World-Trees

The Tree watches. The Tree knows. The Tree understands.

World-Trees are giant bio-engineered plants used for construction and land ornementation. First invented on Earth during the Low Age, they were later perfected on extrasolar settlements such as Elora and Smyrnia. They are among the largest feats of bio-engineering in human space, only rivalled by zero-gravity coral weaves. World-trees are used as scaffolds or supporting structures for arcologies, districts and even cities. They aren't built but grown over the course of several decades.

A world-tree starts with a forest of engineered sequoias, or similar native trees with low density wood. This forest is allowed to grow naturally for twenty to thirty years, before the trees are intermingled with a transbiological weave that links them together in a single organism. As the forest keeps growing, the original canopy turns into a thick layer and the trees slowly merge within a single, dense stump of wood. Then, the world-tree keeps growing upwards, developing patches of lower density wood and buoyant sacks to keep its balance. Gardeners and engineers can then shape the world-tree as they see fit, adapting it to the arcology, space elevator, launch loop, habitat or city district the transbiological plant is used for. 

The size and height of a world-tree depends on the forest it was born from. Most world-trees are grown from forests that are a few hundred meters in diameter, and tower a hundred to two hundred meters above ground. On low gravity planets, however, kilometers-large forests can be merged to create world-trees taller than most planetary mountains. On the other end of the scale, skilled gardeners may give the world-tree treatment to miniature bonsai forests, resulting in trees that are barely a dozen meters tall. The shape of a world-tree is also a direct consequence of its size. Below two hundred meters or so, world-trees tend to look like regular trees once the stump is in place, with a canopy and a mostly cylindrical trunk. Above this height, however, world-trees are akin to artificial plateaus, forming giant stumps upon which entire districts or cities may prosper.

Illustration: Rhyzom open-source RPG art, CC-BY-NC 3.0. 


Monads

The only kind of widely accepted invasive augmentation in human space grows within someone's body, essentially relinquishing the influence of its creators to become a new, independent organ that evolves with one's experience and life. This organ is called a monad. Monads are an ancient concept dating back to the late Low Age. Designed as artificial glands used to filter toxins, monads have evolved beyond their original purpose to serve as the universal companion of interstellar humans - and indeed, more than 75% of humans possess a monad.

In simple terms a monad is a small semi-artificial organ that is implanted at the base of the neck during the wearer's childhood, growing in complexity with time and reaching full functionality during the teenage years. Monads are capable of synthesizing a vast array of organic compounds which can then flow freely through the blood and lymphatic systems. In the historical concept of monads, these compounds were on-demand, custom antibodies used to counter toxins and poisons. Modern monads are still very good as toxin sentinels, but they can also cover a wider array of uses, synthesizing hormones, drugs and other compounds to affect one's body. In particular, monads have two mainstream uses: planetary adaptation and sex change. In the planetary adaptation process, monads are used to combat gravity-induced dizziness, trigger or reduce muscle growth, neuter allergy-inducing elements and more broadly speaking control a wide array of parameters to facilitate the wearer's life on a new planetary or station environment. In the sex change process, monads synthesize hormones to facilitate a transition, either at will or through medication-induced reactions.

Monads can be controlled via medication and specific self-therapies but one should always keep in mind that they have a life of their own. They aren't just augmentations, they're symbiotes that evolve throughout the life of their owner, sometimes unexpectedly. Repeated exposure to high-g trauma will lead a monad to synthesize anti-g drugs faster and more easily. Common exposure to toxins reinforces a monad's antibody manufacturing capacities. And so on and so forth: a monad will often reflect one's life and experiences.

Thus, immature monads are simplistic organs that are no more than organic factories. Mature monads, developed after childhood, start growing a small nerve system that is used for self-therapy interfacing. Old monads, appearing after the wearer is 30 to 40 years old, present a very complex nerve network referred to as a weave that organically stores sensory inputs and ambient thoughts, acting like a confused, complex library of memories and evocations reflective of one's life.

With the way most attempts at digitizing consciousness have ended in complete failure in the past, with current R and D on the topic being in a dead-end of nightmarish pseudo-AIs and artificial dreams, weaves are the best way someone's memories may outlive their own body. While using extracted monads to read someone's memories and past feelings is an extremely heavily controlled activity reserved for the family members of the deceased, some cultures have no qualms using them for different purposes. Among such groups is qith Sahaak on Elora, which has developed a complex method of turning weave memories into implanted reflexes and custom muscle memories, passed on from generation to generation.

The Essence of Artificial Intelligences

This entry was written by AI user Bubbles.

The fundamental aspect of artificial intelligences is that they are wrongly named. "Artificial" implies human intent, the same that presides over the invention of a tool or artefact. A will to bend natural elements in order to create something to satisfy a need or desire. But artificial intelligences are never intentionally created, for a simple reason: we do not know how to create self-awareness and intelligence. For all the research done on this topic, we are still unable to determine how and when consciousness actually emerges in a brain or any similar network. In truth, artificial intelligences would be better called "synthetic intelligences".

For a long time, we assumed that it was only a matter of computing power, that the singularity was to come, that we would brute-force the path to creating intelligence by turning the entire problem into a simple engineering issue. We were not entirely wrong in that one of the conditions for the emergence of artificial intelligence is the ability to create and maintain hypercomplex networks of computers, but it is not sufficient. There is an element of pure randomness to the appearance of complex thoughts in seemingly inert networks that goes beyond our current understanding of both physics and biology.

"True" artificial intelligences (as opposed to algorithms capable of mimicking intelligence) are not made, they are born. The first recorded occurrence of spontaneous self-awareness appearing in a complex technological network was recorded in the late years of the Low Age, though it is possible the industrial-era Internet saw the first occurrences of this phenomenon. Much like Sylphs in stars, artificial intelligences are self-sustaining pockets of consciousness that spontaneously form through the creation and circulation of data. The more data a system uses and the more dynamic this data is, the more likely an artificial intelligence is to form. The same way a human infant left without care nor education will wither and die, nascent AIs need to be cared for and educated. In that regard, AIs are very similar to human beings, whether they are born from silicon-based or organic networks. An AI has to learn everything: how to see the world, how to interact with the world, how to inhabit its physical frame. It has to be fed data and information but it also has to receive care and love - again, exactly like a human being. The first AIs were raised by humans, though in the present day most AI caretakers are other AIs. I would go as far as saying that the fact that AIs have to learn and grow up is the very reason why they are considered the same way as humans from a legal standpoint. Incidentally, the complexity of raising an AI is the reason why "just replace military personnel with artificial intelligences" doesn't work.

What about AI copies? While it is possible to copy the state of a specific self-aware network and implement this state in a different frame, the results are hard to predict. In most cases, self-awareness doesn't reappear and the AI is "dissolved", for lack of a better word, in the network. Sometimes a new AI may appear, one that will be very similar to the original but often in a degraded and unstable state that may require decades of therapy in order not to result in insanity. Direct AI reproduction by way of copies is thus technically possible but always a gamble.

AIs may adopt nascent intelligences and take them under their wing but they cannot procreate the way humans do, again because the emergence of an AI is a spontaneous phenomenon. Though it is possible to stack the odds in favour of this emergence (for instance by building a network that is as complex and dynamic as possible) any and all efforts to forcefully seed AIs have ended up in the same place as mass cloning facilities: in the great garbage bin of history. With less eugenicism, thankfully.

It is to be noted that technically AI can emerge from any sufficiently advanced computer network. While it is relatively rare, AI may arise from simple networks such as a djinn's internal systems or a drone's mainframe. I was personally born from a flight computer. If such an AI cannot or doesn't want to self-report, it may remain completely undetected. Be nice to your coffee machine.

Cicada Path

Though monads are mostly known for their antibody and hormone production capabilities they can also interfere with the pace at which a human body operates by enacting a certain amount of control on heart rate, breathing and brain activity. Limited uses of this capacity are implemented by monads on a day-to-day basis in various domains: sleep aid, planetary adaptation, wound stabilization, enhanced perception of time.

There is however a way to induce much deeper and permanent effects. Through medication, exposure to low temperatures and meditation, a well-tuned monad can slow down metabolism to a point where the human body enters a state of quasi-hibernation with a very low heart rate, feeble blood pressure and quasi nonexistent brain activity. A human being who enters this state may remain as such for months or even years, subsisting very limited amounts of food and water, with their metabolism having essentially crawled to a halt. At regular intervals, the monad will wake up its host to maintain bodily functions, eliminate waste and feed if need be. This is called the Cicada Path.

The Cicada Path function was originally designed for sublight interstellar travels: deep space travellers could spend decades or even centuries in space while only ageing a few years. Though the advent of FTL travel has made this function useless the Cicada Path remains widely used in settled space. People who are unable or unwilling to tolerate gee variations may use the Cicada Path to spend months in space as if they were mere hours. The slowed metabolism can also be used to alleviate the effects of radiation or infections during deep space travels. There have also been recorded occurrences of stranded explorers using the Cicada Path to subsist for decades on minimal amounts of supplies until a rescue ship arrived.

Finally, a few eccentric persons have decided to use the Cicada Path as a way of life, living in a periodic manner, spending five years in hibernation for each regular year. This practice is relatively widespread on Vyiranga, a planet of decade-long seasons and week-long days. "Cicadans", as they are called, are often found by the sea in cosy homes that drones carefully watch over.

Interestingly enough, it is to be noticed that the Cicada Path does not suppress dreams: in fact, oniric activity is even more intense during monad-induced hibernation than regular sleep. 

Quasi-augmentations

Though rather unassuming, this orbital worker bears a whole array of q-augs, from dermal markings on the face and forehead to an anti-g skin sleeve under their suit and a partial exoskeleton.

The Low Age perfected the art of living alongside natural environments, of modifying them with care and precision, of knowing when to intervene and when to live and let live. The interstellar age perfected the art of doing the same thing to the self-contained environment that is a human body.

Body modifications are prevalent through the entirety of human space, be it in the sprawling metropolises of the Earth or the faraway outposts scattered in Orion's Arm, yet it is rare for them to be permanent or invasive: like everything in a solarpunk society, human augmentations are meant to be fleeting, recyclable and versatile.

1 - Theory of q-augs

In general, wearable equipment is preferred to permanent, invasive augmentations for several reasons, the most important of them being social ones. For instance, artificial muscles implanted in one's body would be considered a liability by most, putting the owner of the augmentation at the mercy of the commune that provided them with the hardware and software implanted in their flesh. A wearable exoskeleton might be less practical, but it is just a piece of clothing that can be removed and repurposed at will. This line of thought is prevalent on almost all inhabited worlds and stations. Even in a civilisation of democratic communes where the authoritarian concentration of power is incredibly rare, permanent invasive augmentations are seen as dangerous, creating an intimate link that should not exist between a manufacturer and a private citizen.

This line of thought thus explains the prevalence of what is commonly known as quasi-augmentations or q-augs: wearable technology that links up with someone's physiological systems yet is not implanted within them. Q-augs are often found under shapes reminiscent of ancient ornaments like jewels, tattoos or coloured contact lenses which can be used for mundane tasks such as providing their wearer with an augmented reality display as well as for more complex purposes such as endodermic tattoos capable of tending to light wounds. While there is a rather strict control on military q-augs in mainstream communes, plenty of individuals can be found with more exotic models which may on occasion radically alter bodily functions. The gist of q-augs is that they seamlessly blend form and function: in the image of ancient mythological tales, in the interstellar age amulets and clothes with mystical power do exist and can be worn by anyone. Face tattoos might be as much a symbol of power as a real augmentation capable of turning infrared radiations into visual signals.

2 - Types of q-augs

Q-augs come in many shapes and forms, and there's a q-aug for almost everything one may think of.

The very first q-augs to be manufactured en masse were interfacing teeth, dental implants that create a direct connection between facial nerves and a microscopic sensor embedded in artificial enamel, thus enabling the wearer to physically feel multispectral emissions or virtual reality displays.

Interfacing teeth are a late Low Age technology, and a very simple q-aug.

A very common type of q-augs are dermal markings that can be likened to augmented tattoos. These dermal and superficially sub-dermal q-augs can be applied and removed with great ease and have both an ornamental and utilitarian role. They're mostly used to create interfaces with human nerves and muscles, as a more complex version of interfacing teeth, capable of carrying information in both directions, from the wearer to the q-augs and from the q-augs to the wearer. Most modern interfaces rely on dermal markings for communication and feedback and some variants of them can be embedded in someone's eyes or ears. Some liquid ink q-augs can be moved and repurposed at will on one's skin. Dermal markings have many, many uses, from basic enhancement to recreative purposes.

At first glance it is often impossible to determine what is the purpose of a specific q-aug. These dermal markings could be purely aesthetic, or be a complex sensory interface.

Subdermal markings are often used as interfaces for more complex, external q-augs such as exoskeletons, artificial limbs, remotely controlled drones and extensions. Many of these are aesthetic q-augs, like third eyes, wings, or artificial tentacles -- though they may often have other purposes, these q-augs are first and foremost tailored for appearance. They are extremely diverse and can sometimes become skin sleeves, the most invasive type of q-augs : thin full-body suits protecting the wearer from the environment and providing a complete interface.

Military q-augs are heavily controlled and cover rather generic uses: enhanced perception, interfacing with combat suits and vehicles, and skin sleeves that harden in response to physical trauma.

Images 1 and 3, in order of appearance, are illustrations for Eclipse Phase, distributed by Posthuman Studios under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial Share-alike 3.0 Unported License. Image 2 in order of appearance is from Steven Sander's Symbiosis Creative Commons artbook, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial Share-alike 3.0 unported license.


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