I remember it being a Tuesday morning in April when Dr. Yuki Dupree announced the cure for everything.
She was in Kyoto, and rumor was that she wanted the American stock markets to be closed because they were so overrun with robot traders. Vast server farms located on the same block as the NYSE so that the speed of light wouldn’t hinder the rapidity of their buying and selling. Dedicated fiber optic lines from traditional news sources and databases so that that packet-routing silliness that made the internet work wouldn’t impede their access to data. More servers than Twitter and Facebook combined, just to analyze the trending topics of social chatter on Twitter and Facebook.
All that automated moving of money made things volatile when the unexpected showed up. Markets were going to crash anyway, but if she could keep the humans involved then they might crash just a bit more gently. When she did this, healthcare services, pharmaceutical companies, massive insurance cartels, and all the politicians their lobbyists supported would all come crashing down to being near worthless overnight. She had dumped the plans for this dime-sized, 75¢ piece of gallium and silicon onto a dozen servers around the world, and with that she had cured… everything.
It was barely four days later that she regretted it, and six weeks before she became the first of the Healthy But Dead.
After the silence of creeping understanding there was thunderous worldwide applause. She posted her announcement on YouTube, so she didn’t hear any of it of course. She had wanted her employer to market the device, but she worked for one of those companies that wouldn’t survive the announcement, and frankly I don’t think that they would have understood anyway. They make electromagnetic doohickeys that looked inside your flesh or sorted through your blood to find this or that goo that meant that you needed one of their pills. That was their hundred-billion dollar a year business model, just like a couple dozen other companies. You paid your doctor to buy and use their gizmo that tells the doctor to tell you to buy their pill. They kept you healthy to make the money you needed to pay the doctor to buy and use the gizmo…
At 75¢ per person for a permanent implant that would do all of that forever, the company just couldn’t fathom. “What do you mean, we might get a portion of the last $4 billion healthcare will ever make? The Harvard Medical School’s endowment is bigger than that!” When a person’s paycheck relies on him not understanding a thing, it is impossible to get him to understand that thing.
So she took it public. It required expertise to build but it wasn’t complex, and all the pieces had been made before — it was a set of known knowns. Importantly, that meant that the means to manufacture was already in place.
Field-programmable gate arrays made chips with hardware that could be changed by the software — like your brain, but clear and deliberate. None of that messy trial and error and reinforced feedback loop stuff. A Silicon Valley startup was going out of business at that very moment, and a disgruntled keyboard slave popped some clever designs for an FPGA on a pocket drive and made them public from a Starbucks down the street. Later, a lawsuit was filed by the startup’s venture capitalists against Starbucks for patent infringement; Starbucks settled for a sum the marketing department considered an excellent bargain, and went on to publicly claim that they contributed the design to the effort.
Nano-channel RNA micro-arrays let organic-laden fluid flow past snipped protein parts and complete circuits in a microchip. Companies all over made these, each tailored for this or that diagnosis based on blood, spit, or urine (good ol’ BSU). With the right protein snips, you could diagnose whatever you were looking for in as little time as it took the fluid to flow. The big flaw was that since these channels were so tiny, it was like sucking honey through a coffee stirrer.
HP jumped in and offered solutions to that. They mastered squirting little bits of fluid through chips since the dawn of the inkjet. They wanted a high price, and so the knock-offs started flooding the market from Singapore, China, and Liberia if you can believe it. Capitalist markets see price gouging as an error, and route around it. HP stock tanked again and they were purchased by CocaCola in August. Something about injecting zero-calorie microspheres of gelatin shaped just perfectly like some polysaccharide molecule so it tastes sweet. Total flop. No one bought diet drinks after they got the cure.
These combo re-programmable microarrays needed something to make the protein snips. That wasn’t so difficult, actually. Dope the silicon channels just right, and lay out a circuit under it, and now you can create a pattern of electrons and holes that mimic the grabby parts of an unzipped RNA strand — no strand required. Took a while to figure out the folding bit, but once you got the pattern loaded in the chip it just needs to turn things on then off at a certain time and presto, proteins. All the raw materials just need to start flowing.
So we come back to BSU. Dr. Dupree’s plan was to just stick this chip in your arm or thigh and let the blood just flow over it. The sample becomes the source of the raw material. A little power eked out of the ambient cell phone radiation everywhere, and this silicon protein factory and sampling station just never stops. Overnight, you get your baseline genome mapped out. A couple days later, all the various bacteria that live in you are suitably mapped. Aberrations are highlighted when you upload the data anonymously to some central database with suitably crunchy number crunchers that can compare your results with everyone else’s.
To check your genome and the collective genome of the ecosystem that calls you home, Google revealed an impressive sounding, mega-secure, totally user-controlled service that was well-regarded and highly responsive. Microsoft released something nearly identical, but with more pictures of smiling people and round buttons instead of square. Both got slapped with HIPAA suits within a week, and threatened to move operations overseas. Then a spammer with a conscience created a Facebook account called “Patient Nero”, and released a viral video of a cute cat that installed a rootkit on your computer and basically turned a good chunk of the planet into the biggest botnet in history, all dedicated to anonymously processing your health requests. Once it’s true purpose was revealed, people actually sent the video to one another to “help the cause.” Other malicious programmers rejiggered the cute cat code to install more traditional botnet code. Within a month, 98% of all email traffic was spam advertisements for larger penises and boobs. The Nigerian princes couldn’t keep up, and finally faded into oblivion.
Gradually, genetic norms were firmly established in databases around the world, but we realized quite rapidly that changes in our own code was much more important than how our code may differ from others. Deviations from one’s own norm usually meant invaders, injury, or illness — but with 24/7 super-targeted monitoring, these are caught before they even reach the critical density your natural immune system needs to mount a defense. With the ability to determine your body’s status and generate copious amounts of antibodies, hormones, nutrients, and other biosignalling agents, your health got reduced to an information problem. And information problems are what the geeks, hackers, and economists have been working on for decades.
Once Apple made an App Store to download new health programs directly through your phone to your blood, acne disappeared one weekend. Kids and their parents-pay-the-phone-bill iPhones, right? Apparently the rapid transfer of wealth to Apple triggered some of those “circuit breakers” that automated systems tend to have. Visa, MasterCard and a couple others stopped working for just over two hours, causing an estimated worldwide cascading economic loss of 1.1 trillion dollars, including a delay on food aid to the starving in Somalia. By some estimates, 4,000 hungry but acne-free children died that week.
So many people wanted in on the downloadable health app phenomenon, that Moldova — owner of the “.md” top level domain — was processing about a million dollars in domain registrations per hour. The state of Maryland wanted some of that action with its .md.us domain, and was making even more money than that before 49 States Attorneys General sued to share the profit since they argued the .us domain space is a shared resource. Maryland was instead forced to shut down the registry, which triggered a lawsuit from all those who had purchased a domain. Maryland filed for bankruptcy that December.
Various cures were given away, sold, or pirated nearly immediately. This season’s influenza complex; free. Ciliac disease; paid for by the Baker’s Union and Bread Lobby (who needs to lobby for bread?). Freckles; $5, but it came with an app to allow you to add or remove freckles from wherever you liked. Dry nose; $1. Runny nose; $2, but you could download Nasorite for the same amount. Baldness; bloody fortune, but then some guy found out a protein in Wrigley’s Spearmint gum successfully decrypted the copy protection on that, and it became the most pirated intellectual property ever. Toenail fungus; free, or $1 to target a specific toe. Arterial plaque. Hell, amyloid plaques got scrubbed out of basically all Alzheimer’s patients’ brains before they found out that that was a symptom and not the cause. Something about glucose over-processing in the blood/brain barrier. That got cured, too. Pfizer tried to survive with the downloadable “Viagra-DL”, but no one could tell the real thing from the spam and so Pfizer tanked like the rest of them.
Some guy chained two or three things together and claimed to make micro-fractured bones stronger, and depending on the degree and repeatability of the damage could even turn bone into something that rivaled carbon fiber. He gave that program away for free. Sports got riskier, and injury rates fell while gruesome deaths skyrocketed. Parents were told that they could protect their children by removing their bike helmets so their skulls could get knocked around a little bit. “Builds character!” the ads said. Turns out, the guy shorted stocks of a bunch of helmet companies, made a couple hundred million, and retired to Australia. He died from stingray poison because he couldn’t download the antidote — his cellphone battery was drained from checking his stock positions all morning. His wife is now marketing downloadable eye shadow.
The Tour de France banned the chips. Then they couldn’t find any riders, so they allowed the chips. An outcry from sports fans forced them to ban the chips, but institute a policy of not looking for them. Hemoglobin density soared and lactic acid removal doubled, and the Tour officials needed to buy new electric cars to stay ahead of the riders they were filming.
That was about six months in. Unemployment was a massive burden all over the world. Doctors who couldn’t turn themselves into photogenic online telepersonalities or personal health algorithm consultants just got turned out on the streets. The massive momentum behind healthcare taking 30% of our income made it very difficult for the economy to shift rapidly. Very popular laws around the world mandated that any employer no longer providing health insurance must instead bump up the employee’s paycheck by the same amount; since insurers were falling faster than their stock, this meant a good 15% raise to just about everyone. Unemployment shot to 23% in most developed countries, but since people now had more to spend things just kept on chugging. In fact, if things were good for you, things were great. If your job used to be about caring for people and keeping them healthy and alive, then you learned a new skill: how to cheerfully say, “Welcome to Walmart!”
I think Dr. Dupree must have had some inside info. I don’t think she was depressed like those other health pros. She certainly saw it coming, the way things would change, and couldn’t stand it. She took her own life in that classic, stoic Japanese way that none of us really understand. She wasn’t sad like she had lost something. She was sorry.
I think she heard about Any Mouse, a bio-hacking group that sprung from the ashes of some old vigilante hacker thing. Right about the time news anchors tried to delicately maneuver around the biggest news story to come out of this — those downloadable penis and boob enlargements actually worked — other, more disturbing rumors started to float around. “Normalization” was one term frequently heard. “Radicalization” was another. Both were creepy and dreadful.
The Normals took that massive genetic database and combed through it for averages, optimums, typicals, and neutrals. Over two years, nearly half the people on the planet opted to become more like the other people on the planet. Genes are funny that way — like the field-programmable gate arrays, the active genes make the proteins that then in turn instruct which genes should be active. Once we knew what “Normal” was, it was merely a matter of adjusting which were active if you had the gene, or constructing a retrovirus to add the gene in the way you want, or to manufacture a substitute function from whole DNA cloth. To become more like your neighbor — brown skin and eyes, of course, but also perfect teeth and just the right amount of body fat — became an ideal. Being unremarkable reduced conflict. Besides, aren’t we a society that prizes mental faculties? If I look like everyone else, then I know I’m loved and respected for who I am. (Three months later, you could download new normalized mental faculties for a small fee.)
The Radicals puked on the Normals. They wanted forked tongues, horns and spikes protruding from their spines. Organic tattoos or even chameleon skin; one talented artist adopted some nautilus chromoplast DNA and was famous for being able to flicker his skin at will. Some opted for the hideable-yet-alluring leopard-spotted asses or vampire teeth. In fact, the whole vampire thing from teeth to complexion to cold metabolism really took hold in a certain sub-culture, but the tendency to voluntarily adopt hemophilia and then play around with blood sort of thinned their ranks now that hospitals were mostly just maternity wards. These Radicals were the punks who flaunted diversity, but in reality they were all downloading the same junk and mixing it up. They were all different in the same ways.
So, it seemed pretty inevitable, when you look at it like that. Too much homogeneity, whether because that’s the goal or because that’s what you’re running from. At some point, someone downloaded something new, and it could spread outside his body. Or it spread over the network — given the vectors, that seems to make more sense. Maybe it was deliberate, but I think it was a glitch. Any complex information system with built-in variability will eventually hit upon a self-reinforcing design that accumulates. Most of the Normals turned to goo in a few days. There was enough evolutionary pressure on whatever this was to switch over to the Radicals that they didn’t last too long either. The rest of us have no idea why we survived, but we’re pretty screwed. I mean, no one knows how to make a light bulb, drill an oil well, or sow a field without diesel. So, we’ll probably last as long as the batteries and canned food.
Then, I suppose, everything will be cured.