Contemporary science fiction has consistently responded to real-world sociopolitical situations—McCarthy-era paranoia, nuclear brinkmanship, the rise of global terror—with varying flights of fancy. But the reverse is also happening: Reality is taking cues from science fiction. Cyborg enhancements, unmanned drone warfare and other developing technologies are seemingly inspired by such films as The Terminator and Ghost in the Shell—both of which coincidentally take place in the rapidly approaching year 2029.
Some wealthy people achieve immortality the old-fashioned way, with statues built in their honor or hospital wings named after them. Russian media magnate Dmitry Itskov hopes to gain it the 21st-century way—by becoming immortal. He has established the 2045 Initiative, an organization that convenes some of the world’s best scientists and engineers to achieve one goal: to create lifelike androids into which a person’s thoughts, consciousness and personality can be uploaded, thereby eliminating the human body and all its drawbacks, such as hunger, pain, disability and death. If this scheme sounds familiar, perhaps you’re a fan of Japanese anime, as the concept practically duplicates the premise of the Ghost in the Shell science-fiction franchise, which includes a manga series (1989–1990) and two feature films (1995, 2004). In its dystopian future, people can receive cyber brains, i.e., implants that allow them to connect with computer networks. These devices may be combined with robotic parts or even an entire prosthetic body to assemble a full cyborg. Note that in the first Ghost in the Shell film, cyber technology is firmly established by the year 2029. Itskov may have to work overtime to meet his self-imposed 2045 deadline.
When describing the cyborgs he hopes to unveil in 2045, Dmitry Itskov is quick to point out how benevolent they’ll be and how his project could solve many of society’s ongoing problems. The utopian Itskov sees lifelike avatars as a way to terminate not just the physical ills associated with lugging around a body but the social ones, too, such as war and poverty. He believes that once these issues are swept aside, newly immortal humans will “evolve” into beings that spend their days in peaceful contemplation of life’s greatest existential mysteries. But even Itskov admits cyborgs need a PR boost. After all, cyborgs hit the American mainstream for the first time in James Cameron’s sci-fi blockbuster The Terminator. The movie opens in the year 2029, after an artificially intelligent military defense network has gained self-awareness and, intent on genocide, has been waging nuclear war against humanity. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s terrifying titular cyborg travels back to 1984 to assassinate Sarah Connor (played by Linda Hamilton), who will one day give birth to dauntless resistance leader John Connor. Humanity will need him, because once a cyborg realizes its own strength, it’ll soon try to gain the upper robo-hand.
If you can hack into a computer, you should also be able to hijack the mind of a cyborg. In Ghost in the Shell, these bionic humans are particularly vulnerable to the whims of hackers and cyberterrorists, who can infiltrate their electronic brains. The “shell” of the title refers to a cyborg’s body, and the “ghost” to its inner soul. In the case of protagonist Major Motoko Kusanagi, who has a completely cyber body, the ghost is her last link to humanity. Kusanagi and her public security team are hunting for a mysterious hacker called the Puppet Master, who turns out to be an artificial intelligence program that longs to become human. Hacking takes many forms in the film, including altering cyborgs’ sensory inputs and even reprogramming them to perform terrorist acts. But sometimes the most devastating types of cyberterrorism can be the most quiet and personal: In one scene, Kusanagi meets a garbage collector who learns the Puppet Master has erased his real memories and implanted different, artificial ones. The threat of such meddling calls into question the sanctity of the self. Who are we if we can’t trust that our memories and beliefs are our own?
The full-body cyborgs featured in the Ghost in the Shell franchise have yet to appear in the real world, but many aspects of the film’s futuristic technological universe have already become realities, essentially as more advanced forms of preexisting inventions. Take, for example, the “hawkeye,” a prosthetic eye worn by agent Saito in the television series Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex (2002–2005). Saito belongs to the Public Security Section 9 cyber intelligence agency, and his digitally enhanced vision employs satellite connections to ensure impossibly precise shots.
Computerized eyesight isn’t so far beyond today’s Google Glass eyepiece, though luckily Google hasn’t yet added a sniper app to its device. Saito is among the least-cyber-altered members of his squad—and thus the most relatable for us regular humans—but even he remains susceptible to cyberattacks. With a simple hack of his hawkeye, Saito is effectively rendered powerless. It’s not a stretch to say that once we become completely reliant on a piece of technology, be it Google Glass or an iPad, any glitch in its system will leave users feeling similarly useless.
Wearable devices such as Google Glass take personal computing to the next level, and hackers have kept pace with diabolically ingenious cyberterrorist strategies engineered to meet the latest technological advances. No longer content to steal identities through ATM passwords and Social Security numbers, hackers have created programs that prey on Google Glass’s specific vulnerabilities. Without a mouse or keyboard, Google Glass is designed to be especially autonomous, making split-second “decisions” without the wearer’s approval in certain circumstances. One possible hack involves using QR codes (the scannable black-and-white boxes now ubiquitous on products and advertisements) to connect automatically to websites or wireless networks. Security firm Lookout Mobile discovered that malicious QR codes could take over your Google Glass and could be triggered if you simply looked at the wrong thing. A user could view or photograph a planted code, which would then initiate a rogue connection and grant hackers control over the device. Once hackers can “see” through your Google Glass, they can essentially see everything you see and hear everything you hear, resulting in the ultimate loss of privacy. After Lookout Mobile alerted Google to the threat, the company quietly eliminated it through a software update. Crisis averted—for now.
According to an internal report from the British Ministry of Defence, unmanned drone warfare has begun an “incremental and involuntary journey towards a Terminator-like reality.” This portent refers to the sci-fi franchise’s Skynet, an artificially intelligent defense system designed to eliminate human error, that gains control of the U.S. military. In this near-future scenario, the arsenal includes giant upright tanks and harrier-like HK drones (HK stands for “hunter-killer”)—both of which are unmanned. Skynet becomes self-aware, and when its human creators hurriedly try to shut it down, the system triggers a self-defense response with the goal of total nuclear annihilation of the human race. The flying HKs are a lot like today’s drones, which the U.S. government clandestinely and remotely dispatches to kill enemy operatives based abroad. To date, however, there’s one fundamental difference: Drones may be the muscle, but they haven’t yet become the brains of the operation. As defense networks evolve and gain autonomy, a number of important questions will have to be answered about the ethics of this 21st-century robotic warfare. What will it mean to fight an “ethical war” when human intervention and judgment have been all but removed from the process?
Never one to shy away from grand declarations, Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt sees his company’s Google Glass as a heroic tool to facilitate the spread of democracy worldwide. At its most democratic, the device lets users share photographs, videos and sounds with ease—including shots and clips of, say, police brutality or political corruption. (For proof of social media’s power, just look, for instance, at the unifying role Twitter and Facebook played during the Arab Spring revolts.) But as strongly as Schmidt endorses personal, wearable camera-enabled devices such as Google Glass, he just as vehemently denounces personal, flying camera-enabled devices such as unmanned drones owned by individuals. Far from spreading democracy, personal unmanned drones, Schmidt fears, would democratize warfare to every disgruntled Tom, Dick and Harry. In a 2013 interview in The Guardian, Schmidt predicted a dystopian future in which everyone can access a private army of affordable minidrones to deploy as spies against one’s neighbors during any minor disagreement. He advises that such drones be banned through international treaties to ensure that privacy remains sacred. Considering how frequently Google is criticized for its overreaching data-collection policies, however, Schmidt’s pronouncements on privacy may seem particularly ironic.