A Worldbuilding Example – Part II: Sci-Fi Technology

We’ve got a lot of high-level decisions to make before we get into the gritty details. Since this’ll be a sci-fi setting, deciding on the availability and prevalence of various technologies—particularly those staples of the genre—seems a good next step. What follows are the decisions I’ve made for the setting.

Consciousness Transfer/Mind Uploading: This is a popular topic lately, both in speculative science and fiction. Ray Kurzweil and his like assure us that we will soon be able to digitally transfer our minds into mechanical bodies and live forever. The ability to do this is an important facet of Altered Carbon and the Eclipse Phase RPG. I, however, don’t believe that this will ever be possible. Most important, we’ll never actually know if it works—I cannot with surety know that another person is actually conscious. Yes, this is somewhat solipsistic, but we simply don’t have an objective test to prove consciousness, just a set of tools that leads us to assume consciousness. This leads to some problems when a “transfer” of consciousness could result in a resemblance of transferred consciousness but with the actual result of killing the actual possessor of the consciousness.

The Kurzweil argument, while having a strangely spiritual component, is a materialist one. As I’ve discussed on the theological side of the blog, I don’t find materialist science to be very convincing when it comes to existential questions.

Add to this that we don’t really understand the origin or nature of consciousness (see the “hard problem” of qualia, for instance) and I have substantial doubts about the possibility of mind uploading.

Possible or not (and, in all candor, we don’t know whether it is or not and maybe advances in science will find some way to answer the question definitively), there is no denying that mind-transference makes for interesting stories. If digital immortality is included in your world, you have the potential to create some truly mythopoeic stories.

Nevertheless, I have decided that, in this setting, this technology has either been proved to be unsuccessful or that there is insufficient confidence in the effectiveness of the available technologies for anything to have been widely adopted. This preserves the dramatic power of death and the threat thereof and helps push us toward some grit in the setting.

DNI (Direct Neural Interface): Current science is making great strides in the interface between the brain and technology for multiple purposes—prosthetics, mental control of computers, even devices that—with training—can roughly predict what a person is looking at based on brainwaves.

Whatever the possibility of transferring consciousness from a meat-brain, there’s no question about the possibility of the brain interacting with computerized devices. Thus, this technology will be prevalent and in many forms—electronic “telepathy,” direct mental control of devices and machines, full-immersion virtual reality (almost indistinguishable from “real” reality), memory recording and transference (think Strange Days).

Ubiquitous Computing: We’re already starting to see more and more devices connected to the internet to gain even the slightest of advantages over offline versions. With inventions such as “smart dust” and more effective signals transmission, very few places would be out of the reach of the equivalent of the internet. Combined with “standard” augmentations, most people have the opportunity to be “online” to the extent that they wish to be and to mentally interface with most constructed objects (systems security aside, of course) in their immediate environment.

FTL Travel and Communication: I don’t know what it is, exactly, but I find the possibility of being unable to travel to the vast majority of the universe kind of depressing. While there are a few theoretical methods for beating Einstein’s speed limit (like the Alcubierre Drive), it seems that faster-than-light travel is not in our near future.

I don’t care. Faster-than-light travel is fun and I don’t want to get into the existential horror of relativistic time. I’m going to use the classic “hyperspace/slipspace” conceit—a spacecraft with the proper type of engine can shift into a physical dimension with a different geometry or rules of physics than our own that, with caveats and complications, allows for travel at much greater than speed of light.

Under the rationale for FTL travel, I could potentially see some ability to send data through the same medium for instantaneous communication. However, I want to complicate things somewhat—a delay in the receipt of an important message may have Shakespearean proportions of drama, and I’d like to capture some of that. So here’s what I’m going to say: FTL communication requires an open connection between two places in “normal” space through “hyperspace.” Data can’t simply be converted into data in hyperspace and transmitted, it must be “beamed through” a wormlike tunnel through hyperspace.

This means that ships will need to have the capability to send messages by opening up temporary connections to known communications hubs to send messages. This makes the manufacture and control of those communications hubs strategically valuable, provides for some time-delay for communications, requires spaceships to hold a position to receive reply messages and requires ships communicating through FTL to route through communications hubs. This nuance I think will give us some ready story hooks.

Human Augmentation: The types and qualities of human augmentation will be extensive. The cyberpunk genre has focused on “chrome” and mechanically-based augmentations or bio-engineered alternatives. Certainly there will be some of each, but current research seems to indicate that much human augmentation will be a hybrid of the biological and digital, with researchers working on making biological computer analogues (on a small-scale, of course) and the embedding of artificial substances in biological ones (like enhanced eye lenses or retinal structures).

I’m not sure that any sentient alien species in this setting will necessarily have much real communication and contact with humanity, so augmentation will provide for a broad array of differentiated “subspecies” of the Homo genus.

Human augmentation will also be responsible for a widened socio-economic gap between the “haves” and “have-nots.” Manufacturing techniques (see below) may be in the process of democratizing augmentation, but the sharp divide in wealth exacerbated by the earliest waves of limited-availability augmentations still has continuing effects.

In addition to having practical benefits, I expect human augmentation to have become an important means of self-expression—tattoos and piercings on the next level, so to speak.

Terraforming: Human colonization will have been heavily supported by the science of terraforming. Planets must have certain inherent characteristics (like being in the habitable zone of a star) to be eligible for such transformation, but the process itself (probably provided by AI) has been mostly successful.

When first set to thinking about this setting, I thought to avoid space opera “one-terrain” worlds—the jungle moon of Endor, the one-massive-desert of Tatooine that people still somehow decided was a good place to make a home, etc. However, when I decided that terraforming would be a distinct technology, I started to think about places with artificially-created and not-entirely-but-close homogenous biomes. This makes sense especially for small “luxury” worlds

Manufacturing: Nanofactories, or “nanofacs” are essentially highly-advanced 3-d printers. With the proper raw materials, a nanofac can construct anything that will fit within it and for which it has the schematics. Contemporary design (as is largely already the case) is computer-based rather than through the construction of physical prototypes.

This creates some subissues for economics and society that I’ll have to work through: How are schematics controlled? What is the current state of intellectual property law and how extensive is schematic piracy? Is the economy based almost solely on the provision of raw materials and services?

AI and Robotics: There is much fear about artificial intelligence in our modern society (and perhaps rightly so). Reference I, Robot or Terminator. However, I’m going to go a different direction from many sci-fiction settings:

The major qualm about “artificial intelligence” is that we can’t really know if the highest-level hardware/software programs are actually sentient or only very good Turing machines. Nevertheless, humans actually managed to achieve what AI they have in a responsible and precautionary manner. Only limited AI with strict programming protocols and protections from “emergent” features are allowed any autonomy or connectivity. Agent/Assistant programs and robots alike are significantly limited in their capacities—usually only able to perform a limited number of tasks with superhuman effectiveness and otherwise possessing capabilities below that of the average human.

“True AI” as humans think of it are built in self-contained units without any wireless or general connectivity to the world at large. Data is input either by hand or through portable storage devices rather than through the kinds of free data-exchanges used by most technological devices.

AI is used only for research—for the creation and analysis of large-scale simulations to improve scientific and technological understanding. Much of the work of AI research is “catching up” to an understanding of the data output by an AI to make something useful from the machine’s own conclusions.

Rather than approach things from the robot’s side, as Aasimov and others have done, I want to look more at how humans react to living in proximity to artificially created entities that probably aren’t really sentient but about which one cannot truly tell. Some recent sci-fi work has already started to explore this topic (Robot and Frank; Her).

Spaceships: Spacecraft capable of FTL travel will be too large and heavy to exit the gravity of most planets upon landing, so smaller “landers” and “lifters” are used to transport people and goods from a planet to a true starship.

I have identified a need to do some research into what current scientist think that ship-to-ship warfare between starships would look like. While I like the idea of age-of-sail-in-space type combats, I have a distinct feeling that actual starship battles would be far more like a big game of Battleship—trying to find the enemy at extreme range before he finds you.

Artificial Gravity: I have to admit being pretty torn about this one. There are really two things we’re talking about when we talk about artificial gravity. The first is essentially “anti-gravity,” the ability to provide lift significant-enough to allow hovering without the heat and energy of some sort of thruster. There are enough alternatives with actual scientific plausibility (ground effect vehicles and the like) to provide this without resorting to the scientifically implausible, and I appreciate that.

The rub comes about with “true” artificial gravity—the ability to simulate gravity in a spaceship and thus avoid the inconvenience and strangeness of weightlessness in space. While there are ways (rotating structures, for instance) to simulate gravity, current science predicts that—because gravity is a part of the shape of the cosmos and not particle-based force—artificial gravitic fields are essentially impossible.

I remain undecided whether to use artificial gravity anyway or resort to more real-world solutions.

Power Sources: I’m going to use antimatter as a source for large-scale power, fusion for smaller applications and very advanced batteries for most portable power solutions.

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