A class of software augment that operates by interfacing with a sophont's central nervous system to provide and/or teach a specific set of skills.
Image from Bernd Helfert
Most biont Direct Neural Interface systems that interface with the entire central nervous system are capable of acting as the hardware for a skill module. If one is not present then a suitable CNS interface must be acquired (vec clades can mostly avoid this requirement). Whilst many skillmods are capable of running in the computronium components of a DNI some cannot or if they can run at reduced efficiency. This is due to large databases and/or large computational requirements which may generate dangerous levels of waste heat even if a DNI possesses enough data storage capacity. Thus they must outsource a lot of their computational needs into the user's exoself. If local infrastructure does not support exoselves or the sophont does not wish to use one then they must seek augmentations for greater implanted computronium and associated support implants for energy and waste heat management (e.g. compubone implants).
To operate efficiently a skillmod must have an accurate biophysics module of the sophont it is working through. This is due to the fact that most skillmod are made by extracting memories from other sophonts and/or vots raised in virches to acquire the specific skill. Consequently the physical characteristics of these entities will differ from the skillmod user and this must be corrected for. As an example; an acrobatic skillmod would damage a user if they tried to perform certain movements that they are not physically fit enough to perform. Biophysics models can be provided by an autodoc scan or from an internal medisystems. Once provided a skillmod will be able to adapt itself to the body of the user to the best of its ability (this process can take several hours as the module trawls through its databases making adjustments). If the condition of the user's body is not sufficient for the skillmod's needs (the user may not be physically fit enough for example) the module can recommend training regimes and even take control of the body in order to perform these with no effort on the part of the user. In some cases body augmentation may be required for more advanced skills.
If no facility to provide a biophysics model exists (or is chosen not to be used) a skillmod can create one itself in a process known as installation. This is a process whereby the module takes various levels of control over its user's body and performs a variety of physical exercises starting from simple flexing of muscles to intensive acrobatics with props, obstacles and training bots (this is best done in a polymorphic gym). This allows the expert systems in the module to build up an appropriate biophysics model of their user. Installation typically takes place over a 50-100 hour period (not including breaks for rest) for near-baseline humans.
At this stage a skillmod is akin to a vot bodyjacking a sophont with their consent. Users gain no conscious knowledge of the skill in question and when questioned on the topic will be unable to answer without activating the module at a low level and parroting whatever answers are given. When the module activates they are entirely shut off from their body which is directly controlled by the expert systems in the module. In this state a user can either passively observe through their own senses or, thanks to a comprehensive model of the environment built by module, they can observe from a simulated out-of-body perspective. Even in this state a user can have some input in order to give their module goals e.g. a sophont may order a close combat module to protect one friend over another or order a virtuoso module to play a particular piece with a particular instrument. With more advanced interface hardware this is mostly not necessary as modules can build up a psychological model of their user (also known as a simm) so as to define the parameters of their actions e.g. a close combat module may fight to incapacitate rather than kill.
For certain skills many sophonts prefer this state of affairs as they do not want to be consciously burdened by all the extra knowledge. However if sophonts wish to fully understand and have some control over the skill in question they can do so via a process known as integration. In contrast to the physicality of installation the integration process is used to establish a high level of synergy between mind and module. To achieve this a skillmod filters its database through the mind of the user making appropriate mnemonic connections in the sophont's concept map. This is similar to various mechanisms of tachydidaxy and can often be quite distracting; depending on what exactly is being integrated at the time distraction can range from thinking about everything in relation to the skill being taught (e.g. observing one's environment as a series of potential portraits when integrating an art skillmod) to having fully formed (and unrelated to the current environmental context) thoughts appear as if through incubation. Once integrated neither the user nor the module can be said to be distinct. Instead there exists a perfect fusion of both as now the module is an intimate part of the sophonts concept map (see exoself).
A brief history of skill module development Whilst presented in this article in their modern form skillmods have a long history of development. Outlining only the key technical points could fill an encyclopaedia given the extent of this type of augmentation research across the Terragen Sphere. Instead this section will focus on just a very few major time periods.
Progenitor software to skillmods, known as info modules, was developed not long after DNIs came into widespread use in the Interplanetary Age. Said software was very basic and lacked the ability to integrate to the user at any level. More often than not info modules would act by overlaying visual and other sensory data onto the user's sensorium. For example:
- A chess player could have highlighted all possible moves with their relative merits.
- A member of the public coming across another in need of medical attention could see tutorial videos of how to perform CPR e.g. positional markers for their hands appearing on the person, flashes of light showing whether a beat was too soft/too hard and audible metronome timers for compression tempo.
These early examples would often be very limited to the scenarios programmed and lacked any significant capability to improvise. Often they also required infrastructure to be in place to support them for example RFID tagging of components for the engineering aid example above.
- Engineers could have components of machines colour coded with labels and graphics demonstrating role, tolerances, manufacturing specifications etc.
A major boon to info module development was the release of the Feynman Expert System in 157 a.t. The high quality, personalised teaching that an FES was able to provide allowed info module designers to work into their products mechanisms for teaching the user rather than just directing them. A user wishing to be taught a topic relevant to the info module could follow the helpful 'learn more' prompts to link to an online FES which would use a company provided database as curriculum material. This feature, often working by a subscription service, greatly increased info module usage and encouraged investment in the field.
Throughout the Interplanetary Age improvements in DNI technology allowed for limited artificial motor control. Info module developers began experimenting with this leading to motor influence programs to be included in their products. Early attempts involved light contractions/relaxations of muscles for minor adjustments to body positioning and simulating mild feelings of pleasure/discomfort to naturally encourage the user. Examples of early info modules utilising these methods include learning to play musical instruments, posture correction, craftwork and yoga. Owing to limitations in DNI invasiveness, software and computation such modules could only be run on processors outside the body. On top of this they required biomechanical data of the user provided through fully-surrounding cameras and multiple wearable/implanted body monitors (this is to provide a very basic biophysics model that modern modules can construct with ease).
Further limitations of these early systems mirrored those of previous generations; namely an inability to cope with diversity due to a limited number of programmed options (the inclusion of FES's for teaching did little to improve learning physical skills). Few users were able to utilise info modules with motor influence and find that it fitted their body perfectly. Wealthy customers could pay to have tailor made modules fit for their body along with expensive suites of body monitoring equipment but this was a niche market. Eventually technology improved and prices fell, prior to the Technocalypse various companies were setting up gyms fitted with equipment to tailor info modules to their users and direct them to equipment that would monitor their body and facilitate their learning/practice of a physical activity.
As with most fields the Technocalypse curtailed use and development of info modules, especially as some malware plagues operated through DNIs inflicting psychoses on a mass scale. Again as with most fields the First Federation picked up where previous centuries had left off and made significant improvements. Two of the most important developments were the combination of more sophisticated and invasive DNIs providing a platform for greater motor control and a change in social attitudes fostering a more trusting and healthy relationship between bionts and AI. This lead to the practice of info modules being created with the ability to interface with an AI that could partially bodyack the user. Along with the programming of the module and the use of FES (or equivalent) this allowed for the first proto-skillmods that could grant a user near instantly a high level of capability at a task as well as teaching them it over time if desired. Often this practice was used for mutually beneficial purposes; supervisor AIs in a business could interface with human workers allowing them to complete tasks they were previously not capable of as well as teaching them it whilst they performed providing popular on the job training.
Throughout the ages of the First Federation skillmods steadily developed in capability allowing more and more tasks to be handled by pre-sapient software rather than by an interfacing AI. The first truly AI absent skillmods came after the invention of engenerator technology which had led to significant advances in the understanding, mapping and manipulation of sophont concept maps. From that point it began to be possible to design skillmod software by extracting relevant knowledge from an individual or group, compile it together and have it interface with another individual in order to impart a skill. Since this early time skillmods for modosophonts have improved dramatically in terms of the sophistication of skills imparted, the speed and subtly in which concept maps can be merged and the extent of tasks that can be managed by pre-sapient software.
Examples of skill modules
Appliance specific In many high-tech societies tools, appliances, packaging and other assorted everyday objects contain imbedded computronium loaded with a (usually) small skillmod detailing appropriate use. Examples include user instructions for domestic autofacs, operating procedures for personal transportation devices and manuals for hand tools. Object specific modules tend to be quite small and simple pieces of software allowing them to be installed in negligible time compared to more advanced examples.
Interpersonal etiquette Originally designed to aid sophonts with socialisation problems (often due to abnormal upbringing, psychologically traumatic life experiences or neural/psychological disorders) this module works both passive and actively. In its passive form the module can suggest to the user when to and when not to behave in certain ways, the user can then go onto to perform or not perform the suggested action. The rationale behind these suggestions can be explained at the time and/or later as part of a daily/weekly/monthly review. In its active form the module will do more than suggest and take control of the user to perform or inhibit an action. Generally etiquette modules only become active in extreme circumstances as removing control can have a damaging effect on the psychological therapy for the user. Whilst useful in medical and life coaching settings socialisation modules have a history of use in criminal rehabilitation with the only real difference in usage being a focus on removing criminal tendencies and mandatory installation.
Despite the original medical intentions etiquette modules diversified to provide cultural advice to travelling and emigrating sophonts. Whilst there are many societies used to catering for diverse cultural backgrounds and interests there are others in which cultural norms must be more closely followed else risk social or legal censure. Culturally specific etiquette modules help sophonts avoid behaviour ranging from faux-pas to serious crimes.
Some commentators have criticised the basic concept of etiquette skills modules as being biased towards normative behaviours and in the extreme an example of cultural hegemonization. These criticisms have in various settings been responded to by pointing out that users can choose when and how to use said modules (barring in cases of criminality) and most are programmed with very loose goals in mind though said responses often fall flat before examples of societies where such modules are mandated by law/policy as part of a "demonet" for citizens and visitors alike.
Virtuoso Containing databases for a huge variety of musical instruments this module allows a user to not only pick up and play almost anything but also grants knowledge of relevant theory potentially allowing the user to write their own music in time. Due to clade diversity some body augmentation may be required to operate certain instruments.
Assorted dances Has two main functions; can confer specific dance routines and act to interpret both the user's mood and intent and that of surrounding sophonts to create personalised moves based on context. Depending on the cultural background of the module the list of dances and the manner of interpretation can greatly differ.
Assorted sports and games Basic modules cover the most popular sports and games in multiple mediums (physical, board, augmented/virtual reality etc) for the clade and culture of the sophont downloading the module. Extra databases for new sports and games can be downloaded and added to the module as required. As with any module for physical activities some augmentation may be required for the sophont to be able to use properly e.g. adoption of handtech for games primarily played by clades with more than two arms.
Environmental acrobatics Requiring a suitably fit and lithe body this module endows the user with advanced acrobatic and free running skills. When activated users identify how objects within their environment can be utilised as acrobatic props with regard to moving quickly and efficiently. Chains of movement aim to be as fluid as possible incorporating motions such as body rolls to distribute impact forces that flow naturally into leaps to grab handholds before swinging into the next form etc. In angelnetted, polymorphic and virtual environments users can download dynamic obstacle courses that form spontaneously within whatever environment the sophont is in as they progress towards their destination.
Close Quarters Combat Self-defence module that grants its user expert skills in hand-to-hand, melee and light arms combat (these skills are part of most basic packages, additional skills can be downloaded and installed). With a fully installed and integrated CQC module and an athletic body a sophont can easily outclass another who has spent years training in martial arts in the traditional manner of repetition and rote.
CQC modules are capable of preventing feelings of pain, altering the psychological state of their user to dampen fear and induce calm, controlling autonomic activities such as breathing and providing fastime perception (though without augments to deal with the waste heat generated this places a short window of activity before tissue damage). Utilising all of their user's sensory input a CQC module can build up a comprehensive model of the surrounding environment and simulate a multitude of possible scenarios; eventually the systems act by moving the user's body in the most efficient way taking into account the certain movements and muscle contractions that are optimum as well as those that might be straining. In addition the expert systems can pay close attention to all sensory input no matter how trivial e.g. partial reflections in panes of glass, echoes of sounds, breezes of air etc. Using this model the expert systems can identify potential "high ground" (not necessarily elevated but areas that could impart an advantage) and items that could be used as weapons.
On top of all this from the moment of hostility a CQC module will retrieve all knowledge of the other combatants, analyse it and create a psychological model of them to even better predict their movements and respond to their attacks. A factor relating this is the body language, especially the facial expressions during a fight. Alternatively a module may identify potential diplomatic means of ending the fight.
Whilst impressive CQC modules have little history of use outside of sport or play. In the most civilised regions of the galaxy infrastructure is in place to prevent any violent crime and even in areas where it is not personal weapons technology is so advanced that hand-to-hand and melee combat is rarely effective.
Emergency habitat repair In situations where automated self-repair is unavailable or disabled this module provides the user with the knowledge of how to repair a variety of critical hab systems (reactivating self-sealing hull materials, reprogramming computer and robotic systems, enacting ecological stability protocols etc). Other capabilities include utilising the multichannel communications array of the user's DNI to interface with other modules in order to assess the damage and create critical path plans for repair.
Emergency medical care Grants the user medic capabilities at the most basic level for those times and places when the medical infrastructure isn't available or has failed. Most packages include databases for the most common clades in addition to those most relevant to the user. Common abilities granted by this module include first response assessment, resuscitation, medisystem behaviour protocols (often obstructed if patient has set medisystem control to very restricted) and emotional state control to keep the user level headed and unaffected by any traumatic scenes.
Wilderness survival Allows a user to survive and thrive in a non-technological environment. Includes an extensive library of bushcraft skills including hunting, fishing, foraging (includes library of edible plants), firecraft, shelter building, the use and construction of simple tools (axes, knives, spears, ropes, containers), ways to find and/or acquire safe drinking water, trekking, climbing, building signalling systems, identification of natural medicine ingredients etc.
Disaster response A large combined module that imparts the user with the skillset to 'pick up the pieces' and survive after various forms of major disaster generally by incorporating many of the modules listed above. May be provided to all residents of some civilizations as a matter of civic duty.
Civil defence Similar to the disaster response module but in addition includes combat skills ranging from hand-to-hand to tactical and strategic command.
- Knowbot - Text by M. Alan Kazlev
Knowledge robot, a data miner or intelligent search agent, a type of software-only aioid, instructed by users to scan networks for various kinds of related information, regardless of the language or form in which it expressed. May be turing or subturing grade.
- Knowledge Engineering - Text by M. Alan Kazlev
Design and construction of intelligent and semi-intelligent systems. In other words, the art and science of designing and building expert systems, aioids, and ais. In particular this involves collecting knowledge and heuristic rules from sophont and hyperturing experts in their area of specialty and assembling them into a knowledge base or expert system.
- Knowledge Graft
- Knowledge Manipulation
- Optimal Persona - Text by Modified from Max More in Anders Sandberg's Transhuman terminology
In high choice societies and individuals, an imagined model of the ideal person or entity one wishes to become. The Optimal Persona is the ideal self, the higher (and continually developing) individual, which can be attained through augmentation, yogic development, and other techniques.
Text by Ryan B
Initially published on 31 May 2013.