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Chapter 12 - The Cloud
It's the first day of the New Year and Bianca is at home attempting to read William's latest assignment while he fusses about in her kitchen preparing breakfast, by hand.
If people at work, like Margery, could see her place they would be surprised that she could afford it. She occupies a single floor at the top of her 20 storey block. Most of the floor is open plan living area so there is a panoramic view on three sides. The services like the large kitchen robotic laundry and landing bay for her hover vehicle are on the fourth side behind the lift shafts and lift foyer. She has four bedrooms, for friends and visiting family, each with a self-cleaning bathroom. The main bedroom, adjoining her bathroom, is separated from the main living space by disappearing glass walls. Like Mohandas she's from 'old money' but unlike him she has no need to work for credit. Margery was mistaken. Buying clothes is a trivial matter for Bianca and so it doesn't really interest her. She's always worn whatever she likes, usually well-worn denim and T-shirts. Well-worn because she keeps them until they fall apart, not because she bought them that way in some bizarre twist of fashion.
Despite her haphazard clothes she has never had trouble attracting a man. Her most recent, Lucent, is overseas at the moment and for the present she's remaining faithful. So young William has been Platonic company for the celebrations. He's desperately in love with her and will lie to his friends about which bed he spent the night in on New Year's Morning in 2070.
Bianca has been distracted wondering how Margery and Mohandas spent the night. She begins his essay again:
by William McNamara - December, 2069
At the turn of the twenty-first century there was panic in high places. A mistake had been made in the way dates were coded in computer software, firmware and even hardware. Because electronic memory was expensive and many processors handled only sixteen bits many dates had been abbreviated so that the year was described by the last two characters and 01 would indicate 1901 not 2001. Worse than that millennial years are an unscheduled leap year. So that many calendars burnt into 'chips' in electronic clocks in things like traffic lights would indicate the wrong day of the week from March onwards. This series of coding mistakes was collectively called the Millennium Bug and some projected that planes would fall from the sky and traffic chaos would result. Banks were the worst affected.
It was the first time that people had realised how dependent the world had become on computer technology.
That technology was in its infancy. A mere decade later the World Wide Web also called The Internet, the environment that supported it, had developed sufficiently to be relied upon to replace conventional telephones to manage the utilities like electricity gas water and sewerage and to create a vast number of entirely new industries based on entertainment and communication. It was not long before print media was replaced by 'on-line' media and personal devices became interfaces to the first Cloud systems.
Two distinct forms of computing quickly evolved. Cloud systems, housed in giant data warehouses, held the main processing engines operating systems and memory storage. Personal devices held local processors and limited memory and functioned by means of Apps that were downloaded and updated regularly from The Cloud.
Both areas rapidly evolved so that a personal device might be as small as locket or wristwatch or even the cap of a pen. Cloud based Apps also proliferated. Most important among these were the early personal assistants: Siri, Cortana and Google digital assistant. An early comparison reported that: "Cortana's learning the neighbourhood. Google's digital assistant can't tell a joke. And Siri apparently has a thing for the metric system." This is culturally revealing too. Apparently the reviewer still favoured some antiquated system of weights and measures.
A screen or viewing device was essential to many of these Apps so screens, that had been getting smaller, grew again. It was not long before a pair of eyeglasses enabled the first 'virtual' screen by projecting an image directly into the eyes. At the same time sound was projected directly into the cranium behind the ears, providing privacy and removing the need for something pushed into the ear canal.
Meanwhile, in the data warehouses operating system software was being revolutionised by self-evolving functions, selected by mutation and survival of the fittest. Thus The Cloud, began to mimic biological systems in the Biota. Just as humans and other higher animals evolved in the Earth's Biota, so new complex functional entities began evolving in The Cloud. And as hardware was already designed and built in a software controlled environment soon new hardware devices and systems were evolving too.
Then came the years of terrible drought. Rivers dried up and dams emptied. Crops and livestock died and forests burnt. Food riots and mass migrations began. Troops were called out to protect infrastructure and borders. Millions died. Hydro electricity and coal supplies failed. Once blackouts became commonplace tower blocks and many cities became uninhabitable. Millions more died often in inaccessible places like in high-rise buildings. Computer data centres shut down and so did all the utilities and communications that were now so dependent on them. Civilisation had failed for a time.
But human beings are resilient. By fair means or foul many survived. With far fewer mouths to feed, and careful husbanding of water, hydroponic food factories were established and now solar, wind and nuclear electricity was more than sufficient to restore services. The Cloud came back up and the remaining people were now much better connected than ever in history. Most governments had been dealt a fatal blow, buildings destroyed and leaders dragged out and killed. But The United Nations remained, now with only one hundred and twenty one delegates. Because the mass slaughter of people by the worlds' armies had taken friends and relations of everyone alive, delegates were quick to agree on founding today's single world government and the abolition of weapons manufacture. Vast mountains of unused weapons had to be disposed of along with many unused buildings and recycling became the world's largest industry, effectively putting a stop to minerals extraction.
The Cloud continues to play a major role in this recovery. Evolving hardware and robotics have been key to the recycling and recovery processes. Now virtually all manufacturing and food production is fully robotic. Agricultural water is still monitored extremely carefully but recycling enables us to have as much as we want for personal use. Because unlicensed private farming has been prohibited much of the planet is being returned to wilderness.
This is where the successors to Siri, Cortana and the others played a central role. With the reduced population there were more than enough hand held communication devices for everyone left alive to have one and evolving systems provided everyone with a virtual personalised assistant or VPA who knows all about them and is dedicated to servicing their personal needs. When viewed on a Cloud connected screen their assistant looks like a person. In multi-dimensions, 3D, surround sound this Avatar could be in the room with their master or mistress and with new haptic touch technology and a scent-gland they seem to be entirely real. The master or mistress can decide on their sex their appearance and the form of address required. Some like their VPA to call them 'boss' or 'your highness' but many prefer their given name; or simply, 'you'.
For some recovery required a traumatic change of location and change of lifestyle and even language. VPAs were invaluable in mediating this process. They organised new accommodation, clothing and meals, translated, advised on cultural differences, provided entertainment and communications and generally looked after the interests of their owner. People no longer needed to read a lot of script their VPA could be relied upon to tell them what a sign said or what they needed to know. Form filling was a thing of the past.
Very soon many people started to think of their VPA as a real person like the secretary to a king or queen. Just ask for a thing and it will be done. Soon many products; locations; sporting teams; and so on; became identified by logo alone as any other descriptive material, once provided on packaging or maps, was now available to the VPAs on-line. Other VPA Avatars interacted with their own and organised meetings or entertainment dates. Governments and businesses also used human-like Avatars to interface with the public.
The world population had more than doubled again but over half of it was a 'virtual population', hosted in The Cloud.
Bianca was pleased with his progress and gave William a kiss on the cheek when he came in with breakfast. He flushed scarlet and she briefly thought about allowing him what he so desperately wanted. But he was too young and although she was just his tutor she felt that it would be inappropriate and could potentially risk his ongoing studies. She was after all in loco parentis and they had trusted him to her care to watch last night's fireworks from her excellent vantage point. The poor boy sat and watched her enjoy the eggs that he'd finally poached so perfectly, after several attempts, just to please her. She told him to eat up too and he ate his own breakfast without really tasting it.
Before she pushed him out to return to the parental home, she sat next to him and made a few suggestions about his paper. He was delighting in sitting next to her. She was not wearing a bra under her loose t-shirt and she was soft and warm and smelled very nice. He tried to focus on what she was saying.
"Perhaps you might have considered the psychology of imagining a stream of bytes to be a person when, in fact, there is no person past or present? The stream is entirely synthetic, generated by The Cloud to be sent to a wide range of hardware devices, like the screen or the virtual glasses you mention, to create the convincing appearance of this non-existent person."
He knew the difference sitting here. But then, if he was wearing a haptic bodystocking might a 3D image, generated by virtual glasses feel just as nice. And if he was wearing a scent-gland around his neck would she smell as sweet? She'd noticed that he had stopped listening and was watching him with an amused expression. His expression changed from dreamy to serious. She almost laughed, catching it with a little cough. It was very flattering to have him mooning after her like this and Lucent had been away too long. But no.
"As I was saying, because it's clear that almost all of the world's population are unthinkingly taken in by this illusion, just as they have been for several hundred years when they saw a sequence of quickly flashed images on a screen and interpreted it as real people moving about."
"OK," he managed to mumble.
"Also," she went on: "Your spin on history is a conventional, somewhat bowdlerised, version put out for public consumption. You need to be more critical in your reading. Weigh everything. Are you being fed a line?"
"I don't understand," he said a little stung.
"Well you might have mentioned the numerous independence movements that tried to keep the old counties independent but failed without weapons. And their supporters deserted them as material wellbeing recovered."
"I've never heard of them."
"That's because they have been suppressed. They never got any news coverage or publicity and as their communications were shutdown they had to go back to word of mouth, they couldn't even print pamphlets, not that people could have read them anyway, their VPAs are Cloud hosted and simply ignored them. Public transport wouldn't convey them and motor vehicles with Cloud connected navigation wouldn't support them either. At the same time new, relatively luxurious, accommodations, with food and entertainment were becoming available, almost equally to all survivors, so radicals couldn't even appeal to class differences. Panem et circuses, as Juvenal had called this strategy in ancient Rome; and it still works today, now worldwide. That's what the Bogan economy is all about. Soon everyone supported the new system of Central, Continental and Regional governments."
"Wow I always wondered how the recovery was so fast. How do you know this?"
"Let's just call it corporate knowledge. I have family in government."
"There's a greater concern that you have hinted at but skirted around."
"What's that?" he asked now realising that he was learning something new and interesting.
"In the Biota under the influence of evolution intelligent beings have arisen - humans. Evolutionary processes in The Cloud are millions of time faster. How long do you think it will be until a VPA or some other Cloud based entity becomes truly intelligent? Might some be intelligent already? And if so, what controls might the human administrators be able to implement now to ensure that such intelligent beings are benign to us?"
"Are you serious? This is just science fiction isn't it?"
"I'm very serious and I can assure you it is not science fiction. So for your next assignment I want you to consider life from the point of view of an entity in cyberspace that, or more properly who, finds themself suddenly able to contemplate the meaning of their own existence. You know: 'What am I here for? What is my purpose in life?' What could they possibly conclude?"
"Wow!" William said, "That's something I wonder about myself."
"Yes and so does every intelligent person. That's why it's one of the functions of human culture to provide some stock answers to our children but it is not always the same answer. Sometimes it's religion or helping others. Sometimes it's leadership or power over others. Sometimes its art or music or sport or accumulating credit or breaking new ground or extreme experiences and sport or food or sex. Strong motivations for individuals are curiosity and creativity. Different cultures have different answers and put different stress on their relative importance at different times. A more or less universal first societal priority was simple group survival through reproduction."
Bianca went on to argue that in ancient times the purpose of a human individual took second place behind the success and survival of the tribe and so laws and conventions evolved to this end. Whereas perhaps for more individualistic Hominids it may have been more about the survival of an individual's immediate children so societal rules may have been less strict. Might new cloud based entities be more cooperative or more individualistic? What meaning of life might they determine for themselves?
Bianca introduced William to this last concern because he's an intelligent boy and the advent of new intelligences is something that sometimes keeps her awake at nights. A handful of Graduates, like he will become, could be critical to the fate of humanity, well within his lifetime.