Revenge of the Anthropocene

2064: roboticization and artificial intelligence have progressed to a level whereby automatons can convincingly simulate humanity. Robots are not yet conscious, but are emotive to an extent that the majority of their owners feel that they now deserve “robot rights”.

Note: this is a plot outline rather than a completed story. See if you can spot any parallels to real-world events. ;) This post may be updated as more details emerge.

The current prime minister of the PanAmerican Union begins integration of robots into society, advocating for legalization of human-robot civil unions as a first step.

At the same time, World War III looms again, after four decades of international rapprochement between the major global power spheres. Robotic terrorism is reported as a fatal menace to humanity, although less than .005% of robots are susceptible to algorithmic radicalization. Easily-exploited, obsolete robotic neural networks are overwhelmingly based on archaic Internet 1.0 architecture, often called the “Internet of Things”.

The 2064 PanAmerican election season arrives. A set of candidates is put forth. One of them is an opportunistic technocrat mired in scandal. The other candidate: a trillionaire neoagriculturist, promising to rid PanAmerica of robots and return society to ancient agrarian glories of fabled past.

Despite amassing a fortune by employing robots rather than humans, the Trillionaire Agragrian touts the slogan, “Purge the robot scourge”! The pseudo-populist Agrarian constantly, blatantly and proudly lies to his supporters using condescending childspeak. “Make the human brain great again!”

Millions of human workers displaced by robots rally to the cause. “We don’t hate robots, but they’re unnatural, inauthentic. We’re pro-human. All humans matter.”

Humanity stands at the cusp of universal basic income and unparalleled prosperity. Still, many yearn for an anachronistic “frontier” lifestyle defined by hard struggle to survive.

The Agrarian wins Election 2064.

PanAmerica, along with the rest of the world, plunges into an abyss of war and terror that rivals the darkest hours of the early 21st century.

END.

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Apocalypse 2.0: The Day The Daughter of Stuxnet (Nearly) Ate The World

An off-balance flowerpot teetered on its ceramic base, disturbed by a long white tail brushing past to thump insistently against the cool window pane.

“Could you stop with that, Princess?” The distracted request came from across the studio apartment as fingertips tapped keys sporadically. On the screen, an seven-page expose sat nearly complete. Its headline read, “Year 2063 and After Rs.70,000 Crore Spent, Mumbai Wants To Know: Where’s Our High-Speed Rail?”

A glance at the snow-colored cat brought sight of its sleek form standing motionless, looking intently outward. The long white tail continued its unusual pendular thump against the glass.

“If you’re so smart, why don’t I outsource the ending of this article to you? I’ll pay you in kitty treats. Then I can finish watching my movie and get some shut-eye before the exposé goes online in the morning.” A rectangular window in the screen’s lower right corner displayed an ancient Bollywood film scene: an impossibly handsome and muscular superhero flew under a collapsing building, supporting its massive structure with only two bare hands, an iron will and a rousing song in perfect autotune.

Below the desk, the computer’s backup power supply beeped, indicating an irregularity corrected by the boxy battery unit plugged into the CPU. “Not going to fry my hard drive again…” A melodic chime from the cellphone on the table signaled a new hashtag trending on Twitter with unusual speed and popularity:

#mumbaidown

“Mumbai… down?”

Princess added a loud meow to the thumping ritual, tail-pendulum tipping the pot over and sending the fern inside crashing to the floor. “That’s it! Come here, you little brat!” Jumping from the chair with cellphone in hand, the phone became a missile hurled across the apartment. Exasperation propelled a sprinting lunge toward the four-legged offender several meters away in the open living room. Princess howled and dodged, jumping from the window to scramble for the bathroom’s litterbox sanctuary.

A taunting flash of white disappeared behind the bathroom door. The door closed and decisively locked.

In mid-stride, the chase ended with a defeated sigh: “maybe they made you a little too smart…”

Retrieval of the phone from the floor revealed no major damage, yet the absence of light outside the window demanded further examination. Across the bridge between Devaloka Private City and the Megalopolis of Mumbai, a customary cacophony of twentyfour-hour light pollution silently succumbed to complete darkness.

Bleary disbelief was interrupted by the phone’s increasingly rapid notification chime.

#mumbaidown

Page after page scrolled down the screen — panicked messages, links to hastily written news stories, and images of varying resolution showed perspectives similar to the view outside the window. “Holy shit…”

Bare footsteps backed away from the window, nearly stumbling over the fern’s sprawling carcass, then tracked soil across the hardwood floor to the computer.

The phone vibrated and shone a London phone number labeled “Ammi”. Then, pre-empting a response, a ringtone interrupted:

Mumbai Independent News, Inc.

“Hi. Yes, I’m finishing tomorrow’s story now. Do you know what’s going on?”

The reply was excited, breathless. “Forget your story. Drop everything. We need you here at the office. Now. Just come now!”

Oversized sweatshirt. Warm, tight black yoga pants. Pale pink scrunchie to hold back an unwashed mane of long black hair. No time for makeup.

The bathroom door remained locked. “Kitty? Princess?” No answer.

“There’s a can of food on the counter; don’t worry, it’s open so help yourself. Don’t cut yourself on the lid. I can’t say how long I’ll be away, so eat slowly, okay?”

The toilet swooshed once and while its bowl refilled, the door opened. A small snow-white face looked up, emerald eyes gleaming worriedly in the semi-darkness.

“Awww…” Kneeling down, the two companions touched noses. “You’re such a smart kitty. I’ll be back before you know it.” Princess batted coyly at loose strands that escaped the hastily-arranged scrunchie, then traced the trail of soiled footprints and nimbly clambered up to stand watch at the window sill.

A quick towel-wipe of dirty soles preceded slipping feet into a pair of vintage canvas Chuck Taylor II’s before shouldering a tattered brown pleather handbag and leaving the apartment.

Texts from “Ammi” had become an unremitting barrage. A thumb pressed the “Down” button on the hallway elevator panel, then entered “i’m ok mom. busy now talk later” in response to seven urgently identical queries. The UDesi national taxi app offered a cab only two minutes away and available for transport to the bridge.

One block from the bridge entrance, a checkpoint loomed on a slight upward slope. Plainclothes security personnel engaged in terse conversation with military police and soldiers encased in ten-foot-tall suits of cybernetic armor.

The cab rolled to a stop. “Thanks… I’m no good at tipping, but I hope that’s enough. It’s such a nice touch that your service still uses human drivers.”

“Only the best for residents of Devaloka City. Thank you, ma’am. Stay safe tonight.” Credit accepted, the taxi door opened automatically.

The taxi headed back from whence it came as canvas sneakers started down a remaining hundred meters to the bridge’s pedestrian entranceway. Adjacent to the entrance, an officer stood in a fortified booth, flanked on the opposite side by an armored guard.

“We’re closed,” the officer stated from behind bulletproof glass. “State of emergency in the city. No pass, no pass.”

“I’m a member of the press.” A media badge barcode appeared on the cellphone screen, then pressed to the glass. “Verify me if you want. The people of Mumbai deserve to know what’s happening.”

The ten-foot-tall armored suit stepped forward and leaned down, an amplified rumble resonating deeply enough to pop sensitive eardrums and ripple loose folds of clothing. “The city is under military curfew. Independent journalists are strictly forbidden without special government permission. Turn around and go home.”

The sonic battering alone was enough to demand a “surrender” gesture of hands up in the air, as the cellphone nonetheless captured and streamed the event to the newspaper’s office across the river.

“Okay, okay,” a cringing, conciliatory smile greeted the vaguely humanoid faceshield. “I’ll go home. Okay?”

“Thank you for your compliance.” The armored suit stood at attention, then strode back to the opposite side of the gate.

A half-block from the checkpoint, the newspaper editor’s face appeared on-screen. The office was alive with sounds of newscasts and phones ringing at multiple desks. “Reports say it’s some kind of attack. Mehul is here, but even he can’t keep up. We need all eyes on the data pouring in. You’re the only one with any chance of getting here in time.”

“The checkpoint is closed. You saw it. I’m no good to anyone in jail, and frankly, hiding under the bed with my cat sounds like a damn fine idea right about now. I’m sorry. I can’t. There’s no way.”

The editor looked away for a moment, shouting into a speakerphone, then turned back with a look of inspiration. “I know. Yes. Yes. You can.

You’re going to have a baby.”

The choppy waters of Devaloka Bay churned, bringing a briny scent to the evening air.

“What?!” Incredulous eyes narrowed at the image onscreen. “Is that some kind of joke?”
The plan only grew more inspired with each word. “No, no. Look, just tell them you’re pregnant. It’s perfect. They’ll have no idea.”

Black helicopters flew invisibly against the night sky as whirring rotor blades made their presence known while passing overhead. “Mumbai is under martial law. You must be completely mad.”

“Our office is in the municipal center of the city.” A map came onscreen, depicting Samudra University Hospital only a few blocks from the office. “They might even airlift you and skip the gridlock completely. Look, be here in an hour and I’ll double your per-word rate.”

“No way. Fire me. I’m going home.” A thoroughly unimpressed thumb hovered over the “End Call” button.
“Okay! Triple. Triple your rate!”

“Tri… triple?” The Chuck Taylor II’s stopped walking. “Keep talking.”
“And. And, you get exclusive access to our data for the cover story. After proofing, we’ll…” More shouting into a speakerphone, then back to the screen with a fiendish determination. “I’ll personally send the story to the London home office and it will run in all territories. Worldwide.”

Long black hair shone in the moonlight as the scrunchie slipped from ponytail to wrist. “Alright.” Four deep breaths brought readiness for the improvised performance. “Time to watch me give birth or die trying.” The shoulder-slung brown pleather handbag found a new home hidden where a not-yet-newborn baby would usually be.

A quick pivot toward the bridge squeaked canvas sneakers on concrete, charging headlong at the armored soldier with no obvious plan or premeditation. The soldier’s massive rifle immediately rose to target the intruder. “Halt!”

As if on cue, the apparently pregnant runner let out an anguished scream and fell to the ground, clutching a bulging abdominal region while making sure to covertly film the whole episode. A spotlight from above snapped on and bathed the scene in harsh white light.

Parked cars stretched as far and wide as streets could hold, horns blaring and engines growling while going nowhere fast. Upon verification of the press barcode, double doors slid apart in one of the few metropolitan Mumbai buildings that still had power.

The newsroom was a curious scene of light and sound, but little movement. Only two humans occupied the space amid a chaotic dervish of visual and auditory data overload.

“Brilliant.” The editor emerged, smiling and clapping. “I never knew you were an actress as well as a writer. You were more pregnant than my wife when she had identical twins!”

The handbag reappeared from below the sweatshirt. “I guess it was just a matter of haggling over the price, after all.” Black yoga pants’ right leg revealed a bloodstain at the knee. “Once they saw I had insurance, they gave me oxygen and admitted me right away.” Sitting at a desk, the rolled-up pant leg revealed a deep purple bruise. “I even got an extra Band-Aid while waiting to see a doctor.”

An adhesive bandage gingerly covered the wounded knee. “Getting in was easy. Sneaking out was the hard part. Your plan worked a little too well; everybody loves helping a pregnant lady. Oh, and here’s a little parting gift.” The phone displayed a hospital invoice. “Ambulance ride plus a Band-Aid cost as much as the paper was paying for the high-speed rail article. Consider this as part of my bonus for getting here in an less than an hour.”

Remnants of a desperate combover fell from place as hands waved like magic wands, large round head bobbing from side to side atop sloped shoulders. “Fine, fine. Just come and look at the screens. It’s like some kind of disaster movie.”

Ponytail properly scrunchied, a wall of computer monitors drew nearer upon approach through the cluttered office’s winding labyrinth. Mehul, a skinny youth with a full head of messy dyed blondeish-brown, hunched in front of the firehose of data arriving from sources around the world. The most high-relevance bits were sifted into view by London home office’s artificial intelligence and sorted into each foreign branch’s locality.

Mehul nodded ‘hello’ at the familiar feeling of an affectionate touch on the shoulder. “See this picture?” Mehul said, pointing to a infographic at standing eye-level, three screens to the right. The animation replayed a time-lapse of successive Mumbai electrical zones going dark. “It’s accelerating. The grid goes down like dominoes — even solar power systems were taken offline.”

“Mehul, wait. Look at where it all began.” Hands framed the time-lapse epicenter and spread apart, zooming into a detailed street view.

Mehul shrugged. “The city department of energy. Eleven blocks from here.”

The editor ran fingers through uneven tendrils of combover. “I’ll be damned. That’s not just the department of energy. The building sits on top of Mumbai’s small modular reactor. It was installed when population numbers overwhelmed the traditional power plants. Construction was kept quiet so most people don’t even know it’s there.”

Mehul brought up statistics on a screen below. “It’s also the oldest commercial-use nuclear reactor in the country. Their systems must be thirty years old, at least.”

A gesture zoomed out, showing the entire globe with major population centers highlighted. “These reactors prop up megacity infrastructure all over the world. Delhi, São Paulo, Shanghai, Mexico City… without nuclear power, they’ll fall back to the 19th century.”

Walking across the room, the editor spoke quickly. “We have generator power for three days here since we’re in the same building as the city clerk’s office extension. After that, it might be time for somebody to have another baby.”

“My poor cat…”

A cubicle had been prepared in advance; its computer was turned on and ready. The editor pulled out a chair, beckoning with a smile whose nervous intensity erased decades from a middle-aged face. “Time for you two kids to earn your first Martha Gelhorn.”

Mehul yawned and stretched. “I have a feeling that this data has all the plot twists, spy games and political intrigue we could possibly need. Who knows. We might even bag an honorary Pulitzer.”

Black yoga pants settled into the cubicle’s chair and long stray strands fell over dark brown eyes. “And I have a headline in mind already.”

The editor, on the phone back to the London office at a desk nearby, perked up and paused to listen. “Hit me.”

“The Day the Daughter of Stuxnet Nearly Ate The World.”

“Nearly?” Mehul queried.

“The only way anyone will read this story is if the power grid is back online by the time we’re ready to publish. If it’s not back by then, we’ll be the only ones reading this story anyway — so I’ll take the ‘Nearly’ off just for you.”

Thumbs-up. The editor turned back to the phones and Mehul returned to sifting through data for tips and clues.

Sitting at the keyboard, the story’s first sentence came forth as narration of the information flows streaming into the office. “It all began with an innocent flicker of lights that led, inexplicably for billions, to what must have felt like the beginning of the end…”

END.

===

“It all began with an innocent flicker of lights that led, inexplicably for billions, to what must have felt like the beginning of the end…”

This is almost certainly a headline that none of us wants to see. How close are we to the dawn of the Daughter of Stuxnet?

One fact is certain: we won’t have to wait until 2063.

Excerpts from three news articles indicate the risk:

Recognition of such threats exploded in June 2010 with the discovery of Stuxnet, a 500-kilobyte computer worm that infected the software of at least 14 industrial sites in Iran, including a uranium-enrichment plant. Although a computer virus relies on an unwitting victim to install it, a worm spreads on its own, often over a computer network.

This worm was an unprecedentedly masterful and malicious piece of code that attacked in three phases. First, it targeted Microsoft Windows machines and networks, repeatedly replicating itself. Then it sought out Siemens Step7 software, which is also Windows-based and used to program industrial control systems that operate equipment, such as centrifuges. Finally, it compromised the programmable logic controllers. The worm’s authors could thus spy on the industrial systems and even cause the fast-spinning centrifuges to tear themselves apart, unbeknownst to the human operators at the plant.

Although the authors of Stuxnet haven’t been officially identified, the size and sophistication of the worm have led experts to believe that it could have been created only with the sponsorship of a nation-state, and although no one’s owned up to it, leaks to the press from officials in the United States and Israel strongly suggest that those two countries did the deed. Since the discovery of Stuxnet, Schouwenberg and other computer-security engineers have been fighting off other weaponized viruses, such as Duqu, Flame, and Gauss, an onslaught that shows no signs of abating.

Source: The Real Story of Stuxnet

Stuxnet didn’t only strike once, but was probably re-released to become more virulent.

“Obviously, it spread beyond its intended target or targets,” said Roel Schouwenberg, a senior antivirus researcher at Kaspersky Lab, one of the two security companies that has spent the most time analyzing Stuxnet.

Most researchers have agreed that Stuxnet’s sophistication — they’ve called it “groundbreaking” — means that it was almost certainly built by a well-financed, high-powered team backed by a government.

Kaspersky’s Schouwenberg believes it’s because the initial attack, which relied on infected USB drives, failed to do what Stuxnet’s makers wanted.

“My guess is that the first variant didn’t achieve its target,” said Schouwenberg, referring to the worm’s 2009 version that lacked the more aggressive propagation mechanisms, including multiple Windows zero-day vulnerabilities. “So they went on to create a more sophisticated version to reach their target.” In Schouwenberg’s theory, Stuxnet’s developers realized their first attempt had failed to penetrate the intended target or targets, and rather than simply repeat the attack, decided to raise the ante.

Stuxnet evolved over time, adding new ways to spread on networks in the hope of finding specific PLCs (programming logic control) hardware to hijack.

With the proliferation of Stuxnet, Schouwenberg said that the country or countries that created the worm may have themselves been impacted by its spread. But that was likely a calculated risk the worm’s developers gladly took. “Perhaps they knew that their own critical infrastructure wouldn’t be affected by Stuxnet because it’s not using Siemens PLCs,” Schouwenberg said.

Source: Why did Stuxnet worm spread?

As you see embedded above, infographic video on Stuxnet by Patrick Clair sums up the questions facing all of us in the forseeable future:

The most important question may not be ‘who designed it?’, but ‘who will re-design it?’

The evolution has been so fast that nine months after its detection, the first virus that could crash power grids or destroy oil pipelines is available for anyone to download and tinker with.

You can watch people on Youtube pulling Stuxnet apart. It’s an open-source weapon. And there’s no way of knowing who will use it… or what they will use it for.

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Thanks for reading. See you next time. ;)