The State of the Art

The State of the Art is more than a problem with keeping up on the latest advances in Matrix security. Advances in science, technology, and magic theory have their effect upon the world.

Computer Science

True Artificial Intelligence hasn’t been developed yet, but a lot of problems in AI have already been solved in the Shadowrun era. Natural language processing, for instance, seems to already be taken care of.

Presumably, p ?= np is still an unsolved issue or p != np has been proven, or cryptography would be a dying art.

Natural Language Recognition

The fact that computers can handle natural-language input suggests a host of different possibilities. One is that you can easily get your hands on a translator program that converts one language to another, either through digitizing or sound. This means that travelers should be able to have headsets that pick up voices and translate them on the fly, and are capable of translating from the traveler’s microphone to a speaker on their person. Naturally, the quality of such a program is very important. Given the existence of linguasofts and natural language processing, I expect that translation of written material in 2053 is a job where someone knowledgeable in both languages takes a text in one language, feeds it to a computer, waiting a couple of minutes for the translator to churn things out, then begins doing side-by-side comparison, editing the output.

The Turing Test, a classic test for artificial intelligence, consists of testing whether a human observer can distinguish the putative AI from a human. By 2050, a whole array of different ones exist, ranging from the classic typing at a dumb terminal to talking over a vidphone. Many different programs have passed different levels of Turing Test, but even the very best fail to exhibit the creativity and flexibility of human beings: the expressions of the vidphone image aren’t quite right, the use of timbre in the voice is a little off, the words themselves don’t fit. “Turing flunk” has cropped up as an insult, implying that a person has so little personality that they couldn’t pass a Turing Test themselves.

Artificial Personalities

Nevertheless, Artificial Personalities (AP’s) abound in places where people previously had answering machines and notebooks. The more advanced pocket secretaries are capable of answering natural language queries in a human voice, and high-quality AP’s often serve as 24-hour answering services. Many people can be fooled by a good AP, but this is usually cause for amusement for folk who aren’t so easily duped; nevertheless, there is still an excellent market in interactive “video girls”, psychoanalysis programs, artificial friends and playmates, Santa Clauses, and even virtual priests taking confession. (The latter sort of program is not sanctioned by the Roman Catholic Church.) AP’s can be hooked in to semi-autonomous knowbots (SK’s), autopilots, and smart frames, as well as household computers capable of running all the appliances; many people prefer to have them in place of living servants. Some people prefer simsense-based AP’s (with pornographic functions) to real human relationships; yes, BTL simsense-based AP’s do exist (and are dangerously addictive).

Artificial personalities are their own Specialization on the Computer (Software) Concentration. The target number to detect an AP is a Psychology test against half the program’s rating, a Computer (Software) test against the program’s rating, or an Intelligence test against the program’s rating, plus two. AP’s are not by any stretch of the imagination actually intelligent: good ones can recognize and even use sarcasm and humor, for instance, but few can even recognize deadpan humor, and none have ever created an original joke. They can recognize that a human intends something as funny, but they truly do not “get it”, and cannot explain what makes a joke funny. They cannot sympathise with people well enough to understand their personal problems, though they can spout preprogrammed advice with amazing variety. Their problem-solving ability is quite limited— direct, mechanical problems are in their scope, but changing perspectives from the original statement of a problem is very difficult. Their ability to guess about possible future situations is similarly limited.

An AP can be explicitly designed to learn through interaction, increasing its own rating as it gathers data from the people it talks to. This doubles its initial design size. This technique has produced some excellent AP’s, but has yet to create anything that is actually intelligent, much to the disappointment of AI researchers; the end product is still no better at independent decision-making than a high-quality autopilot.

AP’s are occasionally created for famous personalities, often without their permission (especially when they’re simsense stars); some famous personalities (mostly children’s television show stars) are nothing but AP’s, usually designed so that anyone can phone them up to talk or download a copy to run at home. Unauthorized pornographic simsense-based AP’s can be very popular on the bootleg market, and have been known to spawn shadowruns as the simsense star or their owner employer decides to “make an example” of the people making money off their property.

Expert Systems

Another part of the field of artificial intelligence is expert systems, programs that are designed to analyze situations by applying a set of rules, usually called a “knowledge base” to what they can determine about the situation.

Some of the most common expert systems in Shadowrun are autonav systems and drone pilot systems. Others are used to integrate household systems at High and Luxury lifestyles, turning on lights, playing music, and preparing food and drink based on appropraite cues.

Genetic Engineering

By now, the human genome is fairly well mapped. The functions of many genes are still poorly understood— especially the Awakened genes— but many genetic disorders have now been tracked down. The world’s community of scientists has yet to identify the factors that make a person magically active, though they have a number of leads they’ve been working on for decades now. Well-understood phenomena such as colorblindness, hemophilia, sickle-cell anemia, and so on are busily being stamped out by parents paying to have their children created in test tubes with small gene splices, which has been in practice since the early 2040’s, and such correction is accepted by a large segment of society, though many rail against it.

In theory, identification of desirable traits is also possible, and rumors persist of corps creating genetically engineering soldiers with all the best traits scientists could identify. However, there are no known examples of this, and children resulting from the earliest such process would barely be at the age of majority in 2057.

Most geneticists laugh at the fantasies of super-soldiers bred with all the modern bioware technology. The clones created along with the bioware aren’t even viable; modifying humans to grow with such bioware enhancements is a great leap ahead of the current state of the art. But this doesn’t mean no one’s working on it...


Medicine has made a number of useful advances. A form of “glue” exists for rebinding broken bones together, consisting of a porous coral-like structure that is similar enough to human bone in its consistency that the body will happily begin growing cells into it.

Eye surgery is good enough that only the poor who can’t afford it and the eccentric have glasses. Most people— including the magically active— can enjoy 20/20 or 20/15 vision without risk of Essence loss. Having the operation done via Health spells is more expensive, but most mages will pay the extra nuyen for it.

Antiviral drugs are well-developed, and the medical industry is in a constant race to unravel the proteins of each new virus as it appears on the scene, in order to create vaccines and tailored phages to consume them. Few diseases are incurable, though staying on life support long enough to have them cured can end up being very expensive, and there are many that are deadly enough that a victim may not reach proper medical care in time.


Good news for the ladies: contraceptive implants are good enough that they can be implanted easily in the arm or leg like the modern Norplant. The hormone treatments can even convince the body that it’s in a similar condition to that of a trained athlete, suppressing menstruation and ovulation, providing convenience and less bodily stress; this development was hailed by physicians world-wide as a life-extension method, since suppression of menses conserves long-term resources, lowering cancer risks. Health spells can also induce this condition, though they need to be renewed every two to three days.

Similar male contraceptive implants are also available, dropping sperm count below detectable levels. When chemicals aren’t sure enough, advances in noninvasive surgery have made vasectomies and tubal ligations easy (a Light wound) and reversable. (90% chance of easy reversal, 99.99% chance of reversal through more complicated surgery requiring a Medium wound.) Again, Health spells can also perform similar functions, inducing and removing scar tissue similar to those left by some diseases.

Magic Theory

The magic system in the Grimoire is rather open-ended, and it seems that some things should require more research than others. Anyone can come up with another elemental-based combat spell, but fiddling with radioactive decay might be a much harder problem.

The State of the Art

What’s given to us in the sourcebooks?

Combat spells

Known Combat spells can cause physical- and mana-based pure damage, mana-based stun damage, and physical elemental effect damage. The most frightening Combat spell (from a magic theory point of view) is Redirect, which can reroute energy rather than simply creating it— this suggests a whole class of Combat magic shield spells.

Detection spells

Detection spells have shown the possibilities of mind reading, sense enhancement (including peering into the astral plane without actually being astrally active), analysis on the order of psychometry (Analyze Device), and detection of specific factors (Detect Life, Detect Individual). The most frightening spell in this category is Foretelling, which actually looks through time. It suggests that it may be possible to look backward through time as well, which could be very useful for forensic investigators (and problematic to prevent).

Health spells

Health spells have demonstrated healing of actual damage, purgatives that banish unwanted things (Antidote Toxin, Cure Disease, Healthy Glow), alteration of attributes, suspension of the effects of entropy (Preserve), and adjusting the natural balances of a body (Awaken, Alleviate Allergy, Intoxication). One of the most frightening is Nutrition, which allows you to convert astral energy directly into nutrients for the body. (Imagine a Physical Adept power that alleviates the need to ever eat...)

Illusion spells

Illusions are fairly straightforward, demonstrating both mental and physical illusions of all senses.

Manipulation spells

Manipulation spells are some of the most powerful. They’ve demonstrated mind control, body control (Hibernate, Sap Strength), telekinesis, temporary and permanent transformation (Armor, Fashion, Makeover, Shapechange), and barriers, as well as all manners of elemental energy summoning, banishing, and purification. I find Fashion and Makeover to be some of the most scary precedents. Fashion allows you to re-form an object at the most basic level; Makeover allows you to make changes in a person’s appearance that last past the sustaining of the spell.

Certain things within the range of the spell design system should not be allowed, in my opinion. In theory, it’s possible to create a permanent shapechange spell: the drain may be impressive, but sustain the spell on someone for a few minutes and they’re something else entirely— permanently. If this seems reasonable to you, consider a suite of spells allowing people to transform to different metatypes. Do you really want that human mage to turn themselves into an Elf as soon as they can get the karma to invent and learn a spell?

Something for nothing?

Let’s start with some of the more obvious abuses of magic: getting something apparently for nothing. (It’s clear this is possible with both matter and energy: Nutrition clearly demonstrates the possibility of actual permanent creation of matter, and fire spells provide enough energy input to start fires.) I suspect it shouldn’t require that much effort to create an electric field using a manipulation spell. (If you can create lightning, you should be able to do a little less...) So what happens if you make a nice hefty Sustained spell that maintains a given voltage up to a certain current, and Quicken or Lock it? You should be able to get something moderately impressive for the [(F÷2)+3]D range and still have it be castable.

Here’s my take on that: Gaeatronics tried this particular stunt as a way of looking for alternative means of generating power. At first, they had what appeared to be free energy: you spend just a little Karma and you have a permanent tap to the Astral Plane! However, as the energy kept pouring out of this tap, a Background Count of general dullness and draining came up in the room, and began expanding slowly, getting higher toward the center. When the entire experimental building was in a count of 1 (and increasing up to 7 in the center), they sent in a team to Dispel it, and were the first to discover the nasty side effects of Background Counts above 5. Fortunately, they were able to stop it then, and the Background Count slowly began to drop, though it was over a year before they could use the original thaumaturgy lab it was in, and all the plants in there had died before it could be dispelled.

For creating matter, it should be a lot harder to make specific substances rather than general ones. “Earth” and “Water” shouldn’t be terribly difficult (and the “irrigate desert with one sustained water creation” spell should fall under the limits I’ve suggested regarding electricity). However, getting precious metals or difficult-to-refine chemicals should take a great deal more work per unit mass. It’d be good if magicians were useful for testing chemical processes for the purpose of creating prototypes that are later replicated with technology, but not part of the process themselves.

One possibility is doing part of the research for a particular piece of magical theory by entering the metaplanes, much like you can to help invent a spell. Of course, research mages might have difficulty performing high-level Astral Quests. This gives an opportunity for a PC initiatory group to be hired to perform the quest, helping shepherd the scientists through it to reach a particular goal.


The implications of even the AI presented here may be scary, but they’re just elaborations of the modern era. There are already programs on the Internet that are pretending to be human beings on IRC and MUDs. Check out BotSpot for a good introduction.