I decided to write a short story about a ridiculous premise to get myself to just sit down and finish a story. Here’s the result! (also published on Medium)
“Farts are messages from the future!”
A hooded jogger cuts through a dark alley nestled between a greasy burger joint and an old boarded up warehouse. Sarah’s muttering to herself as she runs at a steady clip, dictating some notes into her bluetooth mic.
A bubbling, anxious knot starts to form in her stomach, but Sarah ignores it. Without further warning, a sound like a dog’s surprised yelp breaks the silence. Embarrassed, Sarah furtively glances around to check if she’s alone.
“This never happens when I’m jogging,” she thinks.
As she rounds the corner, there’s a flash and a blaring yelp of a sound, and she finds herself suddenly laid flat on the street.
“Huh, that’s funny…” Sarah mumbles after a beat.
Three weeks later, Sarah downloads her audio notes onto her laptop and scrubs the audio player back to the Incident. She clips the sound and adds the resulting file to a folder with six similar files.
“Okay, it’s officially time to check my hypothesis. I think each Incident has matching before and after events, and there is some kind of time consistency across all Incidents.” To figure out if she’s onto something, Sarah decides to create a Chart! She pulls together audio spectrograms for each Incident, both the anterior and the posterior events. This takes some time for the newest Incident, because she has to cancel out some noise first.
After a little copy and paste and some scripting to figure out how similar the spectrograms are, Sarah has a ‘similarity’ measure for each Incident: a number between 0 and 1, 1 meaning identical.
She notices all of the Incidents have between 83% and 92% similarity between the initial event and the future event.
“And it’s not just that,” Sarah thinks. “All of the Incidents involve distinct scenarios.” There’s the one where a rumbling sound preceded a small earthquake. And there’s the sharp squeak that preceded an bright oil fire when she was cooking. Of course, there is the Incident that started it all, when she was lightly injured by a car pulling into an alleyway she was jogging through.
“I smell a product!” Sarah squeals.
“But first, more tests!”
Three months later, Sarah clicks to a new slide in her presentation.
“So, you’ve actually been using this, um, device yourself?” asked the woman with a dubious expression.
“Oh, not just me, I tested with my friends Rajesh and Dave very early. They’ve been using the prototypes for a couple of months too,” Sarah explains, clicking back to a slide summarizing key results of her startup’s beta testing.
She continues: “Rajesh had been interested in making something with that micro-controller he hadn’t touched for half a year, and Dave was going to be on the road for a month, so we scrounged up a test plan. We had the audio detection solved, we’re also trying to figure out an easy way to sense pressure, heat, basically everything we can.”
Sarah was meeting a local angel investor named Amy who she had cornered at a meet-up and somehow convinced to meet. But it was tough reading Amy. Sarah wasn’t sure if Amy was simply humoring her.
Time to go for the big vision, now that the basics had been explained.
“Whole industries have sprouted to solve information access problems. If you have a halfway reliable way to predict near to medium term events, you have something people will buy. Imagine early-response systems like those for tsunamis, but for every person and for everyday kinds of dangers! People already carry phones, they wear smart watches and wristbands. This will be more than a wearable… it’ll be an under-wearable” Sarah asserts.
“So, let me get this straight: this prototype basically passively listens to, um, farts, communicates with your servers, and then you figure out likely future events and then send push notifications to those phones if there’s anything significant that will happen?” Amy asks.
“Precisely. We built a basic program, didn’t even use fancy pants machine learning or anything. Just some simple statistics. I had it ready in a few days, Dave helped out with the bits that go in the phone. The hardware we’re trying to build could take it above and beyond.”
“And how accurate has this been?” Amy asks.
“Actually, we’ve only recently started trying to quantify that. We started using this measure called a Brier score. It’s a score between 0.0 and 2.0, where 2.0 means you say X will definitely happen and X definitely does not happen. We’ve been swinging wildly, but it’s been around 0.3 to 0.6. We think we can get it down to 0.2, maybe lower with more data.”
Amy seems to relax a tiny fraction, her posture shifting.
“We have an investor,” Sarah thinks to herself, smiling.
Three years later, a crowded El train heads into Chicago. Noses down, phones out, smart wearable devices somewhere in the pants area listening and feeling every squeak, flutter, and hiss.
Charlie is swiping through his social feed when he notices a new email summarizing his predictive earnings over the last month. Only 62% of his passive predictions were paid out, the rest getting cancelled out because of the causal effects of actions taken by third parties to prevent other possible futures. He is a little surprised how fine grained these calculations seem to be, but is unsure whether Fartronica (the prediction clearinghouse) was just making things up to pay him less.
He had signed up four months ago with Fartronica to passively send sensory data collected from his smart underwear. He enjoyed the extra spending money, and he didn’t mind the underwear either.
Suddenly, the train slows down and comes to a stop. Smart pens, phones, and in some cases watches buzzing with an orange alert.
Charlie opens up the alert on his phone.
Apparently, the Chicago Transportation Authority has been notified of a possible future tragedy: someone is about to accidentally fall on the tracks in 30 to 50 seconds a short distance from the current location of this train.
After a few moments, there are news blurbs zipping to every person in the subway car, updating them that the would-be victim has already been notified, so that possible tragic future has been removed.
Checking his Fartronica account, Charlie finds out that he was just credited $3.79.
Three centuries later, in a lakeside research town on Titan, Swathy finishes off her email, stretches, and walks over to the cafe.
The town has a tightly controlled environment acceptable for anyone whose bodies conform to Titan-compatible tolerances. Since she migrated from Mars, Swathy has been living in a specialized body optimized for physical recreation; she can outfit a flight-friendly version or a diving-friendly version.
There is “real” sunlight streaming in through the wall-length windows, and a warm “breeze” convinces Swathy to take a seat “outside” near the patio. She picks up a magazine on the way.
“So, how’s your paper coming along?,” asks George, taking a seat beside her.
“Oh hey, George. I’m still not done actually, sent a draft over to Rodolfo to get his take. But coming along,” said Swathy, making a mental note to spend more time on it tomorrow morning.
“It’s an historical one, right? Something about how they figured out how to plan things out better?” asks George.
“Yeah, that’s basically it. Although back in the twenty first century, they didn’t even really crack the decision making solutions, they only used it like a warning system,” Swathy explains. “And they didn’t even collaboratively combine sources of information, instead just competing and making a noisy mess of everything. Oh, and they didn’t even start to experiment with biological adjustments to make farts easier to produce until later in that century.”
“We’ve come a long way,” George remarks, smiling. “That reminds me, you should come check out our newest prototype!”
“Oh yeah, the one where you’re trying to turn that methane geyser down fifty klicks into a facsimile human butt?”
“Yeah, it’s been very experimental, of course. We’ve only ever been able to make predictions with actual organic human butts, though we got a lot of mileage out of biological modifications for centuries. This geyser could be our ticket to really break through new barriers, though. Now, it’s not just a matter of making the appropriate butt shape and controlling the sponginess of the artificial tissue, but it’s not impossible either,” explains George, animatedly. “Wanna join me?”
Swathy decides to walk with him to his research lab. After a few minutes of walking, they both smile, knowing that the future is basically safe. Since they had already pre-committed to going to the geyser installation, any possible future tragedies would have flowed back through Time to a specialized array of non-sentient butts. Automated systems would have interpreted those butts and would have informed George and Swathy on a neural level about the possible tragedies. But since the automated systems didn’t “see” any tragedies on the Time horizon, they were telegraphing a reassuring feeling to them.
A basic level of clairvoyance was omnipresent in the human condition. However, the time horizon had been only incrementally improved, and was currently basically stuck around six hours.
Artificial butts hadn’t worked. There was a baffling relationship between future events and the physical characteristics of a human butt. Oh, people had of course experimented with gassy food, changed the shape of the butt to modulate the sound, and even increased the likelihood of producing farts within any given minute to close to 99.99% through various means. But it’s always been a human butt. Manufactured non-sentient butts had been a game changer for scaling predictive power, and people had been coasting on this innovation for a while.
“Alright, here we are. Now, for the big test. Hooking up the feeds now, we should be seeing interpretations of the emissions 8 hours ago soon,” mutters George. “Huh, that’s funny…”
“What are you seeing?” asks Swathy.
“Hmm, this can’t be right.” A concerned look crosses over George’s face, with a twinge of disappointment.
“Do you want some time looking at the results?” offers Swathy. “It’s probably something small.”
“Hmm, oh yeah, thanks Swathy, I’ll catch up with you later,” George sighs, distracted.
Walking back to her lab, Swathy lets her mind expand to encompass the whole research town, then all of the settlements around Saturn, and then the whole solar system.
“We’ve come a long way,” she muses. “We could have faded away in a million different ways. But even something as stupid as a trumpet-like, bad smelling bodily function opened the entire cosmos to us.”
She whistles a pleasant tune as her feet automatically route her through the most efficient, least dangerous route to her lab.