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Opinion: Do sci-fi films get advanced tech right?

Real-time e-surveillance? Absolutely. Genetic engineering? We're well on our way. Warp engines? Not so much.

By , Eugene Demaitre
May 8, 2009 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - With today's theatrical release of Star Trek, the starship Enterprise launches on its mission to seek out new life and new civilizations. Gene Roddenberry's vision for the future was founded on hope for humanity -- but what powers his crew's ongoing trek across the stars is incredibly advanced technology.

In 2009, we're still a long way off from warp-drive engines, having not yet solved simple problems such as avoiding space debris or sending astronauts to nearby Mars. Yet despite this slow progress, the silver screen is consistently portraying less fiction and more prediction.

Starting with Georges Méliès' Le Voyage dans la Lune (A Trip to the Moon) in 1902, science-fiction films have a tradition of taking contemporary science and extending it to logical conclusions. Modern developments are bringing us closer to that predicted future, but there is still a gulf between reality and Hollywood's artistic license.

We've looked at some of our favorite science fiction films ("sci-fi" in popular parlance) to see how they reflect the reality of our times. Here are six kinds of technologies that sci-fi movies have long relied on, and how we're approaching or diverging from those fictional applications.

Artificial intelligence

At the movies: In a few weeks, the war against the machines will resume as John Connor leads a band of humans in the post-Judgment Day fight to save the future in Terminator Salvation. Their opponent is a sentient machine that, after being given control of the U.S.'s nuclear arsenal, decided that Earth would be better off without humanity.

Terminator's Skynet (1984 - 2009) has not been the only movie machine to make such decisions; The Matrix (1999 - 2003) and Colossus (1970) came to similar conclusions. But sometimes annihilation is not so much a result of megalomania as of faulty programming, as with WarGames' Joshua (1983) and 2001's HAL (1968).

Iron Man
The Iron Man suit.
© Paramount Pictures, Marvel Comics

Of course, artificial intelligence is rarely malevolent by design. In 2008's Iron Man, multimillionaire protagonist Tony Stark was aided by an unseen servant named Jarvis, a self-aware program that first resided literally within the walls of Stark's mansion and was later uploaded to Stark's titular armored suit. Jarvis exhibited an undeniable personality just by his choice of words and tone of voice.

In reality: AI has thus far amounted to the preprogramming of computers to respond to (and occasionally learn from) increasingly diverse and complex sets of actions and conditions. We may never create a technological equivalent of sentience, or self-awareness.

Given the reality of Moore's Law and the seemingly limitless growth potential of computing, some people consider true AI to be inevitable. "In the coming decades, humanity will likely create a powerful artificial intelligence," predicts The Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence. The institute's mission is "to confront this urgent challenge, both the opportunity and the risk." The risk arises when two intelligent species refuse to coexist, which in sci-fi movies means a cybernetic revolt.

Of course, conflict makes for better narrative, which is why there have been few films about peaceful relations between organic and mechanical beings. Given humanity's seeming inability to restrain its own innovation, we can only hope that the fiction in sci-fi is found not in the eventual development of AI, but in how our future creations view their creators.

Genetic engineering

At the movies: Not all manmade life is robotic in nature. The Enterprise crew encountered a planet populated by humanoid androids, while others could be found in 1982's Blade Runner, and the Star Wars prequels (1999-2005) featured mass-produced clones.

Jurassic Park scene
Humans and dinos interact in Jurassic Park.
© Universal Studios, Amblin Entertainment

And not all cinematic genetic manipulation results in human lookalikes. In Jurassic Park (1993), scientists recreate dinosaurs from fragments of their DNA. In 1995's Species, the beautiful but deadly alien trying to find a mate is as much an expression of fears of unpredictable genetic mutations as it is a horror movie about sex and death.

In reality: Real researchers are focusing on creating their own organisms right here on Earth. While genetic engineering hasn't yet led to human clones, Dolly the cloned sheep made her debut 13 years ago, and gene therapies, bionic limbs and organs, and research into artificial life (in contrast to artificial intelligence) have become everyday news.

And although scientists aren't close to recreating dinosaurs, they are trying to bring back other extinct species through genetic engineering.

Meanwhile, many people are wary of unpredictable genetic mutations as they encounter genetically modified foods, tracing the human genome for anthropology and stem-cell research, all of which have real implications for the environment, human evolution, health care and bioethics.

Could Kurzweil's theory of singularity, which posits that humanity will become ever more intertwined with technology at a basic level, be coming soon? While science fiction has guessed at some possible futures, we in the audience have control over how developing technologies are pursued and used -- for good or ill, feeding billions or waging war among them.



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