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Thursday
May212015

FUTURE RX

When we think about how scientific research and technological innovation are changing our world, we can’t help but think of tech progress at the most personal level: within our own bodies. Over the past century, medical knowledge has made huge leaps and there’s no reason to believe that won’t continue. We already have amazing vaccines against some of our race’s most ancient biological enemies, and micro-surgical techniques are constantly improving, turning previously traumatic procedures into outpatient treatments. How long will it be before some obsessive scientist in a castle laboratory shrieks into the howl of a thunderstorm, “It’s alive! It’s alive!”?

OK, but if we haven’t quite figured out how to reverse death (or bring pilfered corpse parts back to life) we’re at least making great strides toward living longer. Even such things as pacemakers and artificial hip joints have had a big impact on life expectancy. I think that within twenty years we’ll all have implants that will monitor our vital signs, sound a warning to ourselves and to bystanders if we suffer a sudden health problem (and probably issue first aid instructions to those nearby) while automatically alerting emergency medical services. Why not? Our cell phones can almost do that now—which is appropriate considering how many people place themselves in life-threatening situations while texting.

Human body parts are being produced by 3D printing. Although it will be some time yet before viable organs are created, it’s thought that such printers might use living cells for “ink”. Various blood substitutes have been around for a while, which can save lives in a pinch, but now labs have begun to create actual artificial blood. Bioengineering will take us a long way in the coming years, making replacement body parts and organs customized to match our own individual DNA. Hopefully researchers will include muscle and bone tissue among these advancements, because none of us really wants to live decades longer if muscle and bone loss means we feel the aches and pains of every one of those extra years. Hello doctors—do I need to repeat that one?

Let’s not forget nanotechnology. As scientists create more and more micro machines that mimic the chemical processes of living cells, we’ll enter the territory of body parts that don’t wear out because they’ll repair themselves. Whereas we now turn to green vegetables, blueberries, and red wine to provide anti-oxidant compounds to clean out the “rust in our pipes” (from free-radicals),

within the next century we’ll have armies of ultra-miniature mechanisms floating through our bloodstreams to perform those tasks, and do it better because their actions will be directed, not random. Just as importantly, our mental capabilities will be maintained through the stimulation of new neuron growth, along with the technical assistance of implanted computer-networked devices (being “wired” will have nothing to do with overdosing on espresso). We now know that young children’s abilities to soak up knowledge like a sponge is chemically switched off as they approach puberty and then adulthood, but within the next century we’ll learn to switch it back on, say, when we want to learn a few new languages for our European vacation.

Our children and their children can look forward to all of these innovations and many more, BUT there will be a price to pay when humans start living longer and longer lives. Population pressure will become even more serious, and the resources of our planet are not infinite. Yes, we’ll find ways to gather some resources from elsewhere in the solar system, but wouldn’t it be much smarter to make better use of the ones that are already here?

It’s all well and good to improve human health and the human lifespan, but it will be irresponsible if we don’t put a serious chunk of that research and innovation brainpower into vastly improved recycling of materials (including wasted food), renewable energy, and the reclaiming of material that has been wantonly discarded in landfill sites for the past hundred-and-fifty years.

There’s more to the equation than just medical advancements if we truly want to “Live long and prosper.”

Tuesday
May122015

THE DREAM OF PERSONAL FLIGHT

 

If you’ve ever thought it would be amazing to be able to rocket through the sky like Iron Man, have a look at the new video featuring “Jetman” Yves Rossy. Through many different variations and test models over the past twenty years, Rossy has developed his own combination jet pack and flying wing that allows him to do incredible things in the air. I’m very jealous, even though if I were to try out his jet pack my flight suit would need a heavy duty Depends. Just for fun, you should also check out his “race” with a rally car for the BBC show Top Gear.

For now, Rossy’s system does have some drawbacks: it weighs about 120 pounds, has to be launched in the air (he drops from a plane or helicopter like a skydiver) and requires a parachute to land. Nonetheless, it’s impressive as hell, and we know that when innovative ideas capture mainstream attention they can quickly undergo dramatic improvements. Maybe within another ten years the current limitations will be overcome and the world will see a personal flying suit capable of take-off and landing. Then what will Tony Stark do to keep ahead?

Individual human flight has been a dream for thousands of years and a regular feature of science fiction. Most often, writers have dodged many of the technical hurdles by placing the characters in low-gravity or zero gravity environments, like small moon-planets or orbital habitats, with mechanically-assisted muscle to flap wings or small steam-powered rockets to provide forward momentum. Such systems are rarely used for practical purposes like an everyday commute. They’re for recreation or competitive sport. But it’s interesting to speculate what it would be like if the personal jet pack came into common use.

It could solve a lot of parking problems.

Hard to say if it would help with traffic congestion, though. Instead of left and right traffic lanes, I expect we’d have an upper and lower stream of flyers. Cross streets could eliminate the need for traffic lights by also using three dimensions: requiring each street (or flight path) to be restricted to a specific altitude, possibly marked by wide horizontal stripes painted on each of the buildings flanking it. Less terrifying would be a requirement for flyers to travel well above the highest buildings in a minimal number of lanes that could be marked by towers mounted on buildings or balloons tethered to them (high wind days, rainstorms, and blizzards might ground everyone, but storms already screw up our commutes).

Needless to say, commuters wouldn’t be travelling at the 200 km/h that Yves Rossy does. There isn’t an insurance company in the world that wouldn’t collapse into a quivering puddle of jelly at that prospect. Air pollution might be worse than it already is. Taxi drivers would become all but extinct (catering only to those afraid to fly, or otherwise not airworthy). Police chases would be nothing less than aerial choreography. Office workers with slippery briefcase handles could be inadvertent killers. Pigeons and gulls would become Public Enemy #1.

In truth, I don’t expect any of this to happen via jet pack technology. Too many drawbacks. We won’t become a species of individual flyers until someone discovers the secret of antigravity, and whether that will happen in our lifetimes, or ever, is anybody’s guess.

If it does, I’ll buy you a coffee in the fly-thru lane.

Tuesday
May052015

FOLLOW THE TECHNOLOGY

Has it ever struck you how many science fiction novels and movies feature planets with only one notable feature? Our Earth has seas, deserts, grasslands, frozen wastes, tropical forests, mountain ranges, and a lot more. Yet novelists and scriptwriters get lazy and offer us single-type planets with no variety: all-desert planets (like Dune or Tatooine—in fact the Star Wars universe has lots of all-water planets, too), all-frozen planets, or all-jungle planets. Yes, you can find them in reality: Mars is mostly desert. But even Mercury has now been found to have an ice cap (and not the Tim Horton’s kind).

A similar thing happens with technology. The storyteller whips up one big technological breakthrough and then tells only one story associated with it. The reality is that technology breakthroughs are like oases: you start with a pool of water and a patch of damp grass, and before long you have a whole ecosystem: not just beautiful birds but also rats and lice. We’re seeing that kind of tech shift right now with 3D printing. It’s not just for making model renderings of prototype inventions, but also consumer products, prosthetics and false teeth, cars, houses, even human organs (though not viable ones quite yet) and...plastic weapons for criminals. Sure, an author has to keep a story to one or two main plotlines, but we owe it to the integrity of our work and to our readers to flesh out our created worlds with mentions of spin-off tech.

We’re now witnessing the development of prosthetic eyes that enable the blind to see with reasonable resolution and some colour distinction, and cochlear implants that permit the deaf to hear. Yet we know from experience that it won’t be enough to merely replace the senses of sight and hearing, we’ll soon enhance them. What form will that take, and to what uses will it be put? If you’re from my generation you’ll be picturing Six Million Dollar Man Steve Austin visually zooming in on the bad guys with his bionic eye, or Jaime Sommers using her enhanced ear to detect approaching danger. And it may be true that quasi-military operatives will be among the first to use tech like this. But what about when it becomes widespread? The ability to see wavelengths of light beyond normal human range would be a big plus for forensic crime scene investigators (following a blood trail only visible in ultraviolet, perhaps), geological surveyors and agriculture specialists, maybe even urban traffic analysts and security surveillance monitors. Augmented hearing might allow industrial inspectors to walk through factories and hear worn or off-balance mechanical connections before they fail, search and rescue teams to locate lost hikers, or utility workers to retrieve a puppy trapped in a drainpipe. Since you’d have the advanced technology hooked up to a highly-sophisticated processor—the human brain—real-time on-scene analysis of extra-sensory data would be a boon for dozens of occupations, and would probably foster new jobs we’ve never thought of.

On the darker side, new technology for exchanging money using your smartphone or an ID chip implanted under your skin opens up a whole new range of opportunities for personal robbery, identity theft, spoofing of security systems (making it much easier to frame someone else for a crime?), and the abuse of citizens’ rights by overzealous government organizations.

New liquid biopsy procedures quickly screen DNA from a blood sample for the tell-tale signs of cancer. But as screening becomes available for more and more diseases and genetic conditions we see the specter of human genetic selection raising its head. How much will we really want to know our likelihood of succumbing to any number of specific health problems—not based on generic population statistics, but our own genetic markers? How will that change the way we live our lives? As more and more diseases are detected early and treated more effectively, how will our society handle the demands that come from greatly extended lifespans and dwindling death rates?

For writers, there’s a whole additional level of world-building implied by each significant innovation. Daunting, sure. But just think of the fun! And not a bad way to kill a few hours when your muse is on a lunch break.

Thursday
Apr232015

LIFE IS A TREASURE WORTH FINDING

I’ve posted recently about the search for extraterrestrial intelligence and the (so far) lack of success. But why are we so focused on intelligence? Wouldn’t it be awesome enough just to discover life elsewhere in this vast universe? Jumping high-five awesome? For some reason most of the attention and all of the angst has been centered on the idea that there might be other species of beings out there that might be interested in us for the purposes of a) contacting, or b) conquering. Yet the search has come up empty. Well, maybe intelligent life is as rare as a politician with his hands in his own pockets, and there are lots of reasons it could remain hidden from us, but the discovery of any kind of life inhabiting other solar systems would be cause for celebration.

This week NASA announced a brand new coalition of scientific endeavours to be known as NExSS (Nexus for Exoplanet System Science). Each of the partner projects will focus on different aspects of the search for extraterrestrial life including refined spectrometers better able to detect Earth-like planets, how planets form and where, the potential habitability of exoplanets (from a human perspective), tidal dynamics, how organic elements reach planet surfaces, and a lot of other topics.

I love this idea, and not just because of its geek-cool acronym. The practical side is that the more we know about how habitable planets get that way and how life arises and survives elsewhere, the better we can understand the challenges of our own planet and maybe even find solutions to the damage we’ve done to its ecosphere. God knows, we need all the help we can get in that department. But beyond the practical is the pure stomach-tingling thrill of a treasure hunt. Finding carbon-based life on an exoplanet would be like finding a long-lost cousin you never knew you had (who doesn’t know about all the skeletons in family closets). No, bigger than that—it would be like living all your life in a sheltered village and suddenly finding out that there’s a whole world just beyond the trees. There was a hint of that when the first exoplanets were discovered in the mid 1990’s, but the confirmation of extraterrestrial life would ramp that excitement up to a whole new level. Think of all of the new questions, and the answers, and…more questions.

Does carbon-based life require DNA? A cellular structure? Does it always follow a birth-to-death life cycle, or could there be forms of life that are effectively immortal? What about sex—we’re always fascinated by sex.

What if we find life forms that aren’t based on carbon? There’s been speculation, but proof would really upset the bioscience applecart. And that could be a good thing. Sometimes the best way to advance is to throw everything you’ve known up in the air and see what new patterns form when it lands.

Whatever we learn about life elsewhere is bound to open our eyes to secrets our own planet has yet to offer up, because I’m certain we haven’t yet found every type of life the Earth has produced, hidden in the depths of the ocean or the planetary crust. Not to mention other bioscience implications like the discoveries of new potential medicines. Learning how extraterrestrial life copes with unique or harsh conditions might teach us how to protect ourselves from nasty surprises like cosmic ray bursts or asteroid strikes, too.

Most of all, I love this plan because the discovery of life elsewhere would give us somewhere to go and a reason to get there. The human race is at its best when we have goals that inspire us, nearly unattainable heights to climb. A treasure just beyond our reach that requires us to dig deep within ourselves and strive together in community.

We could really use something like that right now, and NExSS just might point the way.

Monday
Apr132015

SHOULD SCIENCE FICTION PREDICT THE FUTURE?

I attended the Ad Astra science fiction convention in Toronto over the weekend, and the first two panel discussions I caught both involved imagining the future and how wrong our predictions often are. Of course, the subject was implied in other sessions too, because SF is a forward-thinking literature (alternate history notwithstanding). One of the most notable things that SF writers and filmmakers got wrong was the evolution of computing. Almost no-one predicted that we’d all have personal computing devices, especially not the size of a watch. Computers in the 50’s and 60’s were monstrous and the expectation was that increasingly sophisticated models would be even bigger. That seems laughable now, as we check our email and surf for a movie to watch on our phone. But then we also figured we’d have flying cars, eat a dinner of pills, and at least have a permanent base on the Moon by now, if not hotels (The Jetsons pretty much covered the expectations of the time).

We shouldn’t be too hard on those early futurists. As Ad Astra panellists like Eric Choi and Neil Jamieson-Williams pointed out, often the technology for such things has become available, but we’ve discovered we don’t actually want them. We like real food. We know how dangerous most of our fellow drivers are on paved roads—it doesn’t bear thinking about them swooping around us through the air. In the case of Moon bases or flights to Jupiter, a whole complex of reasons have delayed those, mostly political and economic (recessions and an endless string of armed conflicts).

Some writers nail it when predicting future technology, but I don’t think accuracy is that important. No matter how far into the future they’re set, SF stories are always about us, here and now. Our reaction to the future society and the priorities of its people. The ways future tech would change our lives. The things we’re doing now that might be creating a future we don’t want. In our stories we say, “Here’s where this technology seems to be heading, here are the implications of that, and if we don’t want those results we should act now to make sure they don’t happen.”

The idea of too-powerful governments monitoring and controlling nearly every aspect of our lives is a common trope of cautionary SF. In reality, we’re voluntarily surrendering more and more of our privacy and free will all the time: to governments in return for promised (though dubious) protection from over-inflated threats to our security, and even more puzzlingly, to corporations in return for a better shopping experience! We could have learned our lesson from science fiction, but we obviously haven’t.

The possibility that artificial computer intelligence will arise and want to wipe out the “inferior” human race is another major trope (The Terminator movies being the most famous example). But while authors like Karl Schroeder and Madeline Ashby feel that’s mostly about the way we anthropomorphize machines and expect the worst from them based on our experience with other humans, such SF stories are effectively saying that now is the time to build in safeguards for AI, limit its development, or just come to a better understanding of consciousness to ease our fears. (Karl, Madeline, and Hayden Trenholm rightfully point out that we probably have more to fear from the mindless computer algorithms currently being used by our financial systems etc. than anything with a mind.)

So, while it’s entertaining to imagine future technology, science fiction is about our world and the way we’re shaping it, day by day. The actual predictions—bullseyes and duds—are mainly useful as the answers to trivia questions.

Which is too bad, because I really wouldn’t have minded a flying DeLorean powered by a Mr. Fusion.