14. The Education of Starglider
(Extract from Starglider Concordance, First Edition, 2071)
We now know that the interstellar spaceprobe generally referred to as Starglider is completely autonomous, operating according to general instructions programmed into it sixty thousand years ago. While it is cruising between suns, it uses its five-hundred-kilometre antenna to send back information to its base at a relatively slow rate, and to receive occasional up-dates from “Starholme”, to adopt the lovely name coined by the poet Liwellyn ap Cymru.
While it is passing through a solar system, however, it is able to tap the energy of a sun, and so its rate of information transfer increases enormously. It also “recharges its batteries”, to use a doubtless crude analogy. And since – like our own early Pioneers and Voyagers – it employs the gravitational fields of the heavenly bodies to deflect it from star to star, it will operate indefinitely, unless mechanical failure or cosmic accident terminates its career. Centaurus was its eleventh port of call; after it had rounded our sun like a comet, its new course was aimed precisely at Tau Ceti, twelve light years away. If there is anyone there, it will be ready to start its next conversation soon after AD 8100.
For Starglider combines the functions both of ambassador and explorer. When, at the end of one of its millennial journeys, it discovers a technological culture, it makes friends with the natives and starts to trade information, in the only form of interstellar commerce that may ever be possible. And before it departs again on its endless voyage, after its brief transit of their solar system, Starglider gives the location of its home world – already awaiting a direct call from the newest member of the galactic telephone exchange.
In our case, we can take some pride in the fact that, even before it had transmitted any star charts, we had identified its parent sun and even beamed our first transmissions to it. Now we have only to wait 104 years for an answer. How incredibly lucky we are, to have neighbours so close at hand.
It was obvious from its very first messages that Starglider understood the meaning of several thousand basic English and Chinese words, which it had deduced from an analysis of television, radio and – especially – broadcast video-text services. But what it had picked up during its approach was a very unrepresentative sample from the whole spectrum of human culture; it contained little advanced science, still less advanced mathematics – and only a random selection of literature, music and the visual arts.
Like any self-taught genius, therefore, Starglider had huge gaps in its education. On the principle that it was better to give too much than too little, as soon as contact was established Starglider was presented with the Oxford English Dictionary, the Great Chinese Dictionary (Romandarin edition), and the Encyclopaedia Terrae. Their digital transmission required little more than fifty minutes, and it was notable that, immediately thereafter, Starglider was silent for almost four hours – its longest period off the air. When it resumed contact, its vocabulary was immensely enlarged, and for over 99 percent of the time it could pass the Turing test with ease – i.e., there was no way of telling from the messages received that Starglider was a machine, and not a highly intelligent human.
There were occasional giveaways – for example, incorrect use of ambiguous words, and the absence of emotional content in the dialogue. This was only to be expected; unlike advanced terrestrial computers – which could replicate the emotions of their builders, when necessary – Starglider's feelings and desires were presumably those of a totally alien species, and therefore largely incomprehensible to man.
And, of course, vice versa. Starglider could understand precisely and completely what was meant by “the square on the hypotenuse equals the sum of the squares on the other two sides”. But it could scarcely have the faintest glimmer of what lay in Keats' mind when he wrote:
Charmed magic casements, opening on the foam Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn…
Still less – Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?