Well, 2000 came and went, and while European communism is dead and gone, my car still has tires, and unless I have $500,000 and a pilot’s license, I’ll never know what it’s like to drive along the Z-axis. Why? Why? Why?
– Joe Blancato, far-seer
I quote myself for two reasons: 1) Introductions are hard, and 2) It’s fun to look back on what we said before and compare it to where we are now. Here we are in 2008, and I still don’t know the joy of a force vector takeoff, but I’m resolved to that fate. I’ll never have a light saber or working hoverboard, either. Yesterday’s dreams of tomorrow don’t always come true.
However, when those dreams do become reality, the excitement we feel is palpable. We live in an age of discovery, where science is moving as fast as science fiction. And even in a world without light sabers, the stuff authors wrote about as little as a decade ago is showing up in laboratories, on military bases and in our living rooms right now. What follows are just a few advancements in science that were mainstays in our fiction until very recently.
Universal Vacuum Cleaners in the Comfort of Your Own Planet
Boy meets particle accelerator. Boy accelerates particles. Boy creates black hole with a slight chance of destroying the world. In a classic case of throwing caution to the wind, scientists at CERN put the finishing touches on the Large Hadron Collider in November of last year and plan on accelerating protons to speeds where they’ll build up enough mass to create tiny black holes. Tiny black holes in Switzerland.
Now, according to Greg Landsberg when he spoke to Fox News, the chance of one of these black holes consuming the planet in the blink of an eye is “totally miniscule,” and that’s technically correct. But even if the chances of something are infinitesimal-to-1, there’s always a chance. Luckily, since we don’t know what’s on the other side of a black hole, even if the good people at CERN do screw up, there’s another infintesimal-to-1 chance we’ll phase into a universe where you can catch Carmen Sandiego, the 2004 Red Sox never happened and I actually beat World 4-4 in Super Mario Bros. when I was 5.
The world-ending black hole isn’t unknown to sci-fi, and Dan Simmons’ Hyperion series featured one prominently, in a situation much like the one in CERN. In his story, man clearly shouldn’t have interfered with the cosmos so close to home, but in the real world, things will likely play out how they usually do in theoretical science: They’ll find a new dimension or two, and I’ll fail university-level Physics.
Is That a Pneumatically Driven Haptic Interface in Your Pocket, Or are You Just Happy to See Me?
Science fiction has a robot fetish: robots that make your breakfast, robots that make war and yes, robots that make love. But while ASIMO may be able to do your taxes and pour a mean Tom Collins, it has the romantic appeal of a vending machine. And not those sexy vending machines in airports that sell overpriced iPods.
As in the fictional worlds of Sarah Connor and Lieutenant “Starbuck” Thrace, however, technology marches on, and robots keep getting sexier with each new model rollout. Case in point: the Actroid, a robot developed by Osaka University and manufactured by Kokoro Company, Ltd. While ASIMO is designed to be functional, cute and generally inoffensive, Actroid isn’t afraid to show a little silicone. Most versions are modeled after a young Japanese woman, virtually guaranteeing a healthy aftermarket of high-performance firmware modifications.
Unfortunately, Actroid has a long way to go in its trek through the uncanny valley. While it sports 47 unique points of articulation, its rigid gestures and facial tics place it somewhere between a FemBot and the Country Bear Jamboree. But in an age where people can, and frequently do, form emotional attachments to gleaming hunks of chrome and plastic, Actroid goes the extra mile to win its owners’ affection. And that, at the very least, should earn it a hug. Just remember Asimov’s 4th Law of Robotics: Clothing Optional.
I’ll Take the Deluxe Model, But Will it Lower My Empathy Score?
Ever since Cyberpunk 2020, Johnny Mnemonic and Forrest Gump, I’ve wanted magic legs. When I was growing up, I was always slower than my friends, and while I don’t mind being all torso in a number of activities, it sucks for team sports. So I’ve been looking for an upgrade for a while now, but the conventional replacement has always been clunky and made walking, let alone running a pass route, an adventure.
As it turns out, that’s all about to change. Last year a few patients who lost their arms tested artificial limbs hooked up to nerves in their chest, and they were able to make the replacement arms move just by thinking about it. And in addition to the limbs being functional, another team has actually restored amputees’ feeling in their lost limbs by connecting nerves from their amputated limb to those same chest nerves. While the technology isn’t at the RoboCop level, it can only get better as more amputees get access to these smart limbs. That’s great news for veterans and accident victims, and if it lets me leap tall buildings in a single bound, all the better.
The Alan Parsons Project
Ever since I watched Moonraker, an incisive treatise on the horrifying lengths that humanity will go to in its relentless pursuit of power, I have patiently waited for the day when people everywhere would lay down their guns, and pick up laser guns. For nearly a millennium, we’ve used fundamentally the same technology to kill and maim our fellow human. Isn’t it time for a change?
Lasers have proven adept at gleefully driving cats around a room from the comfort of beer-stained recliners across the nation, but this tactic has few, if any, military applications. Enter the Advanced Tactical Laser, Boeing’s latest DoD moneymaker. When mounted to the side of a C-130H Hercules, this bad boy is capable of raining death and destruction down on its unknowing prey from a range of 10 kilometers.
Unfortunately, the ATL has two known design flaws which have prevented mass production: 1) The laser operates in the infrared spectrum, meaning it is invisible to the naked eye and, therefore, not nearly as impressive looking as the Ion Canon or the Death Star’s Superlaser, and 2) Operators must currently supply their own “pew pew” sound effects. Expect these issues to be resolved in a later model.
Curing Heart Disease And Everything Else
Ultimately, science fiction’s highest goal is living to reach the stars, and if relativity holds, the best way to travel ultra-long distances is to extend both our lives and our quality of life. And between the science of restoration and aging research, some scientists claim living a healthy life to 1,000 is possible.
Aubrey de Grey is the head of the Methuselah Foundation, a group that treats aging itself as a curable disease. He calls the effort Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence, and has broken his research over two fields: MitoSENS and LysoSENS. De Grey’s known as a rogue, but he pleaded a convincing case in front of his peers at the TED Conference in 2005.
Of course, one guy on the fringe isn’t enough to change the way we age, but when you combine his approach with the work of regenerative medicine researchers like Dr. Alan Russell, there’s an outside chance we’re only a generation or two away from outpacing time.
Russell works on the premise that if a salamander can regenerate limbs, humans should be able to, too, and some of
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