My buddies at SFSignal pointed me towards this Top 10 list of sci-fi tropes and technologies that will never come true. Well, being a contrarian who likes a challenge, I've decided to postulate circumstances wherein each of these ideas could come to fruition, if only to poke the hornet's nest. Here we go:
- Faster-than-light (FTL) travel - Okay, sure, traveling at the speed of light, or faster, would mean you have zero length and infinite mass -- if you play by Einstein's rules. But, much like planes can fly without violating the rules of gravity, there are ways of working around the lightspeed limit. Best guess? Something like an Alcubierre Drive, which is freakily similar to a Star Trek warp drive. Basically, you bend spacetime in such a way that the fabric of the universe moves around you, rather than you moving. Spacetime can warp faster than you allowably move in space, so it's a loophole in the light barrier. The Alcubierre would require some way to bend space in an efficient matter -- probably requiring some undetermined method of accumulating and manipulating Higgs bosons or gravitons, if either should prove to exist and carry mass -- but it's in the ballpark of conceivability. It probably won't be energy efficient, but then neither are rockets and radioisotope thermoelectric generators, but they're the backbone of the space program because they're all we've got. I expect the same of FTL travel, at least until we perfect wormhole transit.
- Resurrecting dinosaurs - The argument against this little feat isn't so much about feasibility -- we're probably 15 to 20 years away from the genetic competency to clone most any living creature given a viable genetic sample -- but that there's no point in it. (Granted, finding a viable genetic sample for dinosaurs is the really hard part.) But saying we won't do it if we could is just willful ignorance. Even if I concede that we can know every cogent fact about a creature's biology just from the fossil record and DNA analysis, which I don't, there's the entire behavioral component of biology that you can only learn by working with living specimens. Besides, since when is scientific merit the sole factor in determining whether a technical challenge is undertaken? Much as I dislike Michael Crichton, Jurassic Park did have one thing going for it -- acknowledging that when confronted with the possibility of breeding real, live dinosaurs, human beings just can't help but take the chance. We're stupid with dino love. If dinosaur breeding is possible, count on it happening.
- Cure-all pills - This one is a little difficult to argue against, since disease is an adaptive foe and curing one strain of anything merely forces pathogens to get stronger or opens up new possibilities of failure. Half the reason heart disease is the leading cause of death in the industrialized world is because we've pretty much tamped down death by infection. We're finally living long enough to die of clogged arteries, which didn't happen a thousand years ago. The answer here is an adaptive cure, one that reacts faster than most pathogens. Nanotechnology is our best bet on this front. Take a genetic snapshot of your DNA and your bodily processes operating at relative peak capacity, then hand that data to a distributed network of cell-sized machines -- that you ingested as a pill -- all operating collectively as an internal repair crew. Given even a cursory set of artificial intelligence cues and skills, these nano-bots could shut down tumors, clear out clogged valves, and wipe out infections before they did serious damage. Of course, that puts us at biological risk of software viruses -- basically putting our lives in the hands McAfee and Norton -- but that's a horror movie for another day.
- Stable global government - Okay, this sci-fi staple doesn't appear to be a tech issue on the surface, but it is. It's an accepted truth that all politics is local, because the issues that anyone really cares about are those that affect them directly. Technology will actually make global government necessary. Today, my day job is a little off kilter because I have contract writers (and friends and colleagues) living in Texas, where Hurricane Ike just kicked the crap out of the power grid. Suddenly, the government's ability to get the lights back on in Houston is very relevant to me. My partner has contract developers in the Ukraine, so when Russia starts flexing its military muscle, it affects his business. But the same communications and commercial systems that let me hire people in Texas, Boston, Kiev, and London will only get better, faster, easier -- and more indispensable. To stay economically viable, every country on earth will eventually have to become part of this network. This will in turn make global issues into local issues -- by dint of economic necessity, as it will affect everyone's pocketbook -- and force a global governing infrastructure, however circumspect, into existence. Look for Google Parliament, a tool which lets you set up a stable election online for free and manage a legal system irrespective of geography, within the next decade or so.
- Answering the "Is there a God?" question - Not so much a tech question as a plot device in far too many sci-fi stories, I still think this is an area technology will have a serious eventual impact. There is a basic philosophical axiom which holds "That which we cannot know, we call gods." Moreover, superstition is actually a survival tactic, and a very effective one. Determining exactly which aspects of the natural world for which gods are responsible depends on a foundational assumption, but generally speaking, the more we've understood of the world, the less it has been necessary to accord storms and earthquakes to the will of Poseidon or sunrise to the journeys of Apollo. It may take untold billions of eons but, provided humanity survives, it is conceivable that we could understand and replicate all the natural phenomena that led to the existence of human beings. Whatever is left to know beyond that will be, by definition, a higher power. Science cannot help but prove or disprove the existence of a higher being. It's just a question of whether we live long enough to do it. Like Isaac Asimov, I'm betting on it.
- Television that beams in your head - Setting aside whether this is a good or a bad thing -- like all tools, brain-TV would only be as moral as the uses it was put to -- direct neural access is a technology that is already under development. I'll even go so far as to posit that pornography will drive its development, for the simple reason that inserting imagery directly into the brain is a measure of privacy. With any current communications medium, the data being shared must be accessed using human senses, so that anyone in sightline or earshot of your media could view it as well as you can. Brain-TV lets you consume information in total privacy and, one presumes, interact with it similarly. Imagine a cell phone that didn't require you to talk out loud? Or watching an action movie or rock concert at any immersive volume, without bothering anyone -- and without damaging your eardrums? Imagine consuming any content you wish, in any manner, with the person next to you none the wiser. We may be a century away from this, but count on it happening.
- Forced evolution -First, the term "forced evolution" is a misnomer, as evolution doesn't have an end-goal. It's just the process of creatures adapting to environmental pressures. What we're really talking about here is biological uplift, the intentional granting of enhanced intelligence to non-sapient creatures. Basically, making superchimps or uber-dolphins that can better serve their human masters, to cite the most common sci-fi incarnations of the idea. Here's the scary part -- we already have a pretty good idea about the mechanism that might allow this. A certain variant of the protein neuropsin only occurs in humans and is central to our ability to recall and comprehend memories. It is literally what makes some of our brain functions different from those of other higher primates. How long do you think it will be before chimps are genetically engineered to produce this form of neuropsin? I say 30 years, but whenever it happens, it will be the first step down the path of intentional biological uplift. I, for one, welcome our new meta-chimp overlords.
- Perpetual energy source - First, let's set aside any notion that we can violate the first law of thermodynamics. There ain't no such thing as a free lunch and that extends to energy sources. What we're talking about here is a maintenance-free engine that doesn't require external refueling. The answer to this problem is actually rather straightforward -- an engine that gathers its fuel as part of its basic function, rather than requiring an explicit refueling action. A fine example would be the Bussard ramjet, which gathers particles for its fusion reaction from the interstellar medium. Such an engine could theoretically accelerate until it hit the lightspeed barrier, in which case we'll need that Alcubierre Drive to act in concert. Granted, we'd need massively more sophisticated electromagnetic technology to make this work, but nothing about it violates fundamental physics, which is high praise for a science fiction idea.
- Personalized spacecraft - The argument against this pretty much the same as that against personalized aircraft -- humans can barely be trusted to navigate personal transports in two dimensions, gods forbid we give them three. The counterpoint is major airliners can fly and even land themselves on autopilot these days, largely because of advances in fly-by-wire and sensor technology. GM is putting a self-driving production car, the Opel Vectra, on the market this year. I'll grant that the George Lucas notion of a pilot-operated X-wing in every garage is bogus, but if we let astromechs do all the driving, the only barrier to personalized spacecraft is the same that is posed to every spacecraft -- the hideous cost of achieving Earth-escape velocity. The generally accepted answer to that problem is a space elevator, and the nanotube building blocks for it get closer every day. Throw in some orbital parking garages, and you're just a cable-car trip away from pointing your personal spacecoupe at any point within a few days' journey of Earth. Say, the moon, or a LaGrange point space station. Don't forget to pack a lunch.
- Universal translators - Okay, so "universal" here is a marketing term, because you can't possibly design a device that can interpolate communications from entirely alien intelligences. At least not immediately. Even Star Trek has to cop to that in a few episodes where their uber-translation systems hit a language structure or logic they just couldn't handle (TNG: "Darmok"; DS9: "Sanctuary"). But so far as a universal terrestrial translator, that's just an issue of combining speech recognition and text translation, both of which you can buy off the shelf right now. Heck, we're close to having a pan-European audio translator in the next couple of years. After that it's just an issue of throwing more sophisticated software and computing power at the problem. Where we might approach even a Star Trek-esque transtlator is by proving or disproving the notion of Chomskian universal grammar, which holds that the human brain conceives of language in a basic, biological manner, and comprehending that mechanism will allow comprehension of virtually any human-created language. That would be the elegant solution, but a good, old-fashioned Moore's Law brute force approach is proving just as viable anyway. Odds are, your grandkids will talk on brainlink cell phones that translate almost any human language virtually instantly, so expect phone bills to every corner of the globe to be the next major parent-to-teenager squabbling point. Also, permission to borrow the self-driving aerocar.
Care to counter-argue or concur? There's this big, inviting comments section waiting to hear from you.
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Jay Garmon has a vast and terrifying knowledge of all things obscure, obtuse, and irrelevant. One day, he hopes to write science fiction, but for now he'll settle for something stranger -- amusing and abusing IT pros. Read his full profile. You can also follow him on his personal blog.