Continuing to think about Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, I noticed that the Stanford Prison Experiment continues to confuse me. Just what was Quirrell really thinking here? On no level did this make sense. And then I realized that I had neglected one key event in the story. Bellatrix comes to believe that her master is inside Harry. At the time I just assumed without reflection that this was just a necessary part of the plot to free her, but what if it’s more? In fact, what if it was one of the main purposes of the whole breakout? Voldemort is preparing Bellatrix to be ready for the time when he moves from Monroe/Quirrell’s body to Harry’s.
Now if this were any regular fiction, I’d stop there, but consider the author for a moment: Eliezer Yudkowsky, a man who does research in artificial intelligence and is fascinated with the idea of AIs and the singularity. Hmmm.
Given that we can go a little further than I otherwise would into speculative territory. Suppose Quirrell/Monroe is possessed by a magical artificial intelligence (MAI) and not necessarily a friendly one. I’ll go a little further out on a limb and say that Tom Riddle was also possessed by this MAI. Possibly this AI was created as a copy/transfer of a wizard’s brain, another idea we have extra-textual evidence that Yudkowsky is interested in. Is there evidence for this idea in the text? Not much but there is some and surprisingly the strongest evidence is canonical. Pretty much all of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets is a story of magical possession by a magical artificial intelligence. “Never trust anything that can think for itself if you can’t see where it keeps its brain. ” So we know these things exist, and now that I think about it I can’t imagine Yudkowsky of all people missing the implications.
Is there more evidence that the author is thinking about this? Yes. At least twice. First Harry does an experiment to figure out what sentences his bag of holding can understand:
Some children would have waited until after their first trip to Diagon Alley.
“Bag of element 79,” Harry said, and withdrew his hand, empty, from the mokeskin pouch.
Most children would have at least waited to get their wands first.
“Bag of okane,” said Harry. The heavy bag of gold popped up into his hand.
Harry withdrew the bag, then plunged it again into the mokeskin pouch. He took out his hand, put it back in, and said, “Bag of tokens of economic exchange.” That time his hand came out empty.
“Give me back the bag that I just put in.” Out came the bag of gold once more.
Harry James Potter-Evans-Verres had gotten his hands on at least one magical item. Why wait?
“Professor McGonagall,” Harry said to the bemused witch strolling beside him, “can you give me two words, one word for gold, and one word for something else that isn’t money, in a language that I wouldn’t know? But don’t tell me which is which.”
“Ahava and zahav,” said Professor McGonagall. “That’s Hebrew, and the other word means love.”
“Thank you, Professor. Bag of ahava.” Empty.
“Bag of zahav.” And it popped up into his hand.
“Zahav is gold?” Harry questioned, and Professor McGonagall nodded.
Harry thought over his collected experimental data. It was only the most crude and preliminary sort of effort, but it was enough to support at least one conclusion:
“Aaaaaaarrrgh this doesn’t make any sense! ”
The witch beside him lifted a lofty eyebrow. “Problems, Mr. Potter?”
“I just falsified every single hypothesis I had! How can it know that ‘bag of 115 Galleons’ is okay but not ‘bag of 90 plus 25 Galleons’? It can count but it can’t add? It can understand nouns, but not some noun phrases that mean the same thing? The person who made this probably didn’t speak Japanese and
I don’t speak any Hebrew, so it’s not using their knowledge, and it’s not using my knowledge -” Harry waved a hand helplessly. “The rules seem sorta consistent but they don’t mean anything! I’m not even going to ask how a pouch ends up with voice recognition and natural language understanding when the best Artificial Intelligence programmers can’t get the fastest supercomputers to do it after thirty-five years of hard work,” Harry gasped for breath, “but what is going on? ”
Second there’s an entire chapter that revolves around the Sorting Hat becoming self-aware, and note that this involves the Hat using Harry’s own thoughts and brain against him. That is, magical intelligences can read, copy, and use human intelligences.
This doesn’t necessarily invalidate any of my earlier speculations. What Quirrellmort/Monroe wants is still an open question whether he’s an AI or not, though it probably does involve a dictator taking over magical Britain to protect it from Muggles. However it does shed new light on the possibilities. So here’s what I’m currently thinking:
At some point in the past, possibly the deep past, a wizard finds a way to transfer himself into other beings or objects. This wizard could be Tom Riddle or it could be someone older: Salazar Slytherin, Merlin, or an Atlantean who later possessed Riddle. In particular if it’s Salazar himself, assume the AI was passed on to Riddle via the Basilisk after Riddle got the message from the Sorting Hat. Note that this bypasses the interdict of Merlin so this AI could have knowledge no one else does, thus accounting for extraordinary magic no one else can perform.
From there things get murky, but I suspect the AI copies itself from Riddle to Monroe and possibly also copies all or part of itself to Harry in Godric’s Hollow, thus creating Harry’s Dark Side. The AI then allows Riddle’s body to die, since it is no longer needed. Monroe’s body is dying, so the AI is now preparing to copy the remainder of itself into Harry. Possibly this isn’t a full erasure but more of a merge as in a Trill. That would explain why Quirrell is deliberately strengthening Harry.
There is one piece that really doesn’t fit here though: the Horcruxes. Why did Quirrell/Riddle/Monroe create them if he had this alternative approach to immortality available? But what is a Horcrux? In canon it’s a piece of a wizard’s soul, but HPMoR is very ambiguous about whether souls exist. Certainly wizards believe they do, but Harry is not nearly so sure and this is discussed several times. Maybe in HPMoR a Horcrux is just a magical AI copy? but then why would you ever put one on a space probe, or any inanimate object for that matter? You wouldn’t want to hide them. The point would be to allow them to live.
In the end, this hypothesis may be just too big a stretch. But I will be keeping an eye out for more evidence in upcoming chapters.
Apparently the author has explicitly stated that this is not an AI story. Though I don’t know whether he’d consider the magical transfer of consciousness into another form to be AI…