Wednesday, 1 March 2017

iGod: Chapter 4 of Willemijn Dicke's science fiction novel on the digital age

The SmartHouseProgram informed Lex that someone was waiting in front of his door. On the display, Lex recognized Diana’s face. In a hurry he kicked some remnants of plant leafs under the table and placed dirty kitchenware and cutlery in the sink. Splinter barked vociferously, but Lex urged him to shut up. ‘Don’t mess it up!’ he said. When Lex opened the door he was surprised by the somewhat dull appearance of his neighbor. Yesterday he saw a noticeable girl; now she was a rather plain woman. Her outfit did not help. Either he had been wrong about her unemployment or she had started a new job recently since she wore an official working suit with sexless trousers and men’s lace up shoes. She wore her long blond hair in a bun.
‘Hi’, Diana said. Splinter tried to assail her and Lex had to keep him away from her.
‘Hi’, answered Lex, half-bent to keep Splinter away from Diana.
‘Can I please come in?’ Diana asked after a short silence.
Diana entered his apartment and gazed with surprise at his home-lab with man height plants; metal instruments organized in an improvised holder; various microscopes; piles of white boxes; wirings of different sizes and colors hanging crisscross from the ceiling to the floor and rows of numbered glass tubes. She raised one eyebrow.
‘My hobby’, Lex tried to explain in an apologetic way.
Diana frowned, but did not elaborate.
‘I wanted to come back on our conversation last night. Your dog scared me and I was sharper than I intended to be. He…’ She did not finish her sentence but looked at Splinter, still snarling. 
‘He will get used to you. Give him 10 minutes and then he will calm down. All he does is protecting me against a dangerous intruder, ’ Lex laughed. He noticed that Diana was too tense to smile back and he remembered to bring in a ‘neutral yet positive element’ in situations like this. 
‘How do you like the Forsythia?’ Lex pointed at the plastic water bottle with the three branches.
‘Nice’, she responded expressionless – so much for the effectiveness of the tips of his premium conversation class. ‘Anyhow. I wondered if you could help me with my drone. There seems to be a bug in the system and I cannot get it right. Are you handy in programming?’ Diana, still fixating the dog, did not look into Lex’ eyes.
‘I am quite good at geeking and programming. Let me have a look. Why didn’t you bring it with you?’
Diana told she was on her way to work now – actually she had to hurry, but perhaps she could come back this afternoon, if Lex was available? Lex agreed instantly and only when he closed his apartment door behind her, he realized that he was supposed to meet Seldon too, in the afternoon. It was since long that Lex has had such a busy social scheme.

For about 5 minutes, Lex was walking back and forth in the apartment. He was off balance and he did not like that at all. He had tried meditation, but that did not work for him. He could play games though, endlessly, and he told himself that too was a kind of meditation.
‘Gaming Position’, he ordered and the furniture changed to a different shape. Every time he used the chair he was pleased immensely with his ingenuity to adjust the robotized furniture exactly to his liking. When Lex opened MultiLayer, he saw that Hector08 was not online, unfortunately. Lex decided to perform an individual task instead of a team challenge. Although he liked to team up with a select group of fellow gamers, it was also required for his MultiLayer portfolio to achieve results on his own every now and then. He gave the oral command ‘individual mission’, and a task was assigned to him.
The game opened with the traditional trailer of MultiLayer. It built up the tension by presenting the various individual missions in a roulette display. Instead of numbers, names of the missions were assigned to colored pockets on the wheel. A croupier spun the wheel in one direction. Lex was allowed to spin a metal ball in the opposite direction around a tilted circular track. The ball lost eventually momentum and fell into a colored pocket with the label: ‘Health for all.’

The imaginary case was presented to Lex in short video clips and accompanying documents, files and data. Today’s role for Lex was the Secretary General of the Dutch Health Council. The challenge was to

‘Adopt a new vaccination policy for the imaginary Beta-virus. The conditions to be met are: take into account the annual production capacity for the Beta vaccine in the Netherlands; the policy you propose is built on solid risk analysis for the entire country; no force or coercion is used for people either to receive their vaccination or to abstain from it; stay within the budget; the adoption of the new policy should be possible without any pandemic or social upheaval. The timeline is half a year.’ 

MultiLayer overloaded Lex with background material. He received countless files, raw data and detailed longitudinal statistics. Lex did not particularly like these kinds of challenges within the game. He preferred land grab, to trace the invisible enemy thanks to his cunning research methods, and he was quite fond of a good fight between armies every now and then. This policy stuff was not really his thing. Anyhow, he needed to get it done for the sake of his portfolio.

Lex started with a study of the Beta virus. There had been no outbreaks so far in Europe, including the Netherlands, but in Africa the virus was already active in a handful of smaller cities. Once infected with the virus, no treatment was possible for the victims yet. Most likely, they would die within a week. Moreover, the virus was highly transmissible, corpses being even more contagious than living carriers of the virus. African Health Institutions had reported only a small number of men and women who survived once having been in contact with the virus. All others had died.

MultiLayer showed pictures of victims of this virus: men and women with dark veins and bleeding from their nose and ears. Lex clicked the horrible pictures away. The good news was that a vaccine had been developed. However, the capacity to produce the vaccine was not sufficient to immunize all Dutch people. Lex dived into the facts and figures. How much was the capacity at present, and how much would we need to treat the Dutch population? It was not a difficult calculation: there was a shortage for 3,5 million people. Current production could be increased in the future, but not in the coming six months. When Lex tried to retrieve information about international vaccine capacity and whether it was possible to buy this vaccine from other companies, a notification appeared that Lex was acting outside the parameters of his assignment. The same was true when Lex tried to move people to other areas in the world or to volunteer for colonization experiments in space. He had also considered to ship most vaccination doses to Africa to help to contain the spread of the disease over there, but that solution was invalidated too. The rules of MultiLayer were strict: the puzzle should be solved solely with Dutch resources. Lex had to complement the game-developers: it was a difficult though neat assignment.
In the demographic statistics, Lex retrieved information on terminally ill patients together with data on citizens older than 85 years. Lex expected that society as a whole could form consensus that the terminally ill and the very elderly would not qualify for the scarce vaccination resources. These categories together however, accounted only for 1,5 million people.

How to determine the choice for the remaining two million people who would be denied access to vaccination? Taking into account the risk analysis, the simple way of reasoning would be that some people were more valuable than others for society, and a select group of people may even be indispensable. To his mind came CEO’s, world leaders, schoolteachers and scientists as being more indispensable for society than, let’s say criminals and unemployed. Probably most people would list the category of children, but Lex thought that the value of youth was overrated. They did not have added value yet for society, only costs.

Lex got up to get himself something to drink. With his cup of tea he walked circles in his apartment. Standing amongst his plants in the corner of his apartment, he suddenly questioned the methodology of weighing different categories of people according to their supposed added value for society. He was convinced that there were business leaders who were more criminal than the convicted crooks and for sure there were utterly incompetent political leaders around. Why would they be eligible for vaccination just for the sake of having this job? And what about the unemployed? Did he really think that people with work had, qualitate qua, more added value for society? Wasn’t there an intrinsic value of humans, not defined by the fact what kind of work they did? And now, as Lex came to think about this, there were more people like Lex, executing all kinds of work, but formally unemployed. And what about employed people who were very anti-social and nasty, compared with unemployed people who were like angels, in comparison at least?

For a moment it crossed Lex’ mind to use the SocialCitizenScore to justify who is saved and who will be denied access to the vaccination program. He hated the SocialCitizenScore System wholeheartedly for its way it suppressed all critical thinking.
To Lex, it would be even better to roll dice rather than to be predetermined by a single number in all life affairs.
Applauding the government was always rewarded with high scores, while questioning government policy would cost you status points. Everyone knowing a little bit about evolution knew that variety was key in improving a system – the SocialCitizenScore was very much an instrument killing this diversity and thereby, in the long run, a genuine danger for the survival of society. On the other hand, why would he be so worried about this decision? ‘Man, this this is only a game,’ he thought, and the SocialCitizenScore would definitely offer a solution. Moreover, the ratings of his missions in MultiLayer were coupled directly to his own SocialCitizenScore. Lex could expect a positive result on his own SocialCitizenScore, if he suggested this solution to his MultiLayer mission. With the mantra ‘It is just a game’ in mind, he started to do a calculation for the 2 million people based on the SocialCitizenScore. When he typed some of the principles, his stomach protested and his hand stopped. Even for the purpose of a game, he could just not legitimize the use of this horrific system. Besides he would be one of the people to die, if this solution were applied.

Lex took a time out. He changed the armchair into a bed and ordered the SmartHouseProgram to play music. Listening to Bach always did the trick for him. With his eyes open, Lex went over different scenarios. After half an hour, he returned to MultiLayer and resumed his mission.

Citizens were more expensive for society as they grew older, that was commonly known. Lex calculated the average costs associated with each life phase. In Lex’ proposal, government made the following offer: ‘all citizens have the individual choice to take part in the vaccination program or not. If you abstain from your right of participation in this vaccination program, and if the virus takes your life, your extra life years will save us expenses. After all, if you die, the state does not have to provide for your monthly Base Income and the cost for health care. We, the government of the Netherlands, offer you the following: We will calculate the total cost that would be probably spent on you. If you choose not to take part in the vaccination program, we will pay you a one-off installment, worth approximately one tenth of the total expected allowance that you would receive until your death. You can use the installment as you like, to support your family or to go on an expensive holiday. The odds are that the virus will never have an outbreak in the Netherlands. In that case, you have extra money in your pocket. However, once the virus is detected in the Netherlands, we will isolate you immediately and do whatever needed to contain the disease and avert danger from the public – of course, in a very humane way.’

The good element in his design, Lex thought, was that people can make the decision themselves, instead of some Bureau Authority placing individuals in one or another category. He would expect that people who are world-weary, ill or elderly would opt for the choice for the one off installment. They could use the sum to provide their beloved ones a better life, or to rebuild their apartment or to ensure some savings for their grand children. Lex understood very well the risk that people might flee the country once the virus had entered Dutch territory, but to be honest, escaping was no longer a real option with the RFID implants and other tracking devices. Another intelligent element in his solution, Lex thought, was that in case there were not enough volunteers to opt out of the vaccination program, the Dutch Health Council could decide to heighten the premium of the one-off installment. Extremely content with his smart invention, Lex completed his solution within the given timeline and budget. He was eager to hear how his assignment was received, but he did not wait at home for the results. He had to meet Seldon…

‘So where were we’, Seldon started their conversation like they just paused a minute ago. ‘Tell me about the genome editing and the plants. What is it what you are trying to accomplish?’
While talking, they walked the dogs in the park. The trees and bushes were neatly organized, just like all nature was systematically planned and arranged in the Netherlands with signs stating what was and what was not allowed at what time. Here was the message that walking a dog was only allowed with one dog per person.

‘What I seek is to develop an alternative to electronic communication. I believe in redundancy. Great civilizations always relied on this principle. If one big system failed, there was another one in place to guarantee its survival. In the nineteenth century for example…’
‘Do we really need to go back to Adam and Eve to explain the problem you are working on?’ Seldon asked with a smile, but underneath, Lex sensed the old man’s impatience. Lex was not used anymore to be amongst people who were quick thinkers, just like him.
‘I will try to be to the point. Worldwide society relies completely on electronic communication. We have perfected this means of communication to the max, ignoring other ways to transport information. If there is a power outage due to a big solar storm, or a worldwide computer virus, or any other ill that causes a shut down of the communication system, we have nothing left.’ 
Seldon nodded and Lex continued. ‘I started my quest for an alternative means of communication when studying history. Native Americans had smoke signals and drumming as way of conveying messages over large distances. Some people say that tribes had the skills to communicate via dreams – but that is too difficult to experiment with for a simple biologist with a kitchen-laboratory like me.’
‘Yes, got it’, Seldon interrupted bluntly. ‘I understand what you are saying and I fully agree with the need for an alternative way to convey messages. Something you did not mention is that our electronic communication can and is monitored and scrutinized constantly – that fact alone asks for a novel way of sharing information. So what is your alternative?’

In his explanation, Lex tried to avoid the biology jargon so that Seldon could follow the line of argument. Lex sought to optimize the stream of communication between plants. At present, Lex was working on the problem of the slow pace of communication. Plants had to be rather close to each other for the pheromones to travel from one plant to the next, and it would take ages to bridge a distance of 10 kilometers. If Lex would be able to either strengthen the message or to increase the ability to intercept the pheromones, the distance between the two plants could be enlarged accordingly.  Lex noticed that when Seldon listened very focused, he rubbed his right index finger to his fore teeth and then gently biting it, a gesture he had never come across before.

At a soft buzz, Lex checked a message from the MultiLayer team.
‘Lex…I had asked you something…’ Seldon stripped up his sleeve and tapped with his index finger on his bare wrist.
‘O Damn. I completely forgot. Next time, I promise!’
Nevertheless, Lex read his message. MultiLayer rated his Health for All assignment with 67 credits. Apparently, the team had not acknowledged how clever his solution was. Probably they would give more credits for a stupid solution that used the SocialCitizenScore as point of departure. 
‘Something wrong?’ Seldon informed.
Lex shrugged. ‘Yes. But nothing I can change.’

Lex’ line of reasoning was as simple as ingenious, according to his own judgment. Plants communicated with the help of pheromones. At present he experimented with the idea to increase the density of pheromones on the leaves. So far, he had been able to increase the capacity by a factor of 500. On the receptor side, he sought to increase the density of receptors with a similar factor, but so far he succeeded only by a factor of 15 compared to ordinary plants. Even if this would eventually work, plant communication would be extremely vulnerable, dependent on wind and rain for example.
Lex stopped since Seldon was shaking ‘no’ with his head all the time. 
‘Whatever the increase in density you would be able to achieve, plant communication would always remain extremely slow’, Seldon said. He tapped on a trunk of a tree they passed. ‘Plants are as immobile and static as you can imagine. The nature of plants conflicts with the principle of the communication system you seek to develop: transport of information over a distance.’
Lex was disappointed.

They walked in silence for a while and then Seldon said that he was impressed by the approach Lex had to the communication system. He praised Lex’ progress. ‘But we need an alternative or additional angle to your redundant communication system. We have to work on the movement aspect, the transportation. Plants are just too static to form an efficient communication network – whatever the improvements in sending and receiving the message you may achieve in the future.’
‘Like?’ Lex asked.
‘I don’t know – yet. We need to get motion in. If there is a solution, we will come up with it together.’
Lex was not satisfied with the judgment of the professor, who was so encouraging in their earlier exchange. Lex had expected to receive applause for his genius and originality. Now the conclusion seemed that he was working on the wrong problem with a chanceless solution.
But then Seldon said: ‘This was the most interesting conversation I have had in months, or even in years. I love this homework you provided me with. Thanks Lex.’
Seldon was already making his way home when he mumbled, ‘See you tomorrow.’

Lex did not know how he felt when he walked home. Empty, yet confident about a new beginning. With Seldon, he felt at ease, even though he missed the admiration, if he were honest. Most people were overwhelmed by Lex’ intellect, but Seldon got right to the core of the problem and of the solution. Lex was slightly irritated that Seldon had been able to reveal the root of the problem: the immobility of plants. Strangely enough, Lex was confident that they could come up with an entirely new approach, yet not triumphant. He simply could not find the right words. Often, Lex used the EmotionSheet, a copyrighted method listing 25 different emotions to help him identify his feelings. Today none of these described his emotional state well.

Lex had already noticed a newsflash on the death of Alida Oosterveen, an esteemed Dutch scientist, who had done the measurements that were widely acknowledged to be foundational for the perfecting of hologram technology. She died at the age of 108. At home, Lex wanted to see more of the reporting on her life and funeral. He started the hologram mode of the News. The president of the International Science Society delivering his speech was projected on Lex’ right, which was ok. But Oosterveen’s coffin – of disposable easy-inflammable material – was placed directly on his left. Lex felt uncomfortable about the coffin being so close, especially since it looked as if it could open any minute. He switched to the two-dimensional mode again and felt immediately relieved by the increased distance to the coffin. Another official was delivering his speech and yet another. Lex commanded a fast-forward. This lady was a legend, no doubt about it, but he hated how they turned her into a saint. Even more despicable in the whole canonization business, was that everything was utterly uncreative. The adjectives were so predictable: ‘esteemed, brilliant mind, yet she was open, friendly and warm heartedly; revolutionary mind; a role model for women.’ Enough of this!
He swiped to the next news item. In the Amsterdam-West, 26 people were hospitalized today with similar symptoms: unbearable pain in their intestines and irregular and uncontrollable heart rhythm. As far as the medical specialists knew, these symptoms were not coupled to viruses and bacteria already known. No less than 6 of the patients had died. The experts did not have a clue whether they dealt with a virus or bacteria; and what the victims had in common, other then that they lived in a vicinity of roughly 10 square kilometres. Did they visit the same venues? Had they bumped into each other? Did it have to do with the air quality in their neighbourhood? Many questions, but no answers so far. The twenty remaining patients were seriously ill, but no longer in critical conditions.
Lex was alarmed since this was the neighbourhood where Mr. VanBuren lived. He texted Mr. VanBuren – the old fashioned way – to ask if he was okay, and Lex was grateful that he responded immediately with a message in capital letters and quite a few typo’s that he had heard the news too, but thank God, he was still ‘ALLVE&KICKING’. Although Lex had shown him many times, VanBuren still did not know how to switch his caps lock on and off.

Lex stopped the news and played music. In his laboratory amongst his plants he tried to think of ways to make the plants mobile. Images crossed his mind: robots pushing pots on wheels, plants floating on water; drones transporting plants. None of these were convincing. He got frustrated but he could not switch to another topic. He was glad to be disturbed by the doorbell. Since he had moved into this apartment four years ago, it was exactly the second time his doorbell rang.

Diana came in. She had once again undergone a transformation to a vital young woman, smart and sporty in her tracksuit and ponytail. He was relieved he did not see a trace of the plain woman. Lex was even more relieved that Splinter had surrendered to her. He did not bark anymore and he even laid down on his dog bed. While Diana was explaining the difficulties with her drone, he noticed small freckles on her cheeks.

Lex fixed the problem within ten minutes.
‘Normally I charge 60 eCoins for this kind of work’, Lex tried to make conversation.
‘Ok, no problem.’ She got her personal device out of her pocket and presented it to him to make the transaction.
‘No, of course not. It was a joke. This is what neighbors do for free.’
Lex had difficulties looking into her eyes, but he knew it did not make a good impression to avoid eye contact.
‘Ok. Thanks man.’ She picked up her drone and she prepared to leave.
‘Can I offer you something? I mean, as in eating or drinking?’
Diana laughed. ‘It is my turn. I can make a meal, see it as a way to pay back for your work on my drone.’
‘No, that is not acceptable to me. Like I said, I refuse compensation. It is a duty that neighbors help each other without further obligations.’
Diana frowned.
‘If your offer is not a compensation, I would, of course, gladly accept your invitation’, Lex continued.
‘See you tomorrow then, let’s say seven-ish?’
‘Ok, seven o’clock.’
Fortunately, Diana was not the grumpy person anymore he had encountered in the park.

Other chapters:

Novel by Willemijn Dick, inspired and introduced by Dirk Helbing
License: Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs (CC BY-NC-ND)

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