Science fiction is a genre I don’t tend to dip into too often, but it is an interesting mix of the real and the fantastical. At first glance they often seem as magical as a fantasy novel, set in strange worlds using amazing technology; they’re wild, crazy, epic ideas—or are they? Much of the technology often used in SF already exists on a much smaller scale. Over the past months I’ve devoured Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One and the entire trilogy of The Illuminae Files, co-authored by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff. The two are interesting to compare, as they are in many ways very similar: they’re young adult novels set in the future, where feisty youths fight for their survival and the survival of the world that they know, against powerful, multi-billion-dollar industries that have no mercy. Both are musing on what may lay ahead in time, and despite the vastly different conclusion these authors have reached, they have one big thing in common: the binary language.
Integral to both books is the idea that a language based on two numbers can create the most complex systems: an entirely new reality, or a computer system so advanced it can protect you as you travel to the farthest corner of the universe. Technology that might seem impossible and futuristic, but is already becoming our reality.
How far-fetched are these worlds really, if we think about them? One sub-genre of SF is speculative fiction: fiction based on a hypothetical progression of our current, worldly state. Margaret Atwood is well-established example of the genre. Her MaddAddam series tells of a world where most species are genetically modified, which seems like utter fantasy with animals like pigoons (specially bred pigs that can grow human organs) running around. And it is—it’s entirely made up. Yet it strikes incredibly close to home; all of our domestic animals are carefully bred and modified in order to be the most economical, best yielding, most efficient version of themselves. The fiction is speculating on our future.
Even so, the idea of virtual reality becoming so immersive it will actually in large part replace reality is hard to imagine; VR graphics, while amazing considering what was available just some years back, are still incredibly crude compared to real life. Yet, the appeal of it is obvious: if the choice is a digital adventure or a stack of overpacked trailers, which would you choose?
When I began to think about it, the thought of a fully digital reality is not at all far-fetched. There’s a scene in Ready Player One where the protagonist Wade gets a job in the OASIS as a computer tech, and so he is effectively sitting in his house plugged into the OASIS, where he is sitting in his virtual cubical. He’s speaking with customers who are, like him, calling him from a virtual phone while being plugged into their respective OASIS account. There’s the mundane of the VR—in a system of universes where you can slay dragons and go on quests, there’s still a very present element of reality: you go to school or work, you have to pay bills, you have to stay responsible just like you have to in real life. It is not the escape it may seem like at first glance.
It’s not even that crazy, when we really think about it. Some of the features of the OASIS Cline didn’t make up, but are already present in our time; Wade can order a pizza in a VR pizza shop, and someone will deliver it to him in his real-life apartment. We may not have bothered to set up a VR shop for our online take-away orders, but I still don’t have to talk to anyone in order to get my pizza. Another thing that’s interesting to keep in mind that when the book was adapted into film they actually did create the OASIS, through digital special effects, with incredible detail. There may still be a long way to go before we can step into it like Wade does, but we’re way on our way there.
Let’s move on to the second future, where we’ve colonised space and AIs are crucial to keeping us safe on long journeys aboard enormous spaceships. AIDAN in the Illuminae Files does it all: calculates risks, organises essentials like air, food and water, and wages war. Now we don’t tend to head off into space and visit distant systems, but the AI lifestyle is becoming more and more prominent. It used to just be that planes flew on autopilot, but these days we can control our entire homes from a computer, or even phone. Did I forget to turn off the hair straightener this morning? Nothing to worry about, just ask Siri and she’ll turn it off for you.
I listened to Dax Shepard’s podcast Armchair Expert some weeks back, when Ashton Kutcher was the guest, and Kutcher was talking about how his Google Home has been set up to do everything in his house. Kutcher was about to hook up his coffee machine to the system too, so in the morning he could just announce to the room: “make my coffee” and coffee would appear. But then he paused, and thought, what will I do in the morning if I don’t make my coffee?
The way Kady Grant ends up crawling around the spaceship speaking with AIDAN is not too dissimilar to how I now imagine Kutcher walking about his house speaking to his computer: turn on these lights, play this music, turn up the temperature this much. It’s at a much smaller scale, and Google Home still needs to be directed, whereas AIDAN could make his own choices—which is what makes the AI so dangerous. It was no coincidence that the heroine of Illunimae can hack and code, as the most powerful skill to have on a spaceship is the knowledge of how to control the computer system which controls everything else. Especially if that system seems to be getting out of control and running wild; a problem we don’t have with Google Home—yet.
Reading stories about a life-or-death treasure hunt in a virtual reality, or an interspace war featuring an unpredictable and potentially evil AI, you tend to think they’ll hit far from home. But it turns out that the basic ideas for both of these stories aren’t that crazy after all. Rather, it’s unsettling how much of the technology in the books is already around today.
Every day hours are spent on screens, living in a reality that isn’t quite real; we can choose to let a computer assist us with most things, even our morning coffee. A day is a constant stream of ones and zeros, and it’s making me think that all those advertisements are right when they claim that we are already living in the future.