“Life sucks.” Earl repeated the mantra. He was sitting at a bar, alone, in a run-down hotel bar somewhere in Nebraska.
The robot bartender paused, its AI briefly considering if Earl was talking to him. It was programmed to listen to the woes of its customers, in a throwback to the old-style idea that bartenders were some kind of working man’s therapist. Deciding that Earl was not, in fact, talking to it directly, it resumed polishing the bar with a rag (another throwback, the bar was of course spotless). The funny thing was that there were likely so few customers that would actually appreciate the effort at preserving nostalgia that it was a waste of time and programming.
Earl sighed. He couldn’t get away from the feeling. That feeling of……apathy that pervaded literally everything around him. It was everywhere – it pervaded society like a dull, gray blanket draped over everything. It was inevitable, really. The clear result when you made life too easy and provided everything for nothing.
He supposed that his life was better than most. He still had a job, of sorts. The vast changes that robotic automation had made on literally everything in society hadn’t affected him as much as it had the majority. He thought back to that time: it was the mid-21st century: the American economy that had come roaring back to life in the late teens and early 20s fore-casted the change: technology was coming.
The technology magnates of the time: Gates, Musk, Jobs, Zuckerberg…. they had all predicted it, of sorts. The reality was far greater than predicted.
Where to start? The development of stable AI was the first – it allowed control over machines at levels undreamed of just a decade before. Suddenly jobs that required humans didn’t anymore. It started small: fast food cashiers replaced by automated screens, robots that could flip burgers and prepare food automatically, accurately, and cleanly wiped out that sector of the service economy in under a decade.
Driver-less cars went from a fantasy, to a novelty, to a requirement. Almost overnight, it was suddenly difficult to get a license that allowed you to drive yourself. Of course, this wiped out the taxi, Uber, chauffeur, and delivery businesses. Long haul trucks driven by actual people, along with buses and eventually planes became non-existent. Machines simply didn’t make the mistakes that people did.
Earl’s industry was affected too: he spent most of his 20s and 30s working in power plants and other industrial sites, diagnosing problems and locating various efficiency issues. It was an art more than a science: vastly better sensors and smarter computers monitoring them slowly forced even that specialty to a death spiral. An AI-monitoring system could diagnose problems almost instantly, and robotic repair bots (still known as “droids”, that will never die) made human repair personnel an expensive option that was no longer affordable.
Earl was now a salesman: he was one of the few people with actual experience in the field, and he spent his days traveling from plant to plant, selling monitoring systems and answering questions from other human hangers-on, guys lucky enough to be retained in a shrinking labor pool. He didn’t have to work, of course: the UBI would sustain him. But he refused to “retire” out of pure stubbornness. He had this clinging sense of pride, that in order to be a man he needed to earn his living, rather than be handed to him. It was a slowly dying mantra, as his generation slipped into retirement age and the younger people around him, who had grown up in this world, wouldn’t or couldn’t understand.
Most of his time was downtime: riding as a passenger in his automatic van that didn’t even allow him to control it.
At first, it was pretty nice. Plenty of time to sleep, read, play games while the van did all the work of driving. Eventually it was like everything else – supremely boring. You can only watch so much porn on the road, after all.
With the changes, of course, the challenges were pretty obvious: what to do with an ever-increasing population, that had fewer and fewer jobs available? Government programs of the time were inadequate and quickly were overwhelmed. Different things were tried, but it basically came down to a simple truth: we had innovated ourselves out of a job (any job). So, what to do?
Despite vigorous opposition from the more red-leaning states, the US government was forced to regulate the economy. A Universal Base Income, carefully calculated to cover a person’s basic needs, was put into play. Of course, this required fixed prices on all basic needs – food, housing, transportation, and entertainment in order for the UBI to function. This caused another uproar, and nearly another Civil War (the Texas Revolution comes to mind) before it was all said and done.
Nowadays people just…. lived. They were provided free everything: housing (most lived in simple, pre-fab apartments with standard features), food, and most important of all: entertainment. This was the key to keeping the populace happy. Everyone had access to the UniNet, the evolved child of the old Internet and World Wide Web. It combined everything – searches, weather, news, games. Everyone was issued a tablet that gave them unlimited access, 24-7.
More advanced devices were being introduced all the time – most people had a limited VR device that allowed them to interact with the Net, mostly as a spectator. Imagine entering the Net and sitting in an audience chamber, watching actors on a stage. Stuff like that.
Newer technology, that allowed you to fully enter what the techies were calling the “VirNet” was rumored.
Earl snorted. He would believe it when he saw it. That kind of technology required either a full body suit that could provide haptic feedback, along with something that allowed you to move freely yet kept you in place, or direct stimulation into your brain, tricking your brain into thinking you were in a real place. Scary stuff, allowing an AI to control your brain’s input.
Not that he was opposed to technology: he just had trouble with the changes that it brought.
Overall, he supposed, the world was a “better” place. Crime was virtually non-existent, as there was little need for theft when everyone was given sustenance for free. Drugs were legal and could be consumed in a safe, monitored manner whenever desired. Consumer goods were so plentiful and cheaply made in the robot factories that they were almost given away. Advances in 3-D printing allowed almost anything to be made to order right there in a store – shipping finished goods had died out a decade ago, and high-speed, robotic trains delivered raw materials wherever they needed to go.
War was also gone – the US in its traditional manner had built up a huge, overpowering robotic armed forces, consisting of little but drones known as SEALDs (Sea, Air, and Land Drones) that were cheap, disposable, and terrifying. All other countries tried to follow suit, but gave up when the enormous advantage the US’ economy gave it became obvious and impossible to overcome. Most countries in the world were little more than names: the US takeover of the United Nations, which led to the now-named United States of Earth, had been relatively short and complete.
Russia and China, of course, resisted, and the Third World War ended almost as soon as it began. Nuclear missiles launched from both countries didn’t even make it to orbit before high-flying Air Drones smashed them to bits, with the US war AI known as Vulcan coordinating the action. Swift, US-backed rebels in both countries ousted their leaders and they joined the USE soon after-wards. The enormous demand for modern technologies in these countries (in all countries, really), made any resistance short and easily defeated.
So the world was, for the most part, at peace, and everything slowly became homogenized. More and more people were brought into the fold, and the Earth slowly stabilized….and stagnated.
Oh, there was still advances going on, mostly in space industries. Geniuses with the brainpower to develop and control AIs were in high demand, mostly in orbit. The USE was heavily developing space, and strong rumors that soon colonies would be in place kept some hopeful for the future.
Earl knew that he was not a strong candidate – middle aged salesman in an increasingly automated industry were not top choices for space cadets. But he had hope that maybe his kids would one day be able to escape to the Moon, or Mars. If he ever had kids.
Earl shook his head. Too often his mind treaded down this same, tired old road, and it always ended up in the same place: a feeling of depression and hopelessness that he hated but didn’t know quite how to banish.
He finished his drink, stood up, and wiped his hand over the bar’s payment display. The chip implanted in his hand beeped as his tap was paid. The bartender, alerted by his programming, gave him a cheery “Thank you and good night sir!” that despite its falseness, Earl appreciated.
“Thanks, you too.” Pointless to talk to it, as his friends and colleagues always reminded him, but politeness was ingrained in his upbringing and he often found himself forgetting that a machine cared little for pleasantries.
Popular entertainment had always envisioned Artificial Intelligence as simply a machine version of humans, with all of the ego-driven issues included. The reality is that AI was simply different, the closest to an Alien intelligence that had been encountered. Digital consciousness was…. odd, and the few humans that could actually think like an AI were in most cases sociopaths: people who had little actual emotions clouding their thought passages.
Earl walked back to his room, which was small but efficient. A small bathroom, still equipped with the standard toilet, sink and shower was attached to his room, which had a smart-bed that adjusted to his body. The one thing that really differentiated the room form a standard hotel room of 50 years ago was the data interface – Earl had paid for the upgraded, VirNet equipped terminal. It had a screen and keyboard, but the main way to use it was via the headset and haptic gloves that allowed the user to see, hear, and in a limited way touch the virtual world. Sophisticated sensors in the headset tracked his eye movements, head movements, and his voice to bring a convincing world to life.
The gloves extended halfway up his forearms, and were self-adjusting. Sensors allowed him to grasp something in virtual – the small motors and electric muscles in the gloves provided the feedback and pressure to fool his hands into thinking they grasped something real.
Earl remembered his first time using them – like most Americans, he spent hours in a virtual batting cage, marveling at how he could feel the bat, feel the impact of the ball when he hit it, see the ball hurtling toward him.
VirNet was a smashing success. The first major use of the technology had been in porn, which surprised nobody but the people who developed it. VirPorn was still the most heavily used application in history, a fact which everyone kind of ignored.
The second was in the use of games. Everything from spectator sports, which killed attendance at regular sports) to any type of games you could imagine.
Earl shook his head at the memory, and got undressed. Before entering the shower, he glanced at himself in the mirror. A square, tanned face topped with thinning hair looked back at him. His hair was going gray on the sides, and a depressingly noticeable thin area was evident on the top of his head. He was a bit heavier than he should be, with wide shoulders and a thick chest. A stomach larger than it should be showed the result of food eaten on the road and too much alcohol. His eyes were a golden brown, that caught the light and gleamed a bit when he squinted just right. He thought he looked rather roguish when he did that, but he probably looked like a tool in reality.
“Overall, not bad,” he thought, but he knew that he needed more exercise. He also knew that he would likely skip it again, too. A mental chuckle, tinged with a bit of self-depreciation. Not too many women were attracted to a slightly heavy, middle aged salesman.
A quick shower and brush of his teeth (self-foaming toothpaste was something he still heavily approved of) and he settled down at the terminal.
He had always been interested in games, mostly some form of Massively Multi-player Online (MMO) games. First person shooters were still immensely popular, but he had always been drawn to the Role-Playing Games. MMORPGs were huge business in the early 21st, and still were. World of Warcraft still had players playing the 26th expansion or whatever they were up to now. Earl had played that, along with a score of others: Final Fantasy, Warhammer, Lord of the Rings.
Countless hours had been spent over the years fighting orcs, and dragons, and elves. Undead fell by the thousands and the number of epic quests he had completed, all in the never-ending quest for better loot and virtual riches kept him entertained for years.
As the level of civil apathy grew, more and more people escaped the drudgery of their daily lives by playing games online. The solid growth of the VirNet showed this. It was estimated that over 2 billion people logged in to play online games daily, and it was growing by the day. The release of the VirNet technology had caused this to grow by leaps and bounds, and it was expected that as the technology was released to more and more areas of the world, this would continue.
Earl was no different. He had eagerly bought the first VirNet Headset and Gloves (known simply as a VirPak) when it was released and dived into the online world. Game developers (another industry that still employed large numbers of humans – AIs were simply not that creative) released and re-released titles to take advantage of the technology, with more released every day.
Earl slipped the gloves and headset on, and powered it up. A dim green glow filled his vision, with the VirNet symbol (a glove with a headset on it) showed briefly before his loading screen popped up.
After a brief deliberation, he selected one of his favorite games, Hyborian Online. Set in the old original Conan the Barbarian universe, he booted up his character, Jaxx the Conqueror, and began playing.
Earl always played a Barbarian type character – burly, muscular, with a penchant for using a 2-handed sword or axe, with enormous strength and stamina. He despised the gameplay of a magic user or healer, and found a “tank” style play with a sword and shield boring. Give him a big, powerful berserker any day.
After a couple hours of playing, in which he led his company of pirates on a raid on the she-devil town in Aquilonia, he logged off and switched off the lights. As he lay there drowsing, he couldn’t help but wish, as he always did after playing, that he could be such a Hero in real life. It was this thought, more than any, that eased him to sleep, imagining slaying monsters, rescuing damsels, and ridding the world of evil, one sword swing at a time.
- United States
- Aspiring Author
Bio: I've read science fiction and fantasy all of my life. For a long time I've thought about writing my own, but never could get up the time and motivation. This past year I've found a few moments with which to put my idea down on paper, and am currently working on my next book.