In honor of AWE -- the Augmented World Expo at the Santa Clara (CA) Convention Center – where I will speak Wednesday morning – I’ve decided to post this excerpt-chapter from my novel Existence. It is set at a transhumanist convention in the year 2040. And the point-of-view character is using a LOT of augmented reality (AR) gear as she strolls the aisles, sampling hot new tech trends. Not the most action-packed scene in the book… but still, I think you geeks, especially, will be amused. Added Note: You can view my talk to AWE here.
As Tor Povlov entered the vast conference hall, she realized, right away, that she had entered Awz.
A real-cloth banner, just inside the entrance, proclaimed --
TOMORROW WELCOMES THE BOLD!
To which, a tagger had attached, in lurid vrafitti, visible to anyone wearing specs --
And Next Tuesday Greets the Gullible!
Beyond, for aisle after aisle, eager companies, foundations and selforg clubs touted “transforming breakthroughs” from smartly decorated booths, augmented by garish VR. Even more than while s-trolling back in Sandego, Tor found her specs bombarded by eager pitches, offering everything from health enhancements to lifespan folding. From guaranteed rejuvenation supplements to home marrow repair kits.
From “cyborg” prosthetics to remote controlled nanoflits.
From fully-implanted brainlink shunts to servant robots.
Yes, robots. The quaint term was back again, as memory of the Yokohama Yankheand slowly faded, along with a promise that this generation of humanoid automatons would actually prove useful, rather than cantankerous, too-cute, or dangerous. Or all three at once.
“Every year, they solve some problem or obstacle, in machine-walking, talking, vision, navigation, or common sense,” she subvocalized for her report, letting the specs absorb it all, watching as one aindroid from a Korean chaebol showed off eastasian dance moves and a winning smile. The demonstration was impressive. But demonstrations always were.
“Then, they always wind up bollixed by some simple task. An uneven flight of stairs. A muddled foreground or background. A semantic paradox. Something that wouldn’t bother a five-year old kid. And every year, the lesson is the same.
“We are already marvels. A three kilo human brain still combines more amazing things than any computer model can yet emulate.
“It’s been seventy years that ai-builders have promised to surge beyond human ken. Their list of tricks keeps growing. AI can sift and correlate across all of human knowledge, in seconds. Yet, each decade reveals more layers of unexpected subtlety, that lay hidden in our own packed neuron-clusters all along. Skills we simply took for granted.”
There it was, again. A theme, planted in her mind by Sato. The notion that something strangely spectacular had been wrought -- by God or evolution or both -- inside the Homo sapiens brain. About the same time as that chert core in her bag was the technological acme.
“If anything, today’s Tower of Babel is flat but incredibly wide. This generation of godmakers isn’t thwarted by language -- that barrier is gone forever -- but the bewildering complexity of the thing they hope to copy. Our minds.”
Of course, some of the products and services here had more modest goals. One body-sculpting booth offered the latest fat-dissolving technology, using targeted microwaves to melt lipids exactly where-u-want. Their slogan -- from Nietzsche -- Tor found ironic on about five different levels.
“The abdomen is the reason why man does not easily take himself for a deity.”
She wondered what Sato would make of that. Well, one more humility-reminder bites the dust. When everyone can look good in spandex, will conceit know any bounds?
Not everyone could wait patiently for all this progress. Elderly believers in the Singularity grew worried, as it always seemed to glimmer twenty years away, the same horizon promised in the 1980s. And so, Tor passed by the usual booths offering cryonic suspension contracts. For a fee, teams would rush to your deathbed, whether due to accident or age. The moment after a doctor signed-off you were “dead,” skilled teams would swarm over your body -- or (for a lower price) just your detached head -- pumping special fluids to chill in liquid nitrogen, in relished confidence that some future generation would thaw and repair you. Decades ago, cryonics companies eked along with support from a few rich eccentrics. But the safe revival of Guillermo Borriceli changed all that, pushing the number of contracts past thirty million. One of the offshore “seastead” tax-havens even allowed cryonic suspension before legal death, leading to a steady, one way stream of immigrants who were wealthy, infirm, and -- in Tor’s opinion -- certifiably crazy.
They never explain why future generations would choose to revive refugees from a more primitive time. Money alone won’t cut it.
Was that why many of today’s rich were converting to fervent environmentalism? Donating big sums toward eco-projects? To bribe their descendants and be recalled as karmic good-guys? Or was it an expanded sense of self-interest? If you expect to live on a future Earth, that could make you less willing to treat today’s planet like disposable tissue.
Meanwhile, some offered services aimed at the other end of life. Like new kinds of infant formula guaranteed to enhance early brain development. Or suture-spreaders to enlarge a fetus’s skull capacity, letting its brain expand in the womb – with a coupon for free caesarian section. The brochure showed a happy child with the smile of a Gerber Baby and the domed head of some movie alien… bearing a glint of unstoppable intelligence in big, blue eyes.
Fifty-Genes Inc. offered a service that was legal at just three seastead colonies. Enhancing the few dozen patches of DNA thought to have been crucial in separating the hominid line from the other apes. Continuing along the evolutionary trail. All three of the people manning that booth wore dazzle makeup, hiding their identities from facial recog programs, making them painful to look at. As if the feds didn’t have ten thousand other ways to track a person.
Farther along, she encountered yet another humanoid automaton, under a virt-blare that proclaimed Certified: Turing Level Three-Point-Three! in flashing letters. Proportioned like a body builder, it bowed to her, offering Tor a seat, some zatz-coffee and a game of chess -- or any pastime of her choosing. There was a flirtatious glint in the machine’s smile, either cleverly designed... or else...
She was tempted to plunge a pin into that glossy flesh, to see if this one yelped. The old man-in-a-robot-suit trick.
A subvocalized side note, for later: No cutsie animal or child-like bots, this year? All hunk-style males, so far. Why? A trend aimed at fem demographics?
She couldn’t help but wonder. Men across the planet had been using robo-brothels for more than a decade, with hundreds of thousands of Luci, Nunci, Pari, Fruti and Hilti models purchased for home use. It didn’t exactly require artificial intelligence to mimic crude, servile passion, if that’s what some males wanted. Of course, the trend was bemoaned in the press. Women mostly stayed aloof, contemptuous of the unsubtle artificial lovers they were offered.
Till now? While the hunk-bot flirted with her, Tor recalling Wesley’s onetime proposition -- to maintain a cross-continental relationship via dolls. Would it be more palatable to be touched by a machine, if it the thoughts propelling it came from someone she cared for? He was coming to DC in a few days, flying east to meet her final zeppelin, at this journey’s end. Did that mean he was giving such nonsense? Ready to talk, at last, about “getting real?” Or would he have a fist full of brochures to show her the latest enhancements? A modern way they both could have cake, and eat it too?
Oh crap. The subvocal was on high-sensitivity. Her musings about sexbots and Wesley had gone straight into notes. She blink-navigated, deleted, and disciplined her mind to stay on-task. Spinning away from the enticingly handsome android, multi-tasking like a juggler, Tor kept reciting her draft report without breaking stride.
“Oh, few doubt they’ll succeed eventually. With so many versions of AI cresting at once, it seems likely that we’ll finally enter that century-old sci fi scenario. Machines that help design their successors, and so on, able to converse with us, provide fresh perspectives, challenge us… then surge ahead.
“At that point we’ll discover who was right, the zealots or the worriers. Can you blame some folks for getting nervous?”
Of course, Tor’s aiwear had been tracking her word stream, highlighting for gisted meaning. And, because her filters were kept low on purpose, the Convention Center mainframe listened in, automatically making goorelations. Helpfully, the building offered, in her low-right peripheral, a list of conference panels and events to match her interests.
My Neighbors Prefer Death: Easing the Public’s Fear of Immortality
Yes. Out of five hundred program items, that one had good relevance to her “skepticism” phrase. The next one was also a good fit.
Risk Appraisal: Dangers on the Road to Transhumanity.
But it got even better. Tor blinked in surprise at the next offering.
Special invited-guest lecture by famed novelist Hamish Brookeman! “Reasons to doubt ‘progress’ -- and reasons to believe.”
Tor stopped in her tracks. Hamish Brookeman? Here, of all places? The author of Tusk! and Cult of Science, coming to beard these extropians in their own den? Who had the courage -- or outright chutzpah -- to invite him?
With a tooth click and scroll-command, Tor checked the conference schedule... and found the Brookeman talk was already underway!
Oh my. This was going to be demanding. But she felt up to the challenge.
Swiveling, she called up a guide ribbon -- a glowing path that snaked toward the lecture hall. Which, according to a flash-alert, was already full to capacity. So Tor sent a blip to MediaCorp, asking for a press intervention. It took a couple of minutes (after all, she was a newbie), during which Tor hurried past a publisher of biofeedback mind-training games and a booth selling ersatz holidays on realistic alien worlds.
Smell Colors! Taste the Rainbow! See Music in the Air! -- hollered a booth offering synesthesia training. Next to another kiosk that proclaimed a kinky aim – to genetically engineer “furries,” cute-but-fuzzy humanoids. Tor shivered and hurried on.
Abruptly, the guide ribbon shifted, aiming her instead down a different aisle, away from the back of the lecture hall, where standing room crowds waited. Now, it directed her toward the front entrance, closest to the stage. Wow, that was fast.
I am so gonna love this job, she thought, not caring if that made it into the transcript. MediaCorp already knew. This was what she had been born to do.
Along the way, Tor passed between stalls offering latest generation otto-dogs, lurker-peeps, and designer hallucinogens... the latter one was covered with vir-stickies on about a hundred levels, sneering “ignore these guys!” and “it’s a narc sting!”
(As if anyone needed to actually buy drugs, anymore, instead of homebrewing them on a MolecuMac. Or using a meditation program to make them inside your own brain. A dazer with a twin-lobectomy could hack the lame safeguards.)
One booth offered a dietary supplement that seemed intriguing, but she didn’t slow down, merely click-noting it for further information, later:
No More Lemons! blared the virt-banner. Bypassing Humanity's Broken Vitamin C Gene With New Gut Bacteria!
But, for the most part, Tor had little attention to spare for exhibits. Kicking her M-Tasking into overdrive, she called up a smart-condensed tivoscript of the Brookeman speech, from its start twelve minutes ago, delivered to her left ear in clipped, threex mode -- triple speed and gisted -- while preserving the speaker’s dry tone and trademark Appalachian drawl.
“Thanks invitation speak you ‘godmakers.’ Surprised/pleased. Shows UR openminded.
“Some misconstrue I’m anti-science. Anti-progress. But progress great! Legit sci -tech lift billions! Yes, I warn dangers, mistakes. Century’s seen many. Some mistakes not science fault.
“Take the old Left-Right political axis. Stupid. From 18th Century France! lumped aristos with fundies, libertarians, isolationists, imperialists, puritans, all on ‘right.’ Huh? ‘Left’ had intolerant tolerance fetishists! Socialist luddites! And all sides vs professionals. No wonder civil servant’s guild rebelled!
“Result? Wasted decades. Climate/water crisis. Terror. Overreaction. National fracture. Paranoia. Blamecasting.
“Shall we pour gasoline on fire?
“Look. Studies show FEAR sets attitudes/tolerance 4 change. Fearful people reject foreign, alien, strange. Circle wagons. Pull in horizons. Horizons of time. Of tolerance. Of risk. Of Dreams.
“You tech-hungry zealots answer this with contempt. Helpful?
“New ‘axis’ isn’t left vs right.
It’s out vs in!
“You look outward. Ahead. You deride inward-driven folk.
“But look history! All other civs were fearful-inward! R U so sure YOU are wise ones?”
The front entrance to the lecture hall lay ahead, just beyond a final booth where several cleancut envoys in blue blazers passed out leaflets to educated and underemployed U.S. citizens, inviting them to apply for visas -- to the science-friendly EU. The brain-drainers’ placement was deliberate. They’d get plenty of customers, when Brookeman finished.
Feeling a little eye-flick strain and attention fatigue, Tor clicked for a small jolt of adderall, along with a dash of provigil, injected straight into her temple by the leftside frame of her specs. Just a bit, to keep her edge.
“Look at topics listed in this conference,” continued the ai-compressed voice of Hamish Brookeman, addressing the audience in the hall next door. “So much eager tinkering! And each forward plunge makes your fellow citizens more nervous.”
The condensed tivoscript was slowing down and expanding, as it caught up with real time.
“Ponder an irony. Your premise is that average folk can be trusted with complex/dangerous future. You say people = smart! People adapt. Can handle coming transformation into gods! How libertarian of you.
“Yet, you sneer at the majority of human societies, who disagreed! Romans, persians, inca, han and others... who said fragile humanity can’t take much change.
“And who shares this older opinion? A majority of your own countrymen!
“So, which is it? Are people wise enough to handle accelerating change? But if they are wise... and want to slow down... then what does that imply?
“It implies this. If you’re right about people, then the majority is right... and you’re wrong!
“And if you’re wrong about the people... then how can you be right!”
Even through the wall and closed doors, Tor heard laughter from the audience -- tense and reluctant. But she already knew Brookeman was good at working a crowd. Anyway, most of this bunch had grown up with his books, movies and virts. Celebrity status still counted for a lot.
“All I ask is ... ponder with open minds. We’ve made so many mistakes, humanity, during just one lifetime. Many of them perpetrated not by evildoers, drenched in malice. But others by men and women filled with fine motives! People like you.”
An aindroid stood by the door, smiling in recognition as Tor approached. This one featured a hole, penetrating straight though its chest, large enough to prove that the entity was no human in disguise. An impressive highlight. Till the automaton gave her a full-length, appreciative eye-flick “checkout” that stopped just short of a lustful leer. Exactly like some oversexed, undertacted nerd.
Great, Tor thought, with a corner of her mind MT’d for such things Another realism goal accomplished. One more giant leap for geek-kind.
The robot opened the door, just enough for Tor to slip through without disturbing speaker or audience. Her specs went into IR mode and a pale green ribbon guided her, without stumbling, the final few meters to a VIP seat that someone had just vacated, on her account. She could tell, because the upholstery was still warm. A wide imprint, and her spec-sensors gave a soft diagnosis of fumes from a recent meal, heavy in starches. If it need be, she could track down her benefactor, from those cues alone, and thank him.
But no, here was Hamish Brookeman, in the flesh at last, tall and angular, elegant and expensively-coifed. In every way the un-nerd. Leaning casually against the lectern and pouring charm, even as he chastised. The tivoscript faded smoothly, as realtime took over.
“Look, I’m not going to ask you to restrain yourselves for the sake of holiness and all that. Let others tell you that you’re trodding on the Creator’s toes, by carping and questioning His designs; that’s not my concern.
“What troubles me is whether there will be a humanity, in twenty years, to continue pondering these things! Seriously, what’s your damned hurry? Must we rock every apple cart, while charging in all directions, simultaneously?”
Brookeman glanced back down and ruffled some sheets of paper, though Tor’s zoom-appraisal showed that he wasn’t looking at them. Those blue irises held steady, far-focused and confident. Clearly, he already knew what he was about to say. In public speaking, as in music, a pause was sometimes just the right punctuation, before striking a solid phrase.
“Take the most arrogant of your obsessions,” Brookeman resumed. “This quest for lifespan extension! You give it many names. Zero senescence. Non-morbidity. All of it boiling down to the same selfish hope, for personal immortality.”
This goaded a reaction from the crowd -- hisses and muttered curses. Tor commanded her specs to deploy a slender stalk wafting upward with a tiny, omnidirectional lens at the end, surveying members of the audience, joining dozens of other gel-eyes floating, like dandelions, up to a meter above the sea of heads.
“Did I strike a nerve with that one?” Hamish Brookeman chuckled. “Well, just wait. I’m getting warmed up!”
Clearly, he enjoyed the role of iconoclast... in a hall filled with self-styled iconoclasts. A kindred spirit, then? Even while disagreeing with his hosts over every specific issue? That kind of ironic insight could make her report stand out.
“For example, it’s easy to tell which of you, in the audience, believes in the magic elixir called caloric restriction. Sure, research studies show that a severely reduced, but wholesome diet can trigger longer lifespans in bacteria, in fruit flies, even mice. And yes, keeping lean and fit is good for you. It helps get your basic four-score and ten. But some of the fellows you see around here, walking about like near-skeletons, popping hunger-suppression pills and avoiding sex.... do these guys look healthy? Are they enjoying their extra years? Indeed, are they getting any? Extra years, I mean.
“Alas, sorry to break this to you fellows, but the experiment was run! Across the last four millennia, there must have been thousands of monasteries, in hundreds of cultures, where ascetic monks lived on spare dietary regimens. Surely, some of them would have stumbled onto anything so simple and straightforward as low-calorie immortality! We’d have noticed two-hundred year old monks, capering around the countryside, don’tcha think?”
This time, laughter was spontaneous. Still-nervous, but genuine. Through the stalk-cam, she saw even some of the bone-thin ones, taking the ribbing well. Brookeman really was good at this.
“Anyway, remember that age and death are the great recyclers! In a world that’s both overpopulated and unbalanced in favor of the old, do you really think the next wave of young folks is going to want to follow in your shadows... forever?
“Putting things philosophically for a minute, aren’t you simply offering false hope, and thereby denying today’s elderly the great solace that every other ageing generation clutched, when their turn came to shuffle off this mortal coil? The consolation that at least this happens to everyone?
“During all past eras, this pure and universal fact -- that death makes no exceptions -- allowed a natural acceptance and letting-go. Painful and sad, but at least one thing about life seemed fair. Rich and poor, lucky or unlucky, all wound up in the same place, at roughly the same pace. At risk of quoting a fellow you transhumanists love to hate, Leon Kass claimed that our lives only become meaningful when we are aware of our mortality.
“Only now, by loudly insisting that death isn’t necessary, aren’t you turning this normal rhythm into a bitter pill? Especially when the promise (all-too likely) turns into ashes, and people wind up having to swallow it anyway, despite all your fine promises?”
Brookeman shook his head.
“But let’s be generous and say you meet with some partial success. Suppose only the rich can afford the gift of extended life. Isn’t that what happens to most great new things? Don’t they get monopolized, at first, by the mighty? You godmakers say you want an egalitarian miracle, a new age for all. But aren’t you far more likely to create a new race of Olympians? Not only privileged and elite, but permanent and immortal?”
Now the hall was hushed. And Tor wondered. Had Brookeman gone too far?
“Face it,” the tall man told three thousand and twelve listeners present in the hall... plus nine hundred and sixteen thousand, four hundred and eight who were tuned in, around the planet. “You techno-transcendentalists are no different from all the millennial preachers and prophets who came before you. The same goggle-eyed, frenetic passion. The same personality type, yearning for something vastly better than the hand that you were dealt. And the same drive to believe! To believe that something else, much finer, is available to those who recite the right incantation. To those who achieve the right faith, or virtue. Or who concoct the secret formula.
“Only, those earlier prophets were much smarter than you lot! Because the redemption they forecast was usually ambiguous, set in another vague time and place, or safely removed to another plane. And if their promises failed? The priest or shaman could always blame it all on unbelievers. Or on followers who were insufficiently righteous. Or who got the formula wrong. Or on God.
“But you folks? Who will you duck behind, when disillusion sets in? Your faith in Homo technologicus -- the Tinkering Man -- has one fatal flaw. It offers you no escape clause.
“When your grand and confident promises fail, or go wrong, who will all the disappointed people have to blame?
“No one... but you.”
Want more? Check out the amazing video preview-trailer for Existence, with incredible art by Patrick Farley!