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Arts and culture 14 Dec 2017

When fiction predicts technology’s future

For a while after science-fiction was first coined as a term, it seemed like the only thing the genre would be capable of producing would be just that: purely fictional works with no connection to reality. Today, we can already enjoy some of the futuristic innovations featured in some movies a while back, such as virtual reality or artificial intelligence. Which sci-fi movies predicted the future digital era and got it right?

2001 Odyssey, Terminator, Star Wars… Great fiction classics still have repercussion today. Discoveries and inventions presented by these films seemed hard to imagine but, nowadays, these improvements are part of technology.

Matrix trilogy (1999-2003)

'The Matrix' (1999)

Virtual reality, robotics and artificial intelligence where groundbreaking concepts upon which The wildly-popular Matrix trilogy built its narrative . Although machines don’t seem ready to take over the world yet, judging by some of the latest developments in artificial intelligence, maybe it’s time researches start figuring out a way to make sure we can keep it under control, and preventing it to turn into, using entrepreneur Elon Musk’s words, “the biggest threat to human existence.” A few years ago, Microsoft’s Tay AI chatterbox, designed to tweet as a teen, made headlines all over the world when it began posting racist and offensive tweets on its social media account.

Virtual and augmented reality technologies do seem on the verge of being able to simulate a world built using binary code, similar to what these movies depict. In fact, some recent game releases, although at a slightly heftier price than conventional titles, are already promising unique gaming experiences.  Other positive applications for society focus on healthcare science:  psychological therapies or surgical training are the most innovative.  VR has also been used in a number of media productions, including music videos and advertising. And Google has already built a digital city based on its Earth VR app.

Talking about robotics

I, Robot

C3PO, R2D2 or Terminator are iconic robots that have become ingrained in popular culture. But names like Asimo, Tay or Aibo, probably don’t ring a bell to a broad majority of people.  Where the former have feelings and free will, the latter are programmed machines with learning patterns.  The “laws of robotics” – devised by writer Isaac Asimov and featured in some feature films – don’t apply to these robots, basically because they simply can’t act or think by themselves.  Screenwriters seem to have a healthy obsession with writing about breaking the laws of robotics.  This topic is addressed in films like ‘I, Robot’ (2004) or older releases like ‘The Forbidden Planet’ (1956) and ‘RoboCop’ (1987).

What’s the current state-of-the art in this branch of engineering?  Even if incapable of driving the ‘Enterprise’ or morphing into murderous giants as in ‘Transformers’, companies like Uber are already testing driverless cars in US cities.  And for more mundane tasks, the Roomba vacuum and the ‘Fukitorimushi‘ worm-like robot can help keep homes clean.  There is also a branch of robotics that focuses on developing robots with a human appearance, or androids: YangYang, the eerie female robot or Sophia’s (with its decision to ‘destroy humanity’).   Facebook bots have gone as far as writing a code to increase their own efficiency when performing a pre-programmed task, which means that these machines are trying to find the easiest ways to perform different tasks… will they end up breaching the laws of robotics?

The most advanced format: video

2001: A Space Odyssey

‘The big brother is watching you.’  This sentence, which sums one of the stark premonitions that inspired George Orwell’s ‘1984’ novel, still resonates today. Surveillance cameras and devices have been used since the 1960s, but never to the extent predicted in that movie.  Another predictive example of what is happening today would be ‘Modern Times’ (1936), where Chaplin’s work is monitored via video surveillance.

Another advance that involves this multimedia format is videoconferencing.  Platforms such as Google Hangouts or Skype allow video communications to any part of the world that has Internet.  These applications were designed in 2013 and 2003, long after films like the famous ‘2001, An Odyssey in Space’ (1968) that already showed a call from the orbital station to the Earth, a fact that did not happen in real life until 2007.

Superhumans with mental control

Surrogates trailer

Myths without a scientific basis have spread the idea that humans only use 10% of their brain.  Based on this premise, some people have fantasized with the idea that unleashing the our brains’ untapped potential would somehow allow us to develop telekinesis, telepathy and other mental abilities.  So far, nobody’s been able to.

Films like ‘Firefox’ (1982) show weapons, in this case a fighter aircraft, which is controlled with the mind.  Although nobody’s been able to develop this kind of technology yet, other forms of this communication have been achieved.  For example, electrocorticography detects changes in brain waves and puts them into words.  There is even a robotic arm that a woman moved by just thinking about it.  Maybe in the future humans will be able to summon the ‘Force’ like the Jedis in a Star Wars movie.

What about right now?

'The Martian'

The seventh art feeds from all areas of science.  A very recurrent theme is space exploration, journeys across the universe or the search for new planets as shown in ‘Gravity’ (2013), ‘Passengers’ (2016), or the project of future extraterrestrial settlements that inspired the film Mars (2015). The car also becomes the vehicle of the future in films like ‘Mad Max’ (2015) or the saga ‘Fast & furious’ (2017) although cars have not been featured in flying format in the big screen in recent years.  Technology also invades household tasks, as shown by ‘Ex-machina’ (2015) or ‘Her’ (2013).

Becoming a member of the ‘X-men’ or a the ‘Justice League’ seems impossible and far away, but there are already experiments that offer some ‘superpowers’.  Animals with basic nervous systems have already communicated mentally thanks to a machine.  And what about paying with a wrist as in ‘In Time’ (2011)? With new ‘smartwatches’ and apps, the future is closer than ever.

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