Image from Rudolf Herczog (copyright; used with permission)
From the proto-Anglish "automatic utopia", later shortened to "automatopia" and eventually autotopia. A Hitech (and above) class of post-scarcity infrastructure and socioeconomic system, controlled by specialised non-sophont AI.
Autotopias are a very common form of modosophont organisation in the Terragen Sphere, and are characterised by almost total automation. Autotopias are capable of (but not limited to) fully autonomous operation, with non-sophont but nevertheless intelligent and highly capable systems performing all necessary functions to maintain the society it supports. Within this definition autotopias take many forms, with considerable variation in social and economic factors.
Most autotopias use a combination of bot workers, non-sophont AI and molecular nanotechnology, and function within a post-scarcity economic structure. Many autotopias achieve almost 100% efficient recycling of resources; so long as a source of energy is available such autotopias can function effectively as closed systems, losing only an insignificant fraction of their material over time. This makes autotopias particularly well suited for generation ships or habitats in isolated deep space objects, but there are many other locations where autotopias have been established as part of a much larger civilisation.
It is important to note that many scholars make a distinction between true autotopias controlled by non-sophont AI systems and the various transapient-run societies which are found throughout the various Sephirotic Empires. The latter may include regions of high-autonomy but the inclusion of transapient overseers or agents at some level of infrastructure is deemed to be a significant difference. Depending on the level of transapient influence this distinction can be very noticeable or invisible.
History and Diversity of Autotopias The earliest history of the autotopia concept is unclear; records show that even before 0AT there were some writers who had discussed the possibility of a fully automated economy. Most historians agree that the technology to allow a fully automated society was not available until well after the beginning of the interplanetary age, and there is considerable debate over the extent to which social and political conditions and prejudices inhibited the advent of labour-less economies.
Firmer evidence indicates that the first serious attempts to construct an autotopian economy occurred in the late Interplanetary period. Loosely affiliated projects by Asimov Orbital Habitat in CisLunar space, Verne Hab in the main belt and the Genetekker Proteus Project in the Jovian leading Trojan were instrumental in the development of the 'Nanotech Age' or 'nanotech window' that revolutionised terragen society in the 5th century AT and all were involved to some extent with the New Economy Movement. Whilst not solely concerned with bringing about autotopias the projects met with some success; Asimov Orbital founded the Nanoscale Collective which eventually produced an early assembler, the Genii 2 Matter Compiler. For a period of several decades the Orbital classed itself as a 'labour-less collective', though reliance on this comparatively primitive technology caused many practical and economic difficulties for Asimov Orbital, ultimately weakening its ability to trade for new technologies, entertainment, art and other intangibles.
The Technocalypse put a stop to these developments as the more automated habitats and nations were particularly vulnerable to the malware plagues. It is predicted that two-thirds of the fledgling automated habitats at the time were completely annihilated within a few hours of infection. In spite of this some isolated societies did manage to survive, including the famous Roddenberry Dome (later Roddenberry city) on Vesta and Tycho on Luna.
The Federation of SolSys habitats in the post-swarm period brought with it a new environment for the development of autotopias to flourish. Having survived malware plagues, Neumann swarms and rogue AI the early Federation brought with it hardened software and blue swarm defence systems (it was because of this that Adaptive Nanosystems became the largest and most influential megacorp of the era, surpassing even the fabled Interplanetary Age GeneTEK in percentage of total domestic output). Despite the bountiful environment in which the early Federation provided development of the first true autotopias was slow and controversial. Whilst some societies claimed full-automation invariably it was revealed they were operating slave economies having bred sophont AI with strong obedience routines. These societies were challenged politically in the First Federation which attempted to enforce Sentient Rights across its members and sometimes violently by abolitionist movements and the occasional slave revolt where possible.
The Coupling Problem To achieve a true autotopia, researchers deemed it necessary to create a controlling AI system that was not sophont, so that it could perform its functions without forming its own independent goals as well as avoiding any situation resembling slavery of sophont beings.
At the time there was not sufficient understanding of intelligence to design software with the desired level of competence which did not have (at least) modosophont level sophonce. Software existed that was capable of outperforming modosophonts at many specialised tasks, and packages of these expert systems could perform highly complex general tasks with modosophont-friendly interfaces that were often uncannily realistic. But none of these had yet attained the full range of modosophont capability and flexiblity; at some point a sophont would be required to take control and perform labour of some kind, often as a supervisor/troubleshooter for automated systems, or to do other work which unconscious software could not yet perform as well as a sophont being.
At this time AI science was advanced enough that sophont AIs could be regularly grown from standardised seeds (indeed this time period is characterised by an explosion of aioid and vec clades); producing fully-conscious aioids was a comparatively trivial matter. However the creation of competent and flexible non-sophont AI remained an elusive goal.
The AI researcher Nicola Hao-wian termed this the "Coupling Problem" and it became the biggest problem in AI science for centuries. The main difficulty was that AI creation was partially a black-box process, since many modosophont-level AI minds were based on models derived from neural networks found in humans and other terrestrial animals, evolving these models across generations of simulations and extracting those that were useful. Despite considerable effort exactly which parts of those neural networks contributed to intelligence and which to consciousness (or indeed if that was a suitable distinction) was not entirely clear. Some of the transapient-level hyperturings which were active within the Federation at the time created 'gift' minds which had all the characteristics of non-sophont intelligence, and in some cases these were use to great effect; but since the function of these gift minds were not fully understood (and sometimes not fully trusted), Federation modosophont researchers continued with their research. Other hyperturings took the approach of guiding research rather than supplying answers directly, but progress was slow.
Consequently the problem was not solved until the end of the First Federation, and led to the formulation of new theories of mind. The resulting non-sophont intelligent entities had little resemblance to any example of evolved consciousness (be it physical or digital) highlighting the difficulty in its development. The resolution of the Coupling Problem was gradual, with most historians identifying the Late Federation age as the time of the first true autotopias.
Despite their fractured beginnings autotopias have flourished throughout history. Depending on the definition it is estimated that between 40 and 80% of sophonts live within one. A statistic that most commentators agree is indicative of the golden age that Terragen Society is living through.
Text by Ryan B
Initially published on 10 November 2004.
Replaces the original 'Nanotopia' article by M Alan Kazlev.