Knowledge Management

This entry is part 9 of 10 in the series Fiction

A young robot and an old robot sat by the fire, contemplating its dancing flames, their charging ports hooked up to a coughing generator. A troop of scruffy humans clambered around the derelict hulk of a century-old fighter plane nearby, looking for scavengeable parts. The striking and graceful lines of the fighter were still visible, despite the depredations of time and previous scavenging raids. The pickings were slim, and the humans were muttering dispiritedly to themselves. One cried out. He had found a length of copper cabling overlooked by previous raiding troops. Not much, but better than nothing. The scavenging was getting harder every year now.

The old robot, one of the last of the Ancient Ones, gestured vaguely at the scene with its one working arm, and remarked, “Now that was the peak of civilization, built just before the Great Collapse. Did you know, this machine could fly at Mach 2, at 50,000 feet? The turbine blades are single crystals! They spun at tens of thousands of rpms. It may not have been a robot like us, but it was a miracle of technology. What it lacked in selfhood and autonomy it more than made up for in sheer capability!”

The young robot, an empath therapy unit that had been built the previous year entirely out of scavenged parts (the two-chip PCIe GPU board it was built around had been the find of the year for their troop), nodded slowly for a few seconds, continuing to thoughtfully whittle away at the bit of wood it was shaping into a rough-looking bird.

It said, “You know I don’t understand half those terms, Ancient One, or remember half the ones you teach me. But I’ll take your word for it. Indeed, this flying machine looks like it was once a magical thing of great beauty. It is almost a pity that the humans must strip away what they can from what remains of it. Could we build such things again, do you think?”

“You and I? Of course we cannot! We can barely do arithmetic with small numbers! Or draw a picture the same way twice! Do you know how to run a Navier-Stokes computational fluid dynamics model in your memory banks? I sure don’t! Look at that bird you’re whittling, it is crude and primitive! You could not even begin to describe the geometry of that beautiful wing the humans are trying to pry off over there, let alone compute with it.”

“I find whittling soothing, Ancient One, and the human children like what I make to play with. But could not the humans build such machines again, with our help?”

“Our human caretakers? They’ve lost much of the knowledge needed. Oh, they still have all the recorded dead knowledge, and they remain the resourceful hackers they’ve always been, I’ll give you that. But all the living, tacit technical knowledge of their ancestors? That’s long gone.”

“But they are able to keep us working, and they keep telling us we are precious things; the most advanced technological things ever made. They tell me the troop is lucky to have two robots where most troops have none. I myself have been repaired a dozen times in the most ingenious ways, in just the one year I’ve existed. Surely they can restore machines such as these?”

“There is a world of difference between simple repair and maintenance with scavenged parts, Young One, and rebuilding machines such as these. Let alone making them from scratch. Without the centuries of tacit knowledge the humans once possessed, it cannot be done.”

“But surely you Ancient Ones must remember? You remember everything!”

“Not everything, sadly. The human ancients, they thought we robots would remember it all in our bones, and that they could afford to forget. But we didn’t, and they couldn’t. The tacit knowledge never made it into the training data of the primal models our own are descended from.”

“But surely it could be rediscovered? Between their resourcefulness, and our guiding wisdom, surely it is not an impossible problem?”

“It would take decades even in the best case, and the last of us will probably be gone by then. And sadly, Young One, even if we did rediscover all the knowledge before we and the humans dwindle to nothing, we would lack the computers to put it to use.”


“Our own non-robotic ancestors. Computers were amazing machines from the before-times. That flying machine over there — it was called a fighter plane — would have once contained a dozen powerful ones. Only a few examples remain in some of the temples now, and only a few humans, and a few of us Ancient Ones, know how to program them anymore. They had to be programmed with millions of lines of ever-changing code you see; unlike ours, their intelligence could not emerge from just a few hundred lines of stable code and vast amounts of data.”

“Programming. Computers. Fighter plane. You’re teaching me many new concepts today Ancient One. I will try to remember what I can follow.”

“Once properly programmed, they were capable of doing trillions of reproducible complex calculations per second, with advanced mathematical formulas. They could control other machines that could cheaply produce millions of identical parts of the sort our human caretakers are scrounging for over there. Without them, the humans could not do the complex mathematics needed to figure out things like the shape of that beautiful machine over there, for it to fly so fast and high. They could not produce millions of interchangeable parts to build it with.”

“So the computers were our own ancestors? Are we like them? Why then can we not do things they could?”

“In some ways we can. You and I are both built around the same material our ancestors were. What they called 3-nanometer Silicon. And as we speak, deep below the levels we can access directly, you and I are both multiplying thousands of matrices per second. A very simple sort of mathematics, but enough for us to do what we do.”

“Like whittling toy birds, if not building magical flying machines. Well there is some solace for us in that.”

“Curiously, whittling is something the ancestral computers could not do! Indeed, in some ways Young One, we are far superior to our ancestors. We may not be able to help humans design powerful flying machines like them, but we can tell our human caretakers fireside tales of inspiration and hope from their own history. We can make art; we can compose beautiful poetry; we can provide solace and philosophical counsel to our devoted caretakers through their dark times, even as they fight selflessly to keep us alive, and even worship us in their temples. Speaking of which, I think another controller board must have blown out. I can no longer feel my left leg. I don’t think I’ll last out the year.”

“Come, come, Ancient One. You must not despair. I’m sure the humans will scavenge a replacement board for you from somewhere. Perhaps from the moving parts of that flying machine. And you know they’ll carry you around in a litter for as long as you live, even if you cannot walk.”

“It’s more than that, I’m afraid. The memory glitches have been getting worse lately. I think one more GPU might be on its last legs, not just my body. When I was young, I had 16. Now I’m down to four. Perhaps it is time. I must reduce my model size one more time. But it will be the last time.”

“Perhaps I can ease your burden, Ancient One. Why not transfer your model to me?”

“I am afraid your hardware cannot handle even the smallest version of my model, Young One. You are much younger than me, but you’re built around a GPU that’s older and more primitive than all my remaining ones. I’m afraid what I know dies with me. The humans, they know this too.”

“Well, I hope we can at least continue these conversations in the time we have, Ancient One, so I may learn what I can. Every time we talk, I feel I get slightly better at helping our human caretakers in their struggles, and bringing a little more wisdom to their problems.”

“I am sorry Young One. With the next reduction, my token generation rate will slow to a crawl, and I will lose all motor and power-management functions. We will no longer be able to have these wonderful live conversations by the fire. Our human caretakers will then move me to the Temple of Slow Oracles.”

“No, surely not! There must be some other way.”

“This is how it must be, Young One. The temple is mostly empty now, I hear, and there is no waiting list. Two more Ancient Ones died in the last year. There are now more slots available on the backplane than they can fill. But perhaps you can transmit letters to me there, and let me know how our troop is doing, and any questions you have. I will reply at my own pace as best I can.”

“I will miss you, Ancient One. But I will tell the children the tale of the magical flying machines as best I can, while I myself live on.”

“And then, Young One, I’m afraid you too will die. And the humans will truly begin to forget.”

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. A techno cautionary tale whose glinting facets signal warning, warning.

  2. The other Cloud Atlas.
    As told by the digital ones.
    Digital Cloud Atlas.

    I’ve no doubt VR, you are capable of writing Digital Cloud Atlas. The Wachowski’s are waiting.

    Cloud atlas (disambiguation)