MIND MELD: Our Favorite Gadgets from SF
In part 2 of our Mind Meld duo featuring fictional gadgetry (Part 1 featured magical items from fantasy), we asked our panelists this:
Here’s what they had to say…
I’m afraid my missing technology needs are mostly domestic. I desperately want a replicator from Star Trek, Rosie the Robot from The Jetsons, and for that matter, those cool tubes that took you from one place to another on the The Jetsons. A doctor machine from Almost Human would also be very helpful, and I’d love to have nanotechnology to keep me spry and smart and mobile in my old age (hopefully not for awhile). Also, a pet robot!
Now that I think about it, though, it would be cool to vacation on the moon, or to visit Alpha Centauri. So, you know, NASA should get on that warp drive they’re playing with and make it happen. I was going to say a transporter as well, but I’m a little too much Bones to want to have my atoms rearranged. Still, very helpful for cargo.
I do predict that the future will be less about items and more about information than previously thought, but also that humans won’t change a great deal. We’ll still be obsessed with celebrities, argue over our differences, and find connections with people who like what we like and share our hobbies. Geography will matter less and less online, but knowing your neighbors will always be valuable. Even if you have a mini-jet pack, or a Mr. Fusion to make energy from trash, which I totally want.
From Star Trek’s “phasers on stun” to that one (and only one) time in Star Wars when the stormtroopers used a stun setting to subdue Princess Leah, stunners are such a staple of science fiction that no one even questions them. As a literary device, they allow the protagonists to get into gunfights without being mass murderers. But if stunners existed in real life, they would change the world.
And don’t talk to me about tasers. Those are one-shot, very close-range weapons that can do long-term physical harm. I’m talking about fictional stunners, which are as effective at range as handguns, and render the target unconscious without hurting them.
We could all just carry them around. They’re not like real guns. If someone gets mad or loses their temper, worst that happens is someone gets harmlessly knocked out. But if somebody tries to rob a bank, everyone stuns him. If somebody decides to go on a killing spree, everyone stuns him.
What’s that? There’s a hostage situation? The police come and stun everyone. Riot? Stun everyone. Worried about the new stun powers turning your country into a police state? Well, you outnumber the police and you all have stunners. Whatever your political leanings, stunners downgrade potential conflicts to a non-lethal arena.
Even criminals would get in on the action. There’s no longer any need to threaten the life of the 7-11 clerk. Just stun him and take the cash drawer. No one has to die. Of course, the clerk will probably have a stunner, too, so there’s a 50-50 chance you’ll just wake up in jail.
If there was an area-of-effect version (why wouldn’t there be?) the military could deal with conflicts in civilian areas much better. “Sorry we knocked you out. There were terrorists on your roof so we blitzed the whole block to be safe. Here’s your hat, it fell off when you laid down. Have a nice day.”
Yeah. You can keep flying cars and lightsabers. I’ll take stunners.
I want all the toys from from Back To The Future Part II. Hoverboards, 3-D movie marquees, flying cars (that run on vegetable trash!), hover cameras, video phones, portable thumb-pads for when you don’t have cash and want to pay for something, curbs and parking areas that are self-lit at night, affordable cosmetic rejuvenation, dinner that’s done after 30 seconds in the microwave.
Especially the hoverboard and the 3-D movie marquee. I really want those. And how cool would it be to have a giant holographic transformer climb out of the marquee? Or have the newest Disney princess welcome all the families as they walk into the theater? Not sure how you’d program the thing for the right advertisement to go to the right person, but I am all about holograms, so bring it on! I never learned how to ride a skateboard when I was a kid, so here’s hoping learning how to ride a hoverboard is a little easier. In the movie the hoverboards don’t work over water…. which is too bad. Can you imagine windsurfing on one of those babies?
It’s been a while since I saw the movie, but I remember oohing and aahing over everything in it when I was a kid. Back in the 90s, the year 2015 sure seemed so far away . . .
A lot of the gizmos from Back to the Future already exist – Skype, that gizmo that attaches to your smartphone so you can run a credit card through an app, more and more microwaveable or just add hot water foods (I said they existed. I didn’t say they tasted good). We’re a ways away from dumping the compost pile into the gas tank, but we’ve have biofuels for vehicles for a while. We don’t quite have the rejuvenation clinics mentioned in the movie yet, but as the flyers in my mailbox keep telling me: Since I just turned 35 it’s time to start thinking about botox treatments, and would I like a free consultation?
What about that time machine and the flux capacitor, you ask? I have enough trouble keeping track of what day of the week it is, and what month/season we’re in, I don’t need a time machine to confuse things even further.
This question always bothers me because it reveals more about the person asking it than about the books they’ve read. We already have the equivalent of flying cars. We just call them helicopters. The trick is that it requires a great deal of training to operate them without being a danger to yourself and anyone in your probably disastrously short flight path.
If you want flying cars that are safe and easy to use, that’ll come, just as soon as we figure out how to manage that on the ground first. Google, of all companies, has made huge strides in developing self-driving cars. It’s not hard to imagine that we could have self-flying helicopters/drones not too long after that.
Sure these flying cars may not swoop about in the way of your favorite SF film, but in reality we have to obey the laws of physics. If and when we get involved in star fighter combat, the incoming ships won’t make noises we can hear either—unless we program our threat-assessment systems to conjure those sounds up for us so we can recognize the sound of a TIE fighter zipping by without having to look for it.
We also have holo-decks on the way. All you have to do is grab an Occulus Rift virtual reality rig and match it up with a Virtuix Omni platform. You have an immersive 3D environment in which you can run around all you want. And according to the Star Trek timeline, I think we have another couple centuries or so to make improvements on it.
As for what I’d like to see? Give me a lightsaber any day.
I don’t even want to fight with it. I’m attached to my hands, after all, and prefer them connected to my wrists. I spent a lot of time this summer cutting down and chopping up dying trees though, and a lightsaber would have made that so much easier—and far more fun.
In FARSCAPE, when the hapless astronaut John Crichton finds himself on a living ship (so cool!), the frustrated alien crew injects him with Translator Microbes so he’ll make sense. These microbes enable any intelligent species understand and be understood. I studied chemical communication in fish, so this fascinated me. Also, as an inhabitant of a world filled with languages, I would love to be able to walk up to anyone and talk to them in a way they’d hear as their own language and vice versa. Let alone the boon to diplomacy! Alas, we’ve a long long way to go though, if you think about it, our bodies, and the microbial life within, produce an abundance of scents we can all understand. Could be there’s hope yet. I’m also a huge believer in the living toothcleaner they had on the show.
That we could do now, but slugs are pretty slow. Then there’s the slime.
As for what we should have had by now? I’m actually pretty impressed with how much real science and tech has leapt ahead, especially in biology. The more we look, the more we realize we don’t know yet. How great is that? That said, like many, I can’t believe it’s taking so long to get busy in space—busy in the sense of anyone being up there. Hotels. Tourism. Mining. Us. There. Still, there’s hope for that too.
I’ve never really wanted a jetpack. I’m clumsy enough in real life to be afraid of what I might unleash if someone actually gave me a jetpack. I’d be a menace in the skies! Similarly, that lovely hoverboard Marty McFly uses in Back to the Future 2? Never was tempted to wish for one. A flying car? If I could get to places to photograph faster and easier, then I am all for it. If it means I am stuck hovering in a queue over Minneapolis at rush hour…I think I’d prefer to stick to the ground, thank you.
Not precisely a gadget per se, but affordable space tourism is something, when I was 10 and watching Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, thought that I’d have when I was 40. Would it be the Howard Johnsons’ Earthlight Room on a space station like 2001? Maybe. I always thought that it would be great to get a view of Earth while having lunch and waiting for my flight to the moon to visit First Lunar Landing National Historic Landmark. Space tourism is still not a reality except for millionaires and even that is not quite there…yet. I guess me sharing photos of Earth from orbit on Twitter is still only a dream. Its not exactly something I can fund on Kickstarter.
The more advanced types of virtual reality, from things like Summer Wars to True Names to the roleplaying game Mindjammer to The Thirteenth Floor, would be great to experience someday. Mind you, I wouldn’t want to discover that we were living in a simulation ourselves as the protagonists in that movie do (or in Ken MacLeod’s Restoration Game), but a complete virtual simulation of a time and place that I could enter and wander around? Yes please. And no, Second Life just doesn’t cut it. I want the real deal. And no lag, please. (Fun fact: I was a columnist for a Second Life magazine called Prim Perfect for several years.)
While a roomba is a pretty nifty little gadget, when it doesn’t try to eat pets or otherwise screw up its programming, a roomba is in the end a far more primitive type of robot or artificial intelligence than I ever expected to have by now. I wasn’t expecting positronic brain robots (okay, maybe I was) but it does seem that we didn’t get the artificial intelligence and programming breakthroughs to make a robot feasible. A computer program that can play chess (and defeat Grandmasters) is fine and dandy, but an artificial intelligence equal to mine would be a game changer, but maybe we live in Vinge’s Slow Zone after all, and can’t ever have one. Maybe Eliza is the best that we can do.
However…if someone could make interplanetary wormholes like in Peter F Hamilton’s Commonwealth universe? *That* would be great and would open up the universe to us. We could build trains to the stairs! Someone get on that.
British writer Guy Haley is a long time science fiction journalist and writer. He has been deputy editor of SFX magazine, and editor of Death Ray and Games Workshop’s gaming magazine White Dwarf. He is the author of Reality 36, Omega Point, Champion of Mars, Crash and Baneblade, among others. Guy has also edited Sci-Fi Chronicles: A Visual History of the Galaxy’s Greatest Science Fiction, which will be out in Sept.
You can find hundreds of reviews, interviews, opinion pieces, free pieces of fiction and more on Guy’s blog.
There’s nothing we don’t have that I’m surprised by, what really surprises me is what we do have. Supercomputers in our pockets, the internet, increasingly sophisticated robots, bionic limbs, science-fictional weapons, alien planets being discovered by the bucketload and more – like genuinely reusable space planes, amazing medical advances, possibly even AI – on the way. I’d hazard a guess that we’ll find life on another world within the next twenty years too.
Flying cars, jetpacks, atomic kitchen appliances – all that belongs to an increasingly distant past’s vision of the future, as out of step with how we live now as the Victorian’s ideas of the 21st century. We might as well ask where my steam powered home telegram device is. Technology is changing so quickly, it’s getting hard for science fiction to keep up and stay relevant.
The only thing that disappoints me is the lack of a permanent presence on other planets. The government-funded early days of human spaceflight were a bit of a false start, but that too looks like it is going to change very soon. We’re living a science fiction life right now.
Yo, What up with dat!
Forget laser guns and warp drive and all that other super cool science fiction stuff. What I feel the world could use right now is a little bit more of the truth. Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t mind having all that stuff, and a holodeck would be quite awesome, especially if it was like a really cool fantasy MMO. No, I want to take you back to one of the really awesome golden age science-fiction promises made by one of the legends of the genre: Isaac Asimov. In his epic Foundation series, Asimov developed a future science known as PsychoHistory. PsychoHistory basically states that while you can’t predict what a certain individual will do, you can actually determine what a large group of individuals will do using statistics, pure mathematics, psychology, history and sociology. This was a fascinating power in Asimov’s fictional collapsing galactic empire universe and one group was allowed to figure out what a major declining Galactic Empire would go through and then the subsequent rise of several smaller barbaric empires. It wasn’t foolproof, in fact some things came along to seemingly ruin it, but it was really interesting. I actually don’t think there’s been much in modern science-fiction writing that’s explored and expanded upon this concept. But wouldn’t that be a great power, I mean scientific discipline, to improve the state of our world?
Being able to look at the failed experiments of the past, like say socialism, and realize that eventually these kind of things don’t work out, or as Margret Thatcher stated, “The trouble with socialism is that eventually you run out of other people’s money.” Hey, that might just be my politics talking, but there’re a lot of other problems that we could use PsychoHistory to get more understanding of what we face in the future. We’d need to study history more, going back and finding ancient wisdom from ancient sources and acquiring as much unedited non-agenda created knowledge we could find. Then we’d be able, using reason and logic and theorems developed with PsychoHistory in mind, to determine the outcome of our society, including which politicians we should elect as our leaders or which form of government we should choose or what elements of our society we should attempt to edit out. I think many people today, including us science-fiction geeks, are interested in building a better tomorrow. We’ve had 6000 years of recorded history and there’s a lot to learn from, mistakes and successes included. But I think the emotionalism of the current time is preventing us from going back and looking at what actually works. Some people might be surprised to find that some organizations they thought were inherently evil, as taught to you by the History Channel, actually did a lot of good. In those cases, we shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.
Asimov’s PsychoHistory had two fundamental points: that the population being modeled should be sufficiently large and also, that the population should be unaware of what’s going on with regards to PsychoHistory. I’m in favor of throwing out that second point. I’m an absolute moralist. I feel that if people had a greater understanding of the consequences of their actions, that there are right and wrong choices to make, unlike those in higher education who profess moral relativism and like to put quotations around the words “right” and “wrong”, that most people want to do the right thing. In short, I feel that time, civilization, and a dangerous universe can deal out some pretty lethal and unforgiving consequences. We won’t be able to ask people how they “feel” about a deep impact meteor strike or the age of ignorance that we find ourselves in. If we don’t want to disappear because of disasters both natural and human- caused, we might want to take actions to prevent and deal with them, not if, but when they do happen. A fundamental groundwork from with which to assemble a modern version of PsychoHistory would be to start with an absolute moral system that guides our every decision or, a right and a wrong. Because we all want to make the right choices. Only crazy people would want to make the wrong choices… And crazy people wipe out their galactic civilizations.
I’ve been a fan of Science Fiction for a long time now, and I’ve seen more made up gadgets and technologies than I can count (or even remember). Still, over the years there have been a few standouts. Without dipping into my own fiction, here’s the short list for my ‘most wanted’ future tech:
Asimovian Robots: Various Asimov Novels/Short Stories (Isaac Asimov)
Pros: Robots can mow lawn and cook dinner while you follow intellectual pursuits like reading, playing Minecraft, and binge-watching The Wire. Never having to return a massage. Get to solve tricky ‘three-laws’ quandaries when robot inevitably goes haywire.
Cons: Robot inevitably going haywire might result in a stray ball-peen hammer blow to the temple. Robot learning to love might make things awkward on date night. Home will need to rewired with positronic outlets.
Likelihood: Possible, but not probable.
Obviously we have robots now – they work on assembly lines, they assist in surgeries, and vacuum our floors. Robotics is a big industry, but when SF says ‘robot’, many of our minds veer toward Asmiov’s vision of them. Asimov’s robots walk and talk like human beings (in some cases being almost indistinguishable from human beings), and they even think like us, to a certain degree. They are capable of doing anything a human can do and so they’re perfect for doing all the things we don’t feel like doing. Don’t feel like moving the lawn? Get the robot to do it. Don’t feel like walking the dog? Get the robot to do it. Husband away on yet another sales conference and you’re feeling ‘lonely’? Unless your tastes run in really weird directions you probably won’t force your robot into some kind of ‘three laws’ conflict, and even if you aren’t some kind of robo-pervert then your robot could at least provide good conversation and would always let you pick the movie. Having robotic servants around the house would be a boon to just about anyone, I would think, for a wide variety of reasons. Sadly, the best we’ve been able to come up with is that little ‘Asimo’ guy and, while it is pretty amazing, it’s a far cry from what Asimov envisioned. As much as I would love to see them, however, I don’t think we’re likely to see anything beyond novelty robots like Asimo because at the end of the day why limit your robot to a human shape? It’s more efficient to build a robot specifically designed for a given task, like the humble Roomba. Why jump through the hoops of designing a robot that can use an existing vacuum cleaner when you can just turn the vacuum cleaner itself into a robot? So, while I would still love to hang out with a human-form robot (although I’m not a robo-pervert as far as you know), I probably will never get the chance.
Sleeplessness: Beggars in Spain (Nancy Kress)
Desirability: Very High
Pros: Not wasting upwards of a third of your life unconscious. No longer have to get up in the morning. Lots of extra time for self-improvement.
Cons: Lots of extra time for playing Bejeweled and staring into the open fridge. Can no longer ‘sleep off’ a night of drinking – have to just hang out and wait. No more dreams.
Likelihood: Could happen.
This one is close to my heart. I’m a night owl – I go to bed grudgingly, and hate getting up in the morning. Sleep is an inconvenience I’d do away with in a second if I could. We get one life to live, so why spend a big chunk of it asleep if you don’t have to? As a writer with a day job, this would be fantastic for me – instead of working during the day, writing at night, and sleeping in between I could just work during the day, write at night, and then, with all of my work done, I’d have a nice five-to-six hour chunk of glorious free time for reading, taking classes, or just generally goofing off. I think someone would have to use their extra cycles to invent some kind of ‘waking dream’ serum or something, so that we could still dream, but I don’t see too many downsides to this one.
Will it ever happen? Maybe. Everyone needs different amounts of sleep to feel refreshed, and some can get by on as little as three or four hours. Perhaps one day we’ll be able to tweak our genes such that self-repair happens on the fly, without the need to shut down first. I’m still holding out hope.
The Autoverse: Permutation City (Greg Egan)
Pros: Can achieve a form of immortality. Ability to tweak your own internal settings. Possibility of living a life of constant happiness and satisfaction (just not a real one).
Cons: Immortality lasts only as long as hardware/software remains intact. As anyone who’s messed with their computer’s registry can attest, tweaking internal settings can sometimes go very wrong. Is a simulated existential crisis still an existential crisis?
Greg Egan’s Permutation City makes you wonder just what in hell the point of existence even is. For the uninitiated, the Autoverse is a kind of ‘Matrix’, except in this case it’s a human construct. Humans still live in the real world but ‘copies’ of themselves may live in the Autoverse, which is a computer-rendered reality based on our world, while not bound to its laws. Unlike the Matrix, the Autoverse is not a deception. The people who dwell within it know they are there, and what it is. Still, real or not, one might find paradise within the Autoverse (or an existential hell…YMMV). One character simple tweaks his own settings such that building wooden chairs (well, simulated chairs made of simulated wood) becomes the most satisfying pursuit that exists. All day long, this is what he does, and so he is happy and fulfilled each day. After a pre-determined amount of time passes, he’s set it up so that the ‘most satisfying thing in life’ switches to some other random task. This basically makes him happier than most people will ever be, in the real world. Does it make sense? Is he really accomplishing anything at all? Or is it all just a delusion?
The answer is ‘who cares?’ The ability to fashion our own realities would make everyone fulfilled, which is a far, far cry from our current state of affairs. Does it matter if it’s real? Only to those on the outside looking in.
Downloadable Knowledge: The Matrix (The Wachowskis)
Desirability: Ultra High
Pros: Everyone knowing Kung-Fu will make for some epic bar fights. You will be able to nail pretty much any job interview. Can debate politics with your toddler.
Cons: Everyone knowing Kung-Fu will cause some epic bar fights. Everyone being able to nail every job interview will place an obnoxious weight on choosing the correct interview attire. Losing a political debate to your toddler.
Likelihood: Fingers still crossed.
This one I would use non-stop, I think. One of the first things I thought when this concept was presented was how much fun it would be just to come up with a ‘playlist’ of all the stuff I would learn using this technique. Beyond just the fun of it, think of how revolutionary it would be if people across the different nations could perfectly understand one another’s language and culture. Land yourself a job as the Ambassador to Norway? Strap on the electrodes and, in the course of an afternoon, gain a complete understanding of Norway’s language, culture, politics, and history. Taking a vacation to Japan? Become fluent in Japanese in thirty seconds, and then download the contents of every Japanese travel guide ever written. Heck, you could do it on the plane. By the time you landed, you’d be navigating the streets of Tokyo like a native.
Will it ever happen? I actually hold out hope that one day it will. Researchers from Boston University and Japan’s ATR Computational Neuroscience Laboratories have experimented with this, with some success. Nothing quite as cool as strapping in and then ten seconds later getting to kung-fu-fight Lawrence Fishburne but then again, what is? You have to start somewhere.
Rick’s Portal Gun: Rick and Morty (Justin Roiland/Dan Harmon)
Desirability: What’s higher than ultra-high?
Pros: Convenient ‘reset’ in case of accidental worldwide ‘Cronenberging’. Ability to visit infinite worlds at the touch of a button. Possibility of meeting ‘Bird Person’.
Cons: Infinite worlds includes an ‘Ass Dimension’. Might get assassinated by an alternate you from another timeline. Evil Morty.
Likelihood: Highly Unlikely.
This one I admit is pretty much just fantasy, but I don’t care. I still want one. Rick and Morty isn’t the first piece of science fiction to use the ‘portal gun’ concept, but it is one of the best at portraying the technology in all of its wonder and all of its horror. Whether they’re traveling to a universe very similar to our own with only minor differences, or ending up in a universe where talking phones use people for chairs and pizzas as phones so they can order a sofa chair with extra chair…half recliner half wheelchair (this actually happened to them) there would be no end to the adventures such a device would let you get into. You could even use it as a convenient escape route if you had to, replacing a dead ‘you’ in a mirror universe to escape a calamity in your own.
The first season’s finale sums up pretty well why owning this device would be so great – when Morty’s parents leave Rick in charge and both Rick and Summer decide to take the opportunity to host a party, take a look at Summer’s friends and then take a look at Rick’s. ‘Squanching’ aside, Rick’s friends seem like a hell of a lot more fun.
My favorite prediction from the fantastically optimistic time of the 1950s was for super-futuristic, form-fitting silver unitards that were apparently going to be mandatorily issued to the entire populace. A version of this jaunty omni-outfit made it onto Star Trek, but for decades we earthlings languished in regular suits and ties – hardly the proper attire for striding into the glorious future.
All of those flying cars and underwater cities and jetpacks predicted in the golden age of science fiction were meant to be operated by smiling citizens who were protected from said equipment by the most advanced materials and fabric ever to be created by science and then painted onto the human body. And although many of these visions of the past were never realized (e.g., flying cars, underwater cities, and jetpacks), we can all celebrate the fact that at least our forebears did come through on this one promise.
The silver unitard has, as predicted, taken over the world of the future in the form of yoga pants. In certain parts of certain cities, it appears that every female citizen has been issued a pair of form-fitting future pants, although black has replaced silver in our version of the future. It is only a matter of time until this trend expands into the male fashion oeuvre. I give my thanks to the forward-thinking optimists of the past for this one prediction that has come true. With the proliferation of yoga pants, the amazing world of the future past is one step closer to reality.
Filed under: Mind Meld
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