Monday, 29 May 2017

Global Reset: Upgrading Society in the Digital Age


By Dirk Helbing

Foreword

 


We are free. We are free to reinvent the world as we like. Most people have not realized it yet. However, even though the US military budget exceeds that of all other countries in the world together, the era of American supremacy has ended. Now that the USA needs to focus on its own domestic affairs, and we are left free to make our own choices. The people of the world can finally figure out their own ways of living – now that they have to. It is no longer necessary to wait until the USA and its strategic think tanks tell the rest of the world what to do.


This is actually a historic opportunity – for us, for the world, and for America, too. The America-dominated era had industrialized the world, and created previously unseen levels of luxury. It also created a financial industry to make it happen, and a digital infrastructure to watch and control the world. Yet, it has failed to solve the existential challenges of our planet: climate change, environmental destruction, resource depletion. This lack of sustainability is causing wars, mass migration, and a future heading for disaster. A new approach – one that brings people and nature in balance – is urgently needed.


It turns out that the reinvention of the world has already started. The digital revolution provides us the tools for a new historical age. Within the space of a few years, we have seen many new technologies, ranging from cloud computing to Big Data, from Artificial Intelligence (AI) to cognitive computing to robotics, from the Internet of Things to Blockchain technology, from Virtual Reality to 3D printing. Now is the perfect storm. All products, services, and business models can be digitally reinvented – and it is happening right now.


The world’s attention has turned to Google’s self-driving cars, Tesla’s electrical cars, and Uber’s transport as a service. While Germany, once famous for its car industry, has plagued by the diesel emission scandals. Suddenly, new players (such as Uber and Tesla) and outsiders (such as Google when it comes to cars) are invading well-established sectors of economy. And this is just the beginning...


The company AirBnb, even though it does not own any hotels, now sells the most overnight stays in the world. Bitcoin has reinvented money, and banks have started to worry about their future. 3D printers can now build entire houses in a single day for just 10,000 Dollars, and  a 57-storey skyscraper has been built in just 3 weeks. This is a revolution!


The digital revolution is also behind a new wave of automation – and it is bigger than any such wave before. Artificial intelligence systems can now read text, talk, and translate languages in real-time. They can recognize patterns and contents of pictures. They can learn anything that works according to rules or is repetitive. AI systems can therefore potentially take over anything from to administration of medical diagnoses, to jurisdiction. AI technology threatens not only low-skilled labour, but also white-collar jobs.


It becomes increasingly clear that no sector of economy will stay the same, and all institutions of society will change – without exception and within a very short time. For Europe, this is a particular concern, because the leading hardware, software, and data companies (with very few exceptions) are located in other continents. Even though “industry 4.0” seems to be successful in creating automated solutions for industrial production – do you know the names of the leading companies?.


This is probably a side effect of globalization as we know it. We thought that we do not have to excel in every single technology, and that every country would specialise in producing what it is best in, and buy the other technologies elsewhere. However, in the case of digital technologies, this was obviously a mistake. Now, we depend on hardware, software, and data we can’t trust anymore. As we will later see, the sovereignty of people, companies and countries is seriously under threat.


To date, it appears that Europe lacks a coherent digital strategy. We have a digital single market, but what are the products and services? Even if Europe would now manage to mobilize the capital, the patents, the technologies and labour force to generate the same growth rate as the Silicon Valley – this backlog would grow further and increasingly faster, because of the exponentially accelerating nature of the digital sector. This in principle would apply, if we continue the same digitization strategy.


However, there are alternatives. One approach that promises to produce faster than exponential growth is combinatorial innovation. This would be based on openness, and require sufficient interoperability based on a reciprocity principle in order not to be exploited. Such an approach would produce a participatory information and innovation ecosystem, in which everyone could benefit from.


The possibilities of the digital realm are unlimited, because the digital world is non-material in nature. This is a game-changer. If we understand and use this well, we can live in a world of sustainability, prosperity and peace. We could be world leaders in the creation of this new age – a new historical era! So, what are we waiting for?

Sunday, 21 May 2017

FuturICT 2.0: Participatory Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) for a Better Future

The world is faced with existential threats. The financial crisis of 2007-8 and its consequences still endanger the stability of Europe and the world economy. Resource shortages are imminent. Climate change may wipe out one sixth of all species. Terror, wars, and mass migration create increasing challenges. All of this results from our lack of sustainability. To manage scarce resources and endangered people, powerful global information systems have been built, based on Big Data and Artificial Intelligence. But at the same time, cybercrime and other misuse of Information and Communication Technologies are exploding. The before mentioned problems are still largely unsolved, and automation is expected to claim a large amount of jobs within just a few years. The digital transformation of our society progresses at full steam.

This situation inspired the FuturICT initiative back in 2010. The initiative called for a major, flagship-size effort to address these challenges by unleashing the full potential of Information and Communication Technologies. At that time, it became clear that emerging fields such as Data Science, Computational Social Science and Global Systems Science would offer promising new approaches to the above problems. However, the solutions at that time were still vague. This has changed, and that is why a FuturICT 2.0 project is timely. As Albert Einstein stressed, problems cannot be solved within the prevailing paradigm that created them. In fact, the World Economic Forum has identified 10 key global challenges, which cannot be addressed with conventional means including today's Big Data approaches, which imply problems such as over-fitting and mistaking correlations for causality. Therefore, disruptive innovations are needed.

FuturICT 2.0 offers such disruptive innovations, which addresses the root of the above problems: lack of sustainability. The combination of the Internet of Things with Blockchain Technology and Complexity Science creates an entirely new opportunity to address our challenges. We discuss this under the label "finance 4.0", which stands for a multi-dimensional incentive system to manage complex systems and promote a circular and sharing economy that would allow to create a high quality of life for more people with less resources. The finance 4.0 system is liberal, democratic, pluralistic, participatory, social and ecological. It makes use of the unlimited, immaterial nature of information, boosts combinatorial innovation and creates opportunities for all, by fostering an open and participatory information, innovation, production and service ecosystem. It realizes that our current success principles of globalization, optimization, regulation and administration have served us well, but have also reached their limits. For this reason, FuturICT 2.0 explores the potentials of complementary success principles such as co-creation, co-evolution, collective intelligence, self-organization, and self-regulation. Information and communication systems, which empower everyone to take better decisions, to be more creative and innovative, and to coordinate and cooperate with others, would lead to better business models, products and services, smarter cities and smarter societies. In other words, the combination of smart technologies with smart citizens will be the success formula for the future. Our work on governance 4.0 and on the open and participatory Nervousnet platform to create data for all by involving citizens are heading exactly in this direction.

The subjects that FuturICT 2.0 addresses are critical and urgent. The project will bring together and enlarge the communities of social (qualitative and quantitative), computational and complexity scientists, foster inter-, multi-, and trans-disciplinary collaboration and exchange - and pave the way for a scientific and organizational framework for the emerging digital economy and society. On an organizational level, we will apply the instrument of jointly-supervised ICTSS projects in addition to the traditional workshops, exchanges, and meetings. On a technological level, we will bring together Big Data, Artificial Intelligence, Agent-based Simulation, Internet of Things, Blockchain Technology, and Complexity Science, and assess the implications from a social science and systemic perspective. On a methodological level, we will combine mathematical modeling with massive computer simulations, data science, and large-scale experimental approaches, including laboratory and web experiments, crowd sourcing and citizen science, virtual and augmented reality, and multi-player online games. They are important building blocks of a new global ICT system and future society. Addressing these topics together will finally allow the global ICT system to adapt to social and cultural needs, react to unforeseen events and make our society more resilient. By putting together key partners with a strong involvement of industry and junior scientists from various complementary fields, we expect to make significant progress towards the ultimate goal of the FuturICT 2.0 initiative: to find a path towards understanding and managing complex, global, socially interactive systems, with a focus on sustainability, resilience, cooperation, and value creation. 

Links:

FUTURICT 2.0 
www.futurict2.eu  

Saturday, 11 March 2017

iGod, Chapter 6: Amazing Plants

The long strokes of Splinter’s tongue made a rhythmic, sopping sound. It was perfectly content, licking the bloodstains on its forelegs. ‘You evil murderer’, said Lex when he pulled his dog to his laboratory table. Lex had done a search for mammals with a similar shape as Splinter’s prey, but so far he had not found a match. No single animal, other than human babies perhaps, had the unusually large size of the head compared to the rest of the body and other than bats, he found no mammals with wings.

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A new set of clothes laid on his ClothingHelp, slightly smarter than usual with a freshly ironed shirt and tight trousers. His ClothingHelp, being synchronized with his diary, was usually right in its choice, but now Lex felt this outfit was a bit too over-dressed. After all, it was just a dinner with his neighbor, no big deal. He did not want Diana to think that he expected anything more. On the other hand it could also be impolite to be underdressed in his jeans and eternal T-shirt. ‘Okay, I follow your advice’, Lex spoke out loud in his empty apartment.

He still had time before seven. He quickly zoomed in on ‘Breaking News’. In the city of New Delhi, half of the inhabitants of a home for elderly people had died a mysterious death. So far the Inspection had not found a virus or bacteria or any other obvious cause of their death. It was a conundrum how 156 people could have died within 12 hours, and how 164 clients did not have any health problems at all. The city had appointed a commission to investigate this mystery. More news would follow later.
Then Lex checked a job vacancy. Although he was utterly chanceless with his profile (healthy, young, trained graduated biologist) he still needed to do a minimum of one application per six weeks in order to keep his BaseSalary at this level. Last week, he had made a short video. So far he had not received a rejection and he started to hope that his application might even been considered for this job. He sent a message to the Human Resource officer to ask about the follow-up procedure. The OpportunityBot answered that his application was not known. ‘But I uploaded my video on Thursday, at 3 pm!’ He sent the activity log as proof. ‘I am sorry to hear that. We have not, I repeat NOT received your video.’ ‘I can resend my video’, Lex said. ‘Application date is closed. Sorry for any inconvenience. Good luck next time’, the OpportunityBot concluded the session.
‘Damn!’ Lex yelled and he pushed a chair against the table and he breathed heavily.
He was completely sure that he sent his video – a kid could perform this task blindfolded. How could it be that they had not received his application? He looked up the contact details of the university ombudsman, but when he started to state his formal complaint, he already knew he would never win his argument against a bot and he quit this screen, too.

Lex switched the projection off. He removed old leaves from his plants and cleaned the glass tubes that he had used to fill them with bacteria and plant material. The contact with the plants immediately eased his mind and he started to breathe normally again.
In the experiment that was interrupted by the power outage, Lex had taken material from the Forsythia to transfer the bright yellow color to the bacteria. He had done similar tests in the university laboratory, a couple of years ago. Due to the power failure the experiment could not proceed. During the simple task of cleaning the tools, Lex suddenly shouted, softly but enthusiastically: ‘Yes!’ and even made a miniscule jump in the air. ‘Yes, yes, yes!’

It occurred to Lex that the combination of bacteria and plants might actually be a way out to the immobility of plant communication. In his quest for speed, he had looked for possibilities to transport the plants. He thought about plant pots on wheels, pushed by robots or transported by drones – that kind of solutions. This was the wrong route! The answer had been in his hands all the time. Why did he see it only now! He rubbed his hands and paced around his laboratory table.

Man, he was thrilled! This intellectual excitement was better than having sex, or consuming drugs! It was rare, but he has had a handful of such insightful moments before. It was like he had opened a door he had previously overlooked, and suddenly he could see ten or twenty new doors behind that door. These doors had been there behind the closed door all along, but he had not been able to see them before. Now that this one was open, there were many new possibilities waiting for him! Splinter joined Lex in his delight and toddled in small circles around Lex’ feet, looking upwards to his boss with his head askew, with the same posture when he received his meals.

Bacteria cover tiny distances when they move by themselves. However, if their travel is airborne, or in water or with the help of animals, for example on the skin of the hands of people, they can travel huge distances. If these bacteria could then start or stop the plant communication… Lex wanted to dictate his theory to his SmartHouseProgram like he usually did, but suddenly he remembered the ‘no device’ imperative that Seldon had introduced. He took his tablet and scribbled down his assumptions, logical links and conclusions. However, he decided to add also meaningless formulas and notes in between to obfuscate his true interests. Incidentally he asked his SmartHouseProgram to project a scientific publication or to import a hologram of parts of a molecule, but he made sure that he also asked for publications and DNA structures and genomes that were totally off-topic. He looked up articles and he went through unpublished reports of experiments. The whole exercise was sheer happiness. Oh man, Seldon would be so amazed tomorrow! Now he only had to dive into the issue how…

‘Hi neighbor, you are welcome…’ a message on his personal device from Diana. It was half past 7 already.
Oh my dear, how could I miss my appointment! ‘On my way! Well, almost!’
He went up the stairs to Diana’s apartment. She lived on the seventh floor.
‘Thanks for texting me. I was in the middle of something.’
‘19.35 is still seven-ish – I would say’, Diana helped him with the greeting. Lex was happy that he had changed his clothes to smart casual, since his neighbor was also dressed to the occasion, in a sporty though smart grey dress. Her makeup was light, used with the intention that it was all-natural, much to his approval. He could now admit to himself that he had feared he would meet the sexless office-Diana.

‘Should I remove my shoes?’ Lex asked since he had noticed she walked bare feet.
‘Whatever feels good to you.’
This was not a very specific instruction. After an instance of doubt, Lex decided to take off his shoes. Diana invited him to her kitchen table. Her apartment was slightly smaller than his. She had those typical things that were supposed to make homes cozy: projections of landscapes, a rug and curtains. She had even set the table, with two proper plates, cutlery and two fancy glasses. Since he had left his parent’s home, he had never dined like this.

It occurred to Lex that he should have brought something for dinner, like flowers or alcohol or chocolate. ‘Too little too late,’ his internal headmaster reprimanded him.
‘So I wanted to order an alcohol dispenser, but I did not know what would blend in best with the meal – what do you recommend? Then I order it right away’, Lex bluffed.
‘You mean you forgot to buy me something? Don’t worry. It is good enough you are here’, Diana laughed. She took an alcohol dispenser from her kitchen sink and waited for instructions how he liked his alcohol best. He did not dare to order the way he usually consumed alcohol: the highest percentage possible in the taste of gin or whiskey. He did not drink alcohol on a daily base, but if he did so, he was a result-drinker. Now he chose a modest permillage in the taste of wine.

‘How is your drone doing?’ Lex asked.
‘It is perfect now, thanks. You did an excellent job. For a biologist, you are pretty handy with drones, aren’t you?’
‘I am even better with plants.’
Diana hummed and poured two glasses with wine-tasting alcohol.
‘I saw you are a lawyer, or prosecutor, I forgot, sorry. I am not familiar with these labels in your field – for you it is worlds apart probably.’
Lex and Diana toasted with their glasses.
‘I once were, first a lawyer and then a prosecutor, indeed. These services have been fully robotized. Now I am working in a home for the elderly.’ She said it blank, without expression. Lex found it hard to read Diana’s face. ‘And what kind of work do you do?’
‘Paid or unpaid?’ Lex asked.
‘Work is no longer defined by payment, I would say. I did not ask who your boss is, did I?’ Diana laughed.
‘The easy answer is I work with plants.’
‘Ok. And you want me to ask what the difficult answer is?’
‘Hmm, not really. I like this dispenser Blend. Is it a BordeauxBlend? If I am not mistaken, I taste scents and flavors of cassis, blackberry, dark cherry, vanilla, black cherry, coffee bean, spice and even some licorice’, said Lex.

 ‘Did you learn the wine guide by heart or is it your way of conversation on a first date?’
Lex did not know what to answer and he filled the silence with another gulp of his wine.
‘This is a good time to serve dinner, I guess.’ Diana went to her sink and the plates were nicely presented, with five different compartments for the macro- and micronutrients.
He was very happy to see that she poured more drinks for them. Lex tried to make eye contact, but Diana avoided his gaze.
‘So now I would like to order some alcohol for the after party.’
‘In case there will be an after party.’
Lex ordered an alcohol dispenser in single malt quality, to be delivered within the hour.

‘Plants,’ Diana reminded him of the initial conversation.
‘Yes, I do experiments with plants. I am still not entirely sure whether my plant experiments qualify as dinner subject.’
‘Check it out.’
‘What I currently do is to transpose qualities of plants, let’s say illumination, color, fragrance, on to bacteria. So far I have failed unnecessarily and grandiosely, thanks to EnergyAmsterdam’s power outages.’ Lex took a bite of his food. It tasted even worse than the meals he prepared himself.
‘Okay – this transfer of certain traits of plants and flowers to bacteria has been done before. What is your interest in all this?’
‘The real reason is that I just like to putter around in my home laboratory and solve problems that I invented in the first place. I once read a book on career choices. In that book, two types of people were described. The first one likes to be a dancer. This kind of person has a clear-cut image of what ‘being a dancer’ entails and dreams of being a famous dancer, one day. The other type does not mind about the image of being a dancer, she just loves the actual act of dancing. She dances every day, before an audience or without anyone. I am more of the second type. I am a biologist, currently without a regular employment.’
Diana was somewhat disappointed.
Lex did not dear to mention that the reason behind his experiments was to develop an alternative communication system – afraid that her SmartHouseProgram would pick up more of the conversation than desirable. Lex described some of the successful transmissions of plant characteristics to bacteria he had already realized. She had listened carefully and asked several questions, no single stupid one. Diana poured another round of wine for both of them.
‘And why do I think that there is more to it than just tinkering with your tubes and infrared heating beam?’
She looked at him, and now he saw her grey-blue eyes. He felt pinpricks in the tips of his fingers.
‘Fair question but really, I am afraid I will not know when to stop the nerdy nitty gritty once I have started. Please, now it is your turn.’
‘To tell what?’
‘Well, anything.’
Lex tried to think of suitable questions and topics. There was a short silence.
‘How is your work?’ Lex attempted to reboot the conversation.
‘I have a double degree in psychology and law. I used to prosecute international political villains in the International Court of Justice in The Hague. I worked with the brightest people. And now, I am reduced to a pair of hands, washing and feeding the elderly who are fading away. So, what do you want me to say about my current job?’ Diana laughed shrilly and Lex felt she was even a bit hostile towards him.

At that moment he received a message that the delivery drone would soon reach the apartment.
‘Excuse me for a moment, I have to collect my order.’ Lex went down the stairs in his socks, slipped on the smooth steps, fell, and hurt himself. He returned with empty hands and looked desolate. In the meantime, Diana had cleaned up the dinner table.
‘The dispenser was delivered directly to my apartment window. I paid for it.’ Diana said. Lex felt bad. ‘How much do I owe you?’
‘Nothing.’

‘Shall we have a drink?’ Lex pointed at the parcel..
‘Sorry, I have a maddening headache. I hoped it would go away after a few pills, but it still plows my skull. I guess I should have cancelled this dinner. I am sorry’, Diana said.
She pushed him gently to the doorstep. ‘We can have a drink of the single malt another time.’
‘Ok. Get well soon’, Lex said somewhat dazed.

When Lex came home it was not even eight o’clock. Undoubtedly, this was his quickest and probably worst date ever. He waited for Splinter to come up to him, but his dog ignored him, too. He took one of his own tumblers and poured himself a single malt from his own dispenser, sitting at the laboratory table. He filled the glass up to the edge. Only then he realized he had forgotten, in all the consternation, to feed his dog.
‘Come here boy’, and he filled Splinter’s manger.
Of all unresolved puzzles, the irrational behavior of his neighbor was the most annoying. Why did she invite him first and then send him away like a schoolboy? Did he say anything wrong? Did he smell? He sniffed his armpits. Or perhaps she really suffered from a headache.

He had no lust to engage in something and decided to consume the news. First the rates of the currencies, shares, and raw materials were shown. The price of water per gallon showed a remarkably steep increase, which was good news for water-exporting countries like the Netherlands or Sweden. Then the program reported. Probably 62 passengers, the pilot, co-pilot and 2 stewards were killed, this 6th of April. The exact number had yet to be confirmed. No terrorist organization had claimed this crash, but a terrorist attack was likely, they said. The negotiations for the Global Summit on Energy for the 21st century were just ahead. The main issue was the trade and registration of CO2 emissions in the fight against climate change. It seemed to Lex that the opponents of the new carbon tax largely outnumbered the politicians, who wanted to push it through.
Lex tried to find an overview of the terrorist attacks in the past 40 years, but that was not available. He looked up the facts and figures from different sources, combined the data in one longitudinal overview. The assaults had increased steeply, just like he had expected. In fact the number of incidents had quadrupled in the last year. Looking at the number of victims, there was even a factor of 10.
He ordered the SmartHouseProgram to close the news and to open MultiLayer. Judged by the meager results, the wines and whiskey started to kick in.

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Novel by Willemijn Dick, inspired and introduced by Dirk Helbing
License: Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs (CC BY-NC-ND)

Tuesday, 7 March 2017

iGod: Chapter 5

The lights went off and with a buzzing sound that slowly muted, his infrared heating stopped working. Damn, this was yet another power outage! Lex was in the middle of his experiments and he needed his infrared heating to regulate the temperature of the plant material with the bacteria in the glass tubes. Now that he was confronted with another power cut, he could not finish this series of tests. More than a day of work was wasted. What was wrong with this country? About ten years ago power outages were extremely rare. Lex was annoyed by the incompetence of the people in charge of such a critical infrastructure and service. How hard could it be to keep it up and running? If they were able to do so in the 20th century, why would it not be possible to do so in the 21th century with all the amazing technology available?

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He cleaned up his laboratory, disposing of the liquid contents of the tubes and preparing the lab for a new round of experiments once the power was back. He decided to do his shopping now when the diesel emergency power generators would still run. Usually, they lasted a couple of hours. After this period of time, electricity was only available to the citizens in the highest echelons. He’d better do the things he needed to do with the help of the network immediately.



Lex logged in with an iris scan. ‘Protein, 1 kilo, carbohydrates 1 kilo, 500 gram fibre and 300 gram fat.’ These ingredients had then to be combined with the digestion bacteria he had at home to prepare a meal that was exactly customized to his body. He was about to give his permission for the payment, when he saw again the unusually high price. What was going on here? The total sum for his shopping list was nearly twice as high as usual. He looked for mistakes or double orderings, but none of this was the case. The prices had gone up. He searched for alternative ingredients in the shop, but these were equally expensive. He visited other shops with no success. Finally, he found a small old-fashioned shop where he paid the normal price. He made a mental note. Once the power was back, he would dive into this pricing issue.



Now that the power was out, there was not much to do for Lex, so he took Splinter for a walk, who was irritated first about the timing, but then very excited. It turned out that Seldon had the same idea.



This time Lex remembered that Seldon had told him ‘to forget his PD’ and imagined Seldon grinning about this wordplay. He hesitated, however, whether he should really leave his personal device behind. He never ever went anywhere without it – what if he needed help? On the other hand, Seldon had sounded earnest when he brought up the issue. To deceive him now could undermine their new bond. Lex did not want to put this relation in danger, which was handy at least and a promising friendship at most. Lex left his device on his laboratory kitchen table, next to his plants. When Lex left his apartment, he felt like naked without his digital gear. Besides, it was really difficult to do nothing. Usually, he checked social prompts and news, or posted some messages.



Lex was disappointed about the lack of progress he had made regarding the mobility of plants. He looked forward to Seldon’s solutions to the alternative communication system. Seldon carried a book under his arm. Lex knew some people who collected books, and in his university library there was a TrĂ©sor with old books even going back to the 17th century. Books were nice for museums, he thought. Lex said hello to Seldon but his friend did not return the greeting. Instead, Seldon tapped vigorously with his index finger on the cover. ‘Do you know who she is?’ Seldon handed the book over to Lex and it took him one quick glance to recognize the scientist from the news yesterday.

‘It is Alida Oosterveen, why do you ask?’

The book was her biography and the cover pictured her.

‘You saw her death and funeral reported in the news yesterday, right?’ Seldon asked without the question-intonation, it was the first statement in reasoning, not a genuine query.

‘This book was written in 2002. Guess what? This biography describes that she died in 2000, at the age of 74. Here, there are pictures of her funeral, and it includes the written accounts of the speeches delivered at her burial.’ Seldon opened the book on page 219, where indeed, her death was reported.



Lex did not believe the message from his academic friend. There had to be a plausible explanation for this double report of the death of a well-known scientist. And since the news was open to a wide, critical public, probably this publication was wrong.

Seldon took the book back and continued the walk. The dogs got used to each other. They did not even sniff at each other anymore and walked side by side.



‘What is your hunch? Is the book mistaken, or was today’s report about her death fake news?’ Lex asked.

‘I am absolutely, 100%, no, 1000% sure that the news today was fake.’

Seldon did not wait for Lex’ reaction and opened the book on another page that showed a picture of a large conference hall, full of people. A tall man stood behind a lectern on stage. The subscript of the picture read: ‘Professor Iddekinge delivering a speech on the memorial service in honor of the deceased Alida Oosterveen, Aula of Delft University of Technology, 25 October 2000. 

‘I worked at TU Delft at the time. As you may know, Alida Oosterveen was a famous alumna of TU Delft. Indeed, she still is the only Noble Prize winner of that university. Anyway, Joost Iddekinge was the dean of the Faculty of Mechanical Engineering, where I worked at that time. And you see, here…’ he pointed to the far left corner of the picture, at the bottom, to a back of a head. ‘This is me. I was 42 in that year, working as Associate Professor for Joost Iddekinge, and I was ordered to be present at that ceremony to fill an empty seat. Joost wanted the Aula to look fully packed because it would otherwise look bad on photographs. At the very last moment before the ceremony started, one of his assistants literally pulled me away from my desk to join the memorial service.’



The issue intrigued Lex, but he was by no means convinced. What interest could possibly be at stake, to take all the trouble to falsify the memory of a death of someone who was relevant to the scientific community, but not that world famous? The first time her death was reported in 2002, which is 23 years ago. That may seem a long period, but it is not that long ago. Quite a few people, who were alive at that time, were still around and would remember her and her earlier death, just like Seldon did.



‘Okay, let’s assume for a moment that Oosterveen died indeed in 2000. Does she have any children? Why do they stay silent? And how about former colleagues and friends? Why do they not speak up? Apparently, there is evidence of her earlier death, in this book and perhaps also in other written accounts, like newspapers. What about the period between 2000 and today: are there any public appearances or private pictures of her? Why don’t you raise your voice and show this book to the press? Is her biographer still alive? Surely this author …’



Seldon shook his head while biting the top of his index finger. They had reached a crossroads and Seldon decided to take the left path and Lex followed him.

‘I do not know why they forged the date of the death of a scientist. I have no clue. I do not even know who “they” are. But what I do know is that this has happened more than once. It seems, events, facts, maps, territories, dates and places are being rewritten.’

‘I am not sure…why people like you, who have proof that a news reports of an event or fact is incorrect, would not publish their evidence? There are more people of your age around.’

‘Remember, since some time, people do stand up against the mainstream news, but if they do, they are labeled as the lunatics of this world, Lex. In this instance, I have hard evidence in the form of a paper book. But most of the times I have to rely on my memory and no one would believe me, if my recollection of an event differs from the mainstream news. In most occasions, people surf the Internet to check facts, and – strangely – the electronic reports have all changed.’

‘Well, in this case you do have a book. Why don’t you publish that the current coverage of Alida Oosterveen is false?’

‘I have reasons to believe that no newspaper would print such a story, and if they did, it would attract the attention of people whom I surely prefer not to meet. I am convinced I am better off without their attention.’

‘Now you speak in riddles my friend’, Lex said.

‘It appears that they can now edit history, i.e. find all information on the Web containing certain content, take it off, edit it by means of Artificial Intelligence systems, and put it back. They took George Orwell’s “1984” as an instruction manual rather than a warning. I believe, they have started to make experiments with the public in order to see how far they can go.’

Seldon saw Lex shaking his head slowly but surely. Obviously, he did not believe a word.

‘I understand that you need time to accept all this. If you are open to it, I would like to share with you what I know – or at least what I think I know – of the world we are living in.’



Lex paused and watched his dog running. ‘You seem like a knowledgeable and smart person to me. I looked up your academic record and you have a solid reputation. But now you seem to draw me into a corner that I really do not like. You know, conspiracy theorists are not my favorite gang of people. They create their own conundrum, connecting a few dots and leaving out other events… Therefore, their theories can never be falsified. However, these are no theories that can stand scientific scrutiny, they are like astrology or mysticism: they evolve around their own principles and the facts in the outside world have no relation with their truths. That is my main objection against conspiracy theories.’ Lex even made the quotation mark with his hand in the air – a gesture he had never consciously made – to mark the fact that the word theory was not appropriate to describe this self-referential tangle of arguments, inferences and events.

‘It's surprising that the word "conspiracy theory" makes everyone stop thinking immediately – the opposite would be appropriate!’ Seldon objected. ‘In today's information age, governments cannot suppress secrets. They can only cover them up by obfuscation. Add some unlikely details to the story, exaggerate it, spread the opposite version, and a third and fourth version, and it will be so misleading and confusing that nobody can identify the grain of truth behind these stories anymore. What's worse, the contradictory stories make it impossible to talk about them without being ridiculed. People prefer to move out of the fog to see clearly, but when the fog gets thicker, you are getting closer to the truth and to the place where the power resides.’



Seldon started to bite his index finger again and Lex was afraid the fingertip would start bleeding soon.

‘Of course I know that a sensible, smart guy like you would not agree with me on this. In fact, I would have been disappointed if you would not have challenged me and go along with me on such issues immediately. Perhaps I can invite you to have an open mind and have a look at the jigsaw pieces I have gathered over the years. Once you have seen them, you decide. If you come to the conclusion that my ideas are the result of the imagination of an old confused professor, we stop our joint inquiry immediately.’

‘Joint inquiry? I thought you were helping me with my plant experiments and now you want me to be part of your world conspiracy team?’ Lex raised his voice.

‘Team…team, if two makes a crowd’, Seldon laughed. ‘You are right about the plants. I am interested in your experiments, sure, and I want to help as much as I can, as non-biologist. For me, the two topics are actually related. How I see it, your plant experiments could potentially help to build an alternative communication system and transcend the current non-fact society – I would even go so far to call it fake reality. But it is a long, long shot…’ Seldon looked into nowhere, with no focal point in particular.

‘So you want me to know the oddities and deviations of the world we live in, and you want me to go on a journey with you to rescue humanity?’ Lex mocked Seldon.

Either the professor did not notice the disdain, or he chose not to go into that. ‘All I ask is your open mind for a limited time. If you decide to quit our conversations, it is perfectly fine. No strings attached.’



‘I have to think about this’, Lex answered. This was yet another response that the course on human interaction had taught him. His inclination was to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ immediately, but often he regretted his initial response later on, finding himself in a job or relation he was not really happy with. The course explained to him that introverts like him needed some time to digest new situations.



Both Lex and Seldon kept silent for a while. Lex noticed that both dogs were out of sight.

‘Have you seen where they went?’ Lex asked.

‘I did not pay attention to them. Let’s continue our walk, they will certainly find us and catch up with us,’ Seldon answered.

Lex regretted he left his device at home. He would have activated the Splinter’s collar now and Splinter would be with his boss within seconds. The two continued to walk in silence and Lex was grateful for Seldon to let this silence grow.

‘Shall we make a second round in the park?’, Seldon suggested. They had completed a full round and the dogs had not returned yet. Lex nodded.



‘I do not say I am in, but I would like to share a few observations, for which I do not have an explanation either’, Lex broke the silence. He started his recollection of the photo session at the Rijksmuseum a few days ago.

‘So the group of world leaders, consisting of the same people and walking and standing in the same order and with identical gestures, wearing identical clothes, were in the news before you witnessed the actual event taking place?’ Seldon asked.

‘Apart from the color of the Chinese woman’s dress, yes, the events were indistinguishable.’

Seldon scratched his head. ‘You said one of the politicians stumbled?’

‘Yes.’

‘Did he spill a drink?’

‘This is true. Why are you asking?’

‘Maybe the scene has actually been recorded before and then holographically projected for the public? It is possible that they video-edited the recording to replace the spilled-over shirt?’ The use of holographic technology was quite common now, but he was not convinced. Why should they trick the public? He continued his story without a response and instead he told Seldon about the sudden price increase last week, both for meals and for the basic ingredients.

‘Aha. Is it fair to say that those meals and ingredients were typical for you. Do you always buy the same stuff?’

Lex did not know whether Seldon had a clue, or he was randomly asking questions. At the crossroads, they took the path on the right this time. Still no trace from the dogs. ‘They will be waiting for us where we started our walk,’ Seldon said, as if he guessed Lex’ thoughts.

‘Another irregularity that puzzles me are the mistakes of my SmartHouseProgram. A few months ago, it would never ever fail me. But now…Recently, I ordered coffee, instead it presented green tea. I gave the oral command to show the news with subtitles and it returned a voice over. These are all small things, but nevertheless it is weird. I instructed the News to present in the 2-dimensional mode and it switched to hologram mode – that type of faults,’ Lex summed up.

‘Hmm’, replied Seldon, ‘the only thing that comes to my mind is that the personalized pricing and the disobedient SmartHouseProgram may be punishing you.’

‘For what?’

‘For a low SocialCitzenScore.’

Lex stared at Seldon with eyes wide open. ‘You believe computer algorithms are discriminating me? This is absurd!’ Some time later, however, he was not so sure anymore. He remembered the accident of the kid some days ago, which did not receive any medical aid.



They had reached the starting point of their walk and their two excited dogs were waiting for their bosses, wagging their tails. Hagar came up to her boss, but Splinter stayed where he was. Lex knew immediately that something was wrong.

‘I bet he has a special present for us, Seldon. This happens when I do not babysit my little hunter.’

Between Splinter’s forelegs laid something like a bloody rabbit. Traces of blood marked Splinter’s sprout and legs. Every now and then Splinter caught a rabbit, weasel or squirrel – remnants of his original purpose in life. Genetically, Splinter was trained to bring his prey to his boss and no matter how hard Lex tried; he could not change this habit. Splinter looked up to his boss, wagging its tail even more frantically in the hope to receive the praise of his boss or more.

‘Not again, will you. What did you catch this time?’



Lex pushed away his dog to have a better look at the prey. The animal was unfamiliar to Lex. It had the size of a small rabbit but its skin was not furry. It was smooth and naked, like a newborn hedgehog. The animal’s proportions were alienating. Half of the creature, or what was left of it after Splinter’s attempts to shred it, consisted of the body and four legs, and half of the size was its head. Lex studied it closer and saw that the mammal had a pair of wings with the size of its entire body.  Lex looked up to beckon Seldon, but he had already approached Lex.

‘Boy, oh boy’, Seldon stammered.

‘Do you know what this is?’

‘I am afraid I do and I hope I am wrong.’

Out of one of his pockets of his old raincoat, Seldon took a weathered plastic bag and picked up the animal. He had to be careful not to spill any drops of the bloody parcel leaking on his clothes.



‘And now?’ Lex asked.

‘I have to go home and examine this creature. We will meet each other tomorrow, normal time. I owe you my report on yesterday’s homework – I may have got the beginning of our plant mobility solution.’ Seldon resumed their conversation as if they had not found this disturbing creature. ‘Good luck with your plant experiments – we will discuss your progress tomorrow. Keep up your good work!’



Lex could not think of anything else but Seldon’s invitation to investigate the world according to Seldon. Lex had always despised conspiracy theorists. They are lazy thinkers – believers really. They are not interested in alternative perspectives or explanations. They develop one theory and they fold the world events to match their worldview. In that way, they will never see what they do not want to see. Worse even: they do not even care. On the other hand, Seldon was credible for Lex.

When Lex presented his wrist-RFID to the central door of his apartment building, he already knew he would accept Seldon’s invitation for the joint investigation. His motivation was not to save humanity – he did not believe he could possibly be its savior. His reasons were more straightforward: he looked forward to go on an adventure and he liked the exchange with a sparring partner who was at least as intelligent as he was.

When he was almost at home, he discovered he had forgotten to take water from the pond for his plants. On the way back, he was continuously scanning for more creatures and he almost forgot the reason why he went back to the park. At the pond he took his jerrican, which he had carried on his back, and filled it with water.



He felt complete and whole again when he was reunited with his digital device. Immediately, he checked the news. The power outage was resolved. It had been a ‘system problem,’ whatever that means. He searched yesterday’s news on the Web and replayed it. To his great surprise, the color of the dress of the athletic woman had changed. This was really unbelievable. Was he already so confused? Then he remembered that he had actually recorded yesterday’s news. Instinctively, he disconnected his computer from the Internet and played the recording. Now, the dress was turquoise again, as he remembered! When he reconnected his computer with the Web and played the recording again, the color had changed! Amazing! When he investigated the file, he noticed that it had just been modified. The old file was overwritten by a new one, so his only piece of evidence was lost. Perhaps Seldon was right and something strange was going on in this country!

He walked nervously up and down his apartment and was about to call Seldon, until he remembered he was not supposed to do so. To calm himself down, he watered his plants. Then, he checked the delivery of tubes and other lab material he had ordered two days ago. It should have been there yesterday, but so far no sign of his stuff. He contacted the manufacturer and the company’s chatbot informed Lex that the order had been delivered 23 hours ago. It showed Lex’ digital fingerprint on the receipt. Lex took a deep breath and sighed. It would be a major hassle to prove that it had actually not been delivered. It was a company of good reputation, so he should be able to trust them. Who could have stolen his stuff and – even more seriously – his identity? For sure, his insurance would never cover the loss.

Lex was frustrated. Hoping for some better news, he said ‘next.’

Lex had a few missed messages during his walk with Seldon. Clients trying to get hold of him for their SmartHouseProgram problems. And a message from Diana, asking about his preferences or allergies for the meal tonight. Lex felt a tiny shock in his fingertips, the same sensation he experienced when his schoolmates scared him in the dark.

‘My preference is to have a healthy and tasteful meal, but most important is the company. No allergies.’ He erased the message before he sent it and tried at least ten variations.

‘No allergies or preferences. Look forward meeting you tonight. See ya @7.’

Other chapters:



Novel by Willemijn Dick, inspired and introduced by Dirk Helbing
License: Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs (CC BY-NC-ND)