Tech magnate Elon Musk confronted a central convergence of sci-fi and reality early this year. Ironically for a man known to some as a real-life Tony Stark, the billionaire inventor-investor of SpaceX and Tesla Motors fame reiterated warnings issued by no lesser luminaries than Stephen Hawking and Bill Gates. Like other technological pessimists, Musk, who has done as much as any 21st-century entrepreneur to push human beings towards technological innovation, cautions that artificial intelligence could pose a real and significant threat to humanity. The feared scenario here is what I will call “the threat of Skynet”, that of an AI singularity event initiated by human beings, leading to our own destruction. Theoretically, one assumes the conditions of an organic/inorganic speciation event in which a silicon “Pinocchio” offspring communicates to its siblings that Homo sapiens collectively are so self-destructive that they don’t warrant consciousness at all and should be eliminated.
Yet this echo of Terminator does not appear to hold the same anxiety-inducing potential for other self-proclaimed futurists. Ray Kurzweil, Director of Engineering at Google, embraces the alternative idea of the singularity as a uniquely human, and desirable, hybridisation process, akin to that seen in the disappointing 2014 Johnny Depp vehicle Transcendence. Sharing a definitive timeline with the Russian billionaire Dmitry Itskov, millions of dollars and neurons are now being devoted to developing a method of transferring human consciousness into an artificial body, with the year 2045 as a target date for this achievement (The 2045 Initiative).
So what now for 21st-century sci-fi? Movies that were once provocative interrogations of the self/other divide within the human condition, such as Blade Runner, now become outmoded by questions of the post-human condition. Post-biology, transhumanism, and the technological singularity as a real possibility transform the nature of both sci-fi and time itself. The sci-fi canon’s reality of “now” and the fiction of a future “then” draw ever closer as technological advances accelerate. What was once an impressive predictive century time-lag for the speculations of Jules Verne could now become only a decade or so as we embrace transhumanism’s “H+” ethos.
With human-chip interfaces a reality in the late 20th century (1998’s pioneer scientist Kevin Warwick embracing what was not quite yet The Matrix) some of the ethical difficulties of competitive genetics explored in Gattaca (1997) could actually be entirely eclipsed, in favour of a class-based, William Gibson-esque (Neuromancer, 1984) society of the variably enhanced. The next step, one that has already been discussed in transhumanist literature and might well one day be facilitated by the likes of Musk’s SpaceX venture, is dispersal and colonization of other planets to prosper and escape extinction, a form of salvation explored in Interstellar (2014).
Although we might be tiring of Skynet itself in the Terminator franchise (see the box office failure of last year’s Terminator Genisys), there is plenty of recent evidence that our infatuation with AI in fiction continues unabated (while the latest Terminator instalment failed to make a mark, Ex Machina and Chappie both did fairly well in 2015), as evidenced by Iron Man himself creating his own AI antagonist Ultron, and with it some movie blockbuster magic in last year’s mega-budget Avengers sequel. Now that I’ve brought this full-circle to our very own non-fiction Iron Man, Elon Musk, I’ll conclude by saying that sci-fi, now more than ever, can ably demonstrate a range of possible futures in which the ape finally becomes the android and ask… what next?