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VR Dystopia: Terms of Service, a novel

Dystopian science fictionfeaturing AIs doesn’t always have to be a Skynet situation. In TERMS OF SERVICE, a new indie sci-fi novel, author Craig Stanfill creates a futuristic world in which many of the problems of humans stem from restrictions on AI. 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.” 

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.

Below is an excerpt from TERMS OF SERVICE.

AI and Human Connections

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.

Check Out Terms of Service here…

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.