What Happens Next in the Fable of the Sparrows

24 July 2017

Monday


In my Centauri Dreams post Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? I noted that it has become a contemporary commonplace that the emergence of superintelligent artificial intelligence represents the greatest existential risk of our time and the near future. I do not share this view, but I understand why this view is common. Testimony to superintelligence as an existential risk is the book Superintelligence by Nick Bostrom, who has been instrumental both in the exposition of existential risks and in the exposition of superintelligence.

Bostrom prefaces his book on superintelligence with a fable, “The Unfinished Fable of the Sparrows.” In the fable, a flock of sparrows decides that they would benefit if they had an owl to help them. One member of the flock, Scronkfinkle, objects, saying, “Should we not give some thought to the art of owl-domestication and owl-taming first, before we bring such a creature into our midst?” The other sparrows disregard the warning, upon the premise that they will first obtain own owlet or an owl egg, and then concern themselves with the control of the owl. As the other sparrows leave to find an owl, the fable ends:

“Just two or three sparrows remained behind. Together they began to try to work out how owls might be tamed or domesticated. They soon realized that Pastus had been right: this was an exceedingly difficult challenge, especially in the absence of an actual owl to practice on. Nevertheless they pressed on as best they could, constantly fearing that the flock might return with an owl egg before a solution to the control problem had been found. It is not known how the story ends, but the author dedicates this book to Scronkfinkle and his followers.”

Nick Bostrom, Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies, Oxford, 2016

Bostrom leaves the fable unfinished; I will provide one account of what happens next.

. . . . .

The few sparrows who remained behind, despite their difficulties, settled on the plan that the best way to approach owl taming and domestication was by not allowing the owl to understand that he is an owl. They would raise any owl obtained by the sparrows to maturity as a sparrow, so that the owl would believe itself to be a sparrow, and so would naturally identify with the flock of sparrows, would desire use its greater strength to build better nests for the sparrows, would want to help with the care of both young and old sparrows, and would advise the sparrows even while protecting them from the cat. “This owl will be as sparrow-like as an owl can possibly be,” they asserted, and set about formulating a detailed plan to raise the owl as one of their own.

When the other sparrows returned with the enormous egg of a tawny owl, many times the size of a sparrow egg, the owl tamers were confident in their plan, and the returning sparrows with their owl egg rejoiced to know that the most advanced owl researchers had settled upon a plan that they were sure would work to the benefit of all sparrows. Several sparrows sat on the egg at the same time in order to evenly incubate the owl egg, and once the young owlet broke out of its shell, it immediately imprinted its sparrow mothers, who brought it seeds and small insects to eat. This was a challenge, as the large owlet ate much more than several sparrow chicks, and many sparrows had to be tasked in the feeding of their owlet.

The owlet grew, though it grew slowly, and certainly was not the most impressive specimen of a tawny owl, fed as it was an small seeds and small insects that were scarcely enough to satisfy its hunger. As the owlet grew, all the sparrows, overseen by the owl researchers, sought to teach the owl to be a good sparrow. Wanting to please his sparrow parents, the owlet tried to chirp cheerfully like a sparrow, to dust bathe with the other sparrows, and to hop around on the ground looking for seeds and insects to eat.

The plan appeared to exceed all expectations, and the owlet counted himself one of the flock of sparrows, never questioning his place among the sparrows, and already beginning to use this growing strength to aid his “fellow” sparrows. Until one day. The sparrows were together in a large flock looking for seeds when an enormous adult tawny owl suddenly descended upon them. The sparrows panicked and scattered, all of them flying off in different directions. Except for the owlet, for he, too, was a tawny owl, though he did not know it. He stood his ground as the great, magnificent tawny owl settled down, folded his feathers smoothly and seamlessly to his body, and looked quizzically at the little tawny owlet, who stood alone where moments before there had been hundreds of sparrows.

And what is this?” asked the large tawny owl, “An owl living with sparrows?” And then he gave a large, piercing hoot of the kind that tawny owls use as their call. The little owlet, a bit frightened but still standing his ground, replied with a subdued, “Chirp, chirp.” The large owl tilted his head to one side, perplexed with the little fellow, and also a bit put-out that one of his kind should behave in such a manner and be living with sparrows.

The large owl said to the little owlet, “I will show you your true nature,” so he picked up the owlet carefully but firmly in his powerful beak and flew the little owlet to a branch that hung low over a still pond. There he set the owlet down on the branch, and indicated for him to look down into the water. The still, smooth surface of the pond reflected the perfect likeness of the two tawny owls, one large, one small, so that as both looked down into the water they saw themselves, and for the first time the little owlet saw that he was an owl, and that he was not a sparrow. “You see now that you are like me,” said the large owl to the owlet, “Now be like me!”

Now,” said the large owl, “I will show you how an owl lives.” He took the owlet to his nest in the hollow of a tree as the sun was setting, and as the little owl flew behind the big owl he saw how beautiful the forest was in the low light of dusk. He perched at the edge of the hollow, and the large owl said, “Wait here,” then dived down into the growing darkness below. The little owlet realized that even in the dim light he could see the large owl swoop down and fly purposefully, but to some purpose the owlet did not yet understand.

Soon the large own returned, and he held in his claws a freshly killed bird, about the size of a sparrow (he had spared the owlet the agony of beginning with a sparrow). The little owlet felt sick to this stomach. He said to the big owl, “I’m hungry and I would like some seeds and insects please.” The large owl looked at him disdainfully. He held the dead bird down with one talon and ripped the body open with his beak. “This is owl food!” he said to the owlet as he gulped down a chunk of fresh meat. The big owl tears off another chunk of meat and says to the owlet, “Open your beak!” The little owlet shakes his head from side to side (finding that he can almost rotate his head all the way around when he does so) and tries to flatten himself against the wall of the tree behind him.

No, I want to eat seeds,” says the little owlet. The large owl will have none of it, and he forces the chunk of fresh meat down the maw of the little owl, who gags on the bloody feast (as all gag upon attempting to swallow an unwelcome truth) but eventually chokes it down. Gagging and frightened, the little owlet slowly begins to understand that he has now, for the first time in his life, encountered his true food, the food of owls, the only food that can nourish him and sustain him as an owl. For he has seen himself in the still water of the pond, and now knows himself to be an owl.

The little owlet attempts to hoot like a tawny owl, and though his first owl-utterance is a weak and sickly sort of hoot, it is the right kind of sound for an owl to make. The big owl looks down on him with growing satisfaction and says, “Today you are an owl. Now I will take you into the depths of the forest at night and we will hunt like owls and eat owl food.” While the little owl does not understand all that this means, he nods uncertainly and follows as the larger owl leaps into the darkness again.

What happens next in the Fable of the Sparrows has not been recorded, but one can conjecture that the owl researchers among the sparrows returned to their notes and their calculations, trying to understand where they had gone wrong, and attempting to form a new plan, now that their sparrow-like owl had been taken under the wing of a true owl.

. . . . .

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Readers familiar with the work of Joseph Campbell will immediately recognize that the myth I have here made use of is the Indian myth of the tiger and the goats from Campbell’s “The Occult in Myth and Literature” in The Mythic Dimension: Selected Essays 1959-1987.

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