This week’s question comes in honor of the wormhole-traveling abilities possessed by the characters from the big CGI-heavy blockbuster this weekend, A Wrinkle In Time:
What’s something from futuristic fiction you really wish existed?
Boy, do I wish I had a teleportation device like Star Trek’s transporter. I hesitate to even get into the inner workings of the transporter, lest I offend some of the more dedicated Star Trek devotees on staff. But I do know that I am perpetually running late, all the time, everywhere I go, and it would be nice to be able to instantly dematerialize and beam myself from place to place instead of begging my friends and colleagues to tolerate this annoying personality trait. Thankfully, recent advances in quantum physics have taken the concept of teleportation from “completely impossible” to “suicidal, but theoretically possible,” and who knows what the next few decades of research will bring? All that is to say that I will be on time for that 9 a.m. staff meeting sometime in 2050, assuming things go more “Beam me up, Scotty” and less “Be afraid. Be very afraid” in the interim.
The Jetsons sucks—it’s a hokey, slapsticky assemblage of ’60s sitcom cliches set to a typically braying Hanna-Barbera laugh track that’s memorable solely for its attractively midcentury vision of the future—but I will give it credit for one incredible invention: a car that folds up into a briefcase with the push of a button. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve wished for one of those while I’m driving around Chicago looking desperately for street parking (particularly during the winter when residents trot out lawn chairs and the like to call “dibs” on their shoveled-out spots). How I’d love to just hop out and collapse my car into something I could carry with me, flying or not. Some cartoon-loving eggheads at the MIT Media Lab invented a folding car prototype back in 2012, although theirs only reduces the car’s size to about a third of a parking space. It’s a start, I guess.
People on Star Trek shows are always griping about the replicators that produce all their food and drinks—their inability to adequately replicate a home-world’s signature dish, for example. Characters are seen cooking, presumably for the “joy” of it, but also out of a sort of disdain for replicated food. I like to think that I’d still cook occasionally, too, but good lord it’d be easier if I could have a replicator on-hand to fire off something relatively straight-forward—perhaps a soup—on a Tuesday night when I haven’t really gone shopping and would much rather do anything else than prepare a meal. The notion of having a breakfast burrito materialize in my home when I’m hungover is too glorious to really parse. And, listen, I’m not being purely selfish here: The replicator is one of the core technologies that enabled Trek’s post-scarcity future. Everyone would benefit!
I know war is bad and it’s awful to hope for some kind of conflict, but wouldn’t war be better if it were fought in space with giant robots? Imagine flipping on the evening news and seeing the planet’s ace pilots fighting against some kind of space menace like in Robotech or Gundam. It would probably be horrifying and extremely destructive, but it would also be very cool. I’d even happily join up with a giant robot crew, if only so I could heroically take command of the machine when the real hero is tragically killed in battle. I’m not sure what practical purposes these giant robots could have beyond dramatic space battles, but as long as we take care of pressing stuff like world hunger and global warming first, I think humanity should be able to afford to start blowing trillions of dollars on big robots.
I hate to jump on The Jetsons as the arbiter of futuristic society, but what I wouldn’t give for my own robot maid like Rosie. Since I spend half my time at home picking up Legos and the other half folding laundry, I would take a helpful AI personal assistant android over time travel or flying cars. Having someone else clean out the fridge and do the vacuuming would add hours to my free time, and likely years to my life. According to pop culture, all those future houses and condos are perfectly pristine anyway, with many windows and a decor that might stray all the way from from pure white to ivory; I can only imagine that there must be scores of tidy robot armies keeping them that way. (Unless we’re talking about dystopian future societies, in which case: all dust, all the time.)
If sci-fi has taught us anything, it’s that time travel is a terrible idea. It invites only chaos, and it has the potential to destroy the universe. Granted, I’m basing this mostly on the hundreds of times I’ve watched Back To The Future and the time I had to read Ray Bradbury’s “A Sound Of Thunder” in the seventh grade, but I think I get it. All of that said, I’d still like to be able to travel back and forward in time, preferably in some sort of invisible bubble that can’t interact with anything and thus change the course of history/future history. Though I’d probably still end up wrecking things by stepping on a leaf or something.
There are a lot of really great futuristic gee-gaws out there, but if I only get one pick of what to drag into the present, the choice is easy: digital brain uploading. Let’s face it: I’m ready to shuck this fat, aging flesh husk and become the ghost in the shell, baby; no more sickness, no more death, just an infinite virtual heaven, my brain at play in the fields of consciousness. “Who wants to live forever?” people in TV and movies ask, far too often, and I always think, “Me, immediately, please.” Sure there’s a chance it’ll all go wrong, and I’ll become some sort of online zombie or banshee (or worse, stored on a forgotten USB drive and chucked in a desk drawer or a landfill somewhere). But the way I figure, a little immortality has got to be worth the risk. Bring it on, Johnny Depp: It’s Transcendence time.
As terrifying as the idea of letting a doctor pluck out my eyeballs sounds, it might be worth it if I came out the other end with a sweet pair of bionic eyes. We already have some basic, experimental forms of visual prosthesis, working like the optical equivalent of a cochlear implant, but I’m talking about full-on cyberpunk eyes. Mostly, I just want to trade out my crappy degenerating peepers for a pair that I can trust to be equally comfortable whether looking at a computer screen or reading a book or driving in the dark, but why not throw in all the bells and whistles while we’re at it? I’d take a heads-up-display, night vision, or even optical zoom—just so long as it’s an actual mechanical zoom and my eyes makes cool whirring sounds as they spin into place.
I have my resurgent wanderlust to thank for my pick here: a universal translator. We’ve seen this kind of technology in everything from Neuromancer to Men In Black, but its use in the Star Trek franchise is arguably what’s pushed into the pop culture consciousness. So I feel like I have a pretty good sense of how to use it already, which helps make watching Enterprise worth it. I’m fluent in Spanish, which has helped me pick up some French and Italian, but I’d like to be able to travel around the world and chat up the locals, as well as be relatively confident in asking for and getting directions. The only drawback is that the Starfleet version doesn’t seem to translate written text. For that, I’d have to borrow a TARDIS.
Everyone has already named a lot of the best options, so allow me to use my entry to stump for something that may not make life any easier, but would satisfy one of the great mysteries of the universe, and also make my life more fun: The translation collar from Up. I probably spend a good third of my time at home wondering just what my cat was trying to communicate to me with her most recent grumpy-sounding meow, and despite the fact that it may well turn out she’s just saying, “Everything is not as I wish it to be!” over and over, the reveal of what our pets have been thinking all these years would make it worthwhile. Sure, there’s a chance your cat is thinking, “If only I could kill you,” but at least you won’t have to devote hours on end to trying to decipher all those inexplicable noises and actions. And if it turns out they’re just ordering us about, perhaps our pets could finally assume their rightful place as our owners, rather than the other way around.