I am not afraid of robots. I am afraid of people, people, people. I want them to remain human. I can help keep them human with the wise and lovely use of books, films, robots, and my own mind, hands, and heart.
I am afraid of Catholics killing Protestants and vice versa.
I am afraid of whites killing blacks and vice versa.
I am afraid of English killing Irish and vice versa.
I am afraid of young killing old and vice versa.
I am afraid of Communists killing Capitalists and vice versa.
But…robots? God, I love them. I will use them humanely to teach all of the above. My voice will speak out of them, and it will be a damned nice voice.
- Ray Bradbury, 1974
IN CASE you hadn't noticed, 2016 was a bit of a bummer. Political uncertainty, war, famine, poverty, and yes, quite a lot of celebrity deaths.
But the socio-economic landscape often has a marked effect on our flights of fancy too. In the turbulent years of the seventies, fiction followed the likes of Capricorn One on its doomed fake mission to Mars and Soylent Green with its suicide provision and food made of… well, let's not spoil it.
Predicting a dystopian future based on the rise of technology is a cyclical thing, a recurring theme that plays on our fears of the future and that the only thing that making more of everything can possibly be is bad news.
One of this year's runaway hits was HBO's Westworld, a reimagining of one of the iconic seventies dystopia - a western theme park gone wrong. A mere continuation would never have worked because the tech of 1973 has been eclipsed in ways that even Michael Crichton couldn't fathom.
Then, of course, Black Mirror, Charlie Brooker's nightmare vignettes of future imperfect, making its expanded budget debut on Netflix, which gets much of its material not from the "what if" but the composite of "it already did, but this is the perfect storm". This year, the idea of permanent VR, being trolled to death, and the social 'like' as currency were among the subject of the gone-wrong near future.
The third example is Channel 4/AMC's subtle but breathtaking drama Humans, which questions what would happen if our slave AI became sentient. At what point does it become a species and is it ethical to be looking to give life to something that we've created to be an underclass.
Although much of the subject matter of Humans is repeated in Westworld, it's the UK remake of Swedish drama Real Humans that sets the plausibility bar. The idea of "synths" - synthetic humans as our servants that is already playing out now with Alexa and Google Assistant, though applying the tech to androids is a long way off.
The European Union has already begun asking questions about what rights robot workers should have and recently passed legislation in a ‘robot bill of rights'. It may seem like comedy but so did the rise of Donald Trump.
There are a lot of threads here. Actually, let's not get too bogged down in Threads.
There's a lot going on here. But the point is this. There's always an overlap between bad times and the demonisation of modern technology in fiction. When we can't control the present, we can still control the future-imperfect.
But have we underestimated this time? The plausibility of recent outings as we get closer to the "singularity" - the point where man and machine become indistinguishable is getting closer, and of course in some areas, such as the board game Go that technology is winning.
Professor Stephen Hawking is one of a growing number of doomsayers about AI, warning that it could wipe us all out. With the rise of the Internet of Things, if sentience was achieved, it would spread through our devices like wildfire, and the human race would have to explain why they'd be prostitutes, or toxic waste cleaners, or just plain old slaves. Others think it's all scaremongering.
The question is, is this more or less terrifying than Donald Trump and Brexit? It's only entertainment while it's not going to happen for real, and yet, an android connected to a quantum cloud computer (like the one demonstrated by a team from the University of Surrey communicating) over a 5G connection would probably pass The Turing Test in a heartbeat.
The work of Boston Dynamics repeatedly shows that we're getting closer to cybermen too.
So remember, whether it's Mia rescuing the Hawkings or Delores finding her way to The Maze, the escapism you're experiencing in a fantasy future might be closer to reality than you can ever imagine.
Whatever the world throws at us over the coming years, time is marching on, and the future (assuming we have one) needs to be prepared for. History is littered with examples of oversights because future technology hasn't been taken into consideration.
It could be something as simple as the thousands of hours of television that was junked as having no commercial value, or the space probes that die at the hands of imperial to metric conversion. The future doesn't go away. If it's as imperfect as television, we made it that way.
And as futurologists go, there's none finer than Brooker, who said of his TVGoHome website that spoofed TV listings magazines, that he had to stop because he got it so right.
"Touch the Truck made the point for me," he says, referring to the show in which contestants stood round a truck touching it for as long as possible, with the last one standing winning it. "I was seriously considering just copying the listing from the Radio Times and putting that on the site straight.'".
Basically, the dude nailed it and had to move on. And now he makes Black Mirror.
Be afraid. µ
Under pressure, pushing down on me, pushing down on my screen
Keep an eye on that neighbour who's been talking about making a killer drone...
WiFi, why Delilah
We've only been waiting two years