re right.  I hadn’t paid attention to these figures.  The computer should have drawn my attention to them, but it didn’t. Look here,” he added with excitement, enlarging a section of the statistical data.  “The decrease in new research projects is uniform all over the world, except for one company here, you see?  DMA Inc. has initiated twice as many new research projects as during the previous quarter.”


“What does it mean?” asked Morris.


“I have no idea,” admitted Ken.


“Well, in that case, you’ll have to find out.”


“But how?” asked Ken in puzzlement.


“You’ll have to go there.  And I mean now.”


“There? Are you out of your mind? I’m going nowhere.  I’m on my way home right now.”


“Guess again,” said Morris quietly.




* * *


Ken stepped out of the W-mobile, the vehicle that had taken him to the headquarters of DMA, Inc..  The sign painted on the wall said: “DMA – Your Partner for a Better Life.”


He walked to the door and stood before it, waiting for it to identify him and open up for him.  Nothing happened.  For perhaps the thousandth time that day he cursed himself for having taken Morris’s orders.  Who was he, anyway, to order him about?  It wasn't as if Ken was dependent on his job for support.  In an era when everyone was well taken care of by law, the job paid only for some extravagances that he didn’t really need, and lately the five or so weekly hours of work were taking a heavy toll of Ken’s social life.  Many people his age didn’t bother to work at all, and he had a good mind to go back to Morris and tell him what he could do with his job.


And the damn door wasn't opening.  It behaved as if Ken weren't there at all.  It was simply ignoring him.  A sign near the door attracted his attention.  It read: “Please note: this is not a W-door.  To open turn the handle.”


Ken’s curiosity was aroused.  He hadn’t seen a mechanical door for ages – probably since he was a child.  He tried the handle and it turned, allowing the door to slide sideways. In front of it was a W-elevator with an “Out-of-Order” sign on it.  An arrow pointed from the sign to ancient stairs.  He stood in front of them, unable to decide what to do.


“Come on up,” said a voice near his ear.


“Who’s that?” asked Ken, peevishly.


“It’s me.  Bobo Startz.”


That was the name of the president of DMA, Inc. that Ken’s computer had provided.


“Where are you? Where is ‘up’?” asked Ken.


“You see the stairs in front of you?  Just climb one flight and you’ll see me.”


“Don’t you have a decent elevator?”


“I deactivated it ages ago,” was the reply. “Are you coming up or not?  I don’t have all day.”


Resigned, Ken walked up the stairs.  He was starting to feel the unusual exercise, and he was panting.  He made a mental note to check his muscular tone on the home fitness machine.  He had taken his fitness pills regularly, and his breathing regime shouldn’t have been affected by the effort.


The stairs took him to a lighted floor.  It was an open space full of benches and equipment.  Everything was in terrible disorder, as if the people who worked there didn’t own a housekeeping machine.  In front of the stairs, a little office, barely large enough to house a desk and a couple of chairs, was the only closed space.  The door was open and from behind the desk a person was waving to Ken.  He walked up to him.


“Good evening,” said the person. “I’m Bobo Startz, but you can call me Bob.”


“Nice to meet you, Bob,” said Ken, shaking his hand. “I am Ken Leming, from the United Companies Research Group.  May I take a seat?”


“Please, make yourself at home,” said Bob politely. “To what do I owe the honor of your visit? I didn’t know that my humble work had attracted the attention of the Research Group.”


“I’ll tell you in a minute.  But first, perhaps you care to explain to me what you do here?  What is DMA’s line of business?”


“Of course.  ‘DMA’ stands for ‘Deactivating Machines Associates’.  What we do is to develop new ways to render the myriad of machines that surround us inactive, fully or partially, in a way that permits us to function as human beings.”


“You deactivate service machines?” Ken’s tone was incredulous.


“Absolutely.  But you shouldn’t think that it is an easy task.  It isn’t by any means.  I employ highly skilled engineers for this purpose – they have gone home now.  They work only an eight-hour shift,” he added apologetically.


“Eight hours a week?  But this is scandalous.” Ken felt strongly that people should not be made to slave more than five hours a week.


“Eight hours a day, Ken.  Five days a week.  That’s how we work here at DMA.  And we plan to have a second shift, next month.  The demand for our products is tremendous.”


“But why would you do that?  I mean, our automated factories work very hard, I’m sure, to produce the machines that make our life easier.  So why would someone want to deactivate them?  I don’t understand it.  And, by the way, I’m not sure that this is legal.”


“Don’t worry,” Bob soothed him with a smile. “This is a perfectly legitimate business.  As long as it is the machine owner who wishes to deactivate it partially or fully, doing so is legal.  And we are here to help him do it.  Look,” he added with excitement, “we have just finished our final working prototype of the W-kitchen taste-chooser deactivator.  It’s a breakthrough.  If you buy one of these, you will be able to cook for yourself again.  You’ll be allowed to choose the ingredients that go into your dish and to cook it to your liking.  Isn’t that great?”


“This is quite disgusting,” said Ken with a shiver.  His W-Gourmet Maker Super, an extravaganza that had cost him a fortune, cooked his preferred dishes exactly as he liked them, without the touch of a human hand and in a completely sterile environment.


He shivered again and inspected Bob’s desk with a growing feeling of uneasiness.  It was cluttered with papers and crumbles of what seemed to be the remains of a meal eaten a few days before.


“Where is your W-butler?” he asked accusingly.


“Oh, I have dumped it somewhere in the warehouse,” Bob answered placidly. “Of course, after I deactivated it.  I hated the little nosy machine.  Always keeping after me to dress up and be tidy.  Much more comfortable this way,” he concluded with a spacious movement of his hand, meant, no doubt, to point out to his guest the coziness of DMA’s quarters.


“But, do people pay for what you do?”


“Have you ever heard of the FOTSON?”


“Isn’t that some religious sect or something?”


“It is the ‘Fraternity Of The Sons Of Nature’ – people who believe that we should live as close to our natural habitat as possible.  These are reasonable people who recognize the value of some machines in improving quality of life, but on the other hand wish to live like human beings, and not as some kind of vegetables.  They are my best clients and much of my work is done for them.”


“This sounds crazy to me.  Why would a sane person wish to do menial work that a machine can do for him?”


“If I tell you something, do you promise not to tell anybody?”


Ken nodded, surprised.  Bob got up and walked to the head of the stairs.  He looked down and, apparently satisfied that nobody was around, walked back to his office and shut the door behind him.


“Have you learnt some thermodynamics in school?  Yes?  Good.  I don’t want you to think that I’m crazy,” he said.  Ken nodded – it seemed all that he was being able to do at this juncture – and Bob went on.  “As you know, then, the entropy is a measure of the extent to which the energy of a system is unavailable.  It can only increase in all natural processes that are irreversible.  Therefore, in an isolated system the entropy is always increasing as the system tends toward equilibrium.  Don’t look at me like that,” he added, evidently noticing that Ken was gaping at him, “it is not my invention. It’s the second law of thermodynamics.”


“Sorry,” said Ken, “but I can’t see what this has to do with your company.”


“Aha! You soon will.  Do you know what happens when your body, which is a system in itself, reaches maximum entropy through its natural processes?  You die.”




“As I said.  If all the elements of your body are in perfect equilibrium, no processes can take place, because there is no driving force to make them happen. And if your body stops making things happen, you die.  As simple as that.”


“I still don’t get it.”


“I’m coming to it.  I believe that the human habitat, as a system, is dangerously approaching equilibrium, because of the harmony that is being achieved between man and machine. And unless we take steps to break this harmony and to cause the equilibrium point to shift, the system consisting of man and machine may simply stop working one day, leaving us impotent in our non-working W-armchair or W-flying vehicle, to die, prisoners to the point of equilibrium of our universe.  By deactivating as many machines as we can, I believe that we are saving the world, at least temporarily, by causing the point of equilibrium to move farther away from the present.”


Ken stood up.  He felt a tight knot in his stomach.  He walked to the window behind Bob’s desk and looked out.  Nothing much was moving in the area.


“It may be too late,” he said in a low voice.


“What do you mean?” asked Bob in surprise.


“What would you expect to be the herald of the approaching point of equilibrium?”


“Well, certainly you would see that some sub-systems have stopped functioning, at the beginning partially and then fully.  Then the whole system would freeze over at once.”


“And how long would you think that one would have, once the first signs had manifested themselves, before the whole world reached equilibrium?”


“I believe that it would have to be a matter of days, maybe even hours. But why all these questions?”


“No time for that now,” said Ken, walking resolutely to the door. “Come with me, I’ll tell you on the way.  We must move immediately.”




* * *




On the W-mobile, Ken told Bob quickly about the data coming in from all over the globe, which indicated that the research and development activity was about to come to a standstill.


“It fits!” exclaimed Bob. “It is exactly as we predicted that it would be – only we didn’t know which sub-system would be affected first.  It makes sense that research and development is the first to be affected, because no motivation – or driving force – has been left to develop.  The machines do everything by themselves anyway.  And my company’s record is out of the ordinary, because we are swimming against the stream and we still have a lot of creative work to do to dismantle all the machines that are created daily for us.”


“You may have saved the world – or, at least, delayed its end,” said Ken, “by keeping the first sub-system to be affected ticking.  But it can’t last long.  Not the way the statistics look now.”


“But what can we do?” asked Bob in despair. “I thought we were doing the maximum, and I don’t think that anybody can do any better.  Not in the short time that we have left.”


“You’re right.  There is only one thing to do.”




“We must shut W-Central down.”


“But you can’t do that!”


“Why can’t I?”


“Because W-Central operates all the W-machines in the world.”


“I thought you were against W-machines.”


“I am.  I have been working for years to stop them. But gradually, and with the full cooperation of the owner.  If you deactivate a W-machine suddenly and unexpectedly, any person using it will be injured and will very likely die.  If you stop W-Central without prior warning, you may kill ninety-five percent of the people of this planet.  You can’t do that.”


“Can’t I?  And if I don’t and the world reaches maximum entropy, how many will die?”


Bob lowered his gaze and, after a brief silence, murmured, “Everybody.”


Ken looked at Bob and knew that they had no choice.  Bob also knew it.  Ken could tell by looking at his face.




* * *


The entrance to W-Central, located in a huge building a few miles outside the city limits, was through a wide gate that was watched by a mechanical attendant.


“Please pass through the wind chamber, gentlemen,” said the machine with its synthesized voice.


The sign posted at the door of the wind chamber explained that all particles of dust had to be removed from the visitors’ clothes, to avoid malfunctioning of the system due to contamination.  It also excused itself graciously for the inconvenience.  Ken and Bob stood in the room for fully two minutes while streams of air stripped them of any particle that nestled anywhere on their body.


“The damn machine has no security at all,” commented Bob. “It is so full of itself that it doesn’t even contemplate the possibility that one of its serfs – yes, that’s exactly what we are, don’t argue – may want to harm it.”


They left the wind room and, using Ken’s VIP card, gained access to the core of the building where the huge computer that ran W-Central was located.  Ken had visited the building many times before and knew his way around it.  They walked along a high bridge from which an assembly line was visible three stories below.  It was assembling W-kids – a new line of humanoid robots.  He had heard that they were perfect children – they were clean and respectful, and could be turned off when you were fed up with them.


The building was alive with the activity of many maintenance machines that ran in all directions.  They hurried along the corridor until they reached the door of the main control room.


“Wait,” said Bob. “We can’t simply walk in and turn the thing off.”


“Why not?” asked Ken. “That’s exactly what I was planning to do.”


“It has only now hit me that W-Central is built on Wish Technology.  It knows exactly what you want to do, and I bet it won’t let us do it.”


“So how can we stop it?” asked Ken in despair.


“Don’t worry,” said Bob. “I have an idea.  W-machines can be programmed to have some autonomy so that they can continue to serve you even if they lose their contact with W-Central for a while.  Commercial machines are distributed with this capability turned off, but I happen to know how to turn it on.  The algorithms that run the wish technology in stand-alone mode are not as strong, and therefore the machine is less efficient than when W-Central runs it, but it still can function.”


“This is very instructive,” said Ken with overt annoyance, “but where does it get us?”


“It gets us a machine that will turn W-Central off for us if we meet with any problem.  [I saw] a storage room for W-butlers on our way here.  Let’s go back and find it.”


They ran along the corridor until they reached a door marked “Butlers' Storage”.  They opened the door and stepped into a room full of small robots similar to the one that Ken had at home.  They chose one at random.  It was rather ugly, with two pairs of arms equipped with different devices designed to serve its human owner.


“Here,” said Bob, fishing a screwdriver of sorts from his pocket.  “I’ll deactivate its transmitter-receiver before I turn it on.  Done,” he added a minute later, and pressed the on-off switch.


The robot stirred, made a few clicking and whirring noises, and then stood still.


“Identify yourself,” ordered Bob.


“Butler 1-Y-356-F at your service, sir.”


“Do you recognize me, butler?”


“Yes sir. From your brain waves I detect that you are Mr. Bobo Startz.  At your service, Mr. Startz.  May I brush your jacket, sir?


Or perhaps you wish me to mix you a refreshing drink from my personal supply?”


“No, butler,” said Bob with a satisfied smirk. “Follow me.”


He walked out with the butler in pursuit, and Ken followed them.  They retraced their steps to the central room, and stood before the door.


“Try to think of other things,” suggested Bob. “Perhaps you can think about your statistics, or your boss, or something.  Let’s try to fool the damn W-Central.”


He opened the door and they walked in.  The room was vast, with an impressive control panel housing perhaps a hundred switches and at least as many control lights.


“I sense that you wish me to turn off a switch for you, Mr. Startz.  At your service, sir.  Which one would you like me to operate, sir?”


“How do you know which one is the right one?” whispered Ken.


“I have no idea,” admitted Bob. “One option is to turn them all off, but I think that first I’ll try to figure out which one is the main switch.” Then turning to the robot he added, “Stand by, butler, while I make up my mind.”


He moved toward the control panel and inspected it from a distance, without touching it.  Suddenly a light came from the ceiling and hit him. Bob fell on the floor, coughing and contorting with pain.  Ken ran to him, helpless.


“Don’t come too close, Ken,” whispered Bob. “The damn machine has been too smart for me.” He coughed again, spitting blood, and before life left him, he managed to say “you’re on your own now.  You know what to do.”


Ken stepped back and looked at the robot.


“Butler,” he called.


“Yes sir, Mr. Leming.  It was Mr. Startz’s dying wish that I should be of assistance to you.  Can I offer you a drink?  Or perhaps you will allow me to brush your hair?”


“You know what I want, don’t you?”


“Yes sir, Mr. Leming.  I’ll attend to it right away.  May I take the liberty of telling you, in the meantime, that your trousers need pressing.  Perhaps you would like me to do it… no, I sense that you wish me to proceed with my duties.  At your service, sir.”


The butler moved quickly to the control board and, with a speed that made Ken blink, ran from one switch to the other and turned them all off in a matter of seconds.


The room became suddenly silent.  Nothing impressive had happened, but something in the air told Ken that things were different now.  He walked to the door and opened it.  The machines that had run to and fro before, servicing the building and tidying it constantly, now stood still.  He walked to the bridge and looked at the factory below.  He saw no sign of movement.  The machines were frozen in different grotesque positions.


A light in the distance attracted his attention and he approached a window.  It was a red light coming from far away, in the direction of the city.  The city was on fire, as probably was every single city all over the world.


He started to feel a vibration coming from the floor.  The energy center of the building was probably about to explode, as must have happened everywhere, because it was not designed to work without control.  Ken started to run in the direction of the exit.


A noise behind him caused him to turn and look.  The butler was sliding after him.


“I noted that your brain waves were becoming fainter, sir,” it said. “Please, don’t worry.  I am at your constant service.”


He didn’t answer and kept on running, until he reached the main entrance.  The mechanical attendant that had let him in stood motionless at its position.  Ken turned around and saw the butler sliding quickly along the corridor that led to the exit.  Flames were already advancing behind it.  The main W-door of the building, now useless, was partially open.  Ken closed it manually and then barricaded it by tilting the heavy body of the mechanical attendant against it.


The butler reached the door and bumped into it, and then simply stood there.  Ken looked at it and saw the flames reaching rapidly behind it.  He turned his back to the last functioning machine of the world, and started to walk away.  From behind the door he could still hear the butler’s voice.


“Your shirt is dirty, sir,” it was saying. “Please allow me to change it for you.  You can’t walk around like that, sir.  It is not appropriate…”


Its words were lost in the noise of the fire from which a new tomorrow was about to be born.  And Ken kept on walking.



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