Dec 5, 2008


Accelerando is a great sci-fi novel from Charles Stross, touching upon the theme of technological singularity. It is available as a free ebook, under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 License!

Thus, I can legally reproduce parts of it here. This is the collected chronology of the future, found throughout the book (minus spoilers):

Welcome to the early twenty-first century, human.

It's night in Milton Keynes, sunrise in Hong Kong. Moore's Law rolls inexorably on, dragging humanity toward the uncertain future. The planets of the solar system have a combined mass of approximately 2 x 1027 kilograms. Around the world, laboring women produce forty-five thousand babies a day, representing 1023 MIPS of processing power. Also around the world, fab lines casually churn out thirty million microprocessors a day, representing 1023 MIPS. In another ten months, most of the MIPS being added to the solar system will be machine-hosted for the first time. About ten years after that, the solar system's installed processing power will nudge the critical 1 MIPS per gram threshold – one million instructions per second per gram of matter. After that, singularity – a vanishing point beyond which extrapolating progress becomes meaningless. The time remaining before the intelligence spike is down to single-digit years ...

Welcome to the second decade of the twenty-first century; the second decade in human history when the intelligence of the environment has shown signs of rising to match human demand.

The news from around the world is distinctly depressing this evening. In Maine, guerrillas affiliated with Parents for Traditional Children announce they've planted logic bombs in antenatal-clinic gene scanners, making them give random false positives when checking for hereditary disorders: The damage so far is six illegal abortions and fourteen lawsuits.

The International Convention on Performing Rights is holding a third round of crisis talks in an attempt to stave off the final collapse of the WIPO music licensing regime. On the one hand, hard-liners representing the Copyright Control Association of America are pressing for restrictions on duplicating the altered emotional states associated with specific media performances: As a demonstration that they mean business, two "software engineers" in California have been kneecapped, tarred, feathered, and left for dead under placards accusing them of reverse-engineering movie plot lines using avatars of dead and out-of-copyright stars.

On the opposite side of the fence, the Association of Free Artists are demanding the right of perform music in public without a recording contract, and are denouncing the CCAA as being a tool of Mafiya apparachiks who have bought it from the moribund music industry in an attempt to go legit. FBI Director Leonid Kuibyshev responds by denying that the Mafiya is a significant presence in the United States. But the music biz's position isn't strengthened by the near collapse of the legitimate American entertainment industry, which has been accelerating ever since the nasty noughties.

A marginally intelligent voicemail virus masquerading as an IRS auditor has caused havoc throughout America, garnishing an estimated eighty billion dollars in confiscatory tax withholdings into a numbered Swiss bank account. A different virus is busy hijacking people's bank accounts, sending ten percent of their assets to the previous victim, then mailing itself to everyone in the current mark's address book: a self- propelled pyramid scheme in action. Oddly, nobody is complaining much. While the mess is being sorted out, business IT departments have gone to standby, refusing to process any transaction that doesn't come in the shape of ink on dead trees.

Tipsters are warning of an impending readjustment in the overinflated reputations market, following revelations that some u-media gurus have been hyped past all realistic levels of credibility. The consequent damage to the junk-bonds market in integrity is serious.

The EU council of independent heads of state has denied plans for another attempt at Eurofederalisme, at least until the economy rises out of its current slump. Three extinct species have been resurrected in the past month; unfortunately, endangered ones are now dying off at a rate of one a day. And a group of militant anti-GM campaigners are being pursued by Interpol, after their announcement that they have spliced a metabolic pathway for cyanogenic glycosides into maize seed corn destined for human-edible crops. There have been no deaths yet, but having to test breakfast cereal for cyanide is really going to dent consumer trust.

Welcome to the eve of the third decade: a time of chaos characterized by an all-out depression in the space industries.

Most of the thinking power on the planet is now manufactured rather than born; there are ten microprocessors for every human being, and the number is doubling every fourteen months. Population growth in the developing world has stalled, the birth rate dropping below replacement level. In the wired nations, more forward-looking politicians are looking for ways to enfranchise their nascent AI base.

Space exploration is still stalled on the cusp of the second recession of the century. The Malaysian government has announced the goal of placing an imam on Mars within ten years, but nobody else cares enough to try.

The Space Settlers Society is still trying to interest Disney Corp. in the media rights to their latest L5 colony plan, unaware that there's already a colony out there and it isn't human: First-generation uploads, Californian spiny lobsters in wobbly symbiosis with elderly expert systems, thrive aboard an asteroid mining project established by the Franklin Trust. Meanwhile, Chinese space agency cutbacks are threatening the continued existence of Moonbase Mao. Nobody, it seems, has figured out how to turn a profit out beyond geosynchronous orbit.

Two years ago, JPL, the ESA, and the uploaded lobster colony on comet Khrunichev-7 picked up an apparently artificial signal from outside the solar system; most people don't know, and of those who do, even fewer care. After all, if humans can't even make it to Mars, who cares what's going on a hundred trillion kilometers farther out?

Getting back to the history lesson, the prospects for the decade look mostly medical.

A few thousand elderly baby boomers are converging on Tehran for Woodstock Four. Europe is desperately trying to import eastern European nurses and home-care assistants; in Japan, whole agricultural villages lie vacant and decaying, ghost communities sucked dry as cities slurp people in like residential black holes.

A rumor is spreading throughout gated old-age communities in the American Midwest, leaving havoc and riots in its wake: Senescence is caused by a slow virus coded into the mammalian genome that evolution hasn't weeded out, and rich billionaires are sitting on the rights to a vaccine. As usual, Charles Darwin gets more than his fair share of the blame. (Less spectacular but more realistic treatments for old age – telomere reconstruction and hexose-denatured protein reduction – are available in private clinics for those who are willing to surrender their pensions.) Progress is expected to speed up shortly, as the fundamental patents in genomic engineering begin to expire; the Free Chromosome Foundation has already published a manifesto calling for the creation of an intellectual-property-free genome with improved replacements for all commonly defective exons.

Experiments in digitizing and running neural wetware under emulation are well established; some radical libertarians claim that, as the technology matures, death – with its draconian curtailment of property and voting rights – will become the biggest civil rights issue of all.

For a small extra fee, most veterinary insurance policies now cover cloning of pets in the event of their accidental and distressing death. Human cloning, for reasons nobody is very clear on anymore, is still illegal in most developed nations – but very few judiciaries push for mandatory abortion of identical twins.

Some commodities are expensive: the price of crude oil has broken eighty Euros a barrel and is edging inexorably up. Other commodities are cheap: computers, for example. Hobbyists print off weird new processor architectures on their home inkjets; middle-aged folks wipe their backsides with diagnostic paper that can tell how their cholesterol levels are tending.

The latest casualties of the march of technological progress are: the high-street clothes shop, the flushing water closet, the Main Battle Tank, and the first generation of quantum computers. New with the decade are cheap enhanced immune systems, brain implants that hook right into the Chomsky organ and talk to their owners through their own speech centers, and widespread public paranoia about limbic spam. Nanotechnology has shattered into a dozen disjoint disciplines, and skeptics are predicting that it will all peter out before long. Philosophers have ceded qualia to engineers, and the current difficult problem in AI is getting software to experience embarrassment.

Fusion power is still, of course, fifty years away.

Sleep cycles pass; the borrowed 3D printer on Object Barney's surface spews bitmaps of atoms in quantum lockstep at its rendering platform, building up the control circuitry and skeletons of new printers (There are no clunky nanoassemblers here, no robots the size of viruses busily sorting molecules into piles – just the bizarre quantized magic of atomic holography, modulated Bose–Einstein condensates collapsing into strange, lacy, supercold machinery.) Electricity surges through the cable loops as they slice through Jupiter's magnetosphere, slowly converting the rock's momentum into power. Small robots grovel in the orange dirt, scooping up raw material to feed to the fractionating oven. A garden of machinery flourishes slowly, unpacking itself according to a schema designed by preteens at an industrial school in Poland, with barely any need for human guidance.

High in orbit around Amalthea, complex financial instruments breed and conjugate. Developed for the express purpose of facilitating trade with the alien intelligences believed to have been detected eight years earlier by SETI, they function equally well as fiscal gatekeepers for space colonies. The Sanger's bank accounts in California and Cuba are looking acceptable – since entering Jupiter space, the orphanage has staked a claim on roughly a hundred gigatons of random rocks and a moon that's just small enough to creep in under the International Astronomical Union's definition of a sovereign planetary body. The borg are working hard, leading their eager teams of child stakeholders in their plans to build the industrial metastructures necessary to support mining helium-three from Jupiter. They're so focused that they spend much of their time being themselves, not bothering to run Bob, the shared identity that gives them their messianic drive.

Half a light-hour away, tired Earth wakes and slumbers in time to its ancient orbital dynamics. A religious college in Cairo is considering issues of nanotechnology: If replicators are used to prepare a copy of a strip of bacon, right down to the molecular level, but without it ever being part of a pig, how is it to be treated? (If the mind of one of the faithful is copied into a computing machine's memory by mapping and simulating all its synapses, is the computer now a Moslem? If not, why not? If so, what are its rights and duties?) Riots in Borneo underline the urgency of this theotechnological inquiry.

More riots in Barcelona, Madrid, Birmingham, and Marseilles also underline a rising problem: the social chaos caused by cheap anti-aging treatments. The zombie exterminators, a backlash of disaffected youth against the formerly graying gerontocracy of Europe, insist that people who predate the supergrid and can't handle implants aren't really conscious: Their ferocity is equaled only by the anger of the dynamic septuagenarians of the baby boom, their bodies partially restored to the flush of sixties youth, but their minds adrift in a slower, less contingent century. The faux-young boomers feel betrayed, forced back into the labor pool, but unable to cope with the implant-accelerated culture of the new millennium, their hard-earned experience rendered obsolete by deflationary time.

The Bangladeshi economic miracle is typical of the age. With growth rates running at over twenty percent, cheap out-of-control bioindustrialization has swept the nation: Former rice farmers harvest plastics and milk cows for silk, while their children study mariculture and design seawalls. With cellphone ownership nearing eighty percent and literacy at ninety, the once-poor country is finally breaking out of its historical infrastructure trap and beginning to develop: In another generation, they'll be richer than Japan.

Radical new economic theories are focusing around bandwidth, speed-of-light transmission time, and the implications of CETI, communication with extraterrestrial intelligence. Cosmologists and quants collaborate on bizarre relativistically telescoped financial instruments. Space (which lets you store information) and structure (which lets you process it) acquire value while dumb mass – like gold – loses it. The degenerate cores of the traditional stock markets are in free fall, the old smokestack microprocessor and biotech/nanotech industries crumbling before the onslaught of matter replicators and self-modifying ideas. The inheritors look set to be a new wave of barbarian communicators, who mortgage their future for a millennium against the chance of a gift from a visiting alien intelligence. Microsoft, once the US Steel of the silicon age, quietly fades into liquidation.

An outbreak of green goo – a crude biomechanical replicator that eats everything in its path – is dealt with in the Australian outback by carpet-bombing with fuel-air explosives. The USAF subsequently reactivates two wings of refurbished B-52s and places them at the disposal of the UN standing committee on self-replicating weapons. (CNN discovers that one of their newest pilots, re-enlisting with the body of a twenty-year-old and an empty pension account, first flew them over Laos and Cambodia.) The news overshadows the World Health Organization's announcement of the end of the HIV pandemic, after more than fifty years of bigotry, panic, and megadeath.

Greetings from the fifth decade of the century of wonders.

The solar system that lies roughly twenty-eight trillion kilometers – just short of three light-years – behind the speeding starwisp Field Circus is seething with change. There have been more technological advances in the past ten years than in the entire previous expanse of human history – and more unforeseen accidents.

Lots of hard problems have proven to be tractable. The planetary genome and proteome have been mapped so exhaustively that the biosciences are now focusing on the challenge of the phenome: Plotting the phase-space defined by the intersection of genes and biochemical structures, understanding how extended phenotypic traits are generated and contribute to evolutionary fitness. The biosphere has become surreal: small dragons have been sighted nesting in the Scottish highlands, and in the American midwest, raccoons have been caught programming microwave ovens.

The computing power of the solar system is now around one thousand MIPS per gram, and is unlikely to increase in the near term – all but a fraction of one percent of the dumb matter is still locked up below the accessible planetary crusts, and the sapience/mass ratio has hit a glass ceiling that will only be broken when people, corporations, or other posthumans get around to dismantling the larger planets. A start has already been made in Jupiter orbit and the asteroid belt. Greenpeace has sent squatters to occupy Eros and Juno, but the average asteroid is now surrounded by a reef of specialized nanomachinery and debris, victims of a cosmic land grab unmatched since the days of the wild west. The best brains flourish in free fall, minds surrounded by a sapient aether of extensions that out-think their meaty cortices by many orders of magnitude – minds like Amber, Queen of the Inner Ring Imperium, the first self-extending power center in Jupiter orbit.

Down at the bottom of the terrestrial gravity well, there has been a major economic catastrophe. Cheap immortagens, out-of-control personality adjuvants, and a new formal theory of uncertainty have knocked the bottom out of the insurance and underwriting industries. Gambling on a continuation of the worst aspects of the human condition – disease, senescence, and death – looks like a good way to lose money, and a deflationary spiral lasting almost fifty hours has taken down huge swaths of the global stock market. Genius, good looks, and long life are now considered basic human rights in the developed world: even the poorest backwaters are feeling extended effects from the commoditization of intelligence.

Not everything is sweetness and light in the era of mature nanotechnology. Widespread intelligence amplification doesn't lead to widespread rational behavior. New religions and mystery cults explode across the planet; much of the Net is unusable, flattened by successive semiotic jihads. India and Pakistan have held their long-awaited nuclear war: external intervention by US and EU nanosats prevented most of the IRBMs from getting through, but the subsequent spate of network raids and Basilisk attacks cause havoc. Luckily, infowar turns out to be more survivable than nuclear war – especially once it is discovered that a simple anti-aliasing filter stops nine out of ten neural-wetware-crashing Langford fractals from causing anything worse than a mild headache.

New discoveries this decade include the origins of the weakly repulsive force responsible for changes in the rate of expansion of the universe after the big bang, and on a less abstract level, experimental implementations of a Turing Oracle using quantum entanglement circuits: a device that can determine whether a given functional expression can be evaluated in finite time. It's boom time in the field of Extreme Cosmology, where some of the more recherché researchers are bickering over the possibility that the entire universe was created as a computing device, with a program encoded in the small print of the Planck constant. And theorists are talking again about the possibility of using artificial wormholes to provide instantaneous connections between distant corners of space-time.

Take a brain and put it in a bottle. Better: take a map of the brain and put it in a map of a bottle – or of a body – and feed signals to it that mimic its neurological inputs. Read its outputs and route them to a model body in a model universe with a model of physical laws, closing the loop. René Descartes would understand. That's the state of the passengers of the Field Circus in a nutshell. Formerly physical humans, their neural software (and a map of the intracranial wetware it runs on) has been transferred into a virtual machine environment executing on a honking great computer, where the universe they experience is merely a dream within a dream.

Brains in bottles – empowered ones, with total, dictatorial, control over the reality they are exposed to – sometimes stop engaging in activities that brains in bodies can't avoid. Menstruation isn't mandatory. Vomiting, angina, exhaustion, and cramp are all optional. So is meatdeath, the decomposition of the corpus. But some activities don't cease, because people (even people who have been converted into a software description, squirted through a high-bandwidth laser link, and ported into a virtualization stack) don't want them to stop. Breathing is wholly unnecessary, but suppression of the breathing reflex is disturbing unless you hack your hypothalamic map, and most homomorphic uploads don't want to do that. Then there's eating – not to avoid starvation, but for pleasure: Feasts on sautéed dodo seasoned with silphium are readily available here, and indeed, why not? It seems the human addiction to sensory input won't go away. And that's without considering sex, and the technical innovations that become possible when the universe – and the bodies within it – are mutable.

Greetings from the last megasecond before the discontinuity.

The solar system is thinking furiously at 1033 MIPS – thoughts bubble and swirl in the equivalent of a million billion unaugmented human minds. Saturn's rings glow with waste heat. The remaining faithful of the Latter-Day Saints are correlating the phase-space of their genome and the records of their descent in an attempt to resurrect their ancestors. Several skyhooks have unfurled in equatorial orbit around the earth like the graceful fernlike leaves of sundews, ferrying cargo and passengers to and from orbit. Small, crab like robots swarm the surface of Mercury, exuding a black slime of photovoltaic converters and the silvery threads of mass drivers. A glowing cloud of industrial nanomes forms a haze around the innermost planet as it slowly shrinks under the onslaught of copious solar power and determined mining robots.

In high orbit above Jupiter the huge nexus of dumb matter trade is rapidly biting into the available mass of the inner Jovian system. The trade in reaction mass is brisk, and there are shipments of diamond/vacuum biphase structures to assemble and crank down into the lower reaches of the solar system. Far below, skimming the edges of Jupiter's turbulent cloudscape, a gigantic glowing figure-of-eight – a five-hundred-kilometer-long loop of superconducting cable – traces incandescent trails through the gas giant's magnetosphere. It's trading momentum for electrical current, diverting it into a fly's eye grid of lasers that beam it toward Hyundai +4904/-56. As long as the original Amber and her incarnate team can keep it running, the Field Circus can continue its mission of discovery, but they're part of the posthuman civilization evolving down in the turbulent depths of Sol system, part of the runaway train being dragged behind the out-of-control engine of history.

Weird new biologies based on complex adaptive matter take shape in the sterile oceans of Titan. In the frigid depths beyond Pluto, supercooled boson gases condense into impossible dreaming structures, packaged for shipping inward to the fast-thinking core.

There are still humans dwelling down in the hot depths, but it's getting hard to recognize them. The lot of humanity before the twenty-first century was nasty, brutish, and short. Chronic malnutrition, lack of education, and endemic diseases led to crippled minds and broken bodies. Now, most people multitask: Their meatbrains sit at the core of a haze of personality, much of it virtualized on stacked layers of structured reality far from their physical bodies. Wars and revolutions, or their subtle latter-day cognates, sweep the globe as constants become variables; many people find the death of stupidity even harder to accept than the end of mortality. Some have vitrified themselves to await an uncertain posthuman future. Others have modified their core identities to better cope with the changed demands of reality. Among these are beings whom nobody from a previous century would recognize as human – human/corporation half-breeds, zombie clades dehumanized by their own optimizations, angels and devils of software, slyly self-aware financial instruments. Even their popular fictions are self-deconstructing these days.

A singular new reality is taking shape.

Welcome to the moment of maximum change.

About ten billion humans are alive in the solar system, each mind surrounded by an exocortex of distributed agents, threads of personality spun right out of their heads to run on the clouds of utility fog – infinitely flexible computing resources as thin as aerogel – in which they live. The foggy depths are alive with high-bandwidth sparkles; most of Earth's biosphere has been wrapped in cotton wool and preserved for future examination. For every living human, a thousand million software agents carry information into the farthest corners of the consciousness address space.

The sun, for so long an unremarkable mildly variable G2 dwarf, has vanished within a gray cloud that englobes it except for a narrow belt around the plane of the ecliptic. Sunlight falls, unchanged, on the inner planets: Except for Mercury, which is no longer present, having been dismantled completely and turned into solar-powered high-temperature nanocomputers. A much fiercer light falls on Venus, now surrounded by glittering ferns of carbon crystals that pump angular momentum into the barely spinning planet via huge superconducting loops wound around its equator. This planet, too, is due to be dismantled. Jupiter, Neptune, Uranus – all sprout rings as impressive as Saturn's. But the task of cannibalizing the gas giants will take many times longer than the small rocky bodies of the inner system.

The ten billion inhabitants of this radically changed star system remember being human; almost half of them predate the millennium. Some of them still are human, untouched by the drive of meta-evolution that has replaced blind Darwinian change with a goal-directed teleological progress. They cower in gated communities and hill forts, mumbling prayers and cursing the ungodly meddlers with the natural order of things. But eight out of every ten living humans are included in the phase-change. It's the most inclusive revolution in the human condition since the discovery of speech.

A million outbreaks of gray goo – runaway nanoreplicator excursions – threaten to raise the temperature of the biosphere dramatically. They're all contained by the planetary-scale immune system fashioned from what was once the World Health Organization. Weirder catastrophes threaten the boson factories in the Oort cloud. Antimatter factories hover over the solar poles. Sol system shows all the symptoms of a runaway intelligence excursion, exuberant blemishes as normal for a technological civilization as skin problems on a human adolescent.

The economic map of the planet has changed beyond recognition. Both capitalism and communism, bickering ideological children of a protoindustrial outlook, are as obsolete as the divine right of kings: Companies are alive, and dead people may live again, too. Globalism and tribalism have run to completion, diverging respectively into homogeneous interoperability and the Schwarzschild radius of insularity. Beings that remember being human plan the deconstruction of Jupiter, the creation of a great simulation space that will expand the habitat available within the solar system. By converting all the nonstellar mass of the solar system into processors, they can accommodate as many human-equivalent minds as a civilization with a planet hosting ten billion humans in orbit around every star in the galaxy.

Welcome to the downslope on the far side of the curve of accelerating progress.

Back in the solar system, Earth orbits through a dusty tunnel in space. Sunlight still reaches the birth world, but much of the rest of the star's output has been trapped by the growing concentric shells of computronium built from the wreckage of the innermost planets.

Two billion or so mostly unmodified humans scramble in the wreckage of the phase transition, not understanding why the vasty superculture they so resented has fallen quiet. Little information leaks through their fundamentalist firewalls, but what there is shows a disquieting picture of a society where there are no bodies anymore. Utility foglets blown on the wind form aerogel towers larger than cyclones, removing the last traces of physical human civilization from most of Europe and the North American coastlines. Enclaves huddle behind their walls and wonder at the monsters and portents roaming the desert of postindustrial civilization, mistaking acceleration for collapse.

The hazy shells of computronium that ring the sun – concentric clouds of nanocomputers the size of rice grains, powered by sunlight, orbiting in shells like the packed layers of a Matrioshka doll – are still immature, holding barely a thousandth of the physical planetary mass of the system, but they already support a classical computational density of 1042 MIPS; enough to support a billion civilizations as complex as the one that existed immediately before the great disassembly. The conversion hasn't yet reached the gas giants, and some scant outer-system enclaves remain independent, but the inner solar system planets, with the exception of Earth, have been colonized more thoroughly than any dusty NASA proposal from the dawn of the space age could have envisaged.

From outside the Accelerated civilization, it isn't really possible to know what's going on inside. The problem is bandwidth: While it's possible to send data in and get data out, the sheer amount of computation going on in the virtual spaces of the Acceleration dwarfs any external observer. Inside that swarm, minds a trillion or more times as complex as humanity think thoughts as far beyond human imagination as a microprocessor is beyond a nematode worm. A million random human civilizations flourish in worldscapes tucked in the corner of this world-mind. Death is abolished, life is triumphant. A thousand ideologies flower, human nature adapted where necessary to make this possible. Ecologies of thought are forming in a Cambrian explosion of ideas: For the solar system is finally rising to consciousness, and mind is no longer restricted to the mere kilotons of gray fatty meat harbored in fragile human skulls.

But first, the operating software on the human side of the network link will require an upgrade.

Welcome to decade the sixth, millennium three. These old datelines don't mean so much anymore, for while some billions of fleshbody humans are still infected with viral memes, the significance of theocentric dating has been dealt a body blow. This may be the fifties, but what that means to you depends on how fast your reality rate runs. The various upload clades exploding across the reaches of the solar system vary by several orders of magnitude – some are barely out of 2049, while others are exploring the subjective thousandth millennium.

While all this is going on, the damnfool human species has finally succeeded in making itself obsolete. The proximate cause of its displacement from the pinnacle of creation (or the pinnacle of teleological self-congratulation, depending on your stance on evolutionary biology) is an attack of self-aware corporations. The phrase "smart money" has taken on a whole new meaning, for the collision between international business law and neurocomputing technology has given rise to a whole new family of species – fast-moving corporate carnivores in the Net. The planet Mercury has been broken up by a consortium of energy brokers, and Venus is an expanding debris cloud, energized to a violent glare by the trapped and channeled solar output. A million billion fist-sized computing caltrops, backsides glowing dull red with the efflux from their thinking, orbit the sun at various inclinations no farther out than Mercury used to be.

Billions of fleshbody humans refuse to have anything to do with the blasphemous new realities. Many of their leaders denounce the uploads and AIs as soulless machines. Many more are timid, harboring self-preservation memes that amplify a previously healthy aversion to having one's brain peeled like an onion by mind-mapping robots into an all-pervading neurosis. Sales of electrified tinfoil-lined hats are at an all-time high. Still, hundreds of millions have already traded their meat puppets for mind machines, and they breed fast. In another few years, the fleshbody populace will be an absolute minority of the posthuman clade. Sometime later, there will probably be a war. The dwellers in the thoughtcloud are hungry for dumb matter to convert, and the fleshbodies make notoriously poor use of the collection of silicon and rare elements that pool at the bottom of the gravity well that is Earth.

Energy and thought are driving a phase-change in the condensed matter substance of the solar system. The MIPS per kilogram metric is on the steep upward leg of a sigmoid curve – dumb matter is coming to life as the mind children restructure everything with voracious nanomechanical servants. The thoughtcloud forming in orbit around the sun will ultimately be the graveyard of a biological ecology, another marker in space visible to the telescopes of any new iron-age species with the insight to understand what they're seeing: the death throes of dumb matter, the birth of a habitable reality vaster than a galaxy and far speedier. Death throes that, within a few centuries, will mean the extinction of biological life within a light-year or so of that star – for the majestic Matrioshka brains, though they are the pinnacles of sentient civilization, are intrinsically hostile environments for fleshy life.

Welcome to decade eight, third millennium, when the effects of the phase-change in the structure of the solar system are finally becoming visible on a cosmological scale.

There are about eleven billion future-shocked primates in various states of life and undeath throughout the solar system. Most of them cluster where the interpersonal bandwidth is hottest, down in the water zone around old Earth. Earth's biosphere has been in the intensive care ward for decades, weird rashes of hot-burning replicators erupting across it before the World Health Organization can fix them – gray goo, thylacines, dragons. The last great transglobal trade empire, run from the arcologies of Hong Kong, has collapsed along with capitalism, rendered obsolete by a bunch of superior deterministic resource allocation algorithms collectively known as Economics 2.0. Mercury, Venus, Mars, and Luna are all well on the way to disintegration, mass pumped into orbit with energy stolen from the haze of free-flying thermoelectrics that cluster so thickly around the solar poles that the sun resembles a fuzzy red ball of wool the size of a young red giant.

Humans are just barely intelligent tool users; Darwinian evolutionary selection stopped when language and tool use converged, leaving the average hairy meme carrier sadly deficient in smarts. Now the brightly burning beacon of sapience isn't held by humans anymore – their cross-infectious enthusiasms have spread to a myriad of other hosts, several types of which are qualitatively better at thinking. At last count, there were about a thousand nonhuman intelligent species in Sol space, split evenly between posthumans on one side, naturally self-organizing AIs in the middle, and mammalian nonhumans on the other. The common mammal neural chassis is easily upgraded to human-style intelligence in most species that can carry, feed and cool a half kilogram of gray matter, and the descendants of a hundred ethics-challenged doctoral theses are now demanding equal rights. So are the unquiet dead; the panopticon-logged Net ghosts of people who lived recently enough to imprint their identities on the information age, and the ambitious theological engineering schemes of the Reformed Tiplerite Church of Latter-day Saints (who want to emulate all possible human beings in real time, so that they can have the opportunity to be saved).

The human memesphere is coming alive, although how long it remains recognizably human is open to question. The informational density of the inner planets is visibly converging on Avogadro's number of bits per mole, one bit per atom, as the deconstructed dumb matter of the inner planets (apart from Earth, preserved for now like a picturesque historic building stranded in an industrial park) is converted into computronium. And it's not just the inner system. The same forces are at work on Jupiter's moons, and those of Saturn, although it'll take thousands of years rather than mere decades to dismantle the gas giants themselves. Even the entire solar energy budget isn't enough to pump Jupiter's enormous mass to orbital velocity in less than centuries. The fast-burning primitive thinkers descended from the African plains apes may have vanished completely or transcended their fleshy architecture before the solar Matrioshka brain is finished.

It won't be long now ...

Welcome to decade the ninth, singularity plus one gigasecond (or maybe more – nobody's quite sure when, or indeed if, a singularity has been created). The human population of the solar system is either six billion, or sixty billion, depending on whether you class the forked state vectors of posthumans and the simulations of dead phenotypes running in the Vile Offspring's Schrödinger boxes as people. Most of the physically incarnate still live on Earth, but the lily-pads floating beneath continent-sized hot-hydrogen balloons in Saturn's upper atmosphere already house a few million, and the writing is on the wall for the rocky inner planets. All the remaining human-equivalent intelligences with half a clue to rub together are trying to emigrate before the Vile Offspring decide to recycle Earth to fill in a gap in the concentric shells of nanocomputers they're running on. The half-constructed Matrioshka brain already darkens the skies of Earth and has caused a massive crash in the planet's photosynthetic biomass, as plants starve for short-wavelength light.

Since decade the seventh, the computational density of the solar system has soared. Within the asteroid belt, more than half the available planetary mass has been turned into nanoprocessors, tied together by quantum entanglement into a web so dense that each gram of matter can simulate all the possible life experiences of an individual human being in a scant handful of minutes. Economics 2.0 is itself obsolescent, forced to mutate in a furious survivalist arms race by the arrival of the Slug. Only the name remains as a vague shorthand for merely human-equivalent intelligences to use when describing interactions they don't understand.

The latest generation of posthuman entities is less overtly hostile to humans, but much more alien than the generations of the fifties and seventies. Among their less comprehensible activities, the Vile Offspring are engaged in exploring the phase-space of all possible human experiences from the inside out. Perhaps they caught a dose of the Tiplerite heresy along the way, for now a steady stream of resimulant uploads is pouring through the downsystem relays in Titan orbit. The Rapture of the Nerds has been followed by the Resurrection of the Extremely Confused, except that they're not really resurrectees – they're simulations based on their originals' recorded histories, blocky and missing chunks of their memories, as bewildered as baby ducklings as they're herded into the wood-chipper of the future.

It has been a long time since Aineko passed this way, and in the meantime the space around Hyundai +4904/-56 has changed out of all recognition. Back when the great lobster-built starships swept out of Sol's Oort cloud, archiving the raw frozen data of the unoccupied brown dwarf halo systems and seeding their structured excrement with programmable matter, there was nothing but random dead atoms hereabouts (and an alien router). But that was a long time ago; and since then, the brown dwarf system has succumbed to an anthropic infestation.

An unoptimized instance of H. sapiens maintains state coherency for only two to three gigaseconds before it succumbs to necrosis. But in only about ten gigaseconds, the infestation has turned the dead brown dwarf system upside down. They strip-mined the chilly planets to make environments suitable for their own variety of carbon life. They rearranged moons, building massive structures the size of asteroids. They ripped wormhole endpoints free of the routers and turned them into their own crude point-to-point network, learned how to generate new wormholes, then ran their own packet-switched polities over them. Wormhole traffic now supports an ever-expanding mesh of interstellar human commerce, but always in the darkness between the lit stars and the strange, metal-depleted dwarfs with the suspiciously low-entropy radiation. The sheer temerity of the project is mind-boggling: notwithstanding that canned apes are simply not suited to life in the interstellar void, especially in orbit around a brown dwarf whose planets make Pluto seem like a tropical paradise, they've taken over the whole damn system.

New Japan is one of the newer human polities in this system, a bunch of nodes physically collocated in the humaniformed spaces of the colony cylinders. Its designers evidently only knew about old Nippon from recordings made back before Earth was dismantled, and worked from a combination of nostalgia-trip videos, Miyazaki movies, and anime culture. Nevertheless, it's the home of numerous human beings – even if they are about as similar to their historical antecedents as New Japan is to its long-gone namesake.


Their grandparents would recognize them, mostly. The ones who are truly beyond the ken of twentieth-century survivors stayed back home in the red-hot clouds of nanocomputers that have replaced the planets that once orbited Earth's sun in stately Copernican harmony. The fast-thinking Matrioshka brains are as incomprehensible to their merely posthuman ancestors as an ICBM to an amoeba – and about as inhabitable. Space is dusted with the corpses of Matrioshka brains that have long since burned out, informational collapse taking down entire civilizations that stayed in close orbit around their home stars. Farther away, galaxy-sized intelligences beat incomprehensible rhythms against the darkness of the vacuum, trying to hack the Planck substrate into doing their bidding. Posthumans, and the few other semitranscended species to have discovered the router network, live furtively in the darkness between these islands of brilliance. There are, it would seem, advantages to not being too intelligent.

Humanity. Monadic intelligences, mostly trapped within their own skulls, living in small family groups within larger tribal networks, adaptable to territorial or migratory lifestyles. Those were the options on offer before the great acceleration. Now that dumb matter thinks, with every kilogram of wallpaper potentially hosting hundreds of uploaded ancestors, now that every door is potentially a wormhole to a hab half a parsec away, the humans can stay in the same place while the landscape migrates and mutates past them, streaming into the luxurious void of their personal history. Life is rich here, endlessly varied and sometimes confusing. So it is that tribal groups remain, their associations mediated across teraklicks and gigaseconds by exotic agencies. And sometimes the agencies will vanish for a while, reappearing later like an unexpected jape upon the infinite.

Welcome to the twenty-third century, or the twenty-fourth. Or maybe it's the twenty-second, jet-lagged and dazed by spurious suspended animation and relativistic travel; it hardly matters these days. What's left of recognizable humanity has scattered across a hundred light-years, living in hollowed-out asteroids and cylindrical spinning habitats strung in orbit around cold brown dwarf stars and sunless planets that wander the interstellar void. The looted mechanisms underlying the alien routers have been cannibalized, simplified to a level the merely superhuman can almost comprehend, turned into generators for paired wormhole endpoints that allow instantaneous switched transport across vast distances. Other mechanisms, the descendants of the advanced nanotechnologies developed by the flowering of human techgnosis in the twenty-first century, have made the replication of dumb matter trivial; this is not a society accustomed to scarcity.

But in some respects, New Japan and the Invisible Empire and the other polities of human space are poverty-stricken backwaters. They take no part in the higher-order economies of the posthuman. They can barely comprehend the idle muttering of the Vile Offspring, whose mass/energy budget (derived from their complete restructuring of the free matter of humanity's original solar system into computronium) dwarfs that of half a hundred human-occupied brown dwarf systems. And they still know worryingly little about the deep history of intelligence in this universe, about the distant galaxy-scale bursts of information processing that lie at measurable red-shift distances, even about the free posthumans who live among them in some senses, collocated in the same light cone as these living fossil relics of old-fashioned humanity.

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Voice of the Prokonsul by Piotr Konieczny is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States License.