Business Model

So. There are about seven billion people in existence right now. That means if I press the button seven billion times, I will die. I will receive, at most, seven trillion U.S. dollars, but then I will definitely be dead.

But actually, the chances of me surviving to be the very last living human are seven billion to one. There are fifty-fifty odds that I'd be dead within the first fifty percent of those people. Three point five billion people and three point five trillion dollars.

But I don't like the idea of a fifty percent chance of dying, not for that amount of money. So we come down to a hard question of what percentage chance of dying I am willing to entertain, in exchange for what amount of money. One trillion dollars for a one in seven chance of dying? I still dislike that.


Hmm. I really should do some experiments to figure out the mechanism for pushing this button. The box itself is clearly made impervious by some kind of hex and the mechanism for converting the dead human into a thousand U.S. dollars is obviously mystical in nature. No use examining that. But this red push button here, with the plastic transparent cap protecting it, has a finite amount of travel and, I can tell when I push it all the way down [tak], some kind of contact at the bottom. And [ka] it has to travel up by some amount in order to register as being fully released before it can be depressed a second time. There's some kind of spring, maybe not a coil but something, inside the button itself which pushes it back up after being pressed. [takka] Hmm... [tak] [ka] The spring itself doesn't feel too sturdy. It wouldn't be, would it? I have to be able to depress the button with a finger, otherwise this whole "moral choice" thing is completely moot. So that limits how many cycles per second I can do...




[takka takka]

...By myself it looks like I can press this thing about ten times per second, max. But my hand wears out fast. I could probably build a mechanical system similar to my finger, rigged to a wheel and a system of rods like a steam train's wheels... which presses it ten times per second, forever. ...If I built some kind of vacuum, I could physically pull the switch up again after depressing it... No, wait. Of course. I could just glue an oscillating rod onto the button itself. That could be cranked up to around a hundred hertz.

Hmm, this safety cap would be a problem. Might need to tape it down. Huh, looks like it's just a cheap piece of non-mystical plastic. I guess I can just snap it off.

One hundred thousand dollars per second. Eh... call it fifty. That would get through the entire human population in one hundred and forty million seconds. That's about sixteen hundred days... four and a half years.

So, that's a lot of time to think. If I just rigged that mechanical system up right now, I could set it going, and the cumulative probability of my neck being the randomly chosen neck stays very comfortable for... uh, at least a month or two. That's time to think, crunch some numbers, make some more serious decisions about acceptable risk. Refine the machine so that I have detailed remote control over the number of actuations. Rig up formal logging and tracking of every button press. A rough homebrewed system would do it... I don't want to contact anybody else about this...

And I don't know a whole bunch about security... but if nobody knows, who's going to know to even look? Yeah. I have enough makerspacey skills to make that happen. A little Raspberry Pi project. A little webdev, a little app on my phone. This could be fun.

[takka takka takka takka takka]

Hmm. Is this actually killing someone somewhere in the world? It seems like a creepy witch threat more than something actual. How would that work? I do totally believe that someone, somewhere, is wiring me the money each time. I've seen the money. That would be easy to do, too. [takka] There would have to be some kind of radio signal going out to make that happen. [takka] If I could track that signal, I might be able to find the source of the money and go after all of it. She implied that this mystical force would be able to back up all seven trillion USD. Although, tracking the source down would take a lot longer and it would be a lot more effort than just pressing the button seven billion times.

Hmm. I don't know the first thing about scanning for radio waves. And I don't want to cut anybody in on even knowing about this box. Ah! What if I put the whole box in this Faraday bag? And push the button through the material.


Hurm. I should have checked my balance before starting the experiment. Right.


...Huh. So that still works.

Maybe there is some kind of mystic magic here, then. Hah, maybe that's something I could productise. I wonder if it obeys a speed-of-light delay. I wonder what the range on the thing is.

What am I saying? Before I can think about developing a technology like that I need capital. Otherwise I'll get completely bought out or ripped off by... by the merest flick of an eyelash of one of the big tech companies. Fine. That's a problem for later.

[takka takka takka takka]

So maybe someone is dying somewhere. I wonder how it happens? Do they just drop dead on the spot? Heart attack? I hope their head doesn't just explode. That would get a lot of attention.

Hmm... how many times a day do I need to push the button before I could work that out? The odds against me personally getting it are astronomical, but so are the odds of me personally witnessing somebody getting it. So I guess I would need to wait until it showed up in the news somehow. If it's a head explosion then that would happen fast. A wave of head explosions across random people across the whole world? Yeah, that would get a massive amount of attention. But if the person just drops dead for no reason at all, that wouldn't get as much attention, but it would still eventually cause the coroners to get suspicious. Regular old heart attacks would actually be the most desirable outcome here. From a deniability perspective.

Huh, weird... I guess I'm at the cross-section of, one, wanting these deaths to show up in the news media where I can see them happening, but, two, wanting them to be deniable enough that nobody suspects anything or tries to do anything about them.



What could they do about it?


They could have as much trouble tracing this mystical signal as me.

But let's say I do want to stay covert. Just for the look of things. If it's head explosions, that becomes obvious with the very first death. I am instantly rumbled. If it's heart attacks... What's the global death rate? How much does it need to go up before anybody realises that there's something weird going on? That's the lid I need to stay underneath.

Looks like something like fifty million people die annually. But that's kind of in flux. It depends how many people there are in absolute terms. Let's say I could add ten percent to that safely. While staying below the radar, I mean. Five million people. There is... a negligible, point oh seven percent chance that any of those five million people would be me. Totally acceptable.

Five million people. Five billion dollars.

Wow. That is not a large amount of money. Not when I think about it. Not in the grand scheme of things. Hell, where does that put me?

Not even in the top three hundred richest people in the world. Nowhere. Wow.

How would I even get to the top after that? There's a lot of competition up there. You know what? It has to be the worst, most vicious and savage competition which exists anywhere. Just because I get to rank three hundred and something doesn't give me any guarantee that I could keep rising. I can't just invest the five billion and wait, they're all doing the same thing. I'd need to keep pushing the button.

Five billion deniable dollars per year. For twenty years. Would put me where the richest people in the world are, right now. Not past them, just in that orbit. And by the time I got there, who the hell knows where they would be? I'd be staring down an actual trillionaire. A seventh of the world, in monetary form. Or even a multi-trillionaire.


How do they even do it? Do they have a button?

Wait! Is that what they do? Do they have a button? Holy— No! How could that even work? This isn't enough money. And there aren't enough people. There's not enough death in the world. Not even if you harnessed all of it.


Let's say I throw away deniability. Fifty million button pushes per year; totally doable with the machine. The global death rate almost doubles. Unexplained heart attacks attributable to the button become the primary cause of death in the world by a mile. Year one, I have fifty billion dollars. Year two, one hundred billion. Year three, I'm roughly the richest person in the world, and by the end of year four it is no longer even close.


If I throw away deniability, there's going to be that connection. Every eye in the world will see that I'm skyrocketing up this Forbes chart while still somehow apparently doing nothing. They could never guess what's actually happening, but the need to know would drive incredible interest. Particularly from my fellow billionaires. Someone would link the dots.

Fifty billion dollars is enough money to protect myself from anything... probably. But I'd need time to assemble that protection. I'd need an entourage. Security.

So. Let's scale up in a measured way. Build a plan. A series of plateaus. Plateaux? Get a million dollars, then use that to move somewhere nicer, get some financial security worked out. Get ten million dollars, start building a staff. Hire a chief of staff, have them work out the rest. Get some wealth management up and running. Get a hundred million dollars, get world-class security. Aim for a point where I'm basically untouchable. Just keep adding those layers. By that point the increased death rate is still undetectable.


This box is a single point of failure.

That's going to become a problem. Somewhere down the line I'll need to talk to an expert. I don't want it to be out of my sight or reach, ever. But that means living in the vault with it. Can't do it. Push comes to shove. Will need to make some difficult decisions.


Alright. That's enough button pushes for now. Let's be restrained about this. Let me sketch the first phase of the plan out. Then I'll get just enough money to carry it out. Then I'll go from there. Sky's the limit.

[brrt brrt]

[brrt brrt]

What, at this time of night? Sheesh. Hello? ...Yeah, that's me. ...Hey, sorry, can you go back. What was the first thing you said? I'm writing this down.

"Irregular activity".

Ohhhh... that was... fast. It's all going into my current account? Uh, was that... a mistake?

Ah. Yeah. I have a new... creditor... it's complicated, I'm sorry. I don't have time to explain it right now over the phone. Things have been somewhat hectic, you can imagine...

A new business venture.

"Frozen", got it. Uh... yes. No. Well, I can get one. ("Lawyer.") Uh. How fast is all this likely to happen?

Um. Look, I need to hang up now. Goodbye.


Wow. I need to figure out how to redirect these funds. Or unfreeze them.

Go away, news app. Damn notifications, I don't care. Head explosions? Uh.

And who wants to bet the timings line up precisely with the payments. How long before someone joins those two dots.


Next: Elevate

Discussion (16)

2020-11-21 21:44:55 by qntm:

2,377 words. Running total is 43,018 words. This is based on an old tweet of mine <>: "My new startup's business model is we have a magic box with a button which every time we push it someone in the world dies and we get a thousand dollars" ...which in turn is obviously an evolution on the theme of the Twilight Zone episode "Button, Button". I actually really wanted to go further into the lifecycle of this anonymous narrator's "startup" and how it would develop, and how someone working at it would discover the underlying truth behind all the nebulous cover busywork, and how things would eventually shake out, but I settled for just writing down my own stream of consciousness on the possibilities of the premise. This conclusion, particularly, I find fairly unsatisfactory, as it doesn't give us any kind of catharsis or grim final twist. And the narrator himself isn't sufficiently, credibly *evil*. Too self-aware by half. Still, I think this one could go somewhere.

2020-11-21 21:53:35 by rhuz:

Your narrator is all too plausible to me, frankly!

2020-11-21 22:22:12 by j:

Props for not using the obvious story ending ("tak-")

2020-11-21 22:23:29 by FeepingCreature:

Seems to me the first thing you want to do is develop the technology from Hypothesis Hypothesis. Scale up human lives until the chance of the box affecting a human in your world is negligible. Hell, instantiate a few quadrillion near-identical simulations with extremely minute, unnoticeable differences and go to town.

2020-11-21 22:37:21 by skztr:

> with the plastic transparent cap protecting it Oh, good! > I guess I can just snap it off. Oh no! I was going to say this is like if Light Yagami was, in addition to being a psychopath, also a nerd. But then I remembered Light also does a bunch of experiments to see the limits of the system. So I guess it's: if Light Yagami had The Button? I have no objections, other than it not being the best story seed. (Sadly remembering that someone actually made a movie of this)

2020-11-21 23:33:30 by Viko:

> And the narrator himself isn't sufficiently, credibly *evil*. Quite frankly, given that he doesn't seem to mind that only a few paragraphs in he's killed a few dozen people? I have to disagree.

2020-11-22 01:43:45 by rose kolodny:

Do they have to be evil? A hundred billion dollars can do a lot of work - probably not enough work to offset the suffering caused by a hundred million deaths, but I think someone could plausibly convince themselves otherwise given a sufficiently noble cause. I wonder what the $/death ratio of actual companies are. How much profit does Phillip Morris make per excess death by lung cancer?

2020-11-22 01:50:29 by qntm:

I don't know what your definition of "evil" is, but killing someone for a thousand dollars fits mine.

2020-11-22 03:54:13 by Len White:

More greedy and reckless than evil, surely. Our narrator had no idea that people were actually dying, after all, only that his bank balance was increasing.

2020-11-22 11:38:46 by FederalistUK:

This is quite convincingly evil. Curious, not driven by hatred, and killing lots and lots of people. A nice character piece.

2020-11-24 23:33:55 by atomicthumbs:

narrator here reads as your standard SV dreaming-of-making-it-big entrepreneur. maybe he'd take mindfulness courses if he started to feel anything about the deaths

2020-11-30 10:38:34 by DanielH:

> Props for not using the obvious story ending ("tak-" That would be really unlikely. The button was only pressed 56 times during the story unless I miscounted, meaning that if the story took more than about 30 seconds to happen, the world population actually grew instead of shrank, and over the course of the story the main character would have a higher chance of death from some other random cause than from the box.

2020-11-30 10:39:09 by DanielH:

) Sorry for the double-post; just had to fix that.

2020-12-10 05:30:35 by Marc:

This is the first one of these first drafts I came back to re-read -- I guess that means it's one of my favorites :)

2021-01-14 22:03:54 by Kisu:

Iirc, a lot of companies and institutions measure human life in monetary value. I heard that the department of transportation for example ballparks around 3.4 million dollars per life. That's why we don't get seatbelts in busses and there is no provision for car manufacturers to put airbags in the backseats. The cost benefit analysis just isn't good enough. Based on that though, is the department of transportation evil in the context of the story? Because of them,every time a child dies in a backseat during a car crash or on a crashing bus,_someone_ is up roughly 3.4 million dollars. What about the car company is that lobby for stuff like that? Anyway, quite the interesting take on the concept, I like it!

2021-02-08 15:55:49 by Mat:

@Kisu There is a big difference between - not spending 3 500 000 $ to save a life - deliberate triggering murder of someone with 1000$ as sole benefit > What about the car company is that lobby for stuff like that? Not entirely sure, but I consider people responsible for Chisso-Minamata (misleading called "Chisso-Minamata disease" or "Dancing cat disease") were definitely evil. > "t was caused by the release of methylmercury in the industrial wastewater from a chemical factory owned by the Chisso Corporation, which continued from 1932 to 1968. (...) > This highly toxic chemical bioaccumulated and biomagnified in shellfish and fish in Minamata Bay and the Shiranui Sea, which, when eaten by the local population, resulted in mercury poisoning. > Pollution was so heavy at the mouth of the wastewater canal, a figure of 2 kg of mercury per ton of sediment was measured: a level that would be economically viable to mine. Indeed, Chisso did later set up a subsidiary to reclaim and sell the mercury recovered from the sludge."

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