Admission: I am a fan of science fiction and cult films of the 1980s.
For some considerable time, there was little crossover between these interests and my own academic research, as films which dealt with the challenges of ‘value assessment in stone cleaning’ or ‘whole life costing in masonry conservation’ were few and far between. However, in more recent years, I have been struck by the extent to which technologies which once seemed impossibly futuristic in fiction, have now been overtaken by reality. More specifically, our recent work using HD laser scanning seems to have resonance with once fictional aspirations set in the distant future, as does our work concerning sustainable transport. However, a challenge often taken up by science fiction authors – to predict the future – can often be scuppered through advances which were not foreseen.
Bear with me, as I give two examples.
The ‘Alien’ series (1979 – 2012, so far) has regularly featured laser scanning technology, yet this raises issues for the continuity-obsessed viewer. The first film in the series (set in approximately 2122) allows the crew little access to advanced surveying equipment, but does seem to feature some limited use of alien laser technology to secure a crashed spaceship. ‘Aliens’ (set around 55 years later) does show some very limited use of laser scanning as a human security device, although again there is no mention of laser scanning per se. However, ‘Prometheus’ (set around 30 years before ‘Alien’) features what appears to be a reasonably advanced laser scanning device, capable of recording 3D point clouds via a floating autonomous device. As a researcher in 2016, this is quite exciting, and despite the obvious continuity issues (i.e. what happened to the scanners between 2090 and 2122?) recognises emerging technology. One might have hoped, however, that the filmmakers could have seen beyond what is likely to be available in the next few years.
Regarding sustainable transport, I was struck by the lack of references in ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’ to fossil fuels. Whilst the first ‘Mad Max’ was about a failing society, and the later films deal with personal redemption, ‘Mad Max 2’ is arguably the most violent film ever made concerning a fuel crisis. Hence Max’s repeated statement that he is there ‘for the gasoline’. That is, most of our current vehicles and equipment are fuelled using petrol.
Over the past few years, though, a perhaps unforeseen change has started to emerge in the form of renewables. This has recently included the development in Aberdeen of on-site hydrogen production (separation of water into hydrogen and oxygen) allowing fuelling of vehicles using a renewable source material, with zero carbon emissions from the vehicle exhaust. Although it is at present still not the case that the process is carbon neutral (due to a need for power to support the separation of H2 and O), one can imagine a time where a very large proportion of vehicles can rely much less, or not at all, on fossil fuel sources. Mad Max 2 would have been far less violent had H2 vehicles been available.
I do remember Steven Spielberg taking time whilst making the peerless Minority Report to sit with future thinkers and technologists, to talk over where the cutting edge was likely to be in a few years. In turn, we found ourselves working with surface tables and pervasive big data within just a few years.
Issues of continuity will continue to plague the futuristic portrayal of technology, and I would argue the most accurate prediction from ‘Alien’ was that the future will be a bit grimy, and that lots of stuff simply won’t work very well.
Maybe next year will see a ‘value assessment’ or ‘life cycle costing’ blockbuster, bt until then…