Thursday, March 16, 2006

Back to the Future! (Part 2)

This is Part 2 of what will (hopefully) be no more than a 3 part series.

Part 1 can be read here.


So here we are, in the year 2006. And I'm no astronaut. I try to imagine what the 11 year-old boy who used to lie awake at night, nose stuck in a paperback, dreaming of the future, would think about the world today. I also wonder what he would think about the life I have made for him as an adult... neither astronaut, nor astrophysicist, nor even scientist of any kind, really. I'm sure he would be devastated... but that's too big of a subject for this blog entry, so I won't go there right now. The question I want to ask myself is this: What if I could roll back 30 years of my life, and see the world today through the eyes of an imaginative young introvert of the mid-1970's? What would 11 year-old Jim think? Has the future lived up to the expectations created by generations of science fiction authors?

After the surprise that people still use blue-jeans (what about those funky shiny uniforms that everyone should be using???), his first disappointment would surely be the absence of flying cars (think Jetsons). In fact, although the technology that drives automobiles underneath the hood has evolved considerably, outwardly, and to the layperson, cars are basically the same as they always were. The technology of transportation, in general, is virtually unchanged: you can't really get anywhere faster or even in more comfort then you could have 30 years ago. And, although you may use less fuel, you will pay a lot more for it. Think about it: even air travel hasn't changed in any fundamental way, except perhaps to have substituted meals for an inflight entertainment center. Thirty years ago, supersonic passenger flight was in its infancy. Surely 30 years would have been enough to consecrate this technology! Bigger and faster Concords should have become commonplace by the turn of the century. Actually, if I could take my kids back a couple of decades and show them a Concord, they would probably think it was quite futuristic!

Unfortunately, any major advance in the area of travel will naturally depend on the discovery of a practical alternative source of vast amounts of energy. As long as we are dependent on fossil fuels, I'm afraid our cars are grounded!

Then there is spaceflight. Forget interstellar travel: I don't think that even as a kid I had any illusions about boldly going where no man has gone before in my lifetime. Still, in 1975, Skylab was in operation and the space shuttle was on the drawing boards. Man had walked on the moon several times. By the year 2000, spacecraft should have been flitting back and forth between our orbital space stations and lunar and Martian outposts almost daily. Intrepid explorers would already be heading out to explore the outskirts of the solar system: the moons of Jupiter, the rings of Saturn, and beyond. We do have the International Space Station; and the ISS is certainly bigger than Skylab, but it hardly matches the gigantic rotating ring stations with artificial gravity that so often appeared in science fiction (such as Kubrick's "2001 - a Space Odyssey") as well as my highly coveted Man and Space book from the Time-Life Science Library series. I think, even if I had become an astronaut, the eleven-year old me would be disappointed with the stagnation of the space program in the 21st century.

Again, this is just a question of economics. Until space travel can offer financial returns that far outweigh the costs and risks involved, it will remain basically a government activity. And as long as it's a government activity, funding for space travel will depend on the whims of politicians and fickle public opinion. Not that I necessarily think that the latest private endeavours are a hopeless case -- space flight will truly only begin to become efficient when it becomes technologically feasible for private enterprise to take it over. I just don't think that that's around the corner: at least not unless someone comes up with a cheap, powerful energy source.

But there is one thing that almost every science fiction story predicted, when speculating about the future: robots! One thing I never managed to get out of my head was the Lost in Space Robot B9: forget stupid-looking bipedal humanoid or "android" devices: a cool robot had to run on tracks and have accordian-tube arms. A bubble-head, and flashing lights on its front panel were also reasonable attributes. Not until the appearance of R2-D2 did I modify my criteria for cool robot technology: a tiny tin can on wheels can be pretty neat too!

So-- we are now smack in the middle of the so-called "information age" -- but where are the robots ?!?


Of course, we do have robots; they are even commonplace, on the factory floors of probably thousands of companies around the world-- welding, cutting, painting, building our cars, and performing inumerous repetitive tasks at speeds and levels of precision that would be impossible for human workers. But they don't look or act much like the robots in science fiction stories and movies.

In science fiction, robots are typically portrayed as being intelligent servants of mankind: repositories of information; cold -- emotionless-- logical. Occasionally they are depicted as being the manual laborers of the future -- the Jetsons' maid, for example. Generally the end result of having robot laborers is the catapulting of mankind onto a higher aristocratic plane: no longer is it necessary for us to perform the blue-collar tasks. Mechanical assistants wait on us hand and foot. Like the English gentry of the 19th century, we can occupy our minds and bodies with more noble pursuits.

Traditionally, robots have provided a somewhat ambiguous counterpoint to the common theme of man vs. machine, born of the industrial revolution of the last century. In this motif, the machinery of capitalism turned without regard to the human lives sacrificed for the sake of profit. The artesans and craftsmen were lost, their workmanship and attention to detail no longer necessary. Their skills, passed down through generations, honed from father to son and regulated by guilds and trade unions, had become obsolete: their wares were now mass-produced by the thousands in the engines and foundries of vast factories, whose billowing smokestacks blackened the countryside and whose waste products turned the streams and rivers into sludge. Robots, being a "higher form" of machine, generally did not fit into this dark vision of the world. Robots were shiny and metallic; clean and intelligent.

Which doesn't mean that robots weren't frequently the antagonists of the stories: a common theme of science fiction is mankind oppressed by our own creation, which echos to some degree the older industrial age fears. In this storyline, the robots have evolved beyond the programming of their former masters: biological life forms have become unnecessary and expendable. Of course, this is a modern veneer on a very classic theme if you look below the surface: the ancient greeks told stories of men who attempt to reach beyond their human limitations, and, in so doing, invoke the ire of the gods. What could be more pretentious than to believe, in our audacity, that we are capable of creating a form of electronic "life"? A "creature" that surpasses in some way (usually strength and/or intelligence) those attributes endowed us by our own creator? This is the very definition of hubris! Zeus must be charging up his lightning bolts!

To a certain degree, this is the theme of what some believe to be one of the first "true" science fiction novels: Mary Shelley's Frankenstein published in 1818. Although it is more often classified as a gothic horror story these days, Mary Shelley's intention was clear: Victor Frankenstein was a scientist, who applied technology (as it was understood in the 19th century) to animate the inanimate, imbueing it with life. For Shelley, the story was about the scientist, and not his creation: like Daedalus, who created wings for his son and then watched him die when he flew too close to the sun -- or like the namesake Prometheus, creator of mankind who was punished by Zeus -- he was a tragic victim of his own arrogance.

In later science fiction, variations of this theme were commonplace: besides robots, the punishment of mankind for overreaching our limits in the form of biological monsters continued to be a common theme: Godzilla, an unstoppable force born of nuclear radiation, is one of the most prominent, but only the first, in a long string of films and stories that play on the shock and awe created by atomic weapons.

The thing is, although robots are becoming constantly more sophisticated, and it is even possible today to buy some pretty sophisticated robot "toys", it will still take some tremendous technological advances before we have any reason to begin worrying about "robot overlords" * in our future. The problem isn't really mechanical or electronic, although there are still some hurdles to be overcome in the area of mobility. The big problem is intelligence. The truth is, we are nowhere near developing hardware and software capable of processing even a fraction of the sensory data that the most primitive vertebrate animal can process in the blink of an eye.

The question remains, then -- what is it that characterizes the present (11 yr old "me's" hypothetical future)? We're not Jetson's ... we're not Lost in Space ... what are we?

(to be continued)


* That's right ... click here to listen to John Coulton's hilarious Chiron Beta Prime. This song was inspiration for some of the ideas in this post ... I'm one of his newest fans. Then check out Future Soon and Skullcrusher Mountain. If you have any slightly geeky tendencies at all, you will become a fan too. Once you are convinced, go and buy his albums online and download the rest of his music!


At March 17, 2006 11:04 AM, Mark said...

This is a great read, Jim. When talking of robots, don't forget Roomba. Also, some hospitals feature robots that know where to stop by colored lines on the floor. What they do, exactly, I have no idea.


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