The Cronian Incident – Factions in the Future

 

future_city
Future City [3] by josueperez79 at deviantart.com
Hi again folks! I’m back with some thoughts from my most recent story project – The Jovian Incident. I know, what else is new, right? Writing can be a self-indulgent process. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned, its that sharing helps when it comes to developing a story. It helps you articulate your thinking and ideas, especially if respected peers tell you what they think (hint, hint!)

As I also learned a long time ago, any science fiction piece that deals with the distant future has to take into account how human beings in the future go about organizing themselves. In this future world, what are the political blocs, the alliances, the rivalries – the ways in which people are united and divided? Well, I gave that a lot of thought before sitting down to pen the book (which is into chapter 11 now). And this is the basic breakdown I came up with.

Extro Factions:
For starters, people in the future I am envisioning are tentatively divided into those that live in the inner and outer Solar Systems. But that geographic divide is merely representative of a much bigger issue that divides humanity. Whereas the people living on Earth, Mars and Venus largely fall into the category of “Extro” (i.e. Extropian, people who embrace the transhuman ethic) people in the outer Solar System live simpler, less augmented and enhanced lives (“Retro”).

But within this crude division between people who believe in going beyond their biological limitations and those who believe in respecting them, there are plenty of different social, political and ideological groups to be found. Here’s a rundown on them, starting with the Extro factions…

The Formists:
Founded by Piter Chandrasekhar, one of the first colonists of Mars, the Formists are a faction dedicated to the full-scale terraforming of the Red Planet. The purpose of this, obviously, is to allow for full-scale colonization, which is something that remains impossible at this point in the story. All inhabitants on Mars lived in sealed domes, all transit takes place in pressurized tubes or on flyers, and anyone venturing out onto the surface is forced to wear a pressure suit with life-support systems.

Mars_terraforming
Mars Terraformed by Daein Ballard

Currently, the Formist faction is run by Emile Chandrasekhar, Piter’s grandson. And for the past few decades, they have been busy procuring resources from the outer Solar System to aid in the terraforming process. This includes supplies of methane, ammonia, ices, and lots and lots of comets.

However, they are also busy trying to ensure that the process will have a minimal impact on the settlements and those living within them. Altering the planet’s atmosphere will definitely have a significant impact on the landscape in the short-term, such as sublimating all the water ice in the Martian soil and in the polar caps. Once that water begins to flow, much of the surface will find itself being swallowed up by newly-created oceans. So naturally, the Formists must proceed slowly, and make sure all settlements on Mars agree to their plans.

While the Formist faction is largely centered on Mars, they have counterparts on Venus as well – known as The Graces (after the children of Aphrodite). Here, the process is significantly different, and involves converting the existing atmosphere rather than increasing its density. But the goal is the same: to one day make Venus a living, breathing world human beings can set foot on.

The Dysonists:
Among the Extros, there are also those who believe humanity’s future lies not in the stars or in the terraforming the Solar System’s planets, but in the space that surrounds our Sun. They are known as the Dysonists, a faction that is intent on building a massive swarm of structures in the inner Solar System. For some, this calls for a series of rings which house the inhabitants on their inner surface and provide gravity through endless rotation.

fractal_dyson_sphere_by_eburacum45-d2yum16
This artist’s concept of a Dyson sphere is via SentientDevelopments.com

For other, more ambitious Dysonists, the plan involves massive swarms of computronium that will contain a sea of uploaded personalities living in simulated environments. Both the swarms and the powerful bandwidth that connects them will draw energy from the Sun’s rays. These individuals consider themselves to be the more puritan of Dysonists, and believe those who advocate buildings rings structures are more properly known as Nivenists.

The process of converting all the “dumb matter” in the Solar System into smart matter has already begun, but in limited form. Within a few generations, it is believed that the Sun will be surrounded by a “Torus” of uploaded minds that will live on while countless generations come and go. Dysonists and their enclaves can be found on Near-Earth Asteroids, in the Main Asteroid Belt, and with committed supporters living on Venus, Mars, Earth, the Moon, and Ceres.

The Habitationists:
Inspired by Gerard K. O’Neill, the inventor of the O’Neill Cylinder, the Habitationists began as an architects dream that quickly expanded to fill all of known space. In the 21st century, Earthers looking to escape the growing population crisis began migrating to space. But rather than looking to live on distant worlds or the Moon, where the environment was harsh and the gravity limited, they decided to set up shop in orbit. Here, supplies could be shipped regularly, thanks to the advent of commercial aerospace, and gravity could be simulated at a full g thanks to rotating toruses.

By the mid 22nd century, Low Earth Orbit (LEO) Habs had become all the rage and the skies became somewhat saturated. The existence of Earth’s space elevator (The Spindle) only made deploying and supplying these Habs easier, and a steady drop in the costs of manufacturing and deploying them only made them more popular. As such, Terran architect Hassan Sarawak, who had designed many of the original habitats in space, began to busy himself designing a new series of Habs that would allow human beings to live in space anywhere in the Solar System.

Lightfarm Studios
Artistic impression of the inside of an O’Neil Cylinder. Lightfarm Studios

By the end of the 22nd century, when the story takes place, large cylinders exist in several key places in the Solar System. Most are named in honor of either their founders, those who articulated the concept of space habitats, or those who believed in the dream of colonizing space itself (and not just other planets and moons).  These places are thusly named O’Neil’s Reach, Clarkestown, Sawarakand, and New Standford.

The Seedlings:
As the name would suggest, the Seedlings are those intrepid Extropians who believe humanity should “seed” the galaxy with humanity, spreading to all solar systems that have confirmed exoplanets and building settlements there. But in a slight twist, they believe that this process should be done using the latest in nanotechnology and space penetrators, not slow interstellar ships ferrying human colonist and terraformers.

To the Seedlings, who can be found throughout the inner Solar System, and on some of its most distant moons, the idea is simple. Load up a tiny projectile-ship with billions of nanobots designed to slowly convert a planet’s climate, then fire it on a trajectory that will take it to an exoplanet many generations from now. Then, prepare a ship with colonists, send it on its merry way into space, and by the time they reach the distant world, it will be fully prepared for their arrival.

utility_fog
At this point in the story, the Seedlings first few missions are still in the planning stages. They’ve got the technology, they’ve got the know-how, and they know where the right candidate planets are located. All they need to do know is test out their machines and make sure the process works, so that they won’t be sending their colonists into a deathtrap.

Sidenote: this idea is actually one I explored in a short story I am trying to get published. If all goes well, I am the short story and this full-length idea can be connected as part of a singular narrative.

Retro Factions:
And now we come to the people who live predominantly in the outer Solar System, the folks who found life on Earth and the inner worlds unlivable thanks to its breakneck pace and the fact that life was becoming far too complicated. These are the people whom – for religious, personal, or moral reasons – chose to live on the frontier worlds in order to ensure something other than humanity’s survival as a species. For these people, it was about preserving humanity’s soul.

Organics:
In the mid to late 21st century, as biotech and cybernetics became an increasingly prevalent part of society, a divide began to emerge between people who enhanced their biology and neurology and those who did not. While the former were in the minority for the first few decades, by the latter half of the 21st century, more and more people began to become, in essence, “transhuman” – (i.e. more than human).

Cyber_Girl
Cyber Girl by Fausto De Martini

At the same time, fears and concerns began to emerge that humanity was forsaking the very things that made it human. With lives becoming artificially prolonged, human parts being swapped for bionic or biomimetic implants, and brains becoming enhanced with neural implants and “looms”, humanity seemed on course to becoming post-human (i.e. not human at all).

And while the concerns were justified, few who could afford such enhancements seemed to be willing to forsake the convenience and necessity they represented. In a world where they conferred advantage over the unenhanced, choosing not to augment one’s body and mind seemed foolish. But between those who could not afford to, those who were forbidden to, and those who chose not to, eventually a new underclass emerged – known as “Organics”.

Today’s organics, who live predominantly in the outer Solar System or isolated pockets in the inner worlds, are the descendants of these people. They live a simpler life, eschewing most of the current technology in favor for a more holistic existence, depending on various levels of technology to maintain a certain balance.

Fundies:
Naturally, human beings in the late 22nd century still have their faiths and creeds.  Despite what some said in previous centuries, mankind did not outgrow the need for religion as it began to explore space and colonizing new worlds. And when the Singularity took place in the mid 21st century, and life became increasingly complex, enhanced, and technologically-dominated, the world’s religiously-devout began to feel paradoxical. On the one hand, religion seemed to be getting more unpopular and obsolete; but at the same time, more rare and precious.

The-Common-Foundations-of-Religions-and-Theology-Evolutionary-Tree-of-Religions
To be fair, there was a time when it seemed as though the prediction of a religion-less humanity might come true. In the early to mid 21st century, organized religion was in a noticeable state of decline. Religious institutions found it harder and harder to adapt to the times, and the world’s devout appeared to be getting increasingly radicalized. However, in and around all of these observable trends, there were countless people who clung to their faith and their humanity because they feared where the future was taking them.

In the current era, the outer Solar System has become a haven for many sects and religious organizations that felt the Inner Worlds were too intolerant of their beliefs. While there will always be people who embrace one sort of faith or another on all worlds – for instance, billions of Extros identify as Gnosi or Monist – the majority of devout Kristos, Sindhus, Mahavadans, Mahomets, and Judahs now call the worlds of Ganymede, Callisto, Europa, Titan, Rhea, Iapetus, Dione, Tethys, Titania, Oberon, Ariel and Umbriel home.

The vast majority of these people want to live in peace. But for some, the encroachment of the Inner Worlds into the life and economies of their moons is something that must be stopped. They believe, as many do, that sooner or later, the Extro factions will try to overtake these worlds as well, and that they will either be forced to move farther out, colonizing the moons of Neptune and the Kuiper Belt, or find homes in new star systems entirely. As such, some are joining causes that are dedicated to pushing back against this intrusion…

Chauvians (Independents):
Many in the past also thought that nationalism, that sense of pride that is as divisive as it is unifying, would also have disappeared by this point in time. And while humanity did begin to celebrate a newfound sense of unity by the late 21st century, the colonizing of new worlds had the effect of creating new identities that were bound to a specific space and place. And given the divisive political climate that exists in the late 22nd century, it was only natural that many people in the Outer Worlds began preaching a form of independent nationalism in the hopes of rallying their people.

Révolution_de_1830_-_Combat_devant_l'hôtel_de_ville_-_28.07.1830
Collectively, such people are known as “Chauvians“, a slight bastardization of the word “Jovian” (which applies to inhabitants of any of the outer Solar System’s moons). But to others, they are known simply as Independents, people striving to ensure their worlds remain free of external control. And to those belonging to these factions, their worlds and their people are endangered and something must be done to stop the intrusion of Extros into the outer Solar System. For the most part, their methods are passive, informative, and strictly political. But for others, extra-legal means, even violent means, are seen as necessary.

Examples include the Children of Jove and the Aquilan Front, which are native to the Galilean moons of Jupiter. On the Cronian moons, the Centimanes are the main front agitating for action against the Extros. And on the Uranian moons, the organizations known as The Furies and the Sky Children are the forces to be reckoned with. Whereas the more-moderate of these factions are suspected of being behind numerous protests, riots, and organized strikes, the radicals are believed to be behind the disappearance of several Extro citizens who went missing in the Outer Worlds. In time, it is believed that a confrontation will occur between these groups and the local authorities, with everyone else being caught in the middle.


And those are the relevant players in this story I’m working out. Hope you like them, because a few come into play in the first story and the rest I think could become central to the plots of any future works in the same universe. Let me know what you think! 🙂

 

The Fate of Humanity

the-futureWelcome to the world of tomorroooooow! Or more precisely, to many possible scenarios that humanity could face as it steps into the future. Perhaps it’s been all this talk of late about the future of humanity, how space exploration and colonization may be the only way to ensure our survival. Or it could be I’m just recalling what a friend of mine – Chris A. Jackson – wrote with his “Flash in the Pan” piece – a short that consequently inspired me to write the novel Source.

Either way, I’ve been thinking about the likely future scenarios and thought I should include it alongside the Timeline of the Future. After all, once cannot predict the course of the future as much as predict possible outcomes and paths, and trust that the one they believe in the most will come true. So, borrowing from the same format Chris used, here are a few potential fates, listed from worst to best – or least to most advanced.

1. Humanrien:
extinctionDue to the runaway effects of Climate Change during the 21st/22nd centuries, the Earth is now a desolate shadow of its once-great self. Humanity is non-existent, as are many other species of mammals, avians, reptiles, and insects. And it is predicted that the process will continue into the foreseeable future, until such time as the atmosphere becomes a poisoned, sulfuric vapor and the ground nothing more than windswept ashes and molten metal.

One thing is clear though: the Earth will never recover, and humanity’s failure to seed other planets with life and maintain a sustainable existence on Earth has led to its extinction. The universe shrugs and carries on…

2. Post-Apocalyptic:
post-apocalypticWhether it is due to nuclear war, a bio-engineered plague, or some kind of “nanocaust”, civilization as we know it has come to an end. All major cities lie in ruin and are populated only marauders and street gangs, the more peaceful-minded people having fled to the countryside long ago. In scattered locations along major rivers, coastlines, or within small pockets of land, tiny communities have formed and eke out an existence from the surrounding countryside.

At this point, it is unclear if humanity will recover or remain at the level of a pre-industrial civilization forever. One thing seems clear, that humanity will not go extinct just yet. With so many pockets spread across the entire planet, no single fate could claim all of them anytime soon. At least, one can hope that it won’t.

3. Dog Days:
arcology_lillypadThe world continues to endure recession as resource shortages, high food prices, and diminishing space for real estate continue to plague the global economy. Fuel prices remain high, and opposition to new drilling and oil and natural gas extraction are being blamed. Add to that the crushing burdens of displacement and flooding that is costing governments billions of dollars a year, and you have life as we know it.

The smart money appears to be in offshore real-estate, where Lillypad cities and Arcologies are being built along the coastlines of the world. Already, habitats have been built in Boston, New York, New Orleans, Tokyo, Shanghai, Hong Kong and the south of France, and more are expected in the coming years. These are the most promising solution of what to do about the constant flooding and damage being caused by rising tides and increased coastal storms.

In these largely self-contained cities, those who can afford space intend to wait out the worst. It is expected that by the mid-point of the 22nd century, virtually all major ocean-front cities will be abandoned and those that sit on major waterways will be protected by huge levies. Farmland will also be virtually non-existent except within the Polar Belts, which means the people living in the most populous regions of the world will either have to migrate or die.

No one knows how the world’s 9 billion will endure in that time, but for the roughly 100 million living at sea, it’s not a going concern.

4. Technological Plateau:
computer_chip4Computers have reached a threshold of speed and processing power. Despite the discovery of graphene, the use of optical components, and the development of quantum computing/internet principles, it now seems that machines are as smart as they will ever be. That is to say, they are only slightly more intelligent than humans, and still can’t seem to beat the Turing Test with any consistency.

It seems the long awaited-for explosion in learning and intelligence predicted by Von Neumann, Kurzweil and Vinge seems to have fallen flat. That being said, life is getting better. With all the advances turned towards finding solutions to humanity’s problems, alternative energy, medicine, cybernetics and space exploration are still growing apace; just not as fast or awesomely as people in the previous century had hoped.

Missions to Mars have been mounted, but a colony on that world is still a long ways away. A settlement on the Moon has been built, but mainly to monitor the research and solar energy concerns that exist there. And the problem of global food shortages and CO2 emissions is steadily declining. It seems that the words “sane planning, sensible tomorrow” have come to characterize humanity’s existence. Which is good… not great, but good.

Humanity’s greatest expectations may have yielded some disappointment, but everyone agrees that things could have been a hell of a lot worse!

5. The Green Revolution:
MarsGreenhouse2The global population has reached 10 billion. But the good news is, its been that way for several decades. Thanks to smart housing, hydroponics and urban farms, hunger and malnutrition have been eliminated. The needs of the Earth’s people are also being met by a combination of wind, solar, tidal, geothermal and fusion power. And though space is not exactly at a premium, there is little want for housing anymore.

Additive manufacturing, biomanufacturing and nanomanufacturing have all led to an explosion in how public spaces are built and administered. Though it has led to the elimination of human construction and skilled labor, the process is much safer, cleaner, efficient, and has ensured that anything built within the past half-century is harmonious with the surrounding environment.

This explosion is geological engineering is due in part to settlement efforts on Mars and the terraforming of Venus. Building a liveable environment on one and transforming the acidic atmosphere on the other have helped humanity to test key technologies and processes used to end global warming and rehabilitate the seas and soil here on Earth. Over 100,000 people now call themselves “Martian”, and an additional 10,000 Venusians are expected before long.

Colonization is an especially attractive prospect for those who feel that Earth is too crowded, too conservative, and lacking in personal space…

6. Intrepid Explorers:
spacex-icarus-670Humanity has successfully colonized Mars, Venus, and is busy settling the many moons of the outer Solar System. Current population statistics indicate that over 50 billion people now live on a dozen worlds, and many are feeling the itch for adventure. With deep-space exploration now practical, thanks to the development of the Alcubierre Warp Drive, many missions have been mounted to explore and colonizing neighboring star systems.

These include Earth’s immediate neighbor, Alpha Centauri, but also the viable star systems of Tau Ceti, Kapteyn, Gliese 581, Kepler 62, HD 85512, and many more. With so many Earth-like, potentially habitable planets in the near-universe and now within our reach, nothing seems to stand between us and the dream of an interstellar human race. Mission to find extra-terrestrial intelligence are even being plotted.

This is one prospect humanity both anticipates and fears. While it is clear that no sentient life exists within the local group of star systems, our exploration of the cosmos has just begun. And if our ongoing scientific surveys have proven anything, it is that the conditions for life exist within many star systems and on many worlds. No telling when we might find one that has produced life of comparable complexity to our own, but time will tell.

One can only imagine what they will look like. One can only imagine if they are more or less advanced than us. And most importantly, one can only hope that they will be friendly…

7. Post-Humanity:
artificial-intelligence1Cybernetics, biotechnology, and nanotechnology have led to an era of enhancement where virtually every human being has evolved beyond its biological limitations. Advanced medicine, digital sentience and cryonics have prolonged life indefinitely, and when someone is facing death, they can preserve their neural patterns or their brain for all time by simply uploading or placing it into stasis.

Both of these options have made deep-space exploration a reality. Preserved human beings launch themselves towards expoplanets, while the neural uploads of explorers spend decades or even centuries traveling between solar systems aboard tiny spaceships. Space penetrators are fired in all directions to telexplore the most distant worlds, with the information being beamed back to Earth via quantum communications.

It is an age of posts – post-scarcity, post-mortality, and post-humansim. Despite the existence of two billion organics who have minimal enhancement, there appears to be no stopping the trend. And with the breakneck pace at which life moves around them, it is expected that the unenhanced – “organics” as they are often known – will migrate outward to Europa, Ganymede, Titan, Oberon, and the many space habitats that dot the outer Solar System.

Presumably, they will mount their own space exploration in the coming decades to find new homes abroad in interstellar space, where their kind can expect not to be swept aside by the unstoppable tide of progress.

8. Star Children:
nanomachineryEarth is no more. The Sun is now a mottled, of its old self. Surrounding by many layers of computronium, our parent star has gone from being the source of all light and energy in our solar system to the energy source that powers the giant Dyson Swarm at the center of our universe. Within this giant Matrioshka Brain, trillions of human minds live out an existence as quantum-state neural patterns, living indefinitely in simulated realities.

Within the outer Solar System and beyond lie billions more, enhanced trans and post-humans who have opted for an “Earthly” existence amongst the planets and stars. However, life seems somewhat limited out in those parts, very rustic compared to the infinite bandwidth and computational power of inner Solar System. And with this strange dichotomy upon them, the human race suspects that it might have solved the Fermi Paradox.

If other sentient life can be expected to have followed a similar pattern of technological development as the human race, then surely they too have evolved to the point where the majority of their species lives in Dyson Swarms around their parent Sun. Venturing beyond holds little appeal, as it means moving away from the source of bandwidth and becoming isolated. Hopefully, enough of them are adventurous enough to meet humanity partway…

_____

Which will come true? Who’s to say? Whether its apocalyptic destruction or runaway technological evolution, cataclysmic change is expected and could very well threaten our existence. Personally, I’m hoping for something in the scenario 5 and/or 6 range. It would be nice to know that both humanity and the world it originated from will survive the coming centuries!

The Future of Medicine: The Era of Artificial Hearts

05Between artificial knees, total hip replacements, cataract surgery, hearing aids, dentures, and cochlear implants, we are a society that is fast becoming transhuman. Basically, this means we are dedicated to improving human health through substitution and augmentation of our body parts. Lately, bioprinting has begun offering solutions for replacement organs; but so far, a perfectly healthy heart, has remained elusive.

Heart disease is the number one killer in North America, comparable only to strokes, and claiming nearly 600,000 lives every year in the US and 70,000 in Canada. But radical new medical technology may soon change that. There have been over 1,000 artificial heart transplant surgeries carried out in humans over the last 35 years, and over 11,000 more heart surgeries where valve pumps were installed have also been performed.

artificial-heart-abiocor-implantingAnd earlier this month, a major step was taken when the French company Carmat implanted a permanent artificial heart in a patient. This was the second time in history that this company performed a total artificial heart implant, the first time being back in December when they performed the implant surgery on a 76-year-old man in which no additional donor heart was sought. This was a major development for two reasons.

For one, robotic organs are still limited to acting as a temporary bridge to buy patients precious time until a suitable biological heart becomes available. Second, transplanted biological hearts, while often successful, are very difficult to come by due to a shortage of suitable organs. Over 100,000 people around the world at any given time are waiting for a heart and there simply are not enough healthy hearts available for the thousands who need them.

carmat_heartThis shortage has prompted numerous medical companies to begin looking into the development of artificial hearts, where the creation of a successful and permanent robotic heart could generate billions of dollars and help revolutionize medicine and health care. Far from being a stopgap or temporary measure, these new hearts would be designed to last many years, maybe someday extending patients lives indefinitely.

Carmat – led by co-founder and heart transplant specialist Dr. Alain Carpentier – spent 25 years developing the heart. The device weighs three times that of an average human heart, is made of soft “biomaterials,” and operates off a five-year lithium battery. The key difference between Carmat’s heart and past efforts is that Carmat’s is self-regulating, and actively seeks to mimic the real human heart, via an array of sophisticated sensors.

carmat-artificial-heartUnfortunately, the patient who received the first Carmat heart died prematurely only a few months after its installation. Early indications showed that there was a short circuit in the device, but Carmat is still investigating the details of the death. On September 5th, however, another patient in France received the Carmat heart, and according to French Minister Marisol Touraine the “intervention confirms that heart transplant procedures are entering a new era.”

More than just pumping blood, future artificial hearts are expected to bring numerous other advantages with them. Futurists and developers predict they will have computer chips and wi-fi capacity built into them, and people could be able to control their hearts with smart phones, tuning down its pumping capacity when they want to sleep, or tuning it up when they want to run marathons.

carmat_heart1The benefits are certainly apparent in this. With people able to tailor their own heart rates, they could control their stress reaction (thus eliminating the need for Xanax and beta blockers) and increase the rate of blood flow to ensure maximum physical performance. Future artificial hearts may also replace the need for some doctor visits and physicals, since it will be able to monitor health and vitals and relay that information to a database or device.

In fact, much of the wearable medical tech that is in vogue right now will likely become obsolete once the artificial heart arrives in its perfected form. Naturally, health experts would find this problematic, since our hearts respond to our surroundings for a reason, and such stimuli could very well have  unintended consequences. People tampering with their own heart rate could certainly do so irresponsibly, and end up causing damage other parts of their body.

carmat_heart2One major downside of artificial hearts is their exposure to being hacked thanks to their Wi-Fi capability. If organized criminals, an authoritarian government, or malignant hackers were dedicated enough, they could cause targeted heart failure. Viruses could also be sent into the heart’s software, or the password to the app controlling your heart could be stolen and misused.

Naturally, there are also some critics who worry that, beyond the efficacy of the device itself, an artificial heart is too large a step towards becoming a cyborg. This is certainly true when it comes to all artificial replacements, such as limbs and biomedical implants, technology which is already available. Whenever a new device or technique is revealed, the specter of “cyborgs” is raised with uncomfortable implications.

transhuman3However, the benefit of an artificial heart is that it will be hidden inside the body, and it will soon be better than the real thing. And given that it could mean the difference between life and death, there are likely to be millions of people who will want one and are even willing to electively line up for one once they become available. The biggest dilemma with the heart will probably be affordability.

Currently, the Carmat heart costs about $200,000. However, this is to be expected when a new technology is still in its early development phase. In a few years time, when the technology becomes more widely available, it will likely drop in price to the point that they become much more affordable. And in time, it will be joined by other biotechnological replacements that, while artificial, are an undeniably improvement on the real thing.

The era of the Transhumanism looms!

Source: motherboard.vice.com, carmatsa.com, cdc.gov, heartandstroke.com

Robocop Then and Now

robocop-2014-wallpaper-robocop-movie-wallpapers1Recently, I took the plunge and watched some of the reboots I had been avoiding. These included the reboot of Robocop, an updated take on the 1987 Paul Verhoeven gorefest about a police officer who is brutally murdered and brought back as a cyborg. The movie was officially released in February of 2014 after being pushed back from its original August 2013 release, and received mixed reviews.

In any case, upon viewing the film, I totally saw what all the mixed reviews were all about. Whereas the new movie does score some points for updated special effects, technology, and has some decent casting, it lacked the social satire, edginess and macabre sensibilities of the first. So while it had some entertainment value, it really suffered from a sense of ambivalence, as if the makers themselves were wondering what the point of the remake was.

To put it in perspective, here’s a rundown on the original and what made it work…

Robocop (1987):
https://i2.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/5/50/Robocop_film.jpgSet in the near-future, the film opens on a Detroit that has become a cesspool of crime, corruption and corporate greed. Having gone bankrupt, the city has signed a deal with Omni Consumer Products (OCP) to run the underfunded police department in exchange for demolishing Old Detroit and building a new metropolis – Delta City – that will renew the city and provide employment.

To remedy the crime situation, OCP plans to deploy the ED-209 enforcement droid. But after a demonstration leads to the death of a junior exec, an alternate plan is considered from the cybernetics division. This involves placing a recently-deceased police officer inside a machine that is armored, has superior firepower, and runs on programming based on three simple directives:

1. Serve the public trust
2. Protect the innocent
3. Uphold the law

https://i1.wp.com/www.joblo.com/images_arrownews/robocop%204.jpgTo get a “volunteer”, OCP transfers officers to more crime-ridden districts, one of which is officer Alexander Murphy. A dedicated officer, he and his new partner run into criminal kingpin Clarence Boddicker and his gang during their first patrol. After pursuing them to an abandoned steel mill, Murphy is isolated and gunned down. Pronounced dead, his body is then used to create Robocop.

His deployment results in an immediate drop in crime, but problems quickly ensue. At OCP, the creation of Robocop leads to an internal power struggle between senior president Dick Jones and Bob Morton – the young exec behind the Robocop program. Boddicker, it is revealed, has been working with Jones for some time, using his crime connections to advance OCPs agenda of taking over Detroit. Jones orders Boddicker to kill Morton, and promises him exclusive control over all vice in Delta City.

https://i0.wp.com/normalguysnetwork.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/robocop.gifMeanwhile, Murphy begins to remember his old life and begins hunting for Boddicker and his gang. After capturing him, he learns of Boddicker’s relationship with Jones and attempts to arrest him, but is stopped by a secret Fourth Directive, which prevents him from arresting an executive of OCP. He narrowly escapes OCP headquarters with the help of Lewis, his old partner, and flees to an abandoned factory to recuperate.

Meanwhile, Boddicker is given advanced weaponry by Jones and a tracking device to go and kill Murphy. In a showdown at the abandoned plant, Murphy and Lewis kill all members of his gang, including Boddicker himself. He then goes to OCP headquarters and presents a video of Jones confessing to ordering Morton’s death. Jones attempts to take the head of OCP chairman, but he fires Jones, giving Robocop freedom to kill him.

http://nureviews.files.wordpress.com/2013/09/robocop-without-helmet.jpgThe movie ends with the chairman asking Robocop if he has a name, to which he replied: “Yes. Murphy”.

Summary:
For many reasons, the movie remains a cult classic and an iconic genre film. Though the franchise didn’t do so well after two sequels, the original remains popular with fans decades after the fact because of the way it pulled no punches and delivered on a message. Set in a future Detroit characterized by rampant crime and urban collapse, the movie showcased a very real problem that was apparent by the late 80s in America, and people certainly noticed.

Thought it was brutal and shocking at times, the over-the-top nature of the violence played into the social satire of the film. As he would demonstrate with later films – Total Recall, Starship Troopers – Verhoeven was known for using graphic violence to parody America’s preoccupation with violence in media. And in this context, it provided a sense or urgency to the plot – with police, politicians, and common folk feeling helpless in the face of it, and corporate execs being indifferent and using it to further their agendas.

In short, the hard-R rating of the movie worked in its favor. And the exploration of issues relating to identity and humanity in an age of man-machine interface were also well rendered. Now as for the reboot…

Robocop (2014):
https://i1.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/b/b1/Robocop_poster.jpgThe year is 2028, and robotics and automated military systems are now commonplace around the world, enforcing US military policy in places like Iran. Looking to expand, Omnicorp contemplates ways that they will be able to make robots palatable to the American masses, where the Dreyfus Act currently forbids their deployment. All they need is a critically injured policeman to put inside the machine.

Meanwhile, detective Alexander Murphy and his partner are trying to take down crime boss Antoine Vallon, who has contacts within the police department. A car bomb nearly kills Murphy, and Omnicorp roboticist Dr. Dennett Norton convinces his wife to let them use him in the program. What is left or Murphy is placed inside a full-body prosthetic, and he is awakened.

robocop-2014-1Initially, Murphy is shocked to see what has become of him and tries to escape. But Norton manages to convince him to stay and do his job, if for nothing else for the sake of his family. He begins undergoing testing to see how combat effective he will be, and proves to be inferior to a fully-automated robot. Pressured to make him work, Norton then alters Murphy’s brain so that behavioral software is control of his actions, even though he still thinks he is in control.

This leads to the confirmation of the Robocop program and the company prepares to unveil it to the public. But his first demonstration, Murphy experiences a seizure when they attempt to upload tons of information and video feeds to his brain. Norton and his team then alter his emotional responses again, leading him to coldly enact his protocols before the public and arrest a criminal in the crowd. The arrest is a PR success, and Robocop’s performance begins to reduce crime and convince the public to rescind the Dreyfus Act.

https://i1.wp.com/www.robocop.com/media/images/gallery-2.jpgMurphy’s wife confronts him in the street, which triggers Murphy’s memories and leads him to begin investigating his own death. He tracks down Vallon and destroys his gang in an intense shootout, and then confronts the members of the police department who were supplying him. Seeing this, Omnicorp shuts Murphy’s systems down before he can arrest the police chief and begin to rethink his existence.

They decide to circulate a news story that he died of complications, while plotting to shut him down permanently. With the help of Doctor Norton, Murphy escapes the Omnicorps facility where he is kept and goes to the headquarters to confront the CEO. With the help of his old partner, he is able to fight his way in and narrowly kill the CEO, who is holding his wife hostage.

Murphy is then rebuild in Norton’s lab, the President of the US vetoed the repeal of the Dreyfus Act based on the testimony of Norton, who confesses everything OmniCorp has done, and Murphy goes back to work and living with his family.

Summary:
Compared to the original, the reboot suffered from multiple problems. In addition to being toned down and less violent, as evidenced by its PG-13 rating, it was c0mparatively confused and muddled in terms of its message. Whereas the original was a hard-hitting movie about corporate greed, corruption, crime, and the fight to retain humanity in inhuman circumstances, the new movie was a rather bland commentary on the morality of robotics and autonomous machines in today’s world.

https://i0.wp.com/blogs-images.forbes.com/scottmendelson/files/2014/03/robo.jpgWhile these issues are certainly very relevant, the way the movie went about presented them seemed at once too subtle and heavy-handed. This is best illustrated by the character of news pundit Pat Novak (played by Samuel L. Jackson), a clear parody of Bill O’Reilly and a slew of other Fox News commentators. In addition to being loud, extremely biased and a corporate shill, he completely hands the message to the audience within the last few seconds of the movie:

Now I know some of you may think that this kind of thinking is dangerous and these machines violate your civil liberties. Some of you even believe that the use of these drones overseas makes us the same kind of bullying imperialists that our forefathers were trying to escape. To you, I say… Stop whining! America is now and always will be the greatest country on the face of the Earth! 

The way his scenes are shot, he’s even addressing the viewing audience. So he’s effectively breaking the Fourth Wall when he says this. It was honestly the most obvious scene and message I’ve watched in some time!

Another odd aspect of the movie was Murphy’s sense of self, which was a key aspect of the original. After having his remains dismembered and placed into a “full-body prosthetic”, Murphy’s memory was erased to prevent any semblance of his old personality from coming through. This was to ensure that Robocop would function perfectly and not experience complications due to things like anger, sadness, trauma, or an attachment to his old life.

https://i0.wp.com/cephuscorner.jadedragononline.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/Making-of-RoboCop-3.jpgBut in this movie, he wakes up inside the machine remembering everything that happened to him and has trouble performing on par with automated robots. To remedy this, they have to go through a convoluted process whereby he’s no longer in control, but thinks he is thanks to the magic of brain-altering software. All of this seemed unnecessary, clunky, and took away from the story. It also begged the question, why not simply erase his memory and avoid all this?

But above all, the decision to go this route also robbed the movie of its most central theme – i.e. the Jesus allegory of death and ressurection! Murphy does not rise from the dead at all in this movie, but is simply put in a body to keep him alive. So ultimately, his transformation – dying and coming back to life as something completely different – is something that’s very watered down and ineffective by comparison.

robocop_concept_art_walkerThis all seemed weak when they could have simply gone with what they did in the first movie and erased Murphy’s memory, which would have worked way better for the plot. That was one of the most important aspects of the old film and how it exposed OCPs corruption and delved into the whole issue of man vs. machine and what it is to be human. Not only was OCP looking for an automaton, Murphy’s recovery of his past self got the audience emotionally involved.

To boot, the bad guys were very underdeveloped in this film. Vallon was no match for Boddicker, having little screen time and no sense of motivation compared to Kurtwood Smith. His allies in the police department were also afterthoughts, who seemed to be nothing more than bride-taking cops who betrayed Murphy because he was too dedicated. And Michael Keaton is poorly cast as the crooked CEO of Omnicorps, which in this movie falls far short of the cold, indifferent corporate crooks of the first one.

Robocop_concept_art_UAVTo be fair, some casting choices weren’t bad. Joel Kinnaman wasn’t bad in the lead role, Gary Oldman played his role ably, and Samuel L. Jackson (though not very well scripted) certainly delivered on his portrayal of a loudmouthed, angry, horribly-slanted media pundit. But compared to Peter Weller, Ronny Cox, Kurtwood Smith and Miguel Ferrer, the guys were just eating crumbs off the table.

All of this leaves me wondering, what was the point of this remake? The idea was to relaunch the franchise for a new generation by focusing on modern issues, updated technologies, and a fresh take on the whole cybernetics thing. And in all of these respects, save for the technology aspect, they failed. Too bad, because their certainly was potential, given the range of issues that could have been explored better.

Between the highly contentious issue of UAVs, killer robots, and their effect on foreign and domestic policy, this movie could have really been something. Instead, it was a confused, half-hearted and obvious effort. And this is really too bad, because it’s likely to lead to yet another relaunch in a few years time. Don’t believe me, just look at Terminator: Salvation!

But regardless of what any reboots or relaunches attempt to do, Detroit still loves Robocop! As evidenced by their commissioning a massive statute of the guy. And Peter Weller and Kurtwood Smith… still the men!

robocop-statue-2

Judgement Day Update: Super-Strong Robotic Muscle

robot-arm-wrestling-03-20-09In their quest to build better, smarter and faster machines, researchers are looking to human biology for inspiration. As has been clear for some time, anthropomorphic robot designs cannot be expected to do the work of a person or replace human rescue workers if they are composed of gears, pullies, and hydraulics. Not only would they be too slow, but they would be prone to breakage.

Because of this, researchers have been working looking to create artificial muscles, synthetics tissues that respond to electrical stimuli, are flexible, and able to carry several times their own weight – just like the real thing. Such muscles will not only give robots the ability to move and perform tasks with the same ambulatory range as a human, they are likely to be far stronger than the flesh and blood variety.

micro_robot_muscleAnd of late, there have been two key developments on this front which may make this vision come true. The first comes from the US Department of Energy ’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, where a team of researchers have demonstrated a new type of robotic muscle that is 1,000 times more powerful than that of a human’s, and has the ability to catapult an item 50 times its own weight.

The artificial muscle was constructed using vanadium dioxide, a material known for its ability to rapidly change size and shape. Combined with chromium and fashioned with a silicone substrate, the team formed a V-shaped ribbon which formed a coil when released from the substrate. The coil when heated turned into a micro-catapult with the ability to hurl objects – in this case, a proximity sensor.

micro_robot_muscle2pngVanadium dioxide boasts several useful qualities for creating miniaturized artificial muscles and motors. An insulator at low temperatures, it abruptly becomes a conductor at 67° Celsius (152.6° F), a quality which makes it an energy efficient option for electronic devices. In addition, the vanadium dioxide crystals undergo a change in their physical form when warmed, contracting along one dimension while expanding along the other two.

Junqiao Wu, the team’s project leader, had this to say about their invention in a press statement:

Using a simple design and inorganic materials, we achieve superior performance in power density and speed over the motors and actuators now used in integrated micro-systems… With its combination of power and multi-functionality, our micro-muscle shows great potential for applications that require a high level of functionality integration in a small space.

In short, the concept is a big improvement over existing gears and motors that are currently employed in electronic systems. However, since it is on the scale of nanometers, it’s not exactly Terminator-compliant. However, it does provide some very interesting possibilities for machines of the future, especially where the functionality of micro-systems are concerned.

graphene_flexibleAnother development with the potential to create robotic muscles comes from Duke University, where a team of engineers have found a possible way to turn graphene into a stretchable, retractable material. For years now, the miracle properties of graphene have made it an attractive option for batteries, circuits, capacitors, and transistors.

However, graphene’s tendency to stick together once crumpled has had a somewhat limiting effect on its applications. But by attacking the material to a stretchy polymer film, the Duke researchers were able to crumple and then unfold the material, resulting in a properties that lend it to a broader range of applications- including artificial muscles.

robot_muscle1Before adhering the graphene to the rubber film, the researchers first pre-stretched the film to multiple times its original size. The graphene was then attached and, as the rubber film relaxed, the graphene layer compressed and crumpled, forming a pattern where tiny sections were detached. It was this pattern that allowed the graphene to “unfold” when the rubber layer was stretched out again.

The researchers say that by crumpling and stretching, it is possible to tune the graphene from being opaque to transparent, and different polymer films can result in different properties. These include a “soft” material that acts like an artificial muscle. When electricity is applied, the material expands, and when the electricity is cut off, it contracts; the degree of which depends on the amount of voltage used.

robot_muscle2Xuanhe Zhao, an Assistant Professor at the Pratt School of Engineering, explained the implications of this discovery:

New artificial muscles are enabling diverse technologies ranging from robotics and drug delivery to energy harvesting and storage. In particular, they promise to greatly improve the quality of life for millions of disabled people by providing affordable devices such as lightweight prostheses and full-page Braille displays.

Currently, artificial muscles in robots are mostly of the pneumatic variety, relying on pressurized air to function. However, few robots use them because they can’t be controlled as precisely as electric motors. It’s possible then, that future robots may use this new rubberized graphene and other carbon-based alternatives as a kind of muscle tissue that would more closely replicate their biological counterparts.

artificial-muscle-1This would not only would this be a boon for robotics, but (as Zhao notes) for amputees and prosthetics as well. Already, bionic devices are restoring ability and even sensation to accident victims, veterans and people who suffer from physical disabilities. By incorporating carbon-based, piezoelectric muscles, these prosthetics could function just like the real thing, but with greater strength and carrying capacity.

And of course, there is the potential for cybernetic enhancement, at least in the long-term. As soon as such technology becomes commercially available, even affordable, people will have the option of swapping out their regular flesh and blood muscles for something a little more “sophisticated” and high-performance. So in addition to killer robots, we might want to keep an eye out for deranged cyborg people!

And be sure to check out this video from the Berkley Lab showing the vanadium dioxide muscle in action:


Source:
gizmag.com, (2)
, extremetech.com, pratt.duke.edu

The First Government-Recognized Cyborg

harbisson_cyborgThose who follow tech news are probably familiar with the name Neil Harbisson. As a futurist, and someone who was born with a condition known as achromatopsia – which means he sees everything in shades in gray – he spent much of his life looking to augment himself so that he could see what other people see. And roughly ten years ago, he succeeded by creating a device known as the “eyeborg”.

Also known as a cybernetic “third eye”, this device – which is permanently integrated to his person – allows Harbisson to “hear” colors by translating the visual information into specific sounds. After years of use, he is able to discern different colors based on their sounds with ease. But what’s especially interesting about this device is that it makes Harbisson a bona fide cyborg.

neil_harbisson1What’s more, Neil Harbisson is now the first person on the planet to have a passport photo that shows his cyborg nature. After a long battle with UK authorities, his passport now features a photo of him, eyeborg and all. And now, he is looking to help other cyborgs like himself gain more rights, mainly because of the difficulties such people have been facing in recent years.

Consider the case of Steve Mann, the man recognized as the “father of wearable computers”. Since the 1970’s, he has been working towards the creation of fully-portable, ergonomic computers that people can carry with them wherever they go. The result of this was the EyeTap, a wearable computer he invented in 1998 and then had grafted to his head.

steve-mann1And then in July of 2012, he was ejected from a McDonald’s in Paris after several staff members tried to forcibly remove the wearable device. And then in April of 2013, a bar in Seattle banned patrons from using Google Glass, declaring that “ass-kickings will be encouraged for violators.” Other businesses across the world have followed, fearing that people wearing these devices may be taking photos or video and posting it to the internet.

Essentially, Harbisson believes that recent technological advances mean there will be a rapid growth in the number of people with cybernetic implants in the near future, implants that can will either assist them or give them enhanced abilities. As he put it in a recent interview:

Our instincts and our bodies will change. When you incorporate technology into the body, the body will need to change to accommodate; it modifies and adapts to new inputs. How we adapt to this change will be very interesting.

cyborg_foundationOther human cyborgs include Stelarc, a performance artist who has implanted a hearing ear on his forearm; Kevin Warwick, the “world’s first human cyborg” who has an RFID chip embedded beneath his skin, allowing him to control devices such as lights, doors and heaters; and “DIY cyborg” Tim Cannon, who has a self-administered body-monitoring device in his arm.

And though they are still in the minority, the number of people who live with integrated electronic or bionic devices is growing. In order to ensure that the transition Harbisson foresees is accomplished as painlessly as possible, he created the Cyborg Foundation in 2010. According to their website, the organization’s mission statement is to:

help humans become cyborgs, to promote the use of cybernetics as part of the human body and to defend cyborg rights [whilst] encouraging people to create their own sensory extensions.

transhumanism1And as mind-controlled prosthetics, implants, and other devices meant to augment a person’s senses, faculties, and ambulatory ability are introduced, we can expect people to begin to actively integrate them into their bodies. Beyond correcting for injuries or disabilities, the increasing availability of such technology is also likely to draw people looking to enhance their natural abilities.

In short, the future is likely to be a place in which cyborgs are a common features of our society. The size and shape of that society is difficult to predict, but given that its existence is all but certain, we as individuals need to be able to address it. Not only is it an issue of tolerance, there’s also the need for informed decision-making when it comes whether or not individuals need to make cybernetic enhancements a part of their lives.

Basically, there are some tough issues that need to be considered as we make our way into the future. And having a forum where they can be discussed in a civilized fashion may be the only recourse to a world permeated by prejudice and intolerance on the one hand, and runaway augmentation on the other.

johnnymnemonic04In the meantime, it might not be too soon to look into introducing some regulations, just to make sure we don’t have any yahoos turning themselves into killer cyborgs in the near future! *PS: Bonus points for anyone who can identify which movie the photo above is taken from…

Sources: IO9.com, dezeen.com, eyeborg.wix.com

Robot Snakes to Explore Mars?

curiosity_sol-177-1The recent discoveries and accomplishments of the Curiosity and Opportunity rovers have been very impressive. But for some, these successes have overshadowed the limitations that are part of the rover designs. Yes, despite their complexity and longevity (as evidenced by Opportunity’s ten years of service) the robot rovers really aren’t that fast or agile, and are limited when it comes to what they can access.

Case in point, Curiosity is currently on a year-long trek that is taking it from the Glenelg rocky outcropping to Mount Sharp, which is just over 8 km (5 miles) away. And where crevices, holes and uneven terrain are involved, they’ve been known to have trouble. This was demonstrated with the Spirit Rover, which was lost on May 1st, 2009 after getting stuck in soft soil.

robotsnakesAs a result, the European Space Agency is planning on a sending a different type of rover to Mars in the future. Basically, their plan calls for the use of robot snakes. This plan is the result of collaborative study between the ESA and SINTEF – the largest independent research organization in Scandinavia – that sought to create a rover that would be able to navigate over long distances and get into places that were inaccessible to other rovers.

They concluded that a snake-like robot design would open up all kinds of possibilities, and be able to collect samples from areas that other rovers simply couldn’t get into. In addition to being able to move across challenging surfaces, these snake-bots would also be able to tunnel underground and get at soil and rock samples that are inaccessible to a land rover. Curiosity, which despite its advanced drill, is limited in what it can examine from Mars’ interior.

robotsnakes1The researchers envisage using the rover to navigate over large distances, after which the snake robot can detach itself and crawl into tight, inaccessible areas. A cable will connect the robot to the vehicle and will supply power and tractive power – i.e. it can be winched back to the rover. Communication between the pair will be also be facilitated via signals transmitted down the cable.

According to Pål Liljebäck, one of the researchers developing the snake robot at SINTEF, the challenge presents several opportunities for creative solutions:

We are looking at several alternatives to enable a rover and a robot to work together. Since the rover has a powerful energy source, it can provide the snake robot with power through a cable extending between the rover and the robot. If the robot had to use its own batteries, it would run out of power and we would lose it. One option is to make the robot into one of the vehicle’s arms, with the ability to disconnect and reconnect itself, so that it can be lowered to the ground, where it can crawl about independently.

An additional benefit of this rover-snake collaboration is that in the event that the rover gets stuck, the snake can be deployed to dig it out. Alternately, it could act as an anchor by coiling itself about a rock while the rover using the cable as a winch to pull itself free.

robotsnake2Liljebäck and his colleague, Aksel Transeth, indicate that SINTEF’s Department of Applied Cybernetics has been working closely with the Norwegian University of Science and Technology’s (NTNU) Department of Engineering Cybernetics for many years. However, it was only recently that these efforts have managed to bear fruit in the form or their robot snake-rover design, which they hope will trigger a long-term partnership with the ESA.

In addition to researching rover design, Transeth, Liljebäck and other researchers working with the ESA are looking for ways to bring samples from Mars back to Earth. At present, soil and other materials taken from Mars are analyzed on board the rover itself, and the results communicated back to Earth. If these samples could be physically transported home, they could be studied for years to come, and yield much more fascinating information.

And be sure to enjoy this video of the robot snake in action:


Sources: dvice.com, sintef.no, phys.org,

The researchers are busy working on a feasibility study assigned to them by the ESA. The ESA and the researchers believe that by combining a rover that can navigate over large distances with a snake robot that can crawl along the ground and can get into inaccessible places, so many more possibilities could be opened up.