Monday, 27 February 2017

iGod: Chapter 3

In passing by, Lex tickled the leaves of some of his plants; he switched on the bright lamps in the corner of his apartment and put on his plastic working gloves. He had had his daily dose of adventure in MultiLayer and, on top of these challenges even an extraordinary face-to-face encounter with Diana. Now he allowed himself to turn to his favorite pastime hobby he had discovered the last year: home genome editing.

As a Postdoc at Amsterdam Tech he had built some experience with the theory and practice of disrupting genes in the university lab. At that time, he was merely watching his colleagues in the biology department engaging in this task. His research on plant communication was still a relatively unexplored topic and his thesis requested a lot of rather basic experiments with tubes, insects and plants; there were less experiments on the genome level required. His colleagues laughed at him and he had sometimes wondered whether it was out of contempt or out of jealousy: Yes, he, Lex, conducted old school science, with his hands literally in the dirt! In the beginning of his academic career he made the effort to scrub his hands and fingers after a long working day in the lab, but in the end he did not even bother anymore to remove the black lines under his nails. All of his colleagues, without exception, spent their working hours behind digital displays. The only aspect of plant life they saw was on the level of genomes.

After his dismissal at the university, Lex took some of his favorite plants home with him. He did not exactly know why; he just liked them. The plants were really too beautiful to abandon them. His fellow scientists, if they would notice the plants at all, would only look at them in an instrumental way – or as something that was ‘standing in the way’.

In his first long days of unemployment, Lex took care of the plants and enjoyed their sheer beauty. It took months before he had the idea to resume some small and simple experiments. The research did no longer serve to earn him a life. Now it was more what others would call a hobby whatever that may be. Just for fun he installed some tubes and grew insects. Yes, for the larger part of the equipment one would not find a receipt. He borrowed the inventory of his former employer. When Lex started to do his experiments he went back to the university lab to talk to his boss. Lex made a case. It made sense that Lex would take parts of the lab inventory to his home: Lex was the only scientist conducting these experiments in plant communication and now that he was sacked, the university would, most probably, throw the equipment away. His former boss had even helped him to transport a heavy apparatus to Lex’ home the way his boss tried to get absolution for his utterly failure as a manager, Lex guessed.

It was in fact madness to build such a laboratory, even minuscule as it was, in his small apartment. A year ago, when he reached the point to study the genomes of the plants, he was angry with himself. Why had he not taken more of the inventory of the university laboratory? Without the right gear for genome editing, he was stuck in his research. He did not want to beg his former boss again. But soon Lex discovered that genome analysis and even genome editing was available for use at home for a small investment now. The second hand market in the Dark Web was abundant. With the money earned from Mr. Van Buren and other clients, he had ordered a toolkit for genome editing in plants and mammals. The toolkit was called Crib, and in his mind Lex called his recent hobby ‘Cribbing’. The Crib toolkit enabled next-generation genome editing, reaching a new level of targeting, efficiency, and ease of use. The system allowed for site-specific genomic targeting in virtually any organism.

Lex walked to a plant: ‘Sorry guy, I will need some more material from you,’ and he teared off a young leaf. With a surgeon knife, he then cut off an almost invisible part of the leaf, prepared the sample, and looked at it through a microscope  again a present from his former employer. ‘It is already amortized’, his previous boss had said when he gave it to Lex both knowing that this was a lie. Lex still accepted the present. Although it was certainly no longer the best and the newest microscope, for Lex’ purposes it still sufficed. Lex had set himself the task to fine-tune the communication skills of the plants by inserting genes that would help the process and deleting genes that hampered communication. In this plant he had deleted some of the jammer-genomes and he had inserted genomes that could help in speeding up the production of pheromones. Since the repertoire of pheromone genes in humans is larger than in plants, he had used his body material to combine with the plant. He looked at the plant. For moments he studied the sample in a state of utmost concentration. Then he got up abruptly and he kicked the wall with his bare foot. ‘Damn!’ His big toe hurt. He had expected a success after he had erased previous errors in the experiment. For some reason, the insertion of his genomes in the plant did not work. A fiasco, again. He rubbed his toe and studied the sample once more. He got online to investigate his failure and he sent his results to a few former international colleagues to discuss them later. He looked through the most recent publications and basic descriptions on genome editing. That was it.

After two hours in his mini-lab he gave up, still irritated that he could not understand why his experiments had failed. It was only during the clean up of his laboratory when Lex noticed he was hungry. He got online and he was about to order a healthy, high fiber, vegetarian, and spicy meal at the restaurant he frequented quite often. He liked the service of this restaurant: all meals were drone-delivered within 15 minutes. He was about to verify his payment details when he noticed the price. This could not be true! The restaurant charged 78 eCoins for this meal! All other times, it had been around 20 or 30 eCoins. Lex cancelled the order and tried other restaurants. Bad luck! Either the meals he wanted were not available, or they were priced in a similar bandwidth. Lex was puzzled. Was it a sudden inflation that Lex was unaware of? Instead of a cooked meal, Lex ordered some basic ingredients from the super market. In his research of the prices of meals, he could not find indications for inflation or any other plausible theory for this sudden price rise.

It took some time to assemble his meal, but he was still dissatisfied that he was unable to crack today’s puzzles. While he ate his meal, Lex watched a documentary that was part of an educational module on the world population. He regularly followed courses and programs online, and this module compiled by an esteemed Chinese researcher on life expectancy and world population, just seemed right to him. In these interactive documentaries, he often changed the parameter settings for fun – and he got to see different presentations of the program when he pretended to be a teenager or an elderly woman, for example. But this time he kept his default login. He watched the video as a heterosexual, highly educated, white, single, twenty-something-year-old European. The attractive female robot-presenter, Silvia, showed some graphs about world population growth, and developments in life expectancy. Since he had identified himself as a biologist by training, the video skipped all the basics and showed the more interesting facts. At present, the current life expectancy for a new-born was 125 years – as everyone knew. Some bold scientists claimed to be on the verge of inventions that could help to reach an average age of 250 years and beyond. The consensus in genetic biology though was that an average of 145 years was achievable within 10 years. These facts about life expectancy were then presented in one frame with the world population figures. The graphs showed the current situation with a life expectancy of 125 years and 11 billion people, other graphs projected what would happen if the average would grow to 145 or 165 years. Subtly, the label changed from ‘world population’ to ‘overpopulation’.

Silvia explained that, given the new scientific insights, new demographic policies had been put in place. One offspring was still allowed, but only when certain conditions were met. These conditions were: genetic value and fitting; geographic location of birth; willingness to emigrate to other regions and of course – but this goes without saying – a  high SocialCitizenScore. From now on, there were serious repercussions if a baby was born without the governmental approval beforehand.

Big Data about the personal behavior of the mother and the potential father would identify consumption habits and also changes in blood consistency and that of other body fluids that were constantly monitored. A report would automatically be sent to the authorities, which would initiate an abortion, if the baby belonged to DownGraders. The same would happen if the genetic material would be identified not good enough for the smart society of the future. 

At this point, Alex stopped watching the module.  He thought he had launched an educational module but it turned out that government used this series of lectures to push its policies. He was irritated and logged in to leave his comment in the ‘Open Science Engagement Platform.’ Whatever he commented, disappeared. He re-opened the site, gave new oral commands, re-set his default settings. Nothing happened. It must be a flaw in the platform, he thought.

For the remainder of his meal, he watched the news. The annual summit of the Geo10 took place in Amsterdam this week. Lex saw a short impression of the gala dinner yesterday evening at the Rijksmuseum. Lex could relate to this location, since the museum was literally around the corner. In the central hall of the museum, a long table with white damask was set right under Rembrandt van Rijn’s painting the Night Watch. Ten world politicians and ten powerful industrial leaders were dressed up for the occasion. The main issue on this Summit was how to regulate the access to and ownership of harvesting raw materials from other planets. One of the participants of the Geo10 delegation, a Chinese lady, attracted Lex’ attention. She was tall, especially for a Chinese woman. Her shoulders were downright muscular, even more accentuated in the bright turquoise silk dress with bare shoulders. The voice-over informed that she was the CEO of China’s most successful company these days, importing and exporting rare minerals. To Lex she looked more like a triathlon athlete than a CEO. The last shot showed some spontaneity. While the group photo was taken, an American politician stumbled on his way to the stairs and the Chinese triathlete offered her arm to support him.  She laughed friendly to him, but the man did not return the friendly gaze. ‘Probably his male pride is hurt’, Lex thought.

Lex switched off the news and searched for a jerry can in his cupboard. Damn, he swore he placed it here after the last time he used it, but he could not find it. Then he remembered he stored it under his bed, with other hardly used stuff. He swept off the dust and called Splinter. Without a preconceived plan, Lex walked to the same spot in the park as the day before. Lex took a bench and watched Splinter sniffing and searching and running up and down. Suddenly, Lex noticed a cat right next to the bench. The cat was too absorbed to notice that Lex had taken his seat. Lex took a closer look and saw that the cat had caught a mouse. However, rather than eating it, the cat was playing with the mouse. Whenever it put its paw on the ground, the mouse would jump in the air. The cat seemed to find this funny. To Lex’ surprise, the mouse did not run away. ‘It must have been hypnotized’, he concluded. Finally, Splinter noticed and hunted the cat, while the mouse escaped.

Lex threw a few sticks for his dog. He was already on his way home when he spotted Seldon. The old man smiled friendly. ‘Good to see you, tree hugger! I have been thinking about you. Do you have some time?’ Lex had not noticed before but now he saw that Seldon’s appearance was a bit shabby. All his clothes were wrinkled in various degrees; no single article was perfectly clean. Was it a lack of vanity of an old guy having lived for ages without a woman, or was it just a matter of money?

Seldon asked Lex to tell him more about his research on plant communication.

‘Plant communication is more sophisticated than most people think’, Lex started his lecture.

‘So you told me last time’, Seldon nodded to encourage Lex.

‘Plants make use of a 200-character “alphabet” somewhat comparable with Chinese characters. Each character is a different combination of pheromones. The only difference between the 200 “characters” is the dose of different chemical substances.’

Seldon asked what the communication entailed, what kind of messages were passed.

Plants can communicate amongst plants, and also between plants and insects, or between plants and other forms of life. For example, plants can ask the help of wasps to attack the caterpillar on their leaves; or they can warn fellow plants of caterpillars in the neighbourhood. To make it even more complex: plants may inform wasps not to attack the caterpillars this time since fellow-wasps have already laid eggs within the caterpillars, so they would soon die. Plants can warn fellow plants to speed up the growth process since the caterpillars are about to approach the top of the flower… there are numerous possibilities.’

‘This is amazing!’ At that moment, Seldon’s and Lex’ dogs were sniffing each other, Splinter got visibly interested in his female friend. ‘Now even humans are no longer free in their choice to produce offspring – sorry Splinter’, Lex talked to his dog. Seldon sighed. ‘So I heard. But tell me more. On which aspect of the plant communication did your research focus?’

Lex had forgotten how it felt to talk to someone who is really interested in your research. Sure he had his daily interactions, mainly online, but now he could feel his own enthusiasm again. And it felt good!

‘I wanted to prove the possibility of the communication between plants and mammals. For me the question was how humans could, potentially, pass messages through a network of plants to another human being. There are of course problems with this type of communication. One is the delay. You can call it genuinely slow communication’, Lex laughed. ‘The message has to go from one plant to another plant in a network. The receiving plants needs to be within the vicinity of the sending plants. And of course you can easily make a mistake in the composition of the “character”, resulting in a misunderstanding.’

‘Did you manage in the end to establish this communication?’ Seldon asked.
‘No, I did not, unfortunately. What I did prove, however, was the theoretical possibility.’
Seldon looked at Lex with the most open and friendly face Lex had ever encountered. ‘And if I am right, you are not the kind of guy who is stopped by the incidental fact that he is no longer employed by a certain institution. My guess would be that you are still engaged in your plant research. Am I right?’
Lex laughed. Seldon seemed to know him. Lex gave an update on his experiments, including his recent failures in genome editing. Seldon nodded and asked the right questions, basic as they were.

‘Plant communication is not my field. But I know that scientists are sometimes caught in a tunnel vision. It can be helpful to talk to someone else. If you want, I could go over some parts of the research with you and see whether I see something that you have not noticed before. Moreover, I could try to help you with my contacts at Amsterdam Tech to find researchers and equipment that can solve some of the problems you are encountering.’
Seldon paused and Lex felt he had to respond, but he did not know what to say. Seldon continued: ‘Anyhow: if you want, I would like to be your sparring partner.’ He elbowed him in a friendly way. ‘What do you think?’  Seldon laughed and held up his hand for a high five, a youthful gesture that did not entirely fit the grey guy. ‘Let’s do it!’, Lex did not think too long and returned the high five.

Lex was thinking in terms of the new possibilities just offered by Seldon: activities that could be done in an up-to-date university lab; things to be done today and tomorrow; how he could set up his experiments and how and what he could discuss with Seldon a layman when it comes to Biology, but generally a smart guy as far as Lex could judge. Then it came to his mind he should also show interest in his conversation partner.

‘I realize that I have not asked you anything about yourself. What is your field of research at Amsterdam Tech? I know you are in the Mechanical Engineering Department, and an expert in deep learning of humanoid robots, right?’
‘I did not ask you about your research to make you return the courtesy, my friend. I asked you because I am curious
full stop. ’ Seldon paused for a small moment and then teased a little bit. ‘But ok…’ He told briefly about his research he had performed the last decades the mechanical behavior of robots and how they learn to interact with their environment. ‘Today, my research is all pretty mainstream. However, in the beginning my focus in mechanical engineering was as mysterious as your plant stuff. Nobody believed it would lead anywhere.’

‘The combination of mysterious and mechanical engineering intrigues me’, Lex laughed. He imagined the students and academic staff of Amsterdam Tech. Yes, if you searched well, you could find a few obscure types on campus, no doubt about that. They could be found in the department for communications with extraterrestrial life for example; or in the school of organisms and energy. But if there was one species on campus looking most like 20
th century workers in a bicycle repair workshop it would have to be students and academic staff from the department of mechanical engineering. Plain, solid, collected. That is a mechanical engineer.

‘Spot on. My research was very atypical for mechanical engineering at that time. To be honest, it was a hobby that got out of hand. I studied the possibilities in computer programming to influence decision making by individuals in such a way that the system level outcome was more beneficial for society. It was for a huge public health project. The aim was…’ Seldon looked at his wrist display. ‘Ah, damn. I have to go. Home logistics. You are saved by the bell, young man, from a very lengthy lecture. What shall we say…tomorrow, same time, same place?’ After two steps, Seldon turned around suddenly and said clearly: ‘And I forgot: leave your devices at home when we meet in future, will you?’ He did not wait for Lex’ answer and walked away swiftly the fat boxer had some difficulty to keep up with his boss.

Lex called for Splinter, but his dog was not in the mood. He was following trails back and forth; licking stones and grass and peeing on every slightly higher located object the usual stuff dogs were doing. Normally, Lex was amused by this behavior but today Lex was in a hurry and he touched the collar-icon on his wrist display. Maximum intensity. Splinter cringed, and then howled. It returned without delay to his boss. Lex did not pay attention. He was making plans for tomorrow’s experiments in his apartment, but first he had to make a stop at the pond. He filled his jerry can with water. This amount should do for a week for his plants.

When he was nearly home, Lex decided to take a different route from the way up to the park. This decision was a remnant piece of advice that a headmaster gave to him when he completed elementary school: ‘If you can avoid it, never take the same route twice.’ Lex was 11 years old at that time and although Lex forgot most of the other stuff he was supposed to learn at school, these words somehow stuck with him.

Lex took a left and followed the lane that led him past the Rijksmuseum. Some of the areas were not accessible, probably due to yesterday’s dinner of the Geo10 inside the museum. When Lex passed the main entrance, a group came outside. They were all smartly dressed, men in tuxedos and women in ball gown-like dresses. There were a few photographers and other journalists. All of a sudden, Lex recognized some of the faces of the world politicians. He also saw the female Chinese CEO he had seen earlier today on the news. She was tall indeed. This evening, however, she did not wear a turquoise dress, but a purple one. Her shoulders were bare, just like the gown she wore during the gala dinner yesterday. Next to her, a man stumbled. The Chinese woman offered her arm and smiled friendly to him and the man did not return her friendly gaze just like yesterday!

Lex was confused. Had he really seen the news, or did he imagine he saw an identical sequence of events on the news? At home, Lex found the news item he was looking for and indeed, the Chinese CEO, in a turquoise dress, helped her American colleague. There was no image on the Internet of the Chinese lady in a purple gown. Lex tried to get more information on the Geo10 and whether this bevy visited the Rijksmuseum indeed two nights in a row despite the journalists in front of the Rijksmuseum, there was no coverage of a second  event. There was no mention whatsoever on the athlete “rescuing” a male colleague twice. Lex was fond of puzzles, but he could not make any sense of this one. This was really, really strange!

Novel by Willemijn Dick, inspired and introduced by Dirk Helbing
License: Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs (CC BY-NC-ND)

iGod: Chapter 2 of Willemijn Dicke's science fiction novel on the digital age

Spring was in the air. Lex saw blossoming Forsythia and with a pocketknife, he cut three branches of the yellow bush. Then he passed a building site where the beautiful 20th century terrace houses, each of them with a tiny little garden, had been pulled down for more than a year now. Finally, some action was taking place! Another new apartment building in line with the Vertical City policy had been planned with rooms that were even smaller than his. In hindsight, he was lucky he had one of the first newly built apartments. But back at that time he was upset about the scarce space that was given to him. The city of Amsterdam was still growing and the city’s answer was higher buildings and even tinier apartments. Lex was already in front of his own building when he heard a voice yelling at him.

‘Discipline your dog, will you?!’ a young woman shouted madly at Lex.  Splinter chased something in the air and jumped up to the blonde. In her hands, she held a small object, no bigger than a shoebox. ‘Do you know what a new drone costs?’ she threatened Lex.  Her expression was severe.
‘I do not believe Splinter caused any damage, did he?’

‘No, he did not. Well, not yet. I managed to rescue my drone just before he was about to attack.’ She held her drone like she cherished a baby.

‘Can I have a look at your drone?’ He handed over the yellow branches of the Forsythia to her, and took the drone in exchange.

‘It has a spectacular shape, right? What especially is it made for?’ Lex asked. He stroke the upside.
‘I like the skin of your drone. What material is it made of, Kevlar? And look at this: it works with ultrasonar navigation, right, like bats?’

Lex studied the drone meticulously. ‘What is its maximum distance?’

‘You sure know how to ask questions, but I have not heard an apology for the behaviour of you and your dog,’ the woman said, still annoyed, with the blossoming Forsythia in her hands.

Lex knew that it was utterly unreasonable to ask for an apology for behaviour that was actually the very nature of Splinter’s existence; and moreover it concerned not real harm, but damage that his dog could have done, potentially. Now it would be a good time to end this episode with a joke that served as a bridge to the next topic. He knew the theory but he failed to come up with a quirk at this very moment. In that case he would go for a good-enough apology.

‘You know, Splinter is a whippet – made to chase fast prey. He cannot help hunting – he is actually a sight-hunter…but I am sorry if he scared you.’

‘Yes, he did scare the hell out of me. Is he really yours?’

‘Well, actually my parents’ when they were still alive, but I kind of inherited him. Why do you ask?’

She told Lex, that, to be honest; she did not understand why someone would still like some archaic, bad smelling living creature with all the bacteria and diseases. Why not buy a dog bot instead?

Lex laughed. ‘Wait till you get to know this dog and it greets you. If you still think that a robot is as good as my buddy, I will eat my hat.’

Diana replied that it was not her habit to settle bets with strangers.

‘Well, I walk my dog and you, do you walk your drone?’ Lex tried a joke.

She raised here left eyebrow, but she did not respond to the attempt to make conversation.

‘Is there a special reason you are outside, training with your drone?’

‘It is not a training. My drone is brand new and I have to learn to navigate it to my new apartment in a way it does not catch a scratch. I just moved to a new home.’

‘Where do you live?’ Lex asked.

She paused a little bit longer than a natural rhythm of a conversation would have allowed for. ‘In that building.’ She pointed in the direction of Lex’ home.

‘In that case: we are neighbours. I am Lex, ’ and he raised his hand to wave hello when he noticed she did not reply his outstretched hand.

‘Diana’, the woman said reluctantly.

She did not wait for Lex to start a polite sentence in reply. She returned the Forsythia to him, took the drone back and turned around and made her way to the building.

Face to face encounters were always more difficult than online communication, but he was already far better in it than he once had been. Problems are there to be solved and behaviour can be taught and trained, he thought. At home, Lex put the Forsythia branches in an improvised vase on the table and he checked his previous dialogue with his psychology courseware, chapter ‘First interactions.’ Given the slightly longer pauses and the reluctant way she stated her name, he knew that Diana must have felt some awkward moments. He re-enacted the entire dialogue, as he recalled it. First the analysis and then some tips came up. The analysis tool described how Diana started with fear, as a result of her encounter with the dog. Although her emotion was caused by another element and not by Lex himself, the implication was that he should have given her more time to feel at ease with a male stranger. The psychology tool furthermore commented on the way he grabbed her drone. ‘I did not grab the drone! Out of interest, I studied the drone,’ Lex tried to correct the programme. His joke was a bit lame too, but he already knew. Tips for next time: ‘make sure you keep a safe physical distance; do not grab possessions; share first some of your own personal details before asking for hers.’ When Lex asked an estimation of a successful follow up of this encounter, the psychology course came with a meagre 25%. The tip for a next encounter was to build on the blossoming Forsythia, since this was ‘a neutral yet positive topic’. Well, at least his chances to speak to her again were not zero.

Lex wanted to check Diana’s profile online, but he was distracted by some of the headlines. Air raids were reported, in China this time. Unidentified drones targeted several water basins in the South of China. So far, it was unclear what the mission was about. There were no bombings, and no detectable pollution had been ascertained. Nevertheless, the basins were no longer certified as safe and entire cities ran out of drinking water, with the predictable panic, looting and riots as result. Lex sighed. There was never a day without these huge calamities. Was it just because the world was monitored all the time everywhere, or was there simply a rise in disasters, disturbances and assaults?

The stream of catastrophes and disasters was concluded with a more optimist note. A news clip reported a sensational finding in Antarctica. A group of scientists were most likely to have made a discovery similar to Pompeii: under the ice they found an entire city, with an ancient castle and advanced technology. The most impressive however was that they found dozens of human bodies. It was all too early to draw conclusions, but the first signs were that the civilization was possibly much further developed than our present society.

‘How is this possible?’, the NewsBot interviewed the scientist at the location on Antartica. Viewers could upload their questions to the NewsBot, and the female professor would answer them.

‘Compared to some odd 15 years ago, the temperature has gone up some 3 degrees Celsius. As a result, ice has molten away and scientists stumbled upon unusual objects, unrelated to geology and unknown to Antarctica’s landscape’, the professor answered. ‘It seems we have found a shock frosted civilization.’

‘Could a pole shift have been the reason’, Lex uploaded his question, but it was ignored by the NewsBot.

‘Have we re-discovered Atlantis?’ appeared instead – a question by someone else.

‘Whatever turns out to be true, the entire history of humankind will have to be rewritten.’

Quite interesting, he thought, but he actually wanted to find out more about Diana. It almost felt too intimate, to pronounce her name to his SmartHouseProgram. He did not know her surname, but her first name, together with their common address left only two options for Diana. On the wall to his left, a picture of an elderly woman was shown. Lex swiped it away and a new picture showed up, of the Diana he just met. She appeared to be on a higher level with her SocialCitizenScore than he was. Born 1992 in Amsterdam. She had completed a PhD in legal studies. He clicked to the employers that were mentioned in her CV. First she was trained as a lawyer, but later she made the switch to the prosecution. Until a year ago she used to work as an assistant for the International Court of Justice in The Hague. Lex could not trace where she worked at present. Probably she had been replaced by one of the recently developed legal robots and most likely, she had joined the jobless crowd, just like him.

‘Open MultiLayer’, Lex said, while he had the furniture rearranged into his favorite model: a lazy fauteuil that combined the best of an armchair, a bed and a stretcher. In MultiLayer one could play the quest and enter the next level. Alternatively, one could earn points by improving logistics and technicalities of the game. When he played this mode last time, he crafted a new real estate plan for the government part of the game. With a bit of optimization, the government could save around 20% of their budget for the compound he worked on.

Today, Lex looked into the energy trading system in a subset of MultiLayer. The challenge was how to create more incentives for transactions via the government (in one way or the other), instead of bi-lateral exchanges between citizens ‘in order to create more opportunities for synergies, optimization and coordination between the various individual choices.’  In this particular subset, individuals could trade energy amongst themselves. If the citizens would just sell and buy to their liking, the entire system, short of resources anyhow, could possibly no longer deal with the peak demand. To help the individuals in their choices, the demand of the consumers was categorized: some demands for energy were more important than others. Lex worked on a few new variables that could play a role in prioritizing the consumers. The BigNudge Energy Platform categorized the consumers according to their SocialCitizenScore. In addition, the energy source was taken into account.  Hydrogen was the preferred source, followed by wind and solar energy.  Lex wrote a part of the computer algorithm that reflected this preference. He also wrote a code that gave preference to transactions on the government BigNudge Energy Platform. The price the sellers received was lower than on peer-to-peer platforms, but their deal was guaranteed.  He wrote a similar code for the buyers: they paid a higher price for the energy and of course the BigNudge could not guarantee the supply everyone knew about the shortage. But Lex’ code made sure that all demand that was published on this government platform was prioritized over demand announced on all other platforms.

Lex had concentrated on this assignment for quite a while and he was rather pleased with his cunning solution. He got up and tapped himself some water. The graph showed he had drunk around 750 ml of liquid this day so far. He wanted to water his plants in the corner of his apartment, but his tap refused the service when he held his watering can below. ‘Drinking water only’, the sign blinked in red letters. This was new. His tap could now recognize his watering can!
Instead of watering the plants, he talked to them: ‘I will get you some water later today. You have grown spectacularly. You are magnificently resilient creatures, all of you.’ He patted some of the leaves tenderly, as if he stroke an infant’s cheek.

He returned to his console to check whether the MultiLayer managers had adopted his solution for nudging the Energy supply and demand. This would imply he would earn around some serious amount of credits that could help in his quest for the next level. Suddenly a message popped up:

Well-done, Lex!  Quite brilliant, your invisible incentives on both buyers’ and sellers’ side. We are happy to adopt your solution for this part of the game. You have earned 60 credits.

Other chapters:

Novel by Willemijn Dick, inspired and introduced by Dirk Helbing
License: Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs (CC BY-NC-ND)

Wednesday, 22 February 2017

iGod: Chapter 1 of Willemijn Dicke's science fiction novel on the digital age

The hologram of the Chinese prime minister was waiting in the corner of his apartment to be activated by Lex. Apparently, the SmartHouseSystem selected this news item with priority. The manual of the SmartHouseSystem claimed that it ranked the news by algorithms only, but Lex could not remember that he had selected Chinese government statements before. Xi Ben Zhu started with the usual formalities and Lex played it fast forward.
‘…that is why we called for the Nüwa project to harvest extraterrestrial resources, fifteen years ago. We are proud to announce that, for the first time ever in our history, we have been able to mine the much needed rare earth minerals on an asteroid and bring them to the Earth. In this way, we can resume the production of smart devices and continue it for another 3.5 years.

For us, this is the start, and not the end of our continuing endeavour to conquer space. We all know that Earth will soon run out of resources. In other words: so far, the pie has been getting too small for all of us. We, the Chinese People, do not want to serve out even smaller portions. Instead, we are dedicated to enlarge the pie.’

‘Yeah’, Lex said out loud to the hologram while he swiped it away. For Splinter, the voice of his boss was a sign to come up Lex, jump up to him and lick his hands. The dog wagged his tail like this was a once in a lifetime reunion between the dog and his boss. He repeated this enthusiasm every day, time and again when Lex came home, when he woke up, when he threw a stick or stroke his back. Lex had never planned to have a dog. He inherited it from his parents. At first, Lex was not happy at all with this responsibility for another living creature. Now, however, the two had developed a new routine, just like a married couple. ‘Yes I have understood you, we will go out.’

Lex’ attention was drawn to a small group of people on the pavement across his street. He run up to the group and he saw a teenager, lying on the ground wailing out of pain. His left leg was twisted in an unnatural angle and he was bleeding.

‘Did someone call an ambulance?’ Lex asked.

‘A hoverboard hit him at ridiculous speed. Of course, that guy did not bother to stop to call an ambulance’, a lady in the crowd answered Lex.

‘So, has someone else read his wrist RFID and called an ambulance? The boy is in agony!’, Lex repeated his question impatiently.

‘We checked his wrist. He does not possess an activated Citizen Service Number’, the same lady answered.

They all knew that, without this number, which was directly coupled to one’s credit card, ambulances would not show up. If this guy did not have an activated number, he and his family could probably not afford the operation either. If Lex would supply the Ambulance Service with his own Citizen Service Number, this would imply that Lex would pay both for the ride and for the operation, including all medical services and the after care. Lex could simply not afford this, nor could the other bystanders probably.

‘So what do we do?’ Lex could not stand the howling of the kid.

‘We have contacted his father. He should be here any minute.’

A man in his late forties in non-official working clothes arrived by electric rickshaw. His eyes panicked when he saw his boy in a puddle of blood, screaming with pain. Lex and a few others helped the father to get the boy into the rickshaw – it was impossible to move the boy without hurting him.

‘Here, for the hospital bill’, Lex said to the father. He held up his personal device so that it was clear he wanted to do a credit transaction to the father’s account.

‘I appreciate your gesture, but I have been denied access to peer-to-peer transactions.’

‘Can I support you in any other way?’

‘I am afraid not. We will manage.’ When the father closed the door of the rickshaw, he accidentally touched the harmed leg of the boy, who screamed stridently.

‘Fuck!’ the lady cursed when the boy and father drove off and the entire group was nodding in agreement. Some years ago, this social class system did not exist. How unfair and frustrating things had become! Without even saying goodbye, everyone departed.

Lex decided to send a message to his client that he would skip their meeting scheduled for today and he would instead visit him later this week. He first needed to get rid of the depression, which had taken hold of him after he saw the wounded boy. In fact, it was not the teenager who made him low-spirited, but the confrontation with his own impotency to change something to the better in this increasingly frustrating world. His attempts or intention could not make an impact. It resulted all in the same: in nothing. In his attempt to get rid of his darkened mood, he walked Splinter longer than usual. When he entered the apartment building, he was still depressed by the accident.

He opened the door to his apartment and he said ‘store the bed’, which was then neatly folded and stored. ‘Work out device, level 4, total body work out’. A box unfolded into a working out device. Lex was pleased with the design. He had once created it himself by making solely use of parts of old machines and roboticized furniture – no single part was newly bought. He was also proud that he had designed a machine that worked on any muscle group a man needs to work on – his PhD in biology was not completely obsolete after all!

On the wall his biometrics were projected: the pattern of his sleep last night; the heartbeat, blood pressure, calorie intake, exercise time and many other details. The health insurance company could be happy, he was in the green zones for almost all categories. No extra premiums for him this month! He grabbed the poles of his working out machine and the treadmill started. The device changed shape as it worked out different muscles of his body.

‘Main news; scenes with subtitles,’ was Lex’ next command. On a wall on his left, a courtroom was projected. It was announced that a robot had now replaced the last human judge. A voice-over went over the many human errors that had occurred over the last decades. Lex interrupted: ‘No voice-over. Subtitles’. He was puzzled why his SmartHouseSystem would not have caught his instruction the first time.

The news continued. Portraits of people that had been the victim of judicial aberrance were shown. Luckily enough, with this final replacement in the European Court, the citizens of Europe were now safe from these kinds of aberrant convictions. The next item was yet another terrorist attack. A major power plant in the Netherlands had been targeted. The news could not reveal yet which terrorist group was behind this attack.

There were quite a few of them: some were a collection of people against the supremacy of robots; others were religiously inspired, there were nationalistic factions that opposed the European Federation and there were groups that engaged against mass migration.
A complicating factor to find out who was the assassin this time was that these terrorist movements formed coalitions with one or more other associations in some of the instances. Given the brutality of the attack, Lex’ guess was that this particular action was a deed of the anti-migration groups.

The next item on the news was the opening of a massive detention centre in the South of France. The video showed how efficient, clean and huge this facility was. Terrorists from entire Europe could be transported to this facility, which was basically a new kind of high security prison that tried to come across like a futuristic quarter of town, while it was in fact a ghetto. Detention centers had now become one of the most important economic sectors in France. He skipped the rest of the item and moved on to the last news of today. The opening of a new life-long university was reported. Lex had programmed MyNews in such a way that he would always end with a lighter news item – among all the riots and attacks, it was important to see the good news too. Students of all ages and countries worked on their education programmes from home, almost for free. Once their coursework was handed in, the university’s computer system would notice immediately what the individual level of a certain student in a specific area was and recorded the individual skills and progress history. The system would come up with new exercises until the student was able to perform the task flawlessly and only then move to the next level. Each student followed a completely individual track. It made Lex think to take up some advanced neuropsychology classes – it was fun last time when he enrolled in the basic course.

In his kitchenette, Lex ordered a smoothie with spinach, celery and ginger. He waited for a few minutes and then the 200 ml cup was pushed gently on the tray. He did not like the bitter taste, nor the muddy texture but he had investigated the composition of his diet meticulously. He wanted to stay both physically and mentally fit, far beyond his nineties and the SmartHouseSystem confirmed that this was indeed the best balanced diet for him. Good for his skin appearance as well, the SmartHouseSystem had added, but that did not interest Lex a bit. His main reason to eat and live healthy was that he did not want to die the way his parents did: decrepit bodies enveloping steeply deteriorating minds in their late seventies.

While he finished his daily dose of pure health he commanded: ‘Show me the high scores of MultiLayer’. In green letters, the table with the scores was projected on a wall to his right. Lex was more than content, seeing that he was still in the top 10 of his favourite game. He swallowed the healthy liquid in one go, his jaws clenched and his eyes squinted at the last gulp. Lex checked who was online and he was happy to see that Hector08 was in the virtual waiting room. He needed to team up with another player who had the resources he did not possess himself in order to reach the next level. He and Hector08 had been partners in this game on different adventures. They were a good team: Lex being creative and imaginative, and Hector08 being very skilful in killing all the spies and agents that crossed their path. Although he had never met him face to face, Lex felt he really knew Hector08. The game made it very transparent how people responded to pressure, how intelligent they were and, also very important, whether they were able to laugh about the world and themselves.

In the chat Hector08 asked whether Lex could join him on a level 9 quest. ‘Count me in’, Lex answered. They compared each other’s resources needed in the game to reach the next level and they discussed their strategy. Just when Hector08 set up his gear, they spotted a gang that was approaching them very fast. Full attention had to be paid to the development of the adventures in the game. Within 89 minutes they reached level 9.

‘Wow, thanks man! Good game, but more challenging than I thought. I liked that path finding stuff,’ Hector08 chatted.

‘Path finding?? Are u kidding me? You liked the puzzle more than the shooting?’ Lex asked surprised.


‘Hmm. For a scout, you seemed rather eager at the shooting episodes. Are you a grown up or still a kid?’

‘I am a fallen angel.’

‘Aren’t we all? See you at level 10 or beyond.’

During the game he was paged several times, but at that time Lex had more important things to do. To win a war for example. Now he looked and he was annoyed when he noticed that he had missed 5 PageCalls. Only the elderly and business contacts used PageCalls. His friends would use less intrusive communication methods. He checked who had tried to get to speak to him so desperately. It was Mr. VanBuren again.

One month after his contract at the university was unexpectedly terminated, he mentioned in his social circles that he was available for AI assistance. When he thought of this possibility to earn some money in addition to his BaseSalary, he had small companies in mind to help them harvest Big Data and to analyse the data for their business purposes. Unfortunately, it turned out differently. He had a modest clientele by now, mostly people in their eighties and older, who did not have relatives around to help them with the most basic things. When Mr. VanBuren tried to instruct the SmartHouseSystem, there was always something wrong: the icons had vanished or were replaced; the VoiceControl did not work or the SmartHouseSystem did not respond altogether. In many cases, he had missed a software update.

Lex stopped an E-rick and voiced his destination. For the aim of the ride he stated ‘work’. After a 15 minutes ride, the rickshaw stopped in front of a large, grey building. Already before Lex could swipe his wrist implant across the entrance sensor, Mr. VanBuren opened the door. ‘My dearest Alexander.’ Only he and Lex’ late mother called him by his full name. ‘Please have a look at my CommemorationBarbara. She keeps on telling the same stories, time and again.’

VanBuren had been a widower for over 10 years and the program to chat with his late wife was a bit amateurish. Lex did what he could and fixed some of the scripts in the chat bot, but the repertoire of CommerationBarbara was simply limited.

‘I restored some of the connections but I am afraid you cannot have more than 105 different chat options.’

‘Thank you. Hearing her voice, still perks me up. She was very special, Alexander. A smart and stylish lady. Sometimes she was a little bit glum, fair to say. But who was always in high spirits and happy and all that?’ From the intonation, Lex concluded that this particular word set belonged to VanBuren well-rehearsed repertoire. VanBuren walked to the other corner of his room. ‘Please sit down.’

It made no sense to hurry. Mr. VanBuren was old, but not stupid. Lex asked for 60 eCoins per hour, and 60 was the starting tariff. Usually he had fixed Mr. Van Buren’s problem within ten minutes. Since VanBuren had to pay the 60 eCoins anyway, he would come up with all kinds of little jobs; fixing roboticized furniture, fine-tune and personalize the SmartHouseSystem. Sure, it would have been better to work for a government agency or for an agency that was credited by the government – then he was allowed to ask for 90 eCoins per hour. The government did not encourage transactions between two individuals.

Today, VanBuren invited Lex to have a chat about the world news. He wanted to know what Lex thought of the building of yet another massive detention camp in the South of France. When Lex started his answer, VanBuren interrupted bluntly: ‘You young folks know nothing.’ After a 20 minutes lecture on world affairs, going back and forth between decades and continents, with the second world war as focal point, Lex left the house of the old man. Mr. VanBuren said goodbye and was still standing in the door opening, waving, when Lex turned to the right. Lex decided to walk home. The weather was nice; Mr. VanBuren’s long and lonely day was a little bit relieved by his visit. He had reached level 10 in Multilayer and 60 fresh eCoins on his account. Life was not so bad after all! He already knew how he would spend his money…

At home, Lex ordered a hologram girl, tailored to his liking. She had the right touch, the perfect looks; sporty meets intelligence. OK, perhaps he was not very original but he liked redheads. Nothing to be ashamed of, right? They had a good time. Before taking off his smart glasses and his gloves, he closed the session with a polite phrase to the ho-girl – always an awkward moment – and then he closed the program.

The sex had brought him in a mood that was the perfect mixture of relaxation and lust for life. He wanted to play a game. He checked the high scores again – he was now number 12 – and he played MyNews. This was quite a recent game and not yet fully developed. Lex had been invited as one of the early adopters of the game. MyNews game enabled players to re-enact the situations in the news that happened only hours before. Lex thought MyNews had huge potential, but some bugs had still to be fixed and he was reporting them.

He was currently working on the experience of time in MyNews. Time leap was now an extremely irritating factor. You could not speed up the chain of events. The game mimicked the time line of the real events – often boringly slow. Lex had done several suggestions to the editors of the game to improve the time experience. Although Lex was not completely satisfied yet, his proposed solution was certainly an improvement compared to the former versions. It pleased Lex that the editors had installed his solution – in that way he had earned MyNews points and on top some further 60 credits.

The reason Lex liked MyNews was that, as a gamer, one could choose which role of which scene in the news he wanted to play: terrorist, secret agent, government, industry, or civilian. Thanks to Mr. VanBuren, he chose the opening of the facility in the South of France. In the re-enactment of the news, Lex chose the role of the head of EU Secret Service. He was placed in a virtual reality that copied the news facts as much as possible. During the game, the outcome could end up different from real life, depending on the decisions and actions by Lex and the other players.

It was by the indecent prodding of Splinter between Lex’ elbow and torso that Lex was reminded that several hours had passed. Lex walked to the nearest spot where Splinter was allowed to run free. That is not a given in an over-regulated country like The Netherlands. Being a whippet, Splinter needed to race daily, otherwise he could get real nasty in the apartment, as Lex had learned over the years.

Today, Splinter ran to an overweight boxer. It was rather rare to encounter another dog – national policy discouraged having pets. Information campaigns portrayed dog owners as environmentally irresponsible, using scarce resources to feed useless animals instead of humans. The water needed for Splinter was deducted from Lex’ water allowance and Lex encouraged his dog to drink from ditches and ponds. When Lex decided to keep the dog from his parents, it cost him at least 10 points of his SocialCitizenScore.

Splinter tried to challenge the other dog to play and run, but the fat dog did not even move its lid. The owner of this boxer nodded to Lex. ‘This is a metaphor for human relations, don’t you think? Men want to play and it is always the woman who decides whether the game is on. Most of the time it is not, of course.’ When Lex approached the dog owner a little bit closer, he recognized Adriaan Seldon by his half long grey hair.

‘You are from Amsterdam Tech, aren’t you?’, Lex asked.

‘Yes, you too?’ the older man replied.

‘I used to be.’

They shook hands and they exchanged basic coordinates. When Seldon expressed his interest in Lex’ story, Lex started telling. He completed both his masters (summa cum laude, by the way) and his PhD in Biology at Amsterdam Tech. Seldon informed after the name of Lex’ supervisor. Amsterdam Tech is like a small village and most academic staff knew each other, certainly the professors. Lex continued. ‘I have found rather sophisticated forms of communication between trees, especially the Ginkgo – one of the oldest trees on earth. They were already part of the landscape when dinosaurs were around. Isn’t that amazing?’ Seldon nodded affirmatively. ‘My hunch after completing my PhD was that, since we share 50% of our DNA with bananas, we probably also share the potential for these communication methods.’ Lex spoke enthusiastically. Seldon said that, for a humble engineer like himself, this all made sense. How did it happen that Lex did no longer work for Amsterdam Tech? To Lex’ surprise, his answer had more emotional load than he anticipated. He told that basically it was his own fault since he did not care about details of his labour contract. He signed everything as long as he could continue his research, which was so fascinating!

‘You know, my work at the university never felt like a job, it has always been and still is my calling’, Lex heard himself saying. ‘As long as I could do what I wanted to do most in life – namely research – and as long as I had enough money to fill the fridge.’

For Seldon, this was true for many people pursuing an academic career. So why did Lex not continue his research at Amsterdam Tech?

For the first time since his dismissal, he could control his anger over the course of events. ‘I don’t want to brag, but I was good, pretty good actually. I received an Iacta grant, I published in Flora, and later I received an Novice Emergo.’

‘Well-done, that is outstanding for a Postdoc.’

‘My supervisor, who is the department head, as you know, really valued me and my research. I am sure of that. Time and again he found some money to offer me a contract for another period of a few months and he promised that I would soon be appointed as assistant professor. But in the end, the department did not have the money to offer me a permanent position – one of their building sites required more money than expected. And so, all of a sudden, in the middle of a series of experiments, I did no longer have a job. You know as well as I that I had become too old to start as a tenure track assistant professorship at another university.’

‘No chance’, Seldon added, a little bit too soon and too honest to Lex’ liking.

‘So here I am, walking the dog, playing computer games and fixing computer problems of computer illiterates.’

Seldon sighed.

‘Do I bore you?’, Lex asked.

‘Not for a single moment. I am disappointed of the institutional capacity to retain guys like you for Academia. It takes one to know one, and I know you are a researcher. I saw your eyes lighten up when you mentioned the Talking Ginkgo.’

At that moment, the whippet ran to a bypasser, but suddenly its movement froze and the dog crouched. Lex called Splinter’s name punitively. Seldon watched the situation with great interest.
‘What happened?’

‘My dog was so badly trained by my parents that I had to invent something. Now he wears a collar that gives it small electric shocks if it behaves unfavourably. Here is the remote control.’ Lex showed an app on his personal device.

‘If only we could apply that to my students’, Seldon remarked jokingly.

‘By the way, what is the name of your dog?’ Seldon asked.

‚Splinter. And hers?‘

‚Hagar.‘We will meet here again, Lex, no doubt. When dogs like each other’s company, their bosses will follow them. Besides there are not many places were dogs are allowed.’ Seldon laughed again and then he switched to a more serious tone. ‘I have to rush now, but let’s keep in touch.’
When they said goodbye, in Seldon’s wrinkled earlobe a shadow of a tiny little hole became visible as a faded sign of rebellion. Lex was touched, without precisely knowing why.

Other chapters:

Novel by Willemijn Dick, inspired and introduced by Dirk Helbing
License: Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs (CC BY-NC-ND)