Inspiring Writers with Four Scientific Breakthroughs
One of the key features of science fiction is the speculation about the future of human technology and its relationship with our kind. Thus, keeping up-to-date with scientific advancements is an important activity for writers of the genre. In the laboratories of research institutes all around the world, true magic is being made right now, planting the seeds for wondrous technologies in the future.
Superstrength and Military Advances
Historically, one of the key motivators of scientific progress has been the military. If one wants to imagine how the military of the future will be, one just needs to look at what is being worked on in the present.
One of the most visually impressive technologies in development for the US Army is the Raytheon XOS 2 exoskeleton. Through the use of complicated hydraulics, the suit helps increase the soldier’s attributes beyond the capabilities of normal humans. According to Raytheon, a soldier wearing the XOS 2 exosuit will perceive weights as being seventeen times less heavy, allowing it to both lift heavier weights but also to lift them for far longer without risking injuries.
The company has already provided footage of a man effortlessly lifting 200 lb weights over and over again. Despite weighing roughly 209 lbs itself, the suit allows for movements much more agile than one would initially think. Again, the footage shows the soldier doing push-ups and shadowboxing with surprising ease. While those demonstrations are certainly done in controlled environments and tailor-made to make the suit seem as impressive as possible, it is undeniable that the technology shows promise. Anyone who seeks to populate the pages of their fiction with superhuman soldiers in a more immediate future doesn’t need to look much further.
If your fictional soldiers need protection without sacrificing mobility, your best bet is something similar to the TALOS suit. Currently in development by the US army, TALOS harnesses the power of Newtonian fluids to create a sort of “liquid armor.” Non-Newtonian fluids are liquids that solidify when a large amount of force is applied quickly to them. Thus, the TALOS suit allows for very high mobility, but also solidifies quickly in the spot hit by a bullet, protecting its wearer. The idea is to make the suit strong enough to handle small firearms like pistols, as well as shrapnel from bombs. A prototype is scheduled for 2018, so keep your eyes open!
Finally, if your plans lay more in the superhero side of things, there is also something promising on the way, though still in the very earliest steps. As you may know, muscles are composed of fibers, which are in turn composed of multiple elongated muscular cells. Well, turns out that in 2014, scientists managed to create an artificial muscular fiber out of the most unlikely of materials: fishing line. They found that by coiling it in a certain manner, the line became capable of contracting when stimulated by heat. Not only that, but this artificial muscle fiber showed to be capable of contracting a hundred times more strongly than a human fiber of the same length, generating 5.3 kilowatts of mechanical work per kilogram of muscle—a production that matches the output of a jet engine! Naturally, as I said, the technology is in its infancy. In order to be applicable, someone will need to find a way to couple the nervous impulse of the brain with the generation of heat necessary to contract these fibers, with the precision required so the user will be able to control the force of the contraction. If you want to justify superstrength for a character, this might be a reasonable manner.
Incredible breakthroughs don’t happen only in formal laboratories. Transhumanism is a common theme in science fiction, and the ones pushing the envelope in this field are the biohackers. They are individuals who alter their own bodies with all sorts of cybernetic devices, usually right from home, in the most do-it-yourself manner possible. These biohacking groups have done all sorts of incredible things in recent past.
For example, a group of Californian biohackers brought an actual superpower into reality: night vision. They created eye drops containing Chlorin e6, a chemical agent previously used to fight cancer. Chlorin e6 have light-amplifying properties, which led to the idea to use it to enhance vision in the dark. The biochemist of the team, Gabriel Licina, volunteered to test the eye drops on himself. The results were satisfying: Licina was able to identify multiple shapes hanging from trees in the darkness, as well as spotting motionless people to a distance of up to fifty meters. While it’s not exactly super night vision, it is still an extremely impressive thing done by a team of regular citizens, and could be the first steps of much bigger things.
However, when someone hears the term biohacking, it’s most common to associate it with the fairly accessible implants one can buy. These can do a multitude of things, and open up entire new senses for mankind to experience. For example, for a bit over four hundred bucks, one can buy “The North Sense,” which vibrates softly when the wearer is facing north, essentially turning you into a human compass.
And through the implanting of biomagnets, one can “sense” magnetic fields. The biomagnet is implanted in highly innervated regions, like the tips of the fingers, and vibrates when near a magnetic field. The brain is an amazing organ and, through a process called neuroplasticity, it can adapt to interpret new stimuli. Quickly the brain learns how to deal with that new tactile sensation, and voilà, you have a sixth sense, able to perceive magnetic fields through tactile stimulation. If you want to actually play Magneto, you can implant more powerful magnets, making you able to lift small objects like screws and bottle caps with your fingertips.
These are mostly mundane applications, but imagination is the key. How cool would a society of biohackers be, with people installing all sorts of things to interact with electronic devices, to smell colors and actually become super-powerful.
Robots are another staple of SF, and therefore it’s a good idea to keep up with the latest news in the world of robotics. Three projects in particular have been making the news in the last few years. One is the MIT Cheetah, a quadruple robot with impressive abilities, inspired by the homonymous animal. The team from Massachusetts, in 2015, gained notoriety when they managed to make the Cheetah achieve the autonomous capability of jumping over obstacles while running. The robot achieved this by acting pretty much like a human would—it recognized an incoming obstacle, estimated the height and distance to it, and then calculated the necessary force it needs to exert in order to be able to leap over it. This ability gave it an unparalleled capability in traversing obstacles. In 2017, MIT announced the third version of the robot, highlighting their plan on turning the Cheetah into a rescue robot, being dispatched to regions where it is too dangerous to send humans, taking advantage of its mobility.
Speaking of rescue robots, a second robot was also designed for this purpose. And, like the Cheetah, it was also inspired on an animal—one of the most feared animals in our society, despite being just a tiny bug: the cockroach. The CRAM robot was created after studying the impressive abilities of cockroaches to squeeze into tight spaces, withstand pressures over 900 times their own body weights, and still keep moving at quick speeds by reorienting their legs.
After studying a lot of cockroach locomotion, the team designed the robot to have the same abilities. Able to fit in your palm, the robot’s legs are splayed laterally when it is squashed, allowing it to imitate the motion of the bugs, and is covered with a tough, resistant shield on its back. The result is a tiny, cheap robot able to squeeze through very tight spaces (down to half its own height) and keep moving. The primary idea behind CRAM is to mass-develop it, then release the army of robotic cockroaches in areas of disaster, such as earthquakes, so that the robots can search for missing people trapped in the rubble.
Finally, we have MIT’s HERMES project. It, too, is based on an animal—the naked ape called Homo sapiens. HERMES is a miracle of robotics because it solves one of the biggest problems for humanoid robots: Balance. You don’t notice because everything happens in the background of your brain, but with every step you take, your posture is constantly being adjusted through a complicated network of feedback from nerves throughout your entire body and signals coming back from the brain, telling other nerves to contract or relax specific muscles to ensure you don’t fall forward or backward like a fool.
Robots lack these kinds of reflexes, and it would be almost impossible to replicate this machinery. So, what to do? The solution, it turns out, is to link man and machine through a motion capture suit. The movements of the human within the suit control the robot—think of Pacific Rim, but instead of a giant mecha, it’s a regular-sized one. Information goes both ways—whenever the robot “feels” something, the feedback is sent to the human “piloting” it. For example, if HERMES is in front of a wall and the human punches, the robot punches. The human “feels” the impact in his suit, and the body’s natural reflexes prevent the human from falling. The reflexes of the human in the suit stabilize the robot, stopping it from falling back.
As with the previous two, HERMES is being developed with extreme situations in mind, with the idea to send the robot to places where humans could not go. For example, the Fukushima Power Plant Disaster back in 2011—if HERMES were available and fully developed at the time, the disaster could have been prevented—and maybe, in the future, some will. However, it is also not impossible to imagine the technology being used for military purposes in the future. Maybe by 2100, wars will be fought by proxy even more than they are now, with humans safe at headquarters while remotely controlled robots tear down on the trenches.
The Future of Data Storage: DNA
Probably the biggest problem the Internet has brought so far is the overload of information. We multiply by ten the overall amount of data in the world every five years, and storage technologies are simply unable to keep up with the demand. Storage requires physical space—for example, in 2013, Facebook created an entire physical data center to store one exabyte. By 2025, it is expected that the data volume in the world will be of 163 zettabytes, or 163,000 exabytes. Unless a more efficient form of data storage comes along, we will run out of space.
Fortunately, a new one is coming, from the mother of all data encoding systems. The system that manages to squeeze all the information that makes a human into about two inches: DNA. In fact, if you translated the entire data volume in the world right now into DNA, it would fit inside a couple of trucks.
Some remarkable advances have been made in this field. The technology has been developing since 2007, but hit a stride in 2012 when scientists from Harvard managed to fit 70 billion books into DNA—an efficiency of 1 million gigabits per cubic millimeter of DNA. In 2016, researchers from Washington University managed to encode pictures and, more importantly, retrieve them almost perfectly. In 2017, a new breakthrough was achieved when once again Harvard was able to store a GIF inside DNA, and retrieve it.
Slowly but surely, the technology is improving, as well as our ability to recover the data. However, it is not as easy as directly translating binary data into DNA strands. Binary uses two characters, while DNA uses four (A, C, T, G, the nitrogenous bases that compose nucleotides in DNA). Thus, it is not easy to efficiently turn one directly into the other. The solution found was to first convert the binary data into Huffman Coding, a preexisting form of lossless data compression, and then convert the result into DNA coding.
The biggest problem holding the technique down right now is price—synthesizing and reading DNA requires lab equipment and is far from being accessible. That being said, DNA sequencing has seen one of the most vertiginous price drops in technology history since the start of the Human Genome Project. What once cost 100,000 million dollars in 2001 fell down to 1000 dollars in 2015.
If the drop continues, the technology should become sufficiently cheap to allow for widespread use, and then we will have solved our information problems (until we manage to output information even faster, which I’m sure we’ll find a way to).
As writers, it is now your duty to imagine how these technologies will shape the future of our species and our society.
Lucas Rosa is a scientist, science communicator and writer from the city of Botucatu, Brazil. His passion for science drew him to science fiction, and he's working on both a novel and a few short stories. Follow him on Facebook (facebook.com/lucasrosaescritor), Instagram (instagram.com/lucasrosaescritor) and Twitter (twitter.com/lucasescreve), where he speaks about silly things and quotes Monty Python.