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.

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Electronic surveillance and identity protection

At the movies: Speaking of data security, if all politics is local, all data is personal -- and public. In fiction and fact, the government has been joined by big business and cybercriminals as threats to privacy.

Personal identity is up for grabs in the world portrayed in The Island (2005), where the wealthy are cloned, but a few clones try to turn the tables and take their identities.

Surveillance is another concern both onscreen and off. In 2008's Dark Knight, Batman taps into every cell phone in Gotham City to track down the Joker, even as techie and sometime mentor Lucius Fox quits in protest of the privacy violation.

The privacy implications of the Web are also up for grabs. Should online activity be monitored for criminal predisposition, as the citizens of the dystopic Minority Report (2002) are?

In reality: In our own world, personal data has become a lucrative target for cyberthieves, and consumers are right to worry about the privacy of their Social Security numbers, financial info and health data.

Google Latitude
Google's Latitude app lets you track people in real time through their cell phones.

Early fears that RFID-tagged items such as clothing would be tracked with their wearers may have been unfounded, but GPS-enabled smartphones and real-time tracking services like Google Latitude have filled the same role. Terrorists have also proven to be adept at using GPS and Google Earth to locate targets.

Meanwhile, businesses and individuals have only just begun to weigh the privacy implications of popular social networking sites such as Facebook. And the genetic screening of Gattaca (1997), Minority Report and The Island also seem plausible, especially given the creation (and potential breaches) of massive health care databases and proposals for a national ID card.

Data security is not only a matter of privacy, but also of organizational responsibility and reputation.

Military technologies

At the movies: The government may surreptitiously watch its citizens for internal threats, but it responds to external ones with a show of force. Movies such as 1986's Aliens and 1997's Starship Troopers provided platoon-level views of battles against inhuman enemies, but the issues they raise, of secure communications against apparently low-tech foes, the need to protect our troops and questions about the reasons for going to war, are just as important when fighting other humans.

Gozilla movie poster

Godzilla reflected Cold War fears of nuclear devastation.

© Toho Company

During the Cold War, many sci-fi films played on themes of nuclear devastation, as in 1954's Godzilla, a parable about the nuclear destruction of Japan, or 1983's WarGames, in which a teenager hacks into a U.S. military computer and nearly triggers World War III. Those fears may have faded, but more-recent movies such as Cloverfield (2008), which uses handicam footage to evoke memories of 9/11 and implies that a rampaging monster is a government creation, have reflected our revived dread of mass destruction.

In reality: Now that the U.S. military is using remotely piloted drones for reconnaissance and supplying and is researching autonomous combat robots that make their own decisions in battle, the warnings of Terminator and Ghost in the Shell (1995) seem as timely as ever. Although the body armor, vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) personal vehicles and ruthlessness shown in RoboCop (1987), Starship Troopers and Iron Man have yet to materialize in a police force or on the battlefield, the U.S. government continues its research into creating powered armor and soldiers that won't bleed.

The real-time satellite observation of troops, which was still sci-fi in Clear and Present Danger (1994) and Aliens, has come to fruition. Spy satellites and the tracking of forces on the battlefield have become the basis for the technology behind Google Maps and GPS capabilities, as well as the privacy concerns they raise.

Although it's unlikely that an attacking spaceship could be taken down by a laptop as in Independence Day, cyberwarfare is a fact of life (see conflicts involving China and Russia). Soldiers in the Middle East and astronauts aboard the space shuttle rely on powerful but small computers as links to the outside world, connected via the all-powerful Internet, where data is a target in both movies and reality.

The final frontier

In addition to providing summer entertainment and earning billions for movie studios, speculative fiction can predict -- and inspire -- technological development.

Many films have presented scientific advances such as artificial intelligence, genetic engineering and global surveillance as threats, abused by people to create a dystopia. But others, including Gene Roddenberry's Star Trek, are more hopeful about how humanity will use these and other tools to reshape itself and the world. It's up to us to determine which dreams of the future will come true.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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