Twenty Trends in Science and Technology from Twelve Science Fiction Movies

Self-assembly of Gold-polymer Nanorods. Credit: Chad Mirkin.

The new book Films from the Future: The Technology and Morality of Sci-Fi Movies has a lot to say about the challenges of getting advanced technologies right. But it also explores a number of emerging areas of science and technology.

Here are twenty of them:

1. DE-EXTINCTION

When the movie Jurassic Park was released in 1993, the potential of genetic manipulation — rewriting the “code of life” — was just beginning to become apparent. Yet the possibility of bringing back whole species from the dead was still so audacious that it lay firmly in the realm of science fiction.

Today, even though the challenges remain substantial, breakthroughs in DNA sequencing and synthesis are bringing what was once fanciful within the reach of scientists and engineers.

This is explored in chapter 2 of Films from the Future as the book takes a look at the emerging field of “de-extinction.”

“…In a far corner of Siberia, two Russians—Sergey Zimov and his son Nikita—are attempting to recreate the Ice Age. More precisely, their vision is to reconstruct the landscape and ecosystem of northern Siberia in the Pleistocene, a period in Earth’s history that stretches from around two and a half million years ago to eleven thousand years ago. This was a time when the environment was much colder than now, with huge glaciers and ice sheets flowing over much of the Earth’s northern hemisphere. It was also a time when humans coexisted with animals that are long extinct, including saber-tooth cats, giant ground sloths, and woolly mammoths…”

Chapter 2 (Jurassic Park)

2. COMPLEX SYSTEMS

Today, complex systems are a whole area of study, as scientists, engineers and others grapple with interconnected systems that defy simple analysis, and whose behavior is not easily predicted from simple assumptions and models. Yet today’s work around complexity has its roots in the field of chaos and “strange attractors” going back to the 1950's.

“Chaos theory grew out of the work of the American meteorologist Edward Lorenz. When he started his career, it was assumed that the solution to more accurate weather prediction was better data and better models. But in the 1950s, Lorenz began to challenge this idea. What he found was that, in some cases, minute changes in atmospheric conditions could lead to dramatically different outcomes down the line, so much so that, in sufficiently complex systems, it was impossible to predict the results of seemingly insignificant changes…”

Chapter 2 (Jurassic Park)

3. CLONING

Scientists have been fascinated with cloning — producing genetically identical copies of organisms — for decades; maybe longer. Despite breakthroughs like Dolly the Sheep in 1996, cloning isn’t as easy as it might appear. Yet as the state of knowledge continues to advance, we’re getting closer to being able to clone humans. And as we do, we need to grapple with the question “should we?”

“…It’s easy to see the attraction of cloning large animals, at least on the surface. Loved pets could be reproduced, leading to a never-ending cycle of pup to adult and back to pup. Prize livestock could be duplicated, leading to large herds of prime cattle, or whole stables of thoroughbreds. Rare species could be preserved. And then there are people. Yet cloning human from scratch is harder than it might at first seem…”

Chapter 3 (Never Let Me Go)

4. PREDICTING CRIMINAL TENDENCIES

Machine learning and ubiquitous data collection are transforming how police forces and others predict where crimes are likely to occur, and who’s likely to commit them. But as the technology of crime-prediction advances, it raises tough questions around the decisions we leave to machines, and what it means to be labeled as “good” or “bad.”

“In 2016, two scientists released the results of a study in which they used machine learning to train an algorithm to identify criminals based on headshots alone. The study was highly contentious and resulted in a significant public and academic backlash, leading the paper’s authors to state in an addendum to the paper, ‘Our work is only intended for pure academic discussions; how it has become a media consumption is a total surprise to us.’
“Their work hit a nerve for many people because it seemed to reinforce the idea that criminal behavior is something that can be predicted from measurable physiological traits. But more than this, it suggested that a computer could be trained to read these traits and classify people as criminal or non-criminal, even before they’ve committed a crime…”

Chapter 4 (Minority Report)

5. UBIQUITOUS SURVEILLANCE

With the advent of the Internet of Things and widespread connectivity, never before have organizations had so much information about individuals’ lives. This data can and is being used for good — improving health and wellbeing for instance, and helping ensure that the places we live serve our needs better. But as we’re learning, it also makes people vulnerable as corporations, government, and others know enough about them to control their lives in new ways.

“…Minority Report is surprisingly prescient when it comes to some aspects of big data. It paints a future where what people do in the real world as well as online is collected, analyzed, and ultimately used in ways that directly affect them…”

Chapter 4 (Minority Report)

6. SMART DRUGS

I recently conducted an informal poll in my undergraduate class of how many of them sometimes use so-called “smart drugs.” Over 50% of the class admitted to using substances like Ritalin, Adderall and Modafinil. As the science of how the brain works advances, and the ability to synthesize substances that affect this continues to grow, smart drugs and “nootropics” are becoming an increasingly important topic.

“In 2004, the academic and medical doctor Anjan Chatterjee wrote a review of what he termed “Cosmetic Neurology.” He was far from the first person to write about the emergence and ethics of cognitive enhancers, but the piece caught my attention because of its unusual title.
“Chatterjee’s title has its roots in cosmetic surgery, an area fraught with medical angst as surgeons weigh up the pros and cons of desirable, but physiologically unnecessary, surgical interventions. Through the article, Chatterjee grapples with similar challenges as he weighs the benefits and downsides of treatments that don’t cure disease but, rather, extend abilities…”

Chapter 5 (Limitless)

7. THE NATURE OF INTELLIGENCE

Smart drugs and artificial intelligence are based on assumptions around what intelligence is, and its usefulness. But as these and associated technologies continue to advance, we’re learning that we need to think more deeply about the nature of intelligence.

“…Our intelligence is what many of us depend on in our personal and professional lives. And, when it comes to artificial forms of intelligence, it’s something that some people worry will end up destroying us. But how we think about intelligence is remarkably colored by our sense of our own importance, and this in turn affects how we think about technologies that are designed to enhance it, including smart drugs…”

Chapter 5 (Limitless)

8. BIOPRINTING REPLACEMENT BODY PARTS

Could we one day manufacture fully functioning replacement body parts using 3D printers? This would have been pure science fiction a few years ago. But there are already companies and researchers who believe we’re not too far away from printing complex biological organs on-demand

“In 2016, a quite remarkable series of images started to permeate the internet. The images showed what looked like the perfectly formed outer parts of a human ear. But, unlike a real ear, this one was emerging, as if grown, from an iridescent pink liquid held in a laboratory petri dish.
“The ear was the product of a technique that scientists around the world had been working on for some years: the ability to, quite literally, print replacement body parts…”

Chapter 6 (Elysium)

9. AUTOMATION

Automation has been at the core of technology innovation since the Industrial Revolution. Yet advances in robotics and artificial intelligence are promising (or threatening, depending how you look at it) a step-change in the level of automation within society, from manufacturing to transportation, and even teaching, investment, and law enforcement. It’s a wave of technological innovation that’s as challenging as it is exciting.

“…When I was finishing high school, and going through the tedium of career advice, many of the jobs that people now do hadn’t even been invented. Web designer, app coder, Uber driver, cloud computing expert, YouTube creator, smart-city designer, microfinance manager, and so on — none of these appeared in the brochures I was encouraged to digest. There’s no question that, over the past few decades, the job market has radically changed. And this has been driven by technological innovation, and to a large extent by automation…”

Chapter 6 (Elysium)

10. HUMAN AUGMENTATION

Technologies have been used to augment our bodies for centuries — just think of glasses, or false teeth. Yet the technologies we embed in our bodies are becoming increasingly sophisticated. And as they do, they are raising quite amazing new possibilites, as well as some quite novel challenges.

In 2015, Hugo Campos wrote an article for the online magazine Slate with the sub-heading, “I can’t access the data generated by my implanted defibrillator. That’s absurd.” Campos had a device inserted into his body — an Implantable Cardiac Defibrillator, or ICD — that constantly monitored his heartbeat, and that would jump-start his heart, were it to falter. Every seven years or so, the implanted device’s battery runs low, and the ICD needs to be replaced, what’s referred to as a “generator changeout.” As Campos describes, many users of ICDs use this as an opportunity to upgrade to the latest model. And in his case, he was looking for something specific with the changeout; an ICD that would allow him to personally monitor his own heart…”

Chapter 7 (Ghost in the Shell)

11. ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE

Without a doubt, technologies like deep learning and natural language processing have revitalized the field of artificial intelligence, to the point where massive breakthroughs are being made in what machines can achieve, and how they can transcend human capabilities. Whichever way AI goes, the one certainty is that the future with AI will be very different from the present.

“…we probably need to worry less about putting checks and balances in place to avoid the emergence of superintelligence, and more about guarding against AIs that learn how to use our cognitive vulnerabilities against us. And we need to think about how to develop tests that indicate when we are being played by machines…”

Chapter 8 (Ex Machina)

12. SUPERINTELLIGENCE

One of the fears around AI is that machines will become so smart that they outsmart us at every turn. It’s a fear that’s plagued people like Steven Hawking and Elon Musk. Yet how realistic is the emergence of “superintelligence?”

“…I’d be sitting next to some engaging person, having what seemed like a normal conversation, when they’d ask ‘So, do you believe in superintelligence?’ As something of an agnostic, I’d either prevaricate, or express some doubts as to the plausibility of the idea. In most cases, they’d then proceed to challenge any doubts that I might express, and try to convert me to becoming a superintelligence believer. I sometimes had to remind myself that I was at a scientific meeting, not a religious convention…”

Chapter 8 (Ex Machina)

13. SYNTHETIC BIOLOGY

What if we could engineer biology in the same way we design computer chips? This is one of the driving concepts behind synthetic biology. Of course, biology is way more messy and complex than electronics, but imagine if it was possible to design new organisms as easily as it is to develop new electronic gizmos…

“…Endy wasn’t the first to coin the term synthetic biology. But he was one of the first to introduce ideas to biological design like standardized parts, modularization, and “black-boxing” (essentially designing biological modules where a designer doesn’t need to know how a module works, just what it does). And in doing so, he helped establish an ongoing trend in applying non-biological thinking to biology…”

Chapter 9 (Transcendence)

14. TECHNOLOGICAL CONVERGENCE

Emerging technologies in biology, cyber tech and materials are radically changing what it’s possible to achieve. But it’s at the convergence of these trends that the most profound shifts in capabilities are occurring.

“To understand why we’re at such a transformative point in our technological history, it’s worth pausing to look at how our technological skills are growing in how we work with the most fundamental and basic building blocks of the things we make and use; starting with digital systems, and extending out to the materials and products we use and the biological systems we work with…”

Chapter 9 (Transcendence)

15. NANOTECHNOLOGY

Nanotechnology — or to be more precise, nanoscale science and engineering — has been around for a while now. But as scientists and engineers learn more about how the precise arrangement of atoms and molecules in materials affects their properties, we’re getting closer to creating materials that behave quite unlike anything that’s existed before.

“As scientists began to understand how particle size changes material behavior, they began developing increasingly sophisticated particle-based catalysts that were designed to speed up reactions and help produce specific industrial chemicals. But they also began to understand how the precise atomic configuration of everything around us affects the properties of materials, and can in principle be used to design how a material behaves.
This realization led to the field of materials science growing rapidly in the 1970s, and to the emergence of novel electronic components, integrated circuits, computer chips, hard drives, and pretty much every piece of digital gadgetry we now rely on. It also paved the way for the specific formulation of nanotechnology adopted by the US government and by governments and scientists around the world…”

Chapter 10 (The Man in the White Suit)

16. GAIN OF FUNCTION RESEARCH

One of the advantages of breakthroughs in DNA sequencing and synthesis is that scientists can begin to experiment with existing organisms, and ask “what if …” questions about their genetic code. One particular question along these lines is “what if we make a virulent pathogen even more virulent …” It may seem like an odd question, but this so-called “gain of function” research is helpful in understanding the emergence of deadly viruses and other pathogens, so that we can prepare for them. However, it also raises the possibility of someone doing the same to unleash a deadly infectious agent into the world.

“In 2012, two groups of scientists published parallel papers in the prestigious journals Science157 and Nature that described, in some detail, how to genetically engineer an avian influenza virus. What made the papers stand out was that these scientists succeeded in making the virus more infectious, and as a result, far deadlier. The research sparked an intense debate around the ethics of such studies, and it led to questions about the wisdom of scientists publishing details of how to make pathogens harmful in a way that could enable others to replicate their work…”

Chapter 11 (Inferno)

17. RESILIENCE

We live in world that seems to be changing faster by the day — whether it’s through climate change, social change, or the ever-increasing speed of innovation. To survive and thrive in such an environment, we need to embrace ways of managing and adapting to change. And this means developing an increasingly sophisticated understanding of what it means to be resilient.

“…Resiliency, I have to admit, is a bit of a buzz-word these days. In the environmental context, it’s often used to describe how readily an ecosystem is able to resist harm, or recover from damage caused by some event. But resiliency goes far beyond resistance to change. In its broadest sense, it gets to the heart of how we think about what’s important to us, and how we make provisions to protect and grow this, in spite of events that threaten to cause harm…”

Chapter 12 (The Day After Tomorrow)

18. GEOENGINEERING

Given the potentially devastating impacts of climate change, should we develop technologies that can reduce the rate of global warming, or even cool the Earth? Geoengineering is a contentious topic, but it’s also one that’s within our technological grasp — should we decide to pursue it

“In 2006, University of Arizona astronomer Roger Angel suggested a rather radical solution to global warming. His idea was to launch a trillion-dollar light diffuser into space, to deflect some of the sun’s rays from the Earth. The proposal was published in the prestigious journal the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and at the time it caught the imagination of a number of us who were intrigued by such an audacious approach to planetary engineering…”

Chapter 12 (The Day After Tomorrow)

19. OCCAM’S RAZOR

How do you separate exciting but fanciful new technologies from those that are likely to succeed? The same goes for scientific breakthrough, and sifting through the hype that often surrounds them. here, the concept of “Occam’s razor” may be helpful in making sense of grandiose claims and fearful projections.

“William of Occam was a fourteenth-century English philosopher, friar, and theologian. From historic accounts, he was sharp thinker, and a somewhat controversial religious figure in his time. Yet, these days, he is best known for the scientific rule of thumb that bears his name…”

Chapter 13 (Contact)

20. EXTRATERRESTRIAL LIFE

If life is ever discovered that didn’t originate on Earth is ever found, it could be a game changer. Or it could simply be a “meh” moment as people pause in their daily routines, then get on with life as usual. Either way, breakthroughs in space science are dramatically increasing the odds of finding something, somewhere in the universe, that didn’t evolve on Earth.

“In 1961, a group of ten scientists got together to discuss the search for extraterrestrial life — among them were Carl Sagan and the astrophysicist Frank Drake. What came out of that meeting was an equation that the group felt gave the best stab at estimating (at least to an order of magnitude) the number of intelligent civilizations within our galaxy that are capable of communicating with us. Over a couple of intense days, the group discussed what factors would affect the possibility of planets existing that could harbor intelligent life, the likelihood of intelligence emerging, and the chances of them getting a signal to us that we detected. And what emerged was the now-famous Drake Equation…”

Chapter 13 (Contact)