A Boy and His Reef

by Anders Sandberg

The sun sparkled from the bent ocean as the boy ran along the pier as fast as he could just to get the extra traction. The two adults seated in the shadow outside the pavillion on the shore watched fondly as he jumped over the capstans along the curve, and made a final sommersault into the water at the end. The green bird that had followed him along the run chirped, and set off towards the shore again when it didn't see him emerge.

"You're not worried he'll hurt himself?" Bernard asked his son Harald.

"Hardly. Simon knows how to move, he grew up here and spent most of the first years scaring me and Elsie witless with his stunts. Besides, I ordered some insurocytes for him when he was seven, so even if he did fall onto those rocks he'll be fine after a while. Unlike you, dad."

"You know, I had a lot of ideas about how it would be to awaken afterwards, but I had never expected that the first thing I would do was to break my leg." He playfully punched the cast on his leg and grinned. "Of course, just my luck to be resurrected someplace where gravity is too weak and the view makes you dizzy."

"Then you should have seen us just when we had moved in, direct from dirtside. We were walking like drunkards the first days, gawking at the other side and how everything curved. But after a week you'll get used to living in Penglai."

"I take your word for it. But this place is almost too much for an old man like me. Did you say the reefs are actually sentinent?"

Simon swam beneath the green-golden waves towards the inner edge of the coral reef. A small swarm of holo-squids scattered as he approached, flickering diffracted light to confuse predators and communicate with each other. Apparently the reef noticed him through their reaction, or perhaps it cheated and logged the net, for it sent out a few greeting-fishes from a hidden hollow. It was an old joke between the boy and the reef: it sent out fishes to nibble or squirrel him and he scared them off with invectives. Today the greeting-fishes were ruby red, with long sweeping fins that billowed in the clear water.

They tried a sneaky two-prong manoever, but Simon immediately dived between the two groups. One fish managed to touch him and sent a small squirrel into his Net; the boy howled [Nosediver!] at it and it smartly turned emerald green and fled. Meanwhile, the reef had quietly gathered its fishes into a school and tried to sneak up behind him using a large coral rock as cover. Simon felt their presence in his nearfield just as they attacked, and sent a long stream of invectives in a spiral around him: [Fishfingers!] [Nanocrud!] [Did somebody design you in playschool?] [Stupid!] [Mudsuckers!]. The end result was utter confusion as red and green fishes swam around him, squirrels nobbled at his Net and somewhere around him in the net the reef echoed his signals back at him; eventually all the greeting-fishes were green and he was alone with the reef. He drifted pleasantly exhausted for a while until he moved into a small forest of tubular corals, their diamond skeletons glittering in the sunlit water. Something long-legged and quick darted beneath a rock when he approached.

"Sho, how are you today? Keeping all little critters in their places?"

The answer appeared around him, in the glitterings of the corals, the movements of the fishes or the noise in the Net. When he was younger, he had tried to teach the reef to speak properly, but he had given it up when the reef had in its own way suggested that it was he who should learn how to speak properly in the reef way. The reef was a billion tiny voices and systems, exchanging packets of data in various ways, organizing itself and its evolution according to its own goals. There was no real core, no real "self" like in the humans and artints Simon knew. Instead the reef mirrored his signals, subtly distorted and mutated by the collective intelligence of a million tonnes of ecology.

[[Little critters like you in places.]]

[Do you know that dad says grandfather has to keep on his cast until tonight? He broke his leg yesterday!]

[[Grandfather was yesterday]]

[Yeah, but even before he died and was frozen they had insurocytes, didn't they?]

[[Had died too, even before]]

Simon was not entirely sure he and the reef was talking abut the same thing. He tried another approach: [Grandfather is the oldest man in the world, I checked. At least until next week, when dad and his friends try to wake up Renate.]

The reef seemed to be amused, several glittering holo-squids swam by coloring the sea with diffractions hinting that it didn't take what he said seriously. [[Oldest man in which world?]]

[Don't try that one, old rockpile. Of course I meant both here and at dirtside.]

[[What is oldest rockpile in the world?]].

The question made Simon pause. He went up for air, not that he needed it, trying to figure out what the reef meant. Most of its talk was in a kind of code you had to think about to understand. It might mean dirtside, and the old dirtside reefs were of course obvious candidates for the "oldest rockpiles in the world", but he knew the reef didn't consider them real. Generally it regarded everything outside the sea and Net just as unreal as the shimmering of the squids. Maybe it meant that as long as grandfather didn't take a swim he didn't really exist. Simon had spent a long time arguing with the reef last year that he existed even when he was outside the water and not logged in, but in the end he had been forced into conceding that he didn't exist as much then as he did when he was logged into the sea. He decided it was time to try to squirrel the reef instead of arguing with it, and dived.

Bernard sat on the veranda together with Elsie. She had grown up into a strong woman during the years he was frozen, and she reminded him of a small lioness. Above them the stars shone through the other side of the habitat, far clearer than back on Earth and reflecting in the ocean.

"I have been thinking about what you told me about the reefs here. Damn irresponsible and dangerous to give them full autoevolution capacity like that, and bioassemblers too; they could have turned into anything!"

"Guess why we managed to buy this island so cheap, Bernard? As Harald put it, if the thing won't turn into goo or transcend in a few weeks when it could do it in hours, it probably won't do it. I don't think anybody really knows why, not even the EcoSoft people or the escatologists, but those reefs behave themselves quite nicely. Not at all like what happened in Alhambra. They are good neighbors, and Simon loves his reef."

The whole Penglai affair had been a PR disaster for EcoSoft. When they had started working on giving the Penglai real, working coral reefs they had found that it would be next to impossible to meet the deadlines if they used the normal ecological tricks; balancing the ecologies of the reefs was more complex than even their artilects had expected. Some bright ecotect had the idea of integrating the adaption into the reefs itself: nanosystems in the coral skeletons would act as a huge parallel network for ecological optimization, and by adding bioassemblers, the reef could provide itself with the necessary lifeforms as needed. Cheap, fast, creative.

Even in the early wild years of ecodesign this was considered radical, but the results were impressive. Soon the reefs with their ecologies were appearing around all the islands in the ocean, and the ecotects got more and more confident and reckless. Somebody had the idea of letting the unused processors run genetic algorithms to influence the evolution, and the diversity of gorgeous life skyrocketed - and then somebody realized that the underwater nets of Penglai no longer belonged to the humans, but to the reefs. A sizeable fraction of the bandwidth was devoted to alien murmurs spreading from reef to reef.

A quick investigation revealed that the reefs were clearly self- organizing on their own and didn't care the least about any trapdoor commands except sloughing off some old corals. Lagrange Engineering was not happy with the idea that their latest habitat might have to be sterilized, and for a few weeks lawyers on both sides were sharpening their legal knives. Then somebody pointed out that the reefs apparently had not turned into alien horrors or madly replicating glop; they were out of control, all right, but not much more out of control than the real things back dirtside. EcoSoft and LE made an out of court settlement and after some further testing LE began to sell off islands to the more adventuresome or brave investors who didn't mind sharing a habitat with a system that could do anything or become anything.

In the long run everybody got something out of the affair; EcoSoft patented an algorithm for ecoregulation based on what the reefs had evolved, LE got plenty of publicity for the larger Fanghu and Yingzhou with their guaranteed tame ecologies and the investors made small fortunes when the reef intelligences didn't eat them.

"Yes, so it seems. Was it his idea to give him those oxygen storage nanocytes so that he could stay underwater like a seal?"

"Funny that you mention it, it was just one of those things Harald, me and Simon thought of at the same time. They got quite popular among the children here a few years back, and now practically everyone has them. Clever little devices, they just have one drawback: since you almost never run out of breath, children become as active as Simon. I think they have given more grey hair to parents than any other toy or enhancement in the world."

"You know, its things like that that makes me realize I was born more than a century ago. Nanites in the blood. Smart corals. Reasonable corporations, for heavens sake! In the old days they were as mindless as snails, but now they run themselves."

"Still, the signs were all there if you looked for them. Everything is obvious in retrospect, I think."

"Hardly. When I grew up everyone was paranoid and thought the world was ending anyway, so why care?"

"Things are hardly utopian now either. There is a reason Harald and I earn so much from our work with immune-security design. And remember what we told you about the Alhambra -- people still die and things go wrong bigtime. We're not as defaitist as you were, thats all."

"And braver. I mean, living in the same habitats as those reefs. They give me the creeps. They must have more brainpower than every human here put together, and they are so damn alien."

"So are ordinary reefs too. Actually, many of us who moved here moved here because this was one of the few places with truly untamed nature. Dirtside is as it is, most habitats are actually more gardens than ecologies and the "wilderness habitats" were all carefully planned to be wild enough but not too dangerous. Penglai is beautiful, but not entirely safe, and I think that is what makes it special."

"Yes, but if the reefs one day would decide to rewrite the genetic codes of everything in here or turn the habitat into a huge terrarium, there is almost nothing you could do to stop them, immune-security or not. Hell, they could even have taken over this place without anybody noticing!". He was silent for a while. "Maybe they have? How could you tell?"

Bernard looked out at the sea. In the starlit water he briefly noticed a bobbing head as his grandson went up for air, only to vanish down into the depths to his best friend.