“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.