Zvi Zaks



"Computer, shut down please," Larry said, emphasizing the last word.

"The word 'please' has uncertain significance in this context. Please clarify." The computer flashed the words, white letters on a dark, gray background, into a dialogue box. At the same time, it spoke out loud, varying its intonation in a way that resembled human speech.

Larry frowned. "It uses the word 'please' to say it doesn't understand the same word."

Janice, Larry's mentor at Nextera, chuckled. "Larry, it's only a machine. It runs programs but doesn't 'understand' anything. You have no need to say 'please' to it."

"I know that," he said in a low voice, and then, louder, "Computer, shut down."

"Shutting down," the computer vocalized and displayed the words. In the background, black numbers on a green screen scrolled upward.

Larry scratched his head, further mussing his disheveled, reddish-brown hair. His supervisor stood so close in the gray cubical, he could smell her perfume. Her nearness made him nervous. "Those numbers should disappear. The computer is not executing my commands. You've told me to try something new when computers don't work, so I tried saying please."

Janice replaced a wisp of brown hair that had fallen over her forehead, and smiled as if to a child who doesn't quite understand the point. "I'm glad you're attentive to my words, but consider a less outlandish approach."

"Maybe the keyboard will work," he muttered, and typed "shut down." The words appeared in a new box on the monitor.

"Shutting down," the computer said, again sounding almost human. The words appeared underneath Larry's typed command but the lines of data continued to scroll.

"Shut down PLEASE," Larry typed.

The woman smirked. "Larry, this situation does have humorous aspects, but you have to make it stop. Whatever task it's executing has invaded the local network and is cutting into my resources."

"I'm trying to stop it. I was debugging an expert system program when it suddenly froze and wouldn't take any orders."

Janice reached down to the mouse, closed the dialogue box, and, in the process, almost touched Larry's arm with her white silk blouse. He pushed his chair back with a spasmatic shove. In his faded jeans and worn sport shirt, he felt like a slob next to her. That she was five years older, at least over thirty, didn't help. "What command did you give it last?"

He winced. Even his way of speaking couldn't compare with her sophisticated British accent. "I gave it nothing new. For sure nothing that would tie up everything else. Maybe I should disconnect this computer from the others on the net."

Janice straightened up quickly. "For heaven's sake, no. The last time someone attempted that, we couldn't get back on line for a week. Twenty years ago one could simply unplug a cable. Now you have to shut down the entire computer to remove it from a local network."

"I know that. I'd be careful."

She gnawed her lower lip. "Let's start from the beginning. Computer, terminate current activity."

"Terminating activity," the almost human voice answered, but the display remained the same.

She leaned forward and drummed her fingers on the desk while scrutinizing the monitor. "It's searching for a stop sign, but for some reason can't find one."

"A stop sign?"

Janice stared with surprise at the young man. "Stop signs are rather basic. They are junctions where the program can choose to continue or to terminate with messages to help with debugging."

Larry felt himself sweat. "Oh yeah. Of course I know what that is. I just never heard it called a stop sign before."

Janice's smile was tolerant. "There is indeed too much slang in this company. In this entire country, for that matter." She took a deep breath. "Computer, log off current user."

"Logging off user," the computer said and flashed the words onto the screen, but didn't log off.

She stared at the screen. "All right, it must be mired in some variant of an infinite loop, and won't execute any other command until that is finished. Which, if the loop is in fact infinite, won't be for a while. Maybe we should just disconnect its power source. You wouldn't lose any crucial data, would you?" Before he could answer, she punched the surge protector off switch with her forefinger.

The computer numbers continued to scroll.

"Uh, don't you remember? After that two day blackout last month, we installed backup batteries," Larry said.

"Damnation, I forgot."

"Will somebody please tell me what the God damn hell is going on here?" a huge man demanded as he squeezed into the cubicle. Thick, black greasy hair covered half his forehead. He emitted the faint but distinctive aroma of stale sweat socks.

Janice turned around to face the newcomer, and wrinkled her nose conspicuously.

Larry, observing her reaction, felt a rush of relief that he had bothered to shower that morning.

"The computer is caught in some kind of infinite loop. We're trying to shut it down," Janice said.

"Well shit then. Please turn it the hell off."

Larry winced at the manager's vulgarity and sarcasm. "We tried, but the batteries will keep it going another six hours."

The manager ignored him. "Girlie, this stupid thing …"

The woman's cheeks reddened. "Zachary, do not call me 'girlie'!"

"… has crashed half of the workstations in the building. We should be doing some work here, you know? Using the boss's new algorithm to produce expert systems software. Now will you please shut that damn machine off?"

"How?" She glowered.

"Get a god-damned ax and chop the son of a bitch into pieces if you have to, but stop it from sucking up all the RAM in the building."

"The casings are reinforced against saboteurs. You can chop as much as you want, but you won't bust anything more than your gut," she said, with a glance at his abdomen.

Zack took a step towards Janice. "Then how will you turn it off?"

She stepped towards him in return, her face within inches of his. "That's the problem I was trying to solve when you burst in here screaming." Breathing hard, she turned back towards her preceptee. "All right, Larry, try to remember what statement you made just before the computer started into the infinite loop."

Amidst the shower of verbal sparks, Larry wanted to hide under the desk. "I, I don't know. I didn't say anything."

A balding, tired looking man in a sport jacket and tie leaned against the cubical entrance. "What a nice little gathering. Would someone please tell me why my company has stopped functioning? Or why the university is screaming that we've crashed their computers. The dean's son might not be able to cheat on his takehome quiz. Could one of you please bring your poor old boss into the loop?"

Zack straightened up. "Sir, I'm trying to get to the bottom of this."

Janice turned towards Nextera's CEO. "Mr. Jenkins, one of the workstations is malfunctioning. We're trying to figure out why."

Jenkins sighed, loosened his tie, and unbuttoned the top of his shirt. "Why not ask the computer itself what it's doing?"

Janice moved back a half step. "Yes, of course, Mr. Jenkins. That's an excellent idea. Actually, I should have thought of it myself." She turned towards the computer. "Computer, identify current activity."

A tense, three second delay followed before the computer spoke. "Current activity is collecting data to answer a query." Its voice sounded more singsong than human. Larry wondered if the number crunching was affecting its vocal circuits.

Jenkins rubbed his chin. "So it isn't an infinite loop. Computer, what is the query?"

"The query is: How does a maze of interconnecting neurons create a human soul?"

"What?" Jenkins looked with amazement at the monitor.

Zack put his hands on his waist and, with an appearance of menace, turned to the intern. "Larry, what the hell are you up to?"

"I didn't ask it that," Larry said.

Everyone in the room talked at once.

Janice clenched her hands and raised her voice. "Will you all please be quiet for just one minute?" She took a deep breath. "Computer, do you have an audio record of the command."


"Would you please play … No, sorry. Computer, play back the audio record of the command."

Larry's voice came out of the computer speakers. "Computer, how does a maze of interconnecting neurons create the human soul?"

Larry's mouth fell open. "But I didn't ask it that."

"Please don't give me that crap, boy. That's your voice," Zack said.

"But I didn't ask that question. How could a computer know anything about souls?"

"It can't, you asshole. So why did you ask it?"

Janice frowned at her supervisor. "Zachary, I suspect Larry is telling the truth. His vocal intonation sounds more like part of a persuasive argument rather than a question."

"Huh? What are you talking about, girlie?"

Janice pounded the desk with her fist. "Mr. Jenkins, if that man doesn't stop calling me 'girlie', I'm going to resign." She glowered at the manager with fury. "Or better yet, I'll file a lawsuit for sexual harassment."

Ralph Jenkins rolled his eyes upward. "She's right Zack. That kind of language is not acceptable. You have to stop it."

Janice smirked. Zack glowered without saying anything. Larry sat wide-eyed in his chair.

"Computer, play both the audio record of the command you are now processing and the sentence spoken before that command," Janice said.

Larry's voice again came out of the speakers. "You say our minds are just byproducts of the circuits in our brains, but people have creativity; people have souls. If I am just an elaborate organic computer, how does a maze of interconnecting neurons create the human soul?"

No one spoke. Then Zack raised his eyes to the ceiling. "Philosophy? What the hell are you doing studying philosophy? First she goes on about notes and tones of words, as if we was in some kind of frigging music class and then her intern starts talking philosophy. No wonder we can't get any work done."

Jenkins took off his glasses and wiped them on the corner of his sport jacket. "Have you ever read Aristotle, Zack?"

Zack, with a wary expression, didn't say if he had read Aristotle, or even if he recognized the name.

"Please remember that there are other interests in life besides programming computers. Or the dinner table," Jenkins added.

Janice laughed out loud. Zack reddened. "That's weight discrimination, Mr. Jenkins. I could sue."

"Who were you talking to, Larry?" Jenkins asked gently.

The young man blushed. "Well, it was sort of a slow afternoon and I was talking on the phone with this girl I know …" His voice trailed off.

People gathered outside the cubical. "Some show," one said. "Who is the boss reaming out now?" another asked.

Jenkins assumed an expression of stern constipation. "This company has a total of 15 employees, and five of them are goofing off right in front of me. Will you all please go back to work?"

Trying to regain his dignity, Larry said, "This is the most dysfunctional office I've ever worked in." Then he grimaced, hoping no one had heard him. After all, he had never worked anywhere else.

But Janice agreed. "It most certainly is."

He blinked. That was the most positive comment she had ever made to him. "Everyone says please, but they don't give the word any meaning".

Janice turned quickly towards him. "What did you say?"

"Uh, I said that a lot of people here like to say please but the word doesn't really seem to mean anything to them."

"That's the key." She slapped her fist in her palm. "The word please doesn't mean anything to us."

"Now she's into manners. No wonder everything is going to hell," Zack said.

Jenkins frowned. "Shut up Zack. Janice, what are you thinking?"

"We can turn this thing off by teaching it the word 'please'."

Larry shook his head. "But it already knows that word."

"The problem is with the current context, not the basic definition," she said.

Zack took two quick steps towards the monitor, fist tight as if he planned to punch the screen. "I got a better idea. We can get a monomolecular drill and give this damn computer a frontal lobotomy. That'll stop it."

Jenkins raised his voice. "Am I the only person here who recognizes the possibilities of this situation?"

"The possibility is it could black out the city if it keeps on stealing resources," Zack said.

"Damn it Zack, most of the time, you're a computer genius. Why today are you an idiot? If you give this computer a lobotomy, I'll give you a lobotomy." He snorted. "Janice, do you see where this could lead?"

Janice grinned. "Do I? Mr. Jenkins, if it works out, I could buy that condominium I've been renting."

"You'll be able to buy the whole damn complex to say nothing of being famous and revolutionizing computer science. IF it works out. Larry, your expression tells me you understand. Please tell Zack what's going on."

Larry coughed and words poured out. "The computer program is trying to answer a question which is really rhetorical and which may or may not have an answer and usually computers just give a no-data answer to questions like that but this one keeps going on without ever giving up apparently digging for data from all types of different sources trying to find out if neurons can make souls which makes you wonder if there could possibly be some independent motivation that might indicate a self awareness and the computer is trying to figure out if it is conscious itself or if it can possess a soul or ---."

Jenkins raised his hand. "Enough."

Janice let out a delighted squeal. "Asimov lives."

Jenkins smiled slightly. "Perhaps I should say 'please stop.' Incredible as it sounds, we may have created a self-aware computer. True artificial intelligence."

"With all due respect, Mr. Jenkins, isn't that sort of a wild leap?" asked Zach.

"It sure is. It's wild in the extreme, but not impossible. If anyone can figure out whether it's workable or not, that person is you. But the first step is to turn off the CPU and stop this churning so we can analyze its algorithms. Janice, you have an idea for shutting down the computer? Without violence, I mean."

"Yes, I do, Mr. Jenkins."

"By the way, do we have a copy of this thing? When did someone last backup this workstation?"

Larry raised his hand. "I copied all the files last night before going home, sir."

Jenkins smiled with warmth. "Good boy."

Larry wriggled in embarrassed delight.

"Okay, Janice, do your stuff," Jenkins said.

Janice turned to Larry. "Tell it we want to add to its vocabulary."

Larry typed, "COMMAND:" His hands shook.

"No, no," said Janice. "You know better than that. Get up and let me drive."

They changed places. "You said you had been working on an expert system program. What was the name?"

"Uh, Apollo."

"Apollo? What was it designed for?"

"It's a medical program to, uh, help doctors measure quality of life." Larry blushed.

Janice chortled. "Wonderful. Just the background for discussions of the soul." She typed into the computer, "APOLLO PROGRAM FILES/VOCABULARYRULE:UPDATE".

"Yeah, that's right," said Larry.

"Ah, I see you use command lines," Jenkins said with a smile.

"Graphic interfaces are for wimps, Mr. Jenkins," Janice said and hit the 'enter' key.

Nothing happened.

"Why should this work when the shut down command doesn't?" Zack asked.

"Vocabulary modifications are high priority because they help debugging whereas shutdown is low priority because we almost never turn these systems off." She bared her teeth at him. "You should know that."

Zack's face turned purple. "Listen gir... little lady..."

"Mr. Jenkins..."

"Okay you two, play nice. Janice, the system is taking a while to respond. Are you sure you can turn the machine off?" Jenkins asked.

"It's nothing, Mr. Jenkins. The network is just tied up, and we haven't used this command in a while so it isn't in the cache." She stared at the monitor. Nothing happened. Once more she drummed her fingers on the desktop.

"Mr. Jenkins, I know you don't like the idea but we have a back up. I still think we should get a drill …"

The words "VOCABULARY RULE UPDATE:" appeared in a box over the scrolling numbers.

"There it is," Janice said, with audible relief. "Now, people, give me some ideas. Just what does the word 'please' really mean?"

"Why is 'please' so damn important?" Zach asked.

Janice's impatience was palpable. "It isn't. We're want to use that word to achieve a specific goal."

No one spoke. Then Jenkins said, "Please is a way of enticing someone to do something they don't have to do."

Janice nodded. "It can mean that, but it can also mean, 'Do what I tell you to do, do it now, and do it even if you don't want to do.'"

"Janice, 'please' is supposed to indicate courtesy, not a command," Jenkins said.

"'Supposed to' is right, but listen to how we've all been using it. It's sarcasm, not courtesy. If anything, it has become a parody of courtesy." She typed into the screen: "NEW RULE - "PLEASE". CLASS - COMMAND MODIFIER. ASSIGNS TOP PRIORITY AND URGENCY TO A FOLLOWING COMMAND." With a mischievous smile, she typed a few more lines, hit "enter", and turned back to her boss. "Well, let's see if it works."

"You didn't do anything special. You just reprioritized," Zack said.

"You didn't think of it," she answered.

"What did you put in those extra lines after you defined 'please'?" Jenkins asked.

Janice looked like she was having fun. "You'll see. Larry, you do the honors."

Larry blinked and said, in an uncertain voice, "Computer, please shut down."

"Shutting down," the computer said. The scrolling lines of data froze, then disappeared, leaving the green background empty. Then the dialogue box vanished and the standard "Closing All Files" message appeared. But the computer did not shut down.

Janice winked at the others. "I could have omitted the last detail, but as long as we're teaching the computer manners, perhaps we should provide an example." She turned towards the machine, and said, "Computer, thank you."

"You're welcome," it said, and turned itself off.


The official Nextera account reads like a saga of vision and dedicated perseverance. They lie. The truth is that artificial intelligence, the greatest advance since the silicon chip itself, grew from nothing more than the need for good manners.




Copyright 2000. This means only that you should give me credit by including my E-mail ( or webpage ( address and this copyright notice if you share this story with anyone.





Revised Dec 2017