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A Dying Tux on an Airbus

A couple of days ago I took a transatlantic flight on an Airbus A330.  It is a large plane where each seat is accompanied by a computer named "Entertainment System".  It contained games, movies, and stuff like inflight information (plane location mapped onto the world map, and flight progress details, which is kind of reassuring given that the flight lasts for 10+ hours.)  A killer feature of such system is its USB port useful when you want to read/watch something on your mobile phone (or type this story, for instance.)

Not only did I learn that day what operating system that computer ran, but I also found out another example how machines can demonstrate such inherently human feelings as courage and hope.

It all started with nothing special.  I casually opened inflight information, and fell asleep.  When I woke up, and realized that there was a couple of movies worth watching, I tried to launch them.  It didn't work.

"I am a programmer, aren't I," I thought, and started to click all the buttons on the remote control.  None of that worked.  I tried to click the near-screen buttons; they worked properly, while their remote-control counterparts did not.  I concluded that the driver for the remote died somehow, and asked the stewardess to reboot my terminal.

As it started to reboot, I noticed a lot of familiar words.  It used a bootloader named RedBoot copyrighted by RedHat, and it obviously ran Linux with a 1.59 kernel or something.

However, after "decompressing image," it showed, "decompression error: incorrect data check," and rebooted again.  The system did not boot far enough to start that entertainment.

It also displayed a reboot counter. After twenty five reboots something should have happened, and I didn't know what. Curiosity took me over, and I stared at the screen, finding amusement in the fact that I know what some of the words being printed there meant.

After 25 reboots, the computer realized that there was something wrong with it, and ran the firmware update program.  It did not help.  He entered the same circle of pain again...and again.

As I watched the guy reboot over and over, I noticed that my curiosity is being replaced by different feelings.  I felt sympathy and compassion to that guy.  It kept trying and trying, and kept failing and failing as if it didn't even know what would happen next.

There are theories that as computer programs start to gain their own cognition, they will frown upon the awareness about their own limitations.  "I envy you humans for your unknown boundaries," says a reddit bot that automatically handles pictures posted to reddit in "his" answer during the open interview (aka "AMA").  I don't know if these theories will have anything to do with reality; they do not sound illogical at all. But this little computer clearly had no awareness of his incapability to boot, and kept crucifying himself.

Pain replaced my compassion. Having watched over a hundred reboots and reflashes, I've lost all hope. "Why should we keep him alive?" I thought. "He'll just keep doing this being unaware that he broke.  Why can't we just shut him down and end the series of reboots?  Do we humans even realize how painful each reboot could be," I thought, "maybe he wants to die already?" I tried to recall what people do when euthanasia is not an option. Morphine?  Even morphine can't make the pain relinquish a computer—though, none is allowed on an aircraft anyway.

I asked the stewardess to shut the entertainment system down at my seat to release him from the pain.   "Oh, unfortunately it's impossible," she replied. "We can move you to another place if you want though: we have some extra chairs available."

I suddenly realized that I can't leave him.  To most other passengers and crew, it was just a malfunctioning computer to be rebooted, replaced, or ignored.  To me, however, it was a dying Tux  who fought for his survival against its own limitations.  I recalled how friends and relatives stay at the bed of a dying loved one, and imagined how they'll soon gather near the charger of a family robot who's about to leave for his silicon heaven after a long, deadly malfunctioning.

I sat by his side for the rest of the flight.

And he finally succeeded!   After six hours of effortless reboots, he finally reflashed a working kernel, and booted himself!  A usual routine went on, the first-boot symlinks had been set up, the X11 system started, showing its tapestry with the well-known black-and-white embroidery.  I could launch one of the movies I wanted several hours ago, but I gave the Tux some rest instead.  He deserved it.

So I experienced this enlightening encounter with a machine who fought for his life, never lost hope, ignored what was believed to be his limitations, and did finally succeed in this struggle.   Not only did he demonstrate the feelings only humans seemed to possess, the dying Tux also happened to have more faith in his own victory than the human who was sitting alongside him.

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