Starting tonight, the Science Channel will air a six-part series called Futurescape, a slick documentary-style show hosted by James Woods about the world of tomorrow. We recently caught up with the oscar-nominated actor to learn more.
One of the more interesting aspects of Futurescape is that, in addition to heralding the technologies of the future, the show takes a nuanced look at the negative consequences as well. For example, what will happen when we can read minds using a Bluetooth device, or have our own personal superhuman Iron Man-style suit? Could we ever cure cancer by inserting a "super chip" into the body?
To answer these questions, the producers of Futurescape brought together a number of leading technologists and thinkers to share their thoughts, including ethical futurist Jamais Cascio, the IEET's Linda MacDonald-Glenn, futurist John Smart, neuroscientist Miguel Nicolelis, and many, many others.
As the show's six episodes clearly show, a future that once existed solely in the human imagination is beginning to take shape. But as James Woods told me, there will always be a double-edged aspect to the future and what it may bring.
James Woods: I actually came up with the idea. I talked to my agent after seeing Through the Wormhole with Morgan Freeman, and I said that I'd love to create a show like that one. Specifically, I was hoping to work on something that pertained to the future and innovations of science. And I was keen to produce, co-write, and even host such a show. After pitching this to the Science Channel, it turned out that they were also interested in producing a show like that.
So we started to talk about the various subjects we'd like to address, like the God gene, robotics, intergalactic exploration, and the like. Even things like the ethics of making a truly bionic person. Then, working with the folks who put together Through the Wormhole, we brainstormed six broad topics for the episodes, including citizen robots — which airs tonight — radical life extension, space exploration, how to be a superhuman, and others.
We then decided to break the episodes down into three parts, where we discuss a given technology or future prospect, talk about the benefits, but also discuss the potential risks. And intermixed with all this we wanted to convey a sense that there's a lot of progress happening right now in science, and that these are very joyous prospects if they can in fact be controlled.
For example, in one of the episodes we talk about the exoskeleton and how it could be applied. During the research phase we actually had a paraplegic woman wear the exoskeleton and get up out of a wheelchair and move across the room. In all honestly, it put tears into my eyes. It was an incredibly exciting moment to see the future of science right there in the room and know that it was possible — and that it's just a matter of letting companies like Apple take a crack at this.
So, it's a very moving, passionate show — one where we were all fascinated by the subject matter. It was a passion project for all of us.
As a graduate of M.I.T. you're no stranger to science. But the U.S. is beginning to fall behind other countries when it comes to science and technological development. What are your own personal thoughts about this?
Yes, I am passionate about science. When I was at M.I.T. working on issues of national defense, I got to see first hand many of the technologies that were put into place during the Cold War, including the communications and computer labs required to keep bombers in the air 24/7 in the event of thermonuclear war. It was a pretty scary and prescient notion of how science can go either right or wrong.
Today, with things like Moore's Law in effect, we're on the express train to technological development. Progress is moving very rapidly. But our vulnerability is greater, as is our capacity for making bad decisions.
To answer your question, there is greater chance for peril now, but there's also a greater chance for enhancement. But in terms of lagging behind science — yeah, it's scary to think that it was only a half-century ago that we put men on the moon using technology that's laughable by today's standards. We did so through passion, courage, dedication, and intelligence — and the application of that intelligence.
Today, we can't even design a website, as shown by the current Obama Administration — what is an appalling, sad joke on our great nation. The roll out of this Obama website is probably the single greatest intellectual embarrassment in the history of the American republic. It is honestly astonishing — astonishing to the degree of corruption that had to be involved, because it had to be that for something so absurdly inept to have emerged from a nation with this potential in 2013. So clearly, in the wrong hands we'll be forever an Obamacare nation, and in the right hands we will be a nation once again dedicated to science, its roots, it's potential — and of course its perils. What we have to do is acquire a dedication for science, and have a dedication to the rich benefits of science.
I often tell my friends that my generation was born about 50 years too early, that all the diseases that we're currently dealing with, like ALS, could potentially be so easily cured if we were spending our efforts to do that. It would be so much easier if we could focus on the science and less on the idiot politics — not that the politicians are idiots per se. Unfortunately we don't have ourselves poised to benefit from the unbelievably rich science that could benefit us.
We have unbelievable resources in this country, very intelligent young people, great universities. that could teach them. But we have a government that's way off track. And I'm not picking on politics one way or the other, I'm just saying that in general we seem to have lost our way in terms of cherishing science — and not as some kind of hobby, but as an unbelievable resource for solving the problems that bedevil so many people.
As you've noted, technology is a double-edged sword. After doing Futurescape, what are you most looking forward to in the future, and what scares you the most?
I know what you're thinking — and it's pretty scary stuff: The prospect of reading another person's mind. To be able to manage the resources of the mind, to deal with such dreaded diseases as Alzheimer's and other dementia-oriented diseases, is an absolute joy. But the notion of having the NSA have more tools at their disposal to read not only our emails but also our minds is pretty scary.
On the other hand, it may be important to our self-preservation. Maybe the NSA knows something we don't, because they're not even offering us any reassurance. They're basically telling us that they've got to do this. But I hope they're right because it's incredibly disturbing. I hope they're right, but we just don't know and we're curious. Now, multiply that by an unimaginable factor of people actually being able to peer into your soul and your thoughts. That's very frightening.
The ability to colonize other planets is another great prospect. It seems almost impossible to believe today, but we've had our doubts before — as witnessed by folks in the 19th century who refused to believe that we'll ever create technologies that can fly.
And in fact, one of the early names I had for the show was Unthinkable. Meaning, it's unthinkable that you could actually go to Mars and harvest the Red Planet. And it's unthinkable, in a way, to even have the NSA looking into your mind as well. There's always going to be a positive way and a negative way, an ethical way and an unethical way. For every great nuclear power plant that will save the Earth from carbon footprints we also have the potential for thermonuclear weapons.
The consequences of our technologies are set to be more severe in the future. I mean, what will happen when Iran gets a nuclear weapon? And they'll get one thanks to this bumbling administration. What happens when people who have shown a proclivity for a blatant disregard for human rights now have these weapons at their disposal, for example. And that's the science we now know. Imagine the science we don't know. But that's the kind of thing we get to imagine on our show.
I think the thing that scares me the most is the notion that we no longer are individual entities with a sense of guaranteed natural privacy.
There's a certain tension that runs through the show, namely the fear of being dehumanized by our technologies (like cyborgizing ourselves), and the fear of humanizing our technologies, like giving robots the right to vote. How do you personally reconcile this?
Yeah, there's scene in the first episode where I tell anti-robot bigots to get a life. It was actually an adlib that we decided to keep in the show because I really liked it. It went right to the crux of the matter and asked, what is life?
Now, I'm a practicing spiritual person. I'm a Catholic. And yet I endorse the fact that Futurescape shows how, if you break down the double-helix and you go through all the genetic structure of the human genome, guess what? There is no God gene, there is no gay gene, there is no alcoholism gene. It turns out that many of these important issues are not supported by the science, and that's hard for people to face.
Look, if you want to believe in God, it's a matter of faith. That's a choice of belief that we make. And I like that notion. It doesn't negate reason. It's as reasonable to posit the existence of God, for example, as it is to be an atheist. These are reasonable and rational questions to ask in the absence of solid proof.
The issue of humanity, in our show, is a matter of existential commitment to the notion of our specialness as creatures of the Universe. When we talk about the robot revolution, we have to ask ourselves: At what point does a robot become human? And at what point are we less than human?
I would answer that by saying we're less than human when we're slaughtering people with chemical weapons. And we're certainly more than robots when we're finding cures for cancer. That would be my opinion as a matter of faith. But I do think finally that our humanity, the value of our science, the value of our genes, the value of our passion and our commitment to being intellectual creatures of great worth is when we better the future of the human race. And one of the ways we do this is the application of science for better things.
Futurescape debuts Tuesday, November 19 at 10:00 p.m. ET/PT on The Science Channel.