Problems with high-level AI

Rick and Morty – You pass Butter

I sense an ugly robot revolution in the near future…

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Terran Trade Authority RPG

For old guys who still remember the TTA books, there is an online copy of the RPG. It’s a drastically smaller universe than the Traveller one, with the three conflicting races coming from Alpha Centauri, Proxmia Centauri, and Terra.

Now, while the universe is a good deal smaller at the start, it is rapidly expanding. A major war has ended, and massive settler ships are preparing to head out. A lot of the military & utility vessels of the war are being retooled for peaceful purposes.

There are two styles of play provided: Heroic or Gritty. Of course, I am strongly of the Gritty persuasion, but I have a soft spot for genuine heroes. What you like is determined by the group, as usual…

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Now at Your Local Starport: The Sleepbox

From Treehugger:

When I first wrote about the Sleepbox two years ago, I was dubious that it would ever see the light of day, noting “It is an interesting exercise in seeing how small a space one can comfortably live in, but one suspects that the opportunity for, um, misuse might keep this idea of the 15 minute hotel room from going mainstream.”

But it has, with a working prototype set up in Moscow.

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From Futuring World:

JIBO: The World's First Family Robot

And from the comments:

For added personality, JIBO’s voice is provided by a live NSA agent.

Thankfully, thanks to the speed-of-light limit, the Imperium (and SolSec) can’t spy on everyone at the same time. Financial limits restrict spying on high-pop low-tech worlds, and Persons of Interest in high-tech high-pop systems have their own ways of avoiding surveillance – some successful, some not.

that’s how skynet takes over the world!

A far more subtle version of the AI Virus could have fairly benevolent (or benevolent/indifferent) AI plague could quietly take over many – perhaps all – high-tech Imperial worlds, leaving only TL 8 and less systems as the only truly human-ruled worlds in the Imperium (and perhaps, it will spread to take over the rest of high-tech Charted Space, including most of the starships).

Ya know, give this thing legs and arms….nah, let’s keep it as a table top device. Less “End of Days” that way.

Some robots are mobile, others are not. We tend to underestimate immobile robots – at least, until we watch 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Jibo is always watching, always listening, knows who you are, where you are, and who you’re with. Thanks, Jibo.

There may be no privacy at all on high-tech worlds. Fortunately, most of the Empty Quarter is rather low-tech. A good place for people who dislike being watched.

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Blindsight: Modern Science Fiction

I work in 1950s space opera, with some limited upgrades: but for a taste of what good modern science fiction can do, I recommend Blindsight by Peter Watts. The novel is mainly focusing on intelligence and sentience, and gives you food for thought.

(For some reason, you can actually go to the author’s website, and just download it before buying it. Odd: why would anyone give away what they can get paid for?)

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Indoor Farms

Quite a lot of attention is being turned to indoor farming. Right now, it’s still in development, and mainly used for vegetables, not grains (like rice, wheat, and corn) which account for most of mankind’s calorie intake.

Also, there is a major issue: energy is currently not cheap enough, so sunlight remains the cheapest way to get the energy plants need to grow. I believe that this will change – if not via LENR/Cold Fusion, then by high-efficiency solar panels – but this is just belief, not a widely demonstrated & accepted fact… yet.

Assuming the power problem is solved, then a desirable future becomes possible:

Urbanites could potentially purchase locally grown, pesticide-free food year-round, lowering emissions associated from tractors and shipping products. Producing food indoors also means that consumers are shielded from disruptions in the food supply caused by natural disasters and that farmland could be restored to ecosystems, such as forests, that could absorb greenhouse gases. Growing food indoors uses 98% less water and 70% less fertilizer than traditional methods, and has a higher yield, [...]

So far, indoor farms still contribute little to the global food system because production costs are higher than conventional growing methods. And they tend to use more electricity. But businesses are starting take advantage of new technologies, [....] As these technologies become standardized, indoor farming will make sense in more locations [...] robots will seed and harvest food and software systems will control every aspect of production, from growing conditions to sales.

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Dynasties, Growth & Bust

While cruising thru the ‘net, America’s Richest Families: 185 Clans With Billion Dollar Fortunes jumped at my eyes.

Now, it’s OK as a basic setting material for a Traveller: Noble campaign (with perhaps some Pocket Empires , Dynasty, and Dilettante as well), but I’m looking for conflict, drama, and all the rest of the basic storytelling material, so what interests me is:

How To Blow $9 Billion: The Fallen Stroh Family

A sad story of how sticking with an old product – and failed attempts to catch up with the market – can vaporise a fortune. “Shirt-sleeves to shirt-sleeves in six generations.”

175 Years Later, The Mellons Have Never Been Richer. How’d They Do It?

It’s reasonable to model Imperial Noble families as rentiers & politically connected politicians, but if you are going to have a sprawling empire last 1,116 years, you are going to need quite a lot of do the work, take the risks, pay the price wealth generators and innovators as well. With a nod to the “I’m giving all of it away (except that last 10 mill…)” philanthropists.

In scanning FORBES’ first-ever ranking of America’s Richest Families, one thing that stands out is how many of the great fortunes of the mid-19th century have dissipated. The Astors and the Vanderbilts, the Morgans and the Carnegies, none make the cut. Some of that is the result of generous, world-changing philanthropy. Some of it decades upon decades of wastrel heirs. Much stems from both. Amid this peer group, however, the Mellons stand out. Of America’s billion-dollar dynasties, only the Du Ponts are having a longer run, and they have a dominant family company perpetually generating the wealth. Not so with the Mellons, who have flaky heirs like Matthew plowing millions into fashion labels and Bitcoin startups, yet have nonetheless maintained a $12 billion fortune, the 19th-largest family net worth in America, one greater than the Rockefellers and Kennedys, combined.

[...] the secret boils down to a family ethos that values one thing over all others: capital preservation. While the pitfalls of inheriting money without purpose have been well documented, Thomas Mellon himself put forward a tacit understanding that while spending was acceptable (Matthew Mellon’s pad at the Pierre is likely worth $7 million, and he likes to fly private), it came with the expectation that each generation push forward a bigger pile than he or she was given. While all the branches operate independently, they’ve almost universally employed smart tricks that minimize taxes, including generation-skipping trusts and making charitable contributions in stock. More critically, Thomas Mellon expected his progeny to be entrepreneurial, with the anticipated corollary that the process would fuel the American economic machine.

Family Misfortunes: 8 Of America’s Richest Clans And Their Bitter Fights Over Billions

When there’s enough money at stake, the nicest people can turn to repulsive monsters. Throw in some sibling rivalry and family grudges, and someone’s going to go to the dark side to get what they want.

(And the dark side is only 80% populated by family lawyers: in the tough world of the Far Future, there’s plenty of space for PC musclemen, infiltrators, and intimidators as well.)



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Best of Breed: Ralph McQuarrie

I will never be able to make art like Ralph McQuarie did.

But I am glad to have been influenced by his vision of the future. Like Neil Armstrong, he is an inspiration.

(Hey, it’s the 700th post! I actually got to post something good for a double-oh number!)
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Financial Stunts

Corporate Stunts

I have always had a sneaking admiration for cutting-edge financial stunts, like the monumental Volkswagen/Porsche short squeeze (see here, here, and here). From the Traveller perspective, the family drive to unite these companies…

One insider said: “Piech considers VW his life’s work and Porsche his family name. He passionately wants to see the two combined before he dies.” (The Telegraph)

…matched with some serious financial muscle…


As early as 2003, Max Warburton, an analyst at Bernstein, had already coined the phrase “a hedge fund with a car showroom” in describing Porsche.

…and lovingly hidden financial IEDs…


Porsche gained the right to own stock without having to declare it.

…adds up to two days of ferocious action, raking in billions for the winner and devastating losses for the loser.

(Travellerese) “Well, House Tukera knows that the money they need has to come from somewhere. Why not their competitors?”

Sadly, these kinds of stunts are not very common in the Six Subsectors. The lack of wealth means there isn’t the incentive to financially engineer them, and the nature of the inhabitants means that boardroom brawls tend to shift easily into physical violence – often, right there in the very same boardroom. It’s easier to get more money AND better odds of living to enjoy it in any other Imperial sector.


Political Stunts

The stunt that caught my eye recently is more political, unproven, and hypothetical. I doubt if anyone is really smart enough to mastermind it, but even if the claim is false, it would make a great Traveller story of out-thinking your opponents.

To model it in Traveller, you need to create something like this:

  • Duke A – and a handful of allied Barons – is opposed by Sector Duke B, allied Dukes C & D, and a pile of minor nobles, including Baron E
  • Duke A has grey/black market ‘friends’ *cough* which prefers to keep entirely too much of our money in worlds & corporations owned by
    • Sector Duke B (who outranks A, and is A’s major opponent),
    • Duke C (who is allied with B, but has important financial ties with A), and
    • Duke D (who resents the need to keep B happy)
  • Duke A starts a minor military action that does not greatly threaten Sector Duke B, but annoys him and harms one of his smaller allies, Baron E;
  • Sector Duke B is unwilling to commit to a major military campaign to shut down the upstart Duke A (and could spiral out of control – local dynastic wars are a nasty business), but is perfectly willing to squeeze Duke A’s financial interests ‘until they come to their senses’;
  • Duke A’s business partner Duke C persuades the Sector Duke to soft-pedal the squeeze, making it ineffective…
  • But the grey/black market ‘friends’ of Duke A definitely feel the heat, and need to get their money to safety: back into the broad, welcoming arms of… Duke A.

“You still want to know how that bushfire war panned out? Forget about it: we need you to focus on the new mission. That war was always just a sideshow, a minor act in a greater story.”
“A sideshow that cost me a ship and two of my friends!”
“Lost assets that you will be compensated for, if you continue to deliver results. You know the Duke always remembers his friends.”

It would take some planning to show the PCs the big picture: they would tend to want to focus on the kinetic action. Sometimes, a pawn in the Great Game should just be left a pawn: just like many Traveller games are (and should be) one-shot bug hunts, if that what keeps the players happy.

But if the PCs want to understand how the world around them operate – and perhaps get their own hands on a few levels of power – they should be be permitted to put the pieces of the puzzle together. The Referee should then take his delight, not in defeating the PCs (*rolls eyes*), but in seeing the “dawning light of comprehension” come across their faces.

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The Swedish Vision… Traveller: 1981 has some interesting art that mixes old Nordic & American locales of 1981 with otherworldly machines and dinosaurs. It’s worth a look.

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