Advanced subatomic theory

The substructure of the universe regresses infinitely towards smaller and smaller components. Behind atoms we find electrons, and behind electrons quarks. Each layer unraveled reveals new secrets, but also new mysteries.

— Academician Prokhor Zakharov, “For I Have Tasted The Fruit”

The universal state of things expressed in this quote is not only applicable to the natural world at large (or small, as the case might be), but also to the lifeworlds of humans in general. The discovery of ever smaller components is equally a function of how the universe is structured, and of how knowledge is built upon previously accumulated knowledge. In order to find a smaller component, it is necessary to have discovered what said component is smaller than. It is, as Yang said, an iterative process.

Secrets and mysteries depend fully on the point of view adopted at a given point in time. On the one hand, it is necessary to know enough about something to know there are things not yet known; on the other hand, secrets unravel and mysteries unfold as soon as they become knowable enough to be subjected to systematic study. There is at all times a finite range of conceptually available objects that are not yet fully understood, but also not completely unknown. As Gadamer would have it, there are always things just beyond the horizon, and as we move towards it, new horizons come into view. The specific secrets and mysteries of the day tend to be discovered and explored, but there will always be new ones lurking just slightly further into the future.

This parallel between physical and mental universes can – it is assumed – only be pushed so far. Eventually, we will run out of physical universe; at some point, we will have found the smallest component there could possibly be, where venturing into smaller scales simply would not be a meaningful thing to do. Zakharov’s infinity is not quite as infinite as it is made out to be. It is, however, infinite enough to last for the rest of our lives, and possibly the lives of many generations to come. Which, for all intents and purposes we might have, is infinite enough to suffice, and to warrant the active seeking out of new mysteries and secrets to uncover. We are not done with the small secrets of the universe just quite yet.

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Optical computers

We have reached an informational threshold which can only be crossed by harnessing the speed of light directly. The quickest computations require the fasted possible particles moving along the shortest paths. Since the capability now exists to take our information directly from photons traveling molecular paths, the final act of the information revolution will soon be upon us.

— Academician Prokhor Zakharov ,”For I Have Tasted the Fruit”

Optical computers is an interesting technology from a gameplay perspective, seeing that it does not provide any benefits whatsoever. None, zero, nothing. The only reason to research it is that it is required for other technologies further down the line. Thus, this technology is as close a representation of pure science as the game gets – the advancement of knowledge for its own sake, rather than for the promise of new toys and gizmos to play around with.

This can be contrasted with our intuitive understanding of the inherent usefulness of really, really fast computers. As Zakharov indicates, speed is the name of the game here; nothing being faster than the speed of light, optical computers would by definition be the fastest difference engine in town. Those of us who are old enough to remember when ordinary silicon computers made an entry into the lifeworlds of ordinary people, can remember the distinct difference even the slowest of these devices made. The same goes for old style modems, creating unimaginably slow connections which nevertheless opened up brand new worlds. What marvels are waiting just around the corner of the invention of these very, very fast molecular modern machines?

If the cyberoptimism of the late 80s or early 90s is something to go by – the low end modems would bring democracy, enlightenment and the whole accumulated cultural achievements of humanity into the living rooms of the masses – then the hype surrounding these newfangled optical computers ought to be similarly over the top. While these optical inventions may or may not deliver on these new cyberoptimistic promises, the hype might well be sufficient in and of itself to generate the societal enthusiasm required to transition into this new computational mode. It would not be the first time computational circuits came into being following this peculiar, circular mode of production. Whatever comes after their invention is a big, curious unknown, but once optical computers are in place, they cannot but produce the effects they are going to have. Sometimes the very promise of a better future is what brings it into being.

Planetary Networks

Why do you insist that the human genetic code is “sacred” or “taboo”? It is a chemical process and nothing more. For that matter we are chemical processes and nothing more. If you deny yourself a useful tool simply because it reminds you uncomfortably of your mortality, you have uselessly and pointlessly crippled yourself.

– Chairman Sheng-ji Yang, “Looking God in the Eye”

The transition from the first technological tier to the second is most pronounced in the transition from Information Networks to Planetary Networks. The former is all about getting things to work in the first place – to ensure that there are computers that can work under the conditions of the new planet, and that they can talk to each other in a rudimentary fashion. In a sense, it’s like setting up a home network: immensely useful once done, but ultimately local in scale. It is a requirement to setting up a planetary network, but the work ahead requires a very different set of steps than those already taken. If the home router stops working, you can just restart it. The same can not be said for a global network connecting everyone and – if there are aliens – everything.

Framing this as a technology rather than a secret project forces us to make a number of assumptions about the world of Alpha Centauri. One is that research projects necessarily entail some manner of physical implementation of the things researched. In this case, the physical infrastructure necessary to get the planetary network in question up and running: cables, relays, comm towers, routers, TCP/IP protocols of the future, whatever it takes to get information flowing from here to there to everywhere. The network node facilities are part of this, but they have a sense of being particularly good instances of infrastructure, rather than being the infrastructure itself. Not having a local node does not mean not being connected to the emergent network; it just means the connection might not always be top notch.

A second assumption is that all factions, despite potentially being at war with each other, agree on the fundamental necessity of building this network. There are no gameplay mechanics related to opting out of the global datalinks, nor are the difficulties of setting them up ever mentioned (outside of the cost of researching this technology). The network, it is assumed, is taken for granted in the future. One way or another, it will come to pass.

Perhaps it is in this sense we are meant to read Yang’s quote. Not just in the light of his enlightened nihilism, but in the relentless usefulness of technologies and the way they impose themselves on us. Opting out of the planetary network is not an alternative on the table, nor is it considered at any length whatsoever. The fact that the network connects everyone to everyone – be they friend or foe, researcher or hacker, trade caravan or probe team – is of secondary importance to the fact that those who are not connected are crippled. The network is a technological process and nothing more. The reference to genetic code simply underscores just how integrated technology is in the human condition on Chiron; without it, we are nothing. It foreshadows what is to come.

Polymorphic Software

Technological advance is an inherently iterative process. One does not simply take sand from the beach and produce a Dataprobe. We use crude tools to fashion better tools, and then our better tools to fashion more precise tools, and so on. Each minor refinement is a step in the process, and all of the steps must be taken.

– Chairman Sheng-ji Yang, “Looking God in the Eye”

As with the Secrets of the Human Brain, this is a technology which does not spring out of immediate necessity. There is no void that yearns to be filled, no critical infrastructure that ceases to function should no polymorphic software be available for immediate use. Rather, it fills a more peculiar role. While its uses are not instantly apparent, they loom down the line, once the technology has matured. As Yang notes, all of the steps must be taken, and this is but one of many such steps.

The in-game text hints at this technology being the development of artificial neural networks. As we have seen from contemporary uses of this same concept, the results are not always as impressive as its proponents claim they would be. We were promised a new age of deep learning and computer who could come up with non-obvious solutions to complex problems, but so far the most well-known instance is twitter user horse_ebooks. Given that the Horse turned out to be a human project after all, the promises are more akin to vaporware than anything else.

Again, science fiction has the advantage of being able to rely on its fictional aspect. The challenges that face us today have been overcome, by feat of future advances we (for obvious reasons) have not made yet, but probably/hopefully/maybe will in times ahead. It is a grammatical move to the tense of future perfect. By virtue of being fiction, all the steps necessary to arrive at the starting point must have been taken; the narrative universe would break down otherwise.

An interesting proposition would be to let loose a large number of neural networks at attempting to write such technologies. They can not see the future, obviously, but they just might be able to read fast enough to produce descriptions of possible futures that compare favorably with what we come up with on our own. If technological advance is an iterative process, the fiction of and about technological advance should reasonably follow suit. While I do not doubt that most of the automagically written futures will be half garbled, half genre, the sheer number of them has the potential to spark potential iterations all by itself. Quantity has a quality all of its own, after all.

Secrets of the Human Brain

There are only two ways in which we can account for a necessary agreement of experience with the concepts of its objects: either experience makes these concepts possible or these concepts make experience possible.

– Immanuel Kant, “Critique of Pure Reason”, Datalinks

If we pooled everything we know and understand about the brain, consciousness and related topics, we would still come up short in attempting to explain the simple feat of someone raising their hand, keeping it raised for a short period of time, then lowering it again. To be sure, there would be plenty to say about nerve impulses and the muscular mechanics of motion, but the link between the decision to raise the hand and the actual lifting is still a mystery. It makes sense to assume such a link exists – if nothing else, it conforms to our experience – but the specifics elude us.

The fact that the colonists endeavor to figure this out at such an early stage in the process signifies two things. First, it implies that Kant is still a force to be reckoned with, and that philosophy of mind has become a much more applied undertaking than at present. Second, it marks a distinct move away from merely making do, in the direction of transforming the human being into something more suitable. In the equation of a healthy mind in a healthy body, this technology falls down hard in the former category.

Figuring out how the brain works is not automatically a project undertaken in the same manner as Kant proposed in his definition of the Enlightenment. It could very well also take place in the same way digital advertising and dark design occur today: finding the triggers that cause us to keep clicking and consuming even when we’d really rather not. This is the difference between introspection and manipulation. Introspection assumes a self capable of observing how it goes about things, modifying its behavior in accordance with what it sees and wishes to understand. Manipulation also assumes a self being seen, but from without, being poked and prodded so as to achieve predictable results. Lal would advocate the former, while Yang would ruthlessly implement the latter.

In all this, the specter of determinism looms. It is implied that by understanding what makes the brain tick, it will become possible to control human beings, perhaps even in a way envisioned by behaviorists. From any given set of initial conditions, a small range of predictable outcomes are guaranteed. I posit that this is less of a philosophical (or even scientific) question, and more of an ideological choice. It is equally possible to infuse humans with radical self-knowledge as it is to use this knowledge to steer them unawares. Figuring out how to do it does not automatically determine the choice of the one over the other, but merely makes it that much more important to realize that there is a choice to be made in the first place.

Information networks

The righteous need not cower before the drumbeat of human progress. Though the song of yesterday fades into the challenge of tomorrow, God still watches and judges us. Evil lurks in the datalinks as it lurked in the streets of yesteryear. But it was never the streets that were evil.

 – Sister Miriam Godwinson, “The Blessed Struggle”

The most science fiction part of any story set in the future is the implication that computers work now. There are no hassles, no software incompatibilities, no hardware hickups, no opaque interfaces. You just tell the computer to do something, and it does that specific thing, without accidentally doing something completely different which could also be parsed from the command given. Printers – let praise be unto the Lord as he has mercy upon us all – work.

Most of this utopian aspect of science fiction comes from dramatic convenience. As in real life, a three hour debugging session to find out why two pieces of hardware which, according to all the specs should talk to each other, do not in fact talk to each other – is not conducive to the romantic ups and downs of an emerging relationship. In fact, it tends to be rather orthogonal to such cinematic endeavors, in as much as two persons have to do something when not dreamily (and/or awkwardly) losing themselves in each other’s eyes. And, once the problem has been identified and resolved, the hardware in question tends to be put into the most pedestrian uses imaginable.

The fact that one of the first technologies available in the game is in essence a many-year debugging and networking session speaks to the implied critique inherent in Miriam’s quote. Technology does not implement itself, and there is always a choice to do things differently. Especially on a new planet, where the standards of old Earth (be they social or code) are suggestions rather than rules ruthlessly enforced by indifferent inertia. The datalinks do not have to be built according to specs that facilitate evil – there is always an option to leave Google behind.

That said, the benefits of getting a local internet up and running as quickly as possible are obvious and difficult to quantify. Not only in terms of being able to share information about new scientific discoveries (very much an applied everyday matter on Chiron), but also in terms of being able to get hold of a plumber when the makeshift piping breaks again. There are innumerable problems facing the early colonists, and most of them are solved that much faster when people know where to go and what to do. Even if the lines of communication at first are limited to the most basic of walkie-talkies, those are better than not having them at all.

This raises the question of what kind of early-day memetics will emerge on these hastily built up and gradually more solidified information networks. As more and more people get access to the net, the same social dynamics will arise as here on Earth: kids will find new ways to express themselves, new trends will arise, a non-zero number of colonists will hook up with someone else. If the medium is the message, as McLuhan maintained, then the shape of these early information systems will form the messages sent through them. Most of these messages will be forgotten as their quotidian purpose is completed, but some words and phrases will remain for years to come, artifacts of communication protocols past. Moshi moshi.

Or, to quote Roger Wilco from the Space Quest series: “Hello”.

Biogenetics

We hold life to be sacred, but we also know the foundation of life consists in a stream of codes not so different from the successive frames of a watchvid. Why then cannot we cut one code short here, and start another there? Is life so fragile that it can withstand no tampering? Does the sacred brook no improvement?

– Chairman Sheng-ji Yang, “Dynamics of Mind”

Being on an alien planet surrounded by alien life in an alien ecology sooner or later results in encountering alien diseases. Most of these diseases will be unable to interact with human biology, given the widely differing evolutionary pasts and trajectories, but there will inevitably be something that manages to wreak havoc. Besides the value of knowing things just in case something good comes of it, knowing enough to be able to act preemptively will prevent a lot of grief down the line. The study of Biogenetics is the study of what makes human tick, both in archival terms (e.g. reconstructing the information brought from the Unity) and in terms of the actually existing humans of the colony.

Much like the techs discussed above, most of these early efforts would consist of setting up shop and assessing the data brought over in the databanks. While biology is an inherited trait, biotech facilities are not, and thus they have to be built. It is one of the inherent ironies of biology that despite being it, we do not gain any particular insight about it from our nature. Instead, we have to construct things that are utterly non-biological – the more clinically sterile a medicinal lab is, the better – in order to come to grips with ourselves. Biogenetics as a colonial effort consists of building the labs, doctor’s offices and medical training facilities necessary to keep medical science alive and kicking. The fact that some of the patients and/or subjects are infected by organisms of alien origin only gives this endeavor more urgency.

Yang, in this quote, is more concerned with the long term implications of understanding human biology in depth. If it is possible to add and remove DNA at will, why not do it? What’s stopping us? Biology is a resilient thing, capable of surviving just about anything. With a sufficiently deep understanding of how biological systems manage to overcome obstacles, similar traits can be transferred to humanity, regardless of where they originated. Letting such notions as purity and sacredness stand in the way is, in the long term, a hindrance. Of all the human leaders, Yang is the earliest to confront the notion of transcendence and think: let’s go there.

Granted, at this point it is still early days, and the construction dust has barely settled around the first rudimentary rinky-dink biotech clinic. But things do not have to be actually doable in the immediate present to be thinkable; indeed, this is a core premise of science fiction.