"Are you surprised?" Terrence smirked. The old Chukan mech designer revelled in airing the dirty laundry of his specialty field! "Much of the galaxy sees neural interfaces as safe, mature devices because trillions of man-hours have been poured into developing and refining them for widespread usage. Yet almost no one knows that most of those hours only broadened our perspectives to how serious neural interfaces can fail!"
Throughout this 'exchange' with Old Man Terrence, Ves had fallen into continuous shock. Almost every neural interface specialist should be aware of all of the pitfalls concerning the technology.
Even Iris Jupiter, who introduced him to this field, must have known as well!
What Ves found egregious was that the MTA's deliberate stance to conceal the actual risks of neural interface technology. By propagandizing that neural interfaces were much more sophisticated than the dangerous, pre-Age of Mechs models, an enormous amount of mech designers and mech pilots readily embraced something that must had led to an immense amount of damage!
In Old Man Terrence's case, the damage the tech had caused must have weighed heavily on his conscience! Now that he was nearing the end of his life, Ves found himself in a strange position of hearing the aging Journeyman's confession.
"Neural interface tech is the devil's tech." Terrence reiterated with a shaky fist. "Every mech designer unknowingly incorporates pieces of tech that slowly and gradually degrade the cognitive functions of the users of their products. Does that sound responsible for you? Are we truly serving mech pilots to the best of our abilities, as the MTA often likes to instill in people of our profession?"
"We swore an oath to serve mech pilots!" Ves retorted.
The old man laughed. "Hahaha! That is true, but the devil is in the details! There are multiple interpretations we can choose from. For one mech designer, it may entail minimizing the repercussions of piloting their mechs as much as possible. For another mech designer, it may entail pushing the limits as far as possible regardless of the consequences! Who decides which interpretation is right?"
Ves could very well imagine that different mech designers would not agree on a common interpretation.
Mech designers such as the Skull Architect would definitely try to push his neural interfaces to an extreme!
Having studied his mech designs extensively, Ves knew very well that the pirate designer cared nothing about mech pilots! Instead, he would seek to exploit every opportunity to raise the performance parameters of his mechs as much as possible!
If the lifespan of the users of his products halved as a consequence, then what did that have to do with the Skull Architect?
Perhaps paradoxically, a mech designer like Gloriana might choose the opposite. As crazy as she seemed, she genuinely seemed to care about the mech pilots of her mechs. As a principle, she would not allow her mechs to be marred by dangerously volatile neural interfaces that posed a clear threat to their mech pilots.
As for Ves? He was still in way too much shock to make up his mind!
He turned his attention back to the conversation. "I take it then that the MTA has already decided on the right interpretation on behalf of every mech designer."
"Correct! One of the main duties the Mech Trade Association has taken up for themselves is to set universal standards for mechs. After an extensive study in the risks associated with neural interfaces, their wise councilors at the top have decided that a certain amount of risk is acceptable!"
"Then wouldn't that make every mech in existence a defective product in a sense?"
The old man laughed again. "Again, there are multiple interpretations! The MTA just chooses to select the most convenient ones to suit their own needs. From my perspective, mechs aren't necessarily defective. Instead, they are all experimental products!"
"Mech designers like you unknowingly sell dangerous mechs to ignorant mech buyers who subsequently assign them to oblivious mech pilots. All of this would have been ethically sound if everyone was aware of the true risks associated with the neural interfaces built into the mechs. Unfortunately, the cold hard reality is that no one except a select group is aware! You can thank the MTA for keeping your conscience clean!"
Until now, Ves silently whispered. Calling it the devil's technology sounded very apt to him now. Every mech designer who made use of the so-called standard neural interface models made available by the MTA unknowingly treated every mech pilot as their experimental test subjects!
He wasn't surprised to hear that the MTA acted in a hypocritical manner. He just wanted to understand their reasoning.
"Mr. Reedan, what does the MTA get out of standardizing higher-specced but unsafer neural interfaces?"
"What do you think the MTA stands for?" Terrence prompted. "The answer is mechs! They worship mechs! They will do anything for mechs! If they have to choose between the wellbeing of people and speeding up the development of mechs, they will choose the latter each time!"
That sounded very extreme even for Ves!
"Unsafer neural interfaces speed up mech development?"
"Of course! While I've mentioned numerous negative consequences of using unsafe neural interfaces, risks are always associated with rewards! Perhaps the single most important factor is that unsafe interfaces are correlated with a higher emergence of expert candidates and expert pilots!"
This was another explosive revelation! If this was true, then Ves could definitely see why the MTA pushed for unsafer standards!
"So it's all about increasing the probability of expert pilots emerging from the masses of oblivious test subjects!"
Old Man Terrence grinned. "I see you understand. The MTA has performed several covert experiments to test whether there is a relationship. They secretly implemented divergent regional standards for neural interfaces across different star sectors. What did they find? Star sectors that made use of safer neural interfaces produced as much as twenty percent less expert pilots compared to star sectors that used highly unsafe neural interfaces!"
Naturally, the MTA conducted this grand experiment without disclosing the risks to the test subjects in question!
"The MTA cares a lot about expert pilots. The more, the better, right?" Ves questioned. He still possessed some doubts. "Why did they decide to set it at the point you mentioned when they could have pushed the limits harder?"
"Other than risk exposure, which would be very bad for the MTA?" Terrence chuckled. "They secretly tried it out in a couple of star sectors. What they found was that while the probability of expert pilots emerging from the ranks definitely increased, their quality deteriorated remarkably. An alarming proportion of them suffered from a host of issues such as suffering from personality disorders, premature aging of their brains or a total loss in interfacing ability. Over a longer period of time, these star sectors fielded less expert pilots than usual because too many of them died or ended up crippled!"
Ves knew that if not for the total decline in the number expert pilots, the MTA would have definitely pushed for more extreme standards!
"How many victims have these 'experiments' produced?"
"Too much to count." The old man shook his head. "While the experimental measures have helped propel many mech pilots to heights they ordinarily couldn't reach, plenty of talented mech pilots who might have been able to advance to ace pilots died or retired far before their time."
This was the real human cost of engaging in experiments. The MTA could have acted according to their own ethical standards and performed their experiments in a transparent and voluntary basis. Yet they instead opted not to disclose the risks, no doubt so they could keep the true nature of neural interfaces a secret while obtaining the most accurate data.
"Where do we sit now, Mr. Reedan?"
"The MTA performed various experiments over several decades in many different star sectors. Their internal research teams subsequently modeled and simulated these gains in order to determine the sweet spot that produces the maximum amount of expert pilots."
"I see." Ves nodded while resuming his petting of Lucky. The cat was getting rather grumpy about the lack of pampering! "So their current standards for neural interfaces is a mathematically-derived result."
"The neural interface standards still fluctuate from generation to generation and from region to region." Old Man Terrence warned. "The truth is that the sweet spots are different for each state and each star sector. Not only that, but the MTA sometimes wants to influence the amount of expert pilots that emerge from a specific region of space. For example, if they think the Komodo Star Sector needs more expert pilots, they might tweak the limits of the next generation of neural interfaces made available specifically for this region."
"So the MTA indirectly influences the rate of expert pilots emerging from star sector to star sector?"
"Yes! Don't think the MTA is completely politically neutral. In some cases, their decisions have accelerated the defeat of one star sector over another simply because the former hadn't been able to produce as many expert pilots!"
"What?! Shouldn't mech designers like you know about this?"
"So what? We are all complicit in this matter." The Chukan smiled ruefully. "While my hands aren't as drenched in blood as that of the MTA, I am still carrying the stains to this day. This is the price that every neural interface specialist has to pay."
A brief silence stretched as Ves processed the latest revelations. Both the MTA and neural interface specialists like Old Man Terrence had become accustomed to running dangerous experiments without disclosing the risks to mech pilots.
To Ves, it seemed like this entire field was rotten to the core! In order to maintain the popularity of neural interface, every neural interface specialist voluntarily turned into devils in order to advance this devil tech!
He suddenly recalled something important about Old Man Terrence.
"According to your record, your specialty is related to the relationship between neural interfaces and genetic aptitude."
"Indeed." The old man nodded. "Like many mech designers, I had a dream. Genetic aptitude plays a central role in how far a mech pilot can go. Those whose aptitudes are graded as D can barely pilot a frontline mech, while those whose aptitudes are graded as A have a much higher probability of becoming expert pilots. Doesn't this sound unfair to you, Mr. Larkinson?"
"Nothing is fair." Ves repeated one of his central beliefs. "Some people are simply better at something than others. Like many people, I used to dream of becoming a mech pilot when I was a kid. Reality gave me a good whack in the head when I became ten."
"This is true. Not everyone is capable of piloting mechs. Even I did not attempt to tackle this problem. My interest lay more in elevating the effective performance of mech pilots with lower-than-average aptitudes. My ultimate goal was to equalize the playing field between low-potential mech pilots and high potential mech pilots!"
That was a very ambitious dream! Ves felt a lot of admiration for Old Man Terrence for choosing to pursue such a far-reaching goal!
"Have you made a lot of progress in solving this problem?"
"Hahaha! No!" The old man laughed at himself. "I would have been in a much better position if I had! I severely underestimated the role genetic aptitude plays in facilitating the man-machine connection! It was a fool's dream for a lowly mech designer from a third-rate state to think they can solve this problem when even the best minds at the MTA failed to develop a solution!"
Ves narrowed his eyes in suspicion. He wasn't fooled by the old man's self-depreciating act. "You should have at least made some gains over your long years of designing mechs, right?"
"To tell you the truth, I have. What's it to you, though? My design philosophy is fundamentally flawed to begin with. I barely moved forward when I already encountered a dead end! Perhaps a more ingenious mech designer might have been able to climb over it, but it's impossible for the likes of you and me! The moment I conceded defeat against the strength of genetic aptitude was the moment I ceased progressing my design philosophy any further!"
Mech designers constantly struggled to make the impossible into a reality! Confidence was vital to their progression.
Giving up on pursuing their overarching ambitions was one of the worst outcomes that could happen to a mech designer!