“The fungus has been Planet’s dominant lifeform since about the time of the Lower Paleozoic on Earth. But when, once every hundred million years or so, the neural net at last achieves the critical mass necessary to become sentient, the final metamorphosis kills off most of the other life on the planet. It is possible that we humans can help to break this tragic cycle.”
— Lady Deirdre Skye, “Planet Dreams”
Sentient Econometrics is kind of a strange technology. It’s labeled as an eleventh-tier exploration technology, but it is also marked as one of the key “economic sophistication” technologies that determine a faction’s commerce rating. It’s the last one of these on the tree. And it is the only one that is not labeled a pure economy technology.
Along with improving the commerce rating, the other main effect of researching Sentient Econometrics is that it enables the faction to build Paradise Gardens. They’re like Recreation Commons in that they make workers happier. But instead of turning two angry drones into content workers to prevent riots, they turn two workers into happy talents to help ignite Golden Ages.
Its prerequisites are Digital Sentience and Planetary Economics. Along with the name, that fact is enough for the player to get a rough idea of what this technology is supposed to represent. It’s the application of AI to the high-level macroeconomy. In particular, it must mean that the AIs are able to generate new measurements of the economy that enable accurate and testable predictions of economic performance. Making economics a hard science would be a revolution in social and historical understanding. It would likely lead to something akin to Asimov’s concept of psychohistory from his Foundation series of novels.
But there’s a deep reason why this capacity is labeled as an exploration technology rather than an economic one. It turns out that when these advanced techniques are applied to understanding Planet’s ecology, they uncover the startling fact revealed in the quote. The meta-organism known to the colonists as Planet isn’t a static, unchanging thing.
In particular, the complexity of its fungal network waxes and wanes over the course of millennia. It is rarely dense enough to achieve true sentience. And when it approaches that point, something about the way the ecology responds to that state knocks the biosphere out of whack and inevitably leads to an extinction-level event. This resets the whole system back to square one. It usually takes about another hundred million years to recover.
This serves as a major turning point in what we might consider the static plot of the game. It must always be kept in mind that the player is building most of the “story” he experiences as he plays the game and engages with the mechanics. It’s inherently a dynamic process. But, at the same time, there exists a fixed structure in which all of these separate gameplay stories are forced to flow, and most of that is provided by the nature of the technology tree.
By now, the player has been shown during a couple of interludes and several of the quotes that it is quite possible to carry on a conversation with Planet. It seems to have all the hallmarks of sentience. So this mass extinction problem probably isn’t one that can be put off for a couple thousand years or so; it’s a relatively immediate threat.
This is largely why many of the mechanics have been set up to accelerate the path through the late game. Reynolds wants to build up this sense that the player is hurtling almost-uncontrollably into the future. A future that’s laden with just as much potential promise as latent, lurking disaster. If Reynolds has done it right, the player should spend the end-game feeling like his carefully cultivated faction is balanced on the edge between permanent glory and total devastation.