Friday, December 31, 2010

Guessing at the Future, Part 2 of 2

(Continued from part 1)
Poor Guesses, or Things That Will Not Happen

I admit that 'a replicator in every room and a shuttle in every bay' sounds nice. Unfortunately, replicators aren't going to happen. Creating food directly from energy would certainly save space, but the power demands would be enormous. Pouring the energy of several nuclear explosions into a cold glass of water would risk destroying the ship every time and would easily drain power from the rest of the ship. "Hey captain, can we shut off the engines and life support? I'm thirsty!" So that leaves replicators that rearrange molecules in existing source materials like rotten food, sewage, and tribbles. It sounds great to not have to eat rotten food, sewage, or tribbles, but that's only because I haven't told you the exciting changes that will happen with Febreze.

Dot Matrix Fax Machines in Every Room
I know at least a dozen people were happy to loudly print a document on special dot matrix printer paper and then take a half hour to send a darkened and slightly rotated copy of that document to someone else with a similar machine. I also know there were exactly zero people who legitimately thought there could be nothing better, that they were in witness of the crowning achievement of human ingenuity. Something tells me the set designer for Back to the Future 2 heard about how some sequential movies flip-flop in overall quality and just decided to shoot for the moon.

Single-use Displays
Want to pilot the ship? How about check the status of the port nacelle? There's an app for that. In the future, the touch-screen displays will be able to do just about anything. Dramatic leaps to the weapons station will be replaced with awkward tension while waiting for programs to load. Sadly, the convenience of being able to do anything from anywhere will be overshadowed by the constant need to accept the ever-changing iTunes terms of use conjured up by Apple's millions of iLawyerBots.

Exploding Consoles
I don't know why anybody ever yelled "Brace for impact!" on Star Trek. They should have been yelling something like "Everybody get the f*** away from the consoles!" Liquid crystal displays may continue to be quite popular in the future, but that liquid is most definitely not going to be nitroglycerin.

It's not a stretch to expect the sensors on ships like the Enterprise to be better than today's average telescopes. Because of that, other things will enter visual range when they're still eleventy bajillion miles away. At that distance, turning on the view screen at 1x zoom would always yield a view of almost nothing, with the distant ship taking up less than a pixel in the center of the screen. Since most of the requests to put the other ship on screen wouldn't actually do anything without magnification, it'll become expected behavior for the ensign to zoom in quite a bit every time. Since the distant vessel will always appear large, clarification text will be added to the display: "I assure you that the pictured ship, planet, or entity is quite a large distance from your current location." For further clarity, non-magnified windows will be engraved with the text "See? I told you so. Stop doubting me."

Space Precinct
Space precinct will not happen. Sorry.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Guessing at the Future, Part 1 of 2

My favorite thing about watching (or sometimes reading) science fiction is getting to appreciate the author's guesses about how our lives will be different in the future. Coming in a close second to that would be getting to ridicule the author's guesses about how our lives will be different in the future, because clearly I'm right and they were wrong. And let's just overlook my actually being in the future, relative to those things made ten or thirty years ago. Look, I've put a lot of effort into staying alive for the last ten or thirty years, so I think it's fair. What was I talking about? Oh, right - on to the list(s)!

Good Guesses, or Things That Will Actually Happen

The hand-held computer display thing from Star Trek was a great guess. When you have extremely advanced computers which can bring up anything from the total collected knowledge of humanity, it makes sense that some sort of portable display will always be needed. Without it, episodes of TNG would be plagued with requests for LaForge to walk over to various displays all over the place as different interns suggest the wrong way to use the deflector dish to solve everything. Current day smart phones, iPads, and laptops all show that the PADD was a good idea.

Instant Communication Over Any Distance
Whatever the hell subspace is, it was a good idea for Star Trek to use it as a magical land of instant radio communication. Without it, the show would have to use some sort of high-speed carrier pigeon for everything. No offense intended to pigeon enthusiasts, but carrier pigeons are boring. Then again, without instant communication, there could have been zany episodes where Picard would have to outrun drunken love letters unfortunately sent to Deanna's mother after one of his infamous archaeologist parties, only to discover upon arrival that the message was actually addressed to Mr. Homn. Back on present-day Earth, this guess seems to be technically possible, given recent achievements in quantum entanglement.

Quality Voice Access to Computers
"Tea. Earl grey. Hot." "Bridge." "Initiate auto-destruct." Strangely, I can't think of a lot of science fiction that uses much voice command other than ST:TNG, but I have to give that show bonus points for using it so much, and being so right about it. Whether you're being thrown about the cabin in an emergency or just suffering a mild caffeine headache, why search for the right button when you can just bark orders at the ceiling and get what you want that much faster? Although it isn't perfect, this technology has come a long way from the Clapper, and given another four hundred years, we'll definitely be using it to pilot around our floating-brain-in-a-tubes while we serve our robot protectors.

Sure, holodeck technology can provide great ways to educate or simulate to verify space theories, but let's be honest - while it could be used for awesome videogames, that's not the reason it'll be invented either. The only thing that'll be invented in the ten years after holodecks are invented is holodeck cleaning technology. In just thirty years, videogames have added multiple colors (pretty much all of them in fact), high frame rates, nearly perfect sound, perspective, and all sorts of shiny new advancements. Given that rapid improvement, it makes sense that something like a holodeck could be a reality in under a hundred years. So mark your calendars and score another point for Star Trek.

My wife and I just listened to Neal Stephenson's Diamond Age, a book which could have been titled "I think about nanotech more than you so here's a story that excuses my near-transcription of a graduate-level course in networking, biochemistry, geopolitical theory, and buckyballs." It described in exhaustive detail how nearly everything would be different when it becomes trivial to manufacture billions of very tiny robots. And it was convincing, too - there's good odds that eventually everything will be made of nanotech whether or not it makes any sense, in the same way that today so many things are unnecessarily made out of corn. I particularly like how Neal Stephenson took the nano-anything idea and really ran with it, even getting into details about how the tiny lion-shaped robots engaged in battle with another randomly chose breed of robot each Thanksgiving. Microscopic robot technology is going to be available much sooner than you think, but you might be surprised to find out it'll be introduced by Apple. The next iPod will contain the expected feature set while bolted to the outer surface of a single carbon atom - just as soon as bolts and wrenches can be made that small. Be prepared to buy several hundred million of the new iPods at once -- if you think the current ones are easy to lose, well, just be careful where you vacuum. Also, try not to observe the upcoming iPodFemto directly. Doing so may cause it to cease existing.

Game Addiction
Whether it's Harv's ractive addiction, Barclay's holo-jones, or Chewbacca's affinity for space chess, a number of sci-fi universes have guessed correctly that the future equivalent of videogames will be incredibly addicting. For a while at least, they'll have to be incredibly addicting. Without a finely-tuned Skinner box like Diablo or Farmville, long intergalactic trips will be filled with some futuristic version of "Are we there yet?" To keep bored cadets from organizing outdoor rugby matches at near-light speeds, highly addictive entertainment will be a requirement. I foresee ship inspections of the future requiring proper backup air supplies, evenly spaced escape hatches, and a full complement of EverQuest CD keys. When long-distance ships are about to reach their destinations, they'll have one major problem. Their crews will be so game-addicted, they won't want to get up and actually deliver the crates of assorted space-commodities. To address this, an airlock on each ship will have to be dedicated to the automated jettison of any good games, with each of those games replaced with the second half of Fable 3. In the future, the cost of three or four crew members throwing themselves into deep space after those scuttled game discs will become a standard subset of "Processing and Handling."

Coming up next, part 2 of 2:
Poor Guesses, or Things That Will Not Happen