09/05/2012 12:45 pm ET Updated Nov 05, 2012

Robotics Engineer Confesses: "I Built Mitt"

A few years ago, when I was teaching Advanced Robotics at MIT, a representative from an anonymous Republican PAC offered me an obscene amount of money to build a generic Republican candidate. "Nothing fancy," he said. "Just something that will fill a suit."

I was confused. "But you already have live candidates," I said. He snickered. "Too human," he said. "Human doesn't work for us. Too unpredictable. Sometimes they think for themselves. That can be dangerous. So can you do it?"

"Fill a suit?" I asked. "Sure. That's easy enough. Bodies are fairly simple. But I should warn you, creating a brain that can think is not easy. Brains are very complex. We haven't worked out all the glitches yet."

The representative informed me that his bosses didn't really care that much about the thinking part of the brain as long as the candidate could walk, shake hands, wave at crowds, kiss babies, make speeches, lie convincingly, look presidential and have good hair. They added that if there was a screw loose somewhere, that wouldn't matter. In fact, he said it might actually be a plus.

"The Japanese are better at this," I told him. "Better school system there." The rep thought I was joking. "We don't want him to speak Japanese," he said humorously. "Gibberish is fine, but Japanese might confuse people. Our base isn't too bright."

"Can you make a remote device?" he asked. "You know, one of those thingies people use to fly those model planes." I shrugged. "Sure," I replied. "That's simple enough, but it will be a complicated device and whoever works it has to be technologically savvy enough to know what he's doing or it could be a disaster."

"Do you know anybody that can do that?" he asked. "Sure," I said. "I know some geeks. But they're very intelligent so I'm not sure they'd do it." The rep was confused. "But we need an intelligent person to do it. What do you mean?" I sighed. "I mean they're intelligent so they're Democrats."

The rep snarled. "Okay, so what do you suggest we do then?" he asked. I gave it some thought. "Try a university in a southern state," I suggested, trying to conceal a laugh. He looked at me closely. "Are you laughing?" he asked. I tried to look serious. "No, no, no," I assured him, but I don't think he bought it.

I needed to change the subject fast. "Will you need a wife and kids?" I inquired. "That will cost a lot more, but maybe I can do a package deal. A wife, two kids and I'll throw in three more for free. Maybe even a dog." The representative thought about it. "Nah," he said. "We can probably find some actual generic humans for that. We'll go to central casting for that. Maybe a dog would be a good idea too. People love pets."

"Do you want people to like him?" I asked. "I don't think I can guarantee that." The rep shrugged and said, "It would be nice, but it doesn't really matter."

"What about viruses?" he asked me. "What happens if the computer is compromised?" I shook my head. "I can't guarantee a computerized robot brain that's totally immune to viruses," I admitted. "He might say bizarre things. Or, more likely, he might simply shut down completely until I can reprogram him. If that happens, he might lose all his past data and forget everything he ever did and everything he ever said and just say new different stuff."

"No problem," the rep said. "I'm good with that."

"One more thing," I said. "I can't make a soul or compassion or empathy either." The rep shrugged. "Not necessary," he told me. "He's a Republican, remember?"