Virtual Personalities: Will science fiction become science fact?

Ian Douglas


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Sometimes, old ideas come back into fashion. Take the space elevator, an earthbound  tower rising above the stratosphere. First suggested in 1895, Arthur C Clarke famously employed one in The Fountains Of Paradise. I invented my own version called The Televator in my novel, enabling my teenage heroes to launch their journey to Mars. Far-fetched? NASA is working on a real version even as we speak: a cable tethered to a low-orbit asteroid. Cargo will be simply hoisted into the heavens for next to nothing cost-wise.


It’s true that many of our travel innovations were inspired by science fiction. Jules Verne fired astronauts from a gigantic cannon. And HG Wells used anti-gravity paint to hurl men at the Moon. Neither idea ever materialised, but they had a point. Our dreams of space conquest require radical new kinds of transport. As I realised with my first SF novel, The Infinity Trap, outer space is all about travel. At every turn of the plot I needed a vehicle to get my characters around. When it came to writing The Chase to Fortune Island however, I wanted something more modern day than Wells and Verne.

Once we've left the world behind, how do we reach the stars? Space is mind-bogglingly big. Our current technology would take decades to arrive at our stellar neighbours. Something of a huge reality check for any SF writer pounding out that thrilling blockbuster. So we came up with faster-than-light (FTL) spaceships. A journey lasting centuries crammed into a few hours, think the Millennium Falcon or the Starship Enterprise.

Though Einstein said it was impossible to accelerate beyond the speed of light, a warp drive is the most common fictional solution, a matter/antimatter reactor using plasma bubbles to warp the fabric of space-time. Have the scriptwriters outmanoeuvred Einstein? Maybe, again NASA eggheads are researching it. Named after the physicist who came up with the idea, an Alcubierre Warp Drive causes the fabric of space to contract and expand. A starship could, theoretically, ride this wave at FTL speeds. The only problem being, as Dr Alcubierre admits, based on our current know-how it's impossible to build!

While these are fascinating ideas, my story was a lot more down-to-Earth. Literally, The Chase to Fortune Island was a quest, a journey from England to Thailand. What technologies could help my reluctant hero? Inspired by Amadeus' vision of the future, I took online personalisation to the next level. The Matrix trilogy, for example, introduces the idea of sentient software. Computer code is substituted for the nuts and bolts of old-fashioned robots, creating Mr Smith a 'living' computer programme. Of course, there is no copyright on ideas, many books and films explore this theme. Iain M Banks series of novels, The Culture, rely on the Minds. These vastly intelligent programs exist inside space cities. They run everything while talking to millions of people at the same time. If only my smartphone could do that!

But supposing it could? And that's when Lorie came to me. Simply by extrapolating current technologies a little into the future, it was easy to dream up a user friendly, tailored-to-the-individual program. An app combining the powers of a Google search engine with charm and a pleasing smile. A synthetic personality using data analytics to cater for our every whim. Lorie would know us better than we know ourselves.

And it doesn’t end there. Many scientists envisage the coming of a technological singularity. As machines evolveever faster processing speeds they outstrip our ape brains. In one dazzling moment all around the planet, their silicon IQs explode almost to infinity. From then on computers will acquire unimaginable superpowers. It's predicted to happen sometime this century. Don't despair just yet. In The Adolescence of P-1, a student's experimental project escapes and takes over all the computers in America, including the military. But in the end the computer's sense of loyalty wins over and there's a happy ending. After all, real life has a habit of subverting even the grimmest SF prophecies. Infinite knowledge may encourage infinite compassion. Lorie may just yet lead us to a better future.


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