Monday, 27 February 2017

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)

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