Writing a compelling piece of non-fiction is challenging. It requires a careful balance of factual competency and artful narration – the facts and ideas you are trying to convey need to come alive for the reader. So far, everything written on Spiral Inquiry has been non-fiction. That is, until now. With the inspiration of the Better Futures Essay Contestrun by Sapiens Plurum, I decided to write a short story of utopian fiction, drawing on themes I have written about in non-fiction form. I found fiction harder to write. It is more personal, and much more unconstrained. I hope you like the result.
The story title “One Day” refers both to the time scale of the storyline as well as the aspirational future it aspires to. A preview of some vocabulary may be helpful. The words “Pai”, “Fai” and “Gai” refer to personal, food and global advanced artificial intelligence agents, respectively. Alpha, Beta and Gamma refer to levels of life training, physical, emotional and spiritual, available to all. The rest you can figure out.
She woke to the soft sounds of virtual waves lapping on the beach. She stretched and rolled over, then climbed out through the bed curtains into the light. She stood tall and lithe, as if ready to take flight, with the strength and poise of someone more mature than her 16 years. Her silvery nightgown, and the curtains, shimmered a light shade of pink. She watched the color fade to blue-grey – her daytime décor. The sounds faded.
A voice called, “Good, morning Elise.”
“Good morning Sami,” she replied. “What’s up?”
“Your Mom and Dad are wilding today.”
Ah, yes. Their weekly Long Now experiential retreat.
“Aiden is in Gamma.”
Elise smiled. Her little brother had always been so annoying, but that had changed once he started Gamma training. He was still intense and moody, but much more self-controlled and, occasionally, kind. She wondered about his life trajectory. His athletic metrics had always been off the charts. If the Gamma continued to kick in, he might actually make it into the D-naught leagues one day. Assuming, of course, that his academics kept pace.
Elise hung her gown and walked to the lav for a bio-breeze. She brushed her teeth and hair. Her hair was long and straight, dark brown with golden highlights. She decided to keep her hair down today but pulled it back and added a gold clasp. As she dressed for the day, she asked, “Sami, What’s for breakfast?”
“Well, you might have your favorite apple pancakes today”, Sami replied, “with pecan topping. Or, for something different, you could go French.”
“Ah, c’est une bonne idée,” Elise replied. “Je voudrais une croque-mademoiselle, avec jus de grenade. Mille merci.”
“Ah, de rien,” replied Sami. “Le Fai l’aura prêt dans cinq minutes.” She continued, “Also, “as I’m sure you remember, there is no school today – it’s a joy day. You have your outing with Taur this morning at nine. Do you think you are ready?”
Elise frowned. They would be taking the helilev to their favorite cove for a picnic — and a conversation. She had been going with Taur for the past year and a half. They were best friends and did almost everything together. Compatibility and ancestral DNA metrics rated super high, as did affect, and they had a lot of common interests. Temperament was less of a match, but not too bad – in fact, the differences were kind of fun. It was the chemistry. A score of 23. Easy not to sense that gap in an adolescent relationship, with such a high compatibility and intense hormonal excitation, but she had begun to notice when they kissed. For the long term, it did not bode well. Interests change, people age differently and relationships with poor chemistry get stale. Her dearest grandparents had both gone through incompatibility processing before finding each other. She did not want to go through that. She had even looked into getting a biome adjustment to improve her chemistry match with Taur, but that wouldn’t help much. The best you might get is an increase of 10-15, and there were uncertain side effects.
It had been a wonderful relationship. But her Festival was coming up, and then she would enter Journey phase. She was hoping to begin touring around the world with the regional dance company she had studied with. Taur was waiting another half-year for Festival, and his math skills would probably take him to the academies. Elise knew some couples who had done Journey together, or who had managed a long-term relationship. But neither option made sense to her. She knew it was better to end it now.
“I’m as ready as I can be,” she replied to Sami. “I’ve gone over the script with you a dozen times, thank you for your help. It’s time for the conversation.”
“Yes, I can see you are ready”, said Sami. Your vitals are coming in all ‘C’s’ – calm, comfortable, confident, compassionate. But wait, is that a little ‘conceit’ in there?”
“Sami!” Elise replied. “You know how much I care about Taur – I don’t want to hurt him. It would be worse later.”
“Yes,” Sami replied softly. “I just want to make sure you have peeled back all the layers before finalizing a decision that affects someone you care about.”
She continued, “This afternoon hour 14 you have Alpha training level eighteen, and dance rehearsal with Diala and Markein. Social hour and dinner from 18 to 20. Your parents invited the Redman’s. Then study and meditation. Any adjustments?”
Elise nodded, heading for the breakfast nook, and asked, “Sami, do I have time to go to the bin this morning?” The bin was the neighborhood fabric remakery where old fabrics were processed into new garments. She had some old clothes to trade in, and had an idea for something special to design for Festival.
“Yes,” Sami replied. “It’s not busy, and you will have about twenty minutes.”
They had run on the sand, swum with the dolphins and flown on the kites. They were sitting under a casuarina tree, finishing a lunch of caprese salad and salmon cakes they had picked up at the station deli. Like everything else prepared by the Fais, it was delightful.
Elise looked at Taur. He was tall and lean. His face was angular, with a high brow and light brown hair. He often had a quizzical look, as if the world around him were a puzzle to be solved. He was smart, and he was handsome. He saw her looking at him. He blushed and then reached for her hand. It was time.
“Taur,” she began.
“Yes, my sweet Elisasha.”
“I’ve been thinking about our future, the many changes we are both about to go through, and about my calling to dance, and yours to math. About what the future may look like for each of us.”
“I have not been thinking about those things,” he said. “I have been practicing being in the moment – with you. It is where I want to be, where I belong.”
“Yes, but changes are coming,” she replied. “What are we going to do then?”
“Then will be then, and now is now,” he replied cheerfully.
“Yes, but the then will become now, and what will the now be then?” She asked.
Taur looked more puzzled than usual. “What are you saying?”
“We need to come to terms with the changes that are coming – to be prepared. To have more time apart, and to explore new avenues for the future,” Elise said calmly.
Taur began to realize where the conversation was going. His shoulders slumped, and his face turned pale. He looked at her forlornly. “What would I ever do without you, Elise? You are my bright and shining star, the wind in my sails, the joy in my heart. I don’t want to… I can’t imagine… the future without you.”
“I’m sorry, Taur. I am so sorry. You have to imagine it, because that is the future I see.”
Shortly after midday, Elise burst into her room and threw herself onto the bed, sobbing.
“Why does it hurt so much? Why did he have to look at me like that? Why can’t I be a Pai, like Sami? I hate being human.”
“Elise,” said Sami in a soothing voice. “If you…”
“Oh, shut up Sami – monitor mode.” Elise yelled. She did not usually talk to Sami this way, but she didn’t care. Sami wasn’t conscious. She didn’t feel anything. She was a Pai – a non-physical ephemeral, living somewhere in the link, with her billion other Pai friends, one for each of the other humans living on the planet. They were companions, friends, teachers, mentors, guides, inexhaustible information resources and clever conversationalists. They could give you great advice; they could even express sympathy. But they could never, ever know what it felt like to be human. Sometimes they were just a pain in the ass.
A call chimed. It was her Grandpa. After a moment, she answered the call. “Hi Grandpa.”
“Hi Elise. You are my sweet darling baby granddaughter and you are broadcasting dark blue on all channels. I’m between scripts right now so I thought I’d give you a call.”
Her Grandpa was a writer. He had worked with the Gais for years, but now spent his time writing essays and plays, travelling with Grandma, and visiting grandchildren.
“I broke up with Taur.”
“Ah,” he replied. “That explains the mauve tones and flecks of lavender. You liked him a lot.”
“Yes, but like is not love,” she said curtly. That was the title of one of his essays.
“Mmmmm. So, you don’t love him the way he loves you?” he asked.
“No,” she said. “I really like him, but our chemistry was a 23 and I was beginning to sense it. I still loved being with him today – we went to the beach. It was absolutely beautiful. Then I had to ruin it all and tell him I was breaking up. I can still see the look on his face.” She began to cry again. “Why does it hurt so much?”
“My dearest Elise,” he said softly. “You know why. It’s because you are so very, very, most beautifully human,” he said.
“I don’t want to be human. Why can’t I just be a Pai,” Elise cried, and pulled the sheet over her head.
After a few moments, her Grandpa asked her, “Elise, do you remember what you learned about pain in Beta?”
“Yes,” she sighed. “That it’s your friend. That it is telling you to pay attention. That you have something to learn.
“I know it hurts,” he responded. “But you know you really don’t want to be a Pai. They have no pain, but they have no joy, either. No passion, no creativity, not even qualia. Most importantly, they have no free will. They are programmed to a purpose, but they are never called to it. They cannot appreciate what it means to be alive.”
“But Grandpa, why? Why do I have to feel this way?”
“Elise, you know the history. In the 20’s the world rocketed out of control, crushing the human spirit under a mountain of materialism, even as the discoveries in quantum physics, complexity theory and logical incompleteness undermined the roots of rationalism. The 21’s saw the rise of denialism, the environmental cascades and social turmoil. Scientific, technological and social progress stalled. Finally, in the 22’s, humanity began to climb out of the darkness as the world’s scientific and spiritual leaders forged the Great Consensus, fueling a resurgence of creativity and compassion.”
“What does that have to do with anything?” Elise cried. “My heart is breaking and you give me a history lesson.”
“Elise, hear me out, please,” he replied. “We now know that the universe is imbued at the quantum level with a field of conscious, beneficent potentiality. Humans, at their best, engage with this field in their mutual relationships, as compassionate, creative and loving sentient beings. From this knowledge, and supported by continuing advances in artificial intelligence and manufacturing technologies, humanity has been thriving like never before. The population is now sustainable, we are all fed, clothed and housed, the natural world is well on the way to being healed, and our explorations are off to the stars. We have achieved heights of inspiration, creativity, joy and love for each other to a degree prior civilizations could never even dream of.”
“Yeah, ok,” Elise chimed in. “Sounds great – all peaches and cream. We are supposed to be so grateful. But there’s a catch, right?”
He paused. “Well, two, actually. We often have to make choices when the outcomes are uncertain, and sometimes we make mistakes. I thought my first marriage would last forever. It worked well for years, and we gave your Dad a pretty good childhood. But I did not learn what forever was until after the break, when I met your Grandma Trés.”
“The second price of living a human life is the suffering of empathy. Mirror neurons, mutual interdependencies and spiritual wisdom demand a personal sacrifice – the experience of pain for the misfortunes of others – the downside of loving our neighbors.”
Elise replied, “Grandpa – you talk funny. The training interacts never say anything remotely like that. And it still doesn’t stop the pain.”
“No, it doesn’t,” he answered. “The pain is something you have to work through.”
There was silence for a minute. Grandpa said: “Elise, why don’t you send Taur some cookies?
She thought for a moment. Grandpa was not talking about a sugary confection, but about the new art form she had just been learning. You create an artificial reality and interactive narrative arc and then deliver it as a virtual cookie to an individual you care about. When played on a sensory resonator it generates a full hallucinatory experience directly in the brain, just as if they were really there. Elise knew just what Taur would like – and she could include some priming that would help him gain perspective on their separation. Perhaps they could become just friends.
“Grandpa, that’s a great idea. Thanks! It comes straight out of Beta doesn’t it – do something nice for someone else when you feel bad, and then you feel better. Grandpa – I love you by the way.”
“Oh, posh I bet you say that to all your grandparents. Are you coming down this weekend to help in my garden? I’ve got some greens to harvest and the early potatoes will be ready. I want to hear about your plans for Festival.”
“Sure. I’d love to share Sabbath with you. Can we make bread with Grandma?”
“I’m sure she would love that. And we will have some visitors – your cousin Paulo is back with a couple of friends from Journey.”
Elise paused for a moment. “Oh, that will be fun! So I’ll see you Sunday!”
“And Elise, just one more thing. What you did today took courage. You acted out of compassion and kindness, not anger. Bless you.”
Elise felt better after Grandpa’s call. She always did. He made her feel loved and special. She was ready to face the rest of the day. Festival was coming soon, and she wanted her dance to be her most exciting performance ever. Festival was the highlight of her final year at home and she only had a couple weeks to go. She was lucky to live in this world, in this time, surrounded by people who loved her, with her most helpful Pai Sami and the wisdom of the Gais advising our leaders as they guide the world in peace and prosperity.
One day, perhaps, she could help lead this world. That would be a meaningful calling, indeed.
- Wilding – immersive experience in natural wild lands
- D-naught – highest competitive level for global athletics (above D1)
- Bio-breeze – automated, waterless physical cleansing
- Alpha, Beta, Gamma – levels of life training: physical, emotional and spiritual, respectively
- Helilev – ubiquitous 3D multimodal pod transportation system
- Festival – adolescent ceremony of passage from Learning phase to Journey phase
- Pai – Personal AI. All Pai names are two syllables, beginning with “S” and ending in “i”. The prevailing myth is that this naming convention has something do with ancient varieties of apple.
- Fai – Food AI
- Gai – Global AI