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Leader of the Pack

"The large primates--chimpanzees, baboon, gorillas, and others--pose some of the most serious challenges we face. They are social creatures, and they do not do well alone, no matter how carefully their habitats are prepared. Unfortunately, the radioactive and biological agents used in the war have left both individuals and populations critically fragile."
Thus far, Greg hadn't said anything that his audience didn't already know. They were listening, of course--when Greg Lee talked, people listened. He rushed through the details of the problem. While the war-born diseases had been aimed at man, many of them could be caught by any primate, and a single spore could spread through an entire population, leaving every member dead or permanently injured. In addition, less dominant members would seldom have mating opportunities, and because of the condition the apes were in, many of them could not survive any sort of physical conflict within the group.
"Robotic surrogates have been tried," he said. "They've failed. Robots can physically impersonate the apes, and can engage in child-rearing for young produced in artificial wombs. But more complicated interactions are beyond our abilities. Chimpanzees who act almost, but not entirely, like other chimpanzees can be even more stressful than solitary confinement. For this reason, that avenue has been largely abandoned. But in recent months, I have solved this problem."
That got their attention. Even Professor Szolt, who seemed to spend most of his time sitting in a corner smoking his pipe, put it down to hear what Greg had done. "The problem is that we were working too hard on trying to emulate chimp behavior. It's just too complicated, too organic for our current levels of AI. But rather than explain what I've changed, watch."
The video began, focusing on a young male chimp, lame in one leg, and with the scars of spotting flu on his face and hands. He ambled among the trees, amidst a troop of other, healthy-looking chimpanzees. But rather than being pushed to the periphery, even the adult males cowered submissively when he grabbed for their fruit, and the highest status females would groom him.
"That was Jicama," explained Greg. "A 7-year-old male removed from the experimental troop at Mahale Mountains, where he was not integrating well. And, as you've seen, he's now thriving with a robotic surrogate troop."
There was a confused babble of questions and admiration. "No," said Greg. "No, I haven't made any significant changes in the surrogate's programming. All I changed was the dominance patterns. The social primates live in deeply structured hierarchies, and as it turns out, behavior that is confusing or upsetting coming from equals and superiors is much more acceptable from subordinates. In another experiment, I've established that a robotic surrogate that does nothing but stay in one place and chews on leaves will reduce stress in solitary primates, if it responds submissively to all challenges."
Professor Szolt was in the process of tamping down the tobacco in his pipe, and he almost dropped it at that. Everyone else clapped for a long time, and agreed that it was a wonderful breakthrough on a very important problem. As usual, the calibration on Dr. Anderson was off, so that her hands did not actually come into contact while she was clapping, and as usual, Greg didn't notice.
The End
This story was first published on Monday, January 10th, 2022
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