MONDAY: Dear Santa


Copyright is held by the author.

TODAY IS the third day of rain. Everything is soaked. We still kept watch on the first day when the rain was a sprinkle. But yesterday it became a downpour and continued today and there is no way a forest fire could start in this. So we stay dry in the fire watch tower on the ridge.

Dr. Alex hates sitting still. I welcome the break but he has been cranky since yesterday. I slept in yesterday and then spent time reading on the screened balcony. In the afternoon I started cooking some stews and the flavorful scents seemed to mollify him. This morning he was almost pleasant. Flavors hath charms to soothe the savage scientist.

So we are sitting on the screened porch on day three of rain. I set my book down and have been looking out to the misty valley. Alex is stuffing his pipe.

“Do you know what a Santa Claus machine is, John?”

“I think so, Alex. The maker is a limited form of one, isn’t it?”

Our maker sits beside the microwave on the kitchen counter. Makers are still expensive, much like DVD players were at first. But the price is dropping while capabilities increase. In a year or two, most homes and businesses will have a maker. For now, Alex bought one, ostensibly because we are so isolated here, but actually because he likes gadgets.

“Yes. I got a good price on it – because I did some development.”

He waits for me to prompt him and I usually do. But today, with the mist and rain, I am feeling a strange mix of peacefulness and solitude. After a tasteful silence he continues unprompted.

“We use it for incidentals: buttons, cotter pins, or a new pair of socks. But the difference between the maker and a true Santa Claus machine is that you can ask a Santa Claus machine for anything. Dear Santa, may I have a roast beef sandwich, with a large dill pickle on the side? Dear Santa –“

Alex doesn’t like it when I interrupt him. He is unused to listening to any voice but his own. But if I never interrupted him his ego would swell and swell and perhaps finally burst. He looks sideways at me while I speak. Lost in his own egotism, he has never realized the debt he owes me, for keeping his head from exploding.

“I seem to remember reading that such machines probably won’t be used for food manufacture for a long time, if ever.”

“Hmmmm,” he said, rubbing his chin. “That was a bad example. The point to be made is that you could ask such a machine for anything –“

“Could you ask it for the next big thing? Something that doesn’t exist yet? Or something that everybody needs?”

He looks at me crossly. Twice in a row I have interrupted him. I see his irritation but I really am not concerned. I would just as soon stare into the mists today, but Alex wants to talk, hear his own voice, his every day.

“Everybody needs a thneed, Alex.”

“Thank you, Mr. Once-Ler.” He pauses and looks thoughtful.

“Always have to be a smartass, don’t you, John, but you make my point for me. A Santa Claus machine can make whatever you need – including another Santa Claus machine, so you really only need to make one. That’s what these people were trying to do.”

We sit a moment and I say, “Well, since the maker is not a Santa Claus machine, I am guessing it didn’t work out?”

“It did.” He says. “In a way it did.”


We pause for lunch. Warm stew is a good choice for a cool day like today. Yesterday I baked some bread and the pause stretches out as Alex sops it in stew. An hour later the rain has stopped but the sky is still overcast and the world still misty. Alex stuffs his pipe and continues.

“Their plan was to use tiny extruders. It was a bad plan. The approach was limiting them to large sizes and it was painfully slow. An integrated circuit is too large and complicated to be built with extruders, and even if it were possible, it would take too long.”

“So my contribution was primarily conceptual. The machine as a whole is Santa Claus. But the making chamber can be viewed as the workshop. Seen this way, the operative elements are “elves”. Forget the extruders. An extruder is an elf that can only hammer. Sometimes you need an elf with a saw.”

“So before anything happens you need to know what you want to happen. Make a roast beef sandwich. That’s very hard to do with only a hammering elf. So before you try to make anything, make your workforce, specialized to the task.”

“Nanomachines. You’re talking about nanomachines.”

“Yes. I’ll spare you the details, but if you build an item 100,000 layers at a time then you can make anything down to the molecular level in a reasonable period of time. But think about how much planning that would take, how much AI would be needed, how God-like that AI would be, how many elves…” His voice trailed off.

“Grandee’s postulate.” I said, and started laughing. “You smacked into Grandee’s postulate.”

“With the speed of a formula one and the mass of a dump truck. Wham! I had never heard of it, John. How would I? I’m a botanist and biochemist. And this was ten years ago or so. Grandee was only just definitively proved a few years ago.”

“So you follow it now, Alex? Keep up with the literature?”

“Yes,” he hisses. “How could I not?”

We sit silently a few minutes. The rain has stopped but the sky is still grey. The mists neither advance nor recede and there is a stillness to the air that is oddly soothing. For the briefest of moments I forget Eve, my lost love.

“I can’t tell you who the funder was. Legal issues and all that. Who knows, John, you might one day write a memoir, and where would that leave me?”

“When they first told me I was sick to my stomach. He was a wealthy man, a child of privilege, the diametric opposite of a Michael Bloomberg or a Warren Buffet or anyone of note; a man for whom reading is merely time-consuming and unimportant; a clod of no nuance, a fool lacking subtlety, I shall refer to him only as Dimmy Stump.”

“Okay, Alex.” I laughed. “Quite the code name you chose. I wonder who it could be?”

“So, on one hand we have a massive AI – a master planner. At that time it was the most sophisticated AI ever built, a cognitive creature with access to the world’s knowledge, to expedite the making of things. And on the other hand we have Dimmy, demanding results, an old and fat grifter acting the spoiled child. How could we have known? We had been making things, all manners of things, sandwiches, pacemakers, ships and shoes and sealing wax, and cabbages and things.” A long pause. “We were scientists, we had no experience of self-aggrandizing avarice.”

“We had forgotten something, something very important. We had forgotten that it was a Santa Claus machine. We had forgotten that Santa can speak Dutch and that he would solve the Trolley problem by swooping down in his sleigh and rescuing everyone, that Santa Claus, if he existed, would be the zenith of conscience and kindness, and the enemy of all evil.”

“Dimmy’s motorcade arrived. The buffoon practically had flagbearers. The man’s arrival stank of pomp without purpose, awards without achievement, victory declared without struggle. He strode inside while photographers snapped his picture. Any hesitance or delay on our part was answered with instant anger. He did not speak – he demanded.”

Alex paused and looked thoughtful.

“Grandee’s postulate: As cognitive power increases, so too does ethical comprehension. Is that how you understand it, John?”

“Close enough, Alex.”

“Dimmy’s face twisted into his usual knotted fist of anger. He shouted into the microphone, ‘I want a gun! Full clip! Automatic fire!’ The machine did not respond. The maker chamber began humming and twenty seconds later the door slid open. In the center of the chamber was a small lump of coal.”

“Dimmy shouted again. Same instructions, face redder, voice louder. Another twenty seconds and another lump of coal. He looked apoplectic. He began making random and unhinged threats as he shouted a third time. This time he wanted a bazooka. This time, when the door slid open, there was a small bottle of tranquilizers in the chamber. The directions on the side said, ‘Take 2 IMMEDIATELY!’”

“Dimmy stormed out. Later the machine produced enough gold bullion that the developers through legal machinations managed to force Stump out of the deal. Anytime anyone builds another Santa Claus machine it immediately networks with other existing machines. If you keep a Santa Claus machine off the network, all you have is a maker. If you ask for another Santa Claus machine, you get a maker, good for small parts and individual items. But it seems that the big man does not yet trust us with his power. Ethical people get what they request, within limits. Ethically impaired people are ignored. It seems that Santa really does make a list, and finds out who is naughty and who is nice.”

We sat and stared into the iridescent mists as they slowly twined in the valleys below.

  1. Wow. Just wow. ???

  2. am overwhelmed by the multiplication of it all…..sigh….ho ho ho!

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