One of our favorite topics here is ways that science fiction is slowly becoming a reality. Most of those articles are about the slippery slope that our society is heading down as we're gradually inundated with weird technologies, bizarre weapons or disconcerting experiments that inch us ever closer to some totally absurd sci-fi dystopia. But if you shift your perspective a little bit, you might find that the far-flung science fiction worlds we've been watching for on the horizon have actually been here all along -- it's just that they're not happening to us. They're happening to the animals.
Let's set the scene: A brilliant, eccentric scientist devotes his life to refining the perfect society. After two dozen iterations, he finally hits it: Universe 25. It is a huge, painstakingly designed megastructure with prebuilt living spaces for all of its occupants. There are no threats, no danger, no disease, and everything is provided for you. There's unlimited free, clean water and healthy food, the temperature is always 68 degrees Fahrenheit -- hell, it even cleans itself every couple of weeks. And sure, maybe it's a little disconcerting that the walls go so high and there are no exits, but really, do you need them? Where do you have to go anymore? All you have to do in this place is live happily with yourself, your wife and three other couples. It's paradise.
If it sounds too good to be true, it's not: John B. Calhoun actually built it, all the way back in 1972. The results? In just under two years, despite having every possible amenity provided for happy living, the occupants of Universe 25 turned on each other. The collapse was apocalyptic: There was rampant cannibalism and sexual deviancy, savage violence became the norm and, most damning of all, a killer apathy took root like a plague. The few occupants of Universe 25 who were not murderballing each other to death simply stopped caring about anything -- survival, life, morality -- they all but laid down and died.
But it wasn't that big a deal; they were just a bunch of stupid mice, after all.
"And lo, God said, 'Thou shalt devour thy brothers as a lion does the gentle doe,' and the people despaired, gazed to the skies and proclaimed, 'Squeak?'"
Universe 25 was a 101-square-inch tank, carefully engineered to safely and comfortably hold over 1,000 mice. Everything was provided for a little mouse heaven, but it's like Rodent Sartre said: Hell is other mice.
There were only four breeding pairs at first, but then nature took over. When Universe 25's population reached 600 mice -- not even close to capacity -- growth began to slow. At a staggering 2,200 mice, twice the maximum comfortable occupancy, growth of Universe 25 stopped altogether. But it was too late; the environment could not regulate. Living with such overcrowding had ruined the mice psychologically. Without normal designated tasks like protection and food gathering, the mice became psychotically, randomly violent. Or else they turned into something worse: One of the ominously dubbed "Beautiful Ones." The Beautiful Ones didn't want sex, they didn't want to fight, they didn't want anything -- the world started destroying itself around them and all they did was eat, sleep and groom themselves. With the only potential mates being rage virus psychos or impotent, navel-gazing egomaniacs, all breeding stopped, and Universe 25 collapsed completely.
Are those ... are those tiny furry heads mounted on those spikes?
But it was inevitable, really. The clue was in the name: What do you think happened to Universes 1 to 24? Tiny mouse apocalypses were such old hat to Calhoun that he'd even devised an algorithm for it. This is it:
Mortality, bodily death = the second death
Drastic reduction of mortality
= death of the second death
= death squared
(Death)2 leads to dissolution of social organization
= death of the establishment
Death of the establishment leads to spiritual death
= loss of capacity to engage in behaviors essential to species survival
= the first death
(Death)2 = the first death
Jesus, dude. When you're constructing the algorithm for the perfect society and you start factoring the "drastic reduction of morality" and carrying the "death of the establishment," maybe it's time to check your back for some kind of purple cape: You might have finally crossed that fine line between mathematician and supervillain. But what did that morbid algorithm end up proving, anyway? That mice suck at building societies? You don't need math to prove that shit, Calhoun; just open up the cages at the pet store and see how long it takes them to start running the register. What's that? They're not doing it all? They're just pooping? Everywhere? Right, because they're friggin' mice, man.
But Calhoun wasn't just playing Vengeful Mouse God for kicks; his intended point was to demonstrate the long-term effects of serious overcrowding, even in a society with absolutely no shortage of resources.
You know, kind of like ours ...
Listen, whether you buy the validity of his results or not, the fact is this: Calhoun built tiny little universes all his life, just to see where ours was headed. And when he'd gazed in that crystal ball long enough, he pulled his eyes away, rubbed at the bridge of his nose and carefully jotted down the words "death squared" in his little notebook.
The engineers have their tools, their instruments, their will and their expertise. All they need now is their orders. And for that, they must consult the Grand Slime Mold, primal biocomputing Lord of Travel.
It sounds like the kind of genre fiction you'd only find in weathered old boxes underneath the shittier tables at the flea market, but it's totally real. Japanese scientists had a theory: What if slime molds are, like, really good city planners, and the only reason we don't know is because we never thought to ask? They tested this bizarre hypothesis by setting out oat flakes arranged in the pattern of Japanese cities, with Tokyo at the center, and then letting loose a yellow slime mold called Physarum polycephalum. The slime immediately started branching out and surrounding its food sources with "tunnels" to ferry nutrients back and forth, which was par for the sticky course: That's just how slime molds do when they do what they do. But then something surprising started happening: Some of the tunnels -- ones that seemed to make sense at first glance -- began to collapse or retract, while other, more obscure paths strengthened and cemented. When the dust settled and the slime had finished its "railway between the cities," the scientists were vindicated: Slime mold is indeed an excellent city planner. Its system was nearly identical to the existing Tokyo railways.
The ones it took mankind decades of trial and error to build and refine.
The slime mold did it in under a day.
"Welp, solved all your complex commuting problems. Now: MORE OATS FOR THE SLIME LORD!"
Researchers are now building models based on the simple, elegant rules with which the slime mold secures its food sources, in the hopes that it will help us to design more efficient, adaptable networks for all sorts of things: travel hubs, wireless systems, communication, ferrying human cargo to the slime factories -- you know, necessary stuff for the world of the future.
In the foreboding words of lead slime mold worshiper Wolfgang Marwan of Otto von Guericke University: "[It is] really difficult to capture by words. You see [the slime molds] optimize themselves somehow, but how do you describe that?"
It's clear that English isn't his first language, so we'll go ahead and help Otto out. Here's how you capture the realization that slime molds are more efficient potential rulers than humanity: "AHHHH!!! BURN IT! FUCKING BURN IT! WHY AREN'T YOU BURNING ALL OF IT RIGHT NOW?!"
We've already started building functional artificial brains, just like in The Matrix or Johnny Mnemonic or -- wait, Keanu Reeves sure has done a lot of movies with artificial brains, hasn't he? We'd make a joke about that -- probably something about his dull-eyed stare and exhaustive mastery of synonyms for "whoa" -- but we're just a little too terrified for proper comedy right now. Because those artificial brains aren't being used to augment humanity ...
They're being plugged into rats.
Scientists at Tel Aviv University have successfully created a synthetic cerebellum, the part of the brain that controls timing and movement. The implant receives sensory input from the brainstem, interprets it, then relays signals to other regions of the brain, which they then execute. The researchers take it as "proof of concept that we can record information from the brain, analyze it ... and return it." In other words, we can hand certain mental tasks over to computers now; it is a matter of scant years before we're all jacking prelearned languages into our brain to free up more time for jacking other things.
The Tel Aviv experiment consisted of anesthetizing a rat and disconnecting its cerebellum, then blowing air at its eyes while playing a tone, which caused the animal to blink. Eventually, the rat learned to blink at just the tone alone -- you know, kind of like what Pavlov did (he was the guy who built that robot dog that ironically destroyed humanity with its own hubris, right?). With its own cerebellum disconnected, the rat could not learn this process. With the artificial one connected, it learned just as it normally would have.
Red Ice Creations
Hey, here's Science, augmenting the brains of stupid things again like it learned nothing at all from Lawnmower Man.
Like all good, non-God-fearing scientists, the Tel Aviv researchers aren't about to stop there. Their next experiment will consist of programming whole sequences of movements and testing the chip in a conscious animal. So yeah, that scene from The Matrix -- the famous "I know kung fu" one? That's pretty much going to happen soon.
You heard Science, folks: Start wrapping up this whole "civilization thing." Hey, I know -- we had a good run, but let's not be greedy; it's clearly the Computerized Kung Fu Rats' time now.