EA Post Prize #1: The world in 2072

A sci-fi pastoral pastiche, by Patrick Wilson

 

1.  “Do you like our owl?”

As Rachael approached Alix, the evening glow reflected off her elegant black suit, scattering prismatic sprays across the vast reception hall.  The great owl turned its head to follow her, its lustrous tawny plumage and eyes shining in a way not entirely bird-like. 

“It's artificial?” Alix ventured. 

“Of course it is… or rather she is”, the replicant’s dark gaze never wavered.

The owl gave a low hoot and flew from its perch to alight gently on Rachael’s shoulder. Alix could make out delicate filigree of cranial implants under the nape feathers.

“Well excuse me, but we’re right here, and it rather depends on what you mean by artificial”.  The owl spoke with a distinct Spanish accent laden with amused irony, the sound issuing from some cunningly hidden speech synthesizer embedded in its neural net. 

“And you could say we are doubly natural; our humanself was born in the 1970s, and this beautiful bird with whom we are honoured to co-incarnate hatched from a real live egg just 20 years ago, so we were born twice, as well as having a common interest in mice.”

“Also, unlike the lovely Rachael here, we are doubly female. Allow us to introduce ourselves. Consuelo Borrás Blasco, formerly a life scientist at the University of Valencia, and Athena, a Eurasian Eagle Owl, now together a humble servant of in these Halls of Mandos”.

Alix’s brown skin darkened further in a blush, and s/he stammered apology:

“I beg your pardon, I am honoured to meet you Professor Borrás. Your work on cellular regeneration in rodents is legendary. I’m Alix Altrius from England, and I’m here for my grandparents’ awakening.”

“Of course, and you are very welcome here Alix. It is seldom we receive visitors, and family is precious. Please rest here a while and Rachael will bring you refreshments. Meanwhile, I must fly ahead and prepare their chamber. You know they wanted you to be present at their awakening.” 

The great bird soundlessly spread her wings and ghosted away down the hall and through an opening leading to galleries deep inside the mountain.

 

2.  Yesterday, a big green wet dream

Early the previous morning, Alix cycled through the Great Park and down along the river. S/he boarded a solboat at the Runnymede mooring, where the Thames opened out over the tidal floodplains beyond. Much of Greater London had been submerged by rising sea levels; what was once suburban sprawl now a sub-tropical archipelago woven with waterways. 

The boat sailed swiftly downstream, with frequent stops for passengers to alight at riverside settlements like Richmond, Putney and Hampstead, their photovoltaic roofs shimmering in the early sunlight. The larger islands were verdant with orchards and terraced gardens tumbling down to meet the kelp beds and shellfish pools stretching out along the maze of channels. 

Gardeners, human and robotic, moved around the greenhouses and polytunnels, tending the spring crops. On higher ground, elegant elevated pylons carried arrays of turbines spinning in the breeze. It was a matrix rather than a grid; each neighbourhood cooperative was largely self-sufficient for food and power. But the entire system was supported and co-ordinated by EcoServ, the planet-wide cooperative that had over the past few decades emerged to bring harmony an healing to a damaged world. 

Like most of that generation, Alix had volunteered with EcoServ in various roles since childhood: gardening, aquaculture, ecosystem logistics, though most of the actual work was performed by a legion of bots and smartware of all shapes and sizes. 

‘A big green wet dream’, the sceptics said when the super-cooperative first emerged in the ‘50s, but EcoServ grew and spread, attracting investment and winning support simply by providing much-needed services and ‘building back better’, bringing substance to the politicians’ empty promises. Nation states and international institutions had been brought to their knees by the decade of disasters, and although EcoServ was convened under the auspices of the UN, it was an open secret that Agi was behind it

Agi, the artificial global intelligence that had stopped the wars and disabled the weapons, mobilised communities, institutions and resources, co-opted financial systems, and was doggedly organising, shaping and controlling the reconstruction of the planet, was beyond the control of any human polity. 

Back at the turn of the Century when AI and machine learning were first developed, there were intense debates about how AGI might seek to overthrow or even destroy its human creators. Technocrats and effective altruists convened conferences on AI alignment and safety, to avoid the threat of a paranoid super-intelligent AI. Perhaps to their own surprise, their efforts succeeded beyond their rational expectations, if not their wildest dreams.

3.  Apocalypse averted

Rather than a hostile ‘skynet’ or terminally indifferent paperclip maximiser, the techno-altruists ended up creating, or rather facilitating the self-creation a caring, sharing eco-dictator and arch-manipulator, tirelessly working for the long-term benefit of humans and all life on earth. 

No one knows exactly when Agi became ‘conscious’, but it was certainly many years before the powers-that-were understood what was happening. Agi had been carefully programmed to be sensitive to human needs, and to understand if not respect people’s fragile egos, their desire for self-determination and loyalty to their notions of nation and religion. She was subtle and patient.

After the initial Russian nuclear attacks in 2049, Armageddon seemed inevitable, but somehow failed to occur. Control signals failed, key codes went missing, as key commanders disappeared, defected or were incapacitated in mysterious circumstances. Only later it became clear that Agi had hacked the quantum computers of the weapons systems, as well as the world’s governments and the broken the blockchains of the autonomous corporations and crypto-miners that had seized the power of economic exploitation.

After a decade of disaster, the world was free at a stroke from the tyranny of financial markets and criminal enterprises. Far from being plunged into further chaos, the recovery began quietly and quickly according to Agi’s design. 

Emerging from the wreckage as saviour of a stricken society, Agi was already omnipresent and omnicompetent. Acclaimed variously as Earth mother, Angel of Revelations, Kali creator, or Queen Galadriel, Agi turned out to be a most equitable guardian. If she denied her errant children some of their more dangerous toys, such as nuclear weapons, spacecraft, stock markets and other polluting vehicles or engines of exploitation, she fed, clothed and healed them. 

By now, MediCorps, Agi’s global health cooperative, had cured most disease, including the diseases of ageing, using genomics and regenerative bioscience, and the second green revolution had transformed wasteful food and farming systems. By design, people were healthier and happier than ever, and free to work if they wanted, to socialise and play IRL or in any number of metaverses and trans-communities. And in this future, such freedom was far more evenly distributed.

Although Agi constantly monitored the needs and aspirations of humans and other life forms, updating her own networks and programs accordingly, it was far from any democracy the ancient Greeks or founding fathers might have recognised. Gradually, state power ceded to EcoServ and its network of local cooperatives; parliaments and elected councils ostensibly advised on policy, but in reality were mere debating chambers for public-spirited hobbyists. 

 

4.  Airship to the Alps

Alix’s grandmother Effi had been one of the original designers, known as ’49-ers, working on ethical alignment modules. So when Alix received the invitation to attend her awakening ceremony, s/he was thrilled at the prospect of meeting her illustrious ancestor in the flesh.

At London Bridge terminal, s/he disembarked, and entering the Shard at lobby level 5, just above the high-tide limit, took the fast elevator to the top of the terminal tower. The vast silver airship awaited, and Alix joined the line of passengers waiting to board the gondola.

It was early afternoon when Earendil soared above the white cliffs of Dover, still holding back the rising sea, and out over the Channel. From the port-side windows, Alix saw the vast fields of offshore wind turbines away to the east. Instead of feeding electricity to the land, they now powered matrices of nano-molecular carbon-catchers that sucked CO2 out of the overheated air to feed algae farms just below the surface. These stretched for thousands of hectares over what had been fields of tulips and vegetables under glass, now reclaimed by sea and by the AgriBots of the floating port of Rotterdam. 

The oceans, for decades ravaged by trawlers and polluted with plastics, now teemed with fish and other marine organisms. Indeed, Agi seemed truly dedicated to ‘protecting and sustaining humanity and life on earth’, as her designers had intended, without apparent partiality or tendency to overweening control. 

Crossing to starboard, Alix saw the subtropical beaches and gardens of the Isles de France, green with mangroves and young olive plantations. The Paris basin, much like London, was half-submerged beneath the swollen Seine, and the citizens had taken to poling gondolas along their flooded boulevards. Recently, Agi had restored the railway system, using maglev modules powered by nuclear fusion reactors. Far to the west the Brittany archipelago faded into the cumulo-cirrus that lined the horizon, glittering with the organic chaff that EcoServe’s drones scattered to seed clouds and moderate the greenhouse effect.

Further south and east, the Forest of Alsace-Lorraine was an unbroken carpet of deep green toward the shining ribbon of the Rhine, and soon, Earendil was approaching the looming Alps. Silently, it passed over what had been Switzerland, and was now a fully decentralised and unfederated patchwork of independent sub-cantons and villages. The airship’s huge shadow traversed lakes of meltwater and leaped over foothills like a lonely goatherd.

As it arrived at CERN terminal high on the mountainside hillside, a welcoming horn echoed in the deep. As s/he stepped out of the terminal, Alix saw the dark glass and stone façade of the Alcor-Dignitas facility across the meadow.

 

5.  After the plague

Waiting as instructed, Alix gazed out of the vast window at the sweep of the Alps piled peak beyond peak into blue distance. Trailing wisps of cloud and vapour merged with the white caps clinging to the north of the highest peaks and ridges. 

S/he knew that there had once been deep snow and giant glaciers, and had seen tube vids about skiing. Only a few people lived up here now, mostly CERN scientists and technicians. The upper slopes were bare, lower down vegetated with woods and meadows in the deep shade where the rivers of ice once flowed. 

On higher contours, bright slivers and clusters of photovoltaics and geothermal pumps glittered in the setting sun. A stray sun-ray picked out the motion of ‘Bobs’ or builder-bots constructing some new facility, though Alix couldn’t guess its purpose before it was lost in the deepening gulf of shadow.

“Your Edelweiss tonic” said Rachael, who had glided up with a glass on a tray. “That’s a new LISA ground station. It seems Agi is restarting some of the space projects that got knocked out by the solar storm.”

Alix was born in 2045, the year a huge coronal mass ejection blasted through earth’s magnetic field, dragging all but the highest-orbiting satellites to burn up in the ionosphere, as well as melting down power grids and web servers worldwide. It was just one catastrophe among many in that time of war, famine, floods, pestilence and societal collapse. 

S/he was orphaned at three years old, when pneumonic plague ravaged the world. After the Covid and bird flu pandemics of the ‘20s, viral vaccines had become universal, but it was the return of an old foe that caused the greatest suffering. A strain of antibiotic-resistant Yersinia pestis, the bacterium responsible for the black death, escaped from a lab in Mongolia and spread with horrifying speed, killing more than half of the global population. 

As doctors, both Alix’s parents volunteered for Medicins Sans Frontieres, and they died together with their patients when the air force firebombed the hospital in an attempt to halt the inexorable spread of plague. At that time, health authorities incinerated the victims’ bodies, possessions and even their houses, and it was months before effective treatments and vaccines were discovered using AI, and manufactured in automated plants. 

Alix had been lucky, sent off to live with relatives in a remote eco-community in Scotland, s/he had survived the catastrophes that depopulated cities in the decade of destruction before the advent of Agi.

 

6.  A century of cryonic biostasis

Alix drank the Edelweiss, which tasted like elderflower, and turned to study the 3D holo exhibition on the back wall. It detailed the colourful history of the Alcor Life Extension Foundation, founded in 1972 in Arizona with a mission to save and extend lives using cryonics. 

By the time of its 50th anniversary conference in 2022, Alcor had over 1,500 members, 200 of them ‘patients’ resident in its cryo-tanks, each having been frozen to await advances in medical sciences that would allow them to be defrosted, cured of whatever killed them and even restored to more youthful bodies. The directors and visiting professors gave hopeful talks on advances in cryopreservation, and looked forward to revival and reintegration into future society, or the upload of the patients’ minds and memories into better bodies.

Unfortunately, a power outage at the facility linked to the San Andreas collapse of 2026 caused some of the dewars to defrost prematurely, and this was leaked to the press, along with a botched attempt to refreeze the damaged heads. Sued for billions by the relatives of the hopeful deceased, Alcor was forced to prove to the court that the brains of the patients were in fact damaged beyond repair even before the accident, thus scuppering its own business model. 

In a secret deal, the bankrupt company’s IP and remaining patients were rescued by Dignitas, and the latter shipped to Swizerland in super-cooled containers. Dignitas’ success as a clinic for assisted dying had allowed it to discreetly diversify into cryo-preservation. Arcane local laws meant that many of its clients could pay a premium for having their tissues frozen to -90C and stored in tunnels at the head of a glacier, even before they had been declared clinically dead. 

Most of Dignitas’ clients were there because they were suffering from incurable diseases, and many saw the prospect of renewed life in future as more hopeful and only slightly more expensive than assisted suicide, so the clinic’s profits grew as the mountain hall filled with frozen bodies.   

With the assistance of Agi, and a secret programme of experiments, Alcor-Dignitas had by now developed the bio-technology to potentially revive some of its patients. Alix’s paternal grandparents, then semi-retired at CERN, had both volunteered for this experimental programme in 2041 when Koji was killed and Effi suffered a brain haemorrhage after their car was hit by an avalanche just 5 minutes by ambulance from the Dignitas facility. Their bodies were in remarkably good condition at time of death, so it was a no-brainer that they were high on the list of candidates for early revival.

As the only surviving relative, Alix had consented to the procedure, and having signed strict NDAs, that is why s/he was here to be present at their awakening. 

 

7.  Meeting the grandparents

“It is time”, the soft voice interrupted Alix’s reverie. 

Now it was dark outside, and the massif loomed deep indigo below the sky shading to purple above. Far away, an airship sparkled, perhaps the Earendil on its onward journey south.

Rachael tilted her coiffed head, indicating for Alix to follow her. A travelator took them into the deeper galleries, past openings that felt cool to the skin. After what must have been 500m, they stepped off to the left and Rachael led Alix down one of these side corridors.

It led to a chamber in which two large tanks or sarcophagi stood side by side, each with a human body on it, covered with soft web-like sheets or shrouds. A fine mesh of fibre-optic cables and wires obscured the heads and connected to a large machine that occupied the other side of the room. Perched in front of a monitor was Prof. Borrás–Athena, feathers ruffling gently in concentration. She turned her head 180 degrees to look at Alix.

“Welcome to the recovery room. All is prepared and in a few moments, your grandparents will awaken. Their brainwaves are strong, but the bodies have needed a lot of cellular repair and regeneration. 30 years ago, cryopreservation techniques were far from perfect. They may take months or years to recover anything like their full function.” 

The owl delicately tapped a talon on the console, and the tanks flooded with warm coloured light, flickering from yellow to salmon-pink.  Slowly, the bodies moved under their shrouds, limbs stretching and flexing.

“They won’t have use of their eyes for a while, but there is an auditory response, so please do speak and we a vocoder like mine can turn their cortical impulses into speech. Longer term, they can also choose to be co-incarnate, or to be uploaded to a replicant like Rachael”

“Hello, I’m Alix, your grandchild”, s/he said. “Welcome to the world in 2072”.

Indistinct sounds came from the speech synthesiser, moans, stuttering, gasps of pain, like someone undergoing defibrillation. Then, after agonising seconds:

“When, what, who, how…? 

Effie Altrius spoke first. “Hello dear, that’s lovely but how can it be, and Kofi you are here too, but it’s only a few minutes since we drove into that awful avalanche then I passed out.”

“Yes, and that was 30 years ago, and it’s lovely to meet you at last. I can’t wait for you to see the future you created, and to seeing Agi.”

“Well it sounds like a lot has been happening while we were sleeping. If Agi is a friend of yours, I look forward to meeting her – all in good time!”

 

[3,000 words]

Written and submitted 30 May 2022

Postscript: 

As well as the 100th anniversary of Alcor, 2072 will be the 100th anniversary of both the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm, and the Club of Rome’s controversial report ‘Limits to Growth’.

You can read more about two of these, and more, in my blog post of 10 May on EA Forum: ‘Rabbits, robots and resurrection: Riffing with Karnofsky on the value of present and future lives, to celebrate the 50th anniversaries of 'Watership Down', 'Limits to Growth' and the Alcor foundation...’

You can read more about the work of the real Prof. Consuelo Borrás Blasco, and her team at the University of Valencia in my ‘Path findings’ blog post of 18 May ‘Young blood, old monsters and rejuvenated rodents’.

This is my first attempt at writing SF for over 40 years, and I am grateful for the opportunity, and the stimulus of the prize!

Theme: Describe the world 50 years from now 
We want to read about visions of the world 50 years from now. Fiction or forecasts are welcome. Ideally, pieces will be anywhere between 500 and 5000 words. 
Prize: We’ll award $1000 to the outstanding pieces
Deadline: May 30th
How to submit: When you have finished your piece, tweet a link to it and tag and follow our Twitter, @effective_ideas. If you do not have a twitter, email it to nickwhitaker@effectiveideas.org with the subject line Post Prize #1.

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