Friday, May 12, 2006

"The rapture for nerds"

As of 1997 (as usual, the first year I came across in some quick Googling), Social Security outlays totaled $350 billion per year. The number of recipients and the amount paid out are increasing, of course, and over the next few decades, both will balloon massively as the "Baby Boomers" retire. I'm not even going to bother trying to find the scariest scenario. All of the likely outcomes involve massive tax increases on the non-retired and/or massive benefit cuts to recipients and/or the complete collapse of "the system." Any way we cut it, things are going to be bad for someone.

Or maybe not. Suppose that it was possible to increase benefits by an order of magnitude while simultaneously cutting outlays on a like scale?

Yes, you read me right: Pay more recipients more money, while spending less. And while I'm at it, let me throw in some additional bennies: Perfect health, near-absolute choice of lifestyle and, um, immortality.

This idea -- which I'm sure is by no means original to me -- popped up awhile back as plotted one of my as-yet-and-unlikely-to-be-written science fiction novels.

A little background:

Lots of people believe that humanity is approaching what they refer to as "the Singularity." Strictly defined, that means we're about to reach a point in technological development where it becomes impossible to reliably predict what the future will look like -- an era of "post-humans" whose abilities (and predispositions) we have no more capacity to forecast than, say Cro-Magnon Man sitting around his fire would have been able to describe what one of Intel's microprocessor plants looks like or how the New York Stock Exchange works.

There are lots of views of what the Singularity (or Singularities) might entail, some of them optimistic, some pessimistic, all of them great fun (especially Ken Macleod's -- the title of this post is a description of the Singularity from his novel The Cassini Division; I just finished his wonderful Newton's Wake, which also plumbs hypothetical post-Singularity futures).

Most views of the Singularity involve one or more of the following elements:

- We reach a point in the development of artificial intelligence beyond which the AIs we create are a) more intelligent than we are, and b) capable of improving themselves even further.

- We achieve the ability to upload human consciousness into a computer environment -- a virtual reality fully as convincing as our own.

The "post-humans" might be those artificial intelligences themselves -- and pray let's not piss them off -- or they might be us, living in virtual bodies in a virtual environment, with the processing power of those AIs at the disposal of, or integrated with, our own minds.

Anyway, back to my unwritten novel: It's a murder mystery ... set in a virtual "retirement home." We need not concern ourselves with the mystery part. The important part is the idea of using the second "Singularity characteristic" to "fix" the Social Security problem.

In my novel plot, the fix works like this:

Upon retirement, Social Security recipients are given a choice: They can receive their paltry benefit checks, sit on the porch, age and die ...

... or they can lie down on gurneys, have their brains uploaded into a virtual environment while their bodies feast on non-virtual, lethal barbituate cocktails ...

... and then party forever.

Inside the virtual environment, things are much different.

Their bodies are whatever they want those bodies to be. If Joe Sixpack wants to spend eternity -- or the next few minutes -- as a twelve-year-old girl or a talking panda, or just as Joe Sixpack at 30 instead of 70, that's his call.

They live wherever they want to live -- with easy transfers between the "upper-crust Havana circa 1950" server and the "Vegas circa 1980" server available, of course. Presumably it's even possible for them to fashion their own, individual personal realities outside of a selection of "commons" areas in which they interact with others.

They receive "virtual money" -- basically as an allocation of processor time to generate what they want to "buy" within the system -- with value far in excess of the "real" money they would have received outside.

And, of course, they can interface with the "real" world in a number of ways: Presumably Skype will allow "virtual" grandma to place a phone call from within the server to "real" granddaughter "outside." There may be work which they can do for "real" money from outside, allowing them to save and plan for temporary or permanent returns as downloads into robotic, or cloned human, bodies. This is especially true if they have mental integration with those "really smart AIs" mentioned above (and even more especially true if "uploading" is a necessity to achieve such integration, i.e. if people "outside" just aren't capable of it).

Those are the benefits this particular class of "post-humans" receives. But what about us on the "outside?" We benefit too:

- We'll probably be able to buy, operate and maintain the equipment to serve a thousand or more "virtual retirees" for the amount that just one used to hobble to the mailbox to retrieve each month.

- It's not just for old people. Got an incurable disease? Your health will be perfect after you "upload." Alzheimer's? Let's preserve your personality before you forget who you are. And, of course, the health care costs, hospital room availability, etc. for those of us out here will improve dramatically.

- Reduced traffic. Our retirees in the virtual world may still want to weave their Winnebagos down the roads at 40 mph and belching smog like factories. But they won't be doing so on the "real" roads any more.

- Overpopulation? What's that? We'll have more people than ever ... taking up a lot less room and many of them eating not a damn thing (actually, they'll be eating foie de gras every night if that's what they want -- presumably synthesizing that experience will be no more expensive than synthesizing the experience of a corporate deathburger or of the cat food we're always hearing about -- but what they're eating will be cheap processor time, not expensive goose livers or bushels of wheat).

I like this Singularity/post-human stuff.

Of course, I won't count on it until it gets here ... but I figure that it's more likely to eventuate than any of the politicians are to deliver on their promises to "fix" Social Security.

And, of course, there's always the chance that these virtual post-humans will decide that they don't need the rest of us, don't like us much anyway, and might as well dispense with us entirely. But hey, that's just science fiction ... right?

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