Mundane Science and SF are awesome. Please stop it with the invisibility cloaks and FTL.

MundaneSF

While most of my posts are about technology, at heart this is a futurist blog. Futurism is “the attempt to systematically explore predictions and possibilities about the future and how they can emerge from the present, whether that of human society in particular or of life on Earth in general.” And to be clear my focus is on what’s going to happen in the next two, five, ten or twenty years. Not the distant future. So if you come for the tech, consider staying for the societal implications. Not surprisingly, my post with the most pageviews is about near term technology: voice interaction becoming the God Particle of mobile. But also in the top five is why there aren’t any space aliens. A topic worth more consideration than you may expect. Call this approach realistic, near term futurism. Extrapolate what we know today. But under no circumstances cheat by bending the technology or science. Science is awesome enough already.

 

With that introduction, you can understand why people who sensationalize science are extremely annoying. For example from Time: “a Singapore-based scientist and his team have managed to create an “invisibility cloak” that can make objects and even small animals such as cats disappear. Believed to be the first of its kind, the research in this area by a team led by Dr Zhang Baile, a Singaporean permanent resident, was published two weeks ago in Nature Communications, one of the top science journals.

As the most excellent science journalist Ed Yong pointed out on twitter:

If you click through, you’ll see they put a teddy bear in a box with prisms redirecting the light around it. Then added the words “invisibility cloak” to generate pageviews. Extremely. Annoying.

But clickbait is only part of the story. Three years ago scientists published findings which apparently showed neutrinos traveling faster than light. The wikipedia article is pretty good, opening with:

In 2011, the OPERA experiment mistakenly observed neutrinos appearing to travel faster than light. Even before the mistake was discovered, the result was considered anomalous because speeds higher than that of light in a vacuum are generally thought to violate special relativity, a cornerstone of the modern understanding of physics for over a century. OPERA scientists announced the results of the experiment in September 2011 with the stated intent of promoting further inquiry and debate. Later the team reported two flaws in their equipment set-up that had caused errors far outside of their original confidence interval: a fiber optic cable attached improperly, which caused the apparently faster-than-light measurements, and a clock oscillator ticking too fast.

When the news broke I recall getting emails from a few people with technical backgrounds asking if faster than light (FTL) travel was really going to happen. Of course the answer was no. Most likely the results were due to subtle equipment problems. Which turned out to be correct, as most physicists were saying at the time. In this case people weren’t knowingly distorting science for clickbait, though plenty got generated once the story broke. Rather science is such a broad field even people with tech backgrounds may be unsure where the boundaries lie. And this problem gets far worse when forecasting the future.

Science Fiction is normally split into hard (natural sciences focus) and soft (social sciences focus). Given my interest in near term forecasting, my favorite SF genre is what’s called mundane science fiction, “characterized by its setting on Earth or within the solar system, and a lack of interstellar travel or contact with aliens.” And “interstellar travel remains unlikely; that warp drives, worm holes, and other forms of faster-than-light travel are wish fulfillment scientific fantasies rather than serious speculation about a possible future.” This label was created in 2002 and is now falling out of fashion, but the idea of mundane science and mundane science fiction is great. So below you’ll find my own personal take on which technologies fit the “mundane” label of being realistically possible in the near future. And which ones are more speculative. And which ones I’m sick of seeing in the press, and consider crackpot.

Science and SF Tropes judged against the “mundane” standard:

  • Aliens. Microbes are fine. Intelligent aliens so far away they haven’t had time to reach us (billions of light years) are fine. But nearby aliens, highly suspect. reference
  • Artificial gravity. Created by spinning doughnut shaped spaceship is fine. As depicted on typical TV show where people stand on the deck in an unmoving spaceship, not so much.
  • Artificial Intelligence. As a narrow capability to do a specific job, we have that already. As a general capability, what’s called Strong AI or Artificial General Intelligence along the lines of human thought, that’s much harder to say. Probably the most interesting near term possibility in technology. Think it will happen, but not clear if it’s decades or centuries away. Robin Hanson talks about Emulations or Ems (copies of human brains in a computer substrate) as coming sooner than AI built ground up. Not so sure about that. But Hanson’s very smart, and his thinking about the economics of copying intelligent beings is fascinating and would apply either way.
  • Clones.  Being exact duplicate of original, including thoughts, memories and even haircut – no. Clones being a kind of identical twin born decades apart with different life experiences and different haircut – sure. But that kind of clone makes a worse story. Not too different than an Uncle in practice.
  • Faster than light communications and travel. As typically depicted in SF complete with causality violations – no. Being good scientists, many leave this one open at a theory level, though consider it unlikely to be overturned. As the response to the neutrino FTL paper showed. But it’s pretty far out there. A clear no from my point of view.
  • Force fields. No. 
  • Holodeck. Yes. Problems with not having goggles while doing VR are pretty clear, but with that caveat we’re already there.
  • Invisibility cloaks. Not as depicted on TV. But great hook for a book about a boy magician.
  • Multiverse. Yes, it’s a thing. But traveling between quantum realities does not cut it from a mundane science point of view. Same with wormholes and such. Sean Carroll link.
  • Replicator. See digital copy comment under teleportation.
  • Star Trek. Crackpot or close to it: transporters, tractor beams, warp drive, green alien women. Mundane/possible: communicator, lasers, tricorder, regular woman. If you have not read about Trek screenwriters “teching the tech”, worth a click to read Charles Stross’ entertaining rant.
  • Teleportation. No. Making a digitized representation of a physical object then sending that digitized copy for later assembly of a brand new copy – sure. But this is clearly digitized copying and 3D printing rather than teleportation.
  • Time Travel. Not as typically depicted. Sean Carroll outlines some ways it would have to work. Love Sean Carroll, awesome scientist and science communicator. But think he’s just being the professional scientist here and keeping an open mind. For regular people, it’s a no. Related good post from Carroll: The Laws Underlying The Physics of Everyday Life Are Completely Understood. If you like cosmology well explained, follow Carroll on twitter.

Given a quarter of Americans believe the Earth doesn’t move and the Sun circles around it, and roughly half think Astrology is a science, a modest expectation here is warranted. With that said, doing my part. A good rule of thumb is to avoid clicking on any “science” links containing words like transporter, warp drive, wormhole, teleport, time travel, invisibility cloak, space aliens. You’ve been warned.

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