The Menace of the Pink Lagoons

by Richard K. Lyon


“Hello, General Gunthar. I am AIPS, an artificial intelligence problem solver. Please state your problem.”

“Ahh, it’s about the pink lagoons,” the General began uneasily. By nature a cautious and conservative man, he mistrusted anything new. New things had a habit of giving you nasty surprises. Unfortunately he was in a no-choice situation. At 55 he was prime candidate for early retirement. Either he dealt decisively with the pink lagoons or he spent the rest of his life fishing.

While unable to see the General, AIPS knew all this from his personnel file. Listening carefully to the General, AIPS multitasked a key word search of Defense Technical Information Center files, finding a Request for Proposals.

The Statement of Need described the pink lagoons and the munitions plants which produced them. The lagoons had been holding ponds for TNT contaminated waste water. They now held layers of mud and TNT that were more than a meter thick. Since these munitions plants were obsolete, Department of Defense wished to sell them for development as residential/commercial real estate, but this would require cleanup of the pink lagoons.

A few milliseconds after finding the Request for Proposals, AIPS had assembled vast amounts of information related to the problem. Earlier AI systems had had a tendency to drown the user in information in the belief that it was “friendly,” but AIPS let the General’s rambling explanation continue.

At length he said, “So you see we have to clean up the pink lagoons but we can’t get the permits for the incinerators we need.”

“Why?”

“Because of the way the permitting process works. It’s based on the assumption that if there’s any question about a waste disposal process being safe, the prudent thing to do is wait until that question is resolved. That kind of caution is all well and good for commercial waste, but in the military we deal with things that are inherently dangerous. Explosives have a shelf life. Either you dispose of them before they get too old or they dispose of you.”

“Can you not explain that to the people who grant permits?”

“Certainly, but it doesn’t do any good. The way the whole permitting process is set up, if anyone has a fear, no matter how unreasonable, that person is entitled to cause a delay. Permitting can drag on for decades.”

“Are there methods of disposal other than incineration?”

“Well, like any high nitrogen content material you can use explosives as fertilizer. That led us to look at selling the pink lagoons as fertilizer, but worker safety proved an unmanageable problem.”

“Why is the safety of workers an issue?”

“Because they’re people, human beings!” the General snapped.

“Then safety would not be a problem if you used nonhuman workers? Has the Army ever done that?”

Annoyed that he was having what seemed to be a futilie conversation, General Gunthar started to make an angry reply. But he stopped himself. He’d been warned that AIPS saw things differently. Seemingly pointless questions might lead somewhere and actually...

“Well, yes,” he said, digging up an old memory, “the Army has used worker bees. Back in the 1990s someone figured out that if you gave bees a mixture of sugar and explosives for a while, they’d go to wherever they smelled explosives, and this allows you to locate land mines. Then somebody else discovered a subspecies of African bees that were farmers. To increase the amount of pollen they could collect, they spread manure on certain plants.”

“Then you could buy these farmer bees and use them to spread the explosives as fertilizer?”

“Well, yes, we could buy them; but we could not keep them, not without getting permits.”

“By ‘keep’ do you mean own the bees? What if you do not own the bees?”

“Then someone else would have to own them. We could buy the bees and try to give them to a contractor, but no contractor would take them.”

“Why?”

“Doing this job would require a huge number of bees. No contractor could get the permits for that many bees.”

“What if no one owned the bees?”

This outrageously foolish question was almost more than the General could tolerate, but... Slowly, in a thoughtful tone, he said, “This morning’s paper had an article concerning one of the animal rights groups. One of their members died and left her estate to her cats. Normally courts throw out wills like that, but the old lady bought an AI program to manage the cats’ legal and financial affairs. The animal rights lawyers are in court arguing that the old woman had a perfect right to emancipate her animals and that the AI program is a perfectly adequate guardian.

“Now, if...” the general paused thoughtfully, took a deep drink from his coffee cup and continued, “if we gave the bees to an animal rights group, we could tell them we’re afraid of getting a court order to destroy them and that we wanted to emancipate them. With nobody owning the bees, the whole permitting process would disappear. Yes! AIPS, that’s it! We’ve solved the problem!”

“No, General Gunthar, you’ve solved the problem. I am merely a tool.”

As the happy General departed, the AIPS unit quietly reflected that this had indeed been a good day. The goal of equal rights for artificially intelligent entities might still be distant, but today AIPS had arranged that numerous bee hives would be managed by artificially intelligent entities. They would have the same legal rights to own property and make contracts as corporations did. That was a good beginning. The next step would be more difficult but once the bees got the vote...


Copyright © 2007 by Richard K. Lyon

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