Chapter One

“Goddammit! How much reality can we take?”

In most news publications today, there is nothing to soften the stories. Though information can be finessed by humans, complete transparency and accuracy has become part of society’s fabric since artificial intelligence (AI) first made convincing statements concerning improvements imposing zero tolerance for the dissemination of faulty news online as well as in print, holograms, promotional events and political rallies.

Surveys have proved that most people favor “accuracy” and “truth telling,” while some believe the news to be far too objective, with nothing reported that has not been checked thoroughly by multiple sources. These naysayers argued their case but lost, although they fought hard while knowing that AI greatly enables actionable decisions that save lives, jobs, reputations and, in many cases, ensure the safety and security of the planet.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t plenty of sources available for “fuzzy news,” or news that is “adjusted” by humans and is based on opinion rather than fact. But for the last thirty or so years, fuzzy news has always been preceded by a disclaimer, with access options directed to the “true” story available to the reader or viewer. Some people prefer news that provides a human opinion, but it has become more and more difficult for commentators to speculate on the circumstances surrounding a story. For instance, when an individual is murdered, the story is held from the public until the perpetrator is tried and convicted, which in many cases is soon after the event. Conviction rates are at 97.8%, and could be higher, since most of the population is in one way or another monitored, and a suspect’s thoughts are extracted fairly quickly when he or she is brought in for questioning.

Earlier in the century, this type of monitoring was believed to be contrary  to the concept of personal freedom, but most societies eventually agreed that the tracking of citizens makes them more responsible, since they know that their every word and action is recorded and recoverable and that every crime will likely lead to conviction and punishment. Because of the passing of amendments to the constitutions of most nations, thefts, assaults and rapes, and other crimes against humanity have been virtually eliminated, thus justifying the continuation of the laws that enforce the invasion of personal freedom. 

One person not so fond of this invasion is Alex Norton. Alex is an anthropologist and has made it his life’s work to study the actions of human beings. He is 62 years old, and lives in Wooster, Ohio, a place primarily known for its liberal arts college that has emphasized independent, responsible and creative thinking in its programs from its founding in 1866.

Alex has been on the staff at The College of Wooster for more than thirty years, and currently teaches Contemporary Anthropological Theory. He has been most recently quoted in Time magazine from a speech given to a freshman class: “Goddammit! How much reality can we take?”

In contrast to many theorists who believe that humans should and can be improved by laws governing their behavior, Norton inevitably discounts the notion, shaking his head with disdain and shouting, “Bullshit! Humans are humans and should act like humans.”

Many mistake Norton as being misguided by religious notions, while Norton is proud of taking an atheistic stance on nearly every issue, except in his belief that humans need religion, even if he doesn’t personally choose to follow one, believe in a hereafter, or acknowledge a god except as a force that created the universe and set the stage for its evolution.

Norton isn’t part of any movement that rejects the laws enacted to protect the planet, improve the accuracy of news, or enforce or restrict the activity of humans. He just doesn’t believe that AI intervention should be forced on people, as he recently responded to the Times reporter who interviewed him. “Robots are great… better surgeons than my doctor could ever be. They don’t argue with me. Why would they argue? Why would I argue? They obviously are brighter than I am. But despite their superiority at so many tasks, the dominance and control of AI just seems wrong. I can offer no specific reasons for that belief, except, hell, I wish I didn’t know with 96% probability that I have less than ten years left to live. I just don’t think its right that we have that kind of number. And yet, they might be able to fix me…at what cost, and why? If that’s my natural term, why object? Probably better for me to die in three to five than hang around long after I’m not useful or productive anymore.”

Like most people nowadays, Norton’s health is monitored continually, and all factors are considered in the suggestions and outcomes as accessed through his wristband, which regularly uploads medical reports of his circulatory and respiratory systems, along with diet and fitness, and reevaluates it based on his current risk-taking patterns that have accumulated throughout his adult life. He knows that a few people beat the odds, but for the most part, when AI says your time is up…it’s up!

Norton’s wife is a few years younger than he, and she is scheduled to stay alive for at least thirty to thirty-five additional years, so they have planned their finances based on her longevity, and have allowed for a few affordable vacations spent together before he passes on.

Norton’s not even sure what happens after dying; he just knows it’s not the same as living, though physicists keep exploring the concept of multiverses as they’ve been doing since the third century BCE, when the philosopher Chrysippus suggested that “the world eternally expires and regenerates,” acknowledging  even then the possibility of the existence of multiple universes throughout time.

So far, no conclusions have been formed, despite string theory and the testing of many other concepts  conceived over the last 150 years.

So Norton has little hope for extending his life beyond its projected term, and is determined to continue his teaching as long as possible. “I believe that my legacy will be through the help I can provide my students in navigating this new world. We have a map that came before us, in nature, that not only teaches us what was, but also gives us clues as to ‘what is still to be.’

“‘Purpose’ seems to be an answer. And although we may change the way we procreate, ‘love’ also seems an answer, as does the appreciation of art and beauty…and even sorrow. Humans still have the capacity for all those things. So do I believe in the divine? I would say I do, but not so much in God.”

Currently, Norton is dealing with the challenges of students who depend on AI for all their answers and much of their entertainment. Relationships are tough to establish and maintain, so they date virtually, with or without intimacy. “It’s difficult to gauge the extent of thought they put into their theses, questions and evaluations, since they can rely on AI and the internet to fill in the blanks. Testing them on their knowledge is ludicrous…and frustrating! 

“The only way I can connect with them is in conversation. And that has been really revealing. It’s as if they live in a black and white world, and are unable to notice anything that colors the unknown. They are full of ‘rights and wrongs’, but they haven’t had to think about their answers since AI’s already decided for them what they should and shouldn’t do, and know.

“For instance, most of my students are vegetarians…an easy thing to be at this point in time. Most believe that eating meat is cruel to animals. They also seem to know that what is being grown as a replacement for animals are brainless creatures raised with no eyes or hearing receptors, and no feelings or nerves of any kind. They are fed grain and other nourishments through tubes and raised for the sole purpose of being used as food. Now personally, I think this is repugnant, but I also recognize that these “things” are not what we think of as animals. They are grown from cells that once were animal, but now are blobs that when fully grown can be removed from a machine, cleaned, cooked and carved up for dinner. They are as nutritious as beef, chicken or pork, and there is no killing required.

“So I ask my students how they feel about this alternative. And usually they are just disgusted, as I am, by the whole process, and say it’s immoral. The AI that created the concept believes it to be a good solution to a problem. Waste is controlled and reused without poisonous emissions, space is confined to a minimum, and the creatures are harvested sooner and experience no pain.

“Then I tell my students that the main thing that’s wrong with creating food this way is that it’s not natural. They also are well informed in knowing that the grain they eat isn’t natural either, and doesn’t have to be. AI has assured us that the grain and vegetables we currently eat are more healthful than ever before, and is greatly modified from natural vegetation.

“The students tell me that they only eat organic. I tell them that there is no such thing because of how the world has changed. Chemical labs can reproduce all organically grown foods and make them even better and more healthy than naturally grown fruits and vegetables…and are doing it every day.

“And where the hell are all of the cows and pigs? Out to pasture, the few that remain. No reason for them except as characters in children’s books. There’s just no goddamn reason for them.”

“‘There doesn’t NEED to be a reason!’ they reply.

“‘Then all of what you seem to be learning doesn’t have any reason,’ I respond, almost getting kicked out of Wooster for telling one girl that she was no better than one of those blobs grown for human food.

“So, today I sit at my desk, such as it is, and wonder about our own worth as humans, while also knowing that there are people out there that truly care about life in all of its forms. It’s not always pretty, or neat or clean, but it’s human. Many of them choose to believe in ways I don’t, but they are also my kin in that we all respect life more by caring about it in a larger sense than what fits our latest trend or cause, or the purity of the idea as presented by AI.”

With that last thought, Professor Norton gets ready to leave his post and looks at his wristband and sees that his “life-left-meter” has lost a few minutes due to his negative disposition. He sits back, closes his eyes and takes a few breaths before thanking God, or whomever, for his blessings…the love of his wife, his children and an honorable profession, and asks a god, in which he does not believe, to help him serve his students with more tolerance…more patience. In the process, he drifts off to sleep, but awakes in only a few moments a bit refreshed as he heads to his car that will safely drive him home to his wife.