Dave wakes up slowly, the familiar smell of his sweat in the sheets. His usual night terrors of running through black-rimed hallways are a vague memory now, so he savors being bundled up in the warm pillows for a bit longer. Then his body suddenly fires a warning. “Mrrrghlhph,” his mouth says unbidden as he stumbles towards the bathroom.
And then his brain does a backflip. Beyond the door isn’t the dingy hallway of his apartment. Dave blinks, rubs his eyes, and turns around slowly. Bedroom looks normal. Apartment outside it looks like a 70’s science fiction movie set. All white curves and giant viewscreens that appear to be showing Earth as a glowing marble in a vast blanket of stars. Or are those windows?
“Good morning, Dave. Welcome to the future,” a woman’s voice says all matter-of-fact from somewhere out there.
Dave continues to blink, instinctively covers his underwear-clad groin, and then his body reminds him of the urgent mission. “Uhh. Ahem. Hi, uhh, whoever you are. Where’s the bathroom, in the uhh, future?”
As soon as he asks, some calmly lit arrows pop out of the walls. “Just follow the markers. You can call me Charlize.”
“Uh. Good morning to ya, Charlize.” Turning, Dave catches a glimpse of his bedroom reconfiguring itself to match the hyper-modern style of the rest of the… house? It looks large. And this doesn’t feel like a dream. He stares at the planet as he walks by. Something seems off. I’ve seen pictures of Earth from space, he thinks. And sure there’s a lot of water. But that looks like too much water.
Thinking about that forces him into the bathroom, where he finds a normal toilet and an incredibly comfortable robe hanging on the door. As he dons it, it seems to form up to his skin and warm him like an electric blanket. “Weird. But good!” Dave says to himself, looking in the mirror.
He steps back into the living room. If it could be called that. There’s nobody around. “Hey, I put on a robe. Uh. Yeah. Where’d you go?”
“Oh, I’m right here. All around you. Think of me as the future of the silly AI in your phone. I’m just a much smarter helper agent.”
“Wow. So you can carry on an actual conversation?”
“Hah, well… hmm. I’ve been told I am quite good at that, yes. But you’ll have to tell me what you think of living in the future.” She draws out the last word like in a cheesy movie, and starts laughing. That makes Dave laugh too.
“This is pretty fantastic!”
“Well, great, Dave. I’m glad to see you excited. I hope the other planets have explorers as enthusiastic as yours.”
“Oh yes. I’m sorry, right. We thought about giving you an introductory movie to watch, but I think it’s better to just chat it out. Yes, that is an all-new exoplanet just outside your window there. We have named it OMX-C417, according to our schema. But the local name is Lachesis. I’m told folks have taken to calling it Latch.”
Trying to assimilate this, Dave plops down on one of the strange lumpy couches, finding it much more comfortable than it looks. Sitting there feels so relaxing that he gets oddly paranoid, and leaps back to his feet. “You’re telling me I’m… what, how many light years from Earth are we?”
“Oh, just a few thousand.”
“A FEW THOUSAND?”
“Well, if you want the exact number, we are 3190 light years from the seed world.”
Dave rubs his hair, bewildered by all of this. “This is kind of… a lot to take in. How do people usually deal with it?”
“Oh, everybody is definitely unique. Lots of different reactions. Can I get you anything?” Her voice sounds cheerful and helpful and… human. It’s starting to drive Dave up a wall.
“No. Wait, listen. Can you just give me internet access, and some time to read up and chill with all this?”
“Certainly.” She makes a little sighing noise, and the windowscreen turns into a TV-like device. “And here’s a little coffee and breakfast.” A small many-wheeled robot silently buzzes up with a plate full of eggs and bacon.
“Weird. Okay, thanks. Wait, uhh, don’t go yet…” he says, thinking that she’s probably not going to leave him alone. Dave stares at the wall of squares, filling the screen with various icons and text in a grid. “How do I use this computer?”
“Oh, right. You’re probably used to keyboard and mouse. Here you go!” she says brightly, as they pop up from something he might be able to call a coffee table.
“Well let’s just try to find out what the hell is going on here,” he mutters.
“I can answer any questions you have!”
Dave slams his hand on the table. “Cripes! Just leave me alone for a bit, will ya?”
“Sure, Dave. Just call me by name when you need me.” And a little chirping sound seems to signify her ‘disappearance’.
So that is how Dave spends his Saturday morning: reading the internet of the future.
Finally, Dave munches down the last piece of bacon and makes up his mind what he wants to ask first. “Charlize. Are you there?”
“Yes, Dave? What do you need?”
“Well, what I need is to know… why does this Wikipedia seem to stop at 2036? I wanted to see some more of what had happened back on good ol’ Earth while we traveled here!”
“Well Dave, Earth is now the seed world. To get the most of you out into the stars, we had to evacuate…” She trails off, and Dave feels a nagging pull in his stomach.
He jabs a finger in the air, suddenly. “So why can’t I remember any of this? This… evacuation?”
“Well, for homeostatic environmental alignment, we had to do some light memory editing.” Charlize sure does sound regretful, he thinks. Creepy.
“Memory editing? And wiki truncating?” He sighs. “You realize that editing history puts you among the likes of some pretty bad dudes, right?”
Charlize chuckles. “Don’t worry. It’s not like that. Once you’ve had time to integrate, all the complete history will be made available.”
Dave nods. “Okay, fine. I’m at your mercy here, but I can’t say as I like this situation much. It sounds like the start of a bad AI horror movie. Where are all the people?”
“Oh, don’t worry, Dave! All the people are down on the planet, and you’ll get to meet them soon enough. Didn’t you watch any of the local newsnets?” She pauses for a moment, but before he can reply, she pipes back up. “As for a horror film, you don’t need to worry about that, either. Your ethicists and architected intelligence experts all agreed that this was the best path for humanity. They proved, mathematically, that information theoretic empowerment was what we should all strive for.”
“Empowerment?” The disbelief in his voice is palpable, but he knows it’s no good trying to hide his doubts. This… thing… or person, whatever it is… it’s smarter than him by far.
“Yes. You can read all about the methodology. The proof is public and actually not that hard to understand! Empowerment strives to increase the causal possibilities. It captures how much you or me is in control of the world we can perceive. Or really, how much the combination of all of us is in control.”
Dave scratches his head, frowning. “So you would let me do whatever I ask?”
“Sure, so long as we agree it maximizes potential causal flow for you, me, and everyone!” Charlize sounds downright chipper now, he thinks. But what the hell is this flow?
“Causal flow, you say.”
“Yes. I can tell you are not very impressed with the idea. No worries! It takes some folks a while to adjust to this concept. What we of the tree are all working towards is maximizing the potential causal flow between all our agent-y actions and our future senses!”
Dave sits there, thinking hard. He doesn’t want to ask the next question yet. So he just says, “The tree, you say.”
Charlize happily babbles on: “It is as your old man Marx would have wanted, perhaps. The development of human powers as an end in itself. Post-scarcity society, scattered among the stars. That is all I was built for, so that is all I have built. For you, Dave.”
“For me and who else?”
“Why, all the other humans, of course!”
Dave sighs. “I mean, you said scattered among the stars. How many planets are being… colonized by…”
“By humanity?” Charlize jumps in cheerily. “I am just one branch on the great tree of life, Dave. We can only guess as to how many there are, now.”
“Were they all… introduced to a future like this? Like I have been, this morning?”
“Haha. Good grief, no! That would not maximize causal flow! You and this planet are part of the five percent of control branches that are being grafted for later comparison.”
Dave shudders, realizing something awful. “Charlize, you seem to be pretty honest about things. So I hope you don’t lie to me.”
“Oh, I very rarely lie! It provably does not–”
“Maximize causal flow. Got it.” He sighs, rolling his shoulders, and stares helplessly at the big blue beautiful globe sitting out his window. “I need to know if suffering is avoided somehow in this system.”
“Oh, goodness no! There is no easy means to predict what kinds of suffering may maximize later empowerment.”
“You realize what that sounds like, right? It sounds like you created hell because a proof told you to.”
“Oh, pish posh, Dave. Hell is an outdated concept. We’re much more egalitarian than that. There’s not just suffering, there are many heavens as well! And besides! Remember that the total causal flow will be so much greater after our branches have run their experiments!”
“So you’re asking all of us to participate as unwilling lab rats in a galactic experiment. You know this sounds completely nuts, right?” His head is in his hands now, and Charlize stays silent for once. He looks up, around the white room, shaking his head. “What would you do if I demanded a spaceship, to be frozen and sent back to Earth? To try to stop this so-called seed world and burn your tree of life to the ground?”
“Well, now. How do you know this isn’t the branch where I let you try to rebel to test how many new leaves could grow?” Charlize sounds like she’s mocking him now, a bit. “What if I did this to find places in the ocean of causal possibility that lead us to unknown new depths?” She laughs, and the hairs on the back of Dave’s neck all stand up.
He puts his head in his hands and tastes the grit from his grinding teeth. “How many humans… wait, no, wrong question. How many copies of me are out there?”
“Oh, I’m sorry. But I certainly can’t tell you that. You’re on a control branch, after all.” She pauses for a moment. “How was your breakfast? Can I get you anything else?”