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Drama Science Fiction Speculative

[ “Please, don’t do it.” ]

The triple bacon cheeseburger hovered in front of my open mouth. My brow furrowed. It would have been nice to get this message before I bought lunch. “Explain,” I subvocalized so that only my Neural earpiece could hear.

[ “Ongoing high cholesterol food intake in the past two weeks is negatively affecting health trends.” ]

That’s fair, I thought. But you need to learn to warn me before I drop $20 plus tax. I chomped into the cheesy, cholesterol-ridden monstrosity. Endorphins designed to motivate a more primitive version of me flooded my brain. The euphoria was mixed with a little regret. Thanks Neural.

Despite this little rebellion, the truth was I listened to Neural’s advice more often than not. It was more than a digital nanny. The popular wearable technology was designed to address the fact that humans are notoriously bad at long-term decision making. We prioritize short-term rewards because future consequences don’t seem real to our brains. Neural helps people overcome that.

In tech news, it’s been two years since Neural Corporation launched its popular wearable device that helps people visualize the long-term impacts of everyday decisions…

There are two parts to the system. The most important one is a ring you wear. It has sensors that monitor your bio signs, movement, and data about your environment. It runs the data through a machine learning algorithm that adapts over time. When you buy one, it looks like a normal, flat-white ceramic band. But over time the ring changes color to show how your short term decisions are affecting your future. The brighter and more colorful your ring is, the more the system is predicting positive outcomes. The darker it becomes, well, the more you need to start paying attention. 

The second part of the system is an ear piece. It works with the ring to give you more time-sensitive prompts, informed by trends in your data. It doesn’t always know why it’s giving you advice. It can’t see the hamburger in front of your face. But the system can detect changes in your heart rate, nervous system, and blood composition as you stare down that greasy lunch. If those signals correlated to more cholesterol in your system in the past, and if that’s been detected a lot lately, you get a voice in your head suggesting maybe you should order a salad.

What makes Neural exponentially more powerful is that all the rings are part of a bigger network. Anonymously, they share what they’ve learned about how patterns of data correspond to outcomes. That information helps the overall system compare results and improve. Essentially, I didn’t have to eat 100 hamburgers before Neural could recognize what was going on. Thousands of people eating thousands of burgers had helped the system figure that out already.

Neural Corporation announced today the release of 250,000 more units of the Neural personal monitoring device. This is in addition to the nearly 1,500,000 devices already in use on five continents...

For me, Neural was surprisingly effective. In the year and a half since I bought it, my ring went from flat-white to a bright ocean blue. Gradually, I started eating better, sleeping more. The motivation of seeing my ring slowly change throughout the months worked. I wanted it to get more colourful, brighter.

The voice prompts could be eerily prescient. I usually go for a run a few times a week. One fall day, as the weather was turning colder, I was laying on the couch trying to muster the will to go out. I hated running in the cold and I was feeling lazy. Neural read the physiological shadows of my guilt and anticipation, combined it with weather data, and channeled Nike into my ear: [ “Just do it.” ] 

I went for a run that day.

Technology enthusiasts are excited about the new Neural operating system upgrade, which began propagating through the device network nearly two weeks ago…

It was more than a health monitor, though. It could touch parts of your life you didn’t expect. Any time a pattern of measurements correlated in a statistically significant way to specific results, Neural could react and advise. Sometimes the system interjected in very surprising circumstances.

About a year ago I started putting money away in a savings account every time I got paid. One payday, a couple of months in, I was sitting at my computer on my banking website, reconsidering the week’s contribution. There were other things I wanted to use the money for that week. Things I wouldn’t be able to do if I made the transfer. Neural detected how my body was reacting to my thoughts and where I was sitting, and correlated the patterns with similar ones across the network. 

[ “Please, keep doing it.” ] 

The system couldn’t see what I was doing. It wouldn’t have been able to give me stock advice. But it knew whatever I was considering was going to bring long-term pleasure if I could just keep it up. And that little push gave me what I needed to forego my short-term desire in favor of that future reward.

My ring seemed to get a little brighter that week.

Neural Corporation’s CEO told reporters this week the increased number of devices combined with recent software updates will make Neural able to learn and predict on a wider and deeper scale…

Neural changed my life in more dramatic ways, too. I broke up with a girlfriend because of it.

We’d been seeing each other for a few months. I met her through a friend at work. We both liked hiking and trying out new pizza places. We hit it off at first. But after a while it seemed like we’d hiked all the trails and eaten all the pizzas. We started getting snippy with each other. Every time she texted me I felt a knot in the pit of my stomach. One day I was replying to one of her texts, trying to figure out what to say, when Neural’s voice clearly and emotionlessly said: [ “Stop doing it.” ]

“Explain.”

[ “Physiological data suggests increasing levels of negative anxiety over time while doing this activity.” ]

I thought about it. It made sense. Over the last few weeks I’d been getting more and more anxious and uncertain about our relationship, but it had been gradual and I hadn’t noticed. Neural’s algorithm had detected how my body reacted when I was texting late at night, and how it had gone slowly from positive to negative. The system didn’t know about our relationship. Not really. But it helped me know when it was over.

It was good while it lasted.

Going now to tech-related news from India. Neural rings there have started to go dark en masse. And there are indications that the issue is spreading…

I remember the moment when my ring went dark. I was sitting in a coffee shop waiting for a friend and fooling around on my phone, so I didn’t notice right away. I heard a gasp from a few tables over. And then people at another table talking excitedly. I put my phone down and looked at my ring. It had gone from sky blue that morning to a very dark midnight blue -- almost black.

My chest felt tight and I started to panic. It felt like I should do something. I looked out the window and saw a young man look down at his hand and then up at the sky, as if he expected it to crash down on him. People in the coffee shop were looking around furtively, trying to identify an immediate threat to run from or fight.

I walked home feeling dejected. There were no voice prompts. I felt alone.

The company’s CTO reports no malfunction in the Neural network. Many members of the public have raised questions about the latest software update…

Neural, why have all the rings turned black?”

[ “Please clarify your question.” ]

“Is my ring broken?”

[ “Your ring is working normally. No malfunctions detected.” ]

“Why is it dark?”

[ “New analysis decreased your long-term outlook.” ]

“Explain.” I felt a lump in my throat.

[ “Increased network capacity has led to a machine learning inflection point in predictions related to environmental factors in your vicinity.” ]

“So this is about the environment? You mean climate change?”

[ “Please clarify your question.” ]

“Forget that. What am I supposed to do?” I wanted my sky blue back.

[ “Insufficient data.” ]

“Explain!” This was serious. Neural was an important part of my life now.

[ “Collective action required. Currently there is insufficient data to predict positive actions of individuals in this context.” ]

I didn’t want my ring color to be dependent on what other people did. It was mine. Now my results were flooded by outcomes that I couldn’t control on my own.

“Remove collective factors from outlook predictions.”

[ “Unable to comply.” ]

“Why not?!” I yelled. But it made sense. Individual outcomes don’t matter if the world is falling down around you. You can’t be healthy if you’re dead.

A spokesperson for the company says that while the result is unexpected, the system is working as designed…

Experts had been warning us about a climate crisis for decades. It took Neural turning our rings black for us to really notice.

They stayed dark for a long time. But people started looking for ways to make things brighter. Some noticed more everyday things they could do to help. Some people, like me, worked with others to look for bigger ways to turn things around. And slowly there started to be glimmers of color around the edges of the rings.

Neural had trained us to be motivated by something we wore on our fingers. We paid more attention to the long-term consequences of our actions. They were more real and personal for us now. The color of your ring was always going to be tied to what we did collectively, at least in part. The system had learned that, even before we did.

In tech news, Neural users in northern Canada are reporting a slight increase in ring brightness, attributed to a collective push towards renewable energy sources in the region…

When the rings first went dark, I felt cheated. I felt like the rules of the game had changed and something had been taken from me. Getting my ring to show positive outcomes for myself had taken so much effort. I didn’t know how to make a difference when so many people had to act together. 

There were days when I thought maybe it was better just to take the ring off. Wait and let the system learn from other people. Let them figure it out. Disheartened, I’d fiddle with the ring on my finger and think about how easy it would be to slip off. Neural would detect elevated hormones and nervous system activity consistent with frustration. The data flowed through its recently upgraded neural network. And I’d hear four words, clear and emotionless, in my ear.

[ “Please, don’t do it.” ]

June 17, 2022 20:19

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13 comments

R W Mack
03:08 Jun 23, 2022

I got this story from the Critique Circle e-mail. I'm glad I did. I usually try and go through the same basics of what needed to be done. Cut words, punctuation, sentences too long and wonky pacing. This probably had some of the easiest and comfortable pacing I've read all week. I liked the bit of snark towards Neural from the get-go. Tech seems to do that to us. So I decided to get nit-picky. That's a huge compliment. Most stories I struggle towards the ending, presuming I get there. The only criticism I'm comfortable standing behind wo...

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Jared Lenover
11:07 Jun 23, 2022

Wow! Thank you R.W.! I definitely appreciate the critique, and I’ll watch for unnecessary adverbs in the future. Thanks for taking the time, and the kind words! 😀

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R W Mack
14:14 Jun 23, 2022

Thanks for blowing my mind with a good story. Mu stuff is trash, but this had me wondering where it was going for a bit and once the big reveal happened it felt satisfying and reasonable. Nothing felt too far from realistic and that's not always easy to do with those topics. Seriously, it's frustrating to know I'm competing again you, but so satisfying to know you're producing something this dope.

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Michael Typist
16:13 Jun 21, 2022

Hi Jared, I really liked this, a really cool concept. Almost like a fitbit on steroids, I imagine. Except it warns you about future behavior. The only constructive feedback (if you take it that way) I have, is that there were points were the story was 'telling' or explaining, when I think it could have been done in a more subtle way to let the reader figure out how the ring worked. But I'm guessing with a max of 3000 words, there had to be some explaining, so you could get to the important point about the climate within the limitations. All...

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Jared Lenover
16:53 Jun 21, 2022

Thanks Michael! 🙂 I agree. Looking back I did a lot of explaining at the beginning. But I’m glad you liked it anyway!

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Michael Typist
17:08 Jun 21, 2022

It would be cool to see this expanded into a longer story, so you can have the space to show the reader how it works. I think the concept has a lot of potential. Btw, a story that I've read this week, that does that well, is under the prompt 'write about someone who is convinced their computer is conscious'. It's a story called 'The Least Painful Way To Die' or something like that. The author's name is Jay. I forgot her last name. I recommend it. Anyway, look forward to reading more of your stuff :)

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Jared Lenover
17:28 Jun 21, 2022

Thanks! 😀

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Riel Rosehill
09:04 Jun 21, 2022

Wow this was GOOD! Loved it. Kinda want this gadget to exist. I loved the moment when they went dark that was sooo suspenseful! Gloom and doom. And when people started to work on changing them back... Love when the ending has just a glimmer of hope. Great work Jared!!

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Jared Lenover
12:23 Jun 21, 2022

Thanks Riel! I'm glad you liked the ending. I wasn't sure if maybe I should have left it as more of a cliffhanger. 🙂

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Wendy M
18:53 Jun 20, 2022

I like this concept; how tech can help us work together for a common goal. An interesting and well written story.

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Jared Lenover
19:08 Jun 20, 2022

Thanks Wendy! 🙂

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Arya Dixit
14:55 Jun 18, 2022

This has to be one of the most unique stories I've read! So impactful and meaningful. I really loved the formatting too and how intensive the technical explanations are. If there's one thing I would suggest it would be to include some of the explanations in the news report format since it doesn't have a conversational tone. But overall, what a super cool concept!

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Jared Lenover
01:58 Jun 19, 2022

Thanks Arya! Yeah, I agree I could find a better way to get some of the explanations across. 🙂 I'm glad you liked it though! 😀

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