Sci-Fa

Published Date
01 - Sep - 2007
| Last Updated
01 - Sep - 2007
 
Sci-Fa


Zorks. Borgs and solar systems. Mother ships and Planet Zyclone and teleportation. Androids and cyborgs and robots and superhuman strength. Jetpacks and light-sabres and Snork guns and pulsar beams and Xanatron. All those "trons" and "orks." Those Science Fiction (SF) writers spared nothing-they were creative as hell, they imagined like no-one else did, they created cults. Sci-fi created a culture-a culture far removed from the goings-on on boring Earth. Those writers, some of them brash and in the limelight, some bespectacled and room-bound, were all creators of universes. They rambled.

But sometimes they told the truth. About the future.

What drove those science fiction authors to imagine weird stuff? Weird stuff apart, how did they manage to tell us tales of things to come? How does, as the popular phrase goes, "science fiction become science fact"? Why is sci-fi some kind of benchmark, as in "the truth today is stranger than science fiction"?

But these are idle questions, and the idea here is to explore stuff people said that is now fact, some stuff that will-in our limited opinions-remain in the clichéd realm of science fiction, and what debates are currently on about our future as a race. Think gizmos, universes, teleportation. But forget the Zorks. We made that up.

The Man, The Machine, The Cliché
We'd be insulting your awareness if we were to tell you that androids, cyborgs, robots, and other superhuman stuff is the most common theme in SF. (Actually, these share top spot with space travel.) It's quite simple, really-if you'll let us be analytical. Desire drives imagination, and what desire is stronger than to be stronger, mightier, faster, …? As for space travel, the underlying motif is freedom… but we digress.

Here's Edward Ellis, in The Steam Man of the Prairies (1868), about a robot of a sort: "It was about ten feet in height, measuring to the top of the 'stove-pipe hat,' which was fashioned after the common order of felt coverings, with a broad brim, all painted a shiny black. The face was made of iron, painted a black color, with a pair of fearful eyes, and a tremendous grinning mouth." Note the language, note that it's stuff like this that made illustrators do all those tin-can robots, and note the lack of imagination: the excerpt screams, "Mechanical Man!"… and little else.
And now here we are: ten feet? No, EveR-2 Muse is petite. (Digit, February 2007… remember? Take vitamin supplements.) Face of iron? Not quite… EveR-2 Muse has a face of real flesh. Black? No, let's not get into racism and racist stuff… fearful eyes? Well, The Muse is supposed to have sensitive eyes (though she does end up having fearful eyes, in the sense of being as dead-looking as they are). A "tremendous grinning" mouth? EveR-2 Muse has a sweet, lipsticky mouth.

Much more importantly, the Steam Man was imagination, but EveR-2 Muse is a flesh-but-not-blood robot that exists.

There is, obviously, the "stronger and mightier" theme in the Steam Man: he possesses exceptional strength, so much so that he pulled a chariot in his role as Horse. Besides, he is 10 feet tall. Refer Virtual Weapons In Real Life, Digit, July 2007-the US now has an exoskeleton for soldiers that allows them to lift very heavy things,run very fast, and leap into the air like no-one leapt before.


Biological evolution is too slow for the human species. Over the next few decades, it's going to be left in the dust"
Ray Kurzweil, Inventor and Futurist

Coming back, that steam-powered concoction was not called a robot; the first mention of the word was in the play R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots) (English edition 1920) by a certain Karel Capek (don't blame him-he didn't name himself). Here, too, the robots are simply human-like machines. They also happen to be slaves, but badly-treated ones. Then someone gives them emotions, they revolt, kill most people, and take over. Bring on the clichés… but it wasn't a cliché in 1920!

No history lessons here, so we won't tell you why they were called "robots." Figure that one out. But we dug up this one about digging machines-that they feature in H G Wells' War of the Worlds-and here's one line: "So far as I could see, the (digging machine) was without a directing Martian at all." Meaning some directing was required, so the machine was self-directing… meaning it had some intelligence. That might be (in our opinion) the first mention of a "real" robot. This, in addition to the "taking over" theme, would involve some talk of AI. We'll come to that in a bit.

Androids are automatons that resemble human beings in the essential aspects, and so "android" is a generic term. But cyborgs are augmented in some way; they are super, well, super-something… either their senses are more acute, or they can live a thousand years, or something like that. But you already know, if you've been reading Digit. Refer a couple of our past issues.

Then take this one, from Cloak of Anarchy, 1972, by Larry Niven: "…when Ron was flush with money… he'd bought an implant-watch. He told time by one red mark and two red lines glowing beneath the skin of his wrist." Fa-sci-nating? No-one's done this, but we can. If a cyber-punk called Stelarc could implant an entire ear into his forearm (Digit, July 2007), why not a little watch with glowing hands? Stelarc's ear is clearly visible, meaning it's pretty close to the surface of the skin. A watch wouldn't be too hard. Ask a medical expert if you don't believe us. That guy went ahead and did it; you could if you wanted to. Not that you do.

Tanks, Logics, Metaverses
Now you know that in 1946, computers were huge and all that; they weren't networked; hell, they didn't even store information for other people to use. But in that year, someone called Murray Leinster was prophetic enough to write a story called A Logic Named Joe. Leinster is under-celebrated; in fact, he hardly is celebrated. Decide for yourself whether he should be-from this trimmed excerpt (our italics):

"You got a logic in your house. It's got keys instead of dials and you punch the keys for what you wanna get. It's hooked in to the tank… Say you punch 'Station SNAFU' on your logic. Relays in the tank take over an' whatever vision-program SNAFU is telecastin' comes on your logic's screen. Or you punch 'Sally Hancock's Phone' an' the screen blinks an' sputters an' you're hooked up with the logic in her house an' if somebody answers you got a vision-phone connection. But besides that, if you punch for the weather forecast, that comes on the screen too. The tank is a big buildin' full of all the facts in creation an' all the recorded telecasts that ever was made-an' it's hooked in with all the other tanks all over the country-an' everything you wanna know or see or hear, you punch for it an' you get it. Very convenient. Also it does math for you…"

First mention of the Internet? Could be. Computers in the house; connected to a server; podcasts; voice chat; a weather widget; Google servers that host much of the info we have access to; and servers connected to each other. And what else is the Internet?

1946! The mind boggles!
The Internet is quite something else when it comes to foresight: no-one knows what'll happen the day after tomorrow. Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson-1992-actually foresees Second Life!

"Hiro sees two young couples, probably using their parents' computers for a double date in the Metaverse, climbing down out of Port Zero, which is the local port of entry and monorail stop. He is not seeing real people, of course. This is all a part of the moving illustration drawn by his computer according to specifications coming down the fiber-optic cable. The people are pieces of software called avatars. They are the audiovisual bodies that people use to communicate with each other in the Metaverse."

Stephenson's "Metaverse" is, of course, the Internet. Specifically, the part of the Net that hosts virtual life.

Still, as far as we know, no-one predicted the magnitude of the speeds we have today on our undersea cables-or the volume of the traffic-or even that they would be under the sea. Sci-Fa.

The Present Of The Future: Featuring Ray Kurzweil, Futurist 
Ray Kurzweil was fascinated by sci-fi in his childhood, and that's one reason we're talking about him. He invented many things, including OCR systems, a text-to-speech synthesizer, the CCD flatbed scanner, and more. Even so, he's now primarily known as a futurist-and here's some of what he says and what people think. (In 2005, Gate$ called Kurzweil "the best at predicting the future of artificial intelligence.")
Kurzweil subscribes to the "Technological Singularity." This is the (supposed) creation of entities smarter than humans, which will accelerate technological progress beyond the capability of humans to participate in the progress. Think runaway bots doing stuff you can't understand. There are several criticisms we cannot go into, but think of it as a hyper-extension of Moore's Law.
Nanobots (which we've spoken about more than once in Digit) have the potential to help solve problems such as climatic change. They could also extent human lifespan significantly-even to the extent of immortality.
(Another Herbert Simon?) Kurzweil says computers will become smarter than humans (crudely put) in 25 years from now.
Elements of what you saw in The Matrix could very well come true in your lifetime.
Head to www. KurzweilAI.com for the complete picture. Such are the predictions of today: hedge your bets with confidence, because it'll happen (or it won't) in this life of yours.

Artificial Idiots
It's time we quoted Arthur C Clarke, an SF god. Here's from The City and the Stars, 1956: "...the all-but-infinite intellect of the Central Computer. It was difficult not to think of the Central Computer as a living entity, localized in a single spot, though actually it was the sum total of all of the machines in Diaspar. Even if it was not alive in the biological sense, it certainly possessed at least as much awareness and self-consciousness as a human being." Primitive, simplistic, almost child-like.

But then here's from Ralph 124c 41 , by Hugo Gernsback, 1911, in relation to voice recognition: "...she called out sharply: 'Lux!' The delicate detectophone mechanism of the Luminor responded instantly to her command; the room was flooded at once with the beautiful cold pink-white Luminor light..." 1911 for voice recognition is prodigious indeed. But we're still at 99.8% accuracy or thereabouts, and that's the theoretical figure-and remember, 99.8 is very different from 99.9 is different from 99.99. Sad.

Let's cease and desist. They imagined what was to come; it turned out to be harder than anyone had imagined; and it didn't come.

Nobel Laureate Herbert Simon, an authority on AI and a pioneer in the field, said that by 1985, machines would be capable of doing any work a man could do. KRASH, KA-BOOM, and PLONK are the sounds of that ludicrously optimistic prediction falling flat-nuff said. Sci-Fa-not.

Herbert Simon, an authority on AI and a pioneer in the field, said that by 1985, machines would be capable of doing any work a man could do

So Where's My Flying Car?

Way too many people ask that in sarcastic tones without looking up the facts. The Flying Car-as in everyday transportation, with no runway or airstrip required-happens to be a staple of way too many sci-fi novels. So where's your flying car? In Massachusetts.

Terrafugia's "Transition"-now here's your flying car!

2009 will be the year, if you can believe a company that will take 5 per cent of the cost of their flying car right now by credit card as a booking deposit. That company is Terrafugia (figure the URL-and no prizes). They are "roadable aircraft" developers: the thing, described by the company as a Personal Air Vehicle, can be a car and a plane-it can change its configuration. Price (in 2009): $148,000 (60 lakhs-not obscene by any standards). You drive it from your garage to the airstrip. Fuel: premium unleaded. Range: 160 to 800 km.

Then there's the Moller Skycar M400. Takes off and lands vertically like a chopper. Cruising speed 550 kmph; range 1,450 km. Almost exactly Bangalore to Bombay and back. (Sorry, old names-that's the way it is at indo.com, where we found the distance.) Initial cost: a million dollar-bucks. Mass-produced price could come down to $60,000 (Rs 25 lakhs). Sounds too good to be true, but let's see. (We might have to see for a long time; it's been a while since Mr Moller began his experiments.) If you're shaking your head, you'll shake it more vigorously when you visit www.autoblog.com/2006/10/13/ moller-skycar-makes-it-on-ebay. And if you've gotten excited, please don't visit www.spectrum.ieee. org/jan07/4835 !

But do you seriously think neither of these-or none of those at the Wikipedia entry for Flying Cars-will take off (ooh!) sometime soon? Place your faith in German Engineering: both CEOs have Teutonic names…

The Good Stuff
Poor you: you didn't think jetpacks existed. Or you thought (blast these miserable clichés!) they existed only in science fiction…


The iLIMB thingy holding a coin

Enter Jetpack International. Their site showcases the JetPack H202-Z, T-73, and more-promising names indicative of their sci-fi origins. About the T-73… price: 80 lakhs not including life insurance, flight time 19 minutes, speed 130 kmph, and it goes 250 feet into the air. (When it's released, December this year.) Text won't do all this justice: visit the site for pictures and videos. No hoax this: they've done it at shows. Caveat: you can't just strap it on and hover. One needs to have an Officially-Certified Aviation-Authority-Approved Major Qualification Certification to even think of strapping it on, or something to that effect. Watch the popular video at www.youtube. com/watch?v=THEcWrznicY-we know you'll think it's been doctored.

At www.jetpackinternational.com/video.html are plenty more detailed videos. But no word on when you'll be able to get one off the shelf.

"Terminator Hand hits North America" is the YouTube caption for www.youtube.com/watch? v=5MkJk6797mI. Watch the video. Now. It features the iLIMB, a prosthetic hand with five fingers-the special thing being they're individually powered. The tiny electric signals from the remaining portion of the limb power the thing, and each individual finger can open and close! "Terminator Hand"… nice caption, we say. Sci-Fa.

And some people are calling even this "baby steps."

Miscellany
This almost-just in: a real mineral with most of the chemical properties of kryptonite was discovered in Serbia, April of 2007-just five months ago. Pure magic, this… but we'll leave the wonder to you.

Moon Base. Tiberius Station
et al. You know. But NASA is indeed planning a permanent base on the Moon by the mid-2020s. This one was easy prediction, actually-the Moon isn't too far away, and we'd need Lebensraum at some point or the other. Stephen Hawking, incidentally, says humans won't survive if they don't re-engineer themselves and go into outer space! Now that's a current prediction-Fi or Fa? Or Fo, or Fum?

And then there's an official definition of "Communicator" in Star Trek: Enterprise: "A portable Personal communications device.

Communicators provide individuals a means of voice transmission from a planetary surface to an orbiting spacecraft or other nearby facility... Early versions of the communicator were compact handheld units with a flip-up antenna grid." Now here's something lovely, almost delicious: re-runs of Enterprise were on when people were already talking on their cell phones! And those phones were pretty much like those Communicators… and "Communicator" is even a brand name. Duh.

Then, stun guns: for real. Look at this: "It uses a temporary high voltage, low-current discharge to overcome the body's muscular mechanisms. The recipient feels great pain and can be temporarily paralysed. But since the amount of current is low it is supposed to be safe-it won't kill." From http://gadgets-tech.blogspot.com/2007/07/ stun-gun-science-fiction-or-reality.html.
We live in interesting times.

And Now It's Down To…
…to some nonsense. At least, let's look at what seems like nonsense to us. There's mind downloading / uploading, a popular theme with sci-fictors. The idea here is, quite simply, that you hook yourself up to an info-server of sorts and upload or download your brain's contents onto it / from it. (Britney Spears' brain could probably be uploaded onto a CD, but never mind.) What this entails is a complete mapping of the brain. Nanotech can do it, true. But each and every neuron? All that would take the computational powers of a zillion bajillion universes, assuming they exist. Sure, quantum computing might step in, but when? Too far into the future, sorry. Not happening.

Then there's all this stuff-all too common, all too cheap-about "different worlds." No, not parallel universes, which is a deep idea; we're saying so many writers just go into imaginary worlds where you can fertilise a woman over the phone and such. There's Liquid Sky, directed by Slava Tsukerman (1983), about heroin users in New York City; an alien spaceship lands in one apartment, and starts to kill people by growing crystals inside their head. Yes. It's got a 4/5 at Amazon. Bur cheap sci-fi predicts nothing.

We'll sign off with faster-than-light travel. College students smoking illegal substances discuss such stuff late into the night, voices raised. You can do it if you like. But It's Not Sci-Fa.

Ram Mohan RaoRam Mohan Rao