Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Ultra-Tech Frameworks: Step 3 - Choosing Available Technology (Part 2: Miraculous Technology)

One way to classify SF worlds is to consider what technological miracles are inherent to the setting or story. In this context, we can think of a “miracle” as some area of technology that has a significant effect on the environment in which adventures take place. A technological miracle defines a significant difference between the fictional setting and the real world familiar to the reader or player. – GURPS Space page 29; A Taxonomy of Miracles
The previous sections may make it sound like one should avoid any technology with broader implications at all costs. This is not so! You should, however, only introduce the setting-altering technologies that you wish to introduce, and ensure that all other technologies don’t interfere with them. In fact, “Miracle-Tech” is often the most interesting part of your setting.

Now, to be clear, you don’t need “Miracle-Tech.” Much sci-fi out there uses space tropes as an excuse for exploring exotic things, much as fantasy uses magic for the same purpose. If you want your hero to rescue a blue-skinned space-babe from a tentacled monstrosity, it’s a little more believable if it’s set on the moon of a dying Jovian world than it is if it’s set in the modern world, but that doesn’t mean it must have transformative technologies and tackle deeper philosophical implications unless you want it to. If not, then use the previously mentioned technologies as advised to create a familiar setting without worrying about exotic technologies.

But if you want Miracle-Tech that provokes thought and exploration, the first thing to realize is that nearly any technology can be miracle tech. For example, even if we set aside the qualitative differences TL 12 medicine might have and just look at the quantitative differences of a TL 12 physician’s kit, imagine the sweeping implications if modern doctors could treat five times as many patients five times as effectively? That alone would mean many more lives saved and an absolute improvement on standard of living. Most of the work I’ve done in the past there sections is about downplaying the potentially transformative nature of technology. Here, we do the opposite and play it up. The best candidates, however, tend to be fairly obvious. Anything where I tell you to be careful of the broader implications is a great candidate for transformative technology.

The next question is, of course, how much Miracle-tech, and this is entirely up to you and your setting. You must understand, first and foremost, the mental cost of such a setting, and try to understand your target audience. For some groups, the crazier the better: they want to explore every facet of future technologies and how different and weird the world could be in the future. For others, the weirder the worse, and they’ll react with hostility to things that take them too far from their comfort zone. You’ll have to tailor to what your group can handle. One word of caution on excessive miracle-tech: the weirder your setting, the harder it is for your group to relate or to know what to do. A poster child for this sort of game is Transhuman Space, and the most common criticism made about the setting is “What do I do with it?” You’ll need to double down on your core activity and focus your players attention on it, so they have a starting point from which to jump into the setting. This can require a lot of work on your part as you carefully spoon feed the weird to your players in bite-size pieces until they fully grasp the setting and its implications. If done correctly, though, it can be an exceptionally rewarding experience.

The Miraculous Transformation of a Setting

As more technologies advance beyond what is currently possible, society (and the backdrop for adventure) will become increasingly unfamiliar. At its extreme, the addition of miracles gives rise to settings in which nothing is familiar to the GM or players! Such settings can be interesting, but very difficult to sustain for a lengthy campaign. – GURPS Space Page 30: More Miracle
As stated above, nearly any technology can become Miracle-Tech if explored to its logical conclusion. Even innocuous technologies that usually lurks around, undiscussed in the background of sci-fi, like advanced power cells or fusion power could have enormous and far reaching effects on our society. What makes a technology miraculous is its transformative nature. It encourages the exploration of philosophical or sociological questions; such settings are often built around such questions.

The easiest way to make a technology a miracle-tech is to make it ubiquitous and then explore how it would change society. What problems does it solve and, in solving them, change society? What problems does it cause? If the technology might not realistically make a big impact, pair it with innovations that maximize that impact. A good example of this in modern society are cameras: their ubiquity means many crimes can be easily solved or even prevented, but at the cost of privacy. Of course, this is limited by the number of human eyes that can attend cameras, but imagine of facial recognition software also became powerful and widespread, and computers could automatically scan camera footage and pinpoint the location of anyone anywhere with the push of a button. What sort of impact might that make on society? You don’t have to explore every possible implication; it can be enough to look at a single aspect of it (in this case, its impact on crime, and those that ruling elite wishes to present as criminals; or what happens when you combine this with excellent forgery or hacking).

Another, common approach is to allow the technology to change some fundamental aspect of the human condition, something that we build our current worldview around, and have that technology remove it. Antibiotics and vaccines had such an impact: before, disease was virtually ubiquitous; nowadays, the death of an infant is considered a tragedy while in yesteryear, it was quite common.

Topics often tackled include:

  • Memories and continuity of consciousness as identity.

    • Brainwipe Machine (UT 109)

    • Neural Programming (UT 109)

  • The concept of “character” and the perception of personality as an inherent, rather than mutable, characteristic, and the character has “free will” and can dictate his own actions.

    • Neural Programming (UT 109)

    • Dominator Nano (UT 162)

    • Psych Implant (UT 217)

    • Puppet Implant (UT 218)

  • Death, and how society builds continuity and legacy around it, as well as how it creates a sense of urgency.

    • Chrysalis Machine (UT 201)

    • Uploading Technologies (UT 219)

  • War costs human lives and are fought by humans. Heroes sacrifice their lives to protect others.

    • Drones (UT 26)

    • Robots of any sort.

  • The march of maturation, how children become adults, and how adults gain experience, and then age and die

    • Regeneration Tank (UT 201)

    • Regeneration Ray (UT 202)

    • Biofabricator and Growth Tanks (UT 204)

    • Instaskill Nano (UT 59)

    • Chipslots (UT 216)

  • Our civilizational ascendancy as the only sapient race

    • Volitional AI (UT 28)

    • Uplift technologies (UT 218)

  • Individuals as distinct, concrete entities, as opposed to hive minds, copied mind or minds that can merge and diverge.

    • Mind Emulation (UT 27) and Uploading Technologies (UT 219)

    • Sensies (UT 57)

    • Neural Interface technology (UT 48) and Neural Communication (UT 46)

  • We have a humanoid form and senses that dictate our experiences

    • All cybernetics (UT 207+)

    • Total Cyborg Conversion (UT 27)

    • Implant Seeds (UT 202)
  • We exist primarily in a concrete and largely immutable physical world, as opposed to a world we can directly control.

    • Virtual Reality (UT 53)

    • Interactive Holoprojection (UT 53)

    • Neural Interface technology (UT 48)

  • Our economic systems are driven by a lack of material goods, food and energy

    • Fusion Power (UT 20)

    • Cosmic Power Cells (UT 19)

    • Robofacs, Nanofacs, Replicators (UT 90-93)

    • Food Vats (UT 74)

  • We cannot know the future, and we cannot experience or change the past

    • Timescanner (UT 67)

Limiting the Impact of Miracle-Tech

If a technology or gadget seems like it may cause problems in a particular campaign, there are various ways to handle it – GURPS Ultra Tech page 12, Preventive Measures
You may want to include a miracle-tech without actually making huge changes to your setting, or making only specific changes to your setting. Carefully controlling Miracle-Tech is crucial to getting precisely the setting you want! Fortunately, we have many options to control our miracle tech, many of which Ultra-Tech already discusses, as noted in the quote above, but we can expand this further.

The most common way of limiting miracle-tech in a setting, especially in many sci-fi short-stories or in supers settings, is to limit the setting to a single, or a few, devices, typically prototypes. The technology may have been freshly created, or only a single person knows how to make that technology. For example, there may be only a single sapient robot into the entire world, or only a single gadgeteer super-hero has created a cosmic power-source, which powers all of his super-gadgets and is constantly on the run from villains who want to steal his technology. This approach allows you to explore the philosophical implications of a technology, or allow you to fully embrace its awesome impact, without substantially changing the setting. The two cited examples could fit perfectly well in the modern world.

Another common approach is to limit the scope or scale of the miracle technology. You might remove or limit those aspects of the technology that would be truly transformative. Regeneration rays show up in Star Trek, but seem to do nothing for aging or restoring functions to plot-interesting injuries (typically certain handicaps, like blindness or infertility). You can also limit the scope of a technology: perhaps cosmic power exists, but it can only power certain, specific devices; perhaps replicators exist, but can only produce certain specific gadgets. You can also limit their impact on time. Perhaps instaskill nano “fades” after a couple of hours, or perhaps timescanners can only look back a day.

Finally, while the technology might be potentially transformative, either society or the story itself just ignores those transformative aspects, or doesn’t use their technology that way. Nuclear weapons serve as an excellent example of this, as they had the potential to dramatically shift the world, but instead everyone assiduously avoided using them in such a way as to create a radioactive hellscape; most “standard issue sci-fi tech” falls into this as well: human-level AI in androids might raise all sorts of philosophical questions, but people just don’t treat AI like people, and tend to avoid those questions where possible.

Mixing and matching your controls of miracle tech can help you explore the story that you want, and can be part of the story themselves. There may be very few robots, people might also dislike robots and those choose not to use them further, and their may be limits on how robot minds work (for example, they must reside on a neural net and cannot be easily uploaded or copied); taken together, this might allow you to explore artificial minds without also worrying about the nature of identity or what happens when you introduce total cyborgs, and the social limitations and prejudices themselves might be interesting to explore. Some GMs might bristle at such limitations as “unrealistic,” but such limitations seldom are: our predictions of the future are as often overly optimistic as they are pessimistic. Atomic technology represents a good example of this in both ways. Due to social pressures and unexpected impracticalities, neither the utopian nor apocalyptic predictions have yet come true.

Embracing the Transformation

On the other hand, if your setting is about a particular miracle tech, or you wish to explore a specific issue deeply, you might want to take the brakes off and really, dramatically change your setting with that specific technology! This has the downside of often creating unexpected results, but if your intent is to explore what might happen, those unexpected results may well be a feature rather than a bug. Furthermore, if you follow the rest of the advice laid out in the above sections, you should have enough of a handle on the rest of the technologies that you can afford to unleash one or two.

One way to ensure that a technology makes a huge impact on the setting is to make it ubiquitous. What happens if anyone can go downtown and pick up a fusion generator for the same price as a gasoline generator? What happens when every home has an android or three? What if an entire civilization embraces VR and becomes a “sleeper” civilization, living in a virtual, rather than real, world?

Ultra-Tech has been careful to balance some of the crazier technologies, but there’s no reason you have to accept those limitations. Perhaps AI technology advances rapidly and allows for even smarter technology on relatively simple devices (for example, volitional AI’s IQ is limited to complexity*2 rather than complexity*2-3). Instaskill nano has an upper limit on how many skill points it can grant, but what if it didn’t? What if Timescanners could also scan alternate timelines or the future?

Upgrading miracle technology can be combined with limiting the technology, and often should be so you get exactly the results that you want. Perhaps androids are ubiquitous and can reach super-human levels of IQ relatively easily, but hide this fact from humanity, and cannot “upload” their minds (being locked into neural nets) and cannot “make back-ups,” or timescanners can look into the future and into alternate timelines, but only one such device exists.

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