Zócalo Public Square is a magazine of ideas from Arizona State University Knowledge Enterprise.
Science fiction writers can be eerily prescient. Consider what John Brunner got right about our world in 2010, as described in his 1968 novel Stand on Zanzibar: a world shaken up by terrorist attacks and school shootings, the near-abandonment of Detroit, a zeal for upgrading everything, including our bodies. When Isaac Asimov envisioned in 1964 what 2014 would be like, he described what we’ve come to know as satellite phones, Skype calls, and driverless cars. Of course, with all hits, there have been some misses: we don’t have Brunner’s single super computer that powers the world, but the rhizome of the Internet with servers all over the globe; we don’t have the moon colonies that Asimov assumed we’d already have. Still, the power of science fiction comes from the license to dream – and in many case to have nightmares. In advance of the Zócalo/ASU Center for Science and the Imagination Event “Can Science Fiction Revolutionize Science?”, we asked experts: What idea from science fiction would you most like to see become reality?
1. Instant messaging – across galaxies
By Seth Shostak
There are many concepts in science fiction that would be truly revolutionary if they were to change from fantasy to fact. Strong artificial intelligence, for example, would demote us as the rulers of the planet. Our species might take on a new status – as pets.
Building orbiting space colonies is another staple of sci-fi that would have major effect. Getting some of the population away from Earth and mining natural resources from asteroids or other bodies would permanently relieve many of the environmental pressures on our world.
These are examples of developments that would shift Homo sapiens into another gear. But they’re not truly spectacular because, frankly, they’re too plausible. They’re almost certain to happen, and perhaps quite soon. They don’t violate physics.
However, here’s something that’s in a different camp altogether: instantaneous communication. It does violate physics, at least the physics that we know. We’re not talking warp drive, but warp communication: the ability to exchange bits of information between any two locations, no matter how great the separation, without delay.
Consider what happened when the alien planet Alderaan is destroyed in the Star Wars film A New Hope. Millions of people are killed, but thanks to the instant messaging capability of The Force (whatever that is) Obi-Wan Kenobi feels their pain immediately.
That capability would change everything, and forever. Face it, there can never be a galactic empire in which biological beings cooperate or compete as long the delivery time for messages (“Help, Klingon attack!” or “Join the Vulcan book club”) is tens of thousands of years.
Searching for extraterrestrial intelligence would become trivial and gratifying. All that’s necessary is to systematically ping every star system in the galaxy, and – without delay – check for a response.
Instant communication would put everyone everywhere on-line. It would unite the cosmos intellectually and culturally. Goodbye isolation; hello socialization.
Seth Shostak is the senior astronomer and director of the Center for SETI Research at the SETI Institute, a Mountain View, California-based organization that aims to explore, understand, and explain the origin and nature of life in the universe. Shostak is also the author of the book, Confessions of an Alien Hunter and host of the radio show, Big Picture Science.
2. Pushing past culture clashes
By Bobak Ferdowsi
I’d pick the thing I recognized when I first started watching reruns of Star Trek and reading the works of Arthur C. Clarke – international cooperation.
I grew up in a multicultural family where, since my birth, there has been animosity between the nations my parents come from – Iran and the United States. The idea that one day humanity would push past the clashes between nations and cultures to pursue the human endeavor of exploration is immensely appealing. Even more wonderful in this science-fiction universe, cultures are not lost, but instead preserved and appreciated. Even today, we face so many challenges on our own planet that stem from cultural misunderstandings and perceived differences in interests.
If I’m forced to suggest a single technical fantasy to become reality, I suppose it would be the replicators from the later generations of Star Trek. The ability to readily convert energy into matter opens up the possibility of providing supplies to remote and underserved locations. While our present has yet to solve the issue of clean, renewable energy, I feel that is within our ability in the next generations. Ultimately I’d like to believe this technology would minimize many of the conflicts over supplies, which I think could be worsened by climate change, growing populations, and shrinking resources.
I’m optimistic about our future – in large part because so many of the engineers and inventors of today are inspired by science fiction. Flip-phones and tablets are a reality. Xprize has a competition to build a medical tricorder, and already our cell phones are being leveraged as platforms for new growth. It may not happen at once, but the good news is we’re making progress – and have the imagination of science fiction chroniclers to help us.
Bobak Ferdowsi is a systems engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. He is a member of the Europa Clipper study team, and previously worked on the Mars Curiosity rover and Cassini Saturn orbiter. He plays softball at JPL and often rides his bike to work.
3. My own personal spacecraft
By Leroy Chiao
I want more than just the flying car that we were promised when I was young. I want a personal spacecraft! The personal spacecraft would not launch on rockets, or need parachutes or a runway to land. It would not be a vehicle that just propels you into orbit around a body (like Earth), but would instead be capable of travel far beyond.
Inspired by a combination of the flying cars in Blade Runner and the fighter spacecraft in Star Wars that can land on and depart from planets easily, my vehicle would take off and land vertically. The versions of those kinds of jump jets in existence (like the military’s Harrier) are VERY loud, but mine would not make a lot of noise. And mine would fly both through the atmosphere, as well as into space. It would not need any refurbishment to fly again. It would be practical for everyday use, just like your car today.
Would this ever be possible? Yes, but several things need to be invented and solved first:
- A nearly infinite, compact, lightweight power source. This would be absolutely necessary to power the engines and run the systems (including active shielding from radiation that could fry the pilot and passengers once they left the Earth’s protective magnetic force field).
- Quiet, small, lightweight, powerful, and clean engines. These would run off of the power supply described above. They would have to be quiet, otherwise the roar from everyone operating these vehicles would be deafening. They would have to be clean. Otherwise, if everyone had one, the environment would quickly become polluted or contaminated.
- Automated collision avoidance and navigation. This is easier than you might think. With transponders and sensors that are just a bit more advanced than those today, coupled with high-speed connection to data and computing power in the cloud, this could actually become a reality sooner rather than later.
- Oh, and all of this stuff would have to be inexpensive.
Why not go directly to teleportation? Call me old-fashioned, but I am squeamish about the idea of having my molecules disassembled and reassembled at another location. Would I still be me, even if it all worked physically? Consciousness and the idea of a soul are still pretty darned intangible.
Leroy Chiao served as a NASA astronaut from 1990-2005. During his 15-year career, he flew four missions into space, three times on Space Shuttles and once as the co-pilot of a Russian Soyuz spacecraft to the International Space Station. On that flight, he served as the commander of Expedition 10, a six-and-a-half month mission. Among other positions, he serves as a Special Advisor to the Space Foundation, and also to the Houston Association for Space and Science Education.
- Beyond the big things, an improvement in nail polish
By Amy Mainzer
Obviously I’d love a transporter for every time I’m stuck in traffic, or the unlimited clean energy derived from banana peels by the Mr. Fusion generator from Back to the Future. But forgetting about civilization-changing technologies for a second, one idea that I have always really liked is a much, much smaller one: the futuristic manicure from Total Recall.
In the movie, someone figured out how to make nail polish that changes colors with the touch of some kind of pen. It’s just a short moment, but this small detail helps to establish a world that truly is futuristic. It also struck me as something that someone might actually invent one day. Although it’s fun to think of big stuff like warp drive and time travel, I’ve always particularly enjoyed thinking about the smaller ways that technology changes our lives. What will day-to-day life be like in the future?
I really wish someone would make nail polish that changes colors by tapping a pen – because I hate the smell of acetone.
Amy Mainzer is an astronomer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. She’s the principal investigator of the NEOWISE mission, a space telescope that searches for asteroids and comets using infrared light.
5. Truly clean energy sources
By Steven Gould
I’d like to see cheap, safe, clean energy production come into being, whether in the form of orbiting satellites that can beam solar energy down to the Earth in microwaves (à la Isaac Asimov’s 1941 short story “Reason”) or super efficient photo-electric panels (as in Robert Heinlein’s 1940 short story “Let There Be Light”). But something that replaces the burning of fossil fuel and drastically cuts our pumping of carbon dioxide into earth’s atmosphere. The likeliest technology on the horizon is nuclear fusion, (clean energy released by the controlled fusing of atoms) but, sadly, we’re talking a distant horizon. I’d also like to see technology that lets us capture and sequester carbon in high volumes. If these “science-fictional” technologies aren’t forthcoming, I’d like to see the most far-fetched, science fictional thing yet: that governments of the world start making decisions based on our best scientific consensus and in the best interest of our species and biosphere, rather than unduly considering the vested interests of corporations.
Otherwise we’re going see a lot of science fiction ideas coming true–things like:
– John Barnes’ Mother of Storms, in which the clathrate gun hypothesis (where a rise in sea temperature triggers a runaway release of methane that leads to even higher temperatures) causes a devastating superstorm.
– Kim Stanley Robinson’s Science in the Capital trilogy, in which the disruption of ocean circulation patterns halts the Gulf Stream with catastrophic results.
– And even J.G. Ballard’s The Drowned World from 1962, in which melting ice caps have raised world sea levels.
Much as I love the positive futures of science fiction — the spread of humanity out into our solar system or farther, the creation of artificial intelligences that will help us to solve our many problems, a resource-abundant future in which the vast economic disparity of our current times is eliminated — it is the “If this goes on” kinds of science fiction that I am most worried will come true.
But don’t count us out yet. We’re clever monkeys.
Steven Gould is the award-winning and New York Times best-selling author of the Jumper books (which inspired the 2008 movie of the same name) as well as standalone novels Wildside, Helm, Blind Waves, 7th Sigma, and Greenwar (written with Laura J. Mixon.) He is the current president of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America and his latest book is Exo (Jumper IV.)
6. These toys should come with warning labels
By Devon Maloney
From touch screens to psychokinesis, there seems to be little left for science to pluck from the pages of revered sci-fi visionaries like Isaac Asimov or Gene Roddenberry and place in the hands the consumer. For authors, it’s made predicting the future feel a little like determining the future, which is a pretty cool system. We’re quite literally getting almost everything we’ve ever dreamed of, and very quickly, to boot.
But one thing that I think often, if not most of the time, gets lost in translation from page to life is perhaps the most vital piece of science fiction’s offerings: the instruction manual. While any inventor can develop a device and bring it into existence, sci-fi authors can pair their imaginings with philosophical and ethical explorations of what tech like this might mean, for individuals, groups, and the future of humanity. The way in which we use the tools we create—and in which those tools might use us—is perhaps even more important than their simple existence. Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? deftly draws parallels between the proliferation of android servants and our present dehumanization of the poor; the protagonist of Octavia Butler’s Wild Seed has superhuman abilities but instead of giving her power, they open her to subjugation, directly trouncing the utopian idea that technology will unquestionably be a great equalizer. Roddenberry gave us the pro-diversity IDIC and the anti-imperialist Prime Directive — two of the most deeply humanist philosophies in fiction, period. And Asimov, with his laws of robotics and the subsequent roboethics conversations they inspired (see: Arthur C. Clarke’s HAL 9000 and The Terminator‘s Skynet), gave us some of, if not the most widely disregarded warnings in the rapidly evolving production of artificially intelligent tech.
Too often we are like children at Christmas, ripping open boxes of sophisticated electronic toys—and ignoring their bright DO NOT GET WET warning labels as we bring them into the swimming pool with us. What a deeply tragic irony that the entirety of science fiction and dystopian fiction might come to fruition: both the miraculous, utopian tech and our inability to see how, if mindlessly utilized, it will most certainly destroy us.
Devon Maloney is an L.A.-based culture journalist and critic. She writes about science fiction and dystopia for Wired; her writing also appears in publications like Grantland, Billboard, SPIN, T magazine, Rolling Stone, Pitchfork, GQ, and Vulture.
This piece originally appeared on Zocalo Public Square.