Transcendence–Why Is This Film Only Getting 19% at Rotten Tomatoes?

I went to Transcendence thinking I’d hate this film because of all the bad reviews it’s getting, but to my surprised I ended up enjoying it way more than I imagined.  I went with two friends – Laurie walked out, and Ann said she liked it so much she wanted to see it again.  I thought Transcendence had some big problems, but overall it was a nice exploration of the idea of brain uploading.  Coincidentally, I’m listening to Accelerando by Charles Stross this week, and the science fictional ideas in the book overlapped nicely with those of the film.  Maybe I enjoyed the film merely because it was more fuel for the ideas I’m entertaining at the moment.

If you read the reviews I do concur that the film is lackluster in action, that most of the acting was subdued, and the plotting is clunky, but it just didn’t seem that bad, not a 19% rating at Rotten Tomatoes.  If you compare Transcendence to the dazzling Her, another movie about evolving computer intelligence, yes, this film is slight, but is it that bad?   I’ve seen films I thought were much worse get much higher scores at RT.

I have a hypothesis to test.  Does the acceptance or rejection of science fictional ideas in movies prejudice critics and fans opinions of a science fiction movie?  So if a movie explores an idea you hate, you reject the whole movie?

I wondered, if Transcendence presents ideas that people don’t like?  To talk about those ideas, I’m probably going to reveal some plot points, but many of these are in the previews.  The movie is about three AI scientists, one of which, the husband of the couple played by Johnny Depp, is shot by anti-AI terrorists and his wife saves him by uploading his mind into a computer.  Uploading also happens in Accelerando, and like that book, they also cover super technology brought about by post-human minds.  The book covers vast stretches of time, but in the film, all the advance technology comes out in two years.  This scares the regular folk in the flick, who feel they must destroy the Frankenstein AI.

Are movie goers tired of films about sentient computers?  Do they find post-human life offensive?  Are the networked humans too much like zombies to them?  Is nanotechnology just too scary to think about?  Or, was the ideas in the story fine, and they just didn’t like the writing, presentation, acting or settings?


Science fiction books and movies have a long heritage of tales about intelligent computers.  Sometimes they are evil (Colossus), and sometimes they are fun (Short Circuit).  In Transcendence, it’s ambiguous.  Is that the problem?  Uploading minds is not as common, but there’s plenty of precedent (The Matrix).

I’m a little tired of science fiction being about saving the world.  Why does science fiction always have to involve a big threat to all of humanity?  There was no need to involve guns or violence in this story.  Gattaca was the perfect science fiction movie to me.  It was a personal story.  Ditto for Her and Robot and Frank.  Can’t we have a story about a super intelligent being without involve armies and terrorists?  Or maybe critics and audiences didn’t like this movie because there wasn’t enough action and explosions.

Or was the film disliked because it suggests that ordinary people will be obsolete?  What’s weird is movie goers love mutants in superhero comic book stories, but they don’t seem to like post-humans.  A human that can fly is fine, but one that makes us look past our due date is not?

Audiences are more forgiving than the critics at Rotten Tomatoes, and the audience response at RT was 47% for Transcendence.   That’s pretty low for audiences.  Maybe I should just accept that this film was a dog, and maybe I liked it because it was about some of my pet topics.  That does fit in with my hypothesis – I liked it for its ideas, and others hated it for the same ideas.   I really hated Marvel’s The Avengers, which got a 92% critics/91% audience rating at RT, and I disliked the movie intensely because of its ideas.

I wonder if movie makers could save a lot of money on special effects if they merely created science fiction movies with extremely popular science fictional ideas?

JWH – 4/22/14

The Origins of Higher Intelligence in Science Fiction

In the physical realm of reality, we humans have always believed we were the crown of creation, the smartest beings in a long chain of animal and plant creatures.  Yet, as far back into history that we have memories, we have speculated about metaphysical beings that were far smarter than us, who had amazing abilities.  God and gods, angels and devils, and a whole zoology of spiritual beings.  Over the centuries of progress and the development of science, we have come to doubt the existence of such metaphysical beings.  We’ve even asked ourselves, are we alone in the universe, and wondered if there are beings elsewhere in the vast multiverse that are as smart as we are, or even conscious of living in the multiverse.

Ancient Greeks speculated about life on distant worlds.  They even imagined the universe composed of atoms and concluded our world must not be unique.  Ever since then there have been people who thought about life on other worlds, or even the creation of better humans, or even the wilder ideas of the creation of smart machines and artificial life.  We just don’t want to accept that we’re alone.

For most of history, most of humanity has assumed we’re not alone, that spiritual beings existed and they were superior to us.  After the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, religious thinking decline and scientific thinking rose.  Among the population, a growing number of us has come to accept that physical reality is the only reality.  Instead of waiting for God to give us higher powers after we died, we started speculating on how we could give ourselves immortality, greater wisdom, and control over space and time, and we wondered more and more if there are other intelligent, self-aware creatures living in the universe with us.  Slowly, a form of literature developed to support this speculation and it’s generally called science fiction.


In 1818 Mary Shelley spread the idea in her book Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus that we could find the force that animated life and overcome death.  That’s a very apt subtitle because Prometheus was a god that uplifted mankind.  Mary Shelley also promoted another great science fictional concept in her 1826 book The Last Man, which speculated that our species could go extinct.  If there is no God we must protect ourselves from extinction, and fight against death.  But actually, we wanted more.


Then in 1895 H. G. Wells suggested to the world in his novel The Time Machine, that humanity could even devolve, as well as go extinct.  Not only that, he showed how the Earth could die.  This was all inspired from On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection by Charles Darwin, which first appeared in 1859.  In The Time Machine Wells imagined life in 802,701 A.D.  Instead of picturing the obvious, a superior race of humans evolving, he envisions two species that had branched off from ours, and neither of which were superior.  He hints that there were greater versions of humanity in between the times, but now we had devolved.  At the end of the book, he suggests that humans devolve even further into mere creatures without any intelligence.  This powerful speculative fiction defined the scope of humanity for us.  We can become greater, lesser or ceased to exist.

Then in 1898 Wells gets the world to think about another brilliant science fictional idea, what if there are superior alien beings that can visit Earth and conquer us.  In The War of the Worlds, intelligent beings come to exterminate humans.  We don’t know how much more intelligent they are, but the Martians can build great machines and travel across space.  There had been other books about alien invaders and time travel, but H. G. Wells made these ideas common speculation.


In 1911, J. D. Beresford published The Hampdenshire Wonder, a book about deformed child with a super powerful brain, a prodigy or wunderkind of amazing abilities.  Beresford, his novel and ideas, were never as famous as his contemporary H. G. Wells, but The Wonder was an idea whose time had come.  How much smarter could a human become?  Readers of science fiction, and some people in the world at large were now wondering about the powers of the mind, as well as speculating about how powerful could alien minds be.  Stories about robots had existed before now, as well as Frankenstein and Golem like creatures, but the public had not fixated on the idea of superior machine intelligence or artificial life.   But we were on our way to imagining a superior man, a superman.

Prodigies were well known and speculated about, like musical prodigies and math geniuses, but Beresford suggests the human mind had a lot more potential in it.  He also zooms in on the resentment factor.


The 1930 novel Gladiator by Philip Wylie suggests it’s possible to enhance humans with a serum to improve their physical strength.  There is no scientific reasoning behind this, other than to suggest we could have the equivalent weight lifting power of an ant, and the jumping power of a grasshopper.  All of this merely foreshadows Superman comics (1932).  The theory behind Superman is he’s an alien with advanced powers and not an enhanced humans.


Comic books embraced the idea of super-heroes speculating about an endless variety of ways to get humans with more features and powers.  Comics have never been very scientific, and instead copied the ideas and themes from ancient gods and goddesses.  It’s all wish-fulfillment fantasies.  People are exposed to radiation and lightening all the time and don’t mutate.  However, all of this led to speculation about what humans could become, and how evolution might produce Homo Sapiens 2.0.


In 1935 Olaf Stapledon published Odd John: A Story Between Jest and Earnest.  Stapledon went far beyond comics in his speculation about what a superman might be, how they would act, and how society would react.  Science fiction is now seriously philosophizing about the future and potential of the human race.


Olaf Stapledon was a far reaching thinker and a serious science fiction writer.  Last and First Men (1930) describes eighteen species of humans, while Star Maker (1937) tried to write a history of life in the universe.  These books are not typical novels, but more like fictional narratives.  The scope of Stapledon’s speculation was tremendous, and few science fiction writers have tempted to best him.


1930s science fiction was full of stories about accelerated evolution, such as “The Man Who Evolved” by Edmond Hamilton, and this culminated in the super-science stories of E. E. Smith and his Lensmen stories (1934-1948).   Science fiction fans ate this stuff up, and many people consider the ideas in the Lensmen series as inspiration for the Star Wars series.  The stories involve two super alien races fighting a galactic war over vast time scales using client races that they uplifted with knowledge and superior technology.

Smith ideas weren’t completely new, but he put them together in an exciting series that really jump-started the science fiction genre of the 1940s and 1950s.  Smith presented the idea that aliens could be godlike or devilish in their abilities, wisdom and knowledge, and they could bestow great powers on those who follow them.  The science behind all of this is hogwash.  It’s pandering to ancient religious beliefs by presenting the same ideas in pseudo-science costumes.

Star Wars has the same exact appeal.  Humans, especially adolescent boys, and now liberated girls, want power and adventure.  These powers and adventures are no different from what Greek, Roman, Hindu and Norse gods experienced.  The excitement of Golden Age Science Fiction from the pulp magazines of the 1940s and into the psycho-social science fiction of the 1950s represents the unleashing of great desires.  Desires for immortality, of ruling the heavens, telepathy, telekinesis, teleportation, flying faster than light, becoming as all-knowing as God.

Starting in the 1950s, especially with movies, and expanding in the 1960s with television shows like Star Trek, these ideas became widely popular, almost universal, and during the next 50 years, they came to dominate the most popular films.  There is a huge pent-up desire here for the fantastic and the transcendental through the powers of science.

Science fiction writers have often faced the challenge of presenting a super-advanced being, either a very evolved human, a powerful alien, or an AI being with vast intelligence as a character in their stories.  Generally, the assumption is super-intelligence equals ESP like powers.  How often in Outer Limits, Star Trek, Star Wars, or in written science fiction, have you seen a highly evolved human read minds, or move matter with thought, such as Valentine Michael Smith in Stranger in a Strange Land?  This goes way back in science fiction.  The same thing is true when aliens come down to visit in their flying saucers.  If they are presented as from an ancient civilization, they might not even have bodies, but they can manipulated space and time at will.

Isn’t that all silly? How does higher IQ equal overcoming the physical laws of reality?


Back in 1961 Robert Heinlein suggests that a very ancient race of Martians had conquered space and time with their minds, and they taught their techniques to a normal human, as if it was no more difficult than learning yoga.  Really?  Is that believable?  Well, science fiction fans ate this up too.  And then in 1977 Star Wars suggested similar powers for the Jedi.  Why do people want to believe thinking can be that powerful?  Well obviously, they hoped to have such power.

Valentine Michael Smith could make objects move or disappear.  He could kill people at will by sending them into another dimension.  He also had fakir like control over his body that allowed him to hibernate and appear dead.  He could also talk with ghosts.  Heinlein gives us no reason how these wild talents developed, or how they could function within the rules of physics.

Like Luke Skywalker learning to use The Force, people hope to transcend their old way of being through will power.  So far we haven’t had much luck with that concept.  The next step is to invent machines that could enhance us.


In 1963, one of the classic episodes of the original Outer Limits has David McCallum, an ordinary miner, put into a mad scientist’s chamber and his body evolved with speeded up evolution.  McCallum’s brain gets huge, he grows a sixth finger on each hand and his mental powers become enormous.  This superman moves beyond love and hate and sees normal humans beneath his consideration.

This is a step beyond Heinlein.  It suggests that evolution will eventually produce a smarter human.  It gives us no reason why we should believe this.  One real theory about why humans actually evolved was to adapt to climate change so we could survive in many different environments and climates.  Humanity  has faced all kinds of challenges and we’ve yet to morph into anything new yet.


Back in 1953, Theodore Sturgeon proposed that mutations might exist in the population, in the case of More Than Human, suggested that six such individuals getting together to blend their talents into a gestalt consciousness.  The first part of the story is called “The Fabulous Idiot” and reminds us we’ve long known about idiot savants that have wild talents.  We have to give Sturgeon credit for sticking close to reality and not just making up some science fiction mumbo-jumbo, except that he suggests that misfits have ESP or telepathy, that darling concept of 1950s science fiction writers.  Without telepathy we can’t create the gestalt. 

There are humans with magnificent mental abilities, with photographic minds, wizards with numbers and math, but most of them have other weaknesses that keep them from being fully functional as social beings.  There seems to be a problem with the human mind focusing to closely on any one talent at the expense of general abilities.


John Wyndham comes up with a solution of having an alien intelligence inhabit a boy.  This is sort of a cheat don’t you think?  Without explaining  how an alien mind can occupy our mind and why it’s mind is superior, this is no more than waving a wand and saying, let it be so.


Star Trek explores accidently accelerated evolution when the Enterprise hits a magnetic storm on the edge of the galaxy and crewman Gary Mitchell develops godlike psionic powers.  Like many stories about evolved beings, Gary becomes a threat to the normal people and feels no moral restraint about killing people.  Heinlein presented Valentine Michael Smith as being just with his use of powers to disappear people, but Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock see Gary Mitchell as evil and must be destroyed. 

This show was a second pilot for the original Star Trek series and Mr. Spock is very aggressive, brandishing a rather large and powerful phaser rifle.  Later on Mr. Spock becomes the ideal of mental self-control and evolved being, but then he’s a Vulcan.  The implication is control over feelings will lead to greater mental powers.


In 1965 Heinlein returns with a newer version of Mike from Stranger in a Strange Land.  Once again, this Mike is an innocent, but a machine coming into consciousness.  Once again he has to learn about how the world works and to develop his own talents.  Being a machine he has new abilities that humans don’t and can’t have.  Now we’re onto something.  If we can’t evolve our brains, why not use our brains to build a better brain.  Mike is a friendly computer, but many people fear this idea.


Just a year later, in 1966, D. J. Jones images the world controlled by two giant military computers.  Of course, in 1983 the film War Games imagines another dangerous military computer with consciousness.  This happens quite often in science fiction, uppity computers that must be outwitted by slower minded humans.  We seldom get to explore the potential of a smart computer.


David Gerrold actually writes a science fiction novel that thoughtfully explores the idea of an emerging machine intelligence in 1972, and even speculates on many interesting ideas that eventually become part of the computer age, including computer viruses.  Gerrold builds on what Heinlein started with The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.


In 1995, literary writer Richard Powers explores the idea of machine intelligence with Galatea 2.2, where scientists build a computer named Helen to understand English literature.


Then in 2009, Robert J. Sawyer began a trilogy about an emerging AI that evolves out of the Internet.  Webmind, as it names itself.  Webmind works hard not to be threatening and wants to help humanity.

Let’s imagine a Homo Sapiens 2.0, or BEM, or AI with an IQ of 1,000.  I don’t know if that’s appropriate for the actual scale, but the highest IQ recorded are just over 200, so lets use 1,000 as a theoretical marker.  Let’s imagine IBM’s Watson that had all that brainpower and more, so he/she was like a human with computer thinking speed and memory.

What would it mean to have an IQ of 1,000.  It would mean the AI, Alien or Homo Sapiens 2.0 would think very very fast, remember incredibly well, and solve brain teasers faster than anyone on Earth.  It wouldn’t mean it could read minds or move matter at will, although I’d expect it to deduce information about people like Sherlock Holmes.

Probably all math and physics would be a snap to such a being.  In fact, it would think so fast and know so much that it might not find much of interest in reality.  It wouldn’t know everything, but lets imagine it could consciously imagine calculations like those made in supercomputers to predict the weather, solve subatomic particle experiments or run the Wall Street Stock exchange.

What would such a being feel?  How would it occupy its mind with creative pursuits?

We feel as humans at the crown of creation, that intelligence is the grand purpose of the universe, but when you start studying the multiverse, that might not be so.  We’re just one of an infinity of creations.  There might be limits to intelligence, like physical limits in the universe, like the speed of light.

Science fiction hasn’t begun to explore the possibilities of higher intelligence, but I do think there are limits of awareness, limits of thought and limits of intelligence.  All too often science fiction has taken the easy way out and assumed higher intelligence equals godlike powers.  What does it truly mean to know about every sparrow that falls from a tree?  Is that possible?

Computers are teaching us a lot about intelligence.  Up till now they show that brilliance is possible without awareness.

Science fiction has explored the nature of alien minds, machine minds and evolved human minds over and over, yet these explorations have come up with very little of substance.  I often wonder if the universe doesn’t appear simple with only a moderate amount of intelligence, education and self-awareness.  If we could couple the mind of a human with IBM’s Watson, the resulting mind might be smart enough to fully comprehend reality and build almost anything that needs to be built or invented.  Such a being would know if it’s worth the effort to travel to the stars, or just sit and watch existence as it is.

JWH – 5/15/12

The Implications of Watson

Watson, the supercomputer contestant on Jeopardy this week represents a stunning achievement in computer programming.  People not familiar with computers, programming and natural language processing will have no clue to how impressive Watson’s performance is, but it has far reaching implications.  Jeopardy is the perfect challenge for demonstrating the machine’s ability to process English.  The game requires the understanding allusions, puns, puzzles. alliterations – almost every kind of word play.  This might look like a smart gimmick to get IBM publicity, but it’s so much more.

Computers can process information if its formatted and carefully structured – but most of the world’s knowledge is outside the range of a SQL query.  Watson is a machine designed to take in information like we do, through natural language.  When it succeeds it will be a more magnificent achievement than landing men on the moon.

While I was watching the intro to the second day show and listening to the designers of Watson I felt rather humbled by my puny knowledge of computers.  I felt like a dog looking up at my master.   Most people like to think they are smart and intelligent, but when they meet people with brains that far exceed their own minds it’s troublesome.  A great novel about this is Empire Star by Samuel R. Delany.  It’s about a young poet who thinks he’s having original experiences until he meets an older poet who has already done everything the younger man has.

How will we feel when the world is full of Watsons and they are the intellectual giants and we’re the lab rats?  IBM built Watson to data mine natural language repositories – think libraries, the Internet, or NSA spying.  The descendants of Watson will be able to write papers that leave human PhD candidates in the dust.  One of the Watson designers said they built Watson to handle information overload.  Of course he assumed Watson would be a tool like a hammer and humans would be in control – but will it always be that way?

Watson cannot see or hear, but there are other AI researchers working on those problems.  We’re very close to having machines like those in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress or When H.A.R.L.I.E. Was One or Galatea 2.2.  Right now Watson is way too big to put into a robot body so he will live immobile like HAL and WOPR, but that will change too.

Real life has seldom caught up with the wild imaginations of science fiction.  I had hoped manned exploration of the solar system would have happened in my lifetime but that is not meant to be.  I’m starting to wonder if robots and intelligent machines will.  What will that mean?  I don’t think there is any going back, we just have to surf the changes.

NOVA has an excellent overview of Watson that you can watch online.

JWH – 2/15/11

Birds and Robots

The goal of AI scientists is to create an intelligent robot but many people feel that goal is impossible.  These people believe that the human mind is beyond nature and contains a soul that transcends our physical world.  If that is true, then the goal of silicon life is probably a fantasy.  However, if men and women are merely the most complex example of intelligent beings and leaves behind a trail of previous experiments by mother nature to fashion biological machines that can think, then there is a good chance we may one day give birth to our evolutionary descendants.

Folks who believe that man is different from the creatures of the Earth do so because they believe that animals lack our kind of intelligence and self-awareness.  Animals studies are showing more and more that our relatives on the tree of life often show cognitive traits that we once defined as the sole providence of human nature.  As intelligence and awareness are explored we’re starting to see that we homo sapiens are not that unique.

What we are learning from both robotics and animal studies is intelligence is a huge collection of tricks.  To be human actually means many things, including a fantastic repertoire of abilities, any one of which standing alone can be faked by machines or revealed in animals.  Robots can be programmed or designed to do one thing we can, and even do it better, like playing chess, but that doesn’t mean the robot is intelligent.  The same can be said of animals and their special traits.

Animals far exceed what any robot can do today, and they too are collections of abilities.  We’re starting to see robots that do more than one thing in a way that makes us see ourselves in their struggle to evolve.

Look at this video of Snowball, a head-banging Cockatoo and ask yourself if this bird is not enjoying himself rocking out to the music, and how is his response to music different from yours.

Snowball keeps better time than I do and I can’t match his dance moves.  Building a robot to dance to the beat probably would be easy for today’s robot engineers, but could we build a machine that enjoys a good downbeat as much?  Snowball stands above anything we’ve done with robots as people tower over ants.  Right now each artificial intelligence experiment struggles to create a single intelligent function that works in the most minimal of fashion.  Most people won’t think that Snowball perceives reality like a person, but if we make a list of all the things this bird can do and compare it with what we can do, there is a huge overlap.

Now look at this violin playing robot.  The robot is not aware of playing music, but it can do something that most humans can’t.

But can we say that Snowball is aware of music?  For all we know, the dance to the beat the bird is doing might be its way of showing pain, and we’re just anthropomorphizing that it’s getting down with the tune.  I don’t think so, though.

Now look at this news story about artificial intelligence to get some idea how complex the challenge of programming abilities into a machine.

Notice how many different projects this news story covers where the robot just does one simple thing.  Snowball and you have subsystems to do thousands if not millions of functions that could be considered an intelligent reaction to reality.  How did evolution program all those functions?

Now look at this video of Alex the talking parrot.  This bird seems to think.  Alex even asks for things it wants.  This is way beyond what robots can do, even though some of Alex’s tricks have been pursued in AI studies.  The question becomes can a robot ever think for itself?  Can a robot be created that learns from interacting with its environment like Alex the parrot?

Here’s a collection of videos that shows off robotic abilities.  None of these robots think for themselves, although some give the illusion they do.  Are we just highly evolved illusions?  There is a difference between perceiving or reacting to reality and being able to think about and understand reality.  Anyone who knows people who have suffered strokes or live with dementia know how fragile our unique abilities are, and how they can be taken away.  We also know how severely the body can be damaged and yet the mind inside can soar to brilliant levels, like Helen Keller or Stephen Hawking.  We have no idea what’s going on inside of the mind of an animal.  Dolphins could be just as aware and intelligent as humans.  How will we know when a robot becomes aware?

Robotics is the one area of science fiction prediction that is rushing ahead as fast as science can apply itself.  It’s not costly like manned space exploration and the general public anticipates more benefits of its results, especially in Japan.  Theoretically, an AI intelligence could be created by a high school kid in his bedroom.  How soon will we see an AI robot that has the intelligence of Alex the parrot?

If you’ve studied this concept at all you’ll know it’s not something that will be programmed.  Someone needs to invent an artificial brain that learns, and pattern recognition is the key.  Vision, hearing, taste, touch and smell are all sensory inputs that process patterns.  The brain appears to be general purpose enough to adapt the same kind of physical neural structures to handle each of these sensory pattern types.  Are we, that is our minds or our souls, a byproduct of pattern recognition?  What abilities do Alex the parrot have that scales up to become us?  Alex can hear questions, observe something in his field of view, and reply correct.  Do you see that trait in the robot films?

Spend some time and watch the film of Alex over and over.  Also watch the robot films carefully too.  Do you see patterns of behavior?

JWH 1/21/9

Science Fiction in My Lifetime

When I wrote this title I intended it be about science fictional predictions coming true in my lifetime, and especially what might still happen before I die.  Then I realized it could also imply I was writing about the great science fictional books that came out in my lifetime, leaving me room to speculate on what far-out ideas could appear in the near future.  Over at Visions of Paradise, Bob Sabella chronicles seven waves of science fiction since H. G. Wells, and wonders when a new wave will hit.  I’ve lived through three of waves Bob describes, the 1950s transition from pulp mags to book SF, the 1960s New Wave and the most recent Cyberpunk movement, but I think we all live in a reality partly shaped by Herbert and Jules and their literary descendants.

Right now the science fiction scene is dormant.  Most of the new books in the science fiction section at your favorite bookstore are fantasy books, or adventures set in classical science fictional worlds, like Baroque art encouraged by the Catholic Church.  No radically new science fiction concepts have been created since the 1990s with the concepts of mind uploading and the singularity.  What I’d like to do is recap the big SF ideas of the 20th century and then try to predict where science fiction might go in the 21st century.

How many grand ideas imagined in science fiction stories will become real in our lifetimes?  Humans landing on the Moon is the shining example for science fiction stories going back hundreds of years.  Before that, submarines and airplanes were predicted long before they became a reality.  Some concepts are harder to judge.  Many science fiction stories were written about overpopulation, terrorism and running out of natural resources after the year 2000, and some of those dreary predictions are coming true, just read John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar.

How likely will the exciting, positive concepts of science fiction, bear fruit in our lifetimes?  Some people are anxiously awaiting flying cars and rocket backpacks.  Other fans are expecting alien visitors, while some folk can’t wait to go where no man has gone before themselves.  How many science fiction readers hope life-extension will keep them reading science fiction until the 22nd or 23rd centuries?  I know, I’d love my own Jeeves the robot.

I keep writing about the science of science fiction over and over again, but what really are the odds of these fantastic things happening before I die?  I had a revelation in the shower this morning.  Science fiction’s popularity has skyrocketed in the last 35 years not because of the validity of it’s ideas, but because the story telling has gotten dramatically better and thus appeals to a wider audience.

I thought my wife and lady friends were getting more and more into the ideas of science fiction when it became obvious they loved SF movies because of the hot actors and thrilling story telling.  Most people have zero expectation from science fiction, it’s just good fun.  They don’t want to homestead Mars, or expect the galactic overloads to come save Earth from ourselves.

I’ve been reading a number of classic science fiction novels from the 1950s this year and I’ve been amazed at the ideas, but disappointed with story telling aspects – it’s no wonder that science fiction had limited appeal back then.  I keep reading for the ideas and predictions, judging the science of science fiction, but the real success of science fiction in the last few decades has been in telling better stories.

I’m happy for that, but I want to focus on the science fiction ideas.  What are the likely odds for many of science fiction’s most popular visions coming true?  Let’s use the year 2050 as a cutoff.  If I could live to be 100, it would be 2051, so that’s close enough to call 2050 the end of my lifetime.  The odds I list are just my best-guess hunches because there is no way for anyone to really calculate them.  As far as I know, there are no bookies taking bets on these future endeavors.

Colonizing the Moon – 1 in 10

It’s been over 40 years since man has walked on the Moon, so this almost seemed a dead dream until China, India and Japan took a interest in the Moon and started up their own space programs.  This is very positive, except that the world-wide recession might slow things down.  Still the Moon is the logical base to start a beachhead on conquering space.  Colonizing the Moon is the cornerstone of all our science fictional dreams about space travel.

I think Robert A. Heinlein owned the Moon fictionally, with classics like The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Have Space Suit-Will Travel, The Rolling Stones, The Menace From Earth, The Green Hills of Earth, Rocket Ship Galileo and The Cat Who Walks Through Walls.  John Varley and Rudy Rucker are modern writers who have been homesteading the Moon in recent years, giving it a twist with mind uploading, cloning and mad robots.

Some of these books are among my all-time favorite books, but I’ve got to admit, none of them have approach colonizing the Moon in any serious way.  For such an old subject this leaves lots of room for future science fiction writers to work.

Colonizing Mars – 1 in 100

Growing up in the 1960s I really expected to see manned missions to Mars in my lifetime.  It just seemed such an obvious step after the Apollo program  Men like Werner von Braun and Robert Zubrin made it sound so doable.  Well, it’s not.  If you do the research you’ll find just how tough a job going to Mars truly is, not impossible, but well on the edge of the limits of what humans can do now and the near future.

And I think it’s silly to think about Mars until we can conquer to Moon.  If we can send men and women to the Moon for three years, and prove we have the skills to keep them alive, then it will be time to talk about Mars.  However, colonizing Mars is the next step after the Moon, and for many, it’s the main goal.  On the other hand, I believe the road to the stars is paved with airless chunks of rock and we have a convenient one at hand to practice our space survival skills.

Many scientists have said it was amazing luck that some of the twelve men who made it to the Moon weren’t killed.  Most of their luck came from making short journeys lasting less than 2 weeks.  Moon dust would have ruined their suits, landers and machinery if they would have tried to stay much longer.  Is it possible to build self-contained habitats that will last three years, the length of a Mars mission?

Science fiction has always made the near impossible sound easy.  Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars, Green Mars and Blue Mars have set the standard for Mars colony science fiction.  His work is far more realistic than most SF writers, but still way too full of fantasy.  Science fiction writers might be visionaries, but they have trouble seeing the details.  Speculation on how to build a self-sustaining colony on Mars is wide-open.  Terraforming is a great idea, but explaining how to build a computer on Mars without help from Earth would be magical.

Manned Missions Beyond Mars – 1 in 100,000

Theoretically, it’s well within our means technologically to colonize the Moon and Mars within the next 25-40 years.  We could make some amazing breakthroughs in technology that would allow us to go further, but we need to get busy, and I think public opinion will be against it.  To go beyond Mars will require developing nuclear rocket technology on the Moon or out in space.  Mars is about the maximum range for manned missions using chemical rockets, and that mission would be far easier if we could perfect nuclear rocketry before we try.  The people of the Earth will not let scientists develop nuclear rockets anywhere near our home world.  The Moon is a fine place to work with radioactive elements.  The real future of manned space travel will depend on the industrialization of the Moon.

Asteroid miners have been a staple of SF since the days of John W. Campbell took over Astounding, ignoring the fact that it’s much cheaper to find the same resources locally on Earth, the Moon or Mars.  Unless space ships can be built on the Moon, mining asteroids is silly.  Any colony on the Moon will want organic elements, and especially hydrogen, nitrogen and carbon.  Moonies will probably want to mine comets.

Manned Interstellar Flight – 1 in 1,000,000,000,000

I guess it’s possible we could discover some magical space drive system that will let us zoom off to the stars before 2050, but it’s highly unlikely.  Personally, I think the only way for humans will travel to the stars will be to build giant generational spaceships that can operate for thousands of years, but even that idea is mostly fantasy.  We might have the will and tech to build interstellar spaceships in a few centuries, but for now the idea is almost pure fantasy.  Star Wars like galactic civilizations are absolute pure fantasy.  Even our very best hard science fiction novels are really just thrilling stories, and are rather pointless for our needs of predicting the near future.  Hard core space opera gives us grand hopes, but the chances of colonizing worlds around other stars is about equal to finding biological immortality.

Intelligent Humanoid Robots – 1 in 5

Asimov, Simak and Williamson ruled the robot stories, but robot stories aren’t as popular today.  Robots and robotics seem to be moving full-steam ahead though, with scientists like Ray Kurzweil predicting an artificial intelligence singularity in the near future.  Hobby robotics is probably much more popular than hobby rocketry ever was.  Anybody with some programming ambition can get into robotics.  And after Spirit and Opportunity’s success on Mars, I can even picture an ever evolving series of robots going where no man can afford to go.  That’s a goddamn shame, but that’s the way it is.  I hope NASA at least starts building in real-time high definition video feeds from it’s metal Martian explorers so us biological creatures back on Earth can feel like we’re walking on Mars vicariously.

Many people believe artificial intelligence is impossible.  I figure if nature can accidentally stumble upon the recipe, than scientists should be able to figure it out sooner or later.  The question is how long.  Robots are cheap enough compared to manned space exploration, so we should see a continual increase in robotic intelligence on space missions, and that might evolve into intelligent robots.  The military is also pushing robots to do more.  The more we ask of robots the more intelligence they acquire.

What’s surprising is I don’t think science fiction has ever done any really good realistic robot stories, either they are people-like and cute, or they are like Gort, all-powerful and scary.  Commander Data was among the best, but not very realistic.  Before 2050 I think we’ll see some pretty amazing robots, and just maybe science fiction will predict what they really will be like.

Visitors From Space – 1 in 1,000,000,000,000

I’d really love to be proven wrong here.  We could use an alien like Klaatu or Karellen to knock some sense into us, but I don’t think that will happen.  What are the odds of intelligent life developing anywhere in the universe?  What are the odds of intelligent life developing twice and near enough to each other to visit?  It must be tremendous.  I’m not saying it’s impossible.  Let’s say it will be nice surprise.

For story purposes, the concept of visitors from space is pretty tired, although it will remain popular.  The idea has endless possibilities and offers so much fun and thrills.  Essentially, it’s a fantasy concept equal to stories about angels and vampires.

SETI Contact – 1 in 1,000,000,000

Detecting an intelligent signal from space is probably far more likely than having aliens over for coffee.  Detecting intelligent alien life in the universe would have profound philosophical implications to our society, so it’s strange that this topic is so seldom tackled by science fiction.  Often it’s a setup for physical contact or acquiring super-science, like Contact by Carl Sagan.  We need more books like His Master’s Voice by Stanislaw Lem, The Hercules Text by Jack McDevitt and The Listeners by James Gunn.

I figured if we were real lucky, and I mean astronomically numbered lucky, SETI would detect a signal from space before I passed on.  That’s the most exciting thing I can practically hope for, but I doubt it will happen.  I think if we build some really gigantic space telescopes we might visually detect artificial elements in the atmospheres of extra-solar planets.

Cloning Humans – 1 in 100

I’ve always considered cloning boring.  It’s making a human without sex, but you end up with another human, big whoop. Most science fiction is about 20 year-old cloned bodies grown in a month, which is silly.  Also, the idea of copying the brain patterns of a natural human onto a clone’s brain is also silly.

Uploading Minds – 1 in 1,000,000,000,000

Mind uploading is a growing topic.  It’s all part of the Human 2.0 theorizing, and has been slowly emerging in science fiction for decades.

[You can see the complete documentary here, or go to YouTube and watch all the parts.]

Whether you copy my brain to a computer simulation, clone, or android mind, I’m still going to die in the process.  What’s the point?  This is no route to immortality.  I’d much rather design an AI mind than copy my own.  Being alive is about experiencing the now, and that’s not copying memories.  However, seeking to reach Human 2.0 status is where much of the science fictional action will be during the 21st century.

The Cutting Edge

If you really want to explore the frontier of what’s happening scientifically, right on the border of where science meets science fiction, be sure and read the  Top thinkers from around the world examine the most far out ideas on the planet.  Most of the articles are very down to Earth, but some could be used to springboard into science fiction stories.

The Future of Science Fiction

From what I can detect, I’m thinking the appeal of science fiction is even waning, at least for the moment.  I examined many months of book reviews at and only a handful could be considered new breakthrough science fiction.  If the editors there removed all the obvious fantasy titles their site would shrink dramatically.  Many of the titles that most SF fans would classify as science fiction, are really adventure stories set in old comfortable science fiction worlds with few writers trying to imagine anything new conceptually.  Like I said above, science fiction writers have gotten much better at telling stories.

Right now I think of all the predictions dreamed up by science fiction writers, I think robots, AI and Human 2.0 explorations are the ones most likely to come somewhat truer in my lifetime.  SETI contact with alien signals from space is going to be like finding one snowflake in all the snow storms of Earth each winter.  It could happen, it might take a thousand years, or a million years, or it could be next year.

I don’t think we’ll ever seen visitors from the stars, and I doubt mankind will ever be an alien invader.  Science fiction has always been deceptive about interstellar rocketships, implying they’d be something like a new model airliner from Boeing.  That thinking is on the order of asking how fast does Santa have to travel to visit every house on Earth.

Until men and women colonize the Moon and Mars and we learn how to build with materials found in outer space and create a new economy that has no dependency on Earth, we won’t be able to think about traveling further than Mars.

I think the dramatic new ideas that come out of science fiction will be about living on Earth.  The potential of combining the Internet, artificial intelligence, robots, advanced learning techniques, simulated computer worlds, and so on will generate new possibilities for humans.  Science fiction writers need to think very hard about what’s going on in this world.  Sooner or later a new H. G. Wells, Jules Verne or Robert A. Heinlein will show up and surprise us.

JWH 12/28/8

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