Sunday, 18 October 2015

Future Analysis: Doctor Who

Hi guys, welcome to Orygyn!

Time to start a series to get me committed to posting in this blog. This one will look at the various futures presented in science-fiction shows, movies and books that I've read, looking at the world-building of their futures. I want to start with a big one: the longest running sci-fi series of all time, Doctor Who.

I am a fan of the show. I watch it every Saturday as it comes on, and I've been extremely impressed with Peter Capaldi's episodes so far, in fact, The Magician's Apprentice is probably one of my all-time favourites for it's shock opening and it's "AN-ACH-RO-NI-SMS". Nevertheless, in terms of technological progress, it is, without a doubt, the most pessimistic view of the future I've ever seen. Let me explain.

Doctor Who is not known for its consistency. This is a show that has spanned 50 years. Many episodes have been lost, and it's hard to know if anyone has actually seen every single episode. It would be a miracle if no episode ever contradicted its established canon at some point. In fact, the most recent writers are very aware of this: dismissing such concerns with such plot devices as "fixed points" and "wibbly-wobbly-timey-wimey". As a result of this, any hypothesized future can be rewritten to suit the changing cultural context or to make up for any errors in future prediction. Pretty clever when it's the relatively near future. However, this series makes predictions about the extremely distant future: "The End of the World" was set in the year 5 billion when the sun expands having used up its hydrogen and destroys the Earth, "Utopia", another of my all-time favourites, was set in the year 100 trillion near the heat death of the universe, and, most recently of all, "Listen" was set even later still when all life in the universe had died out apart from the episode's main "villains", creatures that perfectly evolved to hide. We are supposed to believe, watching these episodes, that we will still so easily die, that the vast majority of alien creatures will have human-like intelligence, that our spaceships will be made of materials that can't fix themselves, that we will not have, even ignoring transhumanism completely, continued to evolve so we look EXACTLY THE SAME IN 100 TRILLION YEARS.

There are futurists, who are taken seriously, who believe that transhumanist technologies will overcome most of these problems in the next 50 years and possibly all of them in the next 100. Their arguments rely solely on computing technology advancing at just the rate it is now. Even if their timing was off, at worst, all this will be achieved by the 23rd century. In order for us to reach the year 100 trillion and to not have a solution for all biological diseases, not have amplified our intelligence, not have changed our physiology AT ALL, to not have progressed even a few decades in material science, and to not have the slightest clue what to do about the impending heat death of the universe, a second humanity, one which is completely identical, would have to have evolved separately on another planet and have got to our point of development just before this heat death occurs. I don't think I even need to explain how preposterous this is.

I would be mad to attempt to predict what the universe would look like in the year 100 trillion and expect it to be right. Nevertheless, I make a habit of engaging in pie-in-the-sky speculation so let's see what we can say. To start, there's a very good chance we would have died long before we ever get to that point. We face a lot of existential threats in the near future as it is: climate change, resource shortages combined with increasing population, loss of biodiversity, the fact that we are still a one-planet species so anything that impacts the Earth with enough force will wipe us out like we were Doctor Who's prediction of the year 100 trillion on Ray Kurzweil's whiteboard. But engaging in pie-in-the-sky speculation about how we'll die isn't necessarily something I find as fun so let's move on.

Regardless of the accuracy of the aforementioned Kurzweil's predictions, the singularity will definitely have happened by this time. Therefore, we will no longer be human as we understand it today. By the standard of current human beings, we will have become god-like: we will be many, many orders of magnitude more intelligent, we will have left Earth long before the sun destroyed it, we may even have harvested the energy of the sun completely long before it ever gets to the point of destroying Earth. If it is theoretically possible to circumvent the speed of light, we will have found a way. If M-Theory is correct, we may have even done an Interstellar and migrated to other dimensions. We could live literally however we choose due to manipulating computronium: a substance postulated by Ray Kurzweil in his 2005 book "The Singularity Is Near" that essentially describes the conclusion of advancing information technology, which is a substance that is solely dedicated to computing power. Something made of computronium cannot squeeze any more computing power out of that volume of material. Manipulating such technology could allow us to create a Matrix of our own choosing, a body of our own choosing, and even an intellgence, knowledge-base, sensory experience and memories of our own choosing. If we know everything there ever is to know, we could, for example, choose to disconnect that knowledge from our brains so that we continue to be enthralled by new information. Most importantly, if the universe's heat death can be overcome, and we can survive beyond it, assuming our species is still bio-techno-physiologically motivated to do it, we will have found a way long before we ever get to that point.

I'd like to leave you with one other thing that's bothered me about Doctor Who for the last few years. If time travel exists in this universe, and it's not just the Time Lords who have access to it (Captain Jack was a "time agent" and, as established in Torchwood, the spin-off, he is not the only one as James Marsters played Captain John), why can't everyone do it? Again, are we supposed to believe that it was only independently invented twice, and they could regulate it so well that only very few had access to it?


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