Bruce Sterling stares into the brave new future of eye-hacking.
Art by Koren Shadmi
"Augmented" is worming its way into becoming the buzz adjective du jour. Between augmented reality and human augmentation—from Pokemon Go to smart drugs to biohacking—we're priming our appetites for new experiential frontiers. We're already beginning to collide with what the transhumanists call 'H+'—the idea that an 'enhanced', or at least modified, humanity is within our grasp. So, for the next three weeks, Terraform is going to explore the concept of augmentation with three stories that examine the ramifications such fundamental experience-hacking may yield. First up, a feast for the eyes from one of the masters of the space: Bruce Sterling. Enjoy. -the editor
The robots took all the jobs. I was never gonna have one.
Personally, I was okay about my idleness. Happily doing nothing-much, that had always been my top life-skill. Still, I didn't like being stuck inside Mom and Dad's trailer.
So, I left Tennessee and I joined the US Army. The Army sent me on their free world-tour of the 'Stans. My deployment life, not so different. My duties had me watching targeting screens from inside trailers and bunkers. We jarheads were assigned to our jars, while those smart air drones, land drones, and sea drones, they just kept watching and learning.
I took up sniper training, because the Army recruitment algorithms had seen that I excelled at sitting quiet. I saw field action, I fired shots in battle. I got pretty decent at kinetically repressing hostiles, because I was fit, I knew my duty and the terrorists had it coming. But my robot sniper rifle learned to do that work better and faster than me.
The terror war never ended, but I mustered out. The Army kept promoting me, and I didn't like giving orders. Back home, us American vets had our guaranteed annual income to live on. Not real generous, but better than some other people. We had our balky GI psychiatric health-care. We had pretty much nothing at all to do.
I knew this Special Forces op who had volunteered for "milspec augmentation." The Army medics had amped him up with the fast combat reflexes, the big Olympic-doper muscles, like that. Out on patrol, my augmented pal was as shaky as a Mexican space shuttle, but back in civilian life, he was a cool macho beef-cake guy and the chicks really dug him. I was rent-sharing his apartment when he wiped out on his Harley. He had never trusted the driving skills of robot cars, that poor dumb guy.
Super-heroes never make wills, so nobody ever showed up to obtain his media center, his leather couch, his bachelor-pad waterbed, or that other cool stuff I was "sharing." His landlord was a real-estate robot. So if I kept the cash flow going for the rent and utilities, the algorithms probably wouldn't evict me. Plus, the barbecue's pretty damn good in Durham, North Carolina.
So, I snagged the needed rent money by part-timing on security cams. I would watch the screens like a trained US Army security guard, and the robot would watch my eyeballs moving. Pretty soon, the AI would deep-learn to watch like me, only better. Robots never get bored, robots never sleep, they need no wages or health care -- I'm sure you're heard that deep-learning, neural net, robotics pitch. Because it's all true, you know.
My little part-timer watchman job was about making sure that all the full-time security guys would lose their jobs forever. That was how it was working out everywhere.
The algorithms seemed to like my positive attitude, so I got a better offer. It came from "Ogmentoeil," a local medical-tech company in the North Carolina Research Triangle. These geeks were hiring medical volunteers for tests of their augmentation projects.
They offered me good money, though my job wasn't really "work." The medical-volunteer life is mostly about cheerfully doing nothing for as long as they need you to. Ogmentoeil Inc hired patients who were really patient. Healthy, baseline-humans who were cool about drinking distilled water, eating medically-defined diets, doing moderate calisthenics and totally avoiding vodka, marijuana, fast motorcycles and promiscuous diseases.
Basically, us in-house patients sat around the clinic and watched a lot of packaged entertainment.
My corporate employers at Ogmentoeil had a solid business model. They took proven milspec augment technology, combined that with their own biotech start-up weirdness, ran that mush through us volunteers, refined those treatments with algorithms, and then sold their patented augmentation products to super-rich guys who wanted to swagger around and act superhuman.
I got fed a stack of ethical briefings about my medical situation, but I just signed-off the checkboxes, because the basic deal was so obvious. Ogmentoeil needed the eyeballs, and I was paid to be the schmoe who would risk going blind. Most likely I wouldn't go blind, because their tech had worked great in dogs and guinea pigs.
Besides, the treatment was just painless eye-drops. I was a terror-war veteran, I'd seen people blown to pieces. I just couldn't get real fretful about the supposed risk of eye-drops.
So, I shared-out my shareable apartment to some other sharers, and I moved full-time into an ex-factory concrete fort near Durham. This Ogmentoeil compound was surrounded with videocams, networked visual robots making sure that no moving objects disturbed the biotechnical activities. Just like my Army bases out in the 'Stans, only entrepreneurial.
I got the eyedrops, both eyes, since I couldn't risk just one because that's not how stem cells work. "Tetrochromatic" means "four colors." Us human beings have only three color receptors, but sharp-eyed eagles and falcons and such, they've got four, plus, they're better-evolved. So my gummy eyedrops were built to ooze into the backs of my eyeballs, where they would tack some of those fancy four-color receptors into my standard three-color eyeball nerves.
The big-drama moment of my augmentation takes us like thirty seconds. Completely painless, no big deal. Then we await results. Every day I get the optometry tests. The shiny lights, the flashing speckles, all of that.
My augment is one of those alpha-rollout come-and-go things. My color perception improves some, the tests say, like thirty-seven percent better, they claim. But I'm the guy who's actually using the improved eyeballs. I'm not all that impressed by my high-tech experience.
It's like you get a new prescription for glasses. Maybe you say "Wow, everything looks so clear now!" But two days later, you can't notice it. People just get used to whatever they see. That's how people are in real life.
My eyeballs could see some new wavelengths. So for me, the rainbow looked a little broader, it was "Sort of Red, Red, Orange, Yellow, Blue, Green, Indigo, Violet, Even More Purpley." But nobody goes around gazing at rainbows all the time, except maybe gay guys.
Of course the robots were closely studying my eyeballs during all this. They wanted to deep-learn and simulate human eyeballs, so that Ogmentoeil could get rid of human volunteers. They didn't want to pay so much.
And I got it about that idea, because -- cheap robot labor does have its benefits. That's why we've all got those guaranteed annual incomes. Basically, the robots generate the wealth, and the investors bribe us with some of it, so we won't go set fire to ourselves and blow everyone up, like they all do out in the 'Stans. And man, that is a pretty good arrangement, because the 'Stans are goddamn terrible.
I've got a heart. I've been around some. I wouldn't risk my own eyeballs just as a mercenary, for no better reason than that. If Ogmentoeil can run really lean and cheap, then the market price of an eyeball augment ought to crash some day. Then the benefits of corporate eyeball science can be spread over anybody who's got eyeballs. Free eyeballs, all around. Like that.
So, for six weeks, my color perception gets better, better, better, then the effect levels off. Slowly, the eyedrops start wearing away. Of course it's not a permanent upgrade for me, it's all been set up as an experiment. So the bioactive components will dwindle off, and my eyesight will return to my schmoe status quo, so they claim.
I muster out, I go home to my shared apartment. I kick out my three sub-sharing girls who are splitting the rent on my place. They've totally messed up my apartment, of course. I have to completely re-format my media center, new providers, cable, wireless, new passwords, tiered services, all that. Fixing my home display screens is a total nightmare, it's way more painful than anything that happened to my eyeballs.
I drop by the fort twice a week for further optometry tests. I eat only pre-packaged Ogmentoeil TV dinners and they pay me intern wages while I'm tapering off. Mostly I watch TV at home, and since I got some loose money, I splurge on the top-tier package.
Then I quickly see that my new media set-up is, like, TV Utopia. I always kind of liked old TV shows, especially the old serials, the ones where the plot never much changes, so you can binge-watch for years. But, since I got the augmentation, now I'm starting to notice weird little stuff.
Like: I can see that "retina screens" are made out of teensy colored dots. The accurate colors don't really mesh all that well with the sloppy analog color formats of twentieth-century television.
But mostly, I start noticing how much human work they were doing for those old TV shows. Like: incredible, classy, artistic human labor. I can't help but see how the camera is moving around. I suddenly realize that all their cameras are huge, heavy boxes. The old cameras are completely dumb, no built-in smarts at all. Human beings, "camera-men" I guess, are physically pushing the cameras around. They even focus those cameras by using their own human hands.
And the lighting is also hard human work. They're huge electric lights, and some TV guy is physically working them. He's getting paid to make all kinds of arty fuss about the contrast of the light and shadows.
Then I realize that even the actresses get it about those big cameras and those bright lights. The TV machines are so huge and awkward, the actresses can literally see their working parts. These girls are some hard-working artistes. They're not just making cute girl-expressions while they recite their dialogue lines. They're placing their faces into the light with the camera so that their make-up will look better. I can't help but notice all that, and it's fascinating.
After a while my eyeball augment was fading, so my screen didn't look quite as vivid. No problem, I just turned up the brightness slider. The thing was, maybe my fancy eyes had "seen" it first, but my brain had understood the art.
I understood TV now. I just did. Nobody needs great eyes to watch TV. Old people have terrible eyes, and they love TV.
And the amazing thing about the old, human TV was… there was just this incredible plenitude of artistry. This amazing human generosity. All that labor, just stored up and recorded. Now it was being given away, for free. Mostly by and for the robots, I guess.
The old software computers, they always loved text, but modern AI computers, man, they sure do love TV. These deep-learning neural nets were just superb at analyzing video. And since they weren't human at all, the robots were completely cool with Hindi television, Brazilian, Mexican, French, German, Turkish television back when there was a Turkey…
The robots made automatic translations, they just dubbed everything on the fly. Esperanto straight to Eskimo, no problem for robots; just the right emotional intonations, too… since they'd watched billions and billions of hours of actors talking, their translated performances were better-acted than the originals.
The robots were better than me at watching TV. But that was okay. That was how it was. I would never work for a television show, because the whole technical structure of that art-form was gone forever. TV just didn't exist, like dinosaurs didn't.
TV was a precious thing stored deep in the dark that popped out in the light when you pumped it. TV was like fossil fuel, and I had lucked out, and struck oil. And the world was full of it.
I was so rich.