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Many years ago in a US middle school, in an honors literature class we read a short story in English that has stuck with me since and I haven't been able to find it.

Roughly:

  • someone creates a computer (called an automaton or something?
  • "as is tradition" the creator and someone he is showing it off to ask it a simple math problem (like what is 2+2)
  • The computer gives the wrong result, saying 2+2=5 or something
  • The creator corrects them, but the computer doubles down
  • Eventually the computer gets angry, rips itself out of the building, and chases them
  • The computer insists 2+2=5 until eventually they kill it (with water?).

I think it was written in the first half of the 1900s, I want to say 1920s-30s. All I remember was reading it on some photocopied sheets the teacher handed out - so it may have been an excerpt.

I may be wrong about the exact numbers here (and may be why I can't find it via google).

The takeaway I remember was it being a warning about authoritarianism insisting on things that are incorrect, and how things like this can get away from even well-intentioned creators.

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    Meanwhile in 2023, we have ChatGPT insisting that it's 2022 and telling users who disagree that they are "wrong, confused and rude": reddit.com/r/bing/comments/110eagl/… May 5, 2023 at 9:48
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    @MichaelBorgwardt It can't count either (ask for 5 examples, get a list of 4-6, etc.), so I thought the question would've been about AI from the title.
    – Mast
    May 5, 2023 at 11:16
  • The story Trurl’s machine is available as part of a collection at: archive.org/details/utopiastudentlit0000unse May 5, 2023 at 21:31
  • Shockingly (in retrospect) I hadn't even thought of the ChatGPT dimension to this, I was still interpreting it as the metaphor the author likely intended. Interesting that what once was intended as a metaphor has become almost reality. To the caves I guess? I for one welcome our OpenAI/ChatGPT overlords May 8, 2023 at 16:25

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This sounds very much like Trurl's Machine (Maszyna Trurla), from Stanislaw Lem's collection of short stories The Cyberiad - except that the computer insisted that two plus two was equal to seven, rather than five.

The computer was built by the inventor Trurl, and was the height of an eight storey building. When he finished it, he asked it the question as a test and received the answer "SEVEN". He makes several efforts to fix it, but the machine insists on its answer. Eventually the computer feels insulted, and chases Trurl and his companion out of the building until they take refuge in a cave. There it tries to dig down to reach them, but in the process causes a landslide that crushes it.

They saw the machine. It lay smashed and flattened, nearly broken in half by an enormous boulder that had landed in the middle of its eight floors... The machine still quivered slightly, and one could hear something turning, creaking feebly within.

"Yes, this is the bad end you've come to and two and two is - as it always was -" began Trurl, but just then the machine made a faint barely audible croaking noise and said, for the last time, "SEVEN."

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