Smart Pills

There are many times when people today are unwilling to label certain works as “science-fiction” due to the stigma surrounding the genre. Often viewed as something “nerdy”, certain movies tend to slip under the radar and avoid the classification. A good example is the movie “Limitless.” In the movie, the main character is given access to a drug called NZT that allows him to access “100% of his brain.” In short, it makes him a genius. Here’s an advertisement for the smart-drug from the movie:

Now I challenge you to go out and find somebody who wouldn’t take NZT if given the opportunity to. How could you turn it down? In the movie, NZT end’s up causing debilitating side-effects once you stop taking the drug, but towards the end the main character says he develops an improved version without those side-effects. Its pretty hard to find a con to this pill if all it does is make you smarter.

So do smart pills really exist? Check out this bit on Modafinil from CurrentTV:

Modafinil is used for a wide variety of applications all around the world. Here’s a list of some of the organizations currently using or investigating the use of Modafinil:

Indian Air-Force

U.S. Army

U.S. Airforce

Astronauts aboard the International Space Station

Seems like at the very least, it’s very useful for enhancing cognitive function in sleep deprived subjects. The Times ran a piece titled “Popping Smart Pills: The Case for Cognitive Enhancement” that shows that this phenomenon has spread much further than just college-students cramming for tests, military operations, and astronauts. Drugs like Modafinil, adderal, and ritalin are all being used around the world to help people accomplish a variety of goals. A surprising amount of professionals in various fields have admitted to using these smart pills to improve their performance. Here, a masters candidate in bio-ethics argues for the allowance of cognitive enhancers in a university setting, even admitting to using them to write his masters thesis. I find the most interesting part of the article to be the discussion of this image:


Here, you see the effects caffeine has on the brain vs. cognitive enhancers. With caffeine, the entire brain lights up more than normal. There is more activity, but there is also an abundance of over-stimulation. While a person may be more awake, they don’t necessarily focus any better. With cognitive enhancers however, you see how certain areas of the brain light up more, but others actually go darker. This is why it is so easy to focus on one task when using these drugs.

Traditionally, these drugs have been used to treat disorders such as ADHD, but have recently seen a huge rise in use across college campuses with students using it to study for exams or complete papers. Is there anything wrong with students gaining a pharmaceutical edge in their studies? Some argue that it’s like steroids for students and provides an unfair advantage. There may be some truth to this claim, as many athletes have been caught using modafinil as part of their doping regimens, such as baseball slugger Barry Bonds.

Regardless of the ethical implications, the existence of these drugs brings up some very interesting questions. How will we be able to manipulate our brain in the future? Substances that improve mental functioning in some way or another are currently labeled under the term “Nootropics,” and advancement in this field may lead to some very interesting developments. One day we may find ourselves able to manipulate our brain in intricate ways to bring about very specific results. Neuro-degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s will eventually be cured.

The technological singularity doesn’t only apply to machines, but to biological fields as well. We may very well find ourselves living in a future where we are all enhanced by Nootropics in one way or another on a daily basis.

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A Special Look: Minority Report

In this post we are going to take a closer look at the futuristic technology imagined in Steven Speilberg’s 2002 sci-fi thriller, Minority Report, starring Tom Cruise(Cruise is one of the biggest science-fiction fans in Hollywood).

The films plot is mostly based around the concept of the pre-recognition of crimes by psychic ladies with no hair, but another interesting aspect about the film is the fact that Speilberg gathered 15 scientific experts for a three day think-tank in order to get a realistic vision of what 2054 should look.

Looking back 10 years later, we can see that the film did an amazing job of predicting future technology. Here’s my favorite scene in the movie:

“You could use a Guinness John Anderton!”  The mall of the future seems almost as annoying as the internet before pop up blockers, and advertisers are working every day to make futuristic, personalized, digital advertisements a reality. The company leading the pack in this innovation is the NEC Corporation with their “Digital Signage Solutions.”

I love how creeped out the first guy is once he realizes what is happening. The digital sign technology seems to be ripped straight out of the movie, and can figure out statistics about the people it scans such as age, ethnicity, and gender. It won’t be long until signs are yelling at you personally as you walk by. I’m particularly excited to see the more controversial applications of this technology emerge. Imagine advertisements that specifically target overweight people, or people of certain ethnicities.

“John Anderton, it appears you are 20 pounds overweight. You should find out what Weight Watchers can do for you!”

There are far scarier applications of this technology as well. Imagine a mall that employs a large-scale system of cameras with these capabilities. They could track what stores you go to, how long you look at things, how often you are there, and what you spend. Now imagine such systems outside of malls, perhaps on the UK’s CCTV system that monitors the city’s streets. Once cameras are able to identify and keep statistics on people automatically, a whole new realm of possibility in regards to surveillance opens up. Your imagination can run wild with all the possibilities.

Paranoia of a 1984 police state aside, Minority Report has a few other technologies that have come to fruition. One scene shows that cars in the future drive themselves.

This time, its Google leading the charge on this new technology with their new driverless car that can navigate busy streets automatically.

It has already travelled over 200,000 in California alone, and states are already making legislation in preparation for when the new technology eventually goes commercial. My favorite part is how it’s advanced enough to switch lanes to allow other cars to pass it. That already makes it better than most the human drivers I encounter on the road.

Even though legislation and cost efficiency will keep this car off the roads for quite some time, the implications of driverless cars are immense. Imagine no more car accidents, no more traffic, and commutes with exact time of arrivals. There will be no more need for traffic enforcement, you’ll never have to pay a ticket again. Police will be able to stop vehicles with a push of a button. Your car could drop you off somewhere, find its own parking, and then pick you up exactly when you want to leave. Ambulances and emergency vehicles could have clear passage to their destinations as all the cars move out of their way in an automated and coordinated fashion. Traffic fatalities would become almost non-existent. To put that in perspective, in 2009, 93 people were killed on U.S. roadways per day.

Moving away from driverless cars, the piece of technology people seem to remember most from Minority Report is the multi-touch interface Tom Cruise uses to sort through the pre-cogs predictions, seen here:

While the interface in the movie is holographic, many strides have been made in multi-touch interfaces since the movie’s release. Here is a TED talk by John Underkoffler, where he mentions the UI from Minority Report and shows off a prototype of a similar system that navigates data by recognizing hand gestures in a 3-dimensional environment(Skip to 5:40 for the relevant bit):

My favorite part is how he drags an item from the big screen onto a separate, smaller screen of a different device. The games that could be made with this technology make me giddy, but the ability to visually manipulate data in an intuitive manner like this will revolutionize the way we interact with digital media. While I’m fairly certain that the keyboard will stay relevant as long as we still write in some form, we may very well see the death of the mouse within our lifetime as the way we interact with graphical user interfaces.

The combination of this concept with other technology, such as holograms, could lead to some pretty far out futuristic experiences. How long will it be before we are able to create something similar to the Holodeck from Star Trek? 3-d interactive digital environments seem to be a few jumps in technology away. Imagine walking into an empty room, only to have it transform into a digital representation of a kitchen, where graphical displays guide you through a step-by-step recipe where you must actually go through the motions of cooking something!

Minority Report is one of the best examples of how Science Fiction can be a predictor of future technologies, or even an educational tool that illuminates us to what is possible in our world.

Holographic Technology

A long long time ago, in a time period far, far away (1977 to be precise) Obi Wan Kenobi received an urgent message from a holographic image of Princess Leia:

The translucent, glowing, 3d depiction of Princess Leia wowed movie-goers as they marveled at the possibility of one day receiving such a message from across the galaxy. Today, we have used holographic technology in a wide range of applications, the most notably being the resurrection of the greatest rapper in history, Tupac Shakur, seen at this year’s Coachella Music Festival. WARNING: Obscene language present throughout the entire video

All kidding aside, this isn’t even the first time holograms have been used to entertain a crowd musically. In 2009, Hatsune Miku, the first “Vocoloid” to have a number 1 album in Japan, had her first concert that looked a lot like this, one of her later performances:

Hatsune Miku has over 100,000 songs to her name. She has sold out multiple upcoming shows in Tokyo this March. She is also a completely fictional entity. Users can write songs for her that she will automatically sing. Is this the beginning of a new form of entertainment, comprised completely of digital components? Tupac’s recent revival has caused a lot of speculation about what other entertainers could be brought back to life holographically. Would you go to a Jackson Five reunion concert with a holographic Michael?

There are strides being made every day in creating better holographic technology. One company that is pioneering the commercial use of this technology is Los Angeles based company called Immersive Technology. Here they show a form of a working 3-D hologram:

and here they show their “Immersion Room” product:

Will actual, physical meetings soon become a thing of the past? The logistics of gathering a group of people in the same room are severely limiting in today’s business world. Imagine the time and money that could be saved when all meetings could be done holographically, with each member never having to leave their house or office.

As holographic technology evolves, what other applications will we start to see? Certain obvious applications come to mind in fields like architecture and design, but I’m sure those of us with less technical backgrounds will be much more excited about the possibility of things like this:

So how far are we from a holographic ipad? Japanese scientists have already made touchable holograms, and some scientists believe that a commercially viable holographic television will be available within 10 years!

While it’s important to remember holographic technology can potentially benefit the human race in profound ways, it’s one of those things that just has countless applications for entertainment. With that in mind, I leave you with this display of holographic technology in Japan.

Imagine what other large scale holographic experiences could be created!

Virtual Reality

You wanted to know what the Matrix is?

The Matrix is the ultimate system of Virtual Reality, or a computer simulated environment, created by frightening machines that want to harvest the resources of our body.

Luckily, the virtual realities of today aren’t made by our computer overlords just yet, but every day we strive to create virtual environments for a variety of reasons. While nothing comes close to replicating reality to the point we can’t discern it from real life, we have already created a number of universes that many people seem to prefer from our own. Take some time and experience what a day in the universe of “Second Life” is like.

Now, what exactly did that person do in the video? Did he sit at his computer the entire day and night, typing, clicking, smoking cigarettes, and chugging soda straight from the bottle? Or did he walk out of his house, travel to multiple cities in his rocket car before ditching it to fly around, and get dressed up to go out for a night on the town? Is this what someone experiencing virtual reality looks like?

In Second Life, there is no way to win the game. You simply go about daily life as you would in meat-space. You can have a job, go to concerts where people are playing live music, join a new religion, or even visit a replica of Amsterdam where sex-workers will approach you on the street (Yes, players can even have sex).

The currency in Second Life called Lindens can even be converted to real money at about 250 Lindens to 1$ real dollar (here’s a guide to making money in Second Life that shows how closely it mirrors a real business). Some people have actually manged to make a living strictly off of Second Life.

While Second Life goes out of its way to mimic the real world, the most popular way for people to escape reality comes in the form of MMORPG’s such as World of Warcraft. The statistics for WoW are amazing. (It is important to note that the infographic  is based on statistics from last year, around May 2011. WoW currently has around 10.2 millions subscribers). It has a higher GDP than a surprisingly large number of countries. It seems like the human mind is quite capable of preferring a digital environment to a real one, as several players have become addicted to the game and need help to drop their habit. Sites such as wowaholics.org offer support aimed to help those whose live’s have been completely consumed by the virtual reality of WoW. IGN released a great video earlier this week that give a personal view into the life of a WoW addict here.

So is this what virtual reality is? A bunch of people sitting at computers? Or will the virtual reality of the future look a little more like the Virtusphere?

I, for one, cannot wait to get in my virtual reality hamster ball and run around in a digital playground.

The development of virtual reality extends far past just entertainment. There are tons of examples of the concept being put to practical use. Here we see how the military is using VR to train their soldiers :

And here we can see an example of it being used in the medical field, in this case to treat a soldier who has suffered severe burns by immersing him in “Snow World” while he receives painful therapy:

The fact that being in Snow World reduces the actual level of pain for the soldier shows the powerful way our mind reacts to these virtual realities. Imagine how VR can be used to train people in professional fields. Simulations of high-stress scenarios can be run without any risk to the participants, preparing for them for the real thing better than any other training exercise could hope to accomplish. Here’s an example of a VR training simulator for miners. Imagine what kind of simulations could be created as technology evolves.

So where will Virtual Reality take us in the future? Will the brain in a vat become an actual possibility? It’s impossible to know for sure, but I will leave you with our friend Ray Kurzweil’s vision of the future of Virtual Reality:

Bonus: to get an idea of what Kurzweil means when he talks about the virtual world being transposed on reality, check out this concept someone made based on the upcoming Google Glasses technology:

Science Fiction is Real

Aside

Welcome to ScienceFictionisReal! This blog’s mission is to get you to realize that you are currently living in the future.

What does that mean exactly? Well, do you remember what the future used to look like? Here, let me remind you by showing you the “You Will” series of commercials from AT&T in 1993. Try to name the technology as it goes along.

I bet most of you were able to name every technology they showed, but here’s a list for the cavemen reading this:
E-books
GPS directions
Mobile Faxes
Tablet computers
EZ-Pass
TicketMaster
Video Chat
Voice Activation
Medical History Card
Video Conferencing
Video-on-demand

These are all everyday parts of our lives that seemed like impossible visions of the future at one point. Some of you may even remember seeing these commercials and making noises like “Ooo” or “Ahhh”. However, now the future of 1993 looks a bit dated compared to today’s world, doesn’t it? I think we can safely say we are well past living in the future of 1993.

So let’s take a look at what Microsoft thinks the future of today looks like. See if you can name the technology this time around.

A little harder, no? I’m not going to make a list for you this time, because I honestly don’t even know what to call half the things in the video. Can you imagine if this video was shown in 1993? It probably wouldn’t even be taken seriously. People would think it’s just an exercise in imagination, like it’s some kind of Science-Fiction.
And that’s where we are currently. We are living in a time where things once thought impossible are lying  just out of reach of our fingertips. We are on the precipice of greatest revolution man-kind has ever seen.

In order to get an idea of where we are in history in regards to technology, you first must understand Moore’s Law. Intel co-founder Gordon E. Moore wrote a paper in 1965 that predicted that the number of transistors that could be placed on a circuit (and thus, the processing power of the computer chips they are used on) would double about every two years. Since 1965, Moore’s prediction has been dead on. As in, “as correct as something can ever be.” Here’s some proof:

Do you see how the number of transistors quickly approaches an absurd amount? That’s because the growth is exponential. Every two years it will double, no matter how high the count already is. Here’s a visual of how all exponential growths work over time:

Eventually, they just seem to go straight up. Moore’s law has since been expanded by some such as Ray Kurzweil to include all technology (The law of accellerating returns). So what does this mean to those of us that aren’t computer scientists? Where are we on the curve now?

Well, it seems like we are quickly approaching the point where the curve just goes straight up, where the evolution of technology is so rapid that for all practical purposes, it appears infinite to us. This point has been affectionately dubbed “The Technological Singularity”.

What happens when we reach it? No one knows. It’s not that no one has the imagination or the means to figure it out, but because we simply aren’t capable of knowing. You see, at some point we will be able to create a machine that is more intelligent than the entire human race combined. We have already seen examples of this happening with machines like “Deep Blue” beating the best chess player of all time, Gary Kasparov, and IBM’s Watson crushing Jepardy great Ken Jennings, but these machines are just the beginning.

Once we create a machine that is truly more intelligent than us, it is only logical that this machine will be used to create a machine that is smarter than itself, ad infinitum. The computer will be the only thing capable of making a better computer, and the computers will continue creating better versions of themselves. In his book, The Singularity is Near, Kurzweil has calculated that the point where machines will become as smart as humans and start creating their own self-evolving species will be sometime around 2045.

Are you beginning to understand how close we are to an era where the events of The Matrix are actually possible? Do you realize you live in the most remarkable period of human history?  This is the transition point between the old world and the new. People fly into outer-space for fun. The military uses lasers as weapons. People go to concerts where the performers are holograms. There is a possibility that you might live to be 200 years old.

You are living in the future. Science-Fiction is becoming reality.

I imagine right now you are feeling a bit like Alice, tumbling down the rabbit hole. Let me show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.

I invite you to read on, and I’ll show you specific examples of all the ways Science Fiction is blending with the real world. There will be a whole ton of links included on the way. This entire blog will be a combination of sources from all over the web. I invite you to take your time as you browse through and thoroughly explore the links, as often times I will present information in a link and not bother repeating it in text. This is to encourage to to really explore these sources, to further educate yourself outside of the blog. I won’t hold your hand and explain every single example, but I aim to give you a starting point that will give you access to a wealth of information about every topic.

I am going to avoid touching upon the dystopian side of science-fiction. You won’t see any (major) comparisons to Orwell’s 1984 or Huxley’s A Brave New World. I don’t want you to think about the machine overlords who run the Matrix, but rather to focus on the amazing fact that we are getting better and better at producing virtual realities every day. The intention of this blog is to get you excited about the possibilities the future holds for us, not to promote a fear of technology. I will be mainly focusing on showing you technology from popular movies that has become reality.

Remember, all I’m offering is the truth.