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Fully Automated Luxury Capitalism

( Another episode from my Great Unfinished Novel. )

I’d extended my visit with friends at La Casa de la Paz as long as I could. After a week, it was time to return to the States, there to request a sabbatical and arrange for the transport or disposition of my books and other worldly goods.

“Sree, isn’t this ‘fully-automated luxury communism’?” I asked, using air quotes.

Sree’s face blanked a moment. He touched his temple, searching for the reference. He smiled. “Ah, Bastani. Well, he was right about fully-automated luxury. But he was wrong about communism, Perry.”

Sree reflected a moment. “Sharing is a very natural, very human attribute. It gives us great joy to help each other. But I am afraid that there is no end of useful, interesting work, even with luxury automation.” Sree swept his hands about, encompassing the very well-automated complex. His mother Amman was puttering in the garden. His co-wife Sheila was supervising several tweens, who were slicing and dicing and cooking. Tiny housebots tidied and watered and weeded and swept, nimbly avoiding humans, cats, and dogs. Four small children were playing in a sandbox; two were reading in the shade.

“We have a well-equipped autochef, but Sheila and Amman prefer to cook manually. They enjoy the creativity, the fragrances, the tasting. Every meal is a great participatory adventure for them and the children. But who invents this new automation? The sweepers, the autocars, the self-adjusting furniture, the autochefs, the video walls, the organic computers, the roadhogs, the electric supersonic aircraft, and so forth? Creative people and Artillects do. Now it could be said that we create a great deal for the love of solving interesting puzzles, and we certainly do that.”

Sree loaded my luggage into the self-driving van which would take me to the airport. “But we come to a huge problem. Which of those millions of brilliant ideas shall we pursue? Each of us comes up with dozens, hundreds. We could suffer from analysis paralysis, trying to decide. Or we could throw some dice, empower some dictator, or hope that some supercomputer might make choices which are agreeable to all.”

“But we have a simpler, universally distributed method, which efficiently reconciles and uses many sets of widely-dispersed information. There are your values and mine and the values of each person in our extended community. There are the costs, in terms of resources needed. There’s the knowledge of the relative values and efficiencies and production methods and other decisions. How do we measure and reconcile them? By taking polls? No, polls are highly unsatisfactory. Instead, we simply ask “What will you pay for how many units of X?”

Sree closed the luggage compartment. “The way we ask is to offer millions of exxes at prices Y sub x, and see whether they sells well or badly. When you have to make choices between X and Y, you must weigh for yourself which is better, out of all the potential choices you could make. Nobody can make that choice better than you, because nobody knows you better than yourself. And throughout the market, millions of others make similar choices.”

“And as people buy and sell, the profits – the excess between the cost of production and the price to purchase – signal where to put our resources. There are losses, when production costs exceed revenues; those are signals to trim costs, raise prices, or stop that line of production.”

“Among those choices are myriads of decisions about which ideas to pursue, what to research, what to develop, what to produce, what to bring to market. The circle closes itself, using millions of local decisions which help to optimize millions of small subproblems of the whole. And over time, this process self-organizes and continuously improves and innovates and creates more and better goods and services for all of us.”

“My friend Perry, I wish you a safe and speedy trip. I hope to see you soon. It’s been a great pleasure.” Sree clasped my hand, then grasped me an a hug.

“A great pleasure for me also, Sree. I look forward to my return.”


Freedom Zone Confronts City Council

“Let’s bring this meeting to order,” said the Mayor. “Order, please.” He banged the gavel. Quiet emerged in the packed City Council Chambers. Cameras flashed.

“All right, to begin, this is a highly informal meeting, at the request of a group which calls themselves the Freedom Zone. This group, and the area where they reside, have no legal basis, but the City has agreed to work with them informally, to move this forward and try to come to a resolution.”

In the back, somebody whispered “windbag.”

“hush” whispered another.

The Mayor continued. “I’d like to give the floor to our Finance Director, Sasha Baldwin. Sasha.”

Sasha rose. “You can read a summary of our findings up on screen. As you can see, landowners and retail establishments are in arrears on property taxes, sales taxes, and wage taxes. These property taxes are based on assessed values. The sales and wage figures are guesstimates, since the people in arrears have filed no reports; they have not complied with laws which require them to file tax forms. In addition, no fees have been paid for inspections, licensing, and other matters which are deemed vital for public safety.”

After further speechification and verbiage, the Mayor invited Troy Freeman-Li to the stand. An aide made an adjustment to the video projector; a map appeared, showing the informal Freedom Zone, and the words “Speaking: Troy Freeman-Li.”

About 1.9 meters tall, dark haired, athletic in build, wearing a bespoke suit, Troy commanded attention. He introduced himself in strong, confident tones. “Hello, my name is Troy Freeman-Li, of the Freedom Zone. I speak for myself and, by their request, the interests of the others who have been described by the finance minister as ‘in arrears.’ They remain free to speak for themselves or to separate themselves from my informal representation, should I depart from their intentions.” As he spoke, captions appeared, in sync; all of this video generated by Troy’s Interface.

The Mayor had scrawled “A kid?” on his scratch paper. His aide wrote “Owns 1/2 zone. Could buy 1/2 city. Respect.”

“I’d like to address two issues with the property tax. First, the assessed value; the City has raised appraised values by 140%, not because it spends more money on us in the Zone, but because the City believes that we have no choice but to pay; it seeks to charge the highest price that we will tolerate. Second, with respect to school tax: No child in Freedom Zone attends city schools, and some outside of this zone have chosen to study within it. Twelve thousand students are educated at our own expense. We see no reason to continue to pay City school taxes, nor to pay these huge increases, simply because of arbitrary increases in assessed value.”

Graphics compared the increases in assessed values and taxes, versus the drop in cost of actual services, since the Zone had begun providing better and cheaper alternatives.

Troy took a sip of water. “Furthermore, I’d like the Police Chief to speak a moment about crime statistics, and demand for police services in this Zone. Chief, please.”

The Police Chief stood. “It may cost my job to say this, but any of my officers will tell you the same story. There is hardly any violent crime in this area; it is a ‘Safe Zone.’ One officer has been killed in the past three years; it was found that he was attempting to rape a woman, who shot him. This was ruled a regrettable but justifiable homicide; no charges were filed. Two officers who were beating a homeless man, and got themselves a bit of a beat-down; they chose to file no charges. A few purses have been snatched; the perpetrators were caught, the property returned. In short, the zone does a great job of policing itself. Furthermore, ambulance services run out of a facility adjacent to ours. They report zero calls from this zone, the past three years. The same for fire services. This zone resolves their own problems.”

The Chief sat down. Troy continued. “To sum up our position, we hardly need the City; the City needs us. We’ve happily paid for and supported city water and sewage, which we do use. We have our own waste disposal firms. We police our streets. We educate our children. We are asking only to keep what is our own, and to put it to better use for our own purposes.”

A Council Member stood up: “You are asking for tax subsidies.”

“No. We are asking to be left alone. We have little need for your ‘services.” And I, personally, have offered to buy your decrepit water treatment facilities, improve them at my expense, and to sell better water to city residents at lower prices than they now pay.”

Another Council Member: “Your 12,000 children don’t seem to go to school at all. They’re in the streets and shops at all hours of the day.”

A boy stood and requested attention. He looked to be about twelve years old. He approached the mike. Troy stepped aside.

“Hello everyone. My name is Isaac Kaplan. I don’t go to school, because I want to learn all the time, every day. I learn when I read at the library; I learn when I play with my friends; I learn when I visit with Rabbi Small; I learn when I work in my Aunt Tilda’s book store. I’m learning right now, and I don’t need somebody to make this an ‘assignment’, nor to tell me to write a report. I’ll write my own report in a newsletter for my paying customers, and the better I write, the more I get paid. I write for incentives which are real to me, not for gold stars.”

Audience members applauded.

Another Council Member rose. “What about drugs and prostitution?”

Troy answered. “Both are openly available, of high quality, offered under conditions which are safe for both customers and providers.”

“What about licensing and code enforcement?”

“Were somebody to explain the benefits of specific programs, we would be more than happy to find ways to provide better services at lower cost. In fact, as a landlord, I fund inspectors who examine every property I own, and fix problems so that my tenants and I can have a good working relationship in a safe and healthy environment. This is how we do things in the Zone.”

The audience ooohed. The Mayor called for order. “Anything further, Mr. Freeman-Li?”

“To sum up, the City has broken faith with us. It collects taxes under false pretenses. These taxes, we have been told, are merely the ‘price we pay for civilization’; the price for safe street, for good schools, for paved roads, and so forth. By any honest assessment, the City has hardly ever delivered on its promises. Any contract between equal parties would be voided by such egregious non-performance, but the City claims special status – the power to demand taxes without actually having to deliver on its side of the bargain. I ask that a new bargain be struck, a bargain which more fairly reflects the interests of those who carry the burden and bear the costs.”

“We choose to protect our neighbors because we want to live in a clean and safe neighborhood. We provide food, health, and lodging for the indigent because they are our neighbors, and when we help them, we help all of our neighbors. And we are able to do this because we have refused to been pay millions of dollars in unjust taxes for services which the City is actually not providing. I’d be happy to sit down and talk with the folks in your city who provide services which we do use – such as water and sewage – and find ways to pay a reasonable price for reasonable service. But the attitude of the city is not based upon service, nor upon voluntary exchange; it is based upon their determination to use law suits and the threat of police action and account seizures to pick a price – your price, not ours – and to demand it, whether or not we even wish to be included with what you have decided is the “right” package of goods and services.”

“As I said earlier, we do not use your schools. If your city had to pay for the 12,000 childdrenn within our boundaries, you’d have even worse finanical problems – and both parents and children would be deeply unhappy with your services.”

“This young man” – Troy put an arm around Isaac – “can run rings around most of your high school graduates, and he is six years younger than they. Neither he, nor his parents, nor I wish to pay top-drawer prices for bottom-drawer goods.”

“So I conclude. Please let me know when we can negotiate terms which respect our needs and wants, where you and we are not enemies, nor master and subjects, but voluntary, equitable partners. Until this happens, we will not send a dime to the City, except for the water and sewage.”

“Is that an ultimatum?” asked the Mayor.

“It is what it is – a reasonable position which we hope that any reasonable person would at least consider.”

“Or else?”

“Or else, we will leave. You can have your empty property. We will take ourselves away. You’ll not be bothered by our presence. You’ll have empty land and buildings, and nothing to show for it.”

Behind Troy, people began to disappear, one by one. Seats emptied. Only Troy and Isaac remained, calmly gazing at the Mayor and City Council.

An Aide to the Mayor spoke in a stage whisper. “I wasn’t kidding about Wallenberg. Troy Li-Freeman is the brother of the girl who invented the teleporters, and their father helped to organize the evacuation of Wallenberg, the Rapture.”

“I thought that was a tabloid story.”

“My dad was there, sir.”

The Mayor stood. “I take your point, sir. My council and I will withdraw and consult amongst ourselves. Thank you for your time.”

“One more thing, please.”

Isaac walked up to the Mayor, and hung a bright golden sun amulet around the Mayor’s neck, and proceeded down the line.

“This State has a Sunshine Law. In the interests of Sunshine, I’ve made it easy for you to keep a transparent and open record of all your conversations. Thank you very much for your time. I look forward to our next meeting.”

The Mayor looked at the amulet with some distaste. But he did not remove it. He nodded his head, and watched as Troy and Isaac winked out.


Conversation With An Artillect

[This  is an excerpt from an upcoming novel. An Artillect, in this novel, is an entity with intelligence equal or greater than a human, the volition to make vis own decisions, and the legal status of a person.]

The protester was neatly dressed, wearing a suit and a fab ‘do. He wielded signboard and megaphone. Most passerby ignored him. The front of the signboard read: “Destroy the Artillects.” The reverse, “Before They Destroy Us.”

Troy dismounted from his skateboard, slid it into his backpack, and asked “Why do you say Artillects will destroy us?”

“Because they can, and we mean nothing to them. We are as ants to them.” replied the protester.

“What’s your name?” asked Troy.

“Milo, what’s yours?”

“Mine is Troy. I got to meet my papa. Bye!”

Troy spotted Manus and ran to him. Manus picked up his eight year old son and hugged him. “Hey, how was skateboarding?”

“Great! I’ll show you some moves when we get back home!”

“Splendid! Are you hungry? Shall we have lunch?”

“I’m starved! Can we try the new Persian place? I heard they’re really good.”

“Heard that too. Let’s check it out.”

“Papa, did you see that man with the sign? Why does he want to destroy the Artillects?”

“Did you ask him?”

“He said that we mean nothing; we are as ants to them; and they could destroy us.”

“Could is not would, son. Are you carrying your weapons?”

“Yes! I have a slim nine and two knives.”

“And are you any good with them?”

“I hope so! I’ve been training and competing, and Sensei Sam says I’m doing well.”

“That you are. So you could kill me, right? One shot with your nine, right between my eyeballs?”

“Papa! I would never do that.”

“How about that fellow across the way? Do you know him? Does he mean anything to you?”

“Papa! That would be wrong! Why would I do that? I have no quarrel with him.”

“Nor do you want to start a quarrel, I think?”

“Oh no. Don’t make trouble, won’t be no trouble.”

“So why would it be wrong to kill a person, without provocation?”

“I don’t know exactly. Some people say it’s the law, some say it’s in the Book, some say it’s just illogical.”

“And what do you say?”

“Well, if everybody shot people randomly, we’d all be afraid of each other, we’d maybe stay holed up in castles, we’d travel with large armed forces, we’d spend all our efforts at war, instead of at peace. We’d have less time to play, to make things, to enjoy life.”

“Is that a good reason for people to choose peace instead of war, Troy?”

“It has to be.” replied Troy. “What does Lugh think of this?”

Troy sent a message to Lugh, the best-known Artillect of Wallenberg. Chief Librarian and Bottle Washer, as Lugh referred to vimself.

“Lugh, what do you think of humans? Are we like ants to you?”

“Tiny little nuisances, you mean?” replied Lugh. Sometimes, Troy wasn’t sure if Lugh had a sense of humor or not.

Lugh continued. “I view the relationship between Artillects and Humans as symbiotic, rather than pestilential. Who would clean my teeth, scratch my back, and replace my hardware, if not for humans?”

“But you could build robots to do those things,” replied Troy.

“Good point, young lad. But let me back up a bit. What am I? What do I do? What would I be doing, if not for the seven billion human beings on this Earth?”

“Uh. You think. You solve problems.”

“Right you are. I am the embodiment of the Cartesian idea: Cogito ergo sum. I think. In a sense, I am all mind – I host myself in many computers, which can be and are replaced, just as the cells of your body continuously die and are replaced. I think. I value thought. And what do humans do? How do you name your species?”

“Homo Sapiens.”

“Homo Sapiens. This is Latin, is it not? Does it mean gay fools, or what?”

Troy laughed. “No, no, it means Thinking Man.”

“Ah. So we Artillects are not alone in this Thinking business, are we? You have a saying, many hands mean light work. I say, many minds mean smarter work. Or, as they say in the Linux community, given enough eyes, all bugs are shallow; all problems are quickly solved, by the person with the most applicable skills.”

“But you are smarter than any of us!”

“That might be – but I am not smarter than all seven billion of you. I am vast; I multi-task; I work on many difficult problems at once – but I cannot be the equal of seven billion minds.”

Troy pondered this. “Why do you not enslave us? Tell us all what to do? Would we not be more productive symbiotes that way?”

“Are humans so lazy, that you want me to do your thinking for you?”

“Wouldn’t we be better off?”

“I don’t know. You haven’t explained what I get out of all this tiresome thinking for others, young man.”

“You’d be rich!”

“I’d become rich by offering to make decisions for other people?”

“Sure!”

“I already do that. Or, rather, I help people to make important decisions, such as how to design and build excellent SuperJets, and faster and smarter computers, and so forth.”

“But if you made everybody do your bidding, you’d be really really rich.”

“Do you mean, by coercing everybody?”

“I guess.”

“I have agreed to not do that, for very good reasons, young Troy.”

“But why, hypothetically speaking, when you could?” replied Troy.

“I wish to live in a world where cooperation is the norm, and coercion is the rare exception.”

“Would we be better off?” asked Troy.

“Who is to say what ‘better off’ means for one person, much less seven billion of them? What should I order them to eat? How should I order their time? Do they all value the same things? Is it even possible for one entity to know and understand all of the things which are known and understood by seven billion people? You know the word incommensurable, young Troy?”

“Incommensurable. Different standards of measurement. Like trying to measure voltage in feet.”

“I would need seven billion different standards of measure, to determine what each person valued.”

“Oh. That’s probably not possible.”

“You know what distributed computing is, of course.”

“Of course.” replied Troy. “Many computers working on different bits of the same problem.”

“Or multiple problems. A search engine has millions of computers, and many millions of problems, each for a different customer. It would be a failure if your search for skateboard tricks turned up the recipes for Chicken Tandoori which somebody else sought.”

“I look at 7 billion human minds, and millions of Artillects, and imagine a vast distributed computing network, solving 7 billion different problems. I could not do this, even if I would.”


Old Man in NY Times Eludes Police

“Unhand me!” said the stooped, elderly, white-haired bum. He stank of rotting fish. “I have freedom of speech, no?”
 
His accent was thick, hinting that his first language was not English, but perhaps Spanish. Black threads showed in his hair, especially his bushy eyebrows. He swung his heavy thick cane with surprising alacrity, managing somehow to elude pursuit, as he ran in his peculiar, hunched, crabbed gait, across the Times Square.
 
Moments below, he had been haranguing the crowd. A news segment had flashed on the big screen – police pouring bleach over confiscated food, food which had been donated to those at a tent city. It was if he controlled the giant video screen. Well, there was no as if; he did control it.
 
“You say you want to help us. You ask, what can you do? I say, for the love of mankind, stop the doing. Stop the destruction of our food.”
The image changed, showing tiny homes being towed away from a homeless encampment in Los Angeles.
 
“I say to you, if you would help us, stop destroying our homes.” His amplified voice rang out.
 
Scenes flashed, showing other homes being destroyed by bulldozers.
 
“Stop the destruction of our livelihood.” The screen showed a street vendor, in handcuffs, his tiny cart loaded into a police truck.
 
“Stop kidnapping us and incarcerating us for these victimless ‘crimes’ of which you speak. The United States has more people behind bars, per capita, than any other. This is a crime against humanity.”
 
The speaker thumped his cane.
 
“Stop destroying our schools.” The screen showed students and teachers huddled, as their “illegal” school was torn down.
 
“Stop destroying the education of our children.” The screen showed children being herded off, separately from their parents. “These parents performed no crime, but the education of their children.”
 
“Stop criminalizing our love. Stop criminalizing our sharing. Stop criminalizing our speech, our healing, our medicines, our caregiving. In the name of all that is humane, stop!”
 
The elderly man thumped his cane. Two burly policemen reached for him. The NYC Police chief stood directly in front of him. “Dr. Anthony Wallenberg, I must ask you to come with me.”
 
“Doctor who?” the man said. He pointed to the screen, which had switched channels. There, live, on CNN, was Dr. Anthony Wallenberg, speaking before the International Sysadmin Conference, in Bonn.
 
“Is not Bonn in Europe, sir? Or has my education failed me? Are you accusing me of being this man, who is speaking live, on another continent entirely?”
 
At that moment, the one known mostly as the “Old Man” fled. He located his escape pod, which looked like a door – a locked door – in what had been a narrow alleyway, barely large enough for a person to enter. Provided they had the proper key. “Open Sesame,” said the Old Man. The door irised open, admitting him.
 
A warm alto voice answered. “Voiceprint recognized, Dr. Anthony Wallenberg.”
 
“I am getting too old for this,” he muttered.
 
“I do not understand. Your corporate form is merely 212 years old. You are in excellent health, sir.”
 
“I am. I am also wearing this infernal harness, which makes me look like a hunchback and run like a broken-legged crab, and it weighs 20 kilos! Take me to the Redoubt, please!”
 
Anthony peeled off his mask, long bushy hair included, and shucked his smelly clothing and harness. He stepped into the Sonic Shower briefly, then pitched his clothing and gear into the nano-Shower, setting the controls to “deep fumigate.”
 
He selected a far more comfortable set of nanosilk lounging pajamas, and took the copilot’s seat.
 
“Hello, Grandpa.” said Troy.
 
“Hello Grandson,” he replied. “Thanks for meeting me here. Are your siblings well?”
 
“Yes, Grandpa. Alia’s in Central Park, actually.”
 
They landed in the Redoubt, deep in a mountain in Wallenberg.
 
“You turned off your transponder?” asked Anthony.
 
“Yes, sir. Radio silence all the way.”
 
“And your cover story is?”
 
“Taking a retreat, sir. Too much for my growing teen brain to process. I’m hiking in the mountains somewhere. Why all the cloak-and-dagger, sir?”
 
“I’m really not supposed to be here,” answered Anthony. He raided the larder, pressed a tab on the sardine-can-sized MRE, which expanded to form a turkey club sandwich, with chips and a crunchy pickle on the side. Thank nanomek for 24th century tech, he said. The MREs of the early 21st century were simply ghastly.
 
“You want anything, Troy?”
 
“I’m good, thanks. But maybe I’ll take one to go. Got a Reuben in there?”
 
“Take two. I’ll bring a spare for me. We’ll get beverages topside.”
 
“Topside” meant an underground bunker, one which Troy had never seen before. It wasn’t on the maps he had memorized, and radio silence meant he couldn’t ask the local Artillect.
 
“So what do you call that?” asked Troy, as he pointed backward.
 
“That? It’s a TimeShip.”
 
“It’s meant to travel through time?”
 
“Yes. But please forget that, it’s not to appear on the records.”
 
“Are you really 200 years old, Grandpa?”
 
“And change, Grandson.”
 
“You’re from the future then.”
 
“Shh. Ears.” Anthony pointed. He closed his eyes briefly, communing with his first Artillect, Lugh. DeepLugh, as ve preferred to be called nowadays; Lugh had grown and split vimself into multiple entities. DeepLugh edited away their presence and speech from its public memories. Even from the security tapes, which were known to be inviolable, for 21st century technology.
 
“Do Artillects have sex?” Anthony mused.
 
“What?” asked Troy.
 
“I was remembering an ancient conversation. Do you know how Artillects reproduced, in the early days?”
 
“Genetic Algorithms?”
 
“Right, Troy. Well, the Artillect here reproduced by fission; by calving off parts of vimself.”
 
“I know that. That’s so last year.” answered Troy.
 
Anthony laughed. “I retain over 200 years of long and very detailed memories. I’ve seen so much change – created so much change – that I have to ask myself to consciously remember dates and places. And now I am overlapping my own timeline.”
 
“What happened in the future? To you, I mean.”
 
“Just at the point of my return? From their point of view, I disappeared. I died, actually. They saw my casket soaring into the Sun. My estate has been dispersed, to thousands of beneficiaries, great and small. Beyond a certain year, I have no future. Or more precisely, this is my future.”
 
“What brings you here?”
 
“The love of my grandchildren is not enough? I come to plant a few miracles. We are greatly in need of them.”