A lot seems to get lost in the minutiae when it comes to science fiction and fantasy: we were supposed to have flying cars, disregarding that most people can’t drive when limited to two dimensions, space exploration will be our salvation, despite the fact that our odds of reproducing and successfully colonizing anything outside of Earth is extremely limited at the present moment, and that when robots and computer systems can best a human, it’s the beginning of the end of humanity.
I’ve been thinking of this since I read Ted Chiang’s novella, The Lifecycle of Software Objects, dealing with the education and development of a viable A.I., and the complexities that arise when putting together such a thing. Chiang rejects the notion that a computer that’s rigidly programmed will automatically produce a superior being: rather, intelligence is far more complex, and anything that is truly intelligent in the same way that we are could potentially come about in the same ways that people can.
Why all the fuss about Watson? It’s an interesting programming trick, to be sure, but hardly the end of humanity as we know it. One of the books that I’ve been fascinated by over the last couple of years is P.W. Singer’s Wired for War, which examines the development of robotic combat systems, a science fiction concept in and of itself. Every time a new type of robot is deployed, the internet inevitably shits itself predicting that Terminator is right around the corner, and that it’s time to start stocking up on canned goods for when the robotic rebellion comes barreling down on our squishy, organic heads.
The future is rarely as predicted: look at the accuracy of weathermen. Within science fiction, we take far too much that’s designed for entertainment as gospel, and very rarely will a science fiction film actually see some realistic predictions. 2001: A Space Odyssey missed by a long shot (we were supposed to have habitable moon bases), Terminator predicted our demise years ago, and Minority Report, one of the only films that seems to have gotten a lot of things right, overestimated things by half a decade: we’ve got our motion controlled computers, except that it’s in gaming consoles.
The pace of technology doesn’t live or die by our expectations of entertainment and wonder: indeed, the truly visionary science fiction films understand that our surroundings are build around how we will use things. Moon‘s director, Duncan Jones, noted that when building the sets and equipment for his film, they wanted to make sure that the designers built it with practicality in mind. Steven Spielberg gathered a bunch of technology experts into a think tank for the world-building of Minority Report.
To date, we don’t have servant androids, daily moon flights or Zeppelins, for the simple reason that there’s either no practical daily use for such things, or there’s a better alternative. True, robots do exist in people’s homes, in the form of iRobot’s Roomba, but these aren’t multiple-purpose devices: they exist to fill a certain function. I wouldn’t trust it (as much as I’d like to) to cook me dinner, fetch the mail or put away things out of order, simply because I can do those things myself, and at a far less cost than such a thing would run me otherwise. Commonplace spaceflight, while on the brink of actually happening to the general (if wealthy) public, is not for business or industry, but entertainment, simply because we haven’t found any other way to make it profitable for investors, while airplanes can do everything that an airship can faster and cheaper, because the infrastructure and needs of the economic world are in place for it.
At the same time, the things that are the most science fictional in our world go almost unnoticed, either because they aren’t dramatic in any particular way: the number of computers and electronics in an automobile, for example, to the tablet computer that I’m typing this on. Take anything from the modern day and transplant it into the golden age of science fiction, it would most likely shock the world. Even things like Amazon.com, Facebook and Twitter fall under these categories, developed in response to how people interact and use the internet: technology has an almost organic development, changing in response to other, prior changes that pave the way for own existence. Twitter, for example, most likely never would have existed but for the happy coincidence of the prevalence of text messaging and Facebook’s own introduction of status updates. Amazon.com was an outgrowth of business’s ability to consolidate and the introduction of wide-spread internet use. When looking at the future, it’s often the really little things, rather than the dramatic, that define our lives. There are exceptions to this: major terrorist attacks such as on September 11th radically changed things in a lot of ways: most likely, some technologies and political or business environments would have altered how things went, much like the industrial boom that was sparked by the Second World War changed America’s stance amongst the other nations on the planet.
Singer’s book comes to mind in all of this, because of the way that robotics have developed for the battlefield throughout the War on Terror in Iraq and Afghanistan. He rejected the idea that we’ll ever have a ‘3 Laws of Robotics’, simply because they get in the way of a combat robot, but also because we really don’t have robotics in the same way that we thought we might have: automatic responses and programming, with a person in the loop to direct how it carries out its mission. Robotics, rather than multi-purpose, are task-specific, much as Watson is on Jeopardy. He might be able to put together a lot of information and connect the dots, but that’s what he’s supposed to do: world domination most likely won’t occur to him, and even if it did, I doubt that it could be carried out. Now, should he have the ability to learn, and apply the fact connection to a desire in a highly complicated and sophisticated manner, we could have a very different story.
We were supposed to have robots in the future. Instead, we have iPads, surveillance cameras, global positioning systems and quite a lot more, because of needs that weren’t predicted back in the middle of the century, predictions that were influenced by the optimism that only a wealthy nation full of technology could bring.
Were these predictions bad? No. Unfounded? Nope. 2001: A Space Odyssey, came out at the beginnings of the Space Race, unsure of what would happen. In 1969, we went to the moon and discovered a magnificent, but empty expanse on the Moon, and haven’t looked back. Blade Runner saw a future that was more grounded: a lived-in world, mired with the same human problems that have been the constant throughout our history.
When it comes to predicting the future, we might very well still have a lot of these things: we’re making early steps towards civilian spaceflight, environmental costs might predicate the elimination of airplanes, and household robotics will likely be more sophisticated. However, the steps towards this direction will always rest on the requirements of the people using them. We simply don’t need a supercomputer to take over the world: we needed one for entertainment.