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)

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