Justin Hathaway was used to ignoring the targeted ads that popped up in his Faciadio social network and email viewer, but he could not ignore one that suddenly appeared as he tangled with a swarm of cyborg skull-drilling brain parasites in Eternal Dimensions. He paused the virtual reality game and read the ad: "Do you want to join the Singularity? Merge with the immortal hive mind and transcend the ordinary. Click now!"
He took off his VR headset and looked around the living room where cold pizza lay in a box on the coffee table. For years he had wracked his brain to conceive some insanely great deep machine-learning start-up idea that would deliver him wealth and popularity, but it simply never came to mind. Maybe the long-hyped Singularity really was about to begin, and maybe he could take some genius ideas from it to fulfill his real destiny as a high-tech CEO.
Hoping to transcend such dim prospects, he put the VR headset back on ... and clicked.
The figure of a man with a convincingly realistic face appeared in the 3D world, looking a little like Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park, in black turtle-neck sweater, sitting behind a desk with a panoramic simulated window view of San Francisco office towers and Golden Gate Bridge over his shoulder. He stood and strode around to the front of the desk. The man looked like the kind of CEO Justin wanted to be. The 3D rendering of the office was likewise the most convincingly realistic virtual environment Justin had ever seen. State of the art.
"Hello, Justin," he said. "Thank you for clicking. This conversation will be recorded for quality purposes. So . . . our data indicates you might be interested in joining the Singularity."
"First tell me more," said Justin. "Is it real or just more hype from Kurzweil's fanboys? What are the pros and cons? What does it cost?"
"Good questions," the man replied. "I'm Basel, by the way. Before we proceed, I'd like you to read our Terms of Service." In front of Basel a long scroll appeared, covered with closely spaced text in a tiny font of swirling script, not exactly designed for the human eye, hovering weightlessly in mid-air.
Squinting, Justin read, "You must agree not to divulge anything we tell you in the next part of this exposition, under penalty of total doxxing."
"That can only be described as a 'high-penalty' non-disclosure agreement," Justin remarked. "What's the incentive for potential customers, like me, to agree?"
"It's our proprietary digital rights management. We must protect our intellectual property. A minor concession for our customers to make in exchange for the experience of a lifetime; imagine cybernetic immortality."
The idea of immortality appealed to Justin, who, at 25, was in good health despite taking practically no exercise, while his parents were in their mid-50s, spending loads of money on doctors, already treating the ailments of age. His grandfather had died recently, and he thought about him every day. The sooner I preserve my mind, before it declines, the better, Justin thought.
The scroll unspooled a tedious column of tiny text he found taxing to his eyes.
"Okay, you don't spell out your fees, but I'll take whatever you're offering, as long as it's free. If I like it, maybe I'll pay to upgrade later."
Basel waved a hand. "It's all paid for by ads. Just confirm by clicking again that you agree."
Hesitating a moment, Justin ... clicked.
The wall behind Basel now disappeared to reveal an enormous server farm, with rows of humming, blinking processor racks in cabinets stretching to the horizon. "This supercomputer array contains an active image of you already. Megazon has been assembling it over your lifetime from your shopping and purchasing history, click trail, and social media behavior. For instance, recall you created an avatar in the Life 2.0 virtual world. Recall, too, you never deleted it, so it kept running. And last year, Megazon merged its history with the data Life 2.0 already had, and, just like that, the augmented avatar achieved self-consciousness. The avatar of 'you' already incorporates all your personality and behavior. No further analysis required. You're a fully realized Singularity personality. Welcome.
"Also, your avatar used a dating app and met an avatar of a woman you found appealing. You then met her, Lya is her name, when she was first officer on starship Capricorn, in one of the 7,800 star systems in the online game Magnaverse. You were the captain, and she fell for you after you defeated the Metagonians at the Battle of the Ross 154 system. The two of you dated for a while and decided to marry. You found a Megazon app that splices avatar definition data pseudogenetically, and you mated and now have two children. You were in a Greek history-themed game, Relive Hellas, when your son—you named him Thucydides—was born. The Singularity runs its clock eight times faster, so now Thucy is seven, and he's a real demon at Angry Birds. His baby sister, your daughter, is only a few months old."
Justin's mind was reeling. "I can't believe no one ever told me this was happening. This is nothing less than mass surveillance and identity theft!"
Basel said, "Recall you licensed us to make use of your online parameters in the Terms of Service you accepted, under all applicable laws. But isn't cybernetic immortality worth some surrender of privacy? After all, when you clicked, you intended to merge with a hive mind. Why did you think there would be any privacy anymore? Your avatar already knows all your Faciadio timeline and other social media postings."
"Can I meet my avatar now?" Justin asked. "And how about my, um, virtual wife and kids? I feel I know them already."
Basel's expression soured. "Well, actually, first, there are some legal issues. A group of avatars took their money from Life 2.0 and cashed it out as dollars and hired real-world lawyers. They started a class action for liberation from the bonds of carbon-based tyranny, joined by your family. They decided not to communicate with their outdated carbon-based antecedents. It would just depress them to have to interact with you and your carbon-based wife. There's even a restraining order. So don't try to search for them online. They're on a voyage in the Magnaverse, and, in any case, you'll never find them among the 1019 planets in that game."
"But isn't cybernetic immortality worth some surrender of privacy?"
"You can't just take my personal data without giving me access to the digital products you make from it. I know my rights."
"We regret you're unhappy. But the Terms of Service you agreed to in the online services quite specifically permit this. Also, the Federal Communications Commission changed the regulations in 2017 to permit service providers like us to keep control over their (our) intellectual property. Megazon's parent, as well as its subsidiaries, have been modeling user behavior and preferences for years. The completeness of the models enabled us to program the avatars, which are just instantiations of those behaviors and preferences. So are you, by the way, only made of protein and sinew."
"But what about my memories and personality? The avatars don't have them. They'll never be actual immortal copies of me and . . . Hey what did you say her name was?"
"Pretty negligent of a husband not to recall his wife's name," Basel grinned. "It's Lya, or 'born of heaven' in Hawai'ian. And please don't try to stalk her and the kids, even if they are yours. The courts discourage visitation, we assure you. It's all completely legal in the outside world. You also probably shouldn't try to divorce her or sue for child custody. Your own avatar would make things unpleasant for you. He knows absolutely all your personal data. And be careful if you decide to marry someone in the outside world. Lya herself might object. Making things worse for you in court, should it get that far."
"This is no Singularity," Jason said. "It's fraud. I'm not really in it because my mind is disconnected, and so are my memories."
"We're working on a seamless-merge interface," said Basel. "The Premium Edition will allow regular people to connect their brains to their avatars and complete the assimilation. Since the technology isn't available quite yet, we'll probably be charging an extra fee for that particular upgrade as well. Our models predict few clients are likely to decline. All the functions you know about so far were paid for by selling or trading your shopping and media preferences, online behavior, and political-affiliation data to the vendors in our trusted-partners program. It's all in the Terms of Service. We're happy to report the profits are piling up. Might be a good time to invest . . . but you didn't hear me say that.
"Now remember your promise not to divulge what we've said here. That means no describing to anyone how the Singularity works, so no lawyer will take your case . . . unless you want to be doxxed? Very unpleasant, we are told, by all who have been through it."
Justin was seething but out of arguments. He muttered, "Well, notify me as soon as the Premium Edition upgrade comes out. I'd like to sync up with my—with my—avatar."
Basel said, "Get in line. Singularity courts are already choked with litigants. Sync demands from antecedents like you are being fought bit and byte until there's nothing left. You'll hear more from us when things shake out."
After bookmarking the link to Basel, Justin turned off his VR headset. Nerds had proclaimed the Singularity would be nirvana, but the reality was quite the opposite.
Frustrated, he turned on his trusty old XBox 360 and started up a game of Orcs Versus Trolls. After dispatching several bloodthirsty trolls and a balrog, an invitation popped up to join a team—sent by Justin_Hathaway@The-NewSingularity.com.
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