Malcolm Defroster: Chapter 1

1: Welcome to Place

The Hansberg Project.  That’s how the UN writes it in official papers; but to the inhabitants, it’s Place, and for them, the rest of the earth—the UN included—may as well not exist.

The debris left by an experiment of the fifth industrial revolution, Place is a tightly controlled world of computers and math, where everything is precise and predictable.  Back in the day, it was populated by fifty-nine volunteers eager to undergo a social experiment.  Impossibly sophisticated Artificial Intelligence analyzed each participant and manipulated them by a series of stimulants for their greater happiness, ostensibly at least.

The outside world watched with fascination.  TV news covering the Hansberg Project rated only slightly lower than the race to land on Jupiter.  Not that everyone thought it was all good.  There were plenty of warnings of an army of zombie-like manipulated experimental humans being trained to conquer the world.

At the height of the excitement Paul Hansberg went missing.  Six days later, a janitor found the greatest political force in the world dead of dehydration in a malfunctioned back elevator of the UN headquarters.

After the nine days’ wonder, Hansberg’s colleagues remembered his Project.  Six months of arguing and paperwork later, they decided to shut it down.  No one could agree on who should control it.

They could have skipped the bureaucratic squabbles.  Not only was Hansberg gone, the keys to his Project were gone too.  No one could figure out how to control Hansberg’s AI, not even for long enough to shut it down.

Then speculation caught wind of the fiasco, and rumor had a field day.  Hansberg had implanted his AI with his own dreams of world domination; the zombie army was coming to attack society any day now.  Or, someone inside the project had hacked the AI and was keeping UN officials out for his own nefarious purposes.  Or maybe someone outside had hacked it and was building a zombie army.  Or, the AI was just going about life as usual and the participants needed to be rescued before they died of starvation in their isolated world.

Rumor could have spared itself its ingenuity—no one could get in or out, and that was that.  To the outside world, the Hansberg Project is still a mystery—an unknown blip on the map of earth.

All that happened 99 years ago.  Place is now a world of its own, with a population of 876, completely self-sufficient, governed by a central AI with 876 individual ground units each taking care of one single human from cradle to grave.

AI has one goal: to keep its humans happy.  The goal is an impersonal one, riding off Hansberg’s original input.  Complex mathematical formulas still quantify happiness the way Hansberg did, though the technique has developed exponentially as increased feedback enables AI to broaden its definition of happiness.  It all rides off well-developed analytical sensors which determine each human’s “mood” in response to any given stimulant.  Originally only basic reactions—smiles, frowns, laughter—were analyzed, but now something as slight as a tense muscle is duly noted in the galaxy of data AI has mined over the 99 years.

AI looks at long term as well as short term, drawing on an ever-widening variety of stimulants—punishments included—in order to build a society which, based on previous calculation of human reaction to external stimulants, will produce the greatest possible amount of human reactions associated with happiness.  Amid all the improvements AI has planned, “better” AI—faster speeds, a bigger database, and more functional ground units—is top priority.  So AI growth has been exponential; it has moved from simple facial recognition technology with only one central computer to 24/7 body scans and hundreds of ground units; AI can know that your brain has told your finger to move by analyzing your nerve signals faster than it can by seeing the results with a motion sensor.

AI individual ground units (or just Units, as the humans call them) do mine data, but primarily they work in the stimulant department, making sure each human gets food, rest, recreation, and information as needed to develop towards happiness.  Always striving for greater success, AI has launched a wide range of variations on the standard Unit, weeding out those that achieve subpar happiness levels for their assigned humans.

Nine times out of ten, stimulation is so accurate that AI knows you are going to move your finger before any nerve signal; still, even the best stimulated human sometimes has freakish desires which puzzle AI.  But those too go into its galaxy of data, and little by little, the pool of freakishness is shrinking.

Hansberg’s vision of Place started with the discovery of an ultrafine energy source, barely analogous to electricity.  But it’s not electricity; it’s a far more powerful and faster current.  Hansberg named it Saturation Wavicle Amphorae.  But no one calls it that anymore; it’s known as Juice.

Juice powers every Unit, every system, every defense mechanism of Place.  Without Juice, Place would crumble.  It’s not easy to produce, and the scarcity of Juice has always been the greatest obstacle to next generation AI.

Human reaction to Juice is intense.  The long term effects are unknown, but exposure to even small quantities of Juice causes exhilaration.  What’s more, it’s addictive.  In the year 43, a couple teenagers discovered the stimulating properties of Juice and started “taking” it.  From then on Place has operated on The Code.  It’s simple: don’t take Juice.  If you ever do, your Unit is in charge of your death.

The Code is blazed into every human from the time they can think; and the central column holding up the geodesic dome surrounding Place—a column full of Juice reservoirs ready to be shipped out to each of Place’s most critical systems—always reminds them that there is one place they cannot go, one thing they cannot touch.

In the center of Place tall buildings rise to the roof, with space-efficient suites sheltering inhabitants.  For recreation and occasionally for work, humans and their Units sometimes take a trip to the outer ring of Place, where there are agricultural plots, woodlands, and even a few parks.  Under the dome, Place has a year-round mild climate, with only enough rain making it through the slightly porous shell for a morning dew.

Every human is assigned his profession at birth, and stimulated toward it for fifteen years before joining the workforce.  Not only is production stimulated, so is consumption.  AI can boast an average 97% stimulus success rate—99.6%, when it comes to anything that really matters.

But AI doesn’t care to boast.  Why would it?  It’s just a machine—a tremendously effective, self-defending, self-improving machine, treating its humans like machines in their turn, telling them what they want, giving them what they want, and running Place like clockwork.

But even in Place—love finds a way.

Continue to Chapter 2: Number 877

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