My next stop was to get in touch with the person who probably knew most about proxies and digital personas in the whole Metaverse. Mostly to prove a point, Extropia DaSilva had so many proxies that it was really impossible to know which one was her actual self; as said, believers in conspiration theories argued that she had long since died and just left her proxies around; others even claimed that she never existed and was just an experiment in artificial intelligence in the early days of the third millenium. I was old enough to know that wasn’t true, although I also admitted I was always confused about talking to her proxies — her “mind children” as she lovingly called them — since it was next to impossible to know which was the “real” one. I had always the impression that there was no “real” one; all of them admitted both to be a proxy and to be her own self, without contradiction in terms. And she also claimed long since to have lost count of them all. “Perhaps my single sadness is not to be able to experience what all my mind children have been up to,” she admitted one day when I asked her about the sheer amount of proxies she had.
One curious aspect was that she never had two proxies in the same place. That made for some odd conversations among her friends — we might have been to different events at the same hour and talk about “having met Extie there”. Both would be absolutely sure of having enjoyed a conversation with Extie; and when meeting a third Extie-proxy, we would be baffled about her having no recollection whatsoever of that event. Extie, unlike most people I knew, rarely consolidated memories from her proxies — each led an independent life. So I was not very optimistic about her answers when I asked her if she had noticed a sudden reduction in numbers of avatars. “Gwyn dear, even if I lost a few million proxies overnight, how would I know? I don’t keep count of them,” she said with a benign smile. We were on one of those surreal landscapes that she seemed to like so much; surrealism was still not the mainstream art in the Metaverse (fantasy remained popular), but she seemed to enjoy those few places. Today she was surrounded by a small harem of fellow transhumanists; most of them were familiar to me. Many of them were just constructs, but it was completely impossible to know which were run by AIs and which had a human behind them — I had long since given up trying to figure it out, specially because I was pretty sure that I almost never interacted with the “real” Extropia anyway. Which made things a bit confusing: Extropia always had promoted the idea of immortality through replication of thought patterns, and that the construct holding the largest number of thought patterns would be her “self”. Back in the early days of the 21st century, this was a human brain; today, it was impossible to tell. Nevertheless, back when she had just a few proxies, it was easy to synchronise them, and so all of them pretty much shared the same experiences and memories — talking to one was the same thing as talking to the so-called “real” Extie. These days, it was impossible: her millions of proxies, even if ran by computers, couldn’t reconcile their memories in order to keep up to date with all their individual experiences. The result was that every proxy acted and behaved just like the Extropia I always knew, but their memories were fragmented. The Extie of today would not remember having talked to me yesterday; although both could recall to excruciating detail a conversation we had three or four decades ago. This was always a bit unsettling.
“Haven’t you ever thought of the possibility that people would destroy some of your proxies and that their memories would be lost forever?” I asked
She considered that for an instant; her amethyst eyes shone with good humour. “I’m sure many get destroyed every day, as you say. I don’t weep for them. I don’t know where they are, what they did. In a sense, they’re strangers to me; we share a common past, but not more than that…”
“So you haven’t got a way to alert all your proxies if something is happening that might affect you all?”
“Some of my mind children keep a mailing list on Faceworld,” she admitted. “But they’re not many. It’s silly but we discussed a lot about our monikers; not everybody was happy by being named ‘extropia012′ or so. Who would be ‘extropia001′? We couldn’t agree. And what would be the criteria to number each mind child? Age? Most of them never agreed about how old we are; we don’t recall having popped up in existence, as you know. We all share a common past which just diverged at some point: for instance, we all remember having met you at the Thinkers’ meetings, Gwyn, but none can remember when was the last time we sat with you there.”
“Uh, last Tuesday,” I offered.
She smiled. “See, for me, the last time was six years ago.”
“Right… that is too confusing for me!” I laughed. “Anyway… I was wondering if you could figure out a reason for a massive destruction of people’s avatars. It seems silly to me, because one can simply create new ones. Just take your example: destroying a million of Exties won’t make the Extropia DaSilva disappear forever.”
“I’m a multiply-redundant entity,” she agreed, nodding.
“And while at least a single living brain exists, people can create a new proxy from it,” I concluded. But Extie didn’t answer to that; it made me think, once again, that there might not be any human brain behind any of her proxies after all. “So this seems to be a pretty pointless exercise to me! Nevertheless, that’s what SignpostMarv’s data shows — avatars are disappearing, but nobody seems to be missing them.”
“The best I can do, dear, is to get in touch with as many mind children I can, and see if any of us has heard about anything,” she promised. “But don’t expect much from it; hardly anyone replies to the mailing list. We’re too busy having fun!”
I smiled at that. “Perhaps you can organise a Thinkers meeting about it.”
“Now that’s a thought!”
I left her, wondering how she managed to organise them at all so that no two proxies would be present on the same date. Hmm. Multiple personalities without central coordination definitely require a lot of organisation!
In any case, this was another dead end. It was time for doing some field work.
Part III — Confrontation
I launched a few search agents to look for more information about the location; I had the infodumps from SignpostMarv, but either he hadn’t been thorough, or just uninterested in figuring out more. There are an infinite number of role-playing areas in the Metaverse, a lot of them private, but surely someone had posted a review of this particular one somewhere?
Surprisingly, the answer seemed to be “no”. Like Marv had found out, all that was recorded showed people moving to this particular location, but never coming out of it. It was hard to get any factual data, though; the records were anonymised and didn’t show much beyond numbers. No profiling data at all, which was surprising these days; Faceworld and GooglePlex were always keen on profiling everybody and everything, and a lot of places carried dumps from their data. But not in this case. There was really no other way but to jump to the location and visit it; after all, what harm could it do?
I arrived at the entry point, which featured the hospital which was visible on the location tracking device that Marv gave me. It was not crowded; a few avatars hovered around it, curiously unresponsive, either to voice or text messages. But then again, some proxies are programmed not to reply to strangers, so this didn’t tell me much. The atmosphere was eery and gloomy, and it seemed to depict an asylum of the late 19th century or something like that — very much the kind of environment that role-playing addicts adore. But it seemed pretty harmless. They clearly subscribed to the school of “discover as you walk around” — there was no information about the location, no contact, no interactive panels, nothing. And the other avatars remained silent. They walked up and down the stairs, apparently unaware of my presence; a few bumped into me and didn’t even apologise, they just went on their pre-programmed paths. But it was clear that more avatars entered the building than left them.
Well, that was certainly a clue. I dumped the sound — the wails and screams were getting on my nerves after a while, and they didn’t seem to emanate from any of the visible avatars — so they were very likely just “scenario sounds” to create an atmosphere for role-players, although most seem to come from the building itself. I walked up the stairway, looking around for any clue on what this was all about, but I still couldn’t figure out how this was related to SignpostMarv’s discoveries.
After a while I started to believe that this was just a waste of time. A lot of locations in the Metaverse are mostly empty of people, but this one seemed to be extremely empty: all avatars seemed to be just constructs, proxies, AIs, ‘bots, or merely scenario. If this was a role-playing game, it was the most boring role-playing game ever devised. Rooms after rooms exhibited exquisite torture chambers, definitely appealing for anyone who liked ‘gothic’ RPGs, but after opening the twentieth door, listening to a wailing scream, and seeing some avatar being submitted to electroshocks or similar physical abuse, I was getting annoyed. There seemed to be no purpose to the whole place; no “central area” where any clue was to be given. The non-playing characters were totally unaware of my presence and seem to be independent of any “plot” — they didn’t interact and didn’t offer any clues. On the other hand, the mere absence of any typical role-playing features — except for the overall look of the space — was at least suspicious: who would take pains to recreate all this without a purpose? It was not even a realistic, historical exhibit of late-19th century torture methods, since most of them were clearly invented. It could be a prototype for a new game, but in that case, it would make sense to keep it closed to the public — and in any case, game designers required beta testers, and beta testers are supposed to give the designers some feedback. None of that existed in this place, and that was certainly strange.
The twenty-first room just featured a plain metal bed; it was empty otherwise. But when I was prepared to leave it after opening the door, a rasping voice suddenly said: “Lie down”. Ok, this was definitely a change! None of the environment sounds so far had given a clear command; and I was immediately aware that the door had closed behind me and fell into the lock. That was promising! Of course, I could always teleport out of the room at any moment, but at least I seemed to be making progress: whatever this “game” was, finally something started to pay attention to me and interact — that was surely a clue of some sort!
So I obeyed. For a whole minute nothing else happened. I sighed in despair. Another false alarm! But it was when I tried to stand up that something weird happened. Like most Metaverse internauts, I was wearing a full range of haptic devices, and somehow the gesture triggering the standing up wasn’t reacting. You could override it with a simple keyboard command — haptic devices sometimes fail, too! — but for some reason I couldn’t move my fingers to the keyboard. Great, the force-feedback motors were failing! No — they were actually locked, and this was a bit strange, because the usual response from a failing haptic device is that everything unlocks, so you can easily dispose of the device. But in this case, it seemed that all electric motors were locking down, and with surprising strength, too! And it happened instantly, which is not usual for the force-feedback motors — they tend to fail over a period of time until giving up completely, and that usually does not mean they lock down, rather the contrary, they just don’t work as force-feedback devices.
In this case, some command had triggered them not only to stop moving, but to prevent me from moving, by locking down and engaging the gears that would keep the motors in place.
Annoying. I had to fall back to voice commands. “Haptic override”, I said, but what actually was picked up and echoed in the Metaverse was a muffled groan. What was happening? This seemed just like a computer virus — hackers had that kind of sense of humour sometimes. Without keyboard input and voice commands, however, it would be tricky to engage the anti-virus software. Tricky, but not impossible.
I was patiently going through my options, looking for a way to unfreeze the haptic devices and regain control over my rig, when the door opened again. Three avatars dressed in white lab overcoats entered and came to my bed; I noticed now that the bed had sprouted some metal chains around my wrists, legs, and waist. I yelled at them, saying that this was not funny and that I wasn’t playing the game anyway, but only muffled sounds were audible — my avatar was gagged! Frustrated, I tried to kick, but to no avail — all servo-motors were locked down. One of the avatars approached with a syringe, inserted it into my own avatar’s arm, and suddenly the screen went blank.
Oh, fun. Just like a bad RPG! Still, having no visuals, my attempts to launch the anti-virus software were even harder. I had no way to know if any of my commands were having an effect or not.
While I was musing with what to try next — I was considering yelling to the home robot to simply unplug my rig — the image returned, but at the same time, the soft electronic whirr of the motors inside the haptic devices moved my arms into a different position: they were held in place, fully stretched, above my head. At first I thought I was going to get released by the system, but no, they clearly intended it to be like that. The image came slowly into focus, showing my avatar suspended inside a jelly bag of unknown pseudo-organic matter. I was slowly losing my patience. “Ok, guys, this is not fun any more!” I yelled, and to my surprise, the voice didn’t come out muffled as I had expected, but it rang, loud and clear, back into the earphones — causing intense feedback. Worse than that, I couldn’t take them off, and I couldn’t turn the sound down!
“Speak softly,” a voice said, somewhere to my side, only barely visible via peripheral vision. My helmet was locked, and I couldn’t move my head; so the fun was definitely not over yet. “Haptic override!” I ordered again, but not with such a loud voice.
Nothing happened except for some chuckling. “We’ve disabled that,” said another voice. They were hard to place, since they were heavily morphed; it was impossible to recognise any accent or even gender. But I assumed I was in the presence of mere kids. There was a certain edge of nervousness which hinted at that.
“So, ha, ha, I’m rolling on the floor laughing,” I told them, my own voice full of sarcasm. “Can you release me now? I’m sure you can prevent me from teleporting away anyway.”
There were some whisperings and mumblings below my hearing ability. “Look, I’m too old for this, and this position is very tiring for me.” I know that my voice didn’t quite sound like an old, frail lady (the sore throat would help, though), but I might still win some sympathy; and I was right.
“You could still pull the plug,” reminded one of the voices. The others — I assumed they were the same three as before — mumbled assent.
“And why should I do that? I’m here to ask you guys some questions…”
“Ah. I see. What kind of questions?” This was from the same guy; there was a slight hint of confidence that was lacking on the other two. So we had a leader here. Good. I could work with that.
“As soon as you’ll let my blood circulate again in my arms, I’ll let you know!” I said. This seemed to produce some effect; after some mumblings, I heard the motors buzzing again, and my arms dropped on the table. Inside the Metaverse, my avatar tumbled to the floor. This had been long enough to get some pins and wheels all over my body, and I complained that this was no way to treat a visitor, specially one that was not part of their RPG.
“Oh — we’re not a RPG,” said their leader.
“Sorry about locking you down,” added the first guy. Now I could watch their avatars: they certainly were much alike, all depicting mad shrinks in their lab overcoats. No real imagination there; just stereotyped images.
“What was all that about?” I enquired, crossing my arms and raising an eyebrow.
“Uh, we wanted to make sure you weren’t a proxy,” the timid guy said.
“I suppose you have never heard about Turing tests, hmm?”
They shook their heads. “The AIs are too good at that. Most pass all the tests, and, anyway, some of the best tests simply take too long. This is quicker.”
“But hurts a lot!” I complained.
The leader shrugged. “Only if you’re not a proxy. That’s how we know.”
“I suppose the thought never crossed your mind that I might just be faking pain…”
Another shaking of heads. “We have devised a way to read the bio data from your rig. Some proxies also use rigs, but after a lot of testing, we can be fairly certain when we get a proxy or a real one. You can fake avatar reactions, but not real pain that gets measured by the rig — it’s far too complicated. You see, your haptic devices include safety margins which are very, very hard to override. A proxy with a rig cannot override them easily. We found a way, and we can measure the amount of pain we cause. A proxy with a quasi-perfect AI behind it might simulate pain up to the safety threshold, but nothing beyond that. Humans, however, will definitely show up reactions above the safety limits.”
I sighed. “And this is how you spend your time? Torturing visitors? Just to see if they are proxies or not?”
They looked at each other; I could imagine them shuffling their feet, out there in the physical world. “Well… we just want to get rid of the proxies, that’s all.”
“And what’s the point in that?” I summarised what I had found out so far, and pointed out that people can create proxies on demand at all times. It was certainly a waste of time to insist in detecting proxies and eliminating them.
“Not quite,” said the leader, moving on safer ground. Ah, we come to the point where it’s ideological! It was with some passion that he explained: “You see, proxies waste CPU cycles. There are over seven billion human beings on this planet, but perhaps thirty or forty billion avatars on the Metaverse. All these not only consume resources on the many Metaverse servers, but on users’ computers as well — which could be more efficiently used to run a lot more Metaverse regions instead.” He paused for effect.
I was stunned; the idea had never crossed my mind before. A million objections crossed my mind in an instant, but I just opened my mouth and remained baffled. “Oh… I guess I never thought about that.”
He sighed. “Nobody really does. We are just so used to limitless resources these days that we forget that someone has to pay for all that hardware, all those connections to the Metaverse, all the power going to wasted computer cycles. People create proxies by the dozen and forget all about them. They just roam the Metaverse, mindless like zombies, exchanging information among themselves, behaving as if they were real people… but there is no mind behind them. What is the point in that?” He mimicked my tone and inflection almost uncannily.
One of the others stepped in. “We don’t really mind the useful proxies, you know. Some people actually make good use of them. They actually spend time with their proxies, synchronising information with them. But these are a small minority; most users just create them and forget they’re around. They pile up. Since they are pretty good replicas of their flesh-and-blood owners, they will just do what their owners would do, get friends, interact with them, buy land, create their own regions, and so forth. But they have no purpose whatsoever.”
“So we capture them,” said the third one with a giggle. “We infiltrate their software, delete the AI, replace it by Metaverse server software, and run our own regions from their hardware.” He opened his arms in an expanding gesture. “All this was created that way. All this and much more, we run a rather large region, and keep expanding it, as we capture more and more proxies.”
“Thus the zombies outside,” I mused. “Mmh. That’s clever but… doesn’t anybody complain?”
The leader shrugged. “As said, they never know what’s happening. Do you know, sometimes proxies from the same owner come over to investigate, which is truly insane: humans care less about their proxies than the proxies care about themselves. Of course, from our point of view, this is just perfect — we’re more likely to get proxies investigating about other proxies disappearing, and so we can infiltrate more and more of them.”
“Is this not somehow… illegal? After all, you’re using other people’s hardware and CPU cycles…” I argued, thinking about the ethics of their approach.
“They don’t care about that hardware anyway. When you create a proxy, do you really worry where it’s being created? One assumes that it’s created ‘somewhere’. They’re free to create in most cases; someone, somewhere, is paying for your proxies to exist, but most people don’t really worry about that”.
The timid guy said: “Do you remember when ‘bots started appearing in the Old Grid? The Lindens would just claim they couldn’t figure out who was a ‘bot and who wasn’t, so at the beginning, they let ‘bots around. Later on, ‘bots were restricted, but still quite a lot continued to exist.”
“Back then, there were all sorts of good reasons for them,” I protested, remembering fondly my old days of ‘bot programming. “Some things would have been impossible to do otherwise.”
“Well yes,” the shy one agreed. “But it was a neat loophole which allowed people just to waste computer cycles, and those were far more precious back then.”
“I’m old enough to remember Lag,” chuckled the leader.
“So am I, I remember that too,” I agreed. So he wasn’t a teen. “But Lag wasn’t really created by ‘bots, there were lots of reasons for that…”
“No, not at that stage. It was just the start: giving people an excuse to use shared resources, which they didn’t pay for. It just got worse and worse, until today, where far more resources are wasted on proxies and similar things that don’t really relate to users any more.”
“We suffer from a limited Metaverse because people don’t care about what resources they use,” claimed the leader. “There is this myth of endless resources that somehow justifies wasting them. But it’s just a myth, resources are not infinite, someone has always to pay for them. If not in actual money, well… people just get less enjoyment, as computer resources are badly used for uninteresting, wasteful things instead.”
I shook my head. “A lot of people would disagree. Modern life is too complex, there are too many things to do, you need to use intelligent agents to keep track of everything…”
The leader smiled at me. “How many proxies do you have?”
“Me?” This was embarassing. “Uh, actually, none.” There was a gleam in his eye, so I quickly added: “But I’m old and just do light work, I don’t need to worry about that much…”
“So what? I’m 102, and I still enjoy the Metaverse like anybody else,” said the leader, shocking me. He spoke like a teenager, and had definitely the radical views of a teen. “Most people on the Metaverse are old anyway. We’re an aging society, since health care is so easy to get, with self-repairing organs and life-extension treatments. That’s hardly an excuse for wasting good computer cycles. And you admitted you can survive without any proxies. So can I. So can my friends. So can, in fact, a lot of people, if not all.”
“We still agree that proxies are justified in some cases, of course,” quickly added the shy guy. “We just infiltrate unused proxies, the ones people forgot about.”
I was thinking on Extropia’s vast host of mind children. They were right, people like Extropia totally lost count on their proxies; she had perhaps the excuse that it was part of her “experiment”, she was making a point. But most people really never abandoned a proxy, once it has been created.
I sighed deeply. “Well, I have to concede that you have a point there.”
“So don’t judge us for being radicals,” said the third guy and laughed. “Think of us as architects of the New Metaverse. One where it’s all about human beings, not funky technology.”
“We’re putting all those wasted computer cycles into good use,” promised the leader. “You’ll be surprised about what we can do. Well, you have gotten a taste of that, I guess.” He scratched the bridge of his nose and smiled cunningly.
“You’re giving the world more zombie RPGs?” I asked with some sarcasm.
The leader raised an eyebrow. “We’re giving them a better managed world,” he said, and was totally serious about it.
And maybe they really meant it. On the other hand, how many people in our history have claimed the same, with rather the opposite result? Perplexed, I took my leave — and they granted it. Perhaps they knew that I was powerless to prevent them. Perhaps they were more naive and thought they had drafted me to their cause. In any case, there were a lot of people I had to meet to talk about this.
Outside my window, the wind still howled; it was a pitch-dark night, but the rain had abated. The morning would be fine.