Science Fiction Movies: The Technologies They Introduce, the Ones They Ignore, and Some I’d Like (and Fully Expect) To See

I just finished watching the first DVD of the first season of Battlestar Galactica. For months now, just about every sci-fi fan I know has been gushing to me about how incredible this new version of the show has turned out to be. Finally, I was able to borrow a copy from a friend, to see what all the commotion was all about.

First impression: after seeing just the opening movie, I’m… not all that impressed. Don’t get me wrong, I totally dig the story line and seriously liked the movie — I certainly plan to add it to my collection — but I guess after everything I heard I sort of expected this to be better. The dangers of being put on too-high a pedestal, I guess.

Side Note: Did anyone else notice the similarities — in both storyline and scenery set up (particularly when it came to the hangar in the Galactica) to the storyline and scenery used in the old show Space, Above and Beyond? (Can I get a show of hands of people who actually remember that show?) What about the officers’ quarters, is it just me, or do they remind anyone else of the officers’ quarters in some of the Star Trek ships? I’m thinking mostly the design of the walls here. Finally, did anyone else notice that the weapons being used by the Cylons consisted mostly of 50-megaton nukes against cities and 50-kiloton nukes against the ships? Didn’t the Russians have missiles in the 200-megaton range in the 1960’s?

While watching this, I started thinking:

  1. Why isn’t it that we see more of the technologies being developed (or thought about) in real life in sci-fi shows and movies?
  2. What technologies, if any, would I consider the most likely to come to pass?

To expand on the first question, here’s what I mean: when you listen to speakers like Aubrey de Grey and Ray Kurzweil — folks who know a thing or two about predicting the future and inventing the future they predict — you always hear about technologies which would seem to make us superhuman: red blood cell substitutes which allow us to hold our breath underwater for four hours; curing cancer by treating it as it is, a repair mechanism of the body gone awry; the cure for aging and aging-related death; the cure — and I use the term loosely here — for sleep. (Basically, all of the technologies gushed about in Transhumanist and Posthumanist websites.) Yet, very rarely in these shows and movies do we see even a hint that these technologies exist.

Case and point: in Battlestar Galactica, some really interesting technologies are talked about, technologies being at the very least speculated on, if not actually being developed today. Two examples I can think of are uploading of memories into computers in order to continue your existence (the problem of continuity aside) and a technological Singularity (which would be pretty much the only way a Cylon race could even show up, I guess).

While these are interesting inclusions in and of themselves, I can’t help but wonder why people in the show are so “human.” Not once did I hear about possible modifications to increase natural capabilities, such as memory-expanding brain implants, which are being discussed today; Cyberware and brain-to-computer interfaces, which are being developed and used today (and would be very handy in those ships); genetic modification and exploitation, some methods for which are entering human trials now; and better communications systems, such as brain-to-brain communications, which are in the early stages of development today. Call me spoiled, but I guess I was expecting that a civilization capable of near-light speed travel would also have a tendancy towards technological enhancements of biological mechanisms. In other words, why I didn’t see more cyborgs (the non-fiction, real life kind) is beyond me, and was a bit of a dissapointment. (Also, why were these people so comfortable with death? I mean, sure, they had a religion, but wouldn’t their doctors have figured out by now that “hey, you know, maybe this death thing isn’t good, and it isn’t really necessary!”)

To expand on the second question: science fiction has a strange way of feeding the “art imitates life imitates art” loop. After all, how many of the technologies we saw in the original Star Trek series have we seen already developed in the real world? (Hint: if you have a flip-cell phone, you’re using one of them.) Likewise, many of the technologies we’re seeing in sci-fi today are technologies which I fully expect will come to pass. Some of these may seem completely “out there”, but considering the rate in which communication systems evolve (Kurzweil’s Law of Accelerating Returns) I would be surprised if these technologies weren’t invented, most of them in our lifetimes (which may be a lot longer than we might think, if the radical anti-aging crowd delivers on their promises).

Here’s a list of some of the technologies I fully expect to see developed and why:

  • Virtual Worlds (as in The Matrix): The rise in popularity of virtual environments like Second Life and other intricate MMORPGs will likely continue until we can start interfacing with each other in full emersion virtual reality. How long thereafter will it be before people choose their virtual world life to their real life? We saw a glimpse of what the first truly commercialized stages of this could look like in the movie Minority Report, and this has been featured in various science fiction novels, such as Tek War series by William Shatner. People’s desire for this type of technology has been manifested over and over in films and media. If you think business savvy tech folks haven’t noticed, think again. This is one technology that will, for good or ill make its way into the public.
  • Ingestible Communications Devices, Brain to Brain Communications (as featured in Aeon Flux): The movie Aeon Flux was a particularly interesting one to me because many of the technologies presented there, particularly the ingestible communication systems and bio-enhancements, are not just desirable: they are the next logical step if we continue on this path. Internal communications as featured will allow us to continue the path of independence that the Gen-Y crowd is most known for. Imagine being able to hold meetings (at your own leisure) in your head, without having to leave the park where you’re playing with your kids?
  • Telexistence (as featured in Dune, the 1984 version): Imagine the ability to physically interface with remote environments while feeling you’re truly there. Doctor’s are currently experimenting with operating on patients hundreds of miles away using robotic arms and videos, but the ability to telexsit, to “be in two places at once” is something which could give people more of a god complex, as well as a few god-like abilities. This could be combined quite well with sense-transferring fabrics (featured in movies like Minority Report and Babylon 5: River of Souls. You can see developmental versions of both technologies at the TACHI Lab project site.
  • Bio-enhancement (as featured in countless movies, but I’ll stick to Aeon Flux for this one): I remember reading a book when I was a kid titled something like The Next Millennium, or something like that, in which the authors speculated what the next thousand years of human development would look like. Given that the writers were an engineer and a biologist, it was no surprise that all the advancements they focused on dealt mostly with those two fields. One of the more interesting developments (predicted for the year 2400 and later) would be the wide-range use of bio-enhancement technologies. I’m not just talking about the red blood cells I mentioned earlier (although those are both interesting and very desirable), but rather more mundane things (if that’s the proper word), such as replacing finger nails with a pen-like device and a digital clock; receiving retinal implants which allow for multiple eye colors simultaneously (they emphasized the popularity of the “rotating color iris”, which would present all colors at the same time and rotate them like a weird, optical spectrograph); and adding pouches to different areas of your body. They also touched on something a bit more interesting: bio-engineered humans designed to better live with their surroundings. One example I vividly remember (which was also prominently shown in the movie Aeon Flux) was the replacement of feet with another set of hands. In the book, these were meant for use by people who were living in low-gravity environments who would have little practical use for feet. While tests like this aren’t exactly ongoing (and the technologies for which will likely not be around for another few years) I fully expect to see some level of bio-enhancement taking place, first by making us into cyborgs, then by re-engineering us at the biological level.

I’ll stop here because, frankly, I could go all day with these: invisibility cloaks (Ghost in the Shell, strong AI (The Matrix), space elevators (The Mars Trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson), improved communications networks, teleportation (Star Trek, but only with information), fully immersible computer interfaces (Johnny Mnemonic), improved portable searches (for real life items, not just Internet things, a la Star Trek tri-corders), cryonics (uhm… everything), etc. There are thousands more technologies I could hit upon but I’m sure these may whet your appetite a bit, if not scare you half to death.

If there are any technologies you honestly feel will likely come about in the near future which others may be dismissive of, or would just like to let your mind roam free on the topic, feel free to share them here. (Or on your own blog, but don’t even mention flying cars: they’re still at least another 30-50 years off and have been talked about to death already. Hover cars, however, are another story.) I’m especially interested in hearing from any self-proclaimed Transhumanists and Futurists, since it seems that you fine folks are the ones putting the pressure on the scientists to develop technologies which would aid us in the truly important technologies, like radical life extension.

Finally, ask yourself this question: 15 years ago, what did you think the world would be like? Did you expect it to be anything like what it is today? Did you expect the Internet, or cell phones, or iPods? Did you expect a cure for diabetes, or ALS, or cancer? Has the future impressed you, disappointed you, or left you with a feeling of “ho hum”? The Wife and I actually talked about this a few nights ago and I came to the realization that, while the future isn’t at all what I expected, I couldn’t have imagined my life now at that time. No way could I realize that I would spend a good part of my day interacting with individuals from all over the world, or having access to thousands of hours of music and speeches in my hand, or being able to communicate with anybody at just about any time from just about anywhere. But then again, I guess predicting the future is a bit of a gamble unless you’re helping invent it.

Note: This article has also been published over at Betterhumans.

5 thoughts on “Science Fiction Movies: The Technologies They Introduce, the Ones They Ignore, and Some I’d Like (and Fully Expect) To See

  1. Note: My first reply was on betterhumans related to sci fi genre.

    Here are my predictions for the future from earlier in 2006

    Here are links to supporting information for my predictions

    Future Military technology is discussed here Future weapon. Send robot or crew out to one of the trillion space rocks. Camoflage it or cover it with metamaterials to make it invisible. Deflect and accelerate it.
    In this article is a link to an impact calculator for the size and speed of your space rock More damage than a nuke. Plus hit a nuke and damage its mechanism and it does not blow up. Hit space rock and break it into pieces. Pieces have the same kinetic energy and target still gets destroyed. Attacker can deflect and push for years. Defender only has detection time less response time to put more energy into deflection or to get out of the way.

    I know you asked to not talk about it but FYI flying cars can be made affordably.
    The issue is that it would be dangerous as heck for joe driver. Remember 44,000 traffic deaths per year in the USA and 1.2 million worldwide. Carnage in the air? Technologically feasible but a BAD idea.

    For science fiction, there is a lot to do in solar system. We can get to Kardashev level 2 This is the level of the supertech space aliens in some extreme science fiction.

    Real tech is becoming and will be amazing and the past few decades things have been stalled out. Cool stuff is coming soon. Analog superconducting quantum computers next year from Dwave systems.

  2. I also enjoy the battlestar galactica, as does a certain mole we both know.

    I’ve always been a little thrown off by technology and where we expect it to go.

    I’ll start off with the last question you posed first. The present isnt anything i thought it would be like maybe 7 or so years ago. (anything before that and i was way too young to even try to make a coherent guess).

    I kinda thought by now everyone would have like a fully functioning pda/phone/ipod/whatever thingy attached to our wrist with a keyboards and all (a la buzz lightyear as thats the only thing i can think of right now.)

    I honestly expected for all the major cities to be connected wirelessly already and that everyone’s electronics would all be interconnected as it is. (kinda like this up and coming N band thingy.) Like, someone could wake up and say. “House, set temperature to 76. Start the car and turn on the shower to XX degrees.”

    I think something that my generation goes through is we expect things to change and happen technologically a bit faster than it actually does. We’re impatient and want these thigns now.

    Another thing i would like to talk about is the lack of biological enhancements found in scifi (as a whole). I have a feeling many writers/directors are probably playing to the more conservative side of people and not looking to push the envelope at this point and time. The whole idea on improving on god’s creation can be a touchy subject.

    Personally, i always thought we would be injected with nanomachines that would roam our system to aid our immune system and make us physically stronger at the same time. We’re not changed biologically or genetically, but still better.

    Frankly i think if we want to see more technological advances, we almost have to look at the military and increase spending there. They’ll always look at getting bigger and better stuff, (like a big honkin space gun) and that same technology will almost always eventually be converted to civillian use in some shape and form. I mean, who else would be most concerned with transportation, logistics management, faster communications network, faster and more portable computers, and the improvement of the human physiological capabilities.

    Thats just my loony toony. ( i recently found out canadian money is called that. Loony=$1, Toon=$2 so a loony toony logically equals $3)

  3. Hey, Brian:

    First of all, regarding your predictions for the future: wow. Very… detailed. Sadly, I’m pessimistic about a good number of the predictions, simply because I’ve observed that the speed at which we move towards new techniques and technologies (and the rate at which they’re developed) is all too often inversely proportional to the level of wealth and power the old establishment has. (Example: solar power vs. coal for electricity.) That said, your list and reasons are two things any sci-fi writer should love to get their hands on!

    As for the weaponry, all I can say is “wow, scary,” although I wonder what the long-term effect of dropping a comet on an enemy in the same planet would be on the country dropping the comets. It seems if we ever wanted to split this world in to an Orwellian encarnation, all we’d need to do is introduce such weapons. Let’s see how long the Turks stay allied with the US once we start bombarding Iran and in the process killing all their crops and that of all their neighbors.

    Regarding the flying car: I actually wrote an article like this — including information on flying cars — for a magazine a few years ago, and know full well that there are already models out there that do the flying car thing with better gas mileage than most SUVs. But, as you pointed out, the problem is the whole safety issue. With no physical barriers to control where flying cars go, how long would it be before we started seeing news about cars crashing into schools and apartment buildings? There was a system discussed not all that long ago which would make driving a flying car as easy as riding a horse. (The theory was that if you were too drunk or tired, the horse could simply stop or take you back home, safely, and that flying cars should have the same type of “safety features.”) I’m not sure the level of development on that, though. I’m guessing a higher level of AI will be needed before flying cars are really viable from the public standpoint. (Call it a guess, but once we start seeing cars that can truly and reliably drive themselves, soonthereafter will we begin seeing flying cars for the populace.)

    Regarding the solar system: Frankly, I’d love to see us getting there, but we won’t even be able to get started until we get off the planet. Staying here and trying to develop all these technologies is a bit like a man trying to figure out that all the lights are green between his home and his job before he goes to work. If life extension developments really start delivering on their promises, then my hopes will be raised (goooo cryonics!). Until then, I’ll satisfy myself with looking towards the sci-fi. (As for the Kardashev levels, wouldn’t the “Q” in Star Trek count as a Kardashev level 3 species?)

    I don’t think real tech has been stalled in the past few decades. It is simply a matter of the watched pot never boiling.

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