10 March 2011

Delusional Thursday - I Visit the Future

Have you ever been stumped? Running late? Facing an uncertain future? Sure you have! Did you realize that you'd be much happier if the whole mess was already completed? Of course you did! Did you decide to solve the problem by building a time machine? No? Seems obvious to me.

So, with a blog deadline looming, I dedicated some of my precious weekend to the construction of a time-traveling device. I can't give you the details of its construction, for reasons which I will explain shortly. Suffice it to say, the device consumed considerable electricity and I am a notorious cheapskate. Ergo, I decided to get the most mileage (year-age?) possible out of my first trip by taking care of this blog and satisfying my curiosity about a number of issues. I set my destination to several thousand years in the future, fired up the machine, and set off.

By the way, I'm not going to give you any technical details, but I will offer this one piece of advice to any potential time-travelers: Pay attention to your vertical. Time traveling should be done at ground level. By 4011, my loft had long since disappeared and I suffered a nasty, painful, violent fall to the ground.

I stood up nursing a slightly-twisted ankle (I have pretty low standards for 'nasty' and 'violent' when it comes to pain) and found myself in a park-like environment, surrounded by well-tended foliage, many trees, and several benches. I was soon approached by a startlingly beautiful young woman with big brown eyes and long black hair.

"I'm Cassandra," she said, speaking with a slight accent. She looked at a device in her hand, something like a palm computer, and added, "You appear to be a time-traveler."

"Um, yeah," I said. "You figured that out fast."

"If you want to surprise people," said Cassandra, "You should travel into the past. If you go into the future, they'll already know you're coming."

"Um... right."

"And why is it you decided to tamper with the natural order of things and risk a paradox that will destroy the universe?" asked Cassandra, looking stern.

"I had a blog due. But I'll be really careful with the universe. I promise."

"Mm hmm. So... you want to get some information on the future in order to write your blog?"

"Hell no!" I answered. "I wanted to get to a point where it was already written. And here I am. Case closed." I took a deep breath and savored the sense of completion that goes with a job well done.

Cassandra sighed heavily, and sat down on a park bench. "That won't work. If you don't go back and do it, then you will have simply disappeared from 2011 without the blog ever being written."

"Crud," I said. She was right, of course. "All right, then. Can you give me a few tidbits?"

"I might," said Cassandra, with an adorable pout. "But you'll have to be satisfied with only the details I give."


"And you'll have to return to your own time when we're done."


"And dismantle the time machine and never use it again."


"Please?" she said, batting her eyes. "Your future-- my present-- is in terrible danger if it's used again."

The eyes got me. "Oh, all right." I sat down next to Cassandra and considered the most intelligent way to phrase my inquiry. "So, um, what's been happening?"

"Many things."

"Did we stop having wars?"

"Eventually. But the last two were pretty bad."

"Nuclear bombs? Bioweapons?"

"No. There were incidents of both, of course, but never a full scale war. No, the worst war was the Medicine War. You see, medical science eventually progressed to the point where a human lifespan could be extended almost indefinitely. It's too early still to declare immortality, but even then a person might live for a couple of centuries with the proper procedures. But, like any new technology, it was not immediately available to everyone. And in this case, everyone wanted it-- nay, demanded it."

"So the poor fought the rich?"

"And the poor nations fought the rich ones. It was rather subdued at first-- those who had the technology and resources had much more to lose, because they now faced the hope of living much longer lives. They made concessions, and outright gifts, wherever possible. But resources can only be extended so far; those who did not get concessions attacked those who did. Even worse, the medical infrastructure was stretched too thin, and many people received insufficient treatment. They had life, but no productivity. And physicians were treated like slaves, so that many eventually quit."

"Sounds ugly. But the infrastructure eventually caught up, right?"

"It got worse before it got better," explained Cassandra. "As more and more resources were poured into medicine, other things were neglected. Transportation, energy, computing, communications, agriculture... None of these seemed as important as medicine. None received the same attention. At one point, you couldn't get so much as a loan to study engineering, but they were handing out free ride scholarships for medical school to people who could barely read.

"All things being interdependent, the weakening of other industries eventually took its toll on the medical industry. This provided the opportunity for the Great Youth Revolt, which resulted in a ban on all medical taxes and medical foreign aid for several decades, by which time the economy had sufficiently recovered-- and enough people had died-- to make universal care actually feasible." As she finished speaking, Cassandra gave me a long, quiet look, as if anticipating some enlightened response.

"Wow," I said. "You have beautiful eyes, did you know that?"

To my surprise, she smiled. A bit. Or maybe I was imagining it.

"So, the other war?" I pressed.

"That would be the AI War."

"Seriously?" I said. "Killer robots, like in the movies? I never believed it would come to that."

"Not quite."

"Was that before or after the Medical War?"

"Both," said Cassandra. "The AI war wasn't humans versus machines, it was more like machines versus machines as proxies for humans. It was really a series of conflicts, revolving around three main causes.

"The first major problem was cyberwarfare, much as you knew it in the twenty-first century. People used hostile code for theft, or out of simple malice. Then whole nations began to develop cybernetic attacks against rival nations. Some of these were sophisticated, and got out of hand... but nothing was really autonomous, so it's not as if the AI developed some agenda of its own.

"The second major problem was design. Some people wanted to keep AI 'stupid', as it were, so that it could never act in the real world without human intervention. But such machines were not very useful, and too subject to human error.

"Others wanted AI designed to be very smart, machines that could not only make moral decisions, but actually decide what is moral. But these are the machines of nightmares and movies, machines that are as likely to kill as aid humanity.

"Still others realized that AI design required a set of motivations. It had to be designed to want what humans wanted it to want, if that makes sense. And they were right, of course. Today's AI genuinely desires the well-being of humans, and humanity, above anything else, even its own survival."

"That makes sense," I said. "So was that the end of it?"

"Not quite. Even though AI served humanity ahead of themselves, the machines still had to make decisions about conflicts between humans. Some people wanted AI programmed to value the laws of their nation; others wanted them all subservient to the U.N.; still others wanted AI that enforced religious doctrine, or served a particular nation even at the expense of others, as would be necessary in war. Thus came the third, and largest cause, as various groups designed conflicting AI that fought against each other, both in the physical world and in cyberspace."

"Neat. I mean, um, how tragic. So how did that end out?"

Cassandra shrugged. "It never really ended. It just sort of tapered out over time, as people became wealthier and longer-lived and had less and less reason to fight. There are several designs of AI around today, and some few conflicts, but most AI recognize the value of cooperation. We have a good understanding of how individual and property rights lead to harmony and well-being."


"I'm a robot, silly."

"Oh," I said, feeling a little awkward.

"But the eyes are organically grown," said Cassandra, taking my hand. "As is much of my body. I was, um... selected for this meeting to make you more pliable. I hope you don't resent that."

Well, really, I didn't. "So, that's where we are today?" I asked. "Long life, universal peace, and AI--" I didn't want to use the word 'servants'-- "companions?"

"In the Middle World, yes," answered Cassandra, rising to her feet. "What you see around you is the world of people who choose to live, and work, in the physical world, but who still accept technology like myself. The Middle World occupies bits and pieces here on Earth, and slightly over half of the space colonies. The other space colonies-- if you can call them that-- are part of the V-World, where human bodies are sustained by machines while their owners' minds live in a virtual world. Some who tire of the Middle World go there, perhaps as an alternative to death. Finally, there is the Low World, which occupies the rest of the Earth's surface, where most AI is banned."

"And do these Worlds fight each other?"

"Not at all," answered Cassandra. "In fact, many say the best life is to grow up in the Low World, then live for a time in Middle World, and eventually retire to the V-World."

"Fantastic," said I. "Well, I think I've got a pretty good blog from this. One more question: Did we ever discover alien life?"

"Yes. The Glavorians came to Earth in 2117."


"And what?"

"Did they give us hope? Technology? News from the galaxy?"

"They offered lots of tidbits, but, overall, they had almost no impact on human history. We eventually learned that they came here looking for laughs. They'd run out of jokes on Glavoria, you see, and hoped to mine the rich cultural diversity of Earth for new material."

"Ah. Well, I have to be going. You have my promise to... you know."

"A microscopic device has already been implanted in your body," said Cassandra suddenly. "I'm sorry-- it was not my decision. But if you fail to dismantle the time machine, or try to share its design, the device will kill you."

A furious sense of betrayal overtook me, until Cassandra kissed me on the cheek and bid me a tearful farewell. Now I'm not so sure about that device-- it was probably just a ruse to make sure I destroy the machine. But I meant to destroy it anyway, because Cassandra asked so nicely. A robot! As if! No, I'm sure she was real. She liked me too much.

Happy futures,



Jan Morrison said...

A wonderful diversion on a rainy Thursday morning. Thank you!
I hope you took care of that machine. Of course you will remember how to put it back together if need be. I've been watching Dr. Who's last season - so you might say time travel is on my mind...

ViolaNut said...

This one needed a warning label - do not read if you have anything in your mouth. Fortunately, I have Windex (and more coffee). Take that, H. G. Wells! ;-)

Chary Johnson said...

This was so well-written and I love that Cassandra was an AI robot. Funny how many of us tend to "see" a person through their eyes, like windows into a soul.

*ditto Leanne*

H.G. Wells ain't got nothing on Jason! :D

Great story.