i, Human

 Posted by at 7:59 pm on December 12, 2011  Writing sci-fi  Add comments
Dec 122011

Laptops, e-readers, iPads and any external electronic device may be gone in the blink of an eye. Just a blink, and any website, background info or ebook we just think about accessing will be there, projected on contact lenses and controlled with a direct connection to our brains.

It’s the stuff of science fiction, but theoretical physicist Michio Kaku makes the point that it’s a very non-fictional inevitability. The technology already exists, and it only needs development and marketing to make it part of our reality by the mid-21st century.

Kaku loves science fiction. I don’t know if he wants to write it, but he clearly enjoys laying the scientific foundation for sci-fi stories, allowing writers to claim plausibility for plots that others may have thought to be fantasy, or pure hokum. He did a series for the Science Channel, Sci Fi Science, where he took some cherished fictional physics such as faster than light travel and laid out a theoretical approach to making it real. I heard him on NPR’s Fresh Air recently being interviewed by host Terry Gross about Kaku’s new book, Physics of the Future. The book sounds like a handbook for anyone hoping to write about the 22nd century, which is after all, what I want this website to be about.

In his new book, Kaku extrapolates science and technology to fantastic new reaches in the relatively near future. As with much of science and tech advances, they can take us to places we barely imagine, nor are we always so sure that we really want to go there.

The hard-wired human is one of those places.

Kaku points out the military is already using drop-down lenses in helmets to give soldiers access to a “battlefield Internet.” A rush of tactical intel, enemy positions, new orders and their lives flash before their eyes in the midst of combat. Tests have quadriplegics using tiny brain implants the person learns to use to control devices including a computer. Something I hadn’t heard of before, a lab has recorded the brain impulses of a rat learning his way through a maze to find the cheese. Afterward, the scientists erased the rat’s memory with a chemical, then downloaded the rat’s recorded “memory” back into the rat’s brain so he “remembered” how to find the cheese again.

Put them all together, and it may be a new world suited only for the brave or foolhardy.

Kaku suggests personal Internet access means you could attend a business luncheon and use a face recognition app to supplement your memory. When you see someone you should know but can’t recall, the person’s name and bio pop up on your lens. “Frank! Haven’t seen you for a while. Hey, it was Nancy’s birthday last week. How is your wife? And how are the two… wait, got something in my eye … three kids?”

Students would gobble these Web lenses up. When it comes exam time, they don’t need to study for the answers. They just need to know where to find them on the web or online textbook. Kaku suggests it won’t mean schools have to find better ways to prevent cheating. Instead, they’d have to change their exams to test more for critical thinking than for rote answers.

Kaku’s selling the future, optimistically hawking science and technology’s advances like a new car salesman running down the list of options that make last year’s model obsolete. Science fiction needs to take a more critical look. It’s what sci-fi does best.

I periodically run across attempts on the Web to define the difference between hard sci-fi and soft sci-fi. The best attempts recognize the differences are not clear cut. The worst of soft sci-fi purports “science” that is ludicrous. The worst hard sci-fi thinks it’s all about the science and tech, with characters as one-dimensional afterthoughts.

The best sci-fi extrapolates plausible science and tech, but the story is about their impact on very real people. In that sense, Kaku’s book may be a gold mine for laying the science background for story ideas, even if much of it has been mined before.

The hard-wired human has popped up numerous times in sci-fi, and Kaku assures us that yes, it can be easily done. But what is a human who can constantly and seamlessly connect with the Internet? Does the Web become an extension of his brain, holding all the factual data that can be known and even store backups of personal memories, leaving the mind free for creative thought? Or does the human become a mere extension of the Web, subject to downloadable viruses, readily accessed by bosses anytime and anywhere to carry out tasks, swayed by instant and precipitous public opinion that overwhelms critical thought, and eventually absorbed into a collective being?

For a sci-fi writer, the concept is ripe with story ideas. And if the concept of this personal technology overwhelms a reader, there can only be one caution.

Don’t blink.

Footnote: Predicting driverless cars … again

One of Kaku’s predictions in his book Physics of the Future was of roadways filled with driverless cars. Haven’t we heard that before? In fact, what broad prediction of future technology hasn’t included driverless cars, letting us sit back and enjoy the scenery, watch vids or just snooze, confident that our robo-autos know the way to carry us home?

The first prediction of this sort that I know of was at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. General Motors grand exhibit titled Futurama got many things right, including further advancement of cars as the primary means of transportation, aided by divided highways that carried the populace across the nation in the glorious future of 1960. What didn’t come about were the automatic highways that guided traffic with no hands on the wheel.

That didn’t stop people from predicting it would happen within the next 20 years … or maybe two decades after that, or soon, at any rate. It seems to be the most popular prediction that hasn’t come to pass. But that failure doesn’t stop futurists from predicting it. So far, we have some cars that can park themselves. Not much to show for 70 years of envisioning the road ahead.

Futurists seem to think too much about the technological possibilities and downplay the human element. In this case, the predictions miss a vital human predilection.

We like to drive.

– Tom Chmielewski

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