Friday, 30 November 2018

This Is The Future We Used To Read About -- Edwin Rydberg

The future is here and it's everything, and nothing, like what we expected.

It's taken a while longer to get here than I thought it would back while watching the Jetsons as a kid, but the future I dreamed of is finally arriving. And now that it is, it's much more exciting and more frightening than I ever considered it might be. The ever-present connectedness and constant surveillance combined with rapid scientific and technological progress means this is both a thrilling and a frustrating time to be a science fiction writer (but it's a great time to be alive!).

Fifteen years ago, back before I began writing seriously, I started a far future story. Set one thousand years in the future, it featured technology such as cerebral-embedded computers, technology-based cyberpathic control, automated waste reclamation drones, clothing that could change colours based on the user's desires, tattoos with patterns linked to the owner's mood, and genetically engineered biological symbiotes that increased human strength, health, and longevity. Fast forward to the present and none of these seems out of range of modern technology. We could have them all by the end of the century — making the technology in my story seem hopelessly mundane.

Of course, it's not just science fiction that finds this a challenge. Police procedural (detective) stories are much more challenging to write. With mobile phones and ever-present CCTV cameras, authors are challenged to think around these technologies. Many, however, choose to avoid them altogether by setting their stories in the much simpler past.

Available now on Amazon!
But I suppose I'm a sucker for punishment, now that I've just released a far-future space fantasy adventure, where anything goes and I had almost no constraints during the writing (Game, Set, Deathmatch), I've gone and started a near future (25 years) mundane science fiction mystery story. No magi-tech. No aliens. Just a teen living a life in a country that could be possible a quarter of a century from now. That means not only attempting to integrate and anticipate technological developments, but also the social implications of them in life, the government, the classroom, and the home.

Already, since the first draft, I've discovered enough new developments to result in rethinking the background environment of the world. For example, a few technologies I've had to rework into my story:

The Terrafugia Transition, created by engineers
 from MIT is now accepting 'intents to purchase'
Flying Cars

For my story, autodrive cars have been redesigned from the traditional car into versions that are more generally functional, such as mobile living rooms or offices. However, I've completely neglected flying cars, which are due to enter the market in 2019.

An MIT start-up has created the Terrafugia Transition, a true personal flying car which is expected to be on the market early next year.
Uber plans to have flying taxi services in countries like
India, Japan, Brazil, and France within 5 years.

In addition, there are host of other groups working on flying cars, including a Russian start-up and the king of taxis, Uber, who have made it their goal to create flying taxi services in countries like India, Japan, Brazil, and France within five years.

This is a technology that has the chance of becoming big, and a big social issue, within twenty years.

True Global Communication

Currently, we have a surprisingly comprehensive coverage of the globe when it comes to mobile phone signals and the internet. However, it is nowhere near complete. Earlier this year Elon Musk discussed the progress of a global satellite network he calls Star-Link that will blanket the planet, creating a true global communications network. My discovery of this project turned out to be a great boon to my story as it allows one of the characters great access to the entirety of the global population.

However, the challenge with this type of technology in stories is that the secondary and tertiary effects, and their impact on societies, are so difficult to predict. No one anticipated mobile phones combined with social media would lead to a massive rise in the frequency, power, and adaptability of social activism and the proliferation of non-government-controlled fake news, or the flood of cute cat pictures.

A graphical representation of the perks and penalties
of getting a low social credit score in China
Hyper-Authoritarian States

Nor did anyone, prior to about 3 years ago, predict the nature of how an authoritarian state like China might use technology to socially engineer its population's behaviour.

By linking all national services to mobile apps, the Chinese government is experimenting with a social credit system where good behaviour is rewarded with benefits such as greater access to hotels, travel, better insurance, while bad behaviour can completely block you from all high-speed travel meaning you will be effectively trapped in the country.

If this is even remotely successful, we can expect variants of it to be applied to our own societies. Clearly, another new development that needed including in my story and it now forms the basis for the villain's actions in the second book of the trilogy.

Neural Interfacing with Computers

This is another project from the industrious Elon Musk, who has stated that to stay on par with the threat of Artificial General Intelligence, humans need a faster interface with their technology. He claims to already be working on a neural-link device that would speed up the ability for human communication with their devices.

My story, drafted just a year ago, originally featured a new add-on that sat behind the user's ear and interfaced with a subdermal implant. This was to be the precursor to the neural implants in the far future story, set in the same universe. However, Musk's neural-link changed everything, forcing me to rework the technology. The news isn't all bad, however, because the new version allows me to more easily account for one of the technological disasters that happens.

And there's more... always more...

That's just a small taste of the technological development happening right now that is changing the shape of our society, and hence the shape of our stories. There are, of course, many more. Things like the experiments in artificial intelligence being carried out by the big IT companies (and now the NHS), personal jetpacks (invented by a Brit!), rapid development in robotics and their use in the military (as well as adult industries), exoskeletons to aid workers or those recovering from accidents, genetic engineering of babies, realistic digital presidents, and the list goes on.

In the face of this great change, however, all the writer can do is the best research they can and then extrapolate past human behaviour into future human relations. While writing science fiction, I also find it helps to remember the words of Cory Doctorow who has described science fiction as an attempt to understand present challenges by extrapolating them into the future. In this perspective, it doesn't matter if my near future story will be factually accurate in twenty-five years, because to be relatable, what my story should truly be attempting to do is shed light on the issues that face us today.

Edwin H Rydberg is a science fiction author and a futurist.


Wendy H. Jones said...

I think you are right. The future has arrived. Technolog8cal advances have never been greater

Nicky said...

Yes - it is incredibly hard to foresee where tech will go though we can usually assume it will be hijacked for sex and money somewhere down the track! Interesting post, thank you.

Umberto Tosi said...

Fascinating and thought provoking: Thanks, Edwin