Indie sci-fi novels are always a unique treat. Here’s a look at TERMS OF SERVICE, a new novel that tackles what the world of AI and humans could be like in a future that limits AIs rather than letting them run free. Below, author Craig Stanfill shares what inspired his story.
Much of the action in Terms of Service takes place within a virtual reality system which is so realistic, it sometimes seems more vivid than the actual physical world. People attend sports games, use it at work, and socialize with their friends in VR. Living as we do in the time of the pandemic, I think all of us can relate to a world in which most human contact happens online, but that’s not actually the origin of this aspect of the story.
Terms of Service owes more to my own participation, for many years, in various Massive Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Games (MMORPGs), starting with Asheron’s Call, and continuing with various other games such as World of Warcraft and The Lord of the Rings Online. Socializing in an immersive online world has been a part of my life since the start of the millennium, and it seems a very natural place to me.
For purposes of this novel, I wanted to take VR to another level, to the point where the people entering it become unaware that they’ve been taken to another place. The sensory experience is there—the video and audio quality of contemporary headsets are already quite convincing—but I realized that I needed to free my characters from the hand-held controllers. “I know,” I said to myself, “I’ll make up a technology to solve the problem. This is Science Fiction, after all.”
A Taste of VR Baseball
Below is an excerpt from Chapter 1, written to entertain the reader while explaining the capabilities of the VR system and giving enough of a hint as to how the technology works to make it seem plausible. And, yes, I’m a baseball fan. If you follow Japanese baseball, you’ll know exactly where I’ve been.
Kim was now ready to enter Virtual Reality for the ballgame. Attendance was expected to exceed five million, spread across the one hundred fifty duplicate instances that had been spun up for tonight. The Tigers and the Giants were bitter divisional rivals, and head-to-head matchups between the two always drew a big crowd. This was going to be fun!
She leaned back in the recliner and immediately felt a familiar sense of detachment as the headset shunted nerve impulses from her motor cortex to the household entertainment system, allowing both movement and speech to be controlled directly via the interface implanted in her brain. The headset turned opaque then brightened, going into full VR mode, and a moment later Kim was sitting next to Cy on the upper deck of the ballpark about halfway down the third base foul line. They spent the pregame warmup busily chatting about the weekly player rotation, the opposing lineup, and of course about the standings and whether the Tigers might make a run for it this season. As they chatted, Kim leaned back and enjoyed the perfect simulation of a perfect day, with its cloudless blue sky and bright sun shining above. True, it was lacking all sense of warmth (one of the limitations of consumer-grade VR), but it was nevertheless a welcome change from the day’s chilly and wet weather and an emblem of happy times in the mythical land of baseball where it was always summer regardless of what the calendar might say.
The crowd cheered as the home team took the field and booed as the first hitter for the Giants stepped up to the plate. The pitcher checked the sign, shook one off, then smoked one fastball after another down the center of the plate. Strike one! Strike two! Foul ball out of play, strike three looking! An excellent start, but despite the auspicious beginning, the top of the first inning ended up being a tense affair as the visitors managed to put runners at the corners with one out and score the first run of the game on a sacrifice fly. A timely strikeout completed the visitors’ half of the inning and everyone breathed a sigh of relief as the Tigers jogged into the dugout.
“Hey! Couple of beers over here!” shouted Kim, prompting a waitbot with a small keg strapped to its back to pogo over and serve up a couple of cold brews in the obligatory plastic cups, dispensed by their respective housebots. The shunts momentarily disengaged to let Kim take that first, deeply satisfying draft, when a hard-hit foul came rocketing straight at her. She reflexively hit the deck, while Cy went for the catch but only managed to deflect the ball downward, where it bounced and rattled around between the seats. Kim, still unshunted, lunged and came up with it just ahead of another grasping hand.
Phantom fist bumps, virtual high-fives.
“That one had your name on it!” laughed Cy. “A real one should be on the way by the end of the game, you’ll have it tomorrow morning.”
“It’d better be,” said Kim, laughing and getting up off the floor in both the physical and virtual worlds. “The shunts were down and now there’s beer all over the place. Be right back.”
Kim dropped out of VR to survey the scene, and sure enough everything was now a beer-covered mess. The recliner, the carpet, even the poor housebot, which had been knocked over as Kim had scrambled for the ball. She left it to clean up and went into the bathroom for a quick rinse and a change of clothes, all the while thinking about Cy’s wild obsession with baseball. Kim loved the game and was a devoted fan, but Cy had developed an unhealthy fixation on the AIs and how they cheated and fixed games. The Baseball Company didn’t care for this sort of second guessing, and she was almost certain to be banned at some point for questioning the integrity of the game.
When Kim dropped back in, it was the bottom of the third inning and the game was completely out of hand, with the Tigers now leading 14-12.
“So, what do you think about tonight’s lineup? Pretty sweet, eh?” said Cy, enthusiastic about the results of the weekly player rotation and the nonstop barrage of hard-hit doubles and base-clearing homers they were witnessing.
“You kidding? This isn’t a ballgame, it’s batting practice!”
“Cut it out!” laughed Cy, mercilessly pummeling Kim’s shoulder. “You’ll jinx us for sure!”
And then, as if on cue, the bats on both sides went abruptly silent; the umpires, perhaps realizing that the game was becoming a travesty, had dramatically expanded the strike zone. Balls in the dirt, balls at chin level, inside, outside, swing and miss or watch it go by—the call was always the same, and the scoring ground to a halt while hits became few and far between and the pitchers threw junk, not even trying to hit the plate. This was a situation that pleased no one, but after a few innings the umps eased up a bit and fiddled with the strike zone again until it was just the right size to generate some offense without turning the game into a farce.
Soon it was the bottom of the ninth with the Tigers trailing by a run. Banners waved, horns blared, and everyone chanted in unison to cheer their team on to victory. The Tigers were down to their final strike with runners at first and second when the cleanup hitter made solid contact with the tenth pitch of a classic duel. The ball shot past the diving outfielder and rolled to the center field wall. The tying run scored, and the winning run rounded third going hard for home. The relay was good, the ball was in time, the catcher applied the tag, and the game seemed destined for extra innings until the ump’s arms extended wide. Safe! The Tigers had won it in dramatic fashion, and the crowd went wild as fireworks lit up the sky. Kim was sure that the runner had been cut down at the plate and that the AIs had cheated, but that was part of the game and a win is a win is a win is a WIN!
Even Cy was happy.
AI and Human Connections
Having come up with this technology, I realized that this would provide a great setting for interactions between the humans and the artificial intelligences in the book. I also realized that the headsets could overlay VR on top of the world, creating a hybrid, augmented reality experience. Later in the book, Kim will enter the VR world of the AIs and interact with them more directly, but I won’t say any more than that to avoid spoilers.
When Kim returned to her cubicle a message was waiting:
MEETING NOTICE from The Artificial Intelligence Company
Stand by for further instructions from Raphael.
Raphael was an Order Three Artificial Intelligence with which Kim had worked on occasion, the sort of mid-level AI that formed the core of the company’s operations. Kim sat down, anxious and excited at the chance to work with a real AI, as the headset overlaid a portal above her desk. This appeared as a stark, black-bordered rectangle superimposed upon reality, through which you could peer into the virtual world where the AIs lived without entering it yourself.
Beyond the portal was a humanoid avatar with a short, cropped mane, looking back at Kim from the middle of a circular desk heaped high with terminals and communication devices. In the background, Kim could make out the interior of a large white room, bustling with activity as hundreds of identical avatars went about their work.
“Greetings. I am Raphael. You are speaking with a sub-deputy.”
Kim was always a little startled by the way AIs casually dropped the ‘I-bomb.’ While most considered the much-despised pronoun acceptable in private among friends, in public it was always considered both selfist and rude, an attempt to draw undue attention to the speaker. AIs used it all the time, a practice which had taken Kim quite a while to get used to. Her mentor, Zani, had been particularly strict about selfist language, to the point where she was afraid to even think that particular word, lest it slip out and draw a severe reprimand. Her friends mercilessly teased her about her stodginess, and she had to admit they were right.
“Greetings. We are Kim. You are speaking with an assistant trainer.”
Conversely, the AIs sometimes expressed puzzlement as to why humans, with their unary minds, constantly used the word ‘we.’ Kim had to admit that this was oddly irrational. If anything, it was the AIs that should use ‘we’ and the humans that should use ‘I.’ There was clearly something backward here, but social conventions were not required to make sense.
Computer Minds and Whimsy
Virtual reality also has a whimsical aspect, and its origins in gaming are never far behind. Here is one final, short snippet where we see what a commercial-grade VR system can do as well as circling back to the place where it all began.
Maybe a VR parlor? Sure! That would do the trick. Kim paid the modest entry fee and was treated to the always-amazing experience of a commercial-grade rig, far more capable than a typical home unit. How about a dungeon crawl? Yeah! Kim punched in and entered a spooky subterranean world inhabited by ghouls and goblins, shoulder to shoulder with two other brave heroes who had entered at the same time. Kick down the door, kill the monster, take its stuff—an ancient format that never grew old, enhanced by the full-touch sensory experience. Awesome! The heft of the sword, the weight of the armor, and the searing heat of a near-miss by a hostile fireball were all totally realistic except for the absence of smell, a feature that never quite made it out of beta, or so they said. Kim did pretty well, collecting a heavy sack full of gold and gems before dying. Ouch! That hurt! Okay, it only stung a little, just enough to make you sweat and remember to watch out for thieves hiding in the shadows. Kim respawned and went in again, but the brave adventurers kicked down the wrong door and got chased down the corridor by an angry wizard before falling into a pit where they were all eaten alive by a giant carnivorous bug.
Check Out the Novel for Yourself
I hope you’ve found this peek into the virtual world contained in Terms of Service. The passages shown above only scratch the surface of what’s in store for you, but I won’t say any more lest I spoil the fun of watching it unfold for yourself.
To learn more, visit www.craigwstanfill.com
Craig W. Stanfill obtained his PhD in artificial intelligence in 1983, and has spent his career conducting ground-breaking research in AI and enterprise computing. He has written numerous scientific papers, co-founded a software company and been awarded more than 80 patents. He continues to work in technology while writing speculative dystopian fiction. Dr. Stanfill lives an active lifestyle, and is an avid bicyclist, skier, sailor, and musician. With his wife, Sharon (herself a software engineer), he has roamed the world, always seeking out new places and cultures to explore. Together they have one son, who has followed in his parent’s footsteps as a software professional and now works for a high-profile technology company.