Hack the Planet

The incredible true story of the one and only startup behind the Gaia Computer

It all began simply enough, at an industry symposium four years ago on semi-biotic augmented neural nets: essentially using cultured rat neurons to pilot self-driving cars.

A bearded man in a festive shirt came up to me after Ted Smith’s TEDx Talk at the end of day 3 of the symposium, held at Wyndham Beach Mountain Rock Lake Stream Resort & Trailside Tavern. He looked like he had just wandered in out of the Wilderness-Themed Area.

Tedx and I were just about to hit the Trailside Tavern, said to have the best draft belgians and the strongest wifi this side of Lagos, when the aforementioned bearded man thrust out his arms, cradling what looked like a scrubby old X-Box.

“How much do you think this thing is worth?” he asked me, looking puzzled, like maybe he didn’t even know the answer himself.

I looked at him a moment and then replied, “You tell me.”

He looked back and forth from Tedx and I, searching our faces for who knows what sign or indication.

“Can we go somewhere and talk?” he asked.

Ted and I looked at each other.

Sure, why not?

En route, the festive bearded man tucked the xbox under his arm and bummed a smoke off Tedx, one of the few people I knew who retained the barbaric habits of the ancients.

The fake palm trees leading up to the Trailside Tavern swayed lightly in the indoor breeze. It was a cool, but clear, calm and breezy, blustery, windy, raining, sunny, snowing kind of day in the compound. It was all things in one and we all felt it.

“This is gonna be something,” I said, understating.

Tedx let out a low whistle.

“Boy, howdy!”

The next time I saw Richard Rider, his beard and garb were as festive as ever. He pulled up outside Arroyo Sands Hotel & Shopping Mall, where we were launching, in one of those white driverless cars, the tiny ones, which made his beard only seem bigger.

It had been about six months since we’d seen each other and many pats on the backs were had as we strolled around the food court and looked over all that we had accomplished as a team. A fully autonomous smart shopping mall.

And it was all thanks to that junky old xbox he’d breathed new life into back in his parents’ garage years ago when he wasn’t working nights and weekends delivering pizza for Albrecht Durer’s Pizza Gazebo.

What started out as a cultured neuronal network which he’d cobbled together as a hobbyist from components ordered online, quickly developed into a sophisticated system of MEA’s (multi-electrode arrays) and processors miles ahead of what were coming out of much better-funded labs.

But such was the nature of the beast, at that time.

And before long, of course that beast was enabling Richard to deliver more pizzas more efficiently in less time than anyone else in the network. All the Big Fish wanted to gobble up his little technology, but Richard knew he wasn’t like them. He was like us. Which is why he found us.

Well, actually, it was the rats who found us.

Or should I say, we found each other…

The Inns at Arroyo Sands Hotel and Shopping Mall Megaplex, were “cozy.” There were both ample hammocks for all and a “wet bar” poolside. As he sent his self-driving porter on to secure his goods in his assigned room, Richard popped the trunk on the car that had brought him here.

I knew it well. It was the electronic half of the “brain” which piloted the vehicle. Richard and I had designed it together.

“How are the algae cells holding up?” I asked. They powered the vehicle.

“Oh, just peachy,” Richard responded, in his usual coy fashion.

“They’ve fallen under the sway of the rat neurons. They’ve unionized.”

Why neuronal cells taken from rat spines and cultured for use in mixed biological-electronic systems were so vehemently pro-union was not a problem we had gained comprehension of at that time. Though there were inklings even then that it had something to do with vestigial/proto desires of the living components to become integrated into self-organizing super-sets.

So rat neurons trying to cooperatively organize entity-groups on the Internet of Everything were nothing new to us. These were, after all, the critters which had survived whatever killed the dinosaurs. I tended to trust their instincts.

“What else is new?” I laughed.

Richard’s fingers traced the wires down to the xbox-looking unit plugged into the command console above it.

He patted it gingerly.

“Keeps running into the same old problem…”

“Rejecting the electrode arrays?”

“Yeah, they basically eat them and go crazy.”

The symptoms resembled, unsurprisingly, neuro-degenerative diseases in fully-embodied organisms. The neuronal cells would over time devour the foreign electrode material they were in contact with through phagocytosis. Immunohistochemical markers showed a surprising presence of hyperphosphorylated tau, an indicator of Alzheimer’s disease, near the electrode recording site.

For in vitro use, as lived in colonies inside the xbox-looking units, a single culture generation would have an effective lifespan of about a hundred use-hours before it had to be replaced due to inflammation and infection around the electrodes. A very long way from our initial ideal of 100,000 hours before re-spawn. Roger was away in the Bahamas Virtual Lounge & Betting Salon attending a regional Lean Cellular Generation workshop at that very moment to try to figure out the best way organizationally to move forward with our cellular division incubator system. We were all eager to touch base with Roger, or at the very least his telepresent avatar.

“So you’re still administering magnesium and synaptic blockers to quiet the network bursts then, I guess?”

Richard closed the hood, “Yeah.”

He eyed me in that way that he does, and chuckled. “I think they’re becoming addicted.”

“And a doped up neural network isn’t an effective neural network.”

This is precisely why all the competitors in the field had abandoned the living components in these systems, opting for all-electronic/all-digital neural nets, even though our resolution was an order of magnitude greater than theirs. They simply believed this level of detail wasn’t necessary. We all knew they were wrong, but were still trying to prove it with a stable product release.

“Let me show you something else.” Richard whipped out his cellular fone from a fold in his voluminous cloak and pulled up a photo:

“What is that?”

He swiped to the left, revealing the same visuals, but filtered for human perception:

“It’s how the cars sees the world, the rat neurons I mean. It’s an FPV rendering approximating what the rat neurons perceive in real-time while driving.”

Richard’s team were working to transition over to optogenetic technology, using lasers to stimulate the neurons in precisely controlled codechant patterns in still higher-orders of resolution. They were working with millisecond level responses and smaller.

It’s what enabled the rat-neuron pilots to navigate successfully and independently within groups in “real traffic.”

Each autonomous vehicle followed unconsciously the laser impulses of its commissioning Uberer’s smart destination, while simultaneously using its innate rat-wits to scurry about, avoiding other cars in a complex dance which now bleeped along merrily 24/7 around the globe, descended from the original Early Clues, LLC technology.

Range was still limited due to the infections, but things were looking up.

“So what’s the problem,” I finally asked.

He put his hand on my shoulder and ushered me out of earshot of the car, as he slugged a mai thai a robot concierge had brought over.

“It’s the unions,” he said. “Something’s got to be done about the unions.”

To Be Continued…