The crowd hushed as Jacob Fotzer, multi-millionaire tech entrepreneur and chair for the evening, stepped up to the podium. A small man, he was unmistakably middle-aged but dressed like a teenager in skinny black jeans and white trainers. His beard reached all the way down to the neckline of his t-shirt, which bore the event’s name: Save the Future. He twiddled his hoop earring, cleared his throat and addressed the audience in a California twang.
“The theme of tonight’s event, long in the making, is nothing less than humanity’s greatest challenge; our survival as a species. We held the largest ever non-political public poll to pick two candidates to discuss the greatest dangers of our time. These threats to humanity were also voted on by you, the people. Top of the list, with more combined votes than all other topics, is climate change.”
Affirmative murmurs hummed round the auditorium.
“The rest of the list, by descending order of popularity. War.” Fotzer paused again for dramatic effect, but the hum was quieter this time. “Famine. Toxins in our food and water. Deadly pandemics. Environmental pollution.” He stroked his beard and adjusted the microphone. “Systemic racism. Structural sexism. Unequal distribution of wealth”, he said with relish, for he felt these should have been top of the list. Some groans arose, for this big event had captured the interest of those of all political persuasions.
“Virtually all these problems were created by…” Fotzer stopped again and swiveled to survey the great hall from left to right, near and far, lower and upper levels. “Us. We are responsible. So our two guests, chosen as the greatest thinkers of our generation, will ponder two questions tonight. Firstly, what the hell is wrong with us? Secondly, how do we save the future for those who will follow?”
The lights dimmed, and a dramatic orchestral score sounded from the network of speakers mounted high across the vaulted ceilings.
“In the blue corner, representing science, numbers and logic, originally hailing from Great Britain, we have the world’s most eminent data scientist.”
Stage beams came on to Fotzer’s right, shrouding a seated silhouette in a halo of light. The host now spoke in a dramatic, lowered tone as if voicing a film trailer.
“His mother endured a thirty-six hour labour due to the unusual size of his head, leading doctors to verify that his brain was thirty-five percent larger than that of an average male newborn. By six months, he had gained the vocabulary of a five year-old. By age nine, he was fluent in five languages. Although he excelled with distinctions in every subject, he had a special affinity for mathematics and, as a fellow at Oxford University in England, was taken under the tutelage of the great maths professor Matthew Barbage. Barbage’s mentorship set him on a path to applying his abilities to solve some of the greatest questions of our time. He now runs several leading AI projects at Stanford and MIT. His achievements are too numerous to reel off here, but many of the awards he has received relate to his work using artificial intelligence to dramatically improve health outcomes for millions. It is his firm belief that humanity’s salvation lies in technology. It is my great honour and pleasure to introduce to you – Doctor Wendell Chive.”
The lights went up stage right, illuminating the guest. Loud cheers and whoops arose across the auditorium. A hint of a smile showed on Chive’s thin lips. He rolled his great head back, closed his eyes for the duration of the applause and then as it died down, gave a small, gracious nod.
“In the red corner, standing for spiritualism, an individual who has been on an incredible journey, from the Himalayas, across Europe and South America, and to our great pleasure, with us tonight here in Palo Alto.”
Now sounds of skin drums and twisting sitar chords echoed across the great hall. The low beam to Fotzer’s left threw up a fan of light behind the second guest. The silhouetted figure appeared tall, even though seated.
“The youngest of eight siblings, he was born into a family of yak farmers in the mountains of India. He grew up with little, but displayed an astounding connection with nature, developing the ability to speak with animals aged three. One morning, his parents awoke to find the farm deserted and all the beasts gone. When the child confessed he had told the yaks to pursue their freedom, his enraged father abandoned him in a mountain cave. He was discovered there days later by a wandering fakir who adopted him. The fakir recognised something special in the boy, and became his spiritual mentor as well as his guardian. Within just a few years, he became one of the best-known spiritual teachers in the East. While his fame spread to the Western world, he put his wealth to use building new irrigation systems, schools and hospitals for millions across India, Bhutan and Nepal. He believes that spirituality can save us. We are honoured to welcome, here, tonight at Save the Future, Swami Langsam.”
The Swami was illuminated for all to see, revealing his dark-lidded eyes closed as Chive’s had been. His long, glossy black hair hung down over his orange robes. His skin, a rich golden brown, shone brightly in the iridescence of the footlights. The clapping and cheering seemed to go on for even longer than his predecessor’s. “We love you!” cried a man’s voice near the front. The Swami’s eyes flicked open and he cast a benevolent smile down toward the ardent devotee.
Glowing with satisfaction at his introductions, which he felt had gone splendidly, Fotzer turned to address the audience. “Now we know Doctor Chive also has many fans, especially female ones. We have a lot of ‘Chivettes’ out there, am I right?”
Squeals erupted from all quarters.
“We know you’re here, because we had several mass bookings from ‘The Sapiosexual Society’, which was offering a discount on tonight’s event. Similarly, tens of thousands identifying themselves as followers of Swami Langsam overwhelmed our booking systems. In order to give the general public a fair chance at securing places tonight, we limited places for both groups to fifty percent of the venue’s capacity. Which means there’s still a hell of a lot of you!”
Shouts, cheers and whoops filled the air.
“So we’ve got a lively audience. Let’s hope for an equally lively yet fruitful discussion tonight. You could say… our future depends on it.”
Fotzer variously turned to face the men either side of him.
“Swami Langsam, perhaps you can kick off the open discussion with your thoughts on the first question. Where did we go wrong?”
The Swami stared into the distance for so long it appeared he hadn’t heard the question. Murmurs arose from the crowd.
“We lost our way long ago”, he said finally in a thick Indian accent. “We are selfish and self-obsessed, driven only by material gain and external validation. We cannot prevail while we remain absorbed by petty quarrels, desire for fame and other manifestations of the ego. The seeds have been sown, and now they are bearing fruit.” Once again he was silent. Fotzer waited and then finally drew breath to speak. “And the fruit is rotten”, the Swami continued with vehemence, then closed his eyes and nodded, indicating he’d concluded his thoughts.
“Do you agree, Doctor Chive?” said Fotzer.
“Not entirely”, replied the Doctor in a transatlantic drawl. “The problem is we have become vain and greedy. We spend our time manufacturing conflicts instead of helping others. We are prioritising the self over the common good of humanity.”
The Swami chuckled aloud, shaking his head.
“Listening to you both, it does sound as if you agree”, said Fotzer. “That’s a good start, right?” he said to the audience with a smile.
“But if I may”, continued Chive, “I object to this idea that things have only gotten worse. Never mind developments over the last hundred years. If we simply look at the last ten years, we’ve seen an unheard of level of innovation and progress. We’re developing the means to improve quality of life not marginally, but exponentially.”
“And how are you measuring such things?” said the Swami. “By whose yardstick do you define this exponential improvement? You think you can sum up all of human experience like this?”
“I’m unsure whether the esteemed Swami is being intentionally facetious”, said Chive. “But there are very concrete, tangible metrics in common use. If I may call upon my colleague to demonstrate”, Chive said to Fotzer. “Of course”, replied the host, and in a clearly pre-planned sequence, a bespectacled Asian man climbed up onstage. He nodded shyly towards the audience and set about connecting a tablet device to the large screen above the podium.
“May I introduce one of the world’s finest mathematicians, a renowned statistician and my good friend, Professor Kim Kong”, said Chive. The screen lit up with an array of graphs, mostly showing a series of blue lines snaking up ever more sharply rightwards.
“Even the most generalised quality of life indices use widely accepted parameters, measuring such things as life expectancy, rates of serious illness, self-reported happiness and many more”, said Chive. All these metrics, which I repeat are universally recognised, show a dramatic uptrend in recent years.”
Chive stopped for a moment, for the Swami was chuckling loudly. “Perhaps the Swami would like us to return to the dark ages. To prehistory, maybe? A Hobbesian world where simply by sitting here, we’d have both radically beaten the odds to remain alive?”
“This is nothing new”, said the Swami, addressing the audience. “The arrogance of the Western approach. Your so-called logic is the solution to everything. I wish not to insult Mr Kong, who I know and hold in high esteem, but these charts, diagrams and numbers, are mere sophistry.”
“The fact you don’t understand this data does not qualify you to dismiss it”, retorted Chive. “Indeed, it’s the opposite. And incidentally, this is about far more than logic. We’re beyond logic. We have advanced technologically in ways which are, dare I say it, outside your comprehension.”
The Swami chuckled once more. Professor Kong shifted awkwardly, tablet in hand.
“In any case, all this data is available online, and in my recent publications”, said Chive to the audience. “Thank you, Kim.” The professor resumed his place in the front row.
“Humanity is not made of numbers”, said the Swami.
“You’re wrong”, said Chive. “Everything we know derives from numbers. Our genetic code, our DNA, our chromosomes. The elements. Atomic and subatomic structures. The matter of the universe.”
“Can that be possible?” chimed in the host. “That everything is just numbers?”
“It’s not quite that simple”, said Chive. “Numbers are the root of everything. But there is a better way to look at it, which I explain in my latest book. Everything – and I mean everything – can be grouped into one of two categories. Nodes and layers.”
“Can you explain to us what that means?”
“By nodes I mean nodes, the existing definition. Self contained units, typically interconnected with other units in a network, grid or hierarchy.”
“Are we nodes?” said Fotzer.
“Human beings are nodes. As are animals, insects, all organisms.”
“What about inanimate objects?”
“Also nodes, or node clusters. Built from atoms. Atoms are nodes.”
“Nodes within nodes.”
“And what is meant by your definition of layers?”
“Layers are states of being across networks. It’s hard to fully explain in brief, but it applies to a great many things – colour, tone, temperature, emotional mood, age, just as a few examples. Layers often span node clusters, and are often nested within themselves, like nodes.”
“What do you make of this theory?” said Fotzer to the guru, who was rolling his eyes.
“He’s plagiarised Hindu beliefs. The Doctor has simply given new names to chakras and spiritual realms, and is now claiming these as his own ideas.”
“So in a sense you do agree with the theory?” attempted Fotzer.
“Not only do we disagree”, said the Swami, “but we’re continuing an old debate, which his side has never satisfactorily addressed. His big data fails to explain the most fundamental questions of the soul. Forgive me, but the idiocy of categorising people as ‘nodes’…”
“In your case, a defective node”, said Chive.
“Aha! Insults now. And what of my devotees?”
“Them too”, fired back Chive. Commotion grew across various sections of the audience, and shouts rang out across the great hall.
“Calm please”, said Fotzer, and the noise died down only a little.
“Quite something to be called a plagiarist by a liar”, said Chive.
“Oh?” said the Swami with a grin.
“Whatever your other abilities, your talent for comic fiction is unrivalled. Take that little introduction of yours. You sit here without a trace of shame claiming a childhood ability to speak with dumb animals. Perhaps you can demonstrate this skill to us?”
“I’m speaking with you, am I not?”
Roars erupted from the crowd and a plastic bottle bounced off Fotzer’s podium. “Okay now”, said the host in a stern yet slightly anxious voice. “No misbehaving. We promised a lively discussion and that’s what we’ve got, but any attendees breaking the rules will be removed immediately.
“So our problem is obsession with material gain, as you put it earlier”, said Chive. “Perhaps you can tell your devotees how your fleet of four Maseratis and three Rolls Royces, and your property empire worth twenty-five million dollars, plus the forty million you have in offshore accounts, is currently benefiting humanity?”
“How about we tell the audience your plagiarism goes beyond ripping off Hindu ideas”, replied the Swami. “My sanyassins found out some very interesting things about you, oh yes.”
“Uh, we do have a list of topics to move through”, said Fotzer. “If we can…”
“That project you won all those awards for. The predictive algorithm that reduced illness rates in seven countries”, said the Swami.
Chive sat stony and silent, his jaw muscles clenching.
“Wasn’t your work at all, was it?”
Fotzer looked at Chive in apparent surprise, but still the Doctor said nothing.
“Ladies and gentlemen”, said Swami Langsam, “the algorithm that made this man famous was written by none other than his assistant, Professor Kim Kong.”
Gasps and shouts arose. Heads turned towards the empty seat where Professor Kong had, moments earlier, been sitting.
“But you took the credit”, said Langsam. “And when he objected, you threatened to have the visa you’d arranged for him by forging documents cancelled. You said he’d be on the first plane back to Korea.”
“Lies”, said Chive shaking his head. “Absolute nonsense.”
“Sue me then”, said the Swami. “If I’m wrong, go ahead and call your lawyer.”
“Oh I will, don’t worry”, said the Doctor. The crowd had grown rowdy again. Fotzer stepped up to the microphone.
“If everyone can settle down a little, we’ll move to the next phase of the discussion”, he said. “As you’ve seen, we have two very differing approaches tonight. In addition to their immense achievements and respective influences across the world, both our guests have strong opinions to match. Which means not only those here tonight, but millions of others watching will now be wondering; what if these two great minds were to combine forces and work together towards solving humanity’s problems?”
“You’re not from the Himalayas, you cunt”, said Chive.
“Er, gentlemen…” pleaded Fotzer as Chive stood up, a head taller than him.
“Fraud”, shouted the Doctor over the host’s head at the Swami, who had also risen to his feet.
“You’re not even Indian. I had my people look into you. You’re from England. You’re an electrician from Neasden in North-West London. You got convicted for criminal negligence after a family house burned down. You fled the country and changed your identity. Scotland Yard are still looking for him”, said Chive to the audience, who were now in uproar. Projectiles flew across the auditorium.
“And what are you going to do about it, melon-head?” said the Swami, his Indian accent replaced by something distinctly more British. Chive lunged and swung at the guru, clipping Fotzer’s ear on the way. “Security, now”, squealed Fotzer into his tie mic as he became entrapped in a tangle of flailing arms and orange robes. “Get out the way”, shouted a voice from the front row. “Let ‘em fight!” yelled another.
Burly men carrying radios pushed their way through the unruly crowds now filling the aisles. Fotzer finally extricated himself from the two grappling men, who promptly keeled over together and rolled around the stage. Several fistfights had broken out in the stalls. The host, somewhat dazed, looked down to see that his ‘Save the Future’ t-shirt was not only torn, but smeared with bronze stains. It was then he noticed the Swami’s complexion now had two shades – his original brown skin tone on one side, and on a large swathe of the other side of his face, an increasingly more Caucasian shade.
By the time the PAPD officers arrived, the scene had all the hallmarks of a mass riot, despite the two main guests having now been separated. Men wrestled and traded punches, women fought with women, pulling hair, scratching and slapping. Several seats had been ripped from their fittings, and plastic cups and bottles littered the auditorium. Official footage of the evening was mysteriously lost due to technical issues, but the event was hailed in the media as a great success.