by Lana Sinapayen.
The debate ended, uncharacteristically, by an agreement. Oh, of course each of the two parties still thought the other was absolutely wrong; but they had agreed on the means to scientifically demonstrate that the others were idiots. There was one definitive solution to the issue, one experiment to determine which of the Red party or the Green party was right about the true nature of life itself.
The experiment would take place at the University of Tokyo, which had previously lost its bid to host the debate, but hoped to make it up in fame, funding, and talented new hires by providing material and facilities for the experiment of the century. Rumor had it that its rival, the Santa Fe Institute, had soaked up millions from the ads and broadcast rights of the debate.
No one could quite point out how science had become the new opium of the people: everyone just knew that they had to capitalize on it before the bubble burst. Lectures weren’t all that popular, and podcasts were doing ok. But the bread and butter of the new science stardom were reaction videos to freshly published findings, response videos where researchers talked smack about each other, and live feeds of experimental setups.
And of course, debates. Those were now in a league of their own. It had started rather unsurprisingly, with reality TV hosts and middle aged household name scientists debating the popular topics of the week. It wasn’t great science, but it was good entertainment. Star scientists got famous for getting at each other's throats over the true potential of renewable energy sources. Dismayed research experts called out the disinformation and the risks of broadcasting shouting matches between people who were increasingly commenting on questions out of their areas of expertise. Was a physicist really the most qualified to speak on prime time TV about gene therapy?
As competition between TV networks grew, the topics became more niche. There were only so many Saturday morning viewers invested in the superiority of the energy model of the retina cell compared to the contrast model. It seemed like the science debate bubble was coming to an end. Its second breath came from the Youtuber community, who being less risk averse, took the biggest risks of all: “what if science debates, but... serious?” Later observers called the change inevitable, but at the time, it felt like a revolution. Live YouTube science debates were already attracting a specific kind of commenters, who showed up with arguments and counter-arguments backed up by links and references. The live chats quickly turned into a massive, instant fact checking machine that neither hosts nor guests could ignore. Soon, the most popular debate guests weren’t scientists anymore, but synthesizers: commenters chosen by the community for their ability to distill and appraise information from the high speed ping pong game that the live chats had become. Science became a massive collaborative effort, and discoveries accelerated accordingly.
As with most things, polarization had happened almost instantly: two main groups were occupying the debate space, transcending national borders. They were named for the colors of the emoji that they used to make their contributions in the chats recognizable at a glance: green squares for the Green party, red triangles for the Red party. The Green party tended to favor data over theory, and was particularly fond of new, inexplicable findings. They called themselves “the shifters”, from their acceptance of paradigm shifts. The Red party called them the bullshifters. The members of the Red party themselves preferred logic over creativity, and trusted old theories rather than new data. Their motto was “Too good to be true”, and they chose the nickname “the rocks”. The shifters called them the aurochs, “because like aurochs, they will soon go extinct and make space for the bulls”.
The debate of the century, as it was advertised by the Santa Fe Institute, was an economic triumph: the question was just philosophical enough for anyone to have an opinion about it, and scientific enough to offer hope that it could eventually be resolved: What were the properties that marked an organism as “living”? Each party had its own laundry list of necessary conditions, and each party had counterexamples to void their opponents’ list. On the principle of “I cut, you choose”, the DEVOLUTION experiment would be designed by both parties, then conducted by the Rocks, and the results interpreted by the Shifters. Everything would be public, open source, and of course live streamed.
On a brisk November morning, the video feed went live. The Dean of the University of Tokyo pushed a cartoonishly big blue button. A digital screen lit up: “GENERATION 1”. A mechanical arm simultaneously inoculated 50 petri dishes with E. coli, and slid the rack of dishes inside a plexiglass box full of microscopic tools and probes, all connected to a network of computers.
20 minutes passed.
Defying all bets, the first thing to go was the ability of the single celled organism to divide autonomously. It happened in two dishes, both soon after generation 450. Through a combination of random manipulations and artificial reasoning, the computer had found a way to mechanically divide cells at the right stage of ripeness, removing the need for them to do it themselves. Consequently, the ability to divide had slowly disappeared from the genetic pool. Less than a week after its beginning, the DEVOLUTION experiment was officially deemed viable. 3 weeks in, DNA replication was mostly mechanized. By the middle of January, glucose metabolism had similarly been successfully transferred from the devolving bacteria to the machine. Only a day later, one population lost its swimming appendages and delegated its ability to move by itself to the computers.
But as one function after another was being mechanized and analyzed, something else was accaparing the news cycle. That very morning, 6 delegates of the Green party had petitioned the UN to stop the experiment, denouncing it as unethical and ‘a danger to all Life on Earth, including but not limited to human beings’. When asked by the media why they had supported the idea to begin with, the exasperated head of the delegation exclaimed: “We never thought it would work!”
Meanwhile, the majority of the Red party, while condemning the Greens as cowards, was also demanding that the experiment pause, to replace the computers for faster models developed specially for that purpose by a CPU chip company. A minority that was neither rocks nor shifters was planning a worldwide protest of the whole enterprise on religious grounds, and a small coalition of rocks and shifters calling themselves the Brown Party was picketing the University to protest any change to the experiment. Police were sent to force open the campus. In the middle of the chaos, a truck full of agar and necessary nutrients was tipped over.
All 50 plates of generation 5,532 starved to death.
The UN ethics committee ruled that since generation 5,532 had been too devolved to survive without its computer nanny, and since the computer had successfully designed itself to perform many of the functions of life in E. Coli’s stead, the machine should be considered at least partly alive. “It shall not be unplugged nor disposed of.”
Generation 5,532 had died, but its influence was about to become immeasurable. The only reason why the experiment had passed the internal ethics review of the University of Tokyo was the lead scientists’ argument that the protocol could not be applied to anything bigger than a bacteria, since most living organisms took exponentially more time to produce a new generation. They had omitted to consider that adaptation does not require whole generations to occur. That fact was not missed by some enterprising souls on the internet, and since the source code of the experiment was open source, there was nothing stopping them from doing their own experiments. They went directly for the human brain.
The first report of a hacker claiming to have automated ice skating was wildly treated as a hoax by almost every serious news source. She claimed to have modified the evolutionary algorithm to apply its selection to the electrical signals from her muscles, finding the right signals to apply to her legs until she didn’t have to correct the trajectory of the skates, and in the end didn’t have to move her legs by herself at all. Hoax or not, the automotive industry immediately seized its chance, still grappling with unfulfilled promises of “self-driving” cars. Nine months after the death of Generation 5,532, a well known auto maker announced the successful transfer of an e-racer’s driving skills to a self-driving car. Their version of the algorithm was kept secret, but soon, worldwide tinkerers self-identifying as “Generation 5,533” were surreptitiously automating every boring aspect of their jobs. It was hailed as the oppressed workers victory over greedy workplaces, ushering in the end of capitalism... until it wasn’t. CEOs quickly got their hands over Generation 5,533’s precious algorithms. They could now underpay one talented worker from the global South and duplicate their skill over an infinity of computers. For the many physical tasks that still required the flexibility and affordability of human flesh, they hired laborers’ bodies at the hour.
During the first few minutes wearing the EEG helmet, you would just be working as usual. As the machine found ways to match your mental functions one by one, your mind would slowly go blank. You would awake 9 hours later, groggy and sore. They called that one Generation 0, like the void that occupied their days and made their nights dreamless...