Monday, March 19, 2012

It Ain't What it Used to Be: How Science Shows Us The Future Isn't What it Once Was

Science, the frontier for the human race to discover all that is mysterious and hidden within our vast and expanding universe. It has given us space travel, modern medicine, the basic understanding of our entire world and, maybe, eventually, teleportation and space colonies. It is the single most important thing we have in our culture at the moment and it will bring us into the mysteries of the future with a curious glint in its eyes and a sturdy, graceful stride that inspires confidence in us all. 

It also completely ruined the sci-fi future I, and all those from my generation, had envisioned for our world. It did it with the grace and tact of telling a child that rainbows aren't, in fact, magic bridges to leprechaun's gold.

"Look, a rainbow, it's magic!" The child would say.

"No," science says. "Silly child, it's merely light reflecting off the water particles in the air and refracting."

The child cries. Science smiles with a job well done.

Twenty years ago, the 2000s seemed like a futuristic and somewhat terrifying place, with the Terminator films telling us the apocalypse was nigh and films like Escape from L.A. and Johnny Mnemonic showed us that we will likely be living in a slightly camp, neon-lit, junk-filled, post-apocalyptic insane asylum.

Instead, we have Priuses, iPads and wars that are pretty much completely conventional. Sure, the weapons are more advanced, but the basic premises are all the same; people go out to shoot other people on foot, from cars, from planes or from boats - but boats are going out of style.

In four years, we will be in 2015, the future date set by Back to the Future Part II where the future world has large, 3D-movie-like advertising, hover-boards and flying cars, clothes that speak and self-dry and sexy, lady cops in tight, spandex body suits. I don't know if I'm the only one, but I don't think that that is going to happen.

Now, I know Terrafugia just released its first flying car to begin sales last year after being officially cleared as street and sky safe, and you can have one for the price of a small studio apartment.

However, despite all that excitement, there is still logic there to take down the fun, "Flying cars are a terrible idea," Dr. Daniel H. Wilson more or less tells you in his book, Where's My Jetpack?: A Guide to the Amazing Science Fiction Future that Never Arrived. "Instead of drunk drivers, we'd have drunk flyers crashing through your roof."

Great. There goes that idea. That, by the way, is only one of the reasons why jetpacks will never happen. The other, of course, being that we can't fit enough fuel into the jetpack for it to fly for more than thirty seconds, and without burning our feet off. So, there's that.

Two things we do now have from the future we always wanted are lasers and data tablets. The army is, in fact, working on laser weapons that are considered non-lethal weapons under their current development. They fire superheated beams at people that burn incredibly, making people run away; it's mostly to disperse rioting crowds. So, while cool, it is not Star Wars, solid-colour lasers that make fun sci-fi noises. 

And last, but not least, we are brought to data tablets. If you've seen any science fiction film in, say, the past thirty years - or more likely, even more - you've seen a data tablet. Often a translucent glass rectangle that is a touch screen and can access any piece of information that the main characters require. For as many years as they've been fiction, people have wanted to have them. Information at your fingertips all the time? Excellent! A touch screen? Super cool! Translucent? Alright, not so much, but still! And we have them - if you are any one of the people who owns an iPad or other tablet or simply any kind of smart phone made nowadays (iPhone, HTC, Google, to name but a few). That's right, we have that piece of sci-fi technology right here, right now - and to be honest, we had no idea what to do with the tablet tech once we got it. Sci-fi movies didn't take into consideration that laptops and other personal computers - or that ordinary cell phones with an internet connection - would be so common amongst people.

So, there's that.

We do not have Fifth Element pills-that-turns-into-roast-chicken-as-soon-as-it's-in-the-microwave. We don't have colonies on the moon. Where is my Skynet? Sure, where we're at is great and we really are living the future, though we don't really realize it, but I feel like our future isn't going to be the cool, flashy place we thought it would be.


1 comment:

  1. "In four years, we will be in 2015, the future date set by Back to the Future Part II where the future world has large, 3D-movie-like advertising, hover-boards and flying cars, clothes that speak and self-dry and sexy, lady cops in tight, spandex body suits. I don't know if I'm the only one, but I don't think that that is going to happen."
    * 3D is going mainstream in a big way -- I don't think it's unreasonable to predict it'll be in advertising in the next couple of years;
    * Clothes that self-dry are on the immediate horizon (search youtube for superhydrophobic chocolate sauce);
    * 'Wearable computing' is the new buzzword in tech;
    * We have spandex body suits. They're just considered either sports or fetish gear. :-P

    OK, hoverboards and flying cars are either fabulously stupid, unworkable, or both. But everything else is happening.

    Lasers... well, as it turns out, that's another incredibly stupid idea. If you do the calculations of how much damn energy it takes to use a laser as a weapon (a lot), how hard it is to store/generate that energy (hard), and how hard it is to fire a big metallic slug (it's not), slug-throwers just come out on top every time.
    (Amusingly, this is even more true in space than it is in-atmosphere.)

    As for data tablets, our weirdness with them is more subtle. Look at how they're used in Star Trek: they're communication and information-retrieval devices, terminals to a Big Nasty Mainframe. We went away from the mainframe model years ago because the equipment on our desks had so much computing power to use, and would go and fetch bits and pieces of information to operate on as we saw fit.
    The thing is that the world we currently live in isn't *quite* connected enough for the data tablet vision as sci-fi saw it -- they (understandably) didn't think about the telecommunications infrastructure that would be required to support that vision. (And how slow/expensive it would be to develop and build.) This same limitation is why we haven't yet developed SkyNet.
    But this is changing, and fast. Ubiquitous data connectivity is pricier than voice, but it's available, and it's getting cheaper. Every electronic device being developed has yet another antenna built in. For GBP10/month I have a small computer constantly connected to the Internet (as well as granting me access to voice and text messaging services) -- speaking of living in the future.

    Ultimately, the reason it looked so flashy in the movies was because the movies picked outlandish styling and decorum to accentuate just how different The Future (TM) could be from the present. The reason it looks so drab to us is because we're *living* it.