I Robot by Robert Anton Wilson


I, ROBOT by Robert Anton Wilson

(This short essay, another of Robert Anton Wilson’s “Illuminating Discords” columns from New Libertarian Weekly. It’s from issue No. 80, July 3, 1977. — Tom).

Fairness? Decency? How can you expect fairness or decency on a planet of sleeping people?
— Gurdjieff, 1918

Last year in Oui magazine, Dr. Timothy Leary and I published an article ghoulishly titled, “Brainwashing: How to Fold, Spindle and Mutilate the Human Mind.” I would like to summarize our basic positions here, preparatory to a more general discussion of neurological relativism.

Human beings, Leary and I propose, are basically giant robots created by DNA to make more DNA. (So are all the other multi-cellular organisms on this backward planet.)

Of course, there is nothing new about the robot theory of biology. The Sufis and yogis knew about it centuries before Pavlov, or even before Mark Twain wrote his stunningly prescient essay, “Man, A Machine.” Nonetheless, it is so patently offensive to human narcissism that almost everybody recoils from it “as the devil would from holy water.”

(Incidentally, you can get a quick estimate of a person’s intelligence by asking them how much of themselves is robotic. Those who say “not at all” or “less than 50%” are hopeless imbeciles, always. The few who say “about 99%” are worth talking to; they are quite intelligent. Dr. Leary, who is the freest human being I have ever known, estimates he is 99.9999 percent robot.)

The circuitry of the human robot, like that of other primates, is wired to take imprints at crucial moments of what ethologists call “imprint vulnerability.” These occur on a pre-programmed schedule: the bio-survival imprint is taken as soon as the mother’s breast is offered; the territorial imprint as soon as the infant is able to walk about, yell, and generally meddle in family politics; the laryngeal imprint as soon as the DNA-RNA signals trigger the talking stage; the sexual imprint at the first orgasm or mating experience, etc.

For literary convenience, we can think of the bio-survival imprint as Will and personify it as Scotty, brooding over the life-support and weapons technology. The territorial or emotional imprint, then, is Ego, or Dr. McCoy, the mammalian moralist. The laryngeal (symbolic) imprint is Mind, or Mr. Spock, the linear computer. And the sexual imprint is Adult Personality, or Captain Kirk, the father-protector.

Each of these imprints exists in the nervous system as a separate circuit or network. Any one of them can be kinky or odd, since the biocomputer imprints literally anything at the moment of imprint vulnerability.

A kinky bio-survival imprint may take such forms as anxiety, phobias or outright autism. A weird territorial-emotional imprint can be either overly submissive, in which case the subject suffers, or overly dominant, in which case those unfortunate enough to associate with the subject do the suffering. A bizarre symbolic imprint is, at this stage of evolution, the norm: almost every society educates the  young for stupidity, dogmatism, intolerance and inability to learn anything new. As for the sexual imprints: everybody can see how compulsive and weird everybody else’s sexual imprint is; but, alas, few can see that about themselves.

Brainwashing consists of creating artificial imprint vulnerability. You can do this either with drugs, or with prolonged isolation (“sensory deprivation”), or with terror (new imprints are always taken at the point of near death, which is what most shamanic initiations rely on), or with a combination of drugs, isolation and terror.

The priests, pedagogues and shamans of all tribes and nations know enough, on the empirical level, about imprint vulnerability. All the crucial transition stages of life are surrounded by ritual, repetition and redundance — and frequently with terror and isolation, and sometimes (in many societies) with drugs — to ensure that the local belief systems and “morals” are heavily imprinted.

In short, the process of acculturation is itself a brainwashing process.

Thus, the Samoan lives inside an imprinted Samoan reality; the German inside a German reality; an American inside an American reality. That’s why a crowd of Americans are immediately recognizable in a street full of Turks or Hindus or even in a street of Englishmen or Irish. The naive chauvinism of a traveler who says “all foreigners are crazy” is actually quite valid; indeed, foreigners are crazy; the chauvinist merely lacks the insight to realize that his imprint-group is crazy, too.

(As mentioned in previous columns, there are four other imprints, intended for future evolution off this planet and therefore only appearing rarely thus far in our history. These are the neurosomatic imprint, which we call Hedonic Engineering or the art of staying high; the neuroelectric imprint, or Magick; the neurogenetic imprint, or DNA consciousness; and the metaphysiological imprint, or “cosmic consciousness.”)

Leary’s idea of Intelligence-squared thus does not mean merely an increase in linear I.Q. on the third circuit. (Super-Spockism). It means learning how to “brainwash” yourself; that is, to selectively tune, focus and serially reimprint all 8 circuits, beginning with as many of them as you can handle. (It is unwise, for instance, to attempt any 6th circuit psionic operations until great skill has been attained in self-metaprogramming the bio-survival, emotional, mental, sexual and Hedonic circuits).

The plain fact is that most bio-survival anxieties are phobic are irrational, most emotional games silly and infantile (they are imprinted in infancy, after all), most mental sets rigid and nearly blind, most sex-roles as robotic as the mating dance of the penguin. At the same time, the ultimate sophistication is to avoid laying your own bio-survival needs, emotional cons, belief systems and sex games on others, which elementary courtesy is really what libertarianism is all about.

Unfortunately, libertarianism as a third-circuit idea (laryngeal signal) has no more effect on this backward planet than any other third circuit reality-map. The other circuits continue their robotic trips, anchored in the neurochemistry of the imprinting process. Intelligence-squared, or self-metaprogramming, allows libertarianism to become more than an idea. This is what the Neurological Revolution means; this is what the Great Work of the alchemists aimed for. When the robot awakens and becomes a self-programmer, it can easily have all the goals promised by the alchemists: The Stone of the Wise, the Medicine of Metals, True Wisdom and perfect Happiness. All of those traditional terms are metaphors for the awakening of Intelligence-squared.

Usually people are libertarians or fascists or snake-worshippers or Republicans or nudists or whatever, because of conditioned networks that fit smoothly into their imprints. People achieve Intelligence-squared, and become effective libertarians, only if they work for it.

                                                                     — Robert Anton Wilson


  1. Was there some sort of rule that in the late 1960s and early 1970s that everyone had to write in a really weird way?

    However, at least this Mr “DNA” has intentions (“DNA created human beings to create more DNA”) no one else is allowed to have intentions (is accepted by the writers of this article to be a real person) – so why the word “beings” when the point of the article is that humans are not beings?

    My own view is the opposite.

    DNA has no intentions at all (it is not a person), and people do have intentions (humans are beings), and the fact that humans are built (in part) of DNA is (in this specific regard) not relevant.

    Also the article seems to confuse biological evolution with cultural evolution. the cultural differences between (for example) Americans and Turks are not genetic they are cultural (a different history rather than a different biology).

    As for “brainwashing” (and so on) to describe culture – I refer the reader to the first point I made (a lot of people in the late 1960s and 1970s wrote in a really weird way – they thought it was “cool” and “hip” I suppose).

  2. What an odd article. However, as a biological scientist of sorts, I agree sort of to the extent that the purpose of an organism is to be a DNA-specified-robot for manufacturing more copies – if it is successful – of the specific set of DNA programmes that the robot is vouchsafed with. Sometimes with the help of other similar organisms, and sometimes not.

    In other words, we exist for the benefit of our DNA…We are not here as autonomous agents to “pass it on consciously”.

    I’ll have to think about the rest of it.

  3. David,

    “… the purpose of an organism is to be a DNA-specified-robot for manufacturing more copies….”

    I would say the “function” of an organism rather than the “purpose,” since many organisms are incapable of having purpose as they aren’t equipped to have any sort of “mind,” which is required for purpose to exist. “Purpose” is only applicable if we are speaking of the viewpoint of a maker (or user) of an object. “The purpose of the car” exists in the mind of its maker, or user, or an observer. The car itself has no purpose. It just sits there or moves, without any purpose of its own.

    However, the way you put it makes your statement a crystal-clear example of Aristotle’s Final Cause.

    On the other hand, the way RAW himself wrote his second paragraph makes it seem that he was engaging in anthropomorphism pure and simple. No, DNA does NOT have a “purpose [in mind].”

    I find it quite believable that Dr. Leary became 99.9999% robot. His programming was really, really, REALLY buggy, and as a result he wigged out and went around telling the younglings that they should “turn on, tune in, and drop out,” which certainly does encourage the idea of irresponsibility as fundamental to living the Good Life. It’s too bad he ate those Mexican shrooms in the first place. For all I know he was normal up till then.

    It may be that he and his colleague what’s-is-name, who became Ram Dass, did get some useful data out of their use of prisoners and graduate students as guinea pigs in research on the effects of psychedelic drugs, but conceivably Dr. Mengele also found out some useful stuff. (I have no idea whether he did or not. There’s no place low enough in hell for this person.) This statement, of course, is accusation by innuendo, but to me feeding LSD to prisoners and Seminary students is one of the higher points in the heights of irresponsibility.

    It seems to me that when RAW talks about the “Samoan reality,” “American reality,” etc., in the context of acculturation, he just means that the customs and mores of different societies differ to some extent. So the social environment, so to speak, or what one might call the “social reality,” is different in different societies, because the cultural norms and the general way of looking at things differs in different societies. Famously, burping at table is a terrible breach of custom (manners) in America, but failing to burp at table is dreadfully rude and insulting in China. And the “Islamic reality” is certainly different from the “British reality.” Even if the latter is in danger of becoming the former.

  4. In a dynamic universe, that is one which experiences change, everything of necessity has the nature of a machine, both in terms of being small parts of the general universe machine and a machine in its own right as an individual mechanical element. We, like every other organic product are Von Neuman machines, ie, machines which can reproduce.

    Shortly machines will be able to replicate themselves. That has frightening implications simply in terms of their power of reproduction.magine a situation where a robot is able to create a replica of itself in a week and that the original robot and those created by the original robot and the ever growing number of robots continue to double the robots every week.

    At the end of the first week there are two robots; at the end of the second week four robots, at the end of the third week eight robots and so on. By the 34th week there would be 8,589,934,592 robots, about 1.4 billion more than the estimated population of the world (7.1 billion) at present.

    Suppose those with formal power or those without formal power but the ability to produce general purpose robots which would do what ever they were programmed to do, decided to build a great army of robots to subdue and control the great majority of humans . It would be the dictator’s dream: servants who could be trusted to bend to the dictator’s will whatever it was

    In assessing what Man is, an analogy with computers can be made. As hardware, a particular model of computer is practically identical to every other computer which is classified as the same model. But the software available to every computer of the same model is not identical. They may run different operating systems, either completely different or different versions of the same program. The software which runs under the operating system is different with different versions of the same program being used. The data which is input to the computer varies and this in turn affects the capabilities of the computer.

    It clearly makes no sense to say every computer of the same model is the same even if the computer is loaded with the same software. But of course not all computers are of the same model. They vary tremendously in their power. The same software will run at very different rates because of this. Storage and memory size also vary tremendously. Some computers cannot run programmes because the programmes are too large. We may call all computers computers , but that is to say little more than that all animals are animals, for computers range from the immensely powerful super computers – the homo sapiens of the computer world as it were – to the amoeba of the simple chip which controls lights being put on or off in a room depending on whether someone is in it.

    Are the circumstances of computers not akin to those of Man? Do not the racially based differences in IQ correspond to the differences in power of older and newer computers? Do not different languages represent different operating systems? For example, think how different must be the mentality of a native Chinese speaker (using a language which is entirely monosyllabic)to that of a native English speaker (using a polysyllabic language)simply because of the profound difference in the structure of the language. A language will not merely impose limits on what may be expressed it will effect the entire mentality of the individual, from aesthetic appreciation to social expression. Is not the experiential input analogous to the holding of different data?

  5. “turn on, tune in, and drop out,”

    I think that was a quite good message at the time, in the particular context of the time, as a corrective. Society in the 1950s was too formalised and rigid, and needed some loosening up. We got the 1960s and 70s as a result, so that was generally positive, culturally.

    Most of the time, society is too far in one direction, so the people pulling the other way are doing the right thing in a general sense. We’re currently in a far too authoritarian and conformist stage again, so we need another burst of “turn on tune in drop out” ism.

    It’s worth noting that it took about two generations of social relaxation before people would vote for economic relaxation (the Thatcher Era, in Britain), which ties into my general theme that I believe most Libertarians have things the wrong way around; economic liberalism can only thrive in a socially liberal environment. The people of the 1970s who expected to have their private lives left alone began to apprecaite that that applies to economics too, and voted (uniquely, in the 20th century) for an overtly economically liberal government- Thatcher’s Hayekian policies. Get people used to making private choices, they’ll start resenting economic controls too.

    I hereby claim this as the only comment on the internet ever that credits Thatcher’s election to Timothy Leary.

  6. A more important reason for the variation in mental processes between a native Chinese and a native European, is not so much the spoken language, but the fact that Chinese writing does not have an alphabet, and so any sort of phonetic approach to reading cannot work. Mandarin and Cantonese speakers can read each others writing, but may not be able to converse in speech. I find it difficult to understand how a sophisticated culture can develop when every word has to be learnt as a pictogram.

  7. Chris Morris – The fact that the Chinese never developed and alphabet is a black mark against their intellect. If you sat a genius and a dullard the task of producing a writing system, the genius would produce the alphabet and the dullard the pictorial. That would be because the alphabet is the most economical by far of the two but far from obvious whereas the pictorial is obvious.

    Until the 1950s the large majority of Chinese were illiterate. Mao introduced an attempt to produce universal literacy but this reputedly produced so many suicides as pupils struggled with the tremendous demands of learning such a cumbersome system that simplified system had to be introduced.

    It is not true incidentally that Chinese characters can be easily read by any literate Chinese. The characters vary between different dialects and the precise meaning of shared characters differs.

    As a spoken language Chinese is really a series of languages. The old Chinese premier Deng had to have his daughter translate into Mandarin for him when he gave a speech so thick was his dialect.

    Why the Chinese with their high average IQs stuck to a pictorial system even after they knew of alphabet based systems is debatable. Perhaps it was simply stubbornness because the Alphabetical systems were foreign and the Chinese despised that which was not Chinese. Or perhaps they understood that an alphabetical system would mean greater literacy and this they diod not want because a literate population is much more of a threat to abusive rulers and an illiterate one. Maybe it was simply innate qualities of their brains which attuned them to the pictorial.

  8. Many people do not have children they defy the intentions (the plans) of DNA.

    Which is not a surprise – as DNA is not a being and has no intentions (it makes no plans).

    To describe DNA as if it was a person is a mistake that Dr Dawkins is famous for (as is his habit of talking about actual persons as if they were not persons) – but this article shows that Dr Dawkins (with his “selfish gene” – when a gene is not, and can not be, “selfish”, it has no self to be selfish about) did not invent the mistake.

    These two authors did not invent the absurdity either – it goes back well before either of them.


    “Turn on, tune in and drop out” is from Herbert Marcuse and co (the Marxoids). The best that can be said of those libertarians who followed their advice (in pushing drugs and so on) is “they knew not what they did”.

    It was deliberately designed (by Marcuse and co) to send as many people to the GUTTER as possible. In order to undermine “capitalist” society.

    As for the misery that social collapse would cause – well “Lenin” had an answer for that (decades before).

    “If. for the purposes of Communism, we must sacrifice nine tenths of the population – we should not recoil from these sacrifices”.

    It is perfectly true (and you have often made the point) that a state that uses force in social matters will end up using it in economic matters also (that the two can not be divided – not in the end). But that does not mean that degeneracy (indulging in everything till one dies in a pile of one’s own vomit and excrement) is a good thing – only that Gladstone was right (that one should not look to the state for moral improvement – not that moral improvement is impossible or undesirable).

    Cato the Elder (to give a famous example of someone who used state violence to enforce “moral conduct”) hated economic freedom as much as he hated social freedom.

    He did not understand merchants or manufacturers – he just despised them.

    As for his own moral conduct – he (for example) left old slaves out to die (as soon as it cost more to care for them than they could work), this shocked even the Romans (not known for being sentimental).

    A man with no honour – as his plans for Carthage (demand they disarm THEN attack) showed.

    I am reminded of George Whitfield (sometimes spelt “Whitefield”) – who railed against the “evil luxury” of Wedgewood china – when the real reason for his hatred of Mr Wedgewood was Wedgewood’s opposition to slavery and his sending out (free of charge) of anti slavery china figures to anyone (even as far away as America) who would take the cause of freedom into their hearts.

    As for the claim that George Whitfield was a great preacher – this may be, but his theology undermines the point of preaching (or any communication).

    Whitfield was a Predestinationist – he believed that who would be saved and who would not was decided at the start of the universe (and that humans had no free will to change their fate).

    So why did he go about preaching? Well that was predestined also……..

    The predestinationist has an “answer” for everything, but it is a pathetic answer – as Wesley understood at the time.

    Robert Henderson.

    Perhaps intelligent computers will be achieved one day (I do not know) – that depends on whether it is possible to create consciousness (which, contrary to you, is the same thing as agency, being an agent, having free will) in a computer.

    Perhaps it is – but then such a free will machine would be an agent (a person).

  9. Paul, the phrase appears to have been suggested to Leary by Marshall McLuhan, not Herbert Marcuse.

    Nobody, least of all Dawkins, thinks DNA is “a person”. But as an active system it can be described as “purposive”. Teleological language is inevitable but just acts as a convenient shorthand for a long winded description of natural selective processes.

    Computers, like brains, are determinist systems (they work according to the laws of physics), so it’s contradictory for you to claim that either a computer, or a brain, can exhibit free will. Unless you’re agreeing with me and Robert that “will” is simply the operations of a sufficiently complex deterministic system. In which case, we have nothing to argue about, and never have had.

  10. “will” is simply the operations of a sufficiently complex deterministic system”

    That is it in a nutshell. Incidentally I think machine consciousness will be an emergent property rather than a conscious intent by human or machine designers. That is because consciousness is beyond exact definition.

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