Big ideas

At this time of year it’s traditional to make resolutions concerning the new year, review the old year or preview the coming year.

Well, I don’t normally make resolutions; reviewing the old year is done far better by others; and previewing the coming year would involve precognition–which I don’t believe in.

There is, however, one form of previewing of the future that I DO believe in–science fiction. SF writers frequently craft their ideas by taking today’s science and asking the question, “If this goes on, what then?”, giving us an idea of things to watch for (or watch out for). So here are three “big ideas” currently prevalent in science fiction, based on current science…

The first is genetic engineering: not the genetic engineering of insect-resistant canola, or even of cows that produce drugs along with their milk, but of humans. Our genetic understanding will allow us, maybe in fifty years, maybe sooner, to modify our bodies to order.

Humans with gills, living their entire lives on the seafloor…humans modified to live in zero gravity, unable to ever set foot on Earth…humans modified to run a two-minute mile…humans immune to disease or pollution…humans genetically modified to be scientific or artistic geniuses. Science fiction has already delved into the strange, almost unrecognizable futures that could flow from these possibilities. (I can’t say I like many of them…)

Another “big idea” is “nanotechnology.” From time to time you’ll hear about a research group creating microscopic gears or even a microscopic steam engine. That’s “nanotechnology.” “Nano” means “one billionth”: a nanometre is one billionth of a metre. “Nanotechnology” is technology so small it has to be measured in nanometres.

What can such tiny machines do? Not much, now, but someday…

Picture a syringe filled, not with drugs, but with billions of tiny robots that race through the plugged arteries of a heart patient and scour them clean, or find and destroy cancer cells. Picture microscopic robots cleaning up oil spills or toxic waste dumps or destroying a plague of locusts. These are the dreams of nanotechnologists. Will they happen soon? Maybe not…but the promise is there.

The third “big idea” is “virtual reality”: artificial reality generated by a computer. This one you’ve most likely heard of, because of “virtual reality” games in arcades. Most of today’s “virtual reality” is extremely primitive: sight, sound, maybe a few physical jerks and jolts. But the virtual reality of the future may be indistinguishable from “real” reality…and then what?

Computer games allow players to vicariously experience all kinds of adventures. The better the graphics, the more realistic the sound, the better the experience. What could be better than a simulation so real you can’t tell it from the real thing? You could race Nigel Mansell or shoot down jet fighters with impunity, getting a thrill without ever really risking your neck.

But virtual reality in science fiction goes far beyond games. Communication could be transformed: why meet people in person when a better-dressed, more handsome virtual version of yourself could meet virtual versions of them in a virtual casino in virtual Monaco? Industry could use virtual reality to test new technology and processes for far less money and with far less danger to the environment and workers. And what teenager could be bored with Shakespeare if he virtually became Hamlet?

Heady stuff. Maybe scary stuff, too. As I said about genetic engineering, the worlds envisioned by science fiction writers aren’t necessarily worlds in which I want to live. Technology can be put to bad as well as good use, as the 20th century has certainly proven. Genetic engineering could produce subhuman slaves or superhuman soldiers. Nanotechnology could kill as easily as heal. And anyone who has ever looked up from playing a video game to discover he’s just wasted six hours knows the hazards of virtual reality.

But the opportunities are as real as the hazards. As we move into the 21st century, we’re going to have to deal with both: and that means learning to deal with science and technology.

Which, I guess, leaves me with a resolution for 1994 after all: I resolve to continue to do my little bit to promote science.

Do your bit, too. Keep reading!

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