I like Science Fiction, but I hate being confused by the lingo. It's like being transported to a foreign country where no one speaks your language and you don't speak theirs. I guess some people think that's fun. I don't. So in case you're like me, I've included a glossary on the last few pages of the book (and on this website). Click here for the online appendices explaining many details about the concepts and imaginary products introduced in the book. The next few paragraphs will help place you in the world of the book.
First of all Virtual Reality (VR) and N-hanced are not the same thing. A 3-D movie with Surround Sound is a primitive form of VR using two of your senses in an attempt to make you feel as if you're somewhere other than a theatre. With full VR, all your senses can be engaged. VR can be as simple as augmented reality, where you see objects not physically in your environment, like a digital clock in your field of vision. Or it can be so complex you're convinced you're actually somewhere else, in a place where you can reach out and touch objects and people not physically there. (Think Star Trek's holodeck.)
The continued shrinking of computer technology will allow people to have nano computers inside them, providing the VR experience unobtrusively—no glasses, contact lenses, gloves or apparent sound systems of any kind. Since these devices are computers, they're completely programmable, allowing them to run any application the user chooses, from devices to control digestion, to eliminating cancer, repairing damaged DNA and otherwise amplifying the human experience—and VR.
N-hanced is an application that runs on the nano computers in the brain. Its main feature is Effortless Instant Knowledge (EIK - pronounced "yike!"), but it also ramps up VR to the Nth degree and provides emotion control.
The story of N-hanced is fairly faithful to the timetable of technological advances Ray Kurzweil predicts in his books The Age of Spiritual Machines: When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence and The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology. When other prognosticators disagree with him, it's rarely over whether these changes will take place, rather when they will happen. And of course all that depends on if we survive. During speaking engagements in 2011 and later, Ray held up a cell phone and said that in twenty years the technology in a cell phone will be available in a package the size of a blood cell. If that is indeed the case, I'd like to have a teaspoon full of them in my body, networked together to make a supercomputer that will respond to my every request.
We are headed into a time of unprecedented acceleration of technology that will allow for wondrous living. But those same tools allow for horribly disastrous outcomes, many of which someone with a set of instructions found on the Internet and a thousand dollars worth of lab equipment can accomplish. For the dark side of the story see Bill Joy's article Why the Future Doesn't Need Us in the April 2000 Issue of Wired magazine. I tend to side with Kurzweil's optimism, but I don't doubt that there will be some frightening moments along the way and many bodies piled up in the process. Here's hoping I'm wrong about that last part.
Because of those dangers some would say, "Let's put the brakes on here." But this tech wagon doesn't have any brakes. And you can't slow it down enough to install any. So all we can do is focus on steering. As Ray himself said on the June 17, 2011 interview with Bill Maher, "People talk philosophically, 'Oh, I don't want to live past 100.' You know, I'd like to hear them say that when they're 99. And when they get cancer and there's a new treatment, there's no philosophical debate, 'Well, do I really want to extend my life?'" This is why technology is racing forward. We want the longevity fruit from the tech tree—the real tree of knowledge.
Ray says that by 2045 we will reach a technological singularity—a time when advancements are moving so quickly that a person who is not enhanced—presumably by merging with these tiny machines—will not be able to keep up with the pace of change. And thus the title of this book, N-hanced.
I'm including Internet access to four songs I've written, the lyrics of which appear in the book. Click here for the songs. There will be an album available, too, if you like what you hear online.
Charlie Noble muttered as he rushed down the hall on his way to the nano lab, his eyebrows weighed down with worry. The CEO of Corridor CyberDynamics had just scorched him—at least that's the way it felt—and his face was red to prove it. Funds for Charlie's N-hanced project were nearly gone.
As he burst into the white room, Milo and Linda looked up from the workbench.
Milo caught the expression on Charlie's face. "Sheesh! What'd he say to you, boss?"
Charlie gave him a grim look and waved away the question. "Make it work, and none of that matters." He joined them at the pristine lab bench as they leaned over a pair of glistening cylinders of meat, each the size of an arm, laying at right angles to each other. "What are we doing this time?"
Milo TwoDogs swung his head, and his braided black ponytail rippled down his back. "I'm positioning the T more exactly in the center of the synapse."
Ts were nano-sized proTein computers people accepted into their bodies to protect them from the Green Plague of the '20s. Charlie's team had developed N-hanced, an app for Ts in the brain. It would act as traffic cop for electrical signals in the synapses. With it people would have access to knowledge on any subject as if it were already in their own head. Only problem was, it didn't work.
Charlie frowned. "I thought our Virtual tests showed precision isn't important."
Milo blinked hard. "Well… yeah. But if the sims were right, we'd already have a finished product."
"All right," Charlie sighed. "Give it a try."
Linda stared down at the magnified nerve cells. "C'mon, baby," her words muffled by a mouthful of pretzels. "You can do it."
Milo reached for the button. A blue flash shot along one of the nerves making it twitch. The lumpy neurotransmitter released a charged particle, which jumped across to the T. Instead of sending the charge on to the dendrite, the T sparked back at the neurotransmitter, and the meaty axon split open with a pop. The three of them jumped back and watched as steam hissed from the rent flesh.
Charlie closed his eyes and raked his fingernails through his sandy, choppy hair. "Shit." The word seemed incongruous coming out of a face genetically modified to look like a young Superman. "It's getting worse, not better."
Milo put his hand on Charlie's arm. "Hey, relax, Buddy. We'll get it. We're almost there."
"Almost isn't good enough. Our money's gone." Charlie didn't mention that he'd augmented investor funds by wiping out his personal savings.
Linda froze, a fistful of peanuts halfway to her mouth. "No money? What exactly did Santa Clause tell you in there?" Linda Sullivan had pixyish features, a turned-up nose and a bobbed, blonde haircut with a few untamable strands. Before her genetic rebuild, she was nearing three hundred pounds. She now sported the popular petite model.
Charlie tried not to show disapproval for Rob. "He said we're out of time, and the money is almost gone."
Milo rolled his eyes. "Anything we don't already know? I swear… if it weren't for Herr-CEO's cheery delivery—"
"Don't forget that he pays us well," Charlie said.
Linda said, "You're only defending him because he's family."
"And he lets us keep the patents. Don't forget, Orchard doesn't do that." Charlie drew a deep breath and blew a resigned stream of air out his nose. "All right, I guess you guys need to know about this." He replayed his conversation with Rob.
"I don't know what to tell you, Charlie." Rob's eyebrows climbed up his freckled forehead. "Our hold on the patent runs out tomorrow. After that, Orchard gets their shot at it."
Charlie felt his jaw tighten. He knew to the minute how much time they had. Every bit of work he'd done over the past twenty years had been aimed toward creating N-hanced as the final prize. As far as he was concerned N would be the great democratizer, bringing hope and prosperity to the downtrodden by making users instant experts, helping them solve their own problems.
And it wasn't just N's knowledge feature compelling him. He couldn't wait for the emotional stability. Here he was an eighty-five-year-old, age-reversed man still haunted by childhood memories of daily bullying and frequent beatings in the schoolyard for being different. It left him with a soldier-like hyper-vigilance and a relentless obsession with fairness. But those painful memories and his emotions would be under control once his team perfected N-hanced. And the benefits wouldn't be his alone. He was not about to let Orchard beat him to it!
"Yes, sir. We're almost there. Just a little stush in the system." Charlie tried not to sound desperate.
"That's what you said last week—and the week before that."
Charlie lowered his head and nodded.
"And don't call me sir. I was your father-in-law for chrissake."
"Of course." Charlie's mind veered away from the despair of Barbara's pointless death—just one more reason he craved N's emotion control. "But the Virtual tests say we should be there. All we have to do is make it happen in Real."
"Well, it's gotta happen soon. The investors made it clear we can't go back to them for a third round of funding without proof of concept. Not that it'll matter once the patent goes away." Rob's face softened. "I don't mean to be hard on you, son. I'm under a lot of pressure here myself. Did I tell you if we don't get this, it could bankrupt us?"
"Yeah." It came out a whisper.
Rob got up, walked around from behind his desk and squeezed out one of his cherubic smiles. "I shouldn't have pulled you away from your work. Go back in there. I'm sure everything'll be fine." He gave Charlie a comforting pat on the shoulder, but his eyes made a distracted roundtrip to the digital clock in the upper corner of his vision.
Charlie waved away the vid playback.
Milo said, "No pressure, huh?" He made a disgusted "tsk," and shook his head.
Charlie rolled his hands out. "So, what the heck is screwing us up?"
Adjusting his ponytail Milo said, "I'm fresh out of ideas."
Linda reached into a bag of chips. "What if they just don't like each other?"
Milo smirked. "Very funny."
"I'm just saying—"
"Yeah, I know. Just stuff your face and stop talking."
"Hey, that's not very—"
Charlie slapped the table. "No, wait a minute!"
Milo and Linda jumped. "What?"
"Say that again, about how they don't like each other."
"Uh… like they're incompatible. You know, like in a relationship where the chemistry is wrong." Linda shot Milo a cold glance. "Maybe the nerve cell just thinks the T is ugly."
Milo shook his head. "Don't be crazy."
Charlie's gaze swept the floor. "We assumed since the Ts work everywhere else in the body, they'll also work in the brain. What if we got that wrong?"
Milo's eyes opened wide. "Holy shit, man! I think that's it! All this time I thought the problem was with our programming."
Within a half hour Milo found an incompatible ion in the T and rebuilt it. They held their breath as he hit the test button. This time the tiny computer passed the signal through as if it were invisible.
"Yes!" they screamed in unison, jumping and slapping each other on the back.
Then Charlie stopped and waved them down. "Wait! Wait!"
"That's only part of what we need. Test it the other way. Intercept the signal from the transmitter and substitute one of our own."
Milo flicked dismissively. "You worry too much, old man. It'll work."
Switching out the command line, Milo hit the button. Sure enough, the nerve receptor picked up the altered data.
Charlie held up a hand. "OK, now repeat it a hundred times."
Milo raised one eyebrow and pursed his lips. With a wave of his hand, all the tests repeated flawlessly in a matter of seconds. "Told ya."
Charlie's face relaxed and a huge smile rolled across it. "I'll be damned. We did it!" He grabbed hold of Linda's head and gave her a big wet kiss on the cheek. "I love you, you crazy wench!"
Linda threw him a look of mock arrogance. "Well, of course. Why else did you hire me? For my brains?" Then she got serious. "I get to be first!"
"Oh, no." Charlie put up a palm. "I've been waiting twenty years for this."
"No, no. I mean I want to be the first to upload my expertise."
A sly smile crept onto Milo's face. "Better be careful what you ask for, sister. We get your smarts into the machine, and we might not need you any more."
Charlie said, "I gotta tell Rob." He started out of the lab and shouted over his shoulder, "Thank Jesus. We can finally get this thing off the ground. Ye-haw!" When he got to the door, he spun around and shook his index finger in the air. "We're gonna be number one! Yes!" and he was gone.
* * *
A few weeks later Charlie was N-hanced full time. At first it only gave him instant access to information—nothing from any of their experts. Even then he was amazed that he could know anything on the Net without tedious reading. The answer to whatever he wondered was in his head almost before he could compose the question. More important to Charlie though, it gave him the emotional control he'd been praying for his whole life. His nervous habits melted away, and he worked with an inexhaustible fury completely free of fear. Now it was time to move it to the next level.
Charlie's goal wasn't to simply have book knowledge the way the Net presented it. He wanted to feel what someone else knew, the way they felt about it, intimately, with all their passion. But he was also hesitant. He'd spent most of his life trying to avoid emotion—so much of it having been negative. Then came the day Linda finally uploaded her knowledge into the N-hanced servers.
She lay back in the reclining oChair, playful as a puppy. "C'mon, guys, let's go!" It only took a moment for the server to lock onto her profile.
An Artificial Intelligence (AI) program asked her a series of questions in her areas of expertise and mapped the locations in her brain. Then it asked personal questions in order to wall off sections for privacy. Linda had nothing to hide. In fact she insisted on having the guys in the room and laughed as they blushed and squirmed while she revealed intimate details of her life.
Finally the program initiated a Brainstorm, and the server converted the results into meaningful data. A lifetime of experience transferred in less than a minute! The whole operation took no more than an hour. Charlie couldn't wait to get inside her head.
"OK, guys, this is it." Charlie flicked a finger, opening the gate to the section of the server giving him access to Linda's thinking. Linda and Milo fastened their gaze onto him. Charlie's face went slack, and his eyes glazed over. He opened his mouth and slurred, "Duh… I feel shtupid."
Linda looked shocked. Then, when a wicked smile snuck onto Charlie's lips, she slapped his arm. "You fucker!" She giggled. "What an asshole."
Milo laughed, "Oh, that was precious."
Linda said, "So what is it really like, shithead?"
Charlie held up a hand. "OK. Honestly? It is completely awesome." He blinked his eyes and shook his head. "Let me find a way to describe it. When I normally think about numbers using basic N, I have something like a calculator in my head. I can perform operations in a snap. But you think about numbers with something bordering on reverence. To you, they're organized by colors and grouped in shifting patterns, making them a joy to work with. It's like going from the black and white of Dorothy's Kansas to the brilliant kaleidoscopic land of Oz. Through your eyes I see the relationships between numbers, and how they… hold the secrets of the universe. I feel—What?—almost in love with them. It's beautiful."
Linda squealed, "That's exactly how I see them. Exactly!"
"I knew you were crazy about math, but I had no idea it could be like this. Not only that, but I feel more calm and relaxed—more trusting. It's as if absorbing your way of thinking makes life easier. But," Charlie's face got serious, "I also feel an uncontrollable urge to eat. Where are the chips?"
Linda turned to Milo, eyes heavy with mock contempt. "He's fucking with us again."
Milo shook Charlie's arm. "What else? What else?"
They spent part of the afternoon comparing how N's data is organized versus how Linda's mind works. Then they set up a schedule for uploading from the experts they already had contracts with and detailed what characteristics they wanted in their alpha testers.
So finally… finally N was ready for the next round of funding. Charlie was ecstatic. Twenty years and it's all falling into place. Then…
Less than a week later Charlie found himself racing across town in one of Orchard's ubiquitous oCars. Actually, he rocked in his seat, pointlessly trying to make the vehicle go faster. But oCars drove themselves, so rocking and shouting were all he had left.
It was less than a week since Charlie first tried N-hanced, and he was now on it full time. When he'd come into work that morning, Linda wasn't in the building. From his office he opened a VR line to Milo, which dropped him into the white lab. "Where's Linda?"
Milo looked up. "Oh, hi, boss. Uh, I don't know."
"She's always here before anybody else. You try to com her?"
Milo paused. "Nnnno?"
"Weren't you curious?"
"I guess I was thinking about my work. You OK?"
Charlie followed Milo's gaze down to see his hands shaking, Linda's intuition inside him now frantic, demanding. "Something's wrong." He had already opened a line to her, but even her digital Personal Assistant didn't pick up.
He hired a public Skeet cam and had it circle her house. Most of the windows were still opaque. That was inconceivable. Linda always let the light in everywhere she went. Then, through the only transparent window, Charlie spied a broken cup of coffee on the kitchen counter, brown drops slowly puddling onto the floor. It could only mean one thing. In order to avoid destroying evidence at a crime scene, the ubiquitous oClean shut down when someone in the vicinity was injured. Linda lived alone.
Charlie sprinted down the hall and threw a final VR burst at Milo. "I'm going over there!" That's when he ordered the oCar he was now riding in.
When the car finally arrived at Linda's place, he leapt out of the portal, bolted to the front door and pounded on it. Running around the outside of the house, he knocked on all the still opaque windows, calling her name. Circling back to the front door, he felt drawn to a rock next to the porch. Picking it up, he removed a plastic plug on the bottom, uncovering an old-fashioned key. How did I know... Then. Of course. Linda! The key opened the door, and he rushed in.
He flicked and the lights came on. Directly ahead of him, Linda lay naked on the wooden floor; sets of evenly-spaced bloody gashes across her arms and torso, as if some wild animal had gone at her. "Jesus!" Charlie dashed forward, slipped on a pool of blood and fell next to her, wrenching his shoulder. "Shit!"
Righting himself, he kneeled and reached for her neck to check for a pulse. As soon as he touched her skin he jerked his hand away. She was cold. Too late. Then Ohmigod! This is a crime scene, and I just contaminated everything.
Backing out of the room, he cursed the bloody footprints he left behind with every step. Outside he commed 911. "This is an emergency! One of my employees has been murdered!" The AI dispatcher locked onto his location and logged off. Charlie sat down on the porch to wait, his head in his hands. When he noticed a mark on the side of one of his shoes, he ripped it off and fought back a wave of nausea. The whole bottom was stained red with Linda's blood. He tore off the other shoe and flung them both into the street. I'll never wear those again.
His heart thudded with a burst of panic when he thought about how losing Linda would affect the project. Then he realized with her expertise in the servers, it wouldn't make any difference at all. Feeling ashamed for thinking it, a ball of guilt welled up in his stomach. After a few minutes he remembered he had N-hanced control over his emotions. He gave the virtual knob a twist and the knot in his belly unwound. That lasted until the police arrived—and Charlie became a suspect.