atomic_fungus (atomic_fungus) wrote,
atomic_fungus
atomic_fungus

#218: Singularity, Part VIII

"Mr. Watson, did these--these 'Kel-vara' say what they want? Why they're here?"

"It's Kelv'v'ara, and yes, I was given information regarding their situation and how they came to be here."

They all began shouting questions at once. I just waited until the hubbub died down; then I said, "Ms. Kilgore has prepared a detailed description of the information I was given by the Kelv'v'ara, which is part of the materials which she handed out to you. I can summarize it briefly by saying that their ship has been damaged, and they wish to trade with us for the materials they need to effect repairs."

More questions, and I looked at Sally, who shrugged. Finally I said, "Look, anything you care to ask me, the answer is in the materials we handed out before I started speaking. Everything they told me is in there. The Kelv'v'ara are not here to conquer or enslave us. If they hadn't had their mechanical failure, they wouldn't have come here at all; and all they want to do is be on their way as quickly as humanly possible." I had to smile at that. "They want to buy what they need; they neither expect nor desire charity."

Sally whispered a reminder in my ear.

"Oh yes. There is a web address in those materials, pointing to a web page with all the information in the printed packet. You can visit that site for the information if you wish. That concludes this morning's update."

Inside, I let Ayssa serve breakfast and tried to stop sweating. "Man. I hope it's not always going to be that bad."

"Well...you're the first human to make verifiable and recorded contact with an alien race," Sally replied. "Your desire for all this to go away is going to be a little harder to accomplish."

Alyssa said, "There is someone listening to your conversation."

"Besides you?" I asked stupidly.

She pointed, and I saw--through the kitchen window--some guy with a parabolic microphone. He waved.

"Don't you have anything better to do?" I asked. The guy shrugged. "Sally, anything we can do about him?"

"Other than asking him not to?" She considered. "You might be able to get a restraining order. It would be hard to accomplish on short notice."

"All right, then," I said. I picked up the remote control for the stereo, turned it on, and cranked it.

With George Thorogood and the Destroyers playing nice and loud, I turned back to Sally. "Any preferences?"

B-b-b-b-b-b-bad, bad to the bone, George intoned. Sally was too busy laughing to answer.

* * *

The sphere remained motionless the entire time it was there. I went back to it several times, but no door opened. The skin of the thing had no feel to it; whatever it was made of, it had a vanishingly small coefficient of friction. It also seemed to have no temperature--it never felt cold or warm to the touch, so if you placed your hand against it, you could feel pressure but nothing else. In sunlight it was a dull gray color, a touch darker than the color of old asphalt. It was an utterly featureless sphere with no markings or windows.

There was no sign of the dirt it had displaced.

I was frequently called on by world leaders to discuss the issue with them. The largest issue was that palladium--a rare-earth metal--was a vital resource to many manufacturers, particularly of advanced electronics. What I had said to Sally about opportunity costs was not lost on the people in charge; they wanted advice on how to cope with the problem and they frequently wanted my opinions, from my own mouth.

I also ended up making the rounds of the television talk shows. That was less interesting to me, but Sally assured me that it was necessary to make all this go away as soon as possible, so I did it.

I spent a lot of time on airplanes.

On a long flight back from China, Sally told me about the end of her marriage. I had asked about her kids, and that was when she told me about how the end of her marriage had come from economics, not a lack of love.

"In fact, we're still 'together'; we're just no longer married."

"That sounds confusing."

"Well...my husband was a manager for a retail store. After robots became inexpensive enough, they started replacing the low-level employees with robots. The robots never need any supervision, so his job was also eliminated." She sighed. "Of course, a robot can't do my job. So I have an income, and he doesn't. If we were married, he'd be ineligible for the Dividend because of my income. So this way, he gets his Dividend payment every month."

"That makes sense. I've never gotten one, myself."

"Yeah, that search engine thing," she said. "I didn't understand it before you explained it to me." Sally finished her glass of wine and set it aside. "Robots can't program computers, either, can they?"

"It depends. In engineer-speak, that means 'abandon all hope of a useful answer'," I chuckled. "There are certain situations in which a robot is 'smart' enough to program a computer. They would have to be situations which were pre-defined, though. I couldn't throw just any problem at a robotic programmer; it would have to be a problem that it was programmed to deal with. So they can be--and are--used to write error-free programs quickly, in certain narrowly-defined areas. But generally they're not really smart enough." I shook my head. "The situation rapidly becomes recursive. There are other theoretical problems with having computers program other computers, too, not the least of which involves the Laws of Thermodynamics, believe it or not!"

"Is it possible to build a robot which could program computers as well as a human?"

"Theoretically? It depends who you ask. In practical terms, it's highly unlikely that we'll ever manage it; such a robotic intellect would be indistinguishable from human intellect." I thought about that. "The theory is that we are incapable of perfect understanding of our own construction; anything we create would therefore be a subset of us. We cannot, goes the theory, build a 'super-brain' which was smarter than we are. I've never been happy with that theory, to be honest. Besides, another theory states that given a sufficiently large number of interconnected computing units, and the appropriate software, a super-human intelligence could emerge from, essentially, nothing."

"Can that happen?"

"Who knows? We've been adding computers to the Internet for--hmm--over a century, now, and either 'critical mass' has not yet been achieved, or else we're running the wrong software." I shook my head. "And that would probably be disastrous for us, anyway. The emergent intelligence would likely not have our best interests at heart."

"So, your career is safe, then."

"I'm retired! But I understand what you mean; yeah." I looked at her. "Couldn't your husband go back to school?"

"For what? Most of the jobs he could do--even with retraining!--have been taken by robots. He's no salesman, so that's out. Everyone and his sister are starting robot repair businesses, too, so that's really not much of an idea."

"So, the dole," I said with a nod. "Well, what the hell."

The Dividend payment had started about seven years earlier, as part of the Hellund Act. Because robot labor was essentially free--but for electricity and maintenance--the government had required businesses to "pay" their robots an hourly wage, several dollars higher than the minimum wage. It was essentially a tax; and this tax was disbursed to anyone who met the criteria, which were pretty broad. It ended up being a "living wage" for most people; the economy was screaming along at its limit. Even with "overtime pay", one robot working three shifts per day was cheaper than three humans earning regular pay. Robots did not tire, and relatively simple periodic maintenance kept them operating for years.

"New Dollars" had been another of the things which came from the Hellund Act; robot labor was paid in "N$" and human labor was paid in "G$". The exchange rate varied but the two were never very far apart in terms of actual value. The currency situation had become too complex as a result, and there were movements aimed at reunifying the dollar.

Overall the Hellund Act had been meant to protect people from becoming displaced workers; but ultimately instead it turned most of the blue-collar sector into a welfare class. Robot labor was always cheaper than human labor, even with the provisions of the Hellund Act. Without skills that could bring in G$, humans were forced to live on the dole.

Cheap robot labor had not turned everyone into idle rich; but real poverty simply no longer existed in industrialized nations, either. I was "rich" and Sally's ex-husband was "poor", but the only real difference between my situation and his was that I could afford luxuries, like Sally's services, and the motorcyles I owned (and the fuel that powered them). Hell, most people in the United States owned at least one domestic robot.

Being the kind of person I am--a recluse, really--I had essentially stopped paying much attention to society around the time Mitsubishi came out with the first Meido-san. Machines interested me more than people did, but computers were no longer particularly interesting to me and I'd turned to vintage motorcycles as a way to keep my hands busy--there was always something to do with one of those old machines, maintenance and adjustments if nothing else. Gasoline cost enough that there was no shortage of bikes available for purchase, and I preferred the "fixer-uppers" to the pristine ones.

My friends were all in other parts of the world, doing interesting things; we corresponded via e-mail and had the occasional Internet chat. That was all the social life I really needed. It wasn't that I didn't like people; it was just that it was harder to find people to do things with.

It was another side effect of the robot revolution, really: people had no reason to go out. When I did my shopping, I would share a grocery store with perhaps three people and a few dozen domestic robots. My order would be rung up by a robot and bagged by a robot; and in other lines, robots were being similarly served by the store's robots. Robots paid robots and carried their purchases out to cars owned by their owners but never driven by them. Why drive when your robot could do it for you?

People were getting lazy.

I had resisted robots for that reason. My maid, Jennifer Daughton, had been a nice woman in her forties who never failed to show up for work and do an honest day's work for her money--it had been kind of extravagant, but I'd liked her and enjoyed her company. My accountant had seized on her decision to retire; but he'd still had to threaten to quit--and although there were about a billion accountants these days, my accountant was too good to lose...so I gave in and built Alyssa rather than hire a new maid.

And I hadn't been able to hire one, anyway. The human maid was effectively extinct.
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