It's no coincidence that so many of our modern gadgets seem to have come from Star Trek -- our inventors and engineers all grew up watching it. In many ways, science fiction, not science, leads the way.
But while it's easy to imagine watching the hopeful utopia of Star Trek and saying, "Let's make that real!" it's a little stranger to think the same after watching Blade Runner or Gattaca. Yet ...
#5. A Lab Is Brewing Apocalyptic Superdiseases
The Sci-Fi Premise:
Movies about a worldwide superplague seem to come along every few years (see: last year's Contagion), but within that genre is the more cynical and outlandish "Lab creates and accidentally releases a pandemic" subgenre, like Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Stephen King's The Stand.
The premise is flawed from the start, as is typical of apocalyptic movies. Why in the hell would the government allow a top-secret lab to create a world-killing microbe in the first place? In terms of movie logic, it falls right into the category of "Hey, let's turn our nuclear arsenal over to Skynet" and "We should absolutely take this huge, destructive monkey back to New York."
"Tyrannosaurs are the new house cats!"
And thankfully, for once, we're right! There's no top-secret lab creating an apocalyptic disease. Because the lab is not secret at all, and it's located in Rotterdam.
"It's down past the open-air asbestos dump. If you see the puppy slaughterhouse, you've gone too far."
That's right, in a lab comfortably decorated with a disco ball and functional beer tap -- because if you're going to be working with ridiculously dangerous viruses, it's best to do it while drunk and listening to the one genre of music most likely to destroy your faith in humanity -- virologist Ron Fouchier has experimented on the feared bird flu virus, creating a new mutation that's more dangerous and potentially more contagious than the already-deadly original. In his experiments infecting ferrets with the virus, it eventually became airborne, so direct contact was no longer necessary for infection. The victim just needs to breathe the same air.
At least if he ultimately causes the apocalypse, we can call him Ron "Douchier."
The details of Fouchier's work remain unclear, mainly because the voice of reason that is America's National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity has said, "Hey, guys? What you're doing is cool and all, but couldn't terrorists get hold of this and kill basically everyone?" Even if they couldn't break into the lab, there's already evidence that groups like al-Qaida are trying to recruit college-educated members who majored in mad science with a minor in playing with deadly viruses -- so what can't be stolen can still be replicated.
Fouchier's work hasn't been published, mainly to prevent someone from copying it and using it less in the pursuit of science and more in the pursuit of the end of the world as we know it. Meanwhile, we hope they've got some amazing locks on that place.
"Eh, that should be good."
#4. The U.S. Military Is Paying to Re-Create Avatar, Only With Deadly Killbots
The Sci-Fi Premise:
James Cameron's obscenely successful film Avatar involves soldiers traveling to a distant world in search of a valuable resource. The environment and the natives are hostile, however, so they train soldiers to remotely operate avatars: They hook their brains up to a machine and effectively become the artificial person on the other end (you may also remember a similar "humans control avatars with their minds" scenario in the Bruce Willis movie Surrogates, except you probably don't, because who the hell saw Surrogates?).
However, you might have been too caught up in the 3-D and fighting cat people to stop and realize what an amazingly useful (if creepy) technology this would be for a military that wants to keep its "real" soldiers out of harm's way.
"Careful. Last week, I thought I was playing Warcraft and accidentally wiped out half of Russia."
But the Pentagon sure as hell realized it, as evidenced by their aptly named Project Avatar. That's the thing about having R&D budgets in the billions: If you see a movie you like, you can just call up a few scientists and say, "Make all the badass parts actually happen." Thus DARPA, the hive of batshit insane supervillainy that develops cutting-edge tech for America's armies, has budgeted $7 million to fund robots that work just like avatars.
"Also, we'll all need Fast & Furious cars."
We're not talking about remote-controlled drones, either. Those are old news. No, DARPA wants to "develop interfaces and algorithms to enable a soldier to effectively partner with a semi-autonomous bipedal machine and allow it to act as the soldier's surrogate."
"Bipedal" is the key word there. That means they want a walking humanoid robot to do all of the things a soldier would do if he or she were there. And no, it doesn't sound like they're talking about handing the soldier a control pad and letting him play his robot like a video game. They refer to developing the technology of "telepresence" and letting the robot act as a "surrogate" body (damn it, Bruce Willis, if your movie had only grossed more you could have gotten this whole thing named for you).
For some reason, they only want it to say "Yippee-ki-yay, motherfucker."
How would that work? Well, as this Wired article points out, DARPA has already been developing robots that can work on mind control alone. Whether or not you think any of this is creepy depends entirely on whether you're imagining a platoon of mind-controlled robots with red glowing eyes kicking down a terrorist's door or kicking down yours.
While we're on Avatar, we should probably bring up ...
#3. Investors Are Already Funding Off-World Mining
The Sci-Fi Premise:
The idea of mining other planets/moons/asteroids for minerals not found on Earth wasn't invented by Avatar -- that's what the robots in Blade Runner were built for, after all. But it's never good news -- these movies are always about a dying Earth sending astronauts to go exploit space rocks for the resources we've drained from our own planet. It's what the ship in Alien was doing before the aliens arrived, and it's the backdrop for the video game franchise Dead Space.
"Hi-ho, hi-ho, it's off to death we go!"
Note that it always ends in a horrific massacre at the hands of otherworldly monsters.
James Cameron, not content to get his hands on just one Ridley Scott sci-fi franchise, has partnered with several other mega-rich investors to bring Blade Runner's dystopia one step closer to reality. Planetary Resources -- a company that was founded two years ago but kept secret until very recently (because that's completely normal and shouldn't creep you out in the slightest) -- plans to make up for our severe shortage of unobtainium here on Earth by sending robots to mine nearby asteroids.
Seriously, Jim, a $237 million budget and "unobtainium" was the best you could come up with?
With guys like Ross Perot Jr. and Google's Larry Page also pelting the venture with obscene wads of cash, the company isn't wasting any time: They plan to launch their first test craft within two years, and from there, they're looking to aim for near-Earth asteroids, with on-board robots (sorry, they probably won't look like Rutger Hauer and Daryl Hannah) setting up bases to get down to some off-world mining.
And no, this isn't just a case of bajillionaires not realizing when they can't accomplish something just by tossing cash around: The company was co-founded by Peter Diamandis, who helped start the X-Prize competition to spur nongovernmental space flight -- remember how that turned out? And MIT Professor of Planetary Science Richard Binzel agrees that seeking out things like water and metals on asteroids is a step that humanity must take sooner or later, especially if we want to stake our claim to more of the cosmos. A trip to Mars, for example, might be made possible by stopping at the occasional asteroid to refuel the ship and pick up a latte at Starbucks (come on, you know it'll happen).
On Mars, Apple Stores already outnumber the aliens 3 to 1.
Of course, some of the comments by people involved with the project break away from "progressive, forward-thinking science" and veer more toward "Holy shit, that's totally batshit insane" territory. For example, one of the company's apparent goals is to "capture" a small asteroid and draw it into the moon's orbit so that we can have our very own dangerously-close-to-Earth asteroid to study whenever we want. That can't go wrong, right?
But don't worry, it'll probably be at least a few years before we have to worry about the robots that they send up to live on our new pet asteroid going all psycho when they discover their own mortality. We'll have accidentally opened the portal to hell long before then.
"Y'all are gonna want to wear shorts."