The world we live in is a wondrous place made more wondrous by technology. At least that’s how acclaimed author Brian Clegg sees it. Clegg is so excited about the future, he spends his time looking for spoilers in science fiction. In his new book, Ten Billion Tomorrows, Clegg dives deep into the sci-fi canon, exploring what happens when science meets wishful thinking (spoiler: cool stuff).
From his home in England, Clegg told Inverse about why he’s so pumped for what’s coming.
What current technology do you find the most fascinating?
I think it has to be information technology, because of the way it had totally transformed our lives. Think of a couple of specific examples — I’ve never met you. We’re located several thousand miles apart. Yet I can answer your questions as if you were sitting at an adjacent desk. Tomorrow, I’m going into London, a city about 100 miles from where I live. I have booked my train tickets and made my schedule online. I will pay for my travel on the Underground by waving my phone at the ticket barrier. When I come out of the station, that same phone will guide me through the London streets, remind me of my appointments and recommend a restaurant. This kind of thing is so familiar that it hardly seems worth commenting on. Yet 10 years ago, none of it would have been possible.
In what other ways do you find information technology to be particularly striking?
One reason it is so fascinating is that it has become such a deeply integrated part of our lives without our noticing it. Yet information technology has been transformative to everyday existence, both for business and pleasure - and has come far further than science fiction often expected. Look at the original series of Star Trek, set in the 23rd century. As far as space travel (and weaponry) goes, their world is unrecognizably futuristic. But their information technology is archaic. Spock has to mess around swapping disk-like objects to access data - he hasn’t got the Cloud. And, fun though a Star Trek communicator was, it was pathetically limited put alongside a modern smartphone.
Do you think that the most compelling technology out there today is interesting primarily because of its ability to help — or to hurt — man?
In science fiction, the scientist is often the bad guy, or at best clinical and amoral. Fictional science is very often about how to kill people and damage the world as effectively as possible. And of course we do have an arms industry, while the space program was built on the back of technology to deliver ballistic missiles. But in my experience, real scientists are just as much moral beings as the rest of us, and though science and technology can have unexpected negative consequences, I’d say both the intent and the fascination of most science and technology is to help us rather than to harm us. I take an optimistic view!
What technology from science fiction do you most wish existed in real life?
There’s so much to play with. Who wouldn’t want to try out an Iron Man suit or a rocket belt? And though I personally have no great interest in going into space, I really wish we could get back to having a strong series of manned exploratory missions into space, beyond the backyard trips to the International Space Station.
But I think in terms of a piece of technology I’d like to have access to, I go back to Star Trek, though this time The Next Generation, and go for the holodeck. Making a holodeck, a place where you can simulate being in any location with full interaction with your surroundings, is technically incredibly complicated. Probably more so than building starships. But if it were possible, it would be truly remarkable to be able to have all those experiences that most of us can never achieve. And what’s more, to do it without the environmental damage caused by our usual means of travel. It’s exciting and green!
Is there any technology from literature or film that you think we need to not mess with?
What I would definitely not like to see is the kind of artificial intelligence/ advanced humanoid robotics we have seen for a long time in science fiction, from Asimov’s robots [science fiction writer Isaac Asimov] to HAL in 2001: A Space Odessey, to the remarkable 2015 movie, Ex Machina. We would be playing with fire. I’m all in favor of function-specific robots and the kind of helper we get with Siri or Cortana, but push AI too far and the risks become exponential. Even if you could build a harmless sentient device, what makes anyone think it would just do what we wanted it to? I think a much more likely scenario is that it would enjoy itself streaming content from the internet and ignore anything asked of it.