Science fiction has always commented on the present, and today's present is very science-fictional. All around, we see inventions that could transform the world within a decade or two. So why don't more science fiction writers speculate about them? Here are 12 real-life developments science fiction should be plundering.
Update: This post isn't saying that these things are never written about in SF, just that they're not written about enough. Also, lots of people in comments are bringing up authors like Neal Asher and Peter Hamilton, who feature super-advanced technology hundreds of years from now. Which is great, but not the same as speculating about the near-future implications of tech that exists today. We'd love to see more of the latter. Please do share your reading-list suggestions in the comments!
Top image: "New Jamestown" by Jokinen on CG Hub
We talk a lot about the impact of pervasive surveillance and the rise of the security state — and the fact that your movements can already be logged using facial recognition. But what happens when facial recognition gets really good? And we have the storage and processing power to go through billions of hours of archived video? Could someone run a script that identifies every performer in every porn movie ever released, linked to that person's real name and Facebook profile? What if you ran a red light when you were in college? Could other indiscretions from a decade ago suddenly become public knowledge? Image via CMU.
The speed with which drones have become omnipresent is pretty astonishing, and Amazon managed to convince people the other day that it might start using drones for deliveries. What else could autonomous and semi-autonomous drones be doing 10 or 20 years from now? Not just surveillance and strikes, but also possibly routine police functions — or routine medical functions, like innoculating a lot of people in a short period of time. What if someone decides that everybody else is going to be vaccinated whether they like it or not, and programs a drone to accomplish this task? Image via AP.
Most content on the internet is already paid for via advertising, and tracking of users' personal information. But what happens when you have to "pay" for a particular website access, by providing more info? You already give access to GPS data for some apps, but what if some canny marketer invents an opt-in scheme to give advertisers access to, say, your recent history of credit card purchases? And you have to opt in to releasing more data, to get more content on certain sites? Could personal information become currency in a more explicit way than it already is? Image via WSJ.
We already have tons of technologies to allow you to track every little thing you do, including what you eat and how much you exercise. So it's not that much of a stretch to imagine these technologies working in real time, constantly monitoring your food intake and your bodily functions. Imagine a world where people around you are constantly aware of what they should and shouldn't be doing, to optimize health and well-being. Even if you choose not to have the real-time information about unhealthy behaviors, everyone else might have it, which could be worse.
We already have these, along with implants that can dissolve inside your body after they've been there for a while. Forget Google Glasses — these could turn us into cyborgs in a way more fundamental way, erasing the distinction between people and machines with a lot more subtlety. Your body could be networked with other people's in a more invasive way, and the ability to have implants that dissolve after a while could make it way harder to figure out who's a cyborg. You could even give someone an implant against his or her will, only to have it dissolve (and become undetectable) once it's done its job.
Huge advances are coming that could transform agriculture in the Third World — even as the developed world could face an agriculture crisis due to unsustainable farming techniques. Cheap solar-powered systems are powering pumps and drip irrigation to bring water from reservoirs and bore wells to crops, making arid land farmable again. And biochar lets small farmers turn farm waste into cooking fuel, instead of cutting down trees. Could we see new farming methods take over, which empower smaller farmers again? Could the shape of farming look very different a generation from now? Image via Stanford.
We're making huge leaps, in just the past few years, towards understanding the trillions of organisms that live inside you and on you. One thing's already clear: understanding how microbes affect your bodily functions (and hacking these organisms) could change medicine and our concept of personal space forever. What does healthcare look like, when treatments are tailored to someone's personal microbiome? Can we fight diseases using microbes? And could hacking someone's microbiome change their personality, or allow you to control their bodily functions remotely?
It's been five years since scientists announced they'd created a real-life version of Harry Potter's invisibility cloak — metamaterials that bend light using "negative refraction," allowing you to hide an object from view if you've got a large enough sheet of metamaterials, which have "threads" as small as 400 nanometers wide. What happens when we finally have the ability to create sheets of metamaterials large enough to hide a bigger object? Or create a wide scale optical illusion?
Synthetic biology is making huge leaps forward all the time — in ways that make a lot of science fiction feel tame by comparison. Hard-drives encoded in DNA. Using bacteria to fight tumors. Creating algae implants to let us breathe underwater. But one of the most startling possibilities is being able to "program" viruses to manufacture consumer electronics parts. What new sorts of professions could these advances give rise to? Could manufacturing be much more a question of bio-engineering within a generation? Will factories be replaced by fabricators?
Back in 2011, scientists unveiled the first "nanogenerator," a tiny battery that could be powered by tiny motions like snapping your fingers — or the beat of your heart. The whole notion of a "battery" could become more biological within the next 20 years, since we're also seeing bacterial batteries being developed. When your phone or your tablet computer are charged by your own heartbeat, in what other ways are they likely to be integrated with your body?
This is already happening with Bitcoin. But with financial systems increasingly computerized — and stock trading increasingly conducted via automated systems — how long before someone is able to destabilize national currencies or financial systems using cyber-attacks? Could a clever hacker create a script that manipulates trading windows or a bank's "float," to siphon off cash? Will banking fraud be the province of script kiddies a few decades from now?
The new "Crispr" technique allows scientists to insert genetic material directly into your genome with relative ease, using a "DNA-cutting enzyme" called CAS9. Abnormal or potentially harmful genes could be edited in embryos, but also if you're missing a gene that could be manufacturing something beneficial in your own body, the crispr technique could be used to add that gene. The medical implications, from treating HIV and cancer to eliminating genetic disorders, are huge — but so are the potential ethical questions.
Thanks to Robbie, Annalee, George, Katharine and Meredith for the suggestions!