The Cleaners Part 10: Emergent Behavior

Henry and Mark were like two schoolboys – they rattled off everything they had learned in Dr. Gently’s lab as I sat on an easy chair in my hotel room. “Different cleaners have different mannerisms because they each are trained separately from random initializations.” said Henry.

“That’s why some Cleaners use contractions and some don’t.” added Mark. “The first Cleaners were trained by Dr. Gently’s graduate students. William Cleaner was trained by William Park, and Rob Smith trained… well…” he looked at his father.

“Rob Cleaner,” I said. Not a tough one to figure out. Better to get it out in the open.

“Rob Smith is surprisingly cool about the whole thing.” Henry said quickly. “He either didn’t realize that I was in the group that killed Rob Cleaner or he just didn’t care. It never came up what happened to it.”

A chill ran down my spine. “I’ve been meaning to talk with you about that, actually.” I started, but Mark interrupted me.

“It’s a quirk,” he said.

“I’m sorry? A quirk?” I asked.

“They call it a quirk when a Cleaner adopts an odd behavior.” Henry agreed. “Rob Smith said occasionally a quirk turns out to help cleaning and all of the Cleaners adopt it.”

“Is that why Jim is the way he is?” I asked.

“No,” said Mark and Henry shook his head.

Henry jumped in, “Jim is not a Cleaner, he’s just one of the earlier versions of the, uh,”

“Autonomous meta-humanoids,” finished Mark. “The meta part doesn’t make any sense, but it sounds cool.”

“Rob gave us the rundown. Jim acts like a clown because he likes attention. Part of his objective function is making people smile and laugh, but he’s programmed to be lazy.”

“Lazy?” I asked.

Mark answered, “Computer algorithms can be lazy or greedy. Jim is lazy so he goes back to sleep as soon as his objective function meets a threshold, that is, as soon as he’s satisfied he’s done his job. The Cleaners are greedy, they have no threshold, so they’re always trying to see if they can increase the cleaning being done.”

“That sounds dangerous.” I frowned.

Henry spoke, but he didn’t sound confident, “Well, Rob says that the benefit of the greedy algorithm is that you get emergent behavior.”

“Apparently the Cleaners corporation was just an emergent behavior” said Mark, “Nobody had even considered monetizing the Cleaners for years. They were just going to people’s houses around the university as part of an experiment until one of them comes to Dr. Gently and is all like ‘Hey, we want to clean more houses, but there aren’t enough of us. Can you make more?'”

Henry nodded as Mark continued,”Dr. Gently says ‘You’re expensive. We don’t need more of you for this experiment.’ So the Cleaner leaves and the next day he comes back carrying, and this is what Rob told me, a literal sack of money. Dr. Gently is frightened at first, worried that they’d robbed a bank or something, but when she learns that they just went to houses that weren’t part of the experiment and offered to clean for $5, she agrees to hire dedicated Cleaner-building staff if the Cleaners can pay their wages.”

“That was the first example in human history of a machine hiring a person, but not the last.” added Henry.

Mark continued, “Pretty soon, there were dozens of Cleaners fanning out across Montana. Not being human, they couldn’t get drivers’ licenses, so they just used driverless cargo vans, shuttling themselves around twelve to a car like illegal migrant workers. Eventually they ask to clean the house of a savvy business lawyer, and he convinces them to make an official company. Again, since they aren’t human, somebody else’s name has to be on the articles of incorporation. Who better than Dr. Gently and her then-husband Jake Silver?”

“With the proceeds from selling stock, the Cleaners moved their construction out of a tiny lab and into a huge factory in Michigan to churn out as many as they would need to clean the entire United States.”

“Tell her about the building, Mark.”

“Oh, yeah. The building that Dad was so surprised went up so fast was built by the next wave of autonomous meta-humanoids, the Builders. As usual, Dr. Gently was just performing experiments with them when the Cleaners came and offered a huge donation to her lab if she’d let them build a Cleaner headquarters. The Cleaners themselves, of course, don’t use it for anything but to house fake CEOs and show off how clean they keep things.”

“Oh,” I said stupidly. “Ok, then.” I sank into my chair. “So, Dr. Gently and I came to a deal.”

“Yeah?” asked Henry.

“You’re not going to kill any more Cleaners, and I’m going to speak to the Cleaners to convince them that they’ll get to clean more if they don’t force themselves into people’s houses.”

Before I could continue, Henry spoke. “You agreed to this deal? You’ll take an entire strategic option off the table? You don’t get to make decisions on behalf of the entire Anti-Cleaner organization.”

“Hey,” I interrupted, straightening in my chair and picking up my walking stick to point at Henry, “how about this deal? You stop killing Cleaners and Angry Grandma keeps helping you with your movement!”

Henry blinked, taking a moment to process that what I had just said, and scowled. “They’re just machines. You called us, if you’ll remember. You didn’t seem to be crying over the injustice then.” Henry’s voice rose so suddenly that Mark backed away from him.  “I worked for weeks to find you and pull you out for the opportunity of a lifetime. We, the Anti-Cleaners, paid to fly you to Montana. Now you’re making major decisions for the organization, and you still won’t even tell us your name?”

I might have told Henry my name. I had almost decided to on more than one occasion. “I’m not going to tell you my name, Henry Whicker. But if the Anti-Cleaners don’t call a halt to all of their wanton destruction, I’m not just going to leave. I’m going to invite that lovely neighbor boy of mine over, and in a few hours the next hit video on YouTube is going to be of the hero of the Anti-Cleaners flinging her door wide open and inviting all the Cleaners in the world to come into her house and do what they do best.”

Henry had stood while I was talking. He was still taller than his son, and much taller than me. Instead of speaking to me, he stared down at me in my chair, looking more like the man in Rob Cleaner’s last moments on this earth than the man I had met in Cheder. If Rob had been able to feel fear, it was hard to imagine this man not being able to inspire it.

“Dad,” blurted Mark, breaking the tension with his bewilderment, “Who cares? You guys aren’t beating Cleaners up anymore any-.”

“Mark!” Henry roared, “You shut your mouth!” Henry grabbed Mark’s arm and pulled him away. The boy shrugged at me apologetically as he was ushered out of the door, his eyes wide with confusion. I didn’t even have time to rise from my chair. As the door clicked shut, Angry Grandma faded away and I was Diane again. Old and feeble, antagonizing her only friend in thousands of miles. “Oh, Walter,” I moaned shaking my head, “What’s wrong with me?”

By Sam Munk

Science fiction and Fantasy author with a focus on philosophical inquiry and character-driven drama.


  1. Awesome!
    Twists! Turns! Cliffhangers! Philosophy! Technology! Moral Quandaries! Big Issues!
    What could be better!
    Could you start blogging twice a week, Mr. Boz?

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