The Sci-Fi Films That Predict The Future
Mr Robert Downey Jr in Iron Man. Photograph by Paramount Pictures/The Neal Peters Collection
From <i>Star Wars</i> to <i>The Matrix</i> to <i>Blade Runner</i>, we consider which movies could soon become mainstream realities.
Part of the joy of immersing yourself in the surround-sound escapism of a sci-fi blockbuster is to imagine the impossible made possible. How cool would it be, for example, if you could hit 88mph, burst into the future, slip on some glowing self-lacing Nikes and escape the clutches of your nemesis while hooning around on a hoverboard, like Marty McFly in Back To The Future Part II? And when will the boffins invent the transporter from Star Trek to save us the hassle of flying long-haul?
The long-awaited and much-hyped Star Wars: The Last Jedi is out now. Generations of us have grown up fantasising about what it would be like to wield a lightsaber. Dream on, kids. Making a writhing pillar of destructive energy means manipulating a type of subatomic particle called a gluon. These elusive beasts hold atomic nuclei together, and scientists haven’t yet worked out how to extract them without blowing up the planet. Sorry.
It’s not all bad news, though. Mankind continues to push the boundaries of technological innovation – from commuting in self-driving cars to having groceries and perhaps one day MR PORTER orders delivered by drones – and films are often ahead of the curve. That’s why we wrote a book, Science(ish): The Peculiar Science Behind The Movies, exploring the frontiers of science, via Hollywood. Read on as we examine the plausibility of inventions dreamed up in some of our favourite sci-fi classics.
Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017)
The innovation: bionic limbs
Mr Mark Hamill in Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Photograph courtesy Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Luke Skywalker is back. Having had his hand chopped off by his dad in The Empire Strikes Back, he is now the proud owner of the ultimate accessory: a bionic hand. And science is not far behind science fiction. People around the world now have artificial hands that are connected to their bone, nerve and muscle tissue, allowing them to “feel” what they’re touching and perform some delicate (and vital) tasks, such as plucking the stalk from a cherry. (Hey, it’s a start.) The user controls these hands by flexing muscles in their chest or arm, but there is a limit to how intricate these manoeuvres can be. Scientists are now working on a surgically implanted sensor that detects signals from motor neurons in the spinal cord. In principle, this would allow the person simply to imagine the movement they want to make, and afford them much greater dexterity. Very useful, whether fighting your father in a lightsaber duel or meeting up with him for a beer. Some artificial hands go even further and are equipped with tiny cameras. These enable the hand to grab what it can “see”, without the owner having to think. It’s the next best thing to feeling the force.
The innovation: invisibility
Mr Arnold Schwarzenegger in Predator. Photograph by 20th Century Fox/The Neal Peters Collection
Predator-style invisibility cloaks are certainly on the way. Military-funded researchers have been experimenting with camera and flexible-screen combinations that project an image of the landscape behind a soldier onto a screen he or she wears on their front. Get that right, and the soldier disappears from view. Get it wrong, and the enemy is wondering why they’re carrying around a massive plasma TV. The other option is clothing made from metamaterials, which bend light around the body rather than reflecting it back to the onlooker’s eyes, thus rendering the object invisible. The theory is good, but in practice it’s proving difficult. Current cloaking materials can only divert certain frequencies of light, so rather than making yourself invisible, it would make you a bizarre colour, and likely much more noticeable. Good if trying to attract the attention of street-style snappers. Less ideal if trying to evade snipers on the battlefield.
Iron Man (2008)
The innovation: utility suit
Mr Robert Downey Jr in Iron Man. Photograph by Paramount Pictures/The Neal Peters Collection
If you’re in the market for an Iron Man-inspired utility suit – and who isn’t? – you could be in luck. Sure, you may not be allowed the weapons, and the flight option isn’t going to be standard either, but an exoskeleton that enables you to perform superhuman feats of strength? That’s already here. Strap this costume on and you become a human fork-lift truck, as the US military is demonstrating. It is now testing a suit that combines artificial intelligence with robotics to enhance soldiers’ mobility, speed and endurance. In tests, soldiers who wore the suits expended far less energy than normal on arduous tasks such as carrying heavy loads over difficult terrain. The suits are the ultimate in bespoke. They use their AI to adapt to the wearer’s natural gait and then move their legs for them. It takes some getting used to, but once you’ve tried it, there’s no going back. (Literally, if your battery runs out, which is a genuine problem at the moment.) That said, the technology will eventually be in common use for people with mobility issues and could give those with spinal or other severe injuries the ability to walk again.
The innovation: designer children
Mr Xander Berkeley and Mr Ethan Hawke in Gattaca. Photograph by The Ronald Grant Archive
Not all accessories are wearable – children, for example. OK, they’re not strictly accessories, but they can certainly make or break your look. You can’t guarantee a result like Mr Brooklyn Beckham, even if you choose your partner by looks rather than brainpower, but the emerging science of gene editing is offering some controversial outcomes. Designer children play a central role in the 1997 movie Gattaca, and science is catching up with this vision. Thanks to a technique known as CRISPR, we are learning how to edit out bad genes from an embryo and splice in some good ones. At this stage, the applications are primarily medical, enabling us to avoid passing on heritable diseases, but editing genes to create a particular physical appearance is on the horizon. It’s tricky, and getting the right results is far from guaranteed at this stage, but there is good reason to think that our children might be the last ones that aren’t tinkered with in the womb – or before they even get there. This kind of genetic manipulation won’t be cheap, so is likely to be the province of the rich and powerful, thus exacerbating inequality and creating a genetically improved super-class who lord it over the poor. Exactly as Gattaca foretold.
Blade Runner 2049 (2017)
The innovation: conscious robots
Ms Ana de Armas and Mr Ryan Gosling in Blade Runner 2049. Photograph courtesy of Sony Pictures Releasing
Personal digital assistants are all the rage – Siri, Google Home, Amazon Echo and Cortana are leading the field – but they’re still pretty dumb. Why can’t we have something like Samantha from Her or Joi, Mr Ryan Gosling’s very personal organiser in Blade Runner 2049? Could we develop a conscious machine to look after our every need? It’s a contentious question, but the answer from artificial intelligence researchers seems to be “yes, eventually”. Current AI is “narrow”, which means it can only do one task at a time. That might be learning to play the Asian board game Go better than any human, as Google DeepMind’s AlphaGo Zero has already achieved, or driving a car through city streets. The next step is a “strong” AI, a single machine that can turn its (bionic) hand to pretty much anything. That’s still some way off, but AI scientists’ eyes are already on the next prize: a conscious machine. People are still arguing about what that means, but it would essentially interact with us and the world, have feelings about what it wants to do, and make its own decisions about how best to achieve its goals. Much like us, in other words. We do it with carbon-based biology, and our creations would probably do it with silicon-based circuits. There’s no fundamental barrier, just a lot of engineering difficulties (and an understandable societal concern about rampaging self-aware machines) to overcome.
The Matrix (1999)
The innovation: plug-in learning
Mr Keanu Reeves and Mr Hugo Weaving in The Matrix. Photograph by Warner Bros/Photofest
One of the most iconic moments in The Matrix is when Mr Keanu Reaves’ character, Neo, is plugged in to a computer and has a martial arts upload. After a few moments, he opens his eyes and monotones: “I know kung fu.” So, could martial arts teachers be out of a job anytime soon? Probably not, but when we learn, the physical structure of the brain changes. The strength of connections (synapses) between brain cells (neurons) determines the quality of memory and ease of recall. If we can identify the patterns of firing that result in a specific moment of learning, then stimulate the brain to do that particular firing routine over and over until the synapses are connected up as you wish, then voilà! We have implicit learning. It’s already been done using a technique called Decoded Neuro Feedback. Professor Takeo Watanabe and his team at Brown University have been able to induce simple brain activity patterns. Although the activity patterns associated with muscle movements are far more complex, Professor Watanabe believes his work could, theoretically, be extended to motor skills. Such as kung fu. There is a catch, though. Our brains aren’t identical in the way that computers are, and therefore a generic, standardised program for any task may be unattainable. Good news for Mr Miyagi, for now.
Planet Of The Apes (1968)
The innovation: super-smart pets
Ms Kim Hunter, Mr Roddy McDowall and Mr Charlton Heston in Planet Of The Apes. Photograph by The Moviestore Collection
One big letdown in today’s world is the total absence of clever, talking animals. Granted, Caesar and his chimp pals in the Planet Of The Apes films are a bit chippy, but it would be great to give your cat or dog an intelligence boost in order to start having some deep and meaningfuls. And as it happens, your friendly neighbourhood scientists are happily putting human material into other animals. Mice, mainly. The argument for doing this is simple. The incorporation of human genetic information into “animal models” has the potential to find solutions to life-threatening human conditions. So far, we’ve spliced a human gene that is linked with speech and language development into the brain of mice embryos, and those mice have grown up to show improved learning capabilities. They aren’t talking (yet), but their squeaks are different from normal mice. We’ve also created mice with a part-human brain – what amounts to a mouse brain with support from human brain cells. These mice, according to the researcher, are “significantly smarter than control mice”. And in certain parts of the world where animal testing isn’t so restricted, human conditions such as Parkinson’s and Huntington’s are being introduced to monkeys. So, it may only be a matter of time before we start putting human brain cells into our closest relatives. And then man’s best friend might be able to talk back.
Science(ish): The Peculiar Science Behind The Movies_ (Atlantic Books) by Mr Rick Edwards and Dr Michael Brooks is out now