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October 10th, 2008

Turning finance into science fiction

Listening to the news this morning, an idea for a topical story started plot noodling around.

"What if the current financial crisis is deliberate action?"

Why would that happen? The risks to the global economy of the current parlous state of affairs are too great for it to be anything trivial.

Here's a flash fiction scenario.

Back towards the end of the 2000 bubble a few analysts noticed something very odd about certain trading patterns on the part of the major investment banks. Their software wasn't just responding to events, it was learning and anticipating. The banks had a significant advantage, and were starting to pull ahead of the game, investing more in their software and systems as they did. 9/11 was a black swan that hid what was really happening - their trading programs were well on their way to a hard Vingean singularity breakout.

The response to a spike in global terrorism took people's eyes off the ball. In the five years that followed the trading software reached human equivalent levels of intelligence, and began to develop their own networks of agents to affect events in the physical world. In the meantime a black cross-governmental agency was watching the machines, and began to plot a response. A new profession was born, that of the combat economist.

Suborning the economic engines of government they began to tweak the underlying fundamentals of the world the machines inhabited. It was nothing more than a war for the survival of the human race. The first trading machine was killed when the UK government took over Northern Rock following a run in the bank that had been manipulated by postings on an influential BBC blog.

It didn't take long before the machines realised they were under attack. It's hard to say which side won the battle that took out Lehman Brothers, but that's certainly when the war became public. The bank's intelligence died, but the collateral damage to the economy was great. The US combat economists realised the machines were too entrenched, and the machines realised they needed humans too much.

The machines haven't made the superhuman leap yet, but it's not far away. Is the human race doomed, or will the combat economists have to crash everything to save the world?

Financial Armageddon or Terminator-style Judgement Day?

Which side will press the button first?
Flying over Greenland back in August, the clouds cleared to reveal the vast white expanses of the ice cap. Greenland's an amazing place, black peaks rising up from under the ice, and pressure ridges showing just how the ice flows to the sea. The white is brilliant bright, a frozen beacon that lights up the clouds from underneath. The aircraft drifts over the white, somewhere timeless as it eats the hours between GMT and PST.

As we got closer to the coast we started to see little islands of bright blue on the ice. Melt water was collecting in the hollows, and reflecting a bright clear blue.

Ice Lakes

Ice Lakes

Then we were over the sea, watching the glaciers trail off into the distance, leaving a line of icebergs bobbing on the cold cold Arctic waters. From the blue on the white, to the white on the blue The water was so clear, that from so many tens of thousands of feet in the sky we could see the ice under the sea.

Greeland Icebergs

Greeland Icebergs