Science friction: imagining the future

Patrick Freyne imagines the kind of space-age future he would like to live in. Spoilsport Science Editor Dick Ahlstrom tells him which of his dreams might become reality. Illustrations by Matthew Griffin


Back in the 1950s Isaac Asimov and Arthur C Clarke assumed we’d soon be out exploring the galaxy. But the space race was too slow for sensation-hungry Nasa watchers. Now visionary billionaires like Elon Musk have put space travel – specifically, manned trips to Mars – back on the agenda. Before long we’ll have picket-fenced houses in planetary craters, and freckled children in space helmets will romp in Martian canals with antennaed space dogs. Patrick Freyne

Haven’t you bought your ticket yet? Musk and his backers say we already have the technology to get people to Mars and install them in pressurised shelters. The ticketing is going to be strange, though: one-way only; no refunds, no transfers. We already have spaceproof dwellings and suits that let us go outside, so the technology is no problem. All that’s holding things back is the small matter of a few billion euro. Will we romp along the Martian canals? Depends on how much you paid for your spacesuit. Dick Ahlstrom

Genetically modified vegetables and synthetic “meat”. S chool children meeting up at “bio hacking workshops” to create Dr Moreau-style monstrosities. Apparently we’ve cracked the genetic code. What do you want? X-Men- style powers? A pig with the neck of a giraffe? A dog with octopus tentacles ? Yeah, we can do that now.

Sorry. We won’t be playing God. People thought it would all be a snap to design babies and modify vegetables once we could unravel genomes. But it turns out there aren’t just one or two genes controlling whether you are lucky enough to be a redhead: there are gangs of them. We can do amazing things, like getting E.Coli bacteria to make insulin, but the pigaraffe is out. It’s difficult enough to grow skin, let alone all the stuff that goes into making a giraffe’s neck.

I’m impressed when cars have CD players, but apparently the self-propelled robot cars in Total Recall will soon be a reality. Google is devising a race of uncrashable super cars. One of these will, no doubt, have a snooty English accent, and we will fight crime together – like in Knight Rider.

Computers are way better at making fast, safe decisions than we are. Nearly all the big car companies have played at developing self-driving cars, and now the likes of Google is having a go. In the past it was all about burying a cable under the road surface to guide the cars along, but today we could just use wifi and GPS. Imagine: tailgating becomes legal, and you can use your mobile while driving. Your car could talk to you, too, like Kitt in Knight Rider , but you’d more likely watch a movie. This could work with a little bit of radar and motion sensing and clever software.

In Gene Roddenberry’s space- faring U topia, scarcity is at an end and solid objects are conjured from passing atoms by “replicator” technology. Well, boffins have now invented nearly affordable 3-D printers that can create all sorts of objects using multipurpose science sludge. The same thing.

You were never out of anything with a replicator (cup of sugar, tea bag, new toothbrush). But on Star Trek the device pulled in basic molecules like carbon, oxygen and nitrogen to build molecules and make things. The new 3-D printers are doing what printers do, working in two dimensions, but they print and print again, building up hundreds of layers. They can be used to build 3-D tissue structures and solid objects, but they still have a way to go before becoming common.

Who doesn’t want a helpful robot chum, like R2D2 from Star Wars or Hal from 2001: A Space Odyssey? Robotics is coming on so quickly that some experts fear there’ll soon be no work for us flesh-based life forms to do. This will either be a leisure society facilitated by servile Robo-Jeeveses or a regime of mass unemployment overseen by the super intelligent evil computer from the Terminator films. It could go either way.

It won’t be long before the help is made of metal and sounds like Stephen Hawking, but don’t hold your breath for a sentient computer. It is difficult enough to make a computer smart enough to control self-driving cars, let alone wheeling about quoting Descartes ( Cogito ergo sum ). And forget about your butler looking like the nimble, poised machines in I, Robot . Getting a machine to imitate human gait is difficult. They already sell robots that mow your lawn, so it’s conceivable that we’ll soon have a number of one-trick robots about the house. But if you see them all clustered in a corner whispering, get out quick.

In the M iddle A ges, or indeed the M idlands, 38 was considered a fine old age for a man to reach. Nowadays we consider someone of that great age (me) quite young and hip and still very much in touch with pop music. There are attempts to extend life even further. S ome focus on arresting the ageing process, others on eradicating disease. Some predict a “singularity”, a point at which we will be able to upload our consciousness to computers. One way or another, I’m pretty confident I will never die.

Don’t book your place at a New Year’s Eve party for 2099 just yet: immortality is still pretty challenging. Taking all disease out of the human condition just isn’t doable. You could repeat the experiments that showed you can considerably extend lifespan (in mice and fruit flies, anyway) by semi-starvation. But would you really want to live that long under those conditions?

The average youngster is constantly online, communicating with the global hive mind. It’s only a matter of time before internet pages are projected directly on to our retinas – some “glassholes” already accept continued connectivity via always-on Google Glass – and our thoughts are broadcast to the B org collective via little aerials sticking out of our sk ulls.

Don’t dismiss this one as sci-fi nonsense. We may be approaching a version of the hive mind, not via coercion, like the semi-mechanical Borg of Star Trek , but through near universal engagement with social media. It won’t take long before lots of companies start delivering wearable computers like Google Glass. We won’t ride the information superhighway: we will become a functioning part of it. But who will we trust to provide this service for us when our likes and preferences become part of the machine?

Many scientists agree that there is probably extraterrestrial life . It’s a big universe, after all. Boffins differ about whether our alien chums will be furry like Alf, scal y like ET or dressed in polyester body suits like the Romulans. Will they understand the earth emotion “love”?

We sit in a galaxy that holds billions of planets, and in a universe that has billions of galaxies, so it is safe to assume that what happened here may have happened elsewhere. The question is what form of life? Critters with ray guns that want to steal our water? No. Bacterial and viral life percolating away in shallow pools of chemical-laden water? Almost certainly. Just don’t expect it to land like ET and make friends with the locals. It would take millions of years to reach the closest stars that have planets.

I want to go home now, but I don’t want to get the bus. Surely someone can disassemble my atoms, shoot them through the atmosphere and reassemble them perfectly somewhere else? They can do it on Star Trek and The Fly.

How could we ever pull this one off? Sci-fi transporters first dematerialise you and then rematerialise you at the other end, but this has to happen at a cellular level, and there are maybe 100 trillion cells in each of us. What force would have to be used to accomplish this? Magnetic? Electrical? Gravitational? And if you ever meet some sinister-looking person who offers you a seat in a teleportation pod, then remember the film The Fly , in which a teleportation accident blends a man with a fly. You never know who your travelling companions might include.

In the future, when you want to wax lyrical about how cool things are going to be in the future, and your science editor is being unco-operative, you’ll be able to zap him with a ray gun.

Ray guns, photon blasters and death rays work great in films, but there are a few technical flaws. The mighty Cern atom smasher has the power to burn through thick steel, but it cost €4 billion and is 27km around – not exactly something you would hang on your belt. And, for the first time ever, I get a chance to invoke the first law of thermodynamics. Energy cannot be created or destroyed, only transformed. So what’s powering these ray guns? They must have some batteries, given they never seem to run out of juice until the last alien bites the dust.

Damn you, Ahlstrom.

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