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:
- 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?
- 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.