Science Fiction Wishful Thinking

There are a number of science fiction tropes that might come true at some point, but not necessarily within our lifetimes or near future.  They’re extremely common, however, and challenging them can elicit strong emotions from some.  Let me list them here today, as I see them, and open some discussion that can be followed up in future posts.


1. FTL.  A lot of people want faster-than-light (FTL) travel to make interstellar distances more like interplanetary distances, or less. Almost every far-future science fiction series (Star Trek, Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica, Babylon 5, etc.) invokes FTL.  Some justify FTL using wormholes or warping space, something that is far beyond any projections of our power currently.  Reasonable extrapolations of our space program many decades into the future do not include relativistic speeds, let alone FTL.  We still need to reach for the stars, but currently do not have a clear path to them.

2. Singularity.  AKA “Rapture of the Nerds.”  Part of the problem here is that it is not well defined, and by some measures we’re in it already.  By other measures, it requires AI smarter than humans, after which there are no realistic predictions.  It’s possible that “smarter than humans” doesn’t get you so much, as “smarter” is also hard to define.  It’s possible that advancement depends on exponential growth that we won’t be able to maintain.  Anyway, it’s hard, because moving the goalposts is way too easy.

3. Nanotech.  We already have nanotech, but not nanotech as described by Eric Drexler in Engines of Creation.  It’s possible that nanotech will never (in the next few hundred years) do better than existing biological systems and fall far short of the pseudomagic seen in some science fiction.

4. Immortality.  Effective immortality anyway, doing away with aging.  It’s kind of amazing to me that the details of aging are not better understood, so it isn’t quite even a problem that is well-posed yet.  With all the recent deaths and terminal diseases being announced recently of artists I love, it’s a shame.

5. Teleportation.  Quantum teleportation doesn’t count.  I don’t see this on the horizon at all.

6. Artificial Gravity — the magic kind, that isn’t spin-based.  Also not on the horizon.

7. Humanoid Robots that can pass.  This is one of the most plausible things on the list.  It doesn’t require actual strong AI, just an approximation to that.  Lots of different sciences required.  The standard, for better or worse, is the robot prostitute, which is a high standard physically if not intellectually.

8. Uploading Minds.  This depends on brains being equivalent to computing processes, which might not be the case in any straightforward way.  And even if there is some equivalent, it’s copying.  While I might like some part of me to live on, it’s not the same as living on.

9. Casual body modification.  We have plastic surgery today, and it is a big deal.  The kind of thing seen in Logan’s Run or Babel-17 seems a very long way off.  I think we’re going to be effectively homo sapiens 1.0 for a lot longer than I’d like.

10. The elimination of money.  Some shows like Star Trek take the approach that humans move beyond economics in the near future.  That may be the most unrealistic thing about science fiction here!  Remember the Golden Age vision of robots eliminating human labor, so we could have lives of leisure?  Yeah, no evidence of that.  Humans just do so many different jobs too many hours per week.

Others I missed?  Some of these I treated unfairly?


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  1. There is a common pattern I've heard with regard to lost items. The person whose item is lost asks if someone has seen the item, and one of the very common attempts at help goes along the lines of, "Where did you leave it?" To which there is often the response of, "If I knew that, then it wouldn't be lost." Something similar applies to your list. If we knew the things necessary for a breakthrough in a particular field, then the wished for technology would not be so lost and far off on the horizon. "Reasonable extrapolations" are based on what is known and so are poor prognosticators of breakthroughs in the unknown.

    I’ll not deny you the right to challenge these tropes, but I’m not a fan of negativity. I think optimistic depictions of science not yet achieved are an important part of SF. Would my father have worked on the Apollo missions had he not been reading the pulps in the 50s? It seems doubtful.

    If a young person asks me if he or she might one day help discover the secrets of FTL travel, you won’t catch me saying, “I doubt it.”

    Some of my favorite related quotes:

    "If an elderly but distinguished scientist says that something is possible, he is almost certainly right; but if he says that it is impossible, he is very probably wrong." – Arthur C. Clarke

    "Always listen to experts. They'll tell you what can't be done and why. Then do it." ~ Robert Heinlein

    1. I'm an optimist, too, actually, and my novels have been criticized for not being negative enough! I guess what I'm saying, in part, that a lot of people have unrealistic expectations for the short term (being decades here in my discussion). On somewhat longer timescales, I expect most of these to fall away, assuming the pessimists aren't right about us destroying ourselves or some other calamity.

      If I see another tv show set in the present day featuring a humanoid robot that can pass for human (which I've been seeing almost continuously since the 1970s), I think I'll scream…

      Maybe next week I'll go superoptimistic and say I what I think we can do on that timescale…oh, and I'll say now that fusion power is 30 years away, just like it has been since the 1950s. 😉 Sometimes the "reasonable extrapolation" stuff is hard to do, and it is the totally unexpected that comes through, I agree completely.

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