"When not imagining how AI might save us from the consequences of ocean acidification, Sidney enjoys learning about the inner workings of our brains, and wondering how much of ourselves we might pass on to our creations."
One Parasite Two Parasite
Six year old Cyndee ran down the stairs and jumped into her Grandpa’s lap.
“Grandpa,” she asked, “what’s Schubsee and Zoopers?”
Grandpa looked down at her very surprised. “Now where did you hear about that?” he asked.
“Me and Levy were playing in the closet upstairs and she found it. How come it looks so different from the other books?”
“That’s because it is not a book from this time. I took it with me here,” explained Grandpa.
“Can you read it to us?” asked Cyndee. “Please-please-please-please-please-please-please??”
“I’m afraid I can’t do that here,” he replied, “it’s much too old for you. I can tell you the short, simple version myself though. And it’s pronounced shoob-zee, not shubb-cee.”
Cyndee smiled. Grandpa’s stories were always the best.
A very long time ago, even before the first Connectome was destroyed and Earth abandoned, Schubsee stood on the south coast of France. She was filling up with water again. In front of her was Corsica and to her left was Italy, and they both looked so close. She’d never stood on Corsica and really wanted to, but wasn’t sure if she could jump that far. Her insides could handle the acid water and process it properly, but her outer shell was not strong enough. If she didn’t jump the full distance, that might be the end of her.
As she was finishing, she looked to the southeast and saw a big storm coming. Scared of what the acid would do to her, she stood up quickly and looked for a good place to get away. Europe was a dangerous place to fill up – there was so much water nearby that there was a risk she would have nowhere to run. Luckily, there were always the Alps to hide behind. She turned north, took a few steps to pick up speed, and with a big leap went right over the Alps and landed in northern Switzerland. She turned back around and smiled, not many Orograths could jump like she could.
Now filled up and with a good power supply, Schubsee headed inland to where the good soil sites were. She hoped it wouldn’t be too crowded; the ecosystem inside her was still growing and not ready to get its genetic supplement yet.
Meanwhile, Zoopers carefully tiptoed through the Karakorum mountains. This was her favourite place - it was so peaceful and quiet. None of the other Orograths could walk on the uneven mountain ground like she could. She often wondered if there was some sort of ‘glitch’ in her neural net that allowed her to walk where the others could not. But the best part was the snow. Snow was much less acidic than ocean water and this made her systems run much smoother.
As she bent down and lowered a tube to start sucking some snow up, her infrared sensors picked up some tiny dots on the surface. When she looked closer, she couldn’t believe what she saw. Little biologicals! They weren’t in a biodome either! Somehow they had climbed all the way up the valley and carved out little caves in the mountainside. Here they were safe from the rain.
Zoopers felt sad. She never understood why they chose to live like that. She could relate to their dislike of the domes, for she was no different. But unlike her, they had the option to plug in to the Connectome, where they could live whatever life they chose for as long as they wanted. Zoopers looked up at the Connectome in orbit and sighed. She would be on Earth forever.
“Grandpa,” Cyndee asked, “why did people live in biodomes at all? Shouldn’t they have just gone into the Connectome right away?”
“Yes, they should have,” he explained, “but a lot of people were afraid of it and didn’t understand that it was just as real as in the domes. I’ve always thought that as soon as the acid became strong enough to destroy the biodomes they should’ve given up on being biological.”
“But the people in the Orograths were biologicals, right?”
“Yes, that’s what I was getting at. The whole idea of mobile biodomes that could escape the hurricanes was noble, but very dangerous.”
“I don’t understand,” interrupted Cyndee. “I thought living in a dome was really safe.”
“It was, the danger was with the Orograths themselves. You see, for a machine that big to work properly, the programmers had to break the A.I. law and give it too many connections, which made the Orograths able to think for themselves.”
“You mean like our neighbours?”
Grandpa laughed. “Yes Cyndee, like our neighbours. Remember though that the Orograths lived Outside, so there was a danger they could harm the biologicals. Luckily, they were not interested in anything but helping us.”
“Grandpa,” Cyndee asked, “did the Orograths ever get sick?”
After much wandering, Zoopers reached India, where many other Orograths were present. Her ecosystem was fully grown and long overdue for genetic pollination. To prepare for connection she did an extra air cycling of her biodome. However, a small glitch in her neural net that had gone unnoticed her whole life was suddenly triggered. It caused one of her vents to blow off and allow unfiltered outside air to enter her biodome.
The air carried lots of toxic spores, and once inside, the evil spores did what they do best; multiply. Multiply and multiply until they’d consumed every biological resource in the ecosystem and then spread into the electronic ones. They got inside Zoopers’ neural pathways and chewed their way through many systems. To make it worse, she was unable to seal the broken vent because the spores had destroyed the pathway to it, so more and more spores kept pouring in. As Zoopers began to lose function and became increasingly paralyzed, she noticed something horrible; the spores were headed for her neural core.
Determined to survive, Zoopers took drastic action. Using a combination of real-world compounds and data she’d obtained from the Connectome, she manufactured a parasite inside her neural core. As the spores approached it and with no visible alternative, she unleashed the parasite inside her own neural net.
The parasite, which was red, was very effective at stopping the spread of the spores, but it came at a terrible cost. As it spread throughout her circuits killing off the toxic spores, the parasite also took control of much of Zoopers’ neural net. Still unable to seal the vent, her only option was to produce more and more of the red parasite to fight the continuing outbreaks of spores. With the parasite controlling half of her circuits, and new spores entering her biodome every day, she could hardly walk, let alone form a connection with another Orograth for pollination. Worst of all, her ecosystem had been completely destroyed.
Schubsee was alone in northern Siberia harvesting sand for her biodome. Her ecosystem was almost ready for pollination. When she finished, she turned to head back to the others and all of a sudden her neural core lost power, and she fell to the ground.
“Nooo!! What happened?!?” Cyndee was very upset. “Schubsee was my favourite!”
“Well Cyndee,” Grandpa responded, “I’m not quite sure. I don’t know much about neural cores and artificial intelligence, so I can’t really explain it. I’ll go back to Zoopers now...”
“No! Schubsee was my favourite! I wanna know what happened!”
After much struggling, Zoopers was finally able to crawl away from spore-infested India and reach Tibet. Here the air was cleaner, and there was enough time between waves of spores that she was able to seal off the open vent. No more spores entered her biodome. However, the red parasite did not starve to death as she had hoped. Somehow more spores were still being produced. Impressed with the effectiveness of the red parasite, Zoopers manufactured a second one, which was blue. This one was better at destroying small, hard to reach spores.
It also worked quite well, and no food was left for the red parasite. It gradually faded away, but as it did Zoopers became very sad. The new, blue parasite was filling in the neural pathways that the red had taken control of. So even though she was able to function now and was no longer at risk of a complete system failure, she was still some sort of empty shell of her old self.
After she got up and left Tibet she noticed something worse. Some of the spores had dug deep into the dirt in her ecosystem where they were safe from both parasites. Although slowly, they kept multiplying and would come to the surface frequently. Zoopers knew that so long as it had a source of food, the blue parasite would never go away.
“Schubsee was my favourite! I wanna know what happened!” continued Cyndee.
“Alright Cyndee,” replied Grandpa, “she was found by another Orograth really soon, and repaired right away so that she was good as new. The other Orograth even installed a monitor in her neural core so that there would be less chance that it would happen again.”
“Wow, that’s great,” Cyndee said.
“You’re right, it is,” replied Grandpa, “and not just for Schubsee.”
Zoopers continued walking towards Africa. The going was slow and difficult, mostly because of the parasite, but she was able to make steady progress. She was going to the Sahara, where many of the newer Orograths would be found. Hopefully, one of them would have what she desperately needed; thermide plasma bombs.
Thermide plasma was the only compound she knew of that burned hot enough to cleanse her of the toxic spores and of the parasites she had manufactured inside of her. It was her last hope, for if it did not destroy the deepest roots of the spores, then she would likely have to continue with outbreaks forever. She knew that if that became the case, then she would never grow her ecosystem back, never connect, and never have her ecosystem pollinated. Her biodome would be empty and useless forever.
She arrived in Mali exhausted and uncomfortable – the wide, flat desert was not to her liking – but surrounded by other Orograths. After approaching a few, she found one that was willing to trade her some thermide plasma for several of her spare reactors. Zoopers knew that she would likely need those reactors at some point, but also knew that there was no point in reaching some point if she was still so infected.
Zoopers and the other Orograth formed a material-level connection – just material could be transferred, not ecosystem DNA and no neural link was formed – and Zoopers received the thermide plasma. As the connection was severed she dropped the first thermide plasma bomb into her biodome.
Schubsee’s neural core reactivated. Her sensors turned back on and, slowly, she stood up. She had been fixed! She examined her biodome and was delighted to see that her ecosystem was completely intact. She resumed her march southward, this time intent on pollinizing her ecosystem.
The thermide plasma worked, and Zoopers was thrilled to see many spores die off. The others kept multiplying though, so she continued to drop thermide plasma until she had emptied all of it in her biodome. After the haze lifted, she saw that almost all of spores were destroyed. Now she just needed more thermide plasma and she would finally be right again.
However, as she started walking she realized that although the red parasite was now completely eradicated, the blue one had spread significantly while she dropped the thermide plasma bombs. It occupied much of her neural net, and although she could function coherently, the parasite was always present.
Zoopers was sad. Not only did she still have the occasional, small spore outbreak, but she worried now that the blue parasite would be with her forever. She considered just accepting that, and going off into the Karakorum – accompanied by her infestation – and living there alone. But something deep inside her neural core was not ok with giving up like that. She remembered that when those evil spores first entered her biodome, she planned on recovering so well that no one would ever know she’d been infested.
She turned, and headed out of Africa, back towards the Himalayas. Perhaps there she could find a few Orograths with lots of extra-strong thermide plasma. She would drop so much that every single biological cell – spore or parasite – inside her would be wiped out forever, even if doing so burned up so much of her neural net that she was no longer herself.
Schubsee wandered south towards India. She could just make out the Caspian Sea on her right and the Karakorum Mountains on her left. Instead of going over the Himalayas, she had taken the long way around because she was still unsure of herself after what had just happened. Although her expectations were low, she really hoped that in India she would find an Orograth with good ecosystem DNA and be able to connect with it. Her ecosystem was becoming overdue for pollination, after all.
Just as she began to turn left, she saw another Orograth stumbling out of the desert to her right. She was waving for her to stop. She did, and when the Orograth reached her Schubsee noticed she was a much older version than herself. Definitely pollinated already.
“Hello,” began Schubsee, “you must be one of the Zinc-powered Oxygen-breathing Orograths with Platinum-shielding and an Electromagnetic System?”
“Electromagnetic Resonance System,” the new Orograth explained.
“Oh ok,” said Schubsee. “So… Zoopers?”
“Yep, that’s me!” answered Zoopers. She paused for a moment, not recognizing Schubsee’s design type.
“Self-Contained Hydrogen-powered Uniskeletal Biodome…?” she began.
“…for Surface Exploration and Endearment!” finished Schubsee. “It’s nice to meet you!”
“Wow, I thought they were never gonna meet!” said Cyndee. “Are they gonna get pregnant soon?”
Grandpa was shocked. “No Cyndee… Orograths don’t get pregnant, their ecosystems get pollinated.”
“Isn’t it the same thing?”
“Not at all,” Grandpa explained, “and I don’t know how you got such a silly idea. When Orograths connect to exchange ecosystem DNA, their neural nets join. This allows them access to all of the other’s neural pathways, both good and bad ones, which is a great way to gain experience and enhance themselves. Connected Orograths often function much better than they do when alone.”
“Grandpa,” asked Cyndee, “what if their neuron things are broken? Does it still work?”
Schubsee was impressed. It seemed that Zoopers had been all over the world. It was strange that she hadn’t connected yet though.
“My neural net is very badly damaged,” explained Zoopers, “and I need thermide plasma to fix it. Do you have any? I’ll trade you some reactors.”
“Sure,” answered Schubsee, “I have lots. You can keep your reactors though, it would be horribly exploitative for me to trade like that.” She knew Zoopers was hiding something, since thermide plasma was used for ecosystem cleansing, not neural repair. She decided to give Zoopers some anyways, and reached out to do a preliminary test connection.
As the low-level connection was strengthening, Schubsee detected a glitch in Zoopers’ programming. Somehow it had gone completely undetected. She promptly fixed the glitch, and prepared to transfer the thermide plasma.
Zoopers felt something very strange. All of a sudden her biodome climate control had reprogrammed itself, and was now adjusting to the new parameters. As the climate and atmosphere in her biodome changed, she noticed something else; the parasite was dying! She wasn’t sure why, but clearly it was not suited for the new climate. She was not concerned about a spore outbreak either, for her sensors showed that even the deepest buried spores had shrivelled up and died in this new climate inside her biodome.
She knew that thermide plasma could kill spores easily, but she had doubted that she would ever be rid of the blue parasite. And yet, now it was dying off faster than she thought possible. She felt as if some sort of giant rain curtain had being hanging over everything and was now just thrown back, making all the world shine out the clearer. Confused, she wondered how this was all happening so suddenly after so much struggle she’d been through on her own. And then, as the sun glinted off the top of Schubsee’s biodome, she turned, and that was when she knew.
“Zoopers?” asked Schubsee, “are you ready for the thermide plasma transfer?”
“Wait – “ replied Zoopers, “…I’m not sure I need it anymore.”
“That’s crazy!” said Schubsee. “You need to accept it so I can help fix you!”
“No… it’s too late for that…” she said, opening her neural gateway completely so as to allow for a full-level connection, “… you already have.”