“Holy Quarrel” was originally published in Worlds of Tomorrow in May 1966. It can now be found in The Eye of the Sibyl and Other Classic Stories by Philip K. Dick on pp. 135–155.
Expert computer repairman Joseph Stafford if woken by three voices, coming from inside the room. They explain that he is needed to fix the military preparation computer Genus-B, which has apparently improperly identified a threat from all of the data if was collecting. Genus-B was preparing for war. Stafford was needed to prevent it from declaring a total Red Alert, after processing the massive amount of data it collects and finding meaningful patters.
Stafford guessed that war had begun but to prevent the use of the total automated military capacity of Genus-B they need it to think there is peace. The intruders correct him. Genus-B is under the false impression that the country is under attack. They do not know how the computer formed the conclusion that there is a threat. Genus-B is not even targeting the traditional and expected enermy the South African True Association. Instead it wants to “counter-attack” Northern California. The datum that altered Genus-B had to do with an old tycoon, Herb Sousa who opened up penny gum-ball machines, which have prizes. They have been opened around the world, but never before has Genus-B took an interest. Even the ingredients in the gum balls are not remarkable. Stafford wonders if there is something in the “artificial flavoring.”
Stafford and the group of Genus-B engineers consider a theory that the gum balls are actually eggs that would incubated in the bodies of children after being consumed. When this is rejected, they wonder if the problem is in the prizes that the machines sometimes give out. Finally they consider if Genus-B is breaking down. Maybe it is a technical problem. They try to trick the machine by sending it messages that Sousa sold his died, sold his company, or even never existed. The automated defense compute simply concludes that that information is a lie.
The total cluster of facts Genus-B is collecting convince it that Sousa is alive. Their next attempt is to convince Genus-B that it does not exist. Using some basic logic, Genus-B proves that it does exist. Stafford examines the prizes the machines hand out. Many are in the shapes of weapons and rockets. Stafford begins to suspect that these charms are not pure plastic, but miniature working replicas. Stafford wants Sousa brought in. One of others wonders what Genus-B would say if it was told Sousa was brought before it. When they try this, the computer again knows the truth. Sousa is in Sacramento. Stafford wants Genus-B to clarify who Sousa is. In response, the compute identifies the rich businessman with the devil incarnate.
Amazed that a computer would not only reach this conclusion but seems to believe in the devil, they ask it how it came to this knowledge. Genus-B replies that it knows Sousa has been creating living things from clay, including itself. On further questioning, Genus-B considers the prize trinkets creations as well. They conclude that the computer sees itself as the agent of a divine creator and interprets competing creators as the devil. With this information, they decide the Genus-B style computers must be dismantled. Later, Stafford notices that the gum balls seem to be reproducing. The replicating gumballs would cheaply fill up the machines. At first he does nothing with this information, even though he suspects they are non-terrestrial beings. Very quickly, however, they begin to expand so quickly he could not manage them. When he estimated he had 2 million, he called the others but they could not answer.
“Holy Quarrel” is yet another Philip K. Dick warning against automation. It has much in common with “Autofac,” written a decade earlier. In both stories we have a problem of an automated system that is not responding to human commands to shut down. In order to shut down these systems people try to use trickery. The major difference is that while the “Autofac” is clearly malevolent, Genus-B is only apparently malevolent. He has actually identified a major threat to human survival, but the origin seems to be so banal that they engineers assume that the machine is malfunctioning.
The story “Holy Quarrel” imagines a possible security state that is instantly familiar. As the 2013, National Security Administration, scandal revealed, the United States government had long supplemented their traditional intelligence and security operations with massive accumulation of data. Most of this data is stored for future use or to create large patterns describing connections. This is not unlike the security system imagined by Dick in “Holy Quarrel.” There, Genux-B is the computer system that takes in and analyzes all possible information. Its original purpose was to identify threats before they could no longer be avoided. Unfortunately, the Genux-B was also programmed to be capable of self-defense actions. Like the Autofac, the Genux-B is capable to defending itself from external tampering, always initially programmed for self-defense. “You see, we jammed the reel so it wouldn’t accept any more tape. Before that we tried erasing the tape, but if the erase circuit comes on it starts an alarm going in Washington, D.C., and we didn’t want to get all those high-level people involved.” (138) In other words, when Genux-B becomes convinced of an external threat, it has the power to implement defenses. In this case, there is no war, but the Genux-B is convinced there is due to “a million separate factors, all possible known data weighed.” (138) The dilemma of the operations is to discover what it was that caused the Genux-B to determine that the United States is under attack in order to stop the leadup to war. They learn that it was the distribution of gum machines by a capitalist Herbert Sousa is what convinced Genus-B of the threat. Since the Genus-B had convinced itself of its own divinity (this is a theological twist common in Dick’s later works) and “what Sousa had got going for him in those gum machines—or what it thinks he’s got going—is unsanctioned and therefore demonic. Sinful. Deserving God’s wrath.” (153) The danger of the Genux-B system is both its protection, through automation, from human interference and its capacity to analyze data autonomously. In our world, big data performs this type of analyze in a myriad of often innocuous ways. Ads on E-mail programs are determined from such autonomous analysis of massive amounts of data in your many messages. In the story, it turns out that the computer was accurate in its diagnosis of a threat. The gumballs from the machines were self-replicating alien lifeforms. No amount of chewing could slow down their exponential growth rate.
Unpacking the religious theme is interesting as well. We see that Genus-B has taken on the belief that its creators are divine agents. And like people, assume that their god is the good one. When it realizes that Sousa is making other “living things” (actually functioning replicas of weapons and such) it concludes that Sousa is the devil. This is an innovation on Dick’s part from his earlier works. He explored machine that were self-functioning, that thought they should rule society, and even thought they were human. This is the first example that I can think of where Dick presented a robot with a religious perspective. However, with artificial intelligence developing rapidly, would this not be a sign of a computer’s self-awareness?
Review from Philip K. Dick Fan Site.
Talk on the dangers of big data for innovation