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Science Fiction Turned Realities Gone Wild

I wrote this Op-Ed piece for a Science Communication Workshop I’m in at NYU.

Science Fiction Turned Realities Gone Wild

Science fiction can often predict the future. Star Trek’s communicators foreshadowed the cell phone. 1984’s Big Brother exposed privacy concerns now relevant. We must take a look at the current science fiction world and ask ourselves if we are ready, as a society, to face some drastic future scenarios. I present two such cases.

Margaret Atwood’s 2003 novel Oryx and Crake illustrates a society in which some amalgam of climate change and pharmaceutical corporation sin decimates any hope for mankind in the next century. As disease treatments turn to cures, drug companies must transmit their own crafted viruses to the populace in order to sell their highly profitable viral cures. While we have yet to catch wind of weaponized viruses in the current state, little imagination is needed to envision this possibility. Viral engineering is commonplace in modern molecular biology. Typically, viruses’ contents are emptied and replaced with tools for performing some action inside cells. Replacing these contents with an engineered illness is a definite goal in biological warfare.

Are we ready for this? Viral weapons in the hands of the pharmaceutical industry may seem better than at doorstep of terrorists. Atwood’s story clearly portrays a dark dimension. I’ll avoid a spoiler and just say that not many people win this one. Without clear and open communication with the scientific community and the public, the effects of ill-intentioned biology will be devastating. We must keep close tabs on the intent of all research. We must place a keen eye on ethical boundaries. And in order to avoid a public decrying of all things science, scientists must educate individuals to prevent poor misunderstanding of good science.

Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylors’s 2009 film Gamer, featuring dreamy man-of-war Gerard Butler, is an action video game player’s mega-fantasy. Rotten Tomatoes gave it 29%, but it still raked in from the customers whose film standards require guns and explosions. This movie had only and plenty of both. What it lacks in richness though it makes up for in concept. A crazed scientist creates a brain-implantable “nanex.” This nanex is a virus-like computer that integrates into the brain and acts as other neurons do. It then replicates and spreads throughout the cortex, until the nanex enslaves the brain. A remote player then controls all actions of “nanexed” slaves in a game. The game possibilities span from social, pornographic to military in nature.

The “computerized mind” plot is Matrix-esque, but is perhaps more immediately relevant given the staggering number of individuals who feed the online engines of social networking, pornography, and gaming. Voluntary submission of brain control may be reasonable, and perhaps scientists should aim to develop such a system. Such an entertainment market would be huge. The concern of science should not be to place a moral referendum on the video game community. Flash to Transformer’s scene where a toaster and refrigerator morph into sentient missile-loaded robots seeking to attack man. Here, it is not difficult to stretch a “robot versus man” scenario into a “man versus man” scenario where hackers control nanexed individuals to do really bad things. This is loosely the plot of any Star Trek episode involving the Borg. The concern of science here should not be to avoid implantable brain chips or even remote mind control. The public needs adequate knowledge and legal control of ethically sensitive possibilities. Likewise, scientists’ concern should be to outline ethical boundaries before issues erupt. If the US military drafts young men, could it then control soldiers remotely? Should we monitor public employee’s minds?

Does anyone considered these scenarios? If not, then we’ve got problems. And while the issues raised in these stories are not realizable this very moment, they will be at the forefront of our society in the not so distant future. Though ignorance is bliss, a scientifically-informed population is perhaps our strongest hope for a world free of viral nukes and high tech zombies.

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