Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Will Technology Deliver Ghost in the Shell?

I recently saw a story about some university students who made a glove mouse much like the one Tom Cruise uses in Minority Report. I am a big fan of real life technology catching up with the super-fantastic technology of science fiction. And the glove got me thinking about what science fiction most accurately reflects where I think technology is headed today.

I came up with Ghost in the Shell. It is an Anime franchise based on a manga by Shirow Masamune. The stories follow the exploits of a special government security force formed as a counter-terrorist unit. The setting is a very futuristic, highly technological Japan.

The stories are aimed at teens/adults and deal with very complex issues around the integration of technology and society, sitting at the frontier between the real and virtual worlds. It represents a vast collection of ideas near the end of what I like to think today's technology can take us; at the point where current technology moves on to the next logical developments.

And that's what makes it exciting. Here are some of the 'almost' technologies portrayed in the franchise that are pretty much inevitable:

Personal Cloaking Devices. Some members of the anti-terrorist team wear special clothing that bends light around them, making difficult and dangerous infiltrations lower risk and spying easier. Today, scientists are already working on similar technologies and the concept passes my 40 year test - I will probably be alive to see this sci-fi concept become real in the next 40 years.

Intelligent Windows. I am referring to the dumb windows found in most buildings today becoming bigger, faster and stronger. Dumb today, because all they do is let light through and keep the elements out. Boring. In the Ghost in the Shell world, windows are also display screens for computers and media devices. No more curtains, just touch a button (or the window itself) and it switches from transparent to opaque. Touch another, and you're watching a big screen TV. The concept also made an appearance in the first Iron Man movie, and it's practical enough to pass the 40 year test.

Cybernetics. The melding of flesh and machine to replace some of the biological parts of a body with mechanical ones is not an original idea, but it's a central point in the franchise as the main characters struggle with the virtual line between man and machine. At what point is humanity separated from the technology we use? As we become more dependent on technology it becomes part of how we exist. But what of our souls? If you remove the body, what remains? All weighty philosophical debates that will wage on in the next 40 years, guaranteed.

Augmentative Devices. I separate this from cybernetics because augmentative devices do not necessarily replace body parts, but still make a body 'better'. The Ghost in the Shell franchise is full of them. While traditional mobile phones exist, for example, most of the tech elite use implanted communications devices - the ultimate in hands-free. People entrust memories to external devices and make back-ups. People connect to the internet using data ports in their bodies (WiFi didn't make it big in the Ghost in the Shell universe, apparently). As we toy with Augmented Reality and seek a better device for it, I definitely put augmentative devices on the 40 year list.

Automated Transit. Basically, cars that drive themselves. This is an idea that is so prevalent in sci-fi that it's practically a given. In fact, some companies are already putting concepts to the test. Forty year list? Definitely.

Crime. As we struggle to make technology do the things we do, we open the gates on a world of exploitive opportunities for criminals. It's happening today with the likes of the recent Google hack; and it will continue to happen and become more sophisticated over time as technologies develop and become mainstream. Sadly, 'cyber crime' makes it onto the 40 year list by default.

Unknown Threats. While I have faith in science there are risks with exploring any frontier, and while I hope I will be proved wrong, I can't help feel threats to the technology model will appear in the next 40 years. I'm not implying society won't grow to deal with them. This story about a Korean couple that let their child die of malnutrition while they played a video game about raising a child brings it home.

With great power comes great responsibility, indeed.

© Jeremy Buehler and Rogue Tendencies (www.roguetendencies.com) 2010.

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