Fiction and Real-Life Technology

I’m working on a book called Ghost in the Machine that is set in the near future and explores the boundary between artificial intelligence and humanity. Since I started working on the story years ago, many of the ideas that had seemed far fetched then have become reality, or close to reality.

The ubiquitous netglasses that Jason, the main character, wears to extend the computer world to real life, to see the A.I., and even to play video games are in active development. Microsoft’s Hololens is an early example. Though it is bulky, expensive, and has a limited field of view, the functionality is exactly the same as Jason’s netglasses: bringing the world of the computer into our own reality. The Epson Moverio has less fanfare but seems identical in usage, and you can actually purchase a development unit right now. Potentially more exciting, the mysterious company Magic Leap has raised over a billion dollars in financing from industry heavyweights like Google to pursue a version of this technology that promises to make virtual objects exist seamlessly in 3D space with real ones. They seem to have cracked it with their secretive “light field” technology, according to those who have been lucky enough to see the prototypes. The challenge now is to miniaturize the device into something suitable for everyday use.

Those are examples of what is coming to be called “mixed reality.” Virtual reality, in which the real world is replaced entirely by a virtual world, has matured even faster. As I type this, preorders are available for the first consumer VR headsets: the pioneering Oculus Rift, which kickstarted (literally, via kickstarter.com) the current VR craze by demonstrating that the tech has finally caught up to the idea, and the HTC Vive, a competing headset whose primary selling point is “room-scale VR” — you can physically walk around the virtual world, at least within the confines of your real-world space. Also in the works is the Playstation VR headset, which may lack some of the features of its high-end peers but promises to be much more affordable.

Paying for purchases via cell phone rather than a credit card is a reality, with Apple- and Google-developed systems that require only a tap of the phone to activate. Phones already include the functionality of so many things that we once had dedicated devices for; it’s only a matter of time until they replace credit cards and cash entirely.

There has been talk about creating greener cities, but that idea, unfortunately, is still more science fiction than reality, in fact if not in concept. It probably really would take a concerted, government-led initiative similar to the Apollo space program to get even a single city up to the level of Jason’s Washington D.C. Political and fiscal realities make that a dim prospect. But who knows: maybe we’ll have enough impetus to do it someday.

Space planes have been dreamt about for decades. Manned spaceflight is still very, very dangerous and very, very expensive, and government bureaucracy and disinterest have relegated NASA to the role of think tank more than an active pusher of boundaries. But private companies are moving forward to fill the gap, often driven by the kind of singular vision that to government currently lacks. Elon Musk’s SpaceX contracts with NASA to deliver cargo to the International Space Station, and is working towards putting humans in space as well. Musk’s ultimate goal is Mars, first visiting and then colonizing, which is grandiose, impractical — and utterly awesome. Meantime, in a realm closer to the space fighters of the story, Virgin Galactic is getting ready to shuttle humans on suborbital flights with a spaceplane of their own. It still relies on a carrier to take it to high altitudes, though, and lands by gliding, much like the old Space Shuttle. A vehicle that can fly in atmosphere and travel into space at will is still a pipe dream, and likely to remain that way for a very long time, short of discovering some new energy source that could displace rocket fuel.

And what about artificial intelligence? A.I. has been a fascinating and popular concept in fiction ever since Czech playwright Karel Čapek coined the term “robot” in his play R.U.R. in 1921. Čapek’s robots rebelled, starting a trend that continued with Berserkers, AM, HAL 9000, Cylons, Skynet, SHODAN, GLADOS, Ava, and many, many others. Positive artificial intelligences in fiction also exist but are less numerous than villains, or perhaps they are only less memorable.

That hasn’t stopped computer scientists and neuroscientists from trying to find a way to create a “strong A.I.” — a computer that has full, human-like consciousness. Some believe that this will usher in the Technological Singularity, a post-human utopia. One approach to A.I. research is indeed brain emulation. The Human Brain Project, led by neurobiologist Henry Markram, has received over a billion dollars in funding from the European Union. They recently mapped a portion of a mouse brain, and hope someday to create a fully emulated digital human brain.

All A.I. research is predicated on the belief, on some level or other, that the mind is the equivalent of software running on the hardware of the brain. How this might work is a mystery. Despite the amazing advances of the physical sciences, the question of what makes us conscious — what makes an “I” an “I” and not an “it” — is still open. And there are some who believe that our humanity cannot be reduced to the fixed causal interactions of fundamental particles. Is it possible that something about us, about our experience of beauty, joy, pain, sorrow, longing, or love, transcends physics?