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The Laughing Paradox

Dylan Otto Krider's work has appeared in Asimov's, Lightspeed, Daily Science Fiction, 365 Tomorrows, and Star Trek: Strange New Worlds. He has won the grand prize in the Writers of the Future Contest, has been a finalist in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Contest, and placed first for the Asimov Award. He has also written approximately one hundred dub scripts for ADV Films, including Saiyuki.
Dr. Stenko and his team were working the paradox problem for ten years. The old science fiction cliche of frying a robot's brain by setting it into an infinite logical loop had long been a joke in AI circles. Then, as the brains got more complex, the problem came full circle. The circuits got smaller, and tended to run a little hot as it was. Paradoxes tended to create infinite loops through the same set of circuits that created a buildup of energy (known as an "arousal jag" in the field) that eventually blew the nanocircuits--so ultimately, the joke was on them.
The stumbling block turned out to be Godel's incompleteness theorems, which stated no logical system could be self-contained, and have its own base assumptions. So, every subroutine required an outside subroutine, and paradox was inevitable.
Yet, Stenko knew a solution was possible because the human brain dealt with logical contradictions all the time. Eventually, Stenko had a revelation: rather than avoiding inevitable paradoxes, he would work around them. He started working on the test robot--Benjy, as he was fondly known--devising ways to channel the buildup of energy until the brain could synthesize the inconsistency into a new subroutine. Stenko eventually realized it didn't matter where the excess energy went, so he used it to power random beeps and blinking lights.
Stenko began with a classic paradox: "This statement is false."
Benjy flashed his eyes and made this odd vocalization: Heh.
Stenko looked over the brain scans. No crash. No blown circuits. It worked.
He had to tell his boss.
Dr. Stenko gathered the team around his desk to break the news. Mr. Penderson, the CEO, was very pleased with the team's work on the paradox problem, but the company was letting everyone go.
"Those dorks over in computation haven't shown progress in months," Vale said.
"That's why they're keeping them on," Stenko explained.
Jed scrunched his brow and leaned forward. "So, we lost our jobs because we did our jobs, and those dorks are still employed because they're incompetent?"
"That's the long and short of it," Stenko said.
Eh, Benjy said.
Stenko must have forgotten to turn him off. "Having worked on such a successful project will make us all very marketable," Stenko offered as consolation. "If we hadn't signed the non-compete agreements that prevent us from talking about it or working in the industry for two years."
Eh, eh, Benjy said, raising his shoulders twice. Oh, oh.
It was the new exhaust system. It sounded strange, and Stenko couldn't help giving a little "heh," of his own.
"Any compensation?" Dale asked.
"I'll be getting a two-million-dollar bonus for solving the problem," Stenko said.
"But that could pay all our salaries for two years," Dale said.
Benjy's shoulders started bouncing: Eh, heh, eh, heh, heh, eh.
"Cut it out," Stenko snapped at Benjy. Stenko could see the energy building as Benjy fought to keep it in, but he had programmed Benjy to relieve it before his circuits blew.
Stenko, when he made Benjy face absurdity, had unwittingly taught Benjy to laugh.
Stenko found that funny. "Ha! Ha!" Stenko said, slapping his knee.
Ho, Ho Benjy said. Ha, ha. Benjy generated random vowels: eh, ah, oh, uh, uh, uh. Stop! Benjy pleaded. Stop! Please! I can't take it anymore!
Vale crossed her arms and glared at him. "This isn't the way to deal with it."
"But it is," Stenko said. And with that, Stenko and Benjy collapsed, no longer able to contain themselves. Soon, everybody joined them. They couldn't help themselves.
The End
This story was first published on Monday, November 20th, 2017


My thesis for my Masters in Creative Writing was on humor in fiction, and how it makes anything, even tragedy, more effective. I wanted to know the science of what makes us laugh, in particular. It came down to an "arousal jag"--caused by something surprising or unexpected--and resolution. For example, you could answer "Why do you eat socks?" with "because the aliens came down and vaporized us," which is unexpected, but has no resolution. Or, you could answer, "because they come in pears," which does: pair of socks and the fruit, pears. We humans like things that make sense, and when they don't, we get an arousal jag. Laughter, it seems, is a way to expel that energy.

- Dylan Otto Krider

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