Some Will Be Living Forever

Here’s a dark little dystopian piece of fiction I wrote for the Immmortality Fiction Contest.  Hank has kindly published my QS article there, and I hope to contribute more in the future.

Joe sat on top of an ancient, rusted artifact labeled “John Deere,” in a brown, junk filled field as the sun dipped behind the skyscrapers in the distance.  He was staring into infinity with a pose that indicated he was accessing Content.

“Seen this news about Gates on the feeds?” he asked his companions in meatspace.

A fellow traveller named Ling-Ling grunted a coarse laugh as she chewed her Social Stability Ration, a tough, brown, nutritionally complete, algae-based biscuit provided by the NGOs here in the Western States Autonomous Economic Zone [Demilitarized].  “Yeah, he’s going to live forever you know.  Spend some of your bandwidth allotment and grab the pix. He looks 25 but he must be 80 by now.”

A kid called Spaz perked up at this and put down the security drone he was dismantling.  “How’s that work?” he asked.

“The study is behind a paywall.  Here’s a link if you think you can hack it,” said Joe, and messaged the link to Spaz via the LAN he was running off an improvised refrigerator controller juiced by solar paint.

Spaz assumed the infinite stare while the others sat in silence.  The sun had set and a cold wind was kicking up dust all around them.

“You should finish up with that security drone before farting around with those longevity papers,” chastised an old man called Jerome.  “We won’t be able to take shelter until you do that.  Then you can read about the bullshit that billionaires can afford all night long.  You can even dream of going to the Orbitals if you like.”

Ling-Ling and a few others chuckled at that, but Spaz just said, “Got it, the link’s on my private status page for those who care.”  There was a pause.  “You’re right Jerome, I wouldn’t mess around with those telomerase hacks unless I had a real budget, ya know.  Got to focus on the here and now.”  He resumed working on the security drone.

“No point in living forever if you don’t have money,” said Joe absently.  “Can you really see living like this for eternity?” he asked, indicating his own filthy clothes.  Then he grabbed a rock and flung it at a pack of feral dogs that was shadowing the group at a distance.

“I’m not ready to die yet,” said Jerome.  “This life’s hard, for sure, but I’ll go kicking and screaming.”

“Yeah, you can still move around pretty good,” responded Ling-Ling.  “My grandmother is in worse shape.  She can’t even think straight.”

“What’s that, Alzheimer’s?” asked Joe sympathetically.

Ling-Ling just nodded and said nothing.

Jerome came over and sat next to her.  “Why hell, that’s been cured for years.  I thought the treatment was pretty cheap now too.”

“Too much for us,” said Ling-Ling simply.

“Is she here or in China?” asked Joe.

“China still.”

“I thought they had subsidies.  The feeds are always going on about the great health care over there,” said Joe thoughtfully.

“Ha! Maybe if you are in Shenzhen or the big city.  If you are out in the boonies, forget it,” said Ling-Ling scornfully.

“Yeah, well old Gates can just kick back in his compound and enjoy the good life,” mused Joe.  “He just got approval for upgraded autonomous armed drones at his northwest estate.  Hardcore killbots to keep the logger anarchists off his back.

“I thought a lot of those longevity techniques were still in animal testing,” said Spaz.

“Sure, but the darknet feeds have rumors of big human trials down south where the rules are looser,” Joe replied.

“Looser than here?” asked Jerome incredulously.

“Yeah, like CartelLand loose.  You throw some bank around down there and they round up as many peasants as you need.  Hell, most of them would probably volunteer for a few bucks a day.  Grow a snout out my elbow?  No problem, fifty bucks upfront,” said Joe, smiling.

Several of the group laughed at that.

“But I might take that deal myself some days,” he continued, wistfully looking off into the distance but not to infinity.

“Ah, quit your whining and eat an SSR,” said Jerome, getting up to slap him on the knee and hand him a biscuit.

The security drone suddenly lifted off and hovered above the little group.  “Damn!” shouted Spaz, surprised, still holding it’s cover in his hands.  “I might have done the steps in the wrong order there.”

“Are we in danger?” asked Jerome shakily.

Joe quickly pulled up an interface.  “No.  It’s in a preboot mode waiting for a password.  I assume you did a factory default settings reset, Spaz?”

“Well I hope so …” he said hesitantly.

“Ok, let’s see … Yep, that’s in the doc …  We’re in!  Did you mod the config files already?” Joe asked, staring into infinity.

“Right here,”  responded Spaz with relief.  He messaged them via the LAN.

A few minutes later the drone buzzed off and resumed it’s patrol of the abandoned  condominium complex adjacent to the field where the little band was camped. Everyone held their breathe, watching to see if their hacked drone would be detected as compromised and shot down by the others.  But they heaved a collective sigh of relief as it seamlessly merged back into formation with the other drones already on patrol.

“Oh nice,” said Spaz excitedly.  “Our little messenger delivered a package right into the facility control systems.  I’m in as root right now.  We can just walk in the front gate.”

“That’s a lot of work for one night of lodging in a building no one has been able to afford for years,” grumbled Jerome as the group packed up their meager belongings and got under way.

“That’s capitalism baby, where would we be without it?” laughed Ling-Ling.

Technical Abundance … Already Happened? More to Come?

Writing up Douglas Mallette’s Cybernated Farm Systems talk from XFF yesterday got me thinking about this idea of technical abundance.  Mallette is one of many who envision a future of abundance brought about by engineering breakthroughs.  Some even go so far as to predict the end of scarcity.  Ray Podder is one of these folks and he also spoke at the XFF this year.  He is promoting the idea that we might be on the verge of huge increases in energy abundance.  He cites Nocera’s work at MIT that led to an artificial leaf that basically catalyzes water into hydrogen and oxygen when exposed to sunlight.  Podder is interested in a bunch of other energy harvesting technologies such as HighDro Power’s plumbing pressure generator and Penn State’s wastewater microbial electrolysis.  There is surely plenty of energy around, even footsteps generate energy. I can imagine devices seeping into the markets here and there.  The artificial leaf seems well suited for Africa and other undeveloped parts of the world.    But I am not holding my breath for a sudden paradigm shift.

Diamandis and Kotler were banging this abundance drum last year with their book: Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think.  One of their many theses is that four major forces will transform the world to bring about abundance: exponential technologies, DIY innovators, technophilanthropists, and the rising billion.  Exponential technologies, everyone reading this knows about, the cell phone in your pocket is as powerful as a 70’s era supercomputer yada-yada-yada.  DIY Innovators are those makers and entrepreneurs building novel solutions that once required huge organizations.  Technophilanthropists are those benevolent billionaires as evidenced by Bill Gates trying to eradicate malaria. The “rising billion” refers to the poorest billion people as they rise out of poverty and start to participate in the global rat race, err, economy by producing and consuming.  Progress, progress, everywhere.

So in many ways, it might be argued that technology has steadily increased abundance over the millennia.  Perhaps most dramatically noticeable with the advent of agriculture, but certainly the caveman with a spear acquired more food than the one without.   And eventually the rising tide might well raise all boats.  But from our perspective it’s often hard to view this age as an end to scarcity.  People still starve to death.  So we currently have a coexistence of abundance and scarcity.  Certain things remain scarce for certain people but more and more are enjoying previously inconceivable abundance.  We are like frogs being slowly boiled in abundance.  We just don’t notice how rich we are getting.

Certainly there is only one earth which we may be over enthusiastically uh, reorganizing.  And that is part of the abundance story that sort of turns sour.  Sure, we have made great leaps in energy efficiency, and in many ways technology has made resources appear out of thin air.  But yeah, only one earth.  And probably the coolest thing about it is the biosphere.  And we are sort of messing that up.  So some frowny faces might be in order now and then.

But when I put these unpleasantly realistic thoughts aside for a moment, I still find it hard to wrap my head around where this abundance train is taking us.  Is a StarTrek future so unbelievable?  How unbelievable would our lifestyle be to our paleolithic ancestors?  StarTrek was missing this money thing (as a human concern anyway.)  Given that there will (probably) always be real limits to the resources at our disposal as a species, I expect that the technical abundance will be bumping it’s head on scarcity in all sorts of strange ways.  Consider the Chinese farmers who supposedly forgo toilets for cell phones.  Or how about Sterling’s Favela Chic idea:

“You have lost everything material, no job or prospects, but you are wired to the gills and really big on Facebook.”

Now that’s getting closer to something believable.  Whatever future abundance I imagine, it’s got to be weird and slightly disturbing, or I just discard the vision immediately as nonsense.

XFF – Douglas Mallette – Aquaponic Cyber Farms and An End To Scarcity

Douglas Mallette was one of my favorite speakers at the Extreme Futurist Festival this year. Mallette is an ex-NASA engineer who has a vision for cybernetic farms of the future.  He has an Indiegogo project called Cybernated Farm Systems.  The basic idea is to design an aquaponic food production facility that can be powered by wind and solar.  Aquaponic systems take advantage of the synergy between fish and plants.  Fish in tanks soil water with their waste which is fed to plants who extract the waste as nutrients and then the cleaned water is returned to the fish to renew the cycle.

Mallette has a grand vision of engineers rising up to overturn economies of scarcity by providing technology based abundance for the world.  In Mallette’s view, the fact that we have starvation on earth right now is “retarded.”  I was inspired by the intensity of his presentation.  He strongly believes that humans should be freed from the drudgery of labor and that human labor is largely inefficient anyway.  Earth needs to upgrade it’s global operating system to move away from ownership to usership and from a growth model to a more sustainable, earth based economic model. Czech economist Tomas Sedlacek made the rounds last year trying to promote a similar idea of non-growth capitalism.   Also, Doctorow was pushing for a reevaluation of user vs owner rights this past year.

So Mallette is trying to start a company with an equally grand vision.  He aims to produce autonomous farm buildings that could be dropped anywhere on earth and start producing food with very little human oversight.  He mentioned cheap new foldable photovoltaic technology that he is interested in.  Another cool energy technology that Mallette wants to utilize in his cyber farms is a magnetic levitation assisted vertical axis wind turbine.  Now that is good stuff.  Here is a fun demonstration video using neodymium magnets.  I also have a scribbled reference in my notes to Bloom Energy fuel cells, but it’s not clear where they would fit in the design.

So yeah, this is a great idea.  Build a cyber farm, drop it anywhere off the grid in the undeveloped world and it starts producing food for the people with very little maintenance.      Mallette even suggested that his company would provide a lifetime maintenance guarantee, which provides an incentive for the company to focus on quality.  I admire that vision.  My concern is that his vision might be too grand to be realizable.  Take the Indiegogo funding goal for example. It’s $1 million dollars.  (Correction 1/3/2013: looks like the goal was reduced to $485k.)  That’s a big goal for a crowdfunded project where the average goal is closer to $85k.  Also, one wonders how this really gets paid for.  Several speakers were talking about abundance at XFF this year, and I love that vision.  But it’s hard to see how we cross that gap from the current scarcity systems to this kinder, gentler world.

Here in Oakland, an organization called Kijani Grows produces a much more modest arduino controlled aquaponic system.  It’s not a super cyber farm, but for $600 they provide a (presumably) working module.  I like that idea even better.  Start small and iterate like they do in Agile development.  But Mallette is a cool guy, and I respect his principals.  We could do well to have more engineers who dream in this world.