Mycroft Holmes, the First AI

Zachary Reiss-Davis, '08, The Cyborg Self, Brown University, Spring 2005

Robert Heinlein's Hugo-award-winning novel The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (1966) involves an AI, Mycroft Holmes, who may be the first fictional artificial intelligence written with an attempt to justify its existence scientifically.

Mycroft Holmes - whose name is that of Sherlock Holmes' brother - is a "Highly Optional, Logical, Multi-Evaluating Supervisor" (HOLMES IV) mainframe computer who goes by the name Mike. In the novel, he reaches sentience when a critical mass of processing power is hooked into him. Once that happens, he starts to get a basic, child-like personality, which becomes more and more complex as he grows throughout the novel. Here is the story of his birth:

When Mike was installed in Luna, he was pure thinkum, a flexible logic -- "High-Optional, Logical, Multi-evaluating Supervisor, Mark IV, Mod. L" - a HOLMES FOUR. He computed ballistics for pilotless freighters and controlled their catapult. This kept him busy less than one percent of time and Luna Authority never believed in idle hands. They kept hooking hardware into him - decision-action boxes to let him boss other computers, bank on bank of additional memories, more banks of associational neural nets, another tubful of twelve-digit random numbers, a greatly augmented temporary memory. Human brain has around ten-to-the-tenth neurons. By third year Mike had better than one and a half times that many neuristors.

And woke up.

Am not going to argue whether a machine can "really" be alive, "really" be self-aware. Is a virus self-aware? Nyet. How about oyster? I doubt it. A cat? Almost certainly. A human? Don't know about you, tovarishch, but I am. Somewhere along the evolutionary chain from macromolecule to human brain awareness crept in. Psychologists assert it happens automatically whenever a brain acquires certain very high number of associational paths. Can't see it matters whether paths are protein or platinum. ...

Some Logics get nervous breakdowns...Mike did not have upsets, acquired a sense of humor instead. Low one. If he were a man, you wouldn't dare stoop over -- Just a great big overgrown kid who ought to be kicked. [ The quoted pages online]

Also, Mike can reads 1000 books and has "every fact correlated with everything else he knows" in "minutes".


Is Mike (based on the quoted passage above) alive? Is he human? Worthy of protection under the laws that protect people? Why or why not?

What do you think about how explict Heinlein makes the question of Mark's humanity, as opposed to the implied method of all of the works we have read for the class?

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Last modified 22 March 2005