The year of 2013 closed with many interesting stories about the coming age of space exploration. And they came from many fronts, including the frontiers of exploration (Mars and the outer Solar System) as well as right here at home, on the conceptual front. In the case of the latter, it seems that strides made in the field are leading to big plans for sending humans into orbit, and into deep space.
The first bit of news comes from Reaction Engines Limited, where it seems that the Skylon space plane is beginning to move from the conceptual stage to a reality. For some time now, the British company has been talked about, thanks to their plans to create a reusable aerospace jet that would be powered by a series of hypersonic engines.
And after years of research and development, the hypersonic Sabre Engine passed a critical heat tolerance and cooling test. Because of this, Reaction Engines Limited won an important endorsement from the European Space Agency. Far from being a simple milestone, this test may prove to be historic. Or as Skymania‘s Paul Sutherland noted, it’s “the biggest breakthrough in flight technology since the invention of the jet engine.”
Now that Reaction Engines has proven that they can do this, the company will be looking for £250 million (approx $410 million) of investment for the next step in development. This will include the development of the LapCat, a hypersonic jet that will carry 300 passengers around the world in less than four hours; and the Skylon, which will carry astronauts, tourists, satellites and space station components into orbit.
Speaking at the press conference after the test in late November, ESA’s Mark Ford had this to say:
ESA are satisfied that the tests demonstrate the technology required for the Sabre engine development. One of the major obstacles to a reusable vehicle has been removed. The gateway is now open to move beyond the jet age.
The Sabre engine is the crucial piece in the reusable space plane puzzle, hence why this test was so crucial. Once built and operational, Skylon will take off and land like a conventional plane, but still achieve orbit by mixing air-breathing jets for takeoff, and landing with rockets fueled by onboard oxygen once it gets past a certain speed.
The recent breakthrough had to do to the development of a heat exchanger that’s able to cool air sucked into the engine at high speed from 1,000 degrees Celsius to minus 150 degrees in one hundredth of a second. It’s this critical technology that will allow the Sabre engine to surpass the bounds of a traditional jet engine, by as much as twofold.
Alan Bond, the engineering genius behind the invention, had this to say about his brainchild:
These successful tests represent a fundamental breakthrough in propulsion technology. The Sabre engine has the potential to revolutionise our lives in the 21st century in the way the jet engine did in the 20th Century. This is the proudest moment of my life.
And of course, there’s a video of the engine in action. Check it out:
Second, and perhaps in response to these and other developments, the British Interplanetary Society is resurrecting a forty year old idea. This society, which came up with the idea to send a multi-stage rocket and a manned lander to the moon in the 1930’s (eerily reminiscent of the Apollo 11 mission some 30 years later) is now reconsidering plans for giant habitats in space.
To make the plan affordable and feasible, they are turning to a plan devised by Gerard O’Neill back in the 1970s. Commonly known as the O’Neill Cylinder, the plan calls for space-based human habitats consisting of giant rotating spaceships containing landscaped biospheres that can house up to 10 million people. The cylinder would rotate to provide gravity and – combined with the interior ecology – would simulate a real-world environment.
Jerry Stone of BIS’s SPACE (Study Project Advancing Colony Engineering) is trying to show that building a very large space colony is technically feasible. Part of what makes the plan work is the fact that O’Neill deliberately designed the structure using existing 1970s technology, materials and construction techniques, rather than adopting futuristic inventions.
Stone is bringing these plans up to date using today’s technologies. Rather than building the shell from aluminium, for example, Stone argues tougher and lighter carbon composites could be used instead. Advances in solar cell and climate control technologies could also be used to make life easier and more comfortable in human space colonies.
One of the biggest theoretical challenges O’Neill faced in his own time was the effort and cost of construction. That, says Stone, will be solved when a new generation of much cheaper rocket launchers and spaceplanes has been developed (such as the UK-built Skylon). Using robot builders could also help, and other futuristic construction techniques like 3-D printing robots and even nanomachines and bacteria could be used.
And as Stone said, much of the materials could be outsourced, taking advantage of the fact that this would be a truly space-aged construction project:
Ninety per cent of the material to build the colonies would come from the Moon. We know from Apollo there’s silicon for the windows, and aluminium, iron and magnesium for the main structure. There’s even oxygen in the lunar soil.
Fans of Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama, the series Babylon 5 or the movie Elysium out to instantly recognize this concept. In addition to being a very real scientific concept, it has also informed a great deal of science fiction and speculation. For some time, writers and futurists have been dreaming of a day when humanity might live in space habitats that can simulate terrestrial life.
Well, that day might be coming sooner than expected. And, as O’Neill and his contemporaries theorized at the time, it may be a viable solution to the possibility of humanity’s extinction. Granted, we aren’t exactly living in fear of nuclear holocaust anymore, but ecological collapse is still a threat! And with the Earth’s population set to reach 12 billion by the 22nd century, it might be an elegant solution to getting some of those people offworld.
It’s always an exciting thing when hopes and aspirations begin to become feasible. And though aerospace transit is likely to be coming a lot sooner than O’Neill habitats in orbit, the two are likely to compliment each other. After all, jet planes that can reach orbit, affordably and efficiently, is the first step in making offworld living a reality!
Until next time, keep your eyes to the skies. Chances are, people will be looking back someday soon…
Nanotechnology has long been the dream of researchers, scientists and futurists alike, and for obvious reasons. If machinery were small enough so as to be microscopic, or so small that it could only be measured on the atomic level, just about anything would be possible. These include constructing buildings and products from the atomic level up, with would revolutionize manufacturing as we know it.
In addition, microscopic computers, smart cells and materials, and electronics so infinitesimally small that they could be merged with living tissues would all be within our grasp. And it seems that at least once a month, universities, research labs, and even independent skunkworks are unveiling new and exciting steps that are bringing us ever closer to this goal.
Once such breakthrough comes from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where biomedical scientists and engineers have joined forces to create the “smart sponge”. A spherical object that is microscopic — just 250 micrometers across, and could be made as small as 0.1 micrometers – these new sponges are similar to nanoparticles, in that they are intended to be the next-generation of delivery vehicles for medication.
Each sponge is mainly composed of a polymer called chitosan, something which is not naturally occurring, but can be produced easily from the chitin in crustacean shells. The long polysaccharide chains of chitosan form a matrix in which tiny porous nanocapsules are embedded, and which can be designed to respond to the presence of some external compound – be it an enzyme, blood sugar, or a chemical trigger.
So far, the researchers tested the smart sponges with insulin, so the nanocapsules in this case contained glucose oxidase. As the level of glucose in a diabetic patient’s blood increases, it would trigger the nanocapsules in the smart sponge begin releasing hydrogen ions which impart a positive charge to the chitosan strands. This in turn causes them to spread apart and begin to slowly release insulin into the blood.
The process is also self-limiting: as glucose levels in the blood come down after the release of insulin, the nanocapsules deactivate and the positive charge dissipates. Without all those hydrogen ions in the way, the chitosan can come back together to keep the remaining insulin inside. The chitosan is eventually degraded and absorbed by the body, so there are no long-term health effects.
One the chief benefits of this kind of system, much like with nanoparticles, is that it delivers medication when its needed, to where its needed, and in amounts that are appropriate to the patient’s needs. So far, the team has had success treating diabetes in rats, but plans to expand their treatment to treating humans, and branching out to treat other types of disease.
Cancer is a prime candidate, and the University team believes it can be treated without an activation system of any kind. Tumors are naturally highly acidic environments, which means a lot of free hydrogen ions. And since that’s what the diabetic smart sponge produces as a trigger anyway, it can be filled with small amounts of chemotherapy drugs that would automatically be released in areas with cancer cells.
Another exciting breakthrough comes from University of California at Berkeley, where medical researchers are working towards tiny, implantable sensors . As all medical researchers know, the key to understanding and treating neurological problems is to gather real-time and in-depth information on the subject’s brain. Unfortunately, things like MRIs and positron emission tomography (PET) aren’t exactly portable and are expensive to run.
Implantable devices are fast becoming a solution to this problem, offering real-time data that comes directly from the source and can be accessed wirelessly at any time. So far, this has taken the form of temporary medical tattoos or tiny sensors which are intended to be implanted in the bloodstreams. However, what the researchers at UofC are proposing something much more radical.
In a recent research paper, they proposed a design for a new kind of implantable sensor – an intelligent dust that can infiltrate the brain, record data, and communicate with the outside world. The preliminary design was undertaken by Berkeley’s Dongjin Seo and colleagues, who described a network of tiny sensors – each package being no more than 100 micrometers – in diameter. Hence the term they used: “neural dust”.
The smart particles would all contain a very small CMOS sensor capable of measuring electrical activity in nearby neurons. The researchers also envision a system where each particle is powered by a piezoelectric material rather than tiny batteries. The particles would communicate data to an external device via ultrasound waves, and the entire package would also be coated in a polymer, thus making it bio-neutral.
But of course, the dust would need to be complimented by some other implantable devices. These would likely include a larger subdural transceiver that would send the ultrasound waves to the dust and pick up the return signal. The internal transceiver would also be wirelessly connected to an external device on the scalp that contains data processing hardware, a long range transmitter, storage, and a battery.
The benefits of this kind of system are again obvious. In addition to acting like an MRI running in your brain all the time, it would allow for real-time monitoring of neurological activity for the purposes of research and medical monitoring. The researchers also see this technology as a way to enable brain-machine interfaces, something which would go far beyond current methods. Who knows? It might even enable a form of machine-based telepathy in time.
Sounds like science fiction, and it still is. Many issues need to be worked out before something of this nature would be possible or commercially available. For one, more powerful antennae would need to be designed on the microscopic scale in order for the smart dust particles to be able to send and receive ultrasound waves.
Increasing the efficiency of transceivers and piezoelectric materials will also be a necessity to provide the dust with power, otherwise they could cause a build-up of excess heat in the user’s neurons, with dire effects! But most importantly of all, researchers need to find a safe and effective way to deliver the tiny sensors to the brain.
And last, but certainly not least, nanotechnology might be offering improvements in the field of prosthetics as well. In recent years, scientists have made enormous breakthroughs in the field of robotic and bionic limbs, restoring ambulatory mobility to accident victims, the disabled, and combat veterans. But even more impressive are the current efforts to restore sensation as well.
One method, which is being explored by the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Israel, involves incorporating gold nanoparticles and a substrate made of polyethylene terephthalate (PET) – the plastic used in bottles of soft drinks. Between these two materials, they were able to make an ultra-sensitive film that would be capable of transmitting electrical signals to the user, simulating the sensation of touch.
Basically, the gold-polyester nanomaterial experiences changes in conductivity as it is bent, providing an extremely sensitive measure of physical force. Tests conducted on the material showed that it was able to sense pressures ranging from tens of milligrams to tens of grams, which is ten times more sensitive than any sensors being build today.
Even better, the film maintained its sensory resolution after many “bending cycles”, meaning it showed consistent results and would give users a long term of use. Unlike many useful materials that can only really be used under laboratory conditions, this film can operate at very low voltages, meaning that it could be manufactured cheaply and actually be useful in real-world situations.
In their research paper, lead researcher Hossam Haick described the sensors as “flowers, where the center of the flower is the gold or metal nanoparticle and the petals are the monolayer of organic ligands that generally protect it.” The paper also states that in addition to providing pressure information (touch), the sensors in their prototype were also able to sense temperature and humidity.
But of course, a great deal of calibration of the technology is still needed, so that each user’s brain is able to interpret the electronic signals being received from the artificial skin correctly. But this is standard procedure with next-generation prosthetic devices, ones which rely on two-way electronic signals to provide control signals and feedback.
And these are just some examples of how nanotechnology is seeking to improve and enhance our world. When it comes to sensory and mobility, it offers solutions to not only remedy health problems or limitations, but also to enhance natural abilities. But the long-term possibilities go beyond this by many orders of magnitude.
As a cornerstone to the post-singularity world being envisioned by futurists, nanotech offers solutions to everything from health and manufacturing to space exploration and clinical immortality. And as part of an ongoing trend in miniaturization, it presents the possibility of building devices and products that are even tinier and more sophisticated than we can currently imagine.
It’s always interesting how science works by scale, isn’t it? In addition to dreaming large – looking to build structures that are bigger, taller, and more elaborate – we are also looking inward, hoping to grab matter at its most basic level. In this way, we will not only be able to plant our feet anywhere in the universe, but manipulate it on the tiniest of levels.
As always, the future is a paradox, filling people with both awe and fear at the same time.
With the development of vertical farms, carbon capture technology, clean energy and arcologies, the future of city life and urban planning is likely to be much different than it does today. Using current trends, there are a number of people who are determined to gain some understanding of what that might look like. One such group is Arup, a design and engineering firm that produced a mockup that visualizes what urban environments will look like in 2050.
Based on the world as it is today, certain facts about the future seem relatively certain. For starters, three-quarters of the population will live in cities, or 6.75 billion of the projected 9 billion global total. In addition, everyone will have grown up with the Internet, and its successors, and city residents will have access to less natural resources than they do today, making regeneration and efficiency more of a priority.
Add to this several emerging technologies, and our urban environments are likely to look something like the building mockup below. As you can see, it has its own energy systems (“micro-wind,” “solar PV paint,” and “algae facade” for producing biofuels). There is an integrated layer for meat, poultry, fish, and vegetable farming, a “building membrane” that converts CO2 to oxygen, heat recovery surfaces, materials that phase change and repair themselves, integration with the rest of the city, and much more.
Most futuristic of all is the fact that the structure is completely modular and designed to be shifted about (by robots, of course). The building has three layer types, with different life-spans. At the bottom is a permanent layer – with a 10 to 20-year lifespan – which includes the “facade and primary fit-out walls, finishes, or on-floor mechanical plant” – and a third layer that can incorporate rapid changes, such as new IT equipment.
As Arup’s Josef Hargrave described the building when unveiling the design:
[A]ble to make informed and calculated decisions based on their surrounding environment… [a] living and breathing [structure] able to support the cities and people of tomorrow.
In short, the building is designed with personal needs in mind, based on information gleamed from a person’s behaviors, stated preferences, and even genetic information.
But what is even more interesting is how these buildings will be constructed. As countless developments are made in the field of robotics, biotechnology and nanotechnology, both the materials used and the processes involved are likely to be radically different. The rigid construction that we are used to is likely to give way to buildings which are far more flexible, adaptive, and – best of all – built by robots, drones, tiny machines and bacteria cultures.
Once again, this change is due mainly to the pressures that are being placed on urban environments, and not just technological advances. As our world becomes even more densely populated, greater proportions of people live in urban environments, and resources become more constrained, the way we build our cities must offer optimum efficiency with minimal impact.
Towards this end, innovations in additive manufacturing, synthetic biology, swarm robotics, and architecture suggest a future scenario when buildings may be designed using libraries of biological templates and constructed with biosynthetic materials able to sense and adapt to their conditions.
What this means is that cities could be grown, or assembled at the atomic level, forming buildings that are either living creatures themselves, or composed of self-replicated machines that can adapt and change as needed. Might sound like science fiction, but countless firms and labs are working towards this very thing every day.
It has already been demonstrated that single cells are capable of being programmed to carry out computational operations, and that DNA strains are capable of being arranged to carry out specialized functions. Given the rapid progress in the field of biotech and biomimetics (technology that imitates biology), a future where the built environment imitates organic life seems just around the corner.
For example, at Harvard there is a biotech research outfit known as Robobees that is working on a concept known as “programming group dynamics”. Like corals, beehives, and termite colonies, there’s a scalar effect gained from coordinating large numbers of simple agents to perform complex goals. Towards this end, Robobees has been working towards the creation of robotic insects that exhibit the swarming behaviors of bees.
Mike Rubenstein leads another Harvard lab, known as Kilobot, which is dedicated to creating a “low cost scalable robot system for demonstrating collective behaviors.” His lab, along with the work of researcher’s like Nancy Lynch at MIT, are laying the frameworks for asynchronous distributed networks and multi-agent coordination, aka swarm robotics, that would also be capable of erecting large structures thanks to centralized, hive-mind programming.
In addition to MIT, Caltech, and various academic research departments, there are also scores of private firms and DIY labs looking to make things happen. For example, the companies Autodesk Research and Organovo recently announced a partnership where they will be combining their resources – modelling the microscopic organic world and building bioprinters – to begin biofabricating everything from drugs to nanomachines.
And then there are outfits like the Columbia Living Architecture Lab, a group that explores ways to integrate biology into architecture. Their recent work investigates bacterial manufacturing, the genetic modification of bacteria to create durable materials. Envisioning a future where bacterial colonies are designed to print novel materials at scale, they see buildings wrapped in seamless, responsive, bio-electronic envelopes.
And let’s not forget 3D printing, a possibility which is being explored by NASA and the European Space Agency as the means to create a settlement on the Moon. In the case of the ESA, they have partnered with roboticist Enrico Dini, who created a 3-D printer large enough to print houses from sand. Using his concept, the ESA hopes to do the same thing using regolith – aka. moon dust – to build structures on Earth’s only satellite.
All of these projects are brewing in university and corporate labs, but it’s likely that there are far more of them sprouting in DIY labs and skunkworks all across the globe. And in the end, each of them is dedicated to the efficiency of natural systems, and their realization through biomimetic technology. And given that the future is likely to be characterized by resources shortages, environmental degradation and the need for security, it is likely to assume that all of these areas of study are likely to produce some very interesting scenarios.
As I’ve said many times before, the future is likely to be a very interesting place, thanks to the convergence of both Climate Change and technological change. With so many advances promising a future of post-scarcity, post-mortality, a means of production and a level of control over our environment which is nothing short of mind-boggling – and a history of environmental degradation and resource depletion that promises shortages, scarcity, and some frightening prospects – our living spaces are likely to change drastically.
The 21st century is going to be a very interesting time, people. Let’s just hope we make it out alive!
Computing has come so far in such a relatively short space of time. Beginning with comparatively basic models, which relied on arrangements of analogue circuits (such as capacitors and resistors), scientists were able to perform complex calculations, crack impenetrable cyphers, and even know how and where to deploy counter-measures against incoming missiles. And as we all know, sometimes you have to look back to the fundamentals if you want to move any farther ahead.
And that’s precisely what researchers at MIT have done with their latest innovation: an analog computer that works inside a living cell! A massive step towards a future where machinery and biology are one and the same, these “cellular computers” were not only able to perform arithmetic, but also more complex functions like taking logarithms, square roots, and even do power law scaling.
This news comes on the heels of researchers at Stanford who were able to create a biological transistor inside a cell. Relying on DNA and RNA to create a “transcriptors”, the Standford researchers were able to create a biological logic gate, and all on the microscopic scale. When combined the sorts of digital and analog circuits common to computing, this research could lead to powerful sensing and control platforms built on very small scales.
And like many recent innovations and developments made within the world of computing and biotechnology, the possibilities that this offers are startling and awesome. For one, all cells work with a certain biological clock, which regulates growth, circadian rhythms, aging, and numerous biological process. Thus far, the researchers in question have been hosting their biological computers in bacterial cells. But if they were to develop analogous circuits that operate in mammalian cells, these functions might be brought into better use.
What this means is that we could be very well seeing the beginning of biology that is enhanced and augmented by the addition of technology on the cellular level. And not in the sense of tiny machines or implants, things made of silicon and minerals that would regulate our blood flow, administer drugs or monitor or vitals. No, in this case, we would be talking about machines that are composed of self-regulating DNA and RNA and work in the same way our organic tissues do.
On top of that, we would be able to create things like flash drives and computation software from living tissue, cramming thousands of terabytes of into into a few cells worth of genetic material. Human beings would no longer need smartphones, PDAs or tablets, since they would be able to carry all the information they would ever need in their body. And the ability to do this could very well lead to the creation of AI’s that are not build, but grown, making them virtually indistinguishable from humans.
And you know what that means, don’t you? The line between biological and artificial would truly begin to dissolve, Voight-Kampff and genetic tests might have to become mandatory, and we could all be looking at robots that look something like this…
The realm of nanotechnology, which once seemed like the stuff of science fiction, is getting closer to realization with every passing year. And with all the innovations taking place in tiny-scale manufacturing, molecular research, and DNA structures, we could be looking at an age where tiny machines regulate our health, construct buildings, assemble atomic structures, and even contain enough hardware to run complex calculations.
One such innovation was announced back in March by the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) in Switzerland, where researchers created the world’s smallest medical implant capable of monitoring critical chemicals in the blood. Measuring a mere 14mm in length, the device is capable of measuring up to five indicators, like proteins, glucose, lactate, ATP, and then transmit this information to a smartphone via Bluetooth.
In short, it is capable of providing valuable information that may help track and prevent heart attacks and monitor for indications of harmful conditions, like diabetes. Each sensor is coated with an enzyme that reacts with blood-borne chemicals to generate a detectable signal, and is paired with a wearable battery that provides the 100 milliwatts of power that the device requires by wireless inductive charging through the skin.
For patient monitoring, such a device has so many useful applications that it is likely to become indispensable, once introduced. In cancer treatment for example, numerous blood tests are often required to calibrate treatments according the to the patient’s particular ability to break down and excrete drugs. And since these parameters often change due the patient’s reaction to said treatments, anything that can provide up-to-the-minute monitoring will spare the patient countless invasive tests.
In addition, in cases of heart attacks, the signs are visible in the hours before the event occurs. This occurs when fatigued or oxygen-starved muscle begins to break down, releasing fragments of the heart-specific smooth muscle protein known as troponin. If this protein can be detected before disruption of the heart rhythm begins, or the actual attack, lifesaving preemptive treatment can be initiated sooner.
At the moment, the sensors are limited by the number of sensors they hold. But there is no theoretical limit to how any sensors each implant can hold. In the future, such a device could be equipped with electronics that could monitor for strokes, blood clots, high cholesterol, cancer cells, HIV, parasites, viruses, and even the common cold (assuming such a thing continues to exist!) Just think about it.
You’re going about your daily activities when suddenly, you get a ringtone that alerts you that you’re about to experience a serious a health concern. Or maybe that the heavy lunch you just ate raised the level of LDL cholesterol in your bloodstream to an unwanted level. Tell me, on a scale of one to ten, how cool would that be?
The coming Singularity… the threshold where we will essentially surpass all our current restrictions and embark on an uncertain future. For many, its something to be feared, while for others, its something regularly fantasized about. On the one hand, it could mean a future where things like shortages, scarcity, disease, hunger and even death are obsolete. But on the other, it could also mean the end of humanity as we know it.
As a friend of mine recently said, in reference to some of the recent technological breakthroughs: “Cell phones, prosthetics, artificial tissue…you sci-fi writers are going to run out of things to write about soon.” I had to admit he had a point. If and when he reach an age where all scientific breakthroughs that were once the province of speculative writing exist, what will be left to speculate about?
To break it down, simply because I love to do so whenever possible, the concept borrows from the field of quantum physics, where the edge of black hole is described as a “quantum singularity”. It is at this point that all known physical laws, including time and space themselves, coalesce and become a state of oneness, turning all matter and energy into some kind of quantum soup. Nothing beyond this veil (also known as an Event Horizon) can be seen, for no means exist to detect anything.
The same principle holds true in this case, at least that’s the theory. Originally coined by mathematician John von Neumann in the mid-1950’s, the term served as a description for a phenomenon of technological acceleration causing an eventual unpredictable outcome in society. In describing it, he spoke of the “ever accelerating progress of technology and changes in the mode of human life, which gives the appearance of approaching some essential singularity in the history of the race beyond which human affairs, as we know them, could not continue.”
The term was then popularized by science fiction writer Vernor Vinge (A Fire Upon the Deep, A Deepness in the Sky, Rainbows End) who argued that artificial intelligence, human biological enhancement, or brain-computer interfaces could be possible causes of the singularity. In more recent times, the same theme has been picked up by futurist Ray Kurzweil, the man who points to the accelerating rate of change throughout history, with special emphasis on the latter half of the 20th century.
In what Kurzweil described as the “Law of Accelerating Returns”, every major technological breakthrough was preceded by a period of exponential growth. In his writings, he claimed that whenever technology approaches a barrier, new technologies come along to surmount it. He also predicted paradigm shifts will become increasingly common, leading to “technological change so rapid and profound it represents a rupture in the fabric of human history”.
Looking into the deep past, one can see indications of what Kurzweil and others mean. Beginning in the Paleolithic Era, some 70,000 years ago, humanity began to spread out a small pocket in Africa and adopt the conventions we now associate with modern Homo sapiens – including language, music, tools, myths and rituals.
By the time of the “Paleolithic Revolution” – circa 50,000 – 40,000 years ago – we had spread to all corners of the Old World world and left evidence of continuous habitation through tools, cave paintings and burials. In addition, all other existing forms of hominids – such as Homo neanderthalensis and Denisovans – became extinct around the same time, leading many anthropologists to wonder if the presence of homo sapiens wasn’t the deciding factor in their disappearance.
And then came another revolution, this one known as the “Neolithic” which occurred roughly 12,000 years ago. By this time, humanity had hunted countless species to extinction, had spread to the New World, and began turning to agriculture to maintain their current population levels. Thanks to the cultivation of grains and the domestication of animals, civilization emerged in three parts of the world – the Fertile Crescent, China and the Andes – independently and simultaneously.
All of this gave rise to more habits we take for granted in our modern world, namely written language, metal working, philosophy, astronomy, fine art, architecture, science, mining, slavery, conquest and warfare. Empires that spanned entire continents rose, epics were written, inventions and ideas forged that have stood the test of time. Henceforth, humanity would continue to grow, albeit with some minor setbacks along the way.
And then by the 1500s, something truly immense happened. The hemispheres collided as Europeans, first in small droves, but then en masse, began to cross the ocean and made it home to tell others what they found. What followed was an unprecedented period of expansion, conquest, genocide and slavery. But out of that, a global age was also born, with empires and trade networks spanning the entire planet.
Hold onto your hats, because this is where things really start to pick up. Thanks to the collision of hemispheres, all the corn, tomatoes, avocados, beans, potatoes, gold, silver, chocolate, and vanilla led to a period of unprecedented growth in Europe, leading to the Renaissance, Scientific Revolution, and the Enlightenment. And of course, these revolutions in thought and culture were followed by political revolutions shortly thereafter.
By the 1700’s, another revolution began, this one involving industry and creation of a capitalist economy. Much like the two that preceded it, it was to have a profound and permanent effect on human history. Coal and steam technology gave rise to modern transportation, cities grew, international travel became as extensive as international trade, and every aspect of society became “rationalized”.
By the 20th century, the size and shape of the future really began to take shape, and many were scared. Humanity, that once tiny speck of organic matter in Africa, now covered the entire Earth and numbered over one and a half billion. And as the century rolled on, the unprecedented growth continued to accelerate. Within 100 years, humanity went from coal and diesel fuel to electrical power and nuclear reactors. We went from crossing the sea in steam ships to going to the moon in rockets.
And then, by the end of the 20th century, humanity once again experienced a revolution in the form of digital technology. By the time the “Information Revolution” had arrived, humanity had reached 6 billion people, was building hand held devices that were faster than computers that once occupied entire rooms, and exchanging more information in a single day than most peoples did in an entire century.
And now, we’ve reached an age where all the things we once fantasized about – colonizing the Solar System and beyond, telepathy, implants, nanomachines, quantum computing, cybernetics, artificial intelligence, and bionics – seem to be becoming more true every day. As such, futurists predictions, like how humans will one day merge their intelligence with machines or live forever in bionic bodies, don’t seem so farfetched. If anything, they seem kind of scary!
There’s no telling where it will go, and it seems like even the near future has become completely unpredictable. The Singularity looms! So really, if the future has become so opaque that accurate predictions are pretty much impossible to make, why bother? What’s more, will predictions become true as the writer is writing about them? Won’t that remove all incentive to write about it?
And really, if the future is to become so unbelievably weird and/or awesome that fact will take the place of fiction, will fantasy become effectively obsolete? Perhaps. So again, why bother? Well, I can think one reason. Because its fun! And because as long as I can, I will continue to! I can’t predict what course the future will take, but knowing that its uncertain and impending makes it extremely cool to think about. And since I’m never happy keeping my thoughts to myself, I shall try to write about it!
So here’s to the future! It’s always there, like the horizon. No one can tell what it will bring, but we do know that it will always be there. So let’s embrace it and enter into it together! We knew what we in for the moment we first woke up and embraced this thing known as humanity.
And for a lovely and detailed breakdown of the Singularity, as well as when and how it will come in the future, go to futuretimeline.net. And be prepared for a little light reading 😉
As Dec. 31st fast approaches, I find myself thinking about New Years resolutions. And part of that is taking stock on what’s been accomplished in the past year. For me, one of those resolutions was to stay current and share all the new and exciting news from the field of science and tech all my followers people; to the best of my abilities, that is.
In keeping with this, I wanted to create a list of the most important developments of the last year. Many sites have produced a top 10, top 12, even a top 7, list of what they thought the most significant accomplishments were. Well, I wanted to do one of my own! Opinion varies as to what the biggest leaps and bounds were over the course of the last year, and I’ll be damned if I don’t get my say in. Lord knows I’ve spent enough time reading about them, so here’s my comprehensive list of the greatest inventions, developments and advances made during 2012.
I think you’ll all agree, the list packed with stories that are intriguing, awe-inspiring, and even a little scary! Here are the top 12, as selected by me, in alphabetical order:
3D Printing: As far as tech trends go, this one has been in the works for some time. However, 2012 will be remembered as the year that 3D printing truly became a reality. From tree-dimensional models to consumer products to even guns, 3D printers have been featured in the news many times over for their potential and frightening abilities.
However, one of the greatest potential uses will be in the field of artificial cartilage, organs, and even food. As the technology is refined and expands to the field of organic molecules, just about anything can and will be synthesized, leading to an era where scarcity is… well, scarce!
Bionic Implants: Perhaps the years biggest achievement came in the form of bionic prosthetics, artificial limbs which are calibrated to respond to the nerve impulses of the user. As a result, amputees, veterans and accident victims are able to receive artificial limbs that act like the real thing.
The most notable case was Zak Vawter who scaled the 103 flights of Chicago’s Willis Tower using an artificial leg. In addition, two men in Britain had their sight restored after undergoing the first ever case of retinal surgery where bionic implants were placed in their eyes.
Brain Implants: In September of 2012, scientists grafted an implant onto the brain of Chimpanzee, enhancing its brain power by ten percent. This consisted of an electrode array that was attached to the cerebral cortex of several monkey subjects, researchers were able to restore and even improve their decision-making abilities.
The implications for possible therapies is far-reaching, such as with brain injuries and cognitive disorders. But additionally, it also heralds the beginning of an era where human beings will be able to enhance their intelligence, recall, and memory retention.
Commercial Space Flight: Though not yet fully realized, 2012 was a big year in terms of commercial space flight. For example, Richard Branson and Virgin Galactic announced the first successful fully-loaded “glide test” of SpaceShipTwo, the rocket craft that will be taking passengers into low orbit as soon as all the kinks are worked out of the design.
In addition, Reaction Engines announced a breakthrough with the design of their hypersonic engine, which they claim will be fitted to their proposed spaceship – the Skylon. Capable of achieving speeds of up to Mach 5, this new craft is expected to be able to take off from conventional airfields, propel itself into low orbit, and deliver supplies to the ISS and make commercial trips around the world. No telling when either company will be conducting its first real suborbital flights, but the clock is ticking down!
Curiosity Rover: One of the years biggest announcement was the deployment of the Curiosity Rover on the Martian surface. Since it landed, the rover has provided a constant stream of scientific updates and news on the Red Planet. Though the Mars Science Team did not find the “earthshaking” proof organic molecules, it did make a number of important discoveries.
Amongst them was solid evidence that Mars was once home to large rivers and bodies of water. Furthermore, the x-ray lab on board the rover conducted studies on several rock and soil samples, determining what the chemical and mineral composition of Mars surface is.
Faster-Than-Light Travel: In the course of speaking at the 100 Year Starship, scientists at NASA began working on the first FTL travel system ever. Long considered to be the stuff of science fiction, physicist Harold White announced that not only is the math sound, but that his team at NASA had actually started working on it.
Relying on the concept of the Alcubierre Drive, the system involves expanding and contracting space time around the ship, allowing it to move faster than the speed of light without violating the Law of Relativity.
Geo-engineering: In October, the world’s first – and illegal – act of geo-engineering took place off Canada’s West Coast. The product of a “rogue geohacker” named Russ George, who was backed by a private company, the project involved the dumping of around 100 tonnes of oron sulphate into the Pacific Ocean. This technique, known as ocean fertilization, was meant to stimulate the growth of algae which metabolize carbon and produce oxygen.
The experiment, which is in violation of two United Nations moratoria, outraged many environmental, legal, and civic groups, many of whom hail from Haida Gwaii, the traditional territory of the Haida nation, who had enlisted by George as part of a proposed “salmon enhancement project”. Though illegal and abortive, the act was the first in what may very well become a series of geoengineering efforts which will be performed the world over in order to stay the progress of Climate Change.
Google’s Project Glass: 2012 was also the year that augmented reality became… well, a reality (oh dear, another bad pun). Back in April, Google unveiled its latest concept device for wireless and portable computing, known as Project Glass. Combining an active display matrix, a wireless internet connection and a pair of shades, Google managed to create a device that looks like something straight out of cyberpunk novel.
HIV and Flu Vaccines: When it comes to diseases, HIV and the Flu have two things in common. Until 2012, both were considered incurable, but sometime in the near future, both could be entirely preventable. In what could be the greatest medical breakthroughs in history, 2012 saw scientists and researchers experiment with antibodies that have been known to fight off HIV and the flu, and to good effect.
In the former case, this involved using a new process known as Vectored ImmunoProphylaxis (VIP), an inversion of the traditional vaccination method, where antibodies were introduced to mice. After allowing the antibodies to reproduce, researchers at Caltec found that the mice were able to fight off large quantities of the virus. In the latter, researchers at the Friedrich-Loeffler Institute in Riems Island, Germany used a new RNA-based vaccine that appeared to be able to fight off multiple strains of flu, not just the latest mutation.
Taken together, these vaccines could bring an end to a common, but potentially deadly ailment, and signal the end of the plague of the 20th century. In addition, this could be the first in a long series of developments which effectively brings all known diseases under our control.
Medical Implants: 2012 also saw the culmination of several breakthroughs in terms of biomedical research. In addition to the world’s first medimachine, there were also breakthroughs in terms of dissolving electronics, subdermal implants that dispense drugs, and health monitoring patches.
Little wonder then that Cambridge University announced the creation of the Center for the Study of Existential Risk to evaluate future technologies, or that Human Rights Watch and Harvard University teamed up to release a report calling for the ban of “killer robots”. With all the potential for enhancement, it could be just a matter of time before non-medical enhancements are a reality.
Mind-controlled prostheses: Researchers at BrainGate created a brain-machine interface that allows users to control an external device with their minds. The first person to use this revolutionary new system was Cathy Hutchinson, a stroke victim who has been paralyzed from the neck down for 15 years, who used the robotic arm to drink a cup of coffee.
This news, combined with other advances in terms of bionic prostheses, could signal the end of disability as we know it. Henceforth, people with severe injuries, amputations and strokes could find themselves able to make full recoveries, albeit through the use of robotic limbs.
Self-driving cars: 2012 marked an important year as three states (California, Nevada, and Florida) made autonomous vehicles legal. Self-driving cars, once perfected and produced en masse, will help with traffic congestion and significantly reduce the chance of auto accidents through the use of GPS, radar, and other technologies.
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All in all, it’s been an exciting year. And with all that’s been accomplished, the future is certainly looking a lot more interesting and even frightening. What is clear is that predictions made for some time now are becoming realizable, including replication, a cure for all known diseases, advanced robotics, implants, cybernetics, and even post-humanism. Regardless of where one sits on these developments, be you pro, con, or neutral, I think we can all agree that it is an exciting time to be alive!
Happy New Year to all, and here’s hoping 2013 proves just as interesting, and hopefully a lot more peaceful and sound. And may we ALL find ourselves able to keep our New Years resolutions and build upon all we’ve accomplished so far. And of course, with all the potential for medical and technological enhancements that are coming, I sincerely hope we can find ways to improve ourselves on a personal level too!
Medimachine: noun, a nanotechnological device used for medical applications. Granted, that’s not a working definition, but it does encompass what the technology is all about. And, as it happens, researchers at Standford created the world’s first device which is capable of traveling through the human bloodstream and which is controlled and powered wirelessly just this past year.
This development came in the midst of a similar significant development over at MIT. In January of this year, they announced that they had developed the world’s first implantable microchip that could deliver drugs directly into the bloodstream. This chip is also controlled wirelessly, and is the first step towards remote implants that could contain an entire pharmacy.
According to Ada Poon, the lead developer of the Standford team, the next step in the development of this device will be creating models that incorporate sensors and drug delivery systems for the ultimate in pin-point accurate medicine. If successful, Poon and her team could very well be responsible for creating the prototype device that will inspire entire generations of medical machines that are conducting exploratory exams, cleaning our arteries, removing tumors, destroying pathogens and viruses, and even repairing internal injuries.
And just think, if this development triggers further research and development, it could very well lead to nanomachines which are capable of making even tinier nanomachines. These devices could in turn manipulate matter on the mitochondrial level, correcting faults in our DNA and turning harmful or unwanted cells into something more useful for our bodies.
Just another step on the road to transhumanism and post-mortality!
According to a recent story on CBC.ca, a new material has been developed which is the currently renowned for being the lightest material in the world. Known as Aerographite, the material is composed of carbon and weighs roughly one-seventy-fifth that of Styrofoam.
Created by researchers working at the Technical University of Hamburg-Harburg (TUHH) and Christian-Albrechts University of Kiel, this material is also said to be flexible, stable, water resistant, and a good conductor of electricity. It might sound like no big deal, but ultra-light substances that are composed of basic elements are things which were predicted to accompany the development of nanotechnology.
You see, at the micro level aerographite resembles a network of porous carbon tubes (pictured at right), which calls to mind the concept of the carbon nanotube. Much like the Buckminsterfullerene, this microscopic structure is predicted to be the mainstay of construction someday, just as soon as we can create nanomachines capable of erecting buildings!
And just think of it, diamonds are essentially carbon that has been layered and then super-compressed to become a near-indestructible material. If you have the ability to assemble tiny atomic structures made out of carbon, you can essentially create not only create diamonds, but also objects that are both extremely light and highly resilient. And just so you know, the researchers who produced aerographite have indicated that it can be compressed without damage.
Okay, it’s not exactly a technological revolution, but it is a step in that direction. Yep, soon enough we’ll be able to erect buildings simply by dumping some grey goo on the ground and watching a building sprout up. And unlike our current edifices of concrete, steel and glass, will be composed of different configurations of carbon and other primary elements. They will be stronger, lighter, able to endure indefinitely, maybe even capable of upgrades!
Well, after many, many suggestions on how my list of dystopian franchises could be augmented – this mainly consisted of poeple asking me “what about (blank)?” – I decided there were a few that I really couldn’t proceed without mentioning. This will be my last tour of the dystopia factory, lord knows that place gets depressing after awhile! But one thing at a time. Here’s my final installment in dystopian science fiction series, a hybrid list of novels, graphic novels, and movies!
A Clockwork Orange: This dystopian novella was originally written in 1962 and was adapted into film by the great Kubrick almost a decade later. In addition, it was adapted into play after the author realized he didn’t like how the adapted movie ended. Having experienced all three, I can tell you that the movie was probably the best. In addition to the rather ingenious ideas presented by Anthony Burgess, it also benefited from Kubrick’s directorial genius and the superb acting of Malcolm McDowell.
Set in the not-too-distant future, the story revolves around a British youth named Alex who is growing up in a world permeated by youth violence. He is the leader of a group of thugs known as “The Droogs”, young men who go about committing acts of “ultra-violence” which consists of them beating up homeless people, random strangers and other gangs, as well as committing theft and gang rape.
In time, Alex and his friends go to far (even for them!) and an innocent woman is murdered during a break-in. His friends, who are already angry over his bullying and strong arming of them, decide to betray him and leave him to the police. Once in prison, Alex decides to cut his sentence short by undergoing a radical government experiment – an artificially created conscience through Pavlovian conditioning!
The result of this conditioning is that Alex is no longer capable of committing any acts of violence. In fact, even the mere thought of violence produces a reaction so strong that he breaks down and is overwhelmed by nausea. This renders him benign, but also helpless. And in time, all his past crimes begin to catch up with him and he is nearly killed. Once he wakes up in the hospital, he discovers the conditioning has worn off, and he can either resume his old ways, or strike out on a new path…
Another interesting side effect of the conditioning is that he can no longer listen to Beethoven without getting sick either. This has to be one of the most curious and intriguing scenes in the movie, where a restrained and helpless Alex begs the doctors to turn off the symphony because he can’t stand the idea of not being able to listen to it. Much like everything else he does, it speaks volumes of his sociopathic nature.
Ultimately, the movie differed from the novel in that the final chapter was omitted. Immediately before this, we see how Alex is now freed from the conditioning. He also seems intent on blaming the current government, which will oust them from power. But beyond that it not quite clear what’s going to happen. However, the following chapter shows how Alex has realized, independently, that he doesn’t want to live a life of violence anymore. Human freedom, he’s determined, is the ability to make choices for oneself, free of persuasion and operate conditioning.
As I said, I truly think the movie was an improvement on the novel, which is a rare thing with adaptations. Still, it is was in the film that the point of the story really came through, thanks to Kubrick’s usual attention to detail and subtlety. Whether it was through those long, close-up shots of McDowell and his crazy eyes, the combination of wide angle action shots in slow motion, or the way that it played to the tune of Beethoven, you really got a sense of the odd combination of genius and madness that is the anti-hero Alex. The reliance on white, sterile settings also helped to punctuate the sociopathic nature of the story – how underneath the veneer of domesticity, brutality and violence can exist! And last, by leaving the ending a mystery, the moral was more ambiguous, which made for a far more effective dystopian feel!
A Scanner Darkly: Next up, we have Philip K Dicks seminal novel about drug abuse, self-destruction and the various hypocrisies arising out of America’s war on drugs. In this near-future scenario, which takes place in California in 1994 (seventeen years after it was written), a new drug has hit the streets known as Substance D – or SD, which stands for Slow Death. This powerful hallucinogenic is a great high, is violently addictive, and can render users brain damaged after too much use and abuse. And as a result of its popularity and impact, society is gradually becoming a full-blown police state, where cameras – or “Scanners” – are on every street corner and in the home of every suspected dealer.
Written from the point of view of an undercover narcotics agent, the story follows his descent into addiction and his eventual inability to tell reality from fantasy. Through repeated use of Substance D, he gradually becomes brain damaged himself, is released from the police department, and must go to a privately run recovery-center known as “New-Path”. There, he discovers that these centers, which operate like franchises, are actually growing the plant that Substance D is synthesized from. An interesting twist in which we learn that the people profiting from the side effects are the one’s providing the drugs. A stab at strong-arm governments or the pharmaceuticals industry, perhaps?
For the sake of adapting the movie to film, director Richard Linklater shot the entire thing digitally and then had it animated through the use of interpolated rotoscope. The effect of this was to render every single image in a vivid, almost cartoon-like format, which could only be interpreted as an attempt to mimic the effects of hallucinogens. This animation also came in handy with the rendering of the “scramble suit”, a sort of cloak-like device that PKD invented to ensure that undercover agents in his story could completely disguise their appearance, voice, and any other identifying characteristics.
In addition to being science fiction genius, these cloaks were a clear allegory to the anonymity of undercover agents and a faceless system of justice. While responsible for infiltrating and busting up the narcotics subculture, PKD clearly understood that this sort of profession can lead to an identity crisis, especially if the agents in question find themselves using drugs and becoming over-sympathetic to the people they are spying on. This, of course, is precisely what happens to the main character in the story!
In short, the novel was a commentary on the dangers of recreational drug use, but also on the reasons for why such subcultures come into existence in the first place. In addition to ruining lives and causing crime, repression, domestic surveillance, and other extra-legal practices can become quite commonplace. All of this mirrored PKD’s own experiences with the drug subculture and the law, which is why he dedicated the book to all the friends he had who succumbed to drug abuse and died as a result. Very sad!
And let’s not forget the name, a play on the words from the Biblical passage, 1 Corinthians 13:12 : “Through a mirror darkly.” In this day and age, where “scanners” are the means for monitoring society and police officers spend hours looking at their feeds, the scanner has become a sort of means through which people attempt to gaze into other peoples’ souls. But, as with the Biblical passage, this title is meant to refer to how, when we look at the problems of drug use in our society, we are seeing it all through a haze, the result of our own prejudices and preconceptions.
Akira: How the hell did I forget this one last time? I mean seriously, this is one of my favorite movies and one of the most inspired Mangas of all time! Not only that, it’s a pretty good example of a dystopian franchise. And yet, I forgot it! WHAT THE HELL WAS I THINKING?! But enough self-flagellation, I came here to talk about Akira! So, here goes…
In 1988, famed Japanese writer, director and comic book creator Katsuhiro Otomo undertook the rather monumental task of adapting his Manga series Akira to the big screen. Though some predicted that a two hour movie could never do justice to the six-volume series he had written, most fans were pretty pleased with the end product. And the critical response was quite favorable as well, with the film being credited for its intense visualizations, cyberpunk theme, its post-apocalyptic feel, and the exploration of some rather heavy existential questions.
To break it down succinctly, Akira takes place in Neo-Tokyo, a massive urban center that was literally build up from the ruins of the original. According to the story’s background, WWIII took place in 1989, and after twenty years of rebuilding, the world once again appears to be one the brink. However, as we come to learn, the destruction of Tokyo was not the result of the nuclear holocaust per se. It’s destruction merely heralded it in after the world witnessed the city’s obliteration, assumed it to have been the result of a nuclear attack, and starting shooting their missiles at each other. The real cause was a phenomena known as “Akira”, an evolutionary leap that scientists had been studying and lost control of…
Quite the story, but what I loved most about the adapted movie and the manga on which it was based was the level of detail. Set in 2019 (the same year as Blade Runner, coincidentally!) this series incorporated a lot of concepts which made for a far more intricate and interesting tale. First off, there’s the concept of a post-apocalyptic generation that is filled with unrest and angst, having grown up in a world permeated by the horrors of nuclear war. Second, there’s the ever-present element of gang warfare that has sprung up amidst the social decay. Third, there’s a government slouching towards dictatorship in response to all the protests, unrest and chaos that is consuming the city.
Into all this, you get a secret military project in which the Akira phenomena is once again being studied. Though motivated by a desire to control it and prevent what happened last time from happening again, it seems that history is destined to repeat itself. Once again, the survivors must crawl from the wreckage and rebuild, their only hope being that somehow, they will get it right next time… A genuine dystopian commentary if ever I heard one!
But what was also so awesome about the series, at least to me, was the underlying sense of realism and tension. You really got the sense that Otomo was tapping into the Zeitgeist with this one, relating how after decades of rebuilding through hard work and conformity, Japan was on the verge of some kind of social transformation. Much like in real life, the characters of the story have been through a nuclear holocaust and have had to crawl their way back from the brink, and a sense of “awakening” is one everybody’s lips and they are just waiting for it to manifest.
A clear allusion to post-war Japan where the country had been bombed to cinders and was left shattered and confused! Not to the mention the post-war sense of uniformity where politicians, corporations and Zaibatsu did their best to repress the youth movements and demands for social reform. Well, that was my impression at any rate, others have their own. But that’s another thing that worked so well about Akira. It is multi- layered and highly abstract, relying on background, visuals and settings to tell the story rather than mere dialogue. In many ways, it calls to mind such classics as 2001, Clockwork Orange, and other Kubrick masterpieces.
Children of Men: Made famous by the 2006 adaptation starring Clive Owen, this dystopian science fiction story was originally written by author P.D. James in 1992. The movie was only loosely based on the original text, but most of the particulars remained the same. Set in Britain during the early 21st century, the story takes place in a world where several subsequent generations have suffered from infertility and population growth has dropped down to zero. The current generation, the last to be born, are known as “Omegas” and are a lost people.
What’s more, the growing chaos of the outside world has also led to the creation of a dictatorial government at home. This is due largely to the fact that people have lost all interest in politics, but also because the outside world has become chaotic due to the infertility crisis. Much like in V for Vendetta, the concept of “Lifeboat Britain” makes an appearance in this story and acts as one of the main driving forces for the plot.
In any case, this also leads to the birth of a resistance which wants to end the governments tyrannical control over society, and which comes to involve the main character and his closest friends. In time, the plot comes to revolve around a single woman who is apparently pregnant. Whereas some of the rebels want to smuggle her out of Britain and hand her over to the international Human Project, others want to use her as a pawn in their war against the government. It thus falls to the main character to smuggle her out, protecting her from resistance fighters and the military alike.
Naturally, the movie drew on all the novels strongest points, showing how society had effectively decayed once childbirth effectively ended. It also portrayed the consequences of impending extinction very well – chaos, withdrawal, tyranny, etc. However, when it came time to adapt it to the screen, Mexican film director Alfonso Cuaron (who brought us such hits as A Little Princess, Y Tu Mama Tambien, and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban), also used a variety of visual techniques and sets to convey the right mood.
For example, most of the sets were designed to look like near-future versions of today. In Cuaron’s estimation, all technological progress would have ceased once the implications of the crisis had fully hit, hence all cars, structures, weapons and gadgets were only slightly altered, or used sans modification. So while the billboards, newspapers and signs were all updated and carried messages appropriate for the period, cars, guns and other assorted background pieces looked entirely familiar.
In addition, much of the movie is shot in such a way so that the images are grey and the light effect seems piercing. This conveys a general mood of drab sadness, which is very accurate considering the setting! Last, Cuaron and his camera crews made many continuous action shots using wide angle lenses in order to capture a sense of crisis and how it effected so many people. Never was there a sequence in which you only saw the main actors and their immediate surroundings. The focus, like the scope of the story, was big and far-reaching.
Ghost in the Shell: Much like Akira, this franchise comes to us by way of Japan and is cyberpunk-themed. In addition, it also came in the form of a manga, then onto a film, but with a television series to follow. And in many respects, it qualifies as dystopian, given that it took place in a dark future where technology has forever blurred the line between what is real and what is artificial. In addition, it also tapped into several cyberpunk trends which would prove to be quite apt (i.e. cyberspace).
Again, this story takes place in Japan in the early 21st century, a time when cybernetic enhancements and technological progress have seriously altered society. The main character is named Motoko Kusanagi, a member of a covert operations division of the Japanese National Public Safety Commission known as Section 9. She is affectionately known as “Major” given her previous position with the Japanese Self-Defense Forces. And did I mention she’s a cyborg? Yes, aside from her brain and parts of her spinal cord, she is almost entirely machine, and this plays into the story quite often.
In addition to facing external threats, Kusanagi and her companions also face conflicts that arise out of their own nature. These deal largely with issues relating to their own humanity, whether or not a person and their memories can even be considered real anymore if they have been replaced by digital or cybernetic enhancements. These questions were explored in depth in the movie, where events revolve around a sentient program that was developed by the government, but which has since gone rogue and is seeking an independent existence.
However, another thing that makes Ghost in the Shell a possible candidate for the category of dystopia is the setting. Whether it was the manga, the movie, or the television series, the look and feel of the world in which it takes place is quite telling. Always there is a dirty, gritty, and artificial quality to it all, calling to mind The Sprawl, Mega City One, and Neo-Tokyo.
As in these settings, things look futuristic, but also rustic, poor and improvised, hinting at extensive overcrowding and poverty amidst all the advanced technology. This is a central element to cyberpunk, or so I’m told. In addition to being futuristic, it also anticipates dystopia, being of the opinion that this “advancement” has come at quite a cost in human terms.
Logan’s Run: Considered by many to be a classic dystopian story, Logan’s Run takes place in a 22st century society where age and consumption are strictly curtailed to ensure that a population explosion – like the one experience in the year 2000 – never happens again. In addition, society is controlled by a computer that runs the global infrastructure and makes sure that the all the dictates of population and age control are obeyed.
In any case, the story revolves around this concept of an age ceiling, where people are monitored by a “palm flower” that changes color every seven years. When they reach 21 – on a person’s Lastday – the crystal turns black and they are expected to report to a “Sleepshop” where they will be executed. Those who refuse to perform this final duty are known as “Runners”, and it falls to “Deep Sleep Operatives” (aka. Sandmen) to track down and terminate these people.
The main character – Logan 3 – is one such operative. On his own Lastday, he is charged with infiltrated the underground railroad of Runners and finding the place they call “Sanctuary”. This is a place where they are able to live out their lives without having to worry about society’s dictates and controls. However, in time, Logan comes to sympathize with these people, due largely to the influence of a woman named Jessica 6. In the end, the two make plans to escape together for Sanctuary, which turns out to be a colony on Mars.
Right off the bat, some additional elements can be seen here. In addition to the concepts of Malthusian controls and ageism, there is also the timeless commentary on how rationalization and regimentation can lead to inhumanity and repression. Much like in We or Anthem (by Ayn Rand), people do not have names as much as designations. All life is monitored and controlled by a central computer, and it is made clear towards the end that the computer is in fact breaking down. I can remember this last theme appearing in an episode of Star Trek TNG, where a planet of advanced people are beginning to die off because their “Custodian” is malfunctioning and no one knows how to fix it.
Metropolis: A true classic of both film and expressionist art, this movie also has the added (and perhaps dubious) honor of being a classic of dystopian science fiction! Created in Weimar Germany in 1927 by Fritz Lang, this movie tells the story of a dystopian future where society is ruled by elites who live in vast tower complexes and the workers lives in the recesses of the city far below them where they operate the machinery that powers it all.
This physical divide serves to mirror the main focus of the story, which is on class distinction and the gap between rich and poor. To illustrate this artistic vision, director Fritz Lang relied on a combination of Gothic, classical, modern and even Biblical architecture. In an interview, Fritz claimed that his choices for the set design were based largely on his first trip to New York where he witnessed skyscrapers for the first time. In addition, the central building of the futuristic city was based on Brueghel’s 1563 painting of the Tower of Babel (right>).
The theme of class conflict is further illustrated by the fact that the workers who live in the bowels of the city are also responsible for maintaining the machinery that makes the city run. One is immediately reminded of H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine and the divide between the Morlocks and the Eloi. This comes through even more when the workers decide to revolt and begin ransacking the neighborhoods of the elites. Ultimately, it is only through the love of the two main characters – Freder and Mariah – that the gulf between the two is sealed and order is restored, a fitting commentary on how society must come together in order to survive and achieve social justice.
In another act of blatant symbolism, we learn early on in the movie that the workers have taken to congregating in a series of tunnels that run under the city. It is here that they meet with Maria, their inspirational leader, and makes plans to change society. So in addition to tall, Babel-like buildings illustrated the gap between rich and poor, we have workers who are literally meeting underground! Wow…
In addition, several other dystopian elements weave their way into the story. The line between artifice and reality also makes an appearance in the form of the robot which the movie is best known for. This robot was created by Rotwang, a scientist who is in the service of the main character’s father – Joh Fredersen, the master of the city. Apparently, this robot is able to take human form and was created to replace his late wife. Once this robot was released into the city, she began sowing chaos amongst men who begin to lust after her, and is the very reason the workers began revolting in the first place. She even causes the character of Rotwang to go insane when he can no longer distinguish between the robot and the woman she’s impersonating.
Neuromancer/Sprawl Trilogy: Gibson is one of the undisputed master’s of cyberpunk and future noire lit and it was this novel – Neuromancer – that started it all for him. In it, he coined the terms cyberspace, the matrix, and practically invented an entire genre of Gothic, techno-noire terminology which would go on to inspire several generations of writers. His work is often compared to Blade Runner given the similar focus on urban sprawl, cybernetic enhancements, the disparity between rich and poor, and the dark imagery it calls to mind.
The first installment in the “Sprawl Trilogy”, this book takes place in the BAMA – the Boston-Atlanta Metropolitan Axis (aka. The Sprawl). In this world of the 21st century, cyberspace jockeys or cowboys use their “decks” – i.e. consoles – to hack into corporate databases and steal information. The purpose is, as always, to sell off the information to the highest bidder, usually another corporate power. In addition, guerrilla tactics and domestic terrorism are often used to get employees out of their contracts, seeing as how most companies have no intention of ever letting their talent go!
Also, there is the massive gulf that exists between the rich and the poor in these novels. Whereas the main characters tend to live in overcrowded tenements and dirty neighborhoods, the rich enjoy opulent conditions and control entire parts of the world. In addition, the richest clans, such as the Tessier-Ashpools and Vireks, actively use cloning and clinical immortality to cheat death, and often live in orbital colonies that they have exclusive rights to. Much like in his “Bigend Trilogy”, much attention is dedicated to the transformative power of wealth and how it affords one better access to the latest in technology.
But always, the focus is on the street. Here, jockeys, freelancers and Yakuza agents are at work, pulling jobs so they can buy themselves the latest enhancements and the newest gear. In the case of Molly Millions, a freelance lady-ninja, this includes razor nails that extend from her fingertips. In the case of Yakuza enforcer from the short-story (and movie) Johnny Mnemonic, it consists of a filament of monomolecular razor wire hidden inside his thumb. For others, it might consist of artificial limbs, new organs, implants of some kind. Whatever ya need, they got it in the Sprawl. If not, you go to Chiba City or Singapore, chances are it was made there anyway!
*Interesting Fact: according to Gibson, Blade Runner came out when he was still tinkering with the manuscript for this novel. After seeing it, he nearly threw the manuscript out because he was afraid Ridley Scott had pre-empted him! Funny how things work out, huh?
Final Thoughts: Gee, there really isn’t much more to say is there? One thing I have noticed is that much of modern dystopia comes to us in the form of the cyberpunk genre. Though the definition of cyberpunk appears to constantly be evolving, it is generally acknowledged that it is a postmodern form of science fiction that combines “high tech and low life.” Having sorted through several modern examples of dystopian sci-fi, I can say that this is certainly an apt description.
In essence, it assumed that the presence of high tech would entail the emergence of a dystopian society, that the endless march of progress would lead to the destruction of the environment, the devaluing of human life, the elimination of privacy, and the line between real and fake. This last aspect was especially important, embracing cybernetics, virtual reality, and things like cloning and clinical mortality. Since the 1980’s, all of these notions have infiltrated science fiction movies, television, and have even become cliches to some extent.
This genre has given rise to new kinds of science fiction as well. For example, it is generally acknowledged that a sub genre known as post-cyberpunk emerged in the 1990’s which broke away from its predecessor in one key respect. Whereas it too focused on the rise of technology, it did not anticipate dystopia as part of the process. This is best exemplified by books such as Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age, a 21st century bildungsroman which predicted vast social and political changes as a result of nanotechnology.
Other sub genres that have emerged in recent years include “Steampunk”, a literary form that combines Victorian era technologies with the punk genres noire sensibilities. Other derivatives include Dieselpunk, Nanopunk, Biopunk, and even fantasy-punk crossovers like Elfpunk. Yes, like most things in the post modern era, it seems that literary genres are becoming fragmented and tribalistic!
But alas, I still feel the need to ask the question, what’s happened to dystopian literature of late? In my initial post, I got a lot of people asking me if I could include some more modern examples. You know, stuff that’s come out since 1984 and The Handmaids Tale. But unfortunately, what I’ve found tends to be more of the same. Just about every example of dystopian fiction appears to draw its inspiration from such handy classics as the one’s I’ve already mentioned, or is in some way traceable to them. Does this mean that we’ve hit bottom on the whole genre, or could it just be we’ve moved away from it for the time being?
Well, I recently learned from an article on IO9 that Neal Stephenson himself stated that science fiction needed to stop being so pessimistic and had to start getting inspirational again. Perhaps he’s onto something… Maybe we’ve gone too far with the whole cautionary tale and need to steer things back towards a brighter future, urging people on with common sense and technological solutions rather than laments. Maybe we need to let them know that such problems as world hunger, overpopulation, pollution, climate change, poverty, war, licentiousness and greed can all be overcome.
Then again, I’m working on a couple dystopian tales right now… Is it too much to ask that this craze last just a few years longer?
Thanks to all who’ve written in and “liked” my dystopian series! Hope to see y’all again soon as I get into ore cheerful things…