Sci-fi or sci-future? Hollywood technology scrutinised

Cochrane and Kurzweil on future high-tech, as seen in the movies...

Cochrane and Kurzweil on future high-tech, as seen in the movies...

We asked two of the world's top tech thinkers to cast judgement on concepts seen in some well-known films. From memory implants in Johnny Mnemonic to the paranoid ship's computer in 2001, from uploading a virus to aliens in Independence Day to universal translators in Star Trek, we asked for advice from Peter Cochrane, entrepreneur and former CTO at BT, and Ray Kurzweil, inventor and futurologist. Here they explore the credibility of some of the enduring scenes Hollywood has churned out. How credible are the ideas on show, when might they become reality (if at all), and what do we make do with for now? Read on, and feel free to add a Reader Comment of your own... JOHNNY MNEMONIC Film: Johnny (Keanu Reeves) couriers information by uploading data to his brain from a computer, only for it to be downloaded at a later time in another location. Concept: Using the brain for information originally stored elsewhere, possibly encrypted, or indeed upgrading human memory using plug-in chips, PC-style. Now we have: Fundamental electronic connectivity I/O for motor applications, the first brain activity scanners. Neural implants for deafness (i.e. cochlear implants), Parkinson's disease, and other impairments. Also a rudimentary idea of how the human brain works and is organised, but no way of extracting or injecting information. PETER COCHRANE: People have been using their brains as bit transport for millennia - we hear, see, feel, smell, and convey to others via language and pictures. I think the real contest is with electronics which look set to exceed our mental and storage capacities within the next 50 years. Chip implants for hearing are now common, chips for motor and sight restoration are at an experimental stage and it is only a matter of time before we move onto memory augmentation. But today our technology looks like smoke signals trying to communicate with a mobile phone.
Credibility rating: 3/10
How many year's time?: 40 RAY KURZWEIL: Downloading and/or uploading information to/from the brain will require substantial integration of biological and non-biological intelligence. We've started down this road with contemporary neural implants. Ubiquitous and non-invasive brain implants using 'nanobots' (robots the size of blood cells that will travel through the capillaries of our brains and communicate with our biological neurons) will start around 2030, and will be deeply integrated with our thinking process in the 2040s.
Credibility rating: 10/10
How many year's time?: 40 to 50 2001 Film sequence: Paranoid spacecraft computer HAL2000 'reasons' with stranded astronaut Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) about why he locked him out of the ship. Concept: The idea of a computer becoming so complex it can understand, reason, listen, speak and interact in the same way as a human, including using deception and self-deception. Now we have: Machines that learn, software that breeds/replicates. 'Narrow AI,' i.e. computers that can perform 'narrow' tasks that previously could only be accomplished by human intelligence, such as playing games (e.g. chess) at master levels, diagnosing electrocardiograms and blood cell images, making financial investment decisions, landing jet planes, guiding cruise missiles, solving mathematical problems and so on. Currently exponential progress curve showing no sign of slowing down. PC: The principal reason our machines are failing to develop true intelligence is that they are deprived of all sensory input. Today we cannot define, describe, quantify or measure life, intelligence or emotion. Until we can, discussion is mostly a waste of time. We may not be smart enough to get there without machine help - but they may become smart enough to do it without ours!
Credibility rating: 9/10
How many year's time?: 20 RK: Although HAL was paranoid (a not uncommon human condition), he operated at fully human levels of intelligence. He could pass a Turing Test which requires being able to respond to dialogues in a way that is indistinguishable from humans. I expect that machines will pass the Turing Test by 2029.
Credibility rating: 10/10
How many year's time?: 30 INDEPENDENCE DAY Film sequence: Captain Steven Hiller (Will Smith) and brilliant MIT graduate David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum) save themselves and the rest of humanity from the scourge of unpleasant and territorially acquisitive aliens by uploading a computer virus from their Apple PowerBook to the mother ship, fatally crippling the invading fleet. (Ed. Anyone remember how they did the uploading? Wireless LAN? USB - universal serial bus, geddit? Written in Java??) Concept: The idea of using malicious code or malware as a positive weapon to disable enemy machines during a military campaign. Now we have: Information warfare - a major military tactic. The US military already uses electronic devices to jam enemy communications and is investigating the use of software viruses and other information pathogens. PC: This is the here and now - it works! And it comes in numerous sophisticated forms e.g. 1) Wipe the memory clean now or at some pre-defined trigger point, 2) Corrupt memory so that errors are imperceptible to the user but significant for you, 3) Change the software to do your bidding now or at some later date.
Credibility rating: 10/10
How many year's time?: 0 RK: Information warfare will grow in its importance. I put 40 years because we are not yet in a position to completely disable an enemy through software pathogens (e.g. viruses). This would require our enemies to be largely dependent on software-based intelligence. However, prior to these scenarios, we will be greatly concerned with biological terrorism and warfare, and in particular with biological pathogens that are genetically altered. This involves the combination of information technology and biological knowledge.
Credibility rating: 10/10
How many year's time?: 40 For the second part of this analysis, click here: http://www.silicon.com/a48351