An Altered State of Mind

In a previous post I mentioned my GURPS cyberpunk game, Hello World. Hello World is set in a home-brew cyberpunk setting of mine, Altered States. Most of the settings I play in or run are home-brew — I like to put my own spin on things, and cyberpunk is no exception.

As with anything creative, however, there are a host of influences on my work — and in several cases, outright theft. I stole several elements outright from David Pulver’s Transhuman Space and the world of Robert Heinlein’s Friday: the rise of “information socialism”, the gradual demise of the nuclear family, “semiballistic” jets that blur the line between aircraft and spacecraft, violent prejudice against extensive gengineering, and, of course, the story of the Shipstone power cell. I’ve done a great deal of my own research, don’t get me wrong — but some things are just too perfect not to steal, and others follow naturally from the use of the GURPS tech level tree.

Altered States tries to be a world of “ubiquitous technology”. Even the poorest of the poor can have a cheap phone and Internet access, and power to charge them; brownouts are a thing of the past and a house without power, even deep in the outback, is unheard of; AI software tools assist every job. However, all is not sunshine and roses — this is cyberpunk, and privation still exists. That Internet access is stolen or leased by a pimp; corporations fight with governments for control of the populace, while both distract them with endless games and toys; and it’s probably far too late to save the environment, as sea levels rise, the ozone layer decays, and agribusiness wipes out biodiversity.

Ubiquitous Computing

I’ve tried to do real research on the computers and Internet of Altered States. Computers and integrated circuits take “solid-state” to the extreme, with crystal lattices deformed atom by atom to form circuit elements the size of single molecules. Data storage uses holographic bulk media, with lasers storing hundreds of terabytes per cubic centimetre. Quantum computers use the same fundamental structure as normal computers in a diamond medium to create nitrogen-vacancy qubits.

I diverged from GURPS rules-as-written a fair bit for Altered States computers. They exist at a Complexity level and storage density between TL9 and TL10, with multiple options each for speed, capacity, efficiency, size, and hardening, as well as varying power consumptions. I also, in the interests of driving home the idea of ubiquity, adjusted the cost of tiny computers down to match the rest of the progression, and introduced a new size below that: the microcomputer. An Altered States microcomputer is the size of a dime (without an attached terminal). It costs but a single GURPS dollar, weighs a couple grams, and is fully as powerful as a desktop computer from the year 2007, with two terabytes of integrated storage. Pile on options like slow, low-capacity, and light-duty and it now costs ten cents, cheap enough to embed in a sticker with a bit of solar paint and some similarly cheap sensor, and plaster all over a city.

The ways computers talk to each other are similarly ubiquitous. Cabling is nigh-universally standardised, with a single thin cable, with flat plugs that can’t be plugged in the wrong way, carrying both power and data — enough for almost any imaginable purpose. The same cabling standard connects all your peripherals to your computer, and no device needs more than one cable: your computer will power your monitor, speakers, and such. Wirelessly, cheap infrared transceivers in every room of the house offer high-speed data broadcast that can’t be eavesdropped on by people outside the house — but radio isn’t dead yet, as cell phones get higher speeds and more range every year.

In a world of cyberpunk, security is fundamental. With quantum computers available, RSA is obsolete! I discarded the standard Ultra-Tech encryption rules here, viewing them as fundamentally flawed — barring revolutionary discoveries in mathematics, breaking encryption on the time-scales they offer is impossible and attacks should be on key-holders or implementation flaws, which are best handled through roleplay and case-by-case modifiers. I did spend a fair bit of time wiki-walking through the world of cryptography, both to get a handle on how I wanted to treat the situation and for flavour text to feed players. I’ve decided the standard encryption scheme is based on supersingular elliptic curve isogenies — a post-quantum encryption basis that certainly sounds impressive enough. What clinched it for me, though, was the abbreviation: Supersingular Isogeny Diffie-Hellman key Exchange — SIDHE. How could I resist?

Ubiquitous AI

Unlike Transhuman Space, Altered States has no digital sapients — but “weak” artificial intelligence is everywhere.

The most limited forms are termed “expert systems” — what Ultra-Tech calls a “dedicated AI”, and Transhuman Space doesn’t even acknowledge the existence of. They lack initiative, personality, and cannot learn. They are the ultimate extreme of the “standard” computer program, and can perform any non-creative task they have been programmed with. Many might seem to learn by storing and integrating data, but they cannot assimilate knowledge or learn to use it in new ways. The average person does not consider expert systems to be AI1 — they are just a smart tool, used like any other program for anything and everything. Many of them understand natural language and can receive commands or provide output in it.

The next step up is called a “non-volitional AI”, following Ultra-Tech — Transhuman Space terms them “non-sapient AI”. Unlike an expert system, they can learn, but they are still weak AI and incapable of initiative. They are beginning to replace expert systems in all fields — though some more rapidly than others, as NAI are more than twice the price of an equivalently-skilled expert system.

“Strong” AI, volitional and sapient, is still a pipe dream. Countless labs across the world of Altered States are attempting it — all declared successes to date have been proven clever fakes. Research in this field holds great controversy; many declare true AI too dangerous to be allowed, while others hold moral objections to the idea of creating sapient life, and still others declare it unethical to create such in under a legal system that would not immediately grant them full citizenship.

Ubiquitous Power

A cyberpunk setting needs reliable, dense power. GURPS Cyberpunk used exotic, non-rechargeable power cells, but that doesn’t fit with the future I’m wanting to portray. Wall power is easy, of course — fusion is TL9, and has been “just around the corner” for years IRL, but batteries are still one of the major stumbling blocks in a cyberpunk future. Thus, we move on to perhaps my most blatant theft: the Shipstone.

If you’ve read Friday, you’ll be familiar with most of this story. If you haven’t, well: a man invented a new type of battery. One that could be charged and discharged quickly, with a seemingly indefinite shelf-life and use-life. One with an energy density and cost that beat the pants off any battery that existed previously. A battery like that would be enough to set the world on fire alone, but the inventor did something else. He didn’t trust the goodwill of the government nor the power industry, and whether out of pride or arrogance he refused to believe that anyone could duplicate his device. He did not patent it, nor open-source it; he instead obtained financial backing and began producing them in a secretive facility, investing the returns into those fields that promised the best future for his device.

The fossil-fuel industry was understandably threatened by this man, because fossil fuels did not suit his vision of the future. Renewable energy did — nuclear energy did — coal and oil did not. The resulting proxy wars, political turmoil, and economic devastation were termed the First Corporate War by those historians that noticed it. It might have settled out quicker if the man hadn’t been correct in his arrogance — it took over three decades for them to be profitably reverse-engineered. As it was, it went on for several years, and might have gone on longer if the first profitable fusion plants hadn’t began to come online, spelling the end of the war — and the end of fossil fuels.

Ubiquitous Medicine

Medical technology has always had a special relationship with cyberpunk. It takes an interesting structure for the poor to have access to cybernetic implants, but not basic healthcare. Unfortunately, this sort of thing is made simple by the travesty of the American healthcare system, which isn’t well resolved even in the time of Altered States. And as is necessary for any cyberpunk game, medical science has continued to reach astounding heights.

Take the field of human genetic engineering; an art heavily laden with prejudice, but one that almost every citizen benefits from. Most children in the First World have undergone genefixing to prevent the expression of genetic diseases and other undesirable traits — a process underwritten by Planned Parenthood clinics across America and similar services around the world. Some clinics will even tweak your child for a specific appearance — though the ones known to (and many that aren’t) are picketed and assaulted for “playing God”. Anyone deliberately engineered to be better than human — a process requiring very strict regulation and licensing — carries the carefully-legislated stigma of being an “artificial person” (another outright theft of Friday). A second-class citizen by tradition and law, punished for the sins of their creators — and yet, too useful not to be allowed. Artificial persons serve as a 21st-century slave caste, doing dangerous and dirty jobs no real human wants to suffer in, and doing them well — because they’re tailored for them.

In contrast to the prejudice against APs is the punk aesthetic. Many people get often-inhuman body modifications and augmentations, whether because it looks “cool” or to prove there is no difference between the “baseline” and the engineered. Deep in the street, nobody would blink twice at someone with hands on all four limbs and a tail — and out in the Lunar and Martian colonies, there just aren’t enough people to afford prejudice against someone with useful talents.

Very common and seldom-controversial are bionic devices; implants to augment or replace the body’s natural function. The upper classes find obvious replacements gauche — appearance is everything — but any level of unobvious augmentation is taken for granted, even desired. Deep in the street, or for the uniformed services, obvious replacements often demand respect. Artificial organs are as a matter of course completely invisible and wholly taken for granted — if you’ve had a heart attack once already, why trust the frailty of flesh any longer? Augmentations in this area are useful as well, from the modified liver for rapid metabolisation of alcohol, to something as complex as the well-seeker (apologies to C.S. Friedman). A well-seeker monitors every inch of your body from within. It reminds you when to eat and how many calories are in that milkshake; tells you when your blood pressure is spiking, and releasing a sedatives on command if you can’t calm down yourself. It lets you know you’re getting sick days before you’d ever go to the doctor, and lets the doctor know what normal is for you when you do go.

Anagathic technology is wildly popular. The average First World citizen expects and demands over a century of life — and what’s more, receives it. Basic anagathic drugs are available over-the-counter at any drugstore; a regular regimen of these reduces the risk of cancer and reduce the damage of ageing. Thanks to these and increased support for the elderly, nearly a third of the First World is 65 or older. Newer, much more controversial (tainted by their association with genetic engineering), and setting the stage for terrible class warfare in a generation or so are so-called “age-reversal” treatments that reset the body’s cellular age to maturity — only available to the very rich, for the moment.

I could go on and on about elements of Altered States, but I’m mostly regurgitating items from the setting documents. If you’re interested, read them, and leave me a comment on what you want to hear more about! I know what interests me, but that’s not the same thing as what other people want to hear.

  1. This is a classic example of the so-called AI effect: once AI solves a problem, that problem is no longer considered part of AI. ^