Note: This is the first article in a series written by Brad Wardell, the designer of the new real-time strategy game, Ashes of the Singularity.
An alternative future
When I was a kid, I thought the future of humanity was pretty straight forward. In college, I wrote a game called Galactic Civilizations that took place in the year 2178. The premise was much the same as traditional Sci-Fi. Humans travel the galaxy in starships with faster than light engines meeting aliens. The gadgets humans had were better but overall they were still us.
Now, 20 years later, I’m not so sure that the Star Trek-style future is going to happen. Even though we’ve known about Moore’s law for a long time, its implications didn’t really creep up on us until recently. That’s when talk about “The technological singularity” started to enter our consciousness.
The technological singularity is the idea where we would reach a point where our technological advancement increased so fast that we could no longer predict what would come after. This idea was usually coupled with the belief that artificial intelligence – either on its own or integrated into human biology – would be the catalyst. It’s worth noting that the idea of the technological singularity started to come up in the early 2000s. Before the iPhone. Before Siri. Before Cortana. Before Google as we know it today (as in, the Google telling me I need to leave now to pick up my daughter because traffic is heavy if I want to get her to the dentist on time).
In such a future, instead of stuffing our “meat” bodies into metal canisters and sending them out into space, what if instead we ultimately began merging our biology with our technology. I don’t mean Borg-like but rather our actual intelligence began to be distributed, little by little into “the cloud”. Now, before you laugh, bear in mind that even now, most of us rely extensively on our technology for remembering phone numbers. In fact we have been relying on our technology and society for so long that over the past 10,000 years our brain mass has decreased by the size of a tennis ball. We’re not getting dumber, we’re just distributing our intelligence – in this case, into society. However, with technology, this process has increased exponentially.
In Ashes of the Singularity, we take this trend and project it onto one possible future. A future where many people begun to place their entire consciousness into what we would call “the cloud”. They can still interact with the physical world through constructs (think very sophisticated drones). They could, if they wanted, produce a full biological human body to walk around still if they wanted. But these humans would have evolved into something else, what we refer to as Post-Humans. Since Ashes is a real-time strategy game, the setting is sidelined by the gameplay. Your job is the eradicate your opponents from an entire world. These articles will help give you an understanding of how we ended up in that situation in the first place.
In the game, we tip-toe around the specifics on the state of humanity in the 22nd century in this fictional universe. Part of the reason is that we imagine life will be very complicated. We believe there will be a full spectrum between natural humans to pure post-humans. Since our game and its story focuses on the Post-Humans, these articles will mostly focus about them.
In the Singularity universe, a Post-Human is a human being who has either partially or completely placed some of their consciousness outside of their biological body. If you think of what makes you … well you, it’s probably a relatively small percentage of your brain with the rest of it devoted to keeping you alive. In this future, humans have basically created additional virtual prefrontal cortexes. Cortexi? Anyway, lots and lots of them. And with them comes more memory, more cognitive function, more abstract thought.
The physical material that these virtual prefrontal cortexes is called Turinium (technically it’s “Computronium” but we call it Turinium in our game), and this material is our game’s equivalent of the spice from the Dune series. It isn’t a natural substance but has to be created. For Post-Humans, Turinium is the only currency that matters.
Sentience & The Metaverse
In ages past, physical strength and constitution were considered the most valuable assets by society. In more recent times, it seems intelligence has taken on that role. In this future, sentience is what matters. We humans of whatever year we’re currently in can’t measure the sentience of one person versus another. But Post-Humans can and they can manifest this heightened sentience in the shared virtual experience called the Metaverse. Think of “The Matrix”, but on acid. A whole lot of acid. During the making of the game, we’ve had a terrible time trying to create imagery of what the Metaverse might look like.
Let’s walk through the evolution of a virtual world of our own making. The first generation would give themselves cool super powers and live in various simulated paradises.
But once people had begun to amp up their sentience via Turinium, their ideas would increase beyond … well … well beyond what any of us could imagine. Go through a few generations of that and the Metaverse would be something we natural humans couldn’t really grasp except maybe at the edge of a dream. The Metaverse is where the post-humans really live. The “real world” is just something you deal with through your constructs.
The speed of light: The Killjoy of the universe
By now, many of you are probably way ahead of me. Even if you grant us this magical Turinium as the ultimate computing material there is still the issue with distance. In fact, this very issue is the central plot point of the game’s universe. Let’s walk through what would happen if we a) figured out a way to increase our sentience by letting us add additional virtual hemispheres to our brain and b) this was done through a manufactured material called Turinium.
First, we’d have some years of arguing about how much of Earth itself is suitable to being converted into this substance and/or how much is ethical to turn into this substance. Then, once we ran out of material on Earth that could be converted we’d start eyeing the moon or Mars as candidates. But let’s say we sent a probe to Mars and it could convert some of the mass into Turinium. What good does that do us? Mars is on average 17 light minutes away. Even I think faster than that most of the time.
Manufacturing Turinium on asteroids or other planets only becomes interesting if you can find a way to communicate back and forth instantly. The good news, they find a way. The bad news, it will mean the end of us all.
For our lore, we came up with the concept of Quantum Streaming to solve our faster than light problem. Quantum streaming is similar to quantum entanglement without the baggage of using a real term that if turns out to be misunderstood doesn’t ruin our story. The idea is that with with enough computational power you can calculate what particles to manipulate to simultaneously manipulate twin particles somewhere else in the universe. This allows for two interesting things: First we can communicate instantly once we have the entanglement nailed. Second we can manipulate the particles in such a way to create nano-machines which in turn can then be instructed to build more complex things.
Humans didn’t invent quantum streaming just like they didn’t invent Turnium. Instead, in the early 21st century humans created the first strong AI called Haalee. And while she regularly joked about wiping us all out she was instrumental in discovering quantum streaming and how to use it.
Rise of the Post-Human Coalition
There’s only one gotcha with quantum streaming. Remember the part I said that if you have “enough” computational power you can do it? Well, by enough I mean a lot. A crazy, insane offensively gratuitous amount of computing power. A lot as in, only a few people have access to that kind of capability. If you think wealth inequality is a problem, imagine the scenario where only 0.01% of the population has the ability to spread themselves across the universe while the remaining 99.99% are stuck on Earth.
So without giving away the plot, what do you think would happen to the 0.01% if they said “Hey, we’ve decided we’re going to expand into the universe and become gods. Good luck to the rest of you!” And imagine that the reason they have that computational power is because nearly all of their Turinium is, naturally, physically located on Earth. What do you think would happen next? If you answered, violence you were right. Lots and lots of violence.
To solve this, this group of powerful Post-Humans created an organization called the Post-Human Coalition. This organization would lend the necessary computational power to other people who sought to expand beyond Earth. There were various rules that they agreed to abide by to ensure that other people would have their shot. For example, no good letting someone expand to say a piece of Mars who then figured out how to get to Proxima or Deneb or other planets and began to gobble things up for themselves before the rest of the two billion or so Post-Humans had their turn (the remaining population being natural or near-natural humans).
Paved with Good Intentions
Naturally, some of the Post-Humans who were given the ability to expand to other planets via quantum streaming quickly decided to violate their agreement. As a result, the PHC had to respond by creating its own military. An interstellar military is a different thing if you have no space ships. You have to figure out a way to essentially materialize entire armies onto distant planets to destroy the renegade’s Nexus (their central hub to manage their planet).
The PHC had to come up with an entire doctrine on how to enforce its rules through physical force. This meant designing constructs that could be controlled from light-years away and eliminating a renegade Post-Human from a given world before they managed to convert that world into Turinium.
Our next entry will go into exactly how the PHC accomplished this and the tools they use to wage war.
Next up: Building an interstellar military.
About the Game and Author: Brad Wardell is the founder and CEO of Stardock. He founded the company in his dorm room in 1993. He is the designer of Galactic Civilizations, The Political Machine, Ashes of the Singularity, Object Desktop, Start8, Multiplicity and numerous other games and software. He lives in Michigan with his wife and three children.
Ashes of the Singularity is scheduled to be released this Spring.