Two AI Pioneers. Two Bizarre Suicides. What Really Happened?

Posted on February 2, 2008 

Two AI Pioneers. Two Bizarre Suicides. What Really Happened?

On the morning of June 12, 1990, Chris McKinstry went looking for a gun. At 11 am, he walked into Nick’s Sport Shop on a busy street in downtown Toronto and approached the saleswoman behind the counter. “I’ll take a Winchester Defender,” he said, referring to a 12-gauge shotgun in the display. She eyeballed the skinny 23-year-old and told him he’d need a certificate to buy it.

McKinstry had stolen the gun because he wanted to end his own life, but now he was intrigued. He’d always been obsessed with robots and artificial intelligence. At 4, he had asked his mother to sew a sleeping bag for his toy robot so it wouldn’t get cold. “Robots have feelings,” he insisted. Despite growing up poor with a single mom, he had taught himself to code. At 12, he wrote a chess-playing program on his RadioShack TRS-80 Model 1.

As McKinstry cowered in the basement, he could hear the robot rumbling overhead, making what he called “Terminator” noises. It must be enormous, he thought, as it knocked over shelves. Then everything went eerily quiet. McKinstry saw a long white plume of smoke arc over the stairs. The robot had fired a tear gas canister, but it ricocheted off something and flew back the way it came. Another tear gas canister fired, and McKinstry watched it trace the same “perfectly incorrect trajectory.” He realized the machine had no idea where he was hiding.

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