News from Space: Space Elevator by 2035!

space_elevator2Imagine if you will a long tether made of super-tensile materials, running 100,000 km from the Earth and reaching into geostationary orbit. Now imagine that this tether is a means of shipping people and supplies into orbit, forever removing the need for rockets and shuttles going into space. For decades, scientists and futurists have been dreaming about the day when a “Space Elevator” would be possible; and according to a recent study, it could become a reality by 2035.

The report was launched by the International Academy of Astronautics (IAA), a 350-page report that lays out a detailed case for a space elevator. At the center of it that will reach beyond geostationary orbit and held taught by an anchor weighing roughly two million kilograms (2204 tons). Sending payloads up this backbone could fundamentally change the human relationship with space, with the equivalent of a space launch happening almost daily.

space_elevatorThe central argument of the paper — that we should build a space elevator as soon as possible — is supported by a detailed accounting of the challenges associated with doing so. The possible pay-off is as simple: a space elevator could bring the cost-per-kilogram of launch to geostationary orbit from $20,000 to as little as $500. Not only would be it useful for deploying satellites, it would also be far enough up Earth’s gravity well to be able to use it for long-range missions.

This could include the long-awaited mission to Mars, where a shuttle would push off from the top and then making multiple loops around the Earth before setting off for the Red Planet. This would cut huge fractions off the fuel budget, and would also make setting up a base on the Moon (or Mars) a relatively trivial affair. Currently, governments and corporations spend billions putting satellites into space, but a space elevator could pay for itself and ensure cheaper access down the line.

terraforming-mars2The report lays out a number of technological impediments to a space elevator, but by far the most important is the tether itself. Current materials science has yet to provide a material with the strength, flexibility, and density needed for its construction. Tethers from the EU and Japan are beginning to push the 100-kilometer mark, are still a long way off orbital altitude, and the materials for existing tethers will not allow much additional length.

Projecting current research in carbon nanotubes and similar technologies, the IAA estimates that a pilot project could plausibly deliver packages to an altitude of 1000 kilometers (621 miles) as soon as 2025. With continued research and the help of a successful LEO (low Earth orbit, i.e. between 100 and 1200 miles) elevator, they predict a 100,000-kilometer (62,137-mile) successor will stretch well past geosynchronous orbit just a decade after that.

carbon-nanotubeThe proposed design is really quite simple, with a sea platform (or super-ship) anchoring the tether to the Earth while a counterweight sits at the other end, keeping the system taught through centripetal force. For that anchor, the report argues that a nascent space elevator should be stabilized first with a big ball of garbage – one composed of retired satellites, space debris, and the cast-off machinery used to build the elevator’s own earliest stages.

To keep weight down for the climbers (the elevator cars), this report imagines them as metal skeletons strung with meshes of carbon nanotubes. Each car would use a two-stage power structure to ascend, likely beginning with power from ground- or satellite-based lasers, and then the climber’s own solar array. The IAA hopes for a seven-day climb from the base to GEO — slow, but still superior and far cheaper than the rockets that are used today.

Space Elevator by gryphart-d42c7sp
Space Elevator by gryphart-d42c7sp

One thing that is an absolute must, according to the report, is international cooperation. This is crucial not only for the sake of financing the elevator’s construction, but maintaining its neutrality. In terms of placement, IAA staunchly maintains that a space elevator would be too precious a resource to be built within the territory of any particular nation-state. Though every government would certainly love a space elevator of their very own, cost considerations will likely make that impossible in the near-term.

By virtue of its physical size, a space elevator will stretch through multiple conflicting legal zones, from the high seas to the “territorial sky” to the “international sky” to outer space itself, presenting numerous legal and political challenges. Attacks by terrorists or enemies in war are also a major concern, requiring that it be defended and monitored at all levels. And despite being a stateless project, it would require a state’s assets to maintain, likely by the UN or some new autonomous body.

space_elevator1In 2003, Arthur C. Clarke famously said that we will build a space elevator 10 years after they stop laughing. Though his timeline may have been off, as if often the case – for example, we didn’t have deep space missions or AIs by 2001 – sentiments were bang on. The concept of a space elevator is taken seriously at NASA these days, as it eyes the concept as a potential solution for both shrinking budgets and growing public expectations.

Space is quickly becoming a bottleneck in the timeline of human technological advancement. From mega-telescopes and surveillance nets to space mining operations and global high-speed internet coverage, most of our biggest upcoming projects will require better access to space than our current methods can provide for. And in addition to providing for that support, this plans highlights exactly how much further progress in space depends on global cooperation.


New Drones Art Campaign

UAVsOver at deviantART, a constant source of inspired art for me, there’s an interest new campaign designed to raise awareness and stimulate debate on a rather controversial issue. I am referring, as the topic line would suggest, to the use of drones and UAV’s and all that it entails.

As one of the greatest concerns facing developed nations today, not to mention the developing world where they are being increasingly used, this campaign is not only timely and relevant, but an intriguing display of artwork motivated by social conscience. In short, it asks the question: how is this debate reflected in art and what will future generations think of it?

looking for a hole, by arcas art
looking for a hole, by arcas art

Inspired by similar projects which are taking place around the world, the purpose of the campaign is to draw attention to the fact that were are living in a world increasingly characterized by surveillance and killing machines. Or as technognotic puts it:

Drones have become the white hot center of debate for a multitude of deeply consequential concerns for the entire Earth Sphere. No matter the digital end point or theatre of conversation, whether it be politics, war, privacy, pop culture, or the rise of machines – Drones or UAV’s (unmanned aerial vehicles) are the current catalyst du jour in any number of flashpoint discussions…

Even more interesting is the tone of inevitability of outcome. Core discussion seems to focus on a coming drone-filled sky and how we might govern our selves accordingly as this fact becomes a reality… Is this the dark side of human creativity and inquisitiveness that will ultimately one day spell our doom or the first signs of a coming technological Utopia.

galaxy saga - white gryphon, by ukitakumuki
galaxy saga – white gryphon, by ukitakumuki

In addition, the campaign features the thoughtful essay of the same name by Jason Boog (deviantART handle istickboy), who takes a look at how killing machines and drones have been explored through art and popular culture. Beginning with a short romp through history, identifying the first “drone” to ever be used, he goes on to examine how several generations of artists chose to portray them and their use.

Things culminate in the modern age, where spending on drone development and humanitarian concerns have culminated to make this a truly global and auspicious concern. With remote-controlled drones giving way to autonomous models and UAV’s being used for domestic surveillance, there’s no telling where things could go.

mysterious journals, by sundragon83
mysterious journals, by sundragon83

On the one hand, a concerned and mobilized public could place limits and controls on them, or counter using their own form of “sousveillance” (public counter-surveillance). On the other hand, we could be headed for a police state here privacy is non-existent and robots decide who lives and who dies – maybe entirely on their own!

As you can certainly imagine, when I first learned of this campaign I could tell that it was right up my alley. Being such an obsessive geek for all things technological and how innovation and progress affect us, I knew I had to post about it. And as you can certainly tell from the samples posted here, the artwork is pretty damn badass!

I would recommend checking it out for the aesthetic appeal alone. Knowing you’re taking part in a campaign dedicated to public awareness is just a big bonus!

For more information, and to take a gander at some galleries, visit the campaign at

Should I Be Afraid of the Future?

should-i-be-afraid-of-the-futureNot that long ago, I discovered a site dedicated to taking speculations about the future, crunching data and trends, and producing visualizations about them. Already, they had me with their graph that shows when future technologies will emerge, and how they will be interrelated. But then came their future of education and health technology, both of which addressed the same issue – what can we can expect within the next few decades, leading up to the middle of this century?

And now, the good folks at Envisioning Technology have created something truly informative and relevant. Entitled “Should I be afraid of the future?”, the infograph addresses all the big questions people might have when it comes to emerging technology, environmental perils, and the kind of technophobia that often result.

“Geophysical disasters, global warming, robot uprisings, zombie apocalypse, overpopulation, and last but not least the end of the Mayan calendar – humanity faces many threats! Will we survive the end of the year? And if we do, what’s next lurking around the corner? What is science fiction, what is science fact? Join in exploring the world of existential risks – but always remember what Carl Sagan said: ‘Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.'”

The questions are broken down into three interrelating fields. First, there is Nature, covering such things as geological disasters, climate change, a possible ice age, and even astronomical events. Then comes Mankind, addressing possible factors such as war, apocalyptic scenarios, and overpopulation. And finally, there is technology, where questions about whether robots and AIs could turn hostile, and if advances in nanotech, biotech, and neuroscience could be potentially harmful.

And of course, each question is addressed in a rational, sensible fashion, even when the questions themselves are based on irrational, myth-peddling paranoia. The Mayan Calendar, bio-outbreaks, every possible technophobic impulse, and even a zombie apocalypse are covered. But then again, the infograph is all about addressing fears. Fear, by its very definition is irrational, and the only cure is information. A well-informed public is not only a safeguard against persecution and bigotry, but against a future full of existential risks.

Source: Envisioning Technology

Planning For Judgement Day…

TerminatorSome very interesting things have been taking place in the last month, all of concerning the possibility that humanity may someday face the extinction at the hands of killer AIs. The first took place on November 19th, when Human Rights Watch and Harvard University teamed up to release a report calling for the ban of “killer robots”, a preemptive move to ensure that we as a species never develop machines that could one day turn against us.

The second came roughly a week later when the Pentagon announced that measures were being taken to ensure that wherever robots do kill – as with drones, remote killer bots, and cruise missiles – the controller will always be a human being. Yes, while Americans were preparing for Thanksgiving, Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter signed a series of instructions to “minimize the probability and consequences of failures that could lead to unintended engagements,” starting at the design stage.

X-47A Drone
X-47A Drone, the latest “hunter-killer”

And then most recently, and perhaps in response to Harvard’s and HRW’s declaration, the University of Cambridge announced the creation of the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk (CSER). This new body, which is headed up by such luminaries as Huw Price, Martin Rees, and Skype co-founder Jaan Tallinn, will investigate whether recent advances in AI, biotechnology, and nanotechnology might eventually trigger some kind of extinction-level event. The Centre will also look at anthropomorphic (human-caused) climate change, as it might not be robots that eventually kill us, but a swelteringly hot climate instead.

All of these developments stem from the same thing: ongoing developments in the field of computer science, remotes, and AIs. Thanks in part to the creation of the Google Neural Net, increasingly sophisticated killing machines, and predictions that it is only a matter of time before they are capable of making decisions on their own, there is some worry that machines programs to kill will be able to do so without human oversight. By creating bodies that can make recommendations on the application of technologies, it is hopes that ethical conundrums and threats can be nipped in the bud. And by legislating that human agency be the deciding factor, it is further hoped that such will never be the case.

The question is, is all this overkill, or is it make perfect sense given the direction military technology and the development of AI is taking? Or, as a third possibility, might it not go far enough? Given the possibility of a “Judgement Day”-type scenario, might it be best to ban all AI’s and autonomous robots altogether? Hard to say. All I know is, its exciting to live in a time when such things are being seriously contemplated, and are not merely restricted to the realm of science fiction.Blade_runner

Aliens: Colonial Marines

As a big fan of the Alien franchise and someone who’s enjoyed just about every AVP game there is, I can honestly say that I am eagerly awaiting the release of this game! For years now, gamers have been getting a taste of combat with xenomorphs and hunters thanks to the AVP franchise, but this promises to be purer in nature.

In short, you’re a human being hunting the most dangerous creature in the universe, no fuss, no muss. And Pulse Guns, Smartguns, Flame Throwers and grenades are your weapons, hopefully with a little assistance from some M577 APC’s, a few UD-4L Cheyenne Dropships and maybe even some of them big power loaders!

Another aspect of the Aliens experience which this game appears to be improving on is the squad combat feature. Whereas in all the previous incarnations of AVP, you were forced to play solo for the vast majority of the game, this time around there appears to be better AIs and group play at work.

This is good seeing as how Colonial Marines are not meant to fight alone, and the explanations for how and why you kept finding yourself fighting solo in the games got pretty tiresome after awhile!

According to Steam, the game is set for release in February of 2013. Just a few months away, and in the meantime, enjoy the preview! I think you’ll agree, it’s pretty cinematic in nature.

Favorite Cult Classics (Part The First)

It might be that I’m feeling nostalgic, or it might be that since my wife and I sprung for Netflix, I’ve been finding my way back to several of my favorite old movies. Hard to say exactly. All I know for sure is, I want to talk about the cult classic movies that I like best. You know what I’m talking about! Those rare gems, those diamonds in the rough, the movies that few seem to know about, but those who do always seem to love.

Yes, THOSE movies! Sure, we’ve all seen plenty of big hits, but these movies are the ones that occupy a special place in our hearts. Perhaps it’s because they are not so widely known, like the Star Wars’ and and Indiana Jones‘ of our time. Perhaps it’s because they didn’t get the recognition or the money they deserved, at least in their own time. Or it could be that they were simply the kind of things that got better with time.

In any case, I’ve compiled a list of my top 10 favorite cult classics, movies which I saw during my childhood, teen years and even in my twenties, and keep coming back too. Some were adventurous, some were funny, some were downright cheesy. But all have two things in common: One, none of them are known beyond a select group of appreciators, at least in this country. And two, those who like them, like them a lot! Check out the list below and see if you agree, and feel free to tell me your own favorites as well. I know we all got em!

One of the greatest animes I have ever seen, and with a very poignant and intriguing story to boot, Akira starts this list off right! The movie adapted several volumes of manga to screen, and did so in such a way that didn’t skimp on either story or detail. Even shortened, the plot still manages to convey the sense of awe and dread of atomic war, revolution, and evolutionary cataclysm. And the fact that the bulk of it is told from the point of view of disillusioned orphans who are all part of a bier gang only heightens the sense on confusion and angst of little people being thrown into situations far greater than they can handle.

And then there was the quality of the movie itself. Having seen this movie several times now and different versions thereof, I can tell you that no matter what the format, every single frame was animated in such a way as to be saturated. And not with digital effects, mind you, but with hand-drawn animations that really manage to capture the post apocalyptic and cyberpunk feel of Katsuhiro Otomo’s original graphic novel.

All in all, I consider this movie to be compatible in many respects to 2001: A Space Odyssey in that they both deal with grandiose of questions of existence, biological evolution, and both managed to blow my mind! And having first been exposed to both of them in my teen years, they are partly responsible for kindling my love of science fiction.

Army of Darkness:
Here’s a movie I kept being told to see, but did not get around to seeing until I was in university. And truth be told, it took me two viewings to really get the appeal of it. After that, it grew on me until I finally found myself thinking it hilarious, and quoting from it whenever I could. “Come get some!” “Groovy!” “This be my BOOMSTICK!” and “Good? Bad? I’m the one with the gun!” All classic lines!

Yeah, this movie is definitely filed in the guilty pleasure section, the space reserved for movies that are deliberately cheesy, over the top, and have a robust sense of humor about themselves. It’s also one of the many that gave Sam Raimi (director of the Spiderman trilogy) his start, and established Bruce Campbell (who appeared in all three) as a gifted ham actor.

Taking the position that decapitations and flesh-eating demons can be funny, this movie tells the story of a blue-collar, rough and tumble, one-liner spouting man named Ash who’s been sent back in time to fight an army of the undead. Automatically, hijinks ensue as he tries to convince people he’s not a demon himself, but instead chooses to establish who’s boss by demonstrating the power of his chainsaw and “boomstick” (aka. his sawed-off double-barrel shotgun).

But predictably, this anti-hero rises to the challenge and becomes a real hero, and does so with as little grace as possible! And of course, there’s a love story as well, which is similarly graceless thanks to Ash’s lowbrow romantic sensibilities. Nothing is left untouched by the ham and cheese! And all throughout, the gun fights, duels, and confrontations with creepy, evil forces are hilarious, made possible by Campbell’s hammy acting, facial expressions, one-liners and some wonderfully bad cinematography. Think Xena: Warrior Princess, but with guns and foul language!

Blade Runner:
Another personal favorite, and one which I wish I had come to know sooner. But lucky for me I was still a teen when I saw this movie, hence I can say that I saw it while still in my formative years. And today, years later, I still find myself appreciating it and loving it as one can only love a cult hit. It’s just that kind of movie which you can enjoy over and over again, finding new things to notice and appreciate each time.

And once again, my appreciation for this movie is due to two undeniable aspects. On the one hand, Ridley Scott created a very rich and detailed setting, a Los Angeles of the 21st century dominated by megastructures, urban sprawl, pollution and polarized wealth. It was the picture perfect setting of cyberpunk, combining high-tech and low-life.

On the other hand, there was the story. Loosely adapted from PKD’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, this version of a future differed greatly in that the artificial humans, the antagonists of the original story, were about the only sympathetic characters in the story. The result was not a cautionary tale on the dangers of creating life in our own image as much as a commentary about the line between the artificial and the real.

The question it asked was: if you overcome all boundaries, if machines possess memory, feelings and a fear of death, is there anything at all to separate them from the rest of us? Will their lives be worth any less than ours, and what will it even mean to be alive?

Conan The Barbarian:
Here’s a movie which has appeared in some friends “guilty pleasure” list, usually next to Predator, Commando and other Anrie classics. But I am here today to tell you it really doesn’t belong. Unlike many 80’s Arnie movies that were so bad, they were good, this movie had some genuine quality and depth to it.

Examples? Well, for starters, this movie was a faithful adaptation of Robert E. Howard’s original concept, Conan the Cimmerian, which was first published in 1932. This franchise, which went through countless adaptations over the ensuing decades, wove real history and myth together with fantasy to create a tale of a bronze age adventurer who traveled across the ancient world, seeking fortune and glory.

One can see this in the movie as well. To create the setting and the various people that make up the universe, imagery, mythology and even names were borrowed from various real sources. For example, the Cimmerians (Conan’s people) were inspired by Celtic and Norse sources. The followers of Thulsa Doom, black-clad warriors from the East, were meant to resemble the Huns, the Goths, and other Eastern invaders. There are also several scenes showing a warlike people meant to resemble the Mongol Hoards, and much of the setting was made to resemble ancient cities of lore – Babylon, Jerusalem, Antioch, et al.

Add to all this some pretty damn good writing and good storytelling, and you can see why this movie has remained enduringly popular with many people over the years. Arnie excelled as the stone-faced barbarian of few words, but who made them count when he chose to spoke. James Earl Jones was exceptional as the amoral, Nietzschean warlord Thulsa Doom, and the production value was surprisingly good for a low-budget flick.

Yeah, I get the feeling everybody knows what I’m talking about with this one! After losing the wonderful show in the midst of its first season, every fan of Firefly was pleased to know that Joss Whedon would be making a full length movie. And personally, I th0ught he did a pretty good job with it too!

Picking up where the show left off, we are reunited with our favorite characters as they continue to work freelance jobs and try to stay one step ahead of the law and the expanding Alliance. From the outset, it is clear that things are getting desperate, as the jobs are proving more risky, and the Reavers are moving in from the Outer Rim. At the same time, a new threat has been thrown in in the form of an Alliance agent known only as the “Operative”, who has made it his business to bring River in at any cost.

And I personally loved how all these threads came together in a singular way, showing how the Reavers, River’s condition, and the Alliance’s ultimate agenda were all connected. Not only was it a tight and entertaining plot that captured the same sense of loss and desperation as the show, it also gave a sense of closure to the series, which ended before its time.

Yes, for myself and many fans, this movie is a way of commemorating a truly great show and idea that faltered because of insensitive boobs couldn’t see the value in it. But that seemed thematically consistent with the series itself, which was all about rebels in a hopeless fight against an evil empire. Take a lesson from this Fox Network, sooner or late,r the bad guys lose!


For brevity’s sake and the fact that I’m a busy man, I’ve decided to divide this list in half. Stay tuned for entries six through ten, coming up tomorrow! Happy Thanksgiving y’all!

“Our Favorite Cimenatic Robots”

Just came across this article in the Globe and Mail today and I have to say, I was pleasantly surprised. It’s funny when a respectable publication like this one chooses to release something that I myself would have done, or did do, in small increments. In fact, many of the contenders on this list call to mind my little listing on Robots, Cyborgs and AIs which I did awhile back.

But dammit, they left out HAL and Robocop. That’s just plain wrong! Sure, they were trying to keep it to top 10 and felt the need to exclude cyborgs and supercomputers, and did have the good nature to apologize in advance for this, but still…

Here is the list as it appears in the article:

  1. The Terminator
  2. Droids from Star Wars (R2D2 and C3P0)
  3. Wall-E
  4. Replicants from Blade Runner
  5. Maria (Metropolis)
  6. Ash (Alien)
  7. The Iron Giant
  8. Gigolo (AI)
  9. The Stepford Wives
  10. Robby the Robot

Check out the full article here, complete with a gallery and some explanations of why these constitute “our” favorites 😉


The Future of Computing

digital_sentienceLook what you started, Nicolla 😉 After talking, at length, about the history of computing a few days ago, I got to thinking about the one aspect of the whole issue that I happened to leave out. Namely, the future of computing, with all the cool developments that we are likely to see in the next few decades or centuries.

Much of that came up in the course of my research, but unfortunately, after thirteen or so examples about the history of computing, I was far too tired and burnt to get into the future of it as well. And so, I carry on today, with a brief (I promise!) list of developments that we are likely to see before the century is out… give or take. Here they are:

Chemical Computer:
Here we have a rather novel idea for the future of hardware. Otherwise known as a reaction-diffusion or “gooware” computer, this concept calls for the creation of a semi-solid chemical “soup” where data is represented by varying concentrations of chemicals and computations are performed by naturally occurring chemical reactions.

Based on the Belousov-Zhabotinsky reaction, a chemical experiment which demonstrated that wave phenomena can indeed take place in chemical reactions, contradicting the theory of thermodynamics which states that entropy will only increase in a closed system. By contrast, the BZ experiments showed that cyclic effects can take place without breaking the laws of nature.

Amongst theoretical models, it remains a top contender for future use for the simple reason that it is far less limiting that current microprocessors. Whereas the latter only allows the flow of data in one direction at a time, a chemical computer theoretically allows for the movement of data in all directions, all dimensions, both away and against each other.

For obvious reasons, the concept is still very much in the experimental stage and no working models have been proposed at this time.

DNA Computing:
Yet another example of an unconventional computer design, one which uses biochemistry and molecular biology, rather than silicon-based hardware, in order to conduct computations. Originally proposed by Leonard Adleman of the University of Southern Calfornia in 1994, Adleman was able to demonstrate how DNA could be used to conduct multiple calculations at once.

Much like chemical computing, the potential here is to be able to build a machine that is not restricted as conventional machines are. In addition to being able to compute in multiple dimensions and directions, the DNA basis of the machine means it could be merged with other organic technology, possibly even a fully-organic AI (a la the 12 Cylon models).

While progress in this area remains modest thus far, Turing complete models have been constructed, the most notable of which is the model crated by the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel in 2002. Here, researchers unveiled a programmable molecular computing machine composed of enzymes and DNA molecules instead of silicon microchips which would theoretically be capable of diagnosing cancer in a cell and releasing anti-cancer drugs.

In keeping with the tradition of making computers smaller and smaller, scientists have proposed that the next generation of computers should measure only a few nanometers in size. That’s 1×10-9 meters for those who mathematically inclined. As part of the growing field of nanotechnology, the application is still largely theoretical and dependent on further advancements. Nevertheless, the process is a highly feasible one with many potential benefits.

Here, as with many of these other concepts, the plan is simple. By further miniaturizing the components, a computer could be shrunk to the size of a chip and implanted anywhere on a human body (i.e. “Wetware” or silicate implants). This will ensure maximum portability, and coupled with a wireless interface device (see Google Glasses or VR Contact Lenses) could be accessed at any time in any place.

Optical Computers:
Compared to the previous two examples, this proposed computer is quite straightforward, even if it radically advanced. While today’s computer rely on the movement of electrons in and out of transistors to do logic, an optical computer relies on the movement of photons.

The immediate advantage of this is clear; given that photons are much faster than electrons, computers equipped with optical components would be able to process information of significantly greater speeds. In addition, researchers contend that this can be done with less energy, making optical computing a potential green technology.

Currently, creating optical computers is just a matter of replacing electronic components with optical ones, which requires an optical transistor, which are composed of non-linear crystals. Such materials exist and experiments are already underway. However, there remains controversy as to whether the proposed benefits will pay off, or be comparable to other technologies (such as semiconductors). Only time will tell…

Quantum Computers:
And last, and perhaps most revolutionary of all, is the concept of quantum computing – a device which will rely on the use of quantum mechanical phenomena to performs operations. Unlike digital computers, which require that data to be encoded into binary digits (aka. bits), quantum computation utilizes quantum properties to represent data and perform calculations.

The field of quantum computing was first introduced by Richard Feynman in 1982 and represented the latest advancements in field theory. Much like chemical and DNA-based computer designs, the theoretical quantum computer also has the ability to conduct multiple computations at the same time, mainly because it would have the ability to be in more than one state simultaneously.

The concept remains highly theoretical, but a number of experiments have been conducted in which quantum computational operations were executed on a very small number of qubits (quantum bits). Both practical and theoretical research continues, and many national government and military funding agencies support quantum computing research to develop quantum computers for both civilian and national security purposes, such as cryptanalysis.

Wearable Computers:
Last, and most feasible, is the wearable computer, which has already been developed for commercial use. Essentially, these are a class of miniature electronic devices that are worn on the bearer’s person, either under or on top of clothing. A popular version of this concept is the wrist mounted option, where the computer is worn like a watch.

The purposes and advantages of this type of computer are obvious, especially where applications that require more complex computational support than hardware coded logics can provide. Another advantage is the constant interactions between user and computer, as it is augmented into all other functions of the user’s daily life. In many ways, it acts as a prosthesis, being an extension of the users mind and body.

Pretty cool, huh? And to think that these and possibly other concepts could be feasible within our own lifetimes. Given the current rate of progress in all thing’s high-tech, we could be looking at fully-integrated computer implants, biological computers and AI’s with biomechanical brains. Wouldn’t that be both amazing and potentially frightening!

More Utopian Science Fiction

Boy this is fun, and like I said last time, overdue! For fans of literature and science fiction in particular, you really can’t do justice to a genre unless you examine its opposite as well. Not only is it fun and interesting, it kind of opens your eyes to the fact that we find a certain truth in the pairing of opposites.

For one, you come to see that they really aren’t that different. And two, that they essentially come from the same place. Much like light and dark, black and white, heaven and hell, extremes have more in common with each other than anything occupying the space between them. Is that quote? If not, it is now! MINE!

Last time, I buckled down to tackle the big names, the famous classics. Today, I thought I’d cast the net a little wider since there are a ton I missed and there really is no shortage of examples. Here’s what I got so far:

3001: The Final Odyssey:
The final book in Clarke’s Odyssey series, 3001 not only provided a sense of culmination to this epic story, but also gave Clarke the opportunity to share his predictions on where humanity would be by the 31st century. Released in 1997, it also contained a great deal of speculation about the coming millennium and what the 21st century would look like.

The story begins when, just shy of the millennial celebrations, the body of Frank Poole is discovered at the edge of the solar system. This astronaut, who died in the first novel, had been floating at the far edge of the solar system for almost a thousand years. His body is resurrected using the latest technology, and his reintroduction to society is the vehicle through which things are told.

As a fish out of water, Poole is made privy to all the changes that have taken place in the last 1000 years. Humanity now lives throughout the solar system, Earth and most planets are orbited by massive rings that connect to Earth through huge towers. Sectarian religion has been abandoned in favor of a new, universal faith, and the problems of overpopulation, pollution and war have all been solved.

Amongst humanity’s technological marvels are inertia drives on their ships (no FTL exists), a form of holodeck, genetically engineered work creatures, skull caps that transmit info directly into a person’s brain, data crystals, and of course the massive space habitation modules. Though the story was meant to be predictive for the most part, one cannot deny that this book contained utopian elements. Essentially, Clarke advanced his usual futurist outlook, in which humanity’s problems would be solved through the ongoing application of technology and progress.

Though I found it somewhat naive at the time of reading, it was nevertheless an interesting romp, especially where the predictive aspects came into play. And it also contained one of the best lines I’ve ever read, a New Years toast for the 21st century which I quoted on midnight on Dec. 31st, 1999: “Here’s to the 20th century. The best, and worst, century of them all!”

Brave New World:
I  know, BNW is listed as one of the quintessential dystopian novels of our time, and I even listed as such on my list of dystopian classics. However, one cannot deny that this book also contained very strong utopian elements and themes, and it was how these failed to remedy the problem of being human that ultimately made BNW a dystopia.

Set in the year 2540 CE (or 632 A.F. in the book), the World State is very much the product of utopian engineering. Literally all aspects of social control, which are largely benign, are designed to ensure that all people are born and bred to serve a specific role, cannot aspire beyond it, and are emotionally and psychologically insulated against unhappiness.

In short, people have exchanged their freedom for the sake of peace, order, and predictability. In fact, these ideals are pretty much summed up with the States motto: “Community, Identity, Stability.” Another indication is the popular slogan, “everyone belongs to everyone else”. And finally, the orgy porgy song provides some insight as well: “Orgy-porgy, Ford and fun, Kiss the girls and make them One. Boys at one with
girls at peace; Orgy-porgy gives release.”

Couldn’t have said it better myself. The goal of creating oneness and sameness to prevent things like greed, jealousy, war, and strife, is a constant theme in utopian literature, elevated to the form of high art in Huxley’s vision. And above all, the dream of a perfectly regulated, peaceful society, where individuality and difference have been purged, was accomplished through pleasure and not pain. This can best be summed up in an exerpt from Huxley’s letter to Orwell after 1984 was released:

“Within the next generation I believe that the world’s rulers will discover that infant conditioning and narco-hypnosis are more efficient, as instruments of government, than clubs and prisons, and that the lust for power can be just as completely satisfied by suggesting people into loving their servitude as by flogging and kicking them into obedience. In other words, I feel that the nightmare of Nineteen Eighty-Four is destined to modulate into the nightmare of a world having more resemblance to that which I imagined in Brave New World.”

I, Robot:
In the course of examining utopian literature, a term came up with made me stop and think… Robotocracy. Hence this next example which also contains some rather interesting utopian elements. As one of Asimov’s most recognized works, this collection of interlinked short stories tells of a future where intelligent robots make their debut and gradually become more and more integrated to society.

Ultimately, Asimov portrays AI’s as loyal and gentle creatures who not only improve the lot of humanity, but are incapable of harming their human masters. Whereas most speculative works of fiction dealing with AI’s are cautionary in nature, showing how entrusting our fate to machines will result in death, in this story, all of humanity’s fears prove baseless.

In time, the employment of robots and positronic master computers leads to the development of FTL, optimizes the world’s economy and production, and even prevents problems and conflicts which they can foresee. Human beings express reservation and fear, but in the end, the robotocracy proves to be sensible and caring, not cold and inhuman.

It was for this reason that I didn’t care for the film adaptation. Not only would a repressive, world-domination plan contradict the first and most important of the Three Laws (a robot may not harm, or through inaction, allow to be harmed, a human), it really didn’t contain any inherent logic. How would putting humans under house arrest ultimately ensure their protection? With all humans deprived of their most basic rights, revolution would be inevitable, leading to more death. Ah, whatever. At least the book was good.

Also written by Aldous Huxley, this novel (published in 1962) represented a possible resolution to the central problem he raised in Brave New World. Essentially, the protagonist of John the Savage committed suicide at the end because he could not reconcile himself to either world, one characterized by primitive freedom and the other by civilized sterility.

In the foreword section of the 1946 edition, Huxley expressed regret over the fact that he could not have given John a third option, which could have taken the form of the various exile communities where the thinking people who didn’t fit in with the “civilization” of the World State were sent.

Hence the setting of Island, a utopia created on the fictional island of Pala. Told from the point of view of a cynical journalist named Will Farnaby who gets shipwrecked on the island, the story was Huxley’s final book and a message to humanity about possible third options and the positive application of technology and knowledge.

As Huxley decribed it beforehand: “In this community economics would be decentralist and Henry-Georgian, politics Kropotkinesque co-operative. Science and technology would be used as though, like the Sabbath, they had been made for man, not (as at present and still more so in the Brave New World) as though man were to be adapted and enslaved to them. This last sentence is especially important in reference to Island. Here, drug use, trance states, contraception, assisted reproduction and slogans are all used voluntarily and serve the purposes of learning and social betterment. They are not employed as a means to pacify and control people.

What’s more, from a social perspective, Huxley characterized Pala’s prevailing philosophy as:  “a kind of Higher Utilitarianism, in which the Greatest Happiness principle would be secondary to the Final End principle – the first question to be asked and answered in every contingency of life being: “How will this thought or action contribute to, or interfere with, the achievement, by me and the greatest possible number of other individuals, of man’s Final End?”

The Culture Series:
Created by sci-fi author Ian M. Banks, “The Culture” refers to the fictional interstellar anarchist, socialist, and utopian society that characterizes his novels. Encompassing ten novels – beginning with Consider Phlebas (1987) and concluding with The Hydrogen Sonata (slated for release in October 2012), Banks paints the picture of a universe where humanity has created a peaceful, stable and abundant society through the application of technology.

Told predominantly from the point of view of those who operate at the fringes of The Culture, the stories focus on the interactions of these utopian humans with other civilizations. Much in the same way as Star Trek follows the adventure of the Enterprise crew as they deal with alien cultures, often ones which are less developed or evolved, this provides a vehicle for examining humanity’s current predicament and providing possible solutions.

Overall, The Society is best characterized as post-scarcity, where advanced technologies provide practically limitless material wealth and comfort, where almost all physical constraints – including disease and death – have been eliminated, and the concept of possessions are outmoded. Through all of this, an almost totally  egalitarian, stable society has been created where compulsion or force are not needed, except as a means of self-defense.

At times however, The Culture has been known to interfere with other civilizations as a means of spreading their culture and affecting change in their neighbors. This has often been criticized as an endorsement of neo-conservatism and ethnocentrism on Banks part. However, Banks has denied such claims and many of his defenders claim that The Culture’s moral legitimacy is far beyond anything the West currently enjoys. Others would point out that this potential “dark side” the The Culture is meant to reflect the paradox of liberal societies at home and their behavior in foreign affairs.

The Mars Trilogy:
This ground-breaking trilogy by Kim Stanley Robertson about the colonization and terraforming of Mars is also a fine example of utopia in literature. taking place in the not-too-distant future, the trilogy begins with the settlement of the planet in Red Mars and then follows the exploits of the colonists as they begin transforming from a barren rock to a veritable second Earth.

Even though there are numerous dark elements to the story, including civil strife, internal divisions, exploitation and even assassination, the utopian elements far outweigh the dystopian ones. Ultimately, the focus is on the emergence of a highly advanced, egalitarian society on Mars while Earth continues to suffer from the problems of overpopulation, pollution and ecological disaster.

In addition, the colony of Mars benefits from the fact that its original inhabitants, though by no means all mentally stable and benevolent people, were nevertheless some of the best and brightest minds Earth had produced. As a result, and with the help of longevity treatments, Mars had the benefit of being run by some truly dedicated and enlightened founders. What’s more, their descendents would grow up in a world where stability, hard work, and a respect for science, technology and ecology were pervasive.

All of this reflects Robertson’s multifaceted approach to story writing, where social aspirations and problems are just as important as the technological and economic aspects of settling a new world. Much like the conquest and settlement of the New World gave rise to various utopian ideals and social experiments, he speculates that the settlement of new planets will result in the same. Technology still plays an important role of course, as the colonists of Mars have the benefit of taking advantage of scientific advancements while simultaneously avoiding the baggage of life on Earth. In the end, there’s just something to be said about a fresh start isn’t there?

The Night’s Dawn Trilogy:
Written by British author Peter F. Hamilton, The Night’s Dawn Trilogy consists of three science fiction novels: The Reality Dysfunction (1996), The Neutronium Alchemist (1997), and The Naked God (1999). Much like Robertson’s depiction of humanity in the Mars Trilogy, Hamilton explores humanity’s dark side at length, and yet the tone of his novels are predominantly optimistic.

Set in a distant 27th century, humanity has become divided between two major factions. On the one side there are the Edenists, an egalitarian, utopian society who employ biotech (“biteck” in their lingo) to create living, sentient space stations as well as machines. The use of “Affinity” – a form of telepathy – allows them to communicate with each other and their biteck, creating a sort of mass mentality which encompasses entire communities. Thiee Edenic government is what is known as the “Consensus”, a form of direct democracy that is made possible by telepathic link.

On the one side their are the Adamists, the larger of the two where human beings live with a limited religious proscription against technology. Biteck is forbidden, but nanotechnology, FTL and other advanced applications are freely used. Because the Adamists encompass anyone not in the Edenic camp, they are larger, but far less organized and cohesive than their counterparts.

Through all this, Hamilton attempts to show  how the application of technology and the merger between biological and artificial can create the kind of society envisioned by men like Thomas More, characterized by participatory government, collective mentality, and a consensus-oriented decision-making process. While both the Edenic and Adamist societies are still pervaded by problems, not the least of which is competition between the two, the ideals of betterment through technological progress are nevertheless predominant.

Revelation Space Series:
Another series which examines the beneficial aspects of technology, particularly where governance and equality are concerned, is the Revelation Space Trilogy by Alastair Reynolds. Comprised of the five novels Revelation Space (2000), Chasm City (2001), Redemption Ark (2002), Absolution Gap (2003) and The Prefect (2007).

Taking place in the distant future (circa. 2427 to 2727), the story revolves around a series of worlds that have been settled by several different factions of humanity. The two largest factions are known as the Demarchists and the Conjoiners, both of whom have employed advanced technology to create their own versions of an ideal society.

Though much of the books are dark in tone due to the discovery of a terrible nanotechnological virus (the “Melding Plague”) and the discovery of hostile ancient aliens (the “Inhibitors”), the series still does have some discernible utopian elements. For starters, the Demarchists take their name from the concept of “Democratic Anarchy”, and employ cybernetic implants, nanotech and wireless communications to achieve this.

Within the Demarchist metropolis of Chasm City, all citizens are permanently wired into a central server which allows them permanent access to news, updates, and the decision-making process. As a result, Demarchist society is virtually egalitarian and marks of social status, such as ranks and titles, do not exist. This changed with the spread of the Melding Plague however, causing the city’s structures to degenerate into a gothic nightmare and the class divide to become very visible.

Another important faction are the Conjoiners. These people, who were originally inhabitants with the Great Wall of Mars (above left picture), but who became a star-faring people after the war with the “Coalition for Neural Purity” drove them off Mars. To these people, cybernetic implants were taken a step further, giving every Conjoined person the ability to telepathically link with others, preserve their memories beyond death, prolong their life, and enhance their natural thinking process.

Thus, much like Hamilton and Banks, Reynolds speculates that the advent of nanotech, biotech, and space travel will result in the emergence of societies that are predominantly egalitarian, peaceful, and dedicated to consensus and direct democracy. I personally found these stories quite inspiring since it seems that in many ways, we are already witnessing the birth of such possibilities in the here and now.

Yep, this is still fun, if somewhat tiring and conducive to burnout! I think I’ll be taking a break from these literary-criticism pieces for a day or two, maybe getting back to pieces on robots and cool gear. However, in keeping with the format I used for dystopia, I still have one more utopian article left to cover. Look for it, it will be called “Utopia in Popular Culture!” See ya there…