Source Code, a sci-fi thriller released last week, is based on the premise that science will let people really get into each other’s heads. The eponymous technology, the trailer tells us, is a computer program that “enables you to cross over into another man’s identity.” What results is a scenario that’s part Matrix, part Groundhog Day: lugged into the Source Code program, Jake Gyllenhaal—er, Captain Colter Stevens—lives through the last eight minutes of another man’s consciousness, just before the man’s train was blown up in a terrorist attack, in an effort to identify the bomber. (Stevens’s body, like Neo’s, stays in one place while his mind is elsewhere.) When the first run-through fails to turn up a culprit, Stevens relives those eight minutes again and again, having a different experience—new conversations, new sensations—each time.
Could something like that ever happen? While much of the technology in Source Code will remain purely fiction, says University of Arizona neuroscientist and electrical engineer Charles Higgins, modern science may eventually let us take a peek at, and even play around with, someone else’s consciousness. Among the movie’s technological inventions, Higgins says, “the idea of monitoring and influencing consciousness with a physical neural interface is the most plausible.”
These things always start small: First someone programs a computer to read minds, and next thing you know it’ll be Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and we’ll all be erasing unpleasant memories.
And how long a step can it be from there to the trippy I’m-in-your-mind sequences from The Cell, or even, dare I say it, The Matrix itself? And the mind-reading computer that starts it all? We’re getting there.
Maybe it was the success of The Matrix, or maybe it was the age of the Internet that did it, but in the last 10 years, it’s no longer flying cars or fast-talking robots that symbolize the world of the future. No, these days it’s the ability to almost touch piles of data that has become the sine qua non of quality futuristic imaginings. Case in point, Minority Report. The high point of that film (for me, anyway) had to be when Tom Cruise dons his info gloves and commences a magnificent danse du data, shuffling through the visions of the precogs accompanied by the strains of Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony. Down here in small screen land, Knight Rider‘s writers make data manipulation a staple of the show.
Fringe, J.J. Abrams’ (of Lost and Alias fame) latest show, last night featured the unintended fall out from an attempt to grow humans in tanks. Since the goal of the original attempt was to produce fully grown soldiers, bypassing the normal wait time of 9 months plus 18 years, some liberties were taken with growth hormones in order to accelerate aging. Thus fall out, such as a baby that goes from conception to death of old age within a few hours.
Growing human beings outside the confines of a real uterus–ectogenesis–has been a staple of science-fiction since at least Aldus Huxley’s Brave New World: it was a critical element in The Matrix, and even featured in a recent Doctor Who episode. It’s also been a staple of real science for some time: in 1996, Japanese researchers were able to keep goat fetuses alive and developing for 3 weeks in their artificial womb. In 2002, researchers at Cornell were able to keep human embryos alive and developing for several days, after which the experiments were terminated to stay within embryonic research ethics rules.
This real research is driven by the desire to help childless people, or dangerously premature babies, and not, say, a hankering for a super-soldier production line. But if the day comes when we can produce a child with just a smear of genetic material and a machine, then we will have to do some deep thinking. On the one hand, this kind of technology could allow us to colonize distant star systems (instead of trying to keep humans alive for hundreds of years of interstellar travel, send a robot and some DNA), while on the other it could lead to the creation of an entirely new underclass of humanity, a la the “tanks” of Space: Above and Beyond.