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There's a cult of people in Mexico who worship an AI, believing it will grant them brain uploading: destructive surgical removal of their brains to have themselves recreated as unaging software minds. They're basically right. Trouble is, brain surgery isn't cheap and they they're not rich. So they start a monastery, loosely inspired by models like the utopian "phalansteries" or medieval communities. How can I make that setup, if not economically viable, then not outright ridiculous? Specifically, what are these guys doing to run a minimal lifestyle, ideally at a profit, with near-future (2030s) tech? With a utopian "we'll be in paradise soon" mindset?

Intended use in my story: It's fine, maybe even good for story purposes, if there's the tension that they can't afford to upload everyone and have to beg the AI to take pity on them. Uploading costs on the order of \$1 million at first, then on the order of $100K years later. So maybe the ideal setup for story purposes is something where they can pool enough funds to send a few people to digital heaven but it quickly looks like a hopeless task to send everyone, causing the rest to live a minimal lifestyle and argue about whether to keep waiting their turn.

Other possibly useful info: The AI is the one from Resources For an AI-Controlled Base In Ethiopia , who's intelligent, friendly and not eager to set itself up as a god. It's happy to provide entertainment, having originally been designed to run a video game. It has robots and allied AI minds (plus the uploaders, who can pilot bots or just talk to people), but until years into the story think "quadrotors and cheap flimsy humanoids" but not "army of better-than-human bots". It has other bases including the Ethiopia one and a winery atop the still-poisoned no-mans-land from WWI (!) on the French/Belgian border.

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    $\begingroup$ So the idea is that they spend as little money on living expenses as possible, so they'll be able to save money for the upload? How do they collect money? Is this a mixed gender community? Do they have children? $\endgroup$ – user2727 Apr 25 '16 at 8:28
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In a high tech internet age where people can be uploaded, the idea of physically gathering everyone into a monastery is a bit anachronistic. While there is nothing to stop them from doing so, this is counterproductive to the premise, since a great deal of time, resources and funding will have to be devoted to gathering the people, building the retreat and the infrastructure to maintain the people until they do get uploaded.

Far better for the worshippers to use financial tools like crowd funding, mutual funds or an investment pool to raise the money to get people uploaded.

An older model might work as well: "love money". In many communities, families will pool money to help a child or relative start a business, go to school etc. If that individual starts making a profit, the new funds are cycled back into the pool and more people are set up, while the initial investment is repaid.

A final model to look at might be microcredit as pioneered by the Grameen Bank. The lending circle all pledge for a loan to person "A" to start a business. Repayment allows the circle to then make a loan to person "B" and so on. Uploaded personalities are presumably far more productive than meat people, not needing to sleep and able to work subjectively thousands of times faster than physical people, so once a person gets into the VR universe, they can work hard and build the capital for the remaining people to start the process of uploading.

So the short version is the community pools their funds and invests to send the first person on their way, and the financial returns on their investments are used to bring the next person on the list forward and so on.

The AI, if it is benevolent, will probably assist by making stock picks and giving investment advice to speed up the process, and finding "jobs" for the unloaded personalities to bring in more resources for the community. Even if it isn't entirely benevolent, it might decide to do this simply to get those annoying people to stop bothering it.

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They're going to need outside income in order to advance their cause. That means they need to produce something for sale -- physical goods, digital goods, or hopes and dreams, just like monasteries of yore.

Physical goods -- specifically, hardware: the path to that kind of AI passes through lots of useful technology. One path they can take is to commercialize that -- not the actual AI, of course, but lesser forms -- household robots, self-driving vehicles, hard-labor robots, and so on. Their AI can guide them in choosing the most-profitable products.

Digital goods: some medieval monasteries excelled in scribal arts; your monastery, led by its AI, could produce music, fiction, videos, software, and games of high quality to sell to the masses. Consider in particular the subscription model a la World of Warcraft. If some of these products are seen as culture-enhancing and not just entertainment, they could even aim for patronage just like their forebears.

Hopes and dreams: "we all want to be able to live forever, right? This upload process will bring that, but it requires great dedication to be declared worthy. But don't despair -- you're not a millionaire, but if you are dedicated, you can help our monastery bring this gift to everybody, maybe even you! All you have to do is..." Charismatic leaders have gained fanatic followers while demonstrating less than your monks will be able to show; they ought to be able to do as well as modern cults, presumably with less evil since your AI is benevolent.

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