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Artificial Inteligence (AI)
AIs are artificial intelligence software running on computers. AI refers to the capacity for sentience and intelligent action, but not necessarily self-awareness. AIs is a function primarily of software rather than hardware. An AI can be housed in a machine body (“cybershell”) or a living body controlled through computer implants (“bioshell”).
There are three classes of AI:
Nonsapient AIs (NAIs) are capable of sentient behavior and can learn, but lack self-initiative, reasoning ability, empathy, and creativity.
Low-Sapient AIs (LAIs) are capable of self-initiative and a degree of empathy, but lack human-level creativity. Still, it can be hard to tell an LAI from a sapient AI just from conversation. There have been a few rare instances where an LAI (or gestalt of LAIs) evolved into a sapient AI.
Sapient AIs (SAIs) are capable of human equivalent or higher sapience when run on appropriate hardware. This is sometimes referred to as “self-awareness.” Sapient AIs are usually carefully raised by humans or human-programmed SAIs. This socialization process teaches them how to interact with humans. Most SAIs cultivate human-like personas. Sapient AIs almost always have names and many create human-like avatars (software images). Personal ownership of a sapient AI is licensed or restricted in many nations, and copying or modifying them without permission is generally illegal.
There are about as many AIs as people. Approximately one-third of the human population of Earth owns a nonsapient or low-sapient AI who serves as a constant personal companion, inhabiting a home computer or virtual interface (see Augmented Reality). The population of sapient AIs is smaller: there are fewer than 100 million in existence, primarily due to hardware costs and legal controls.
AIs are programmed to obey the law and their owners. NAIs and LAIs are generally seen as property, but views on sapient AI differ. The Islamic Caliphate considers SAIs to possess souls, and allows them to be citizens. The European Union and some space colonies also grant SAIs “human rights.” Most other places disagree, and treat SAIs as property. Sapient AIs created outside the European Union or Caliphate are raised to agree with this view.
Almost any desktop, vehicle or cybershell “brain” has the potential for intelligence about equal to that of an unmodified human being. Such computers can be built and maintained for much lower cost than that necessary to “build” and maintain a human being. The most advanced machines have attained what would be considered genius-level intelligence in a human. Although such computers are extremely expensive, they have certain advantages over human beings – they are much better at concentrating on a specific task, they can correlate vast amounts of information very quickly, and they can use a much wider variety of sensory equipment.
As a result, the long rear-guard action fought by human labor against the advance of automation is entering its last stages. Machine intelligence can now replace biological intelligence in a tremendous variety of occupations, including creative and decision-making tasks. Indeed, it is now possible for biological intelligence to become machine intelligence, using the new “downloading” technologies.
This situation is bringing many of the most developed nations to the point of crisis. In most of these societies, unemployment is rising very rapidly and putting considerable strain on society. Most futurists believe that Earth is moving toward a global “leisure society,” in which most human beings need not work at all. How to attain such a goal remains unclear. Some nations are building massive social-spending programs, ensuring that the chronically underemployed have a minimum income sufficient even for a few luxuries. Others, less accustomed to running a welfare state, are suffering serious social tensions. These are often generational (as young unemployed find themselves envying the older investor class) or ethnic (as unemployed immigrants find themselves envying wealthy natives). There is also a strong anti-technological bias in some of today’s labor movements, as the unemployed violently resist the further spread of automation.
Meanwhile, it’s unclear whether the machines themselves are willing to support an “unproductive” class of biological citizens. Most intelligent computers are simply programmed to work loyally, but many of the most intelligent are self-programming, and are liable to question their place in society. So far there has been no organized machine resistance, but there are a number of “machine liberation” movements worldwide, supported by both intelligent machines and biological citizens. Some nations have responded by defining categories of citizenship for emancipated computers, or even by giving advanced infomorphs a role in government.
This is the overlaying of virtual reality information onto a user’s perception of the real world. Its basic element is a “virtual interface”: smart glasses incorporating a computer, digital camera, visual head-up display, optical recognition software, cellular modem, and bone induction speaker, all controlled by an infomorph, typically a nonsapient or low-sapient AI.
The system recognizes objects (including faces) and situations, and provides a helpful stream of context-appropriate data, often as audio messages or text boxes in the user’s visual field.
The user accesses the system through voice commands or a virtual reality screen (and when necessary, a keyboard) projected in front of him. Usually, the user just tells the AI what he wants it to do, or it anticipates his needs. However, the system’s camera can also track the user’s finger movements, allowing him to type, move objects, or simulate a mouse, trackball, or other controller in empty air. Virtual interfaces have rendered solid keyboards and computer terminals obsolete. With appropriate programs, the user can manipulate graphic images, or even use his finger as a pen or paintbrush. Infomorphs (AIs and mind emulations) use augmented reality without needing a virtual interface.
Augmented reality is a mature technology in 2100, nearly a century old. The latest advances, not yet ubiquitous, are smarter AIs and replacing wearables with brain implants. Popular augmented- reality applications include:
These are common tissue-engineered genemod organs. They provide the user with an advantage, but must be custom-grown in advance, and require a transplant operation and time to recover.
The earliest cybernetic systems were prostheses for disabled or impaired individuals, such as hearing-aid implants and pacemakers. Early in the 21st century, the first systems that linked the user’s nervous system with electronics were available, allowing paralyzed individuals to control computers and setting the stage for bionic eyes and advanced limb replacements. At the same time, non-medical applications were also being developed, such as “hands-free” control interfaces for space suits, infantry equipment, and vehicles.
Bionic limbs and organs were common in the 2020s, but are now quite rare, replaced by tissue-engineered transplants easier to grow than bionics were to manufacture. Bionic limbs or organs aimed at enhancing a person’s abilities are even rarer. It’s cheaper and easier just to use gadgets, such as a pair of infrared goggles or a powered suit, and far easier to fix things external to the body if and when they break down. Also, while bionics do allow covert operators to use hidden “surprise” devices, any serious opponent (such as a spaceport customs check) will detect the bionics with sensors. If subtlety is called for, biological modifications or tinier implants are used instead.
These are cybernetic implants that alter the way a person perceives or thinks. They are tiny – usually pill-sized or smaller. They can be safely implanted or removed by robotic microsurgeons in a few hours. Removal is slightly trickier, as activation of an implant involves weaving a network of nanocommunicators and nano-optical threads through the brain.
About half a billion people have brain implants, mostly in the Fifth Wave cultures. Popular brain implants include:
Computers come in various sizes, from those installed in microbots or brain implants to mainframe supercomputers capable of running powerful AIs. Older computers are based on molecular circuits connected by carbon nanotubes. These circuits use bacteria-derived bacteriorhodopsin or other proteins that undergo fast, predictable chemical changes when illuminated. Stabilized into lattice structures, they create nanoscale optical switching systems with higher information densities than silicon-based electronics. These are coupled with holographic memory and data-storage systems that have the advantage of large capacity and instant data search and retrieval.
Newer computers store information in the form of localized conformation changes or charge separations on a macromolecular framework. A macromolecular memory unit the size of a sugar cube can store terabytes of data. Tiny molecular computers control microbots and are used in bionanomachines.
Quantum computers are the cutting edge of parallel information processing. Quantum computers do calculations using atoms in “up” or “down” spin states to represent bits of information. Due to quantum uncertainty effects, each atom does not simply represent one bit, as in a traditional computer. Instead, each “qubit” can be both up and down at once. This allows it to (in a sense) do all possible calculations at the same time until the act of measuring the qubits stops the calculating process. In practice, quantum computers can solve problems that are otherwise extremely time-consuming. The disadvantage of quantum computers is that they need to be heavily shielded to prevent external radiation from affecting them. The first quantum computers were incredibly bulky and fragile, reminiscent of computers in the 1950s. Newer systems are somewhat more compact, but they remain very heavy and limited to large mainframe devices.
Other forms of information processing and data storage may be on the horizon. Some smaller computers use nanofactured “rod-logic” systems that resemble a microscopic version of Charles Babbage’s original prototype mechanical computer. At the other extreme, Hawking Industries envisions supercomputers utilizing properties of mini black holes or foamed space-time.
Thermonuclear fusion involves combining the nuclei of two or more light atoms to produce the nucleus of a heavier atom. Fusion requires tremendous heat and pressure to overcome nuclear forces, but liberates more energy than was used to initiate the reaction. Hydrogen bombs and stars demonstrate the power of fusion.
Several different fusion reactions exist, generally involving the fusion of various isotopes of one or both of the lightest elements, hydrogen and helium. Solar fusion involves a series of reactions that combine hydrogen nuclei (protons) to form helium nuclei, emitting neutrinos, positrons, and electromagnetic radiation (including heat and light) in the process. This type of “proton-proton” fusion, although very efficient, is nearly impossible to achieve anywhere but inside a star, which creates the necessary pressures and temperatures in its core by virtue of its immense size. Human technology uses other means to produce a fusion reaction. In a hydrogen bomb, these conditions are achieved by exploding a nuclear fission bomb as a trigger, but the reaction is over in an instant. Aself-sustaining fusion reaction that can power a city or drive a spacecraft is trickier.
The most successful method has proven to be magnetic confinement. Gas is ionized, forming a plasma, which is then squeezed by magnetic fields until it is hot and dense enough for fusion to take place. Fusion research initially concentrated on the deuterium-tritium (D-T) reaction, which required the lowest ignition temperature. This fuses two isotopes of hydrogen into helium, liberating vast quantities of energy in the process. The majority of its fuel is an isotope of hydrogen called deuterium, which is ordinary hydrogen plus an extra neutron. Deuterium is fairly common: in the form of deuterium oxide (heavy water) it forms one part in 5,000 of ordinary water, and can be distilled at some expense using electrolysis. Tritium is a rare radioactive isotope of hydrogen, but can be “bred” by surrounding the fusion reactor core with a jacket of the element lithium, which transforms into tritium under neutron bombardment.
However, D-T fusion has a disadvantage: much of the energy liberated is in the form of energetic neutrons. Neutrons are dangerous and cannot be directly converted into electrical power. The neutrons must heat water, which produces steam, which drives a turbine, all of which adds extra bulk and cost. Moreover, the bombardment of neutrons irradiates and degrades the structural material of the reactor itself. Even with a careful choice of structural materials, this still means a high maintenance and upkeep cost. Finally, tritium is an essential component in hydrogen bombs, and as such the global use of commercial reactors that require or breed tritium does not help nuclear nonproliferation. As a result, D-T fusion reactors failed to displace other types of power plants on Earth. A few were built as experimental systems, and some are still used in space, especially by the Red Duncanites, but in general, they have been superseded by D-He-3 reactors.
Second-generation fusion reactors fuse deuterium with helium-3, a rare isotope of helium. The He-3 reaction requires higher temperatures to ignite (and thus awaited the development of more advanced magnetic confinement technology), but its main products are charged particles instead of neutrons.
A D-He-3 reactor is environmentally safer, and does not require the same heavy shielding. (There is a tiny amount of radiation produced by secondary reactions, so some shielding is needed.) The charged particles are also easier to convert into electricity. This means a D-He-3 reactor can be lighter, more efficient, and more easily maintained. The smallest present-day D-He-3 reactors mass several tons and generate megawatts of energy. Building-sized reactors generating a gigawatt of energy are common for cities, producing power that costs a few pennies per kilowatt-hour. D-He-3 reactors are also used in many spacecraft, space habitats, and colonies, powering energy-intensive processes such as agriculture, desalination, heavy industry, electrolysis, and terraforming. Fusion torch drives are variations on these reactors; pulse drives use different technology.
The He-3 concentration on Luna is small, only a few parts per billion. It requires 500,000 tons of raw material (an area of about 1,000 square yards to the depth of four inches) to produce one pound of He-3. Lunar processing plants use automated machinery: robot bulldozers to scoop up the regolith, ovens to bake the soil to 1,300°F, conveyors, and waste processing plants. This is a huge amount of effort, only justified by the worth of each pound of He-3, which can generate staggering amounts of energy when fused with deuterium. With all the other costs of operating a lunar mining base, the profits are not huge. However, a side effect of the processing is that it also yields economically useful quantities of elements such as oxygen and hydrogen, which support other Luna colony projects.
Extracting He-3 from Saturn (and potentially, from other gas giants) is cheaper, as it can be scooped directly out of the atmosphere. Specially designed drone scoop craft dive into the atmosphere and use high-thrust fission rockets to lift gas out to orbiting refineries. The gas is refined into He-3, then shipped via fusionpowered tanker to Earth or elsewhere. A few thousand tons are used annually (a tanker every few months), but demand is expected to double every 15-20 years. Even so, there’s enough He-3 in Saturn alone to last centuries, and more in the other gas giants.
“Gengineering” is the practice of manipulating genes to produce desired changes in an organism. Genetic information, encoded in the molecule DNA, tells a growing organism’s cells what proteins to make when, which determines the organism’s structure. In 2100, the genomes of humans and many other plants and animals have been thoroughly mapped. More importantly, the protein-coding functions and synergistic relationships of many genes are understood, though not all.
Human Genetic Engineering
Human beings can be genefixed, genetic upgrades, or parahumans. All have full human rights, but some governments restrict the gengineering that can be done. Most nations do not permit gengineering that poses physical or mental health risks, stunts or degrades normal human abilities, or encourages criminal behavior. Some places, such as the European Union and Japan, do not approve any modification that might result in a child suffering social alienation: no tails or fur, for example. A waiver is possible for pantropic changes optimized for a colonial environment.
2100-era medicine is extremely effective. If a person can be kept alive, and Fifth Wave medical care is available, then only injuries and diseases that rapidly destroy the brain or nervous system are likely to be fatal.
This technology has partially replaced conventional brick-and-mortar distribution and retailing with “print on demand” goods. It is also one reason why small space colonies and moon bases are economically viable.
The basis of minifacturing is advanced 3D printing. The first printers laid down a single 2D layer of ink on a sheet of paper. The new 3D devices deposit a wide variety of materials (such as liquid plastic, conductive and resistive ceramics, metal powders, powder-epoxy composites, or self-assembling nanostructures) in a 3D matrix, treating them with glue, heat, or laser sintering.
The process begins with a digital map of the object’s geometry (generated by a computer-aided design program or digitized from an actual object by a 3D scanner). The design is then broken into volume pixel matrices that specify exactly which material the printer should deposit at each point in the design. The 3D printer then prints layer after layer until the real 3D object is formed.
3D printers are able to produce very complex or durable materials (often lighter or stronger than those produced by conventional casting or forging), since it is simple for the layering process to arrange the microstructure of materials for maximum strength. If necessary, larger objects can also be made from multiple smaller modules, laser-cut to shape and welded or glued together. Although a multipurpose 3D printer can be expensive, the primary operating cost is licensing the software. The creation of complicated devices (such as a modern computer) requires programs of high complexity, as their construction can require hundreds of thousands (or more) of individual layers.
Nanotechnology is a broad range of technologies and products whose characteristic dimensions are less than about 1,000 nanometers. In short, nanotechnology is the engineering of individual molecules and atoms. How small is nano? A dime is 1,000 microns thick, a human egg cell about 100 microns, a red blood cell about 5 microns, a nerve axon about 1 micron, and a virus about 0.1 micron, or 100 nanometers. DNA molecules are less than 3 nanometers in diameter. Many common proteins are only a few nanometers across. An atom is about 0.1 nanometer.
Living things can be turned into pharmaceutical “bioreactors” by adding genes that code for commercially useful proteins. Transgenic pharm bacteria and plants are the simplest to create, but animals are often used to manufacture complex products. The chief advantage of animals is their ability to produce more than one protein at a time. They are also easier to control than plants (which are more likely to inadvertently hybridize with other species) and do not require the complex processing vats required by bacteria.
Pharm animals are designed so that products can be extracted safely by tapping or harvesting blood, milk, saliva, urine, eggs, or even cheese. While the gengineering involved is intricate, the maintenance and processing is low-tech, making pharm animals (especially fertile ones) favorites for start-up colonies and developing nations. Paralleling earlier struggles over genemod crops, conflicts often arise between biotech companies who wish to restrict their products’ ability to reproduce and customers who want cheap, self-reproducing livestock. Various restrictions are used, such as trademarks embedded into the genetic code, sterilization, or special hormones required before fertility. Similarly, genehacked pharm animals without these restraints sell well on the black market.
Simple pharm animals include cows that produce additive-enhanced baby formula or vaccines, or pigs with human hemoglobin in their blood (to serve as blood substitute). Others possess internal symbiotic microbes that let them produce ready-to-use designer drugs, industrial proteins, or even explosives. Pharm animals were extensively used by the anti-government forces during the Andes War, where genemod goats and llamas manufactured strategic products such as combat drugs, medicines, bomb components, and the spider silk used for arachnoweave armor. Pharm animals used in space colonies often have pantropic modifications to better adapt to extraterrestrial environments.
A variation on the pharm animal is the use of implanted nanofactories to make particular chemicals. Pharm humans are also possible, but rarely considered ethical. A few exotic bioroids do have built-in drug factories.
It’s possible to have kids the “old-fashioned” way, although most people do a genetic assay to spot defects. If any are encountered, they will genefix the fertilized egg. Other options are:
Cloning: A common procedure, see Medical Care.
Exowombs: A baby need not be raised in a mother’s womb. An artificial womb, or exowomb, duplicates the maternal environment. This is still expensive, but common for Fifth Wave parents who want kids without pregnancy, or who lack the plumbing – men, infomorphs, etc.
DNA Blending: Two people of the same sex can combine genetic material through gengineering. This is costly ($5,000, 1 week) but not unusual. In the case of males, a female egg is used, but its nucleus is removed. The same process also allows parahumans to have children with members of different parahuman or human species. A more radical procedure, known as chimerization, can be used to mix early embryos of completely different species, but this is complex, expensive, and, if mixing human and animal embryos, generally illegal.
Surrogate Mothers: Fertilized eggs can be moved from one mother and (before or after genetic modification) implanted in another one. The procedure is usually simple and safe, dating back to the 20th century. Complications could ensue if the parent is using drugs, nanosymbionts, etc., or if the baby’s genetics differ significantly from the surrogate’s. In some areas, surrogate wages may be less than the cost of an exowomb, making them a cost-cutting alternative. However, surrogates are illegal in some countries, mostly on ethical grounds.
Robots are everywhere. Robots range from the simplest of automatic devices to the most sophisticated of artificial intelligences. Some “robots” are even human, in the sense that their “programs” are centered on uploaded human personalities. In addition to industrial robots built into factories, the various classes of robots include:
Smart matter products incorporate microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) into their structure. Too small to be seen with the naked eye, these computers, gears, sensor, motors, power systems, and communicators allow a smart matter device to sense and process data, and to react by performing electromechanical actions. Smart matter on a microscopic level produces many of the simpler effects ascribed to a mature molecular nanotechnology. Clothes or footwear can reconfigure itself in a limited but intelligent fashion to ensure perfect fit. Surfaces can vary textures, change color, or even incorporate microscopic brushes to ensure dirt or paint sticks only when it is told to. Aircraft fuselages can alter their aerodynamics to conform to all flight regimes. Layers of smart matter can create self-sealing and, to a degree, self-healing structures.
Large, manufactured habitats are built using titanium, aluminum, and steel mined on nearby moons and launched into space by mass driver, or are processed from asteroids. Gravity is simulated by rotation, power comes from large solar collectors or fusion reactors, and a thick shell of slag left over from mining and ore-processing operations provides radiation shielding.
“Ship” is out of fashion as a term for spacecraft; “spacecraft,” “vessel,” and “space vehicle” are preferred. The most ardent exponent of this nomenclature is the USAF, adamant that “ships” are what the U.S. Navy operates.
New spacecraft often cost $100 million or more. A few individuals or partnerships own one, but corporations or governments own most of them. However, even in company-owned craft, a crew might be assigned to a particular vessel and stay with it for several years, only gradually changing in composition as individuals leave and new members are reassigned or hired.
Most spacecraft are propelled by reaction drives. They work on the Newtonian principle that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. A drive throws reaction mass, usually heated to give it extra energy, in one direction, and the reaction accelerates the spacecraft in the opposite direction. On a long voyage, a vessel will accelerate for several hours until it has used up around half of its reserve of reaction mass, then coast at whatever speed it has achieved for several days, and finally spend the other half of its reaction mass to slow down.
Most modern interplanetary spacecraft use fusion drives, which accelerate slowly but are efficient enough that a vessel can achieve a high speed over many hours without running out of reaction mass. Fusion drives lack sufficient thrust to overcome the gravity of a decent-size planet or moon, so these deep-space vessels park in orbit and use craft with higher-thrust but shorter-endurance chemical or fission rocket engines to shuttle to and from the surface.
Interplanetary trips typically take a couple of weeks in the inner solar system, or a few months to cross the outer system. Spacecraft are large – hundreds of feet long – but crews are quite small: 2-12 people is typical. Large passenger vessels have rotating sections to provide spin gravity, but most other spacecraft are in zero gravity for the majority of the trip. Crews are zero-G-adapted parahumans, or have nanosymbionts to keep them in good health; passengers take temp nanomods, exercise rigorously, or shut down their metabolisms altogether and spend the trip carried as cargo in nanostasis.
Space crews are busiest at the start and end of a voyage, when the drive is hot and they’re near a port bustling with traffic and surrounded by space junk. In deep space, with the drive cold and the vessel coasting, there’s less to do. Routine maintenance is usually handled by microbots or cybershells.
Light-lag means they cannot access the Web at realtime speeds, but slinkies, entertainment, mail, etc. can be downloaded. Crews take up hobbies or study, and war crews run battle simulations. A pet, often uplifted, is not uncommon. Some vessels are loose about intracrew relationships, handling any difficulties informally. Others, mostly big companies and the military, have strict “no fraternization” rules (but some crews acquire pleasure bioroids, bioshells, or cyberdolls). A few vessels are family- operated, especially Gypsy Angel craft.
No one relies on organ donors or clones for spare parts. Advances in tissue engineering have made it possible to grow organs from stem cell cultures in vats or on biodegradable scaffolds, without the need to clone an entire human. Digits, skin, kidneys, livers, ears, noses, tongues, and genitals can be grown in under a month. Independently growing other organs and body parts (like hearts, lungs, eyes, and limbs) is more complex, and takes up to eight months.
These are animals (such as dogs or chimps) that have been gengineered, surgically altered, or fitted with brain implants to give them communicative ability and intelligence approaching human levels. Most uplifts are borderline- sapient, with reasoning capacities similar to those of a human 5- to 8-year-old.
Uplifts have been created as companions, workers, experiments, curiosities, and even soldiers. They are generally considered animals rather than people, but laws often provide additional protections, with the state having the right to remove an abused uplift. In many areas, such as the European Union, China, and the United States, ownership of a sapient uplift requires a license and (in the E.U.) occasional visits from caseworkers to ensure that the uplift is doing well. Other areas have more lax standards. The South African Coalition, Pacific Rim Alliance, and TSA have few restrictions on uplifts, although normal laws (e.g., regulating owning of dangerous animals and animal cruelty) apply.
Uploading and Mind Emulation
Memories are encoded within the physical structure of the brain on the molecular level. Uploading is the process of copying all this information into a digital form. These upload recordings can be used to create a mind emulation, a computer program that, when run on a sufficiently potent computer, emulates the workings of the original person’s mind.
A mind emulation is not merely a recording, but a conscious, self-aware, working digital model of the way a particular living being’s brain functions. This requires simulating much of the rest of the body and its environment as well: “naked consciousness” bereft of context rapidly becomes insane.
Mind emulations can be housed in computers contained within bioshells or cybershells. Those without mobile bodies inhabit virtual reality simulations of, at minimum, a room. They are often permitted to access the wider Web itself, allowing them to partake of online virtual realities.
Emulations are usually made of human minds, but animals can be emulated. The legal status of human mind emulations varies between nations: some treat them as artificial intelligences, others as people. There are three types of mind emulation:
What Doesn’t Exist
Dry Molecular Nanotechnology: Modern “wet” nanotechnology uses DNA, self-assembling protein molecules, and gengineered viruses. Nanoscale systems are products of top-down assembly using atomic force microscopes. “Dry” nanorobots working at the molecular level are still confined to the lab.
Force Fields: No fields exist that can stop solid objects or directed energy beams.
FTL, Time Travel, and Gravity Control: No faster-than-light (FTL) travel or communications system, or time-travel technology, has been developed, nor have any machines been built to neutralize or create gravity. Some researchers hope that the study of primordial black holes may lead to breakthroughs.
Reactionless Drives: None have been invented.
Room-Temperature Superconductors: These have been achieved (such as metallic hydrogen wires) but are too fragile, costly, or unstable for widespread use. Robust superconductors that require limited cooling do exist.