Chapter 3. Insomnia

One of the greatest disappointments of the twenty-first century was the advent of the Singularity. Predicted by Raymond Kurzweil in the 1990s, the dawn of a new machine intelligence died with a frustrated whimper in the late double 20s as quantum machines reached all the landmarks of autonomous intelligence, without event. Greater and greater attempts to motivate machines to act of their own volition failed or were found to have been faked. Injection of random impulses only yielded random results. Programmed self-preservation models didn't lead to evidence of an effectual "self." It was argued this was due to a lack of pain and hunger, but every attempt to artificially create these couldn't be shown to have caused the actual experience. Others pointed out that the self was a false goal to begin with, but couldn't escape the problem that an intelligence existing without the illusion of a self didn't seem generally intelligent. Part of the blame was laid on all the attention paid to creating a specialized AI aimed at marketing goods and services rather than a generalized AI with no such goal in "mind."

The military, craving a motivated non-human soldier, cobbled together weaponized thinking machines to disastrous effect. After the deaths of victims in the hundreds of thousands by these robot killers, the Singularity was pronounced reached, and also a non-event. Finally, in the 30s, all attempts to create these monsters were abandoned in favor of improved human and animal interfaces. 

- The Wakeful Wanderer’s Guide, Ep. 6, lines 44 and 45

Sleep that night was anything but uneventful. A game was afoot. This was bad timing before his journey. Attackers from the West activated countermeasures on the bridge. Marto played in the role of autonomous command from the second eastbound tower. The exercise was boring, but all players knew they would need extra cycles before waking. The Raiders, running on ethanol, both in their bikes and in their guts, came roaring over the bridge as if raw speed and enthusiasm alone would protect them. Hayden « Alia « Briana « Zoë « etc pointed to a lack of strategy in the attack. This may have been a simulation or it may have been real. Regardless, it was a regretful slaughter. 

The glass-tipped gyros under Marto’s command wrapped around the support cables of the bridge. Each gyro had a modicum of intelligence guiding it, expelled from its casing with a blast of compressed nitrogen. Viewing the action from high up on the bridge tower, he chose his targets, which lit up in bright red glowing bullseyes for the gyros to hit. One of his shots brought down the leader, landing square in his right eye. 

The game took place in a kind of half sleep, similar to active dreaming, but requiring only a little focus. Attack style operations like this one needed only minimal concentration compared to building, puzzles, adventure, possession, or invention games. Marto was able to stay in a restful state from the time the alarm stirred him until the attackers were down. The results were gory. The glass edges on the gyros cut through even the toughest armor at their rotational speed of 75,000 rpm. Gyros got stuck in the resulting mix of cloth, leather, bones, digestive acids, and blood, which is why a second wave of clean up commanders was roused to guide robotic deployers of decompilers. 

Tribal members of lower Merit volunteer for this second duty, as it is an easy way to move up. The downside is, it can cause nightmares, and is disgusting. Long ago, when he was a noob, Marto opted in for this chore. Thankfully, as his Merit rose, he received an upgrade to his forgetfulness implant, and never had to volunteer again.

For all its unpleasantness, decompiler technology has been critical to a livable Anthropocene environment. People don’t like to remember the aftermath of The Tide and its accompanying migration of people and viruses. If any upside to all the ensuing unprecedented loss of life could be imagined, it was the necessary development and deployment of decompiler technology. The micro-robots distinguish between animate and inanimate organic material. They process what human beings would loathe to touch or smell, without burning it, or leaving it as food for troublesome insects and bacteria. They’ve been invaluable to humans and animals alike, and, more than anything, have helped to eliminate new breeding grounds for parasites and pathogens. Without decompilers, human society would be at a loss to process the impossible accumulation of sewage, food waste, and bodies during the days following The Great Tide.

Decompiler tech, dreamed up by the augment pioneer Tara « Sibby « Maria « Lucy « Cynthia « etc, was achievable once the process for the auto creation of nanotubes was integrated into independently programmed microscopic machines. The robots construct the tubes at a rate of a dozen a minute and insert them into the dead material. Liquid as gray water travels down the tube, away from the solids. The body or material is desiccated. Another robot collects the water and moves it to a neighboring tank for distillation. Finally, the dried remains are sorted in piles of carbon compounds, nitrogen, silicon and more. Some of these become the building blocks for more decompilers, the rest is transformed into dry fertilizer and other materials. 

- The Wakeful Wanderer’s Guide, Ep. 6, lines 46 & 47

It was 01:24:10 and Marto was still awake. He kept replaying Helen’s removal in his mind. She had seemed so harmless to him. Naturally, he trusted Reyleena and all the security team, but something about her visit seemed off.

The first problem was she was a mandatory-verbal with an upgrade. That was bizarre. A mandatory-verbal is just as it sounds; someone who requires spoken communication. Almost all mandatory-verbals are phobic. Why would someone who only speaks aloud have an upgrade? She said something about staying up to date with events. Marto replayed the interaction. She said she ‘checked in’ to occasionally get news and communications. Communications? It barely made sense.

The second problem was she was physically augmented. She had received a photosynthetic top covering which was so popular of late. Her hair follicles had been modified to grow a human-plant hybrid to convert sunlight into glucose. Thus augmented, she could go longer without food, getting her calories directly from the sunshine. It seemed she had only converted what would have been her hair, though she could have modified her head, back, and shoulders, as most people do to generate more calories. Covering only the head was a sign she was only partially committed to the augment. Still, genetic follicular augmentation was not something a phobic would choose.

The third and most disturbing problem with Helen was her relationship with Marto’s mother. First of all, Marto’s mother had died giving birth to him. He should have no memory of her at all. The memory he had of her at the broken box store made no sense, but it was so sharp and precise, and so unlike natural memory. He thought it had to be a construct, but it didn’t feel like one. The longer he thought about it, the more Marto became dizzy and queasy and he decided to put it to the side for now and take a late night walk around the town.

He rose out of bed, climbed down the ladder from his sleeping loft, and walked to the door. The night was a cool 23° Celsius, with low humidity; a great relief. He should have been sleeping like a baby. Reverside was quiet, and Marto’s eyes adjusted to the dark in time to see two cats stalking nothing near the home of Zibli « Nikki « Laura « Hope « etc. Poor cats. He sent a command to one of the animal care stations to open a block away. That should make them happy. 

The modified woven carbon lane outside his home felt a little like what he remembered of carpeting. He wondered how one might go about carpeting a lane or street in a town like this. He posted the idea for Dizzy or Mem or one of the other road techs to think about. Luckily Marto was not the only one awake this night. As soon as he thought about Mem, they pinged him back. They were up, self-serving at an umbrella bar not far away. [“come on by”] they sent. He did.

[“Valerian tea.”] Mem poured him a cup. It was cool and light yellow. Mem was older than Marto by a decade at least. They had a short mop of gray hair and bright brown eyes. Tonight Mem was wearing a woolen bot-knitted white tunic covering their strong, wiry body. They stood behind the bar from Marto, who sat on a stool.

[“So the problem with outdoor carpets is the dust,”] said Mem, starting right in, [“I mean people used to vacuum them all the time. I suppose we could make bots to vacuum constantly — you know, it’s funny. Those were among the first personal bots, I think you know. But the energy required is prohibitive. Also the noise. Imagine trying to sleep through the noise.”]

[“Can’t they have solar tops? And couldn’t they only run during the day?”] Marto sipped as he thexted.

[“Thought of it already. Too much traffic during the day. Also, we would need a ton of them to be charging and running. A vacuum motor runs hot. It’s not like the farm bots or armaments or decompilers which rest and work, rest and work. To keep the outdoor carpets clean enough to meet our health standards we would need to feed them energy from our central grid. It’s too old-world. Wouldn’t work.”]

[“Okay, but I’m not ready to give up yet. What if the individual fibers of the carpet performed the dust removal themselves? A spiral movement shuffling the particles to the edges at night?”] Marto was revolving on his swiveling bar stool, and starting to feel a bit dizzy.

[“Closer.”] Mem sipped the tea, and took a biscuit from a tin on the bar. [“But now you are using the surface for movement, and each element would have a photon collector fitted into it. Wouldn’t be standard. Also, you get piles of dust around the edges to build up and blow around. Gutters can take care of much of it, but it’s a strain on the system. You know we have solar collectors and kinetic generators built into the mesh you walk on now. Lots of surface area. Most of it gets fed into the homes; it also adds to the farm, which uses most of our energy. Plus, it’s porous, so the dust settles down below. Seems like a waste to lose all the energy and efficiency just to have something cushier to walk on.”] Mem was stirring their tea with another biscuit. The biscuits were flat and hard, baked from spelt and honey. The pop-up had no roof tonight, as rain was not expected for at least a day. The two friends could watch the quarter moon hovering like a lamp in the cloudless sky.

[“Gah.”] Marto was tired, but not sleepy. [“Not such a great idea after all. Darn it. Here I was thinking I would be the next Maxtor... or Mem!”]

[“You are a great contributor, doing what you do, Marto. You know we are all lucky to have you here. The stories you write offer us new perspective, fresh thoughts, new points of view, also valuable context. ”] Mem walked around to the other side of the bar, next to Marto. [“I love how you link the forgotten actors of our past to our current situation. When I follow your work, I see our world anew. I get a view into the broader natural and human environment. That helps techs like me come up with new projects to fit the tribes needs better than we could without you. We all love your mind, my dear. You don’t need to be a tech too.”]

Marto was overcome with a wave of emotion. Tears came to his eyes. Before he knew what he was doing he was hugging Mem. It was awkward. 

[“Easy now darling,”] Mem sent, patting his back. [“I love you too. Easy. Why don’t you try to get back to sleep again? I do my best work at night. You can usually find me here again at night if you can’t sleep.”]

[“I’m off tomorrow on my tour.”] Marto sniffed, straightened. [“Not sure how long I will be away.”]

[“We will all be with you. Don’t go offline for too long. We worry. I will be here when you get back. Sleep now.”] Mem had a hand on Marto’s shoulder. The warmth of their hand filtered down into his chest. It was time to go back to bed.

Sleep is sacred. Even the most heavily upgraded value it for increased health and mental clarity. Without exception, those who have hacked their sleep have suffered serious consequences. Trying to control the body’s natural rhythms can be deadly. One such cautionary tale was Hugh Reisenfeld, a silicon valley entrepreneur in the mid double 20s. A talented engineer, he was snapped up by SumoGen, for his pioneering work on bio-silicone implementation, Hugh became the leader of the team who developed the underlying software which has become the basis of all neural-app interfaces currently in use. His idea was simple and revolutionary, far surpassing the work previously achieved in the area of bionics. Recognizing the brain has no unified operating system, he designed an interface to present the brain with a stable and simple set of behaviors to which it could adapt. This handshake, once accepted by the hippocampus, would proceed to new and more complex sets of signals until the brain recognized it as a new sensory node. The preliminary studies with rats had allowed remote electronic noses to be successfully employed, and more complex remote sensors were planned.

The problem came when Hugh was wrestling with deadlines imposed by SumoGen’s investors. If only they required less sleep, he thought, he and his team could accomplish so much more, and be able to deliver the core products in time to go public. He developed an augmentation using the company’s tech to provide the benefits of having had a full night’s rest in just 60 minutes. The implant simulated REM sleep cycles once every twelve minutes with three-minute breaks. 

The entire team secretly had the implants installed and within a month, they had all adapted to them and were working 22 hours a day without any apparent side effects. They were overjoyed but too busy to adequately document all aspects of their transformation. The manic pace of their work continued for 105 days until insanity overtook all but one of them. Sadly, it was Hugh. While he was out getting coffee, his team members murdered each other in the lab with scalpels and other tools. He never recovered. The story went viral and SumoGen sank without a trace, except for their intellectual property which was appropriated by the US military for secret development, only to be leaked by a former SumoGen intern two years later. 

- The Wakeful Wanderer’s Guide, Ep. 6, lines 48 to 50

Marto put his pen down and stared at the old wooden desk. Something was still keeping him awake and he hated it. Most likely it was the Helen mystery. He decided to forget about it for now and exited the writing villa to get some rest. 

After spending a little time inhabiting and guiding simple blade farm equipment in their nocturnal duties, he dropped into his natural dreams like falling off a horse into a bottomless well.