The book Films from the Future is based around twelve science fiction movies (14 if you include the “bonus” movies in the first and last chapters!).
Together, these are used to tell a story about emerging and converging technologies, the opportunities they present, and the challenges of developing and using them in ethical and socially responsible ways.
These are the twelve movies that form the backbone of the book – for the bonus movies, you’ll have to read chapters 1 and 14!
Despite being based on some questionable science (Dinosaur DNA isn’t preserved long enough to be reconstructed and used to bring these creatures back from the dead), Steven Spielberg’s classic is a wonderful jumping-off point for exploring modern-day genetic engineering, and the growing capabilities in “resurrection biology”. While it was just a fanciful idea back in 1993, these days CRISPR-based gene editing and synthetic biology are revolutionizing our ability to edit biological “code”, and even allowing us to think about bringing species back from the dead. We won’t be seeing living breathing dinosaurs any time soon, but scientists do have their eye on bringing back species like wooly mammoths and others from the Pleistocene era and creating, not Jurassic Park, but Pleistocene Park
Kazuo Ishiguru’s book Never let Me Go, and the movie that was based on it, were never meant to be works of science fiction. Despite this, they are a chilling reminder of how easily a deeply-desirable technology can erode the moral soul of a society. The technology in question here is human cloning. It’s a tech that’s continued to mature since the birth of Dolly the Sheep in 1996, and it’s getting closer to enabling people to be cloned. This, of course, is an ethically fraught area. But there’s a good chance that human reproductive cloning is going to happen at some point. We can already do this with dogs, cows, and other animals, and while humans are far more difficult, it’s more a case of “watch this space” than “not in my lifetime.” Of course, this does mean we’re going to have to grapple with the ethical minefield human reproductive cloning opens up.
Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report is rich in advanced technologies, from sophisticated displays and mind-hijacking “halos”, to ubiquitous biomonitoring. But it’s the crime-prediction that really stands out both as an emerging technology in today’s society, and a salutary warning against its misuse. Of course, the future-seeing precogs in the movie are pure fiction, but we are surrounded by an increasing array of science and tech that people believe can predict where a crime will occur, and who will be involved, before it happens. Functional MRI scansartificial intelligenceand data analytics are all being used to try and pre-empt crimes before they happen. And while some of these attempts are clearly barking up the wrong tree, others are getting scarily good at predicting what people will do. Yet under all this is the question, just because we can do this, should we? And in many cases, the answer is probably “no”.
In 2007, the journal Nature published an article on the use of “smart drugs” by academics with the title “Professor’s little helper. It seems that there’s a growing interest in pharmaceutically-enhanced intelligence amongst everyone from academics and students to entrepreneurs, and as our understanding of what gets our brains going increases, so does the sophistication of these artificial enhancements. We may not get to the level of the drug NZT in the movie Limitless, but smart drugs — whether Amazon-ordered nootropics, LSD-containing “stacks”, or even every-day shots of caffeine — are increasingly a part of our lives. And perhaps surprisingly, many people seem to be OK with this. I just wonder how they’ll feel when you have to be dosed up to even get as far as a first interview in an increasingly competitive job market.
Elysium is a movie that takes itself very seriously — almost too seriously — as it preaches about the evils of the “1%” having too much power over the “99%”. And perhaps because this is a movie with a deeply social message, the validity of the science in it leaves a little to be desired. Yet there are surprising parallels between the seemingly-miraculous medical pods in the movie that the rich use to keep themselves disease-free, and the emerging field of bioprinting. For a number of years now, scientists have been developing 3D printers capable of producing facsimiles of human body parts, by printing with a combination of cell-containing “bio-inks” and biocompatible support materials. And just in the past year or so, they’ve started to radically increase the speed and sophistication of these techniques — to the point where it may be possible to get 3D printed replacement bones, skin, and vital organs within the next few years. Reflecting this, the goal of the company Prellis Biologics is to 3D print the “entire vasculature of a human kidney in twelve hours or less” — and they are well on the way of achieving this. The question is, when they do, who gets the first 3D printed replacement kidneys?
Forget the “ghost” of a movie-remake of Ghost in the Shellthat came out in 2017 — in contrast, the original Ghost is a masterpiece of meditation around what it means to be human in an age of body augmentation. And while we may be decades away from the tech in this beautiful Anime movie, it hints strongly at what’s to come. We’re already used to highly sophisticated prosthetics, and implanted devices like defibrillators. And Elon Musk’s company Neuralink is working hard on developing brain-computer interfaces that mimic the neural lace technology in Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels. On top of this, there’s a thriving (if slightly fringe) body-hacking communityof people intent on implanting themselves with everything from magnets to RFID chips and more. With rapidly advancing robotics, internet-connected devices and AI, we’re probably on the cusp of a surge of body-augmentation technologies. Which is great, until we begin to ask what happens when we need a software upgrade and don’t want to pay for it, or there’s a recall…
There are a lot of sci-fi movies around about the rise of intelligent machines. Most end up with humans being mercilessly crushed beneath the feet of their AI overlords, Terminator-style. Ex Machina though takes a subtler, and altogether more sinister, approach. Learning from the searches conducted by users of a very Google-like search-engine, the movie’s AI, Ava, discovers how to achieve her goals through manipulating people. At the heart of the movie is the idea that we are all blinded to some degree by our instincts, our mental shortcuts, and our innate biases, but while intelligent machines may be able to learn about these, they won’t have the same limitations. In effect, we’re in danger of creating AIs that understand us better than we understand ourselves, and can use this against us. And the really scary thing is, we either won’t notice, or won’t care. Of course, this is only science fiction, thankfully …
Transcendence is a movie about AI, nanotechnology, and the singularity — the point at which machines become so powerful that all bets are off when it comes to predicting the future. It’s not a great movie I must confess. But it’s a great way of exploring the myths and the realities around converging technologies. And amongst the science-fantasy that it revels in, there’s a hint of something that is going to become increasingly important: experimenting with the “base-code” of reality. We’re pretty used to the idea of coding in cyberspace these days, working with the ones and zeros, and bits and bytes of digital code. And we’re getting used to working with the biological code of DNA. We’re also becoming pretty adept at working with the “code” of atoms and molecules as we design new materials and machines — this is the code of nanotechnology and materials science. All of these are “base-codes”, as they allow us to change reality in each of those three areas: cyber, bio, and materials. The really interesting stuff begins to happen though when we learn to cross-code between these three base-codes. How do we know? We’re already doing it!
While Transcendence is firmly fixed in fantasyland in how it depicts emerging technologies, the 1951 Ealing comedy The Man in the White Suit is definitely not. Despite its age, this is possibly one of the best films around in how it depicts the emergence of new technological capabilities, and the social challenges that can result. And while it’s focused on polymer and textile science, it’s a great movie for exploring nanotechnology. The film is about the invention of a stain resistant fabric that never needs washing, and what goes wrong as a result. I suspect the producers thought this was a rather fantastical idea at the time. I’d love to know what they’d have thought about protests outside Eddie Bauer in 2005 when the company started selling pants with — you’ve guessed it — nanotech-enabled stain fabric. Of course, nanotechnology is doing far more for the world than producing anti-stain clothes, and can be found everywhere from smart phone screens and computer chips to sunscreens and solar cells. But it still raises many of the questions that The Man in the White Suit was grappling with over half a century ago.
Dan Brown’s Inferno may not seem the obvious choice for a list of sci-fi movies that shed light on emerging trends in science and technology. But beneath the shallow cliff-hanger-driven mindlessness (which I must confess I rather enjoy), it touches on some surprisingly complex issues. The movie’s buoyed along by the idea that human society faces disaster unless we drastically reduce our numbers, and a mega-rich scientist who believes he has the answer. Unfortunately, his answer — in the movie at least — is to create a virus that will kill 50% of the world’s population. While the film’s mainly a romping race-against-time for Dan Brown’s hero Robert Langdon to find the virus before it’s released, the underlying technology has strong links in the real world. In 2012, two research groups tried to publish details of how to make the H5N1 strain of influenza even more deadly, by making it transmittable by air. This so-called gain-of function research was so controversial that publication was put on hold until various bodies had discussed its wisdom. This type of research is increasingly easy to carry out with advanced genetic engineering techniques. And researchers justify it through the need to study potentially deadly mutations of viruses before they occur. But of course, there’s the possibility that, in the process, they’ll kick off the pandemic they hope to avoid, or that someone else’ll use the research in rather less altruistic ways. The good news is that gain-of-function research is just too timely and costly for terrorists, or even the military, to take it seriously. But how about maverick scientist-entrepreneurs who have a warped idea of making the world a better place by killing off half it’s population…
It’s hard to avoid the reality that the Earth’s atmosphere is warming up, and we’re to blame. Sadly, there are remarkably few movies that take this issue on successfully. The Day After Tomorrow isn’t one of them. But scientific plausibility and convoluted messaging aside, it’s fun to watch, and it does at least open the door to talking about climate change, and how we might navigate the mess we’re making of things. It’s also notable because, in 2004 the opening scenes of the Larson B ice shelf in Antarctica collapsing were meant to be shocking. Yet this was small-fry compared to a real-life breakup of the Larson C ice shelf in 2017. One of the ways scientists and engineers are looking at managing climate change — although the film doesn’t directly address this — is through geoengineering. The idea of fixing the problems we’ve created through indiscriminate use of technology by using yet more technology is, to some, rather suspect. That said, there’s a rowing arsenal of technologies emerging for either reducing the amount of sunlight hitting the Earth, or reducing the level of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide that make this an issue. And while The Day After Tomorrow isn’t about geoengineering, it’s as good a movie as any to start the conversation.
Contact is not a movie about technology per se. But it is a movie about the process of science; or more precisely, the complex relationship between science and belief. It’s also a movie that is the perfect segue to exploring the rational likelihood of non-Terrestrial life being discovered out in the universe. If you want to know what it feels like to be a scientist, driven by your dreams, yet held back by your reason and adherence to evidence, there are few better places to start than this movie. And if you’re excited by the growing number of exoplanets being discovered, including some that are decidedly Earth-like, it’s a great backdrop to this search for extraterrestrial life. With a bit of imagination, it also sheds a little light on what might happen if and when we discover “alien” life here on Earth — not alien as in from the stars, but alien as an artificial intelligence, or a lab-grown human. And this brings us back full-circle to where we started with Jurassic Park and gene editing.