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.