August 7, 2013 | 1
A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about the rules of time travel in the new(ish) SyFy series Continuum for Nautilus. It’s among my favorite current series, and not just because it offers an intelligent treatment of what one might call the Time Traveler’s Dilemma: deciding between “Whatever happened, happened and I can’t change the future” or an alternate timeline for the master rule book. Continuum also features engaging characters, solid writing, high emotional stakes, and tight plotting. (Fellow diehard fans should check out Charlie Jane Anders’ weekly recaps over at io9.) Here’s how I described the show’s premise over at Nautilus [NOTE: mild spoilers below.]:
In the pilot, a band of guerilla freedom fighters called “Liber8” are sentenced to execution for blowing up a corporate headquarters, killing tens of thousands of people. But they escape via a time travel device, taking a law enforcement officer (“protector”) named Kiera with them, and all end up in 2012 by mistake—60 years earlier than they’d planned.
Naturally, hijinks ensue. Liber8 seeks to change the future and thwart the eventual rise of the corporate conglomerate; Kiera wants to return to her husband and son, and hence wants the future to remain intact. She worms her way into the Vancouver Police Department as a special liaison, and teams up with a teenaged computer whiz named Alec, who will eventually grow up to become one of the corporate kingpins of the future (Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Warren Buffett rolled into one). His elder self may have even played a role in sending them all to 2012 in the first place.
Each episode spends at least a little time in that decidedly dystopian future, fleshing out its characters’ back stories via flash forwards instead of flashbacks. But here’s the thing: it’s an instantly recognizable future, where daily life doesn’t look radically different from how we live today.
Sure, a Corporate Congress has replaced the dismantled US government, and done away with many of the civil rights we currently take for granted. But people still go to work, marry and start families, teach at universities, and host small dinner parties with friends, and gender equality appears to be a given in that society — so much so, it doesn’t even merit comment. And while there’s all manner of exotic cutting-edge technology, a quick scan of current science headlines reveals that many of those fictional gadgets and gizmos already exist in some crude prototype form.
The seeds of our technological future are being sown in the scientific research of today. Check out the opening scene from the pilot:
We’ve seen those interactive glass tabletop computer displays before, and not just in the 2002 film Minority Report. The high-tech domestic scenes could have been lifted straight from the advertising video for Cornell Glass (“A Day Made of Glass”) that was making the rounds a couple of years ago. There’s even a sequel video (plus a Making Of video). The prototype technology is already here. It’ll be so commonplace as to be boring by 2077, thanks in part to the efforts of artist/scientist John Underkoffler of Oblong Industries. I blogged about his work back in 2010:
While working on his PhD [at MIT], Underkoffler designed a gestural interface system (now known as G-Speak), which allows users to navigate and interact with data by interpreting a user’s motion so the user can move through datasets with no need for a computer mouse or any other physical object to do so. Hollywood art director Alex McDowell heard about it, and asked Underkoffler to consult on Minority Report to help director Steven Spielberg create a believable world 50 years into the future….
The filmmakers decided to use Underkoffler’s work on the gestural interface system to build a forensic analysis display. They needed a cool new technology to help Cruise’s character sift through all the images collected from the “pre-cogs” and match them to information on file within their massive database, all showcased on a gigantic curved display, using their hands to “conduct” the information — with no voice technology, no keyboards, and no mice. Drawing on his prior work, Underkoffler literally invented a sign language for the film drawing on bona fide sign language for the deaf, SWAT signals, and musical systems, among other sources and synthesized into a new language.
Underkoffler’s MIT research is the basis for G-Speak, Oblong’s signature technology platform for spatially-aware, multi-user, multi-screen, multi-device systems, now being used by several leading Fortune 500 companies. Imagine what such systems will be capable of by 2077.
As a Protector, Kiera has access to the best high-tech elements in law enforcement, starting with her full-body catsuit of a uniform. Sure, it’s figure-hugging (and Kiera has quite the figure), but it’s also practical: it serves as flexible body armor, allowing for free range of movement yet deflecting bullets and other potentially harmful impacts as needed.
Once again, we already have prototypes for flexible body armor, as the Wall Street Journal noted last year. At the 2006 Olympics, members of the US and Canadian ski teams all wore body suits containing a mesh called d30 — a combination of a viscous fluid and a polymer — capable of hardening in less than a thousandth of a second in response to impact, before instantly becoming flexible again. And that’s just one commercial product.
The key is the materials used. One approach is to soak, say, Kevlar in a shear-thickening fluid (STF), which is flexible like a liquid normally, but behaves like a solid when it encounters mechanical stress or shear, like from the impact of a bullet. Then, it hardens in a few milliseconds. Alternatively, you could reinforce the Kevlar with magnetorheological (MR) fluid, i.e., oils filled with iron particles. Per How Stuff Works:
The trick is activating the fluid’s change of state. Since magnets large enough to affect an entire suit would be heavy and impractical to carry around, researchers propose creating tiny circuits running throughout the armor. Without current flowing through the wires, the armor would remain soft and flexible. But at the flip of the switch, electrons would begin to move through the circuits, creating a magnetic field in the process. This field would cause the armor to stiffen and harden instantly. Flipping the switch back to the off position would stop the current, and the armor would become flexible again.
Clearly, the Protectors in 2077 have suits where this sort of thing has been perfected. But Kiera’s suit has even more extra value added, in the form of wearable electronics, with control panels embedded in her sleeve and hip.
It’s already possible to, say, access Twitter via your shirt, or embed bluetooth technology in a stylish pair of earrings, or outfit your clothing with LEDs, so it can change color, or sensors, actuators, even microcontrollers so it can change shape. (Jen-Luc Piquant hears that smart watches could be the Next Big Thing.) Kiera’s suit appears to be an advanced kind of electronic textile: fabrics in which electronic/digital components are woven in, for a seamless integration between clothing and technology.
Kiera’s electronic capabilities go way beyond merely being wired at all times. Her suit can change color from bronze to black, for instance. Among the many other functions she can control is a nifty cloaking/invisibility function. Anyone who follows science news has read about various ingenious approaches to cloaking technology currently in development.
For example, scientists at the University of Tokyo have a system that works on the same principles of the blue screen used by the film and television industry. Just film what’s behind you and project it onto the cloak you’re wearing, made of retro-reflective material. Voila! Your body will appear invisible — provided the viewing angle is strictly limited.
At this year’s TED conference, a scientist from Nanyang Technological University in Singapore demonstrated his own version of an invisibility “cloak“: a small box made of calcite optical crystal that successfully bent light around an object, so that anything behind it was invisible to the audience. It’s conceptually similar to metamaterials, which guide rays of light around an object — much like a rock diverting water in a stream.
This is still a far cry from the highly advanced cloaking function of Kiera’s suit. There, it seems as though certain metamaterials or carbon nanotubes are woven into the fabric itself, along with all the electronics, so the cloaking function can be activated with the touch of a button. (Alec does bring up embedded carbon nanotubes when Kiera first describes her suit to him; she says the suit is grown, not constructed.) The nanotube approach is similar to how desert mirages occur. Per How Stuff Works, “Heated via electrical stimulation, the sharp temperature gradient between the cloak and the surrounding area causes a steep temperature gradient that bends light away from the wearer. The catch: Wearers must love water and be able to fit inside a petri dish.” Yeah, there’s always a catch.
Kiera is also part Cyborg; she has had her sensory and memory capabilities enhanced with electronic implants:
There is something called a Liqui-Chip in her neck (also called a CMR) that passively records everything she experiences on duty, so that she can download the files at the end of the day for permanent storage. It’s how she manages to communicate with teenaged Alex, the technology’s creator, who has a rough prototype of that frequency already up and running in 2012 and is pretty surprised when someone horns in unexpectedly — even more so when that person turns out to be from 2077.
And as Kiera’s supervisor points out, the CMR’s passive recording function is dead useful for preserving records for use in criminal trials, although requiring everyone to be “chipped” is a bit too Big Brother for my tastes. Bonus: she can inject a “tag” into suspects to track them (or cause substantial pain if suspects don’t turn themselves into the nearest holding facility).
She also has special contact lenses that have a kind of implanted heads-up display, enabling her to quickly scan a crime scene or witness, for example, to get real-time forensic readings (or measure physiological responses in potential liars) — a futurist outgrowth of today’s Big Data analysis, perhaps. Honestly, you’d think she’d be a bit more careful before agreeing to “test” a neuro-based immersive virtual reality game that (predictably) knocks her implanted system offline, forcing her to go to Alec for a reboot.
Again, all these technologies currently exist in crude prototype form today. Digital eyewear (glasses) with a built-in heads-up display already exists, — Google Glass, anyone? — and it’s just a matter of time before there’s a version for contact lenses. The tracking device looks like some kind of RFID tagging of the future: Dogs and cats are now routinely chipped, and VeriChip Corp. is just one commercial company interesting in extending that technology to human beings, implanting people with microchips with unique identification numbers that link to a VeriChip medical database containing emergency contact information and medical histories.
As for the CMR implant in Kiera’s neck, there are numerous projects centered on developing so-called Brain-Computer Interfaces (BCIs), some of which are invasive, in that they are implanted in the grey matter of the brain. For instance, a tetraplegic named Matt Nagle managed to control an artificial hand using a BCI known as BrainGate back in 2005. More recently, Todd Coleman of the University of California, San Diego, has been developing a thin, flexible BCI that can be worn on the skin like a temporary tattoo, potentially able to transmit information wirelessly to a computer. Kiera’s CMR is not outside the realm of possibility, especially given a 60-year time frame.
What about weapons? Well, clearly Kiera and her fellow time travelers are no strangers to knives, stun guns, and firearms of all calibers. Her own standard issue weapon seems to be more closely resemble the phasers from Star Trek, with the added bonus of a projected display to help with aiming at a target.
Oh, it’s also compact, folding into a small oblong shape for easy carrying. And it’s protected by biometrics: if anyone other than Kiera attempts to use it, the gun backfires — which got her out of at least one tricky situation in Season 2.
Smart guns are already a thing, although those now commercially available rely on magnetic rings rather than advanced biometrics. The gun is outfitted with a magnetic blocking device that can only be over-ridden if the user is wearing a magnetic ring. Mossberg has a “smart” shotgun that relies on RFID tagging; the owner wears a ring that corresponds to the tag.
On the truly biometric front, scientists at the New Jersey Institute of Technology have a prototype personalized gun with biometric sensors in the grip and trigger, programmed to recognize a specific user’s hand size, strength, and “dynamic grip.” Ditto for a company called BIOMAC, which uses an array of optical sensors molded into the handle of the weapon. It’s not concerned with something as mundane as fingerprints; it measures biometric data below the skin.
Kiera also seems to have some kind of all-purpose tool, similar in concept to Doctor Who’s sonic screwdriver, which comes in handy when she needs to boost a car. It’s a strong case against SmartCar keyless ignitions, frankly — already a growing concern, despite the convenience. If your car can parallel park itself, it does so via onboard computers connecting tons of sensors and actuators, and that system can be hacked pretty easily.
At least a couple members of Liber8 are ex-military operatives who’ve gone a bit off the range, shall we say, possibly because of all the chemical enhancements (human growth hormone is mentioned in particular) they’ve undergone to turn them into better soldiers. “Supersoldiers” are very likely to be a reality in the future, although the exact form such enhancements might take is still being hammered out. But DARPA is already investing in various research projects aimed at enhancing human strength and endurance, not to mention being largely impervious to pain.
Personally, I can’t wait to have access to Kiera’s makeup application technique, which seems to employ electrostatic effects for a flawless look, whether applying foundation, mascara, or eye shadow. It seems similar in approach to current air-brushing techniques, except scaled down for use by the untrained consumer.
And what young woman wouldn’t want to trade in their urine-based home pregnancy tests for the version that exists in 2077? Just lick a square diagnostic strip and stick it onto any glass display around your house, and voila! Instant verification not only of being in the family way, but it can also tell you the baby’s gender. (Okay, that one might be a stretch, even for 2077…. But there is already a prototype home pregnancy testing kit based on saliva sampling.)
I could go on, but you get the point.
When Kiera first signs up as a Protector, her supervisor admonishes her to trust the technology and not rely on her gut instincts, however tempting that might be: “It’s the technology that will make you a great Protector.” The technology is undeniably cool, and it does give her some terrific advantages over her 2012 partner, Carlos. But is it really all she needs? Not surprisingly, his influence gets her to start relying a bit more on her instincts — partly as a survival strategy, since who knows how long her technological advantage will last if she’s stuck indefinitely in the past?
Ultimately, though, the best argument for the human factor lies in her relationship with the teen hacker Alec. With no access to the databases of 2077, Alec becomes Kiera’s secret weapon, tracking down information, hacking into databases to create a believable identity for her, and even repairing her suit in a pinch. She’d be lost without his help. So maybe she should be a little nicer to him, yanno?
The point is that our technology is only as good (or bad) as the human beings behind it. On top of all its other strengths, Continuum does a great job of making that case.