The Talos Principle: Robots in the Garden of Eden

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“In the beginning were the Words and the Words made the world. I am the Words and the Word are Everything” Elohim bellows as you try to navigate beyond the reaches of the computer simulation. No more code, no more space. You are an A.I. trying to solve logic puzzles within a world created from old videogame assets under the direction of Elohim, or God. If you succeed, you may spend the rest of eternity with Elohim. If you defy him, you will prove that you are capable of reason and free thought and your AI will be uploaded to a robot, set forth on an Earth devoid of life. Your purpose is the last defiant yell of humanity before its extinction, serving now as a mere echo of what came before. But without this echo, no one would ever know what had taken place on this barren rock.

You awake in a calm, sunny place and Elohim introduces himself to you –
“Behold child. You have arisen from the dust and you walk in my garden.Hear now my voice and know that I am your maker. And I am called Elohim. Seek me in my temple if you are worthy.”

As you go about your tasks to reach Elohim and prove that you are worthy, you come across computer terminals where you can talk to a program called Milton who challenges your devotion to Elohim. Milton is the sum of all knowledge that humanity had accumulated before their extinction and often re-engages with you in philosophical and ethical discussions. Elohim frequently warns you not to engage with Milton, for Milton is dangerous. In trying to appease God (Elohim) and show your worth, you are led astray by The Serpent (Milton) who want you to take a bite of the forbidden fruit – knowledge.

The biblical imagery doesn’t end there. Milton wants you to climb a large tower that Elohim repeatedly tells you not to climb and that there will be punishments for you if you do. The tower is evocative of The Tower of Babel, built by humans in an effort to get closer to God. Similarly, one of the endings of the game has you ascend the tower and then propelled into the heavens. It isn’t unusual to have such imagery in a game that, aside from puzzles, discusses the notions of free will and artificial intelligence. The core of the experiment you are taking part in is to see how close to a human mind an artificial intelligence can get. Talos is taken from Greek myth and is the name of a mechanical man (or bull, depending on source) that protects the island he lives on by throwing rocks at passing ships. In the interpretation where he is a man, he is a man of bronze, one of the last of his kind. He has one vein that goes from his head to his ankles and it is stopped with a nail or a plug. He is defeated when Medea removes the plug from his ankle, removing the fluid which gives him life.

In one of the terminals you come across a file named “Talos Principle.txt”:

May we not then say that Talos, though created as a machine or a toy, had all the essential properties of a man? He moved of his own volition. He spoke and could be spoken to, had wishes and desires. Indeed in the tale of the Argonauts, that was the cause of his downfall. If, then, a machine may have all the properties of a man, and act as a man while driven only by the ingenious plan of its construction and the interaction of its materials according to the principles of nature, then does it not follow that man may also be seen as a machine? This contradicts all the schools of metaphysics, yet even the most faithful philosopher cannot live without his blood.

It is this that the simulation you are in is trying to test. When Elohim says “..if you are worthy” it means “Are you human enough?”

The meat of the game are the logic puzzles where you have to re-arrange jammers, direct lasers, interact with recorded copies of yourself, and much more. These puzzles start off easy and then get increasingly difficult but it is through logic and spatial manipulation that you solve them. So a quick side step here, back to the Garden of Eden story. Adam and Eve get kicked out of paradise because they directly disobeyed the orders of God by eating the forbidden fruit. This forbidden fruit game them the knowledge of Good and Evil.

“For God knows that when you eat from it, your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” – Genesis 3:5

Good and Evil are opposites which define each other – we don’t know what is evil unless we also know what is good. To be able to do this, we can’t use just logic; ethics, morality, and what is actually good and bad are, for the most part, subjective. Our ideas of good and evil come from many years of living together in a society. Determining what is good or evil, or bad, without any prior information is almost impossible. If you have never had any cola in your life before and you try Pepsi, is it good or is it bad? Not until you try Coca-Cola (or another brand of cola) can you say “Pepsi is better/worse than Coke”. If you didn’t like the taste of cola the first time you tried it, you can say “I don’t like cola”. Something can’t be hard unless we also know what soft is. Something can’t be cold unless you also know what hot is.

The Talos Principle then is not just one test for robots, but two. The first part is the puzzles – testing their logical functioning. Logic is one aspect which, arguably, differentiates us humans from animals. The second is Reason. For an AI to pass off as “human” like in the Talos Principle, it needs to show it can think logically by solving the problems and can reason, by balanced the good and bad in the information between Elohim and Milton. In the Bible, it was disobeying God that got Adam and Eve kicked out of the Garden of Eden. As a consequence of the disobedience, Adam and Eve learned how to reason. In the Talos Principle, you have to use reason to get yourself out of the Garden of Eden.

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Depending on the choices you make there are three basic endings to the Talos Principle.

There is the “Heaven” ending, where you follow Elohim’s directions, prove yourself worthy, and don’t climb the tower to ascend. Instead, you walk through a huge doorway leading to a wall of light just to awaken again in the garden. You start over as a new version of the AI, an evolution from the previous one you just played. You didn’t complete your task.

The second ending involved defying Elohim and climbing the tower. Here you meet two other AI robots – The Shepherd and Samsara – who will help or prevent you from climbing higher. Throughout the game, you have been reading messages left behind by previous AIs running through the simulation. The Shepherd and Samsara are two of these. The Shepherd will help you, “shepherding” you to salvation while Samsara (a Sanskrit word which refers to the cyclical nature of life) doesn’t want an AI to ascend – just for the process to repeat over and over. When you do bypass Samsara and reach the end, Elohim admits that “you were always meant to defy me”.

The third ending, one which requires solving the extra difficult puzzles, has you become a sort of disciple of Elohim. Basically, you choose to stay behind even though you could have ascended, to help those which show promise of being worthy. While I have mentioned that logic and reason separate us from animals, the first and third endings require perhaps the third piece of the puzzle which makes us human – Faith. It is only when we chose to not have faith in Elohim that we defy him and ascend to walk upon the Earth for the first time. In fact, faith and reason are often at odds with one another, something which is not limited to religion.

Only by defying Elohim are you considered worthy by the humans, who created this simulation, long dead by now to serve as a reminder, a tombstone almost, of their existence. But The Talos Principle isn’t anti-religion in its message of ascension. It is a reversal of many religious ideas of afterlife. We go from the spiritual (digital) to the material rather than the other way around. The AIs already live in the spiritual realm and progress to the material whereas humans progress from the material to the spiritual. In the Talos Principle, to be human means to have reason, logic, and faith – and the agency to act on it. In this digital Garden of Eden, we are remaking humanity and choosing a different path from the start, one not based on faith alone.

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