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15 Mind-bending sci-fi concepts from popular culture

There’s no doubt about it, science fiction has played a considerable part in shaping society. Concepts conceived by science fiction writers have inspired many technologies that exist today. That mobile phone in your pocket? You have Star Trek’s Captain Kirk to thank for that (and Motorola).

From drones to satellites, virtual reality to smartwatches, domestic robots to bionic limbs, sci-fi has predicted and pathed the way for a multitude of technological innovations that have changed our lives dramatically, for better or worse.

In this article, we'll look into some mind-boggling concepts and innovations from sci-fi’s finest, spanning sentient planets to IQ-raising microchips, with a particular focus on ideas of the more outlandish kind.

DISCLAIMER: Some plot breakdowns contain spoilers.

15. Instantaneous DNA manipulation | Dawn

Multi coloured DNA strands

The first book in Octavia Butler’s Lilith’s Brood series, Dawn, centres on an alien race who have been keeping a group of survivors in a comatose state following an atomic fire which consumed planet Earth. After waking from her centuries-long slumber, the book’s protagonist, Lilith, is tasked with helping the aliens travel back to Earth.

Along the way, Lilith discovers that her fellow otherworldly companions are armed with the disturbing power to instantaneously manipulate DNA for their own benefit. A half-human/half-caterpillar hybrid created in the blink of an eye? No problem.

14. Aliens that can shape human intelligence | 2001: A Space Odyssey

Astronaut in orange spacesuit walking down futuristic white spacecraft corridor

For anyone that hasn’t read this sci-fi classic or its on-screen adaptation, 2001: A Space Odyssey, initially penned by Arthur C. Clarke, is about a mysterious monolith which appears on two occasions during Earth’s history. Initially, in the Middle-Palaeolithic period when Neanderthals were first making tools, and second, in 2001, just below the lunar surface. The rest of the story follows the spacecraft mission that ensues to investigate it, aided by two crew members and a sentient supercomputer known as H.A.L. 9000.

In the book, advanced alien life forms are described to have been using the galaxy much like an experimental garden to grow intelligence by tampering with the evolution of different planets across millennia. Contrary to a Darwinian take on human development, in 2001, humanity has gained intelligence through the interference of alien life forms.

13. A nano-virus that can speed up evolution | Children of Time

colourised cell with neucleus

What could possibly go wrong if a nano-virus, capable of artificially accelerating the speed of primate evolution, was created?

Turns out, a fair amount, especially when that virus cosies up with the host cells of spiders. Children of Time, the 2015 sci-fi novel by Adrian Tchaikovsky, is set in the far, far future on a once inhabitable planet. With Earth no longer able to sustain human life, its last inhabitants venture to the supposedly idyllic paradise of planet spider-zone for their last, not-so-jolly Hurrah. Not for the arachnophobes.

12. AI that can self-generate a worldview | Ventus

Cover od Karl Schroeder's Ventus

Karl Schroeder’s debut novel, Ventus, is set on a planet terraformed by nanotech. In terms of the worlding of this unique sci-fi, Planet Venus is ruled by magical, self-replicating wind technology which has transformed the landscape to be inhabited by humans. When human colonists arrive however, the winds experience a glitch in their programming that leads them to destroy all technology the humans will go on to create.

Beyond the confines of Ventus, the wider galaxy is proliferated by AI with god-like capabilities and status. An interesting concept that comes from Schroeder’s book is thaliance:

“It’s a dream of no longer being an artificial intelligence, but of being self-determined. Of no longer fearing that every word you speak, every thought you have, is just the regurgitation of some human’s thoughts. They call it the Pinnochio Change around here.”

Thaliance, therefore, is “an attempt to give nature a voice without that voice being ours in disguise. It is the only way for an artificial intelligence to be grounded in a self-identity that is truly independent of its creator’s”.

An AI which can self-generate a worldview independent of its creators would be considered sentient by many. What kinds of problems could we possibly face in a world ruled by sentient AI? Would the AI gravitate towards creation or destruction? These are just some of the philosophical conundrums the Schroeder toys with across its 672 pages.

11. Altering dimensionality | Three Body Problem

Futuristic pyramid with floating rocks and person walking towards it

The Three Body Problem is a problem within astronomy concerning the impossibility of accurately predicting the motion of three celestial bodies in orbit. So far, no solutions have been found considering the inherent chaos and multitude of variables involved.

On the subject of predicting the velocities and positions of planetary bodies, a simple solution can only be arrived at when applied to the movements of two, and only two, celestial bodies orbiting each other. Newton’s principle of motion in this regard is limited in light of the fundamental chaos that occurs when another celestial body is added to the mix.

Inspired by this concept, came Chinese sci-fi writer, Cixin Liu, and his now cult classic, Three Body Problem. Set during a cultural revolution in China, a top-secret military project is busy sending signals into space to try and establish contact with alien life.

After detecting the signal, an alien civilisation on the brink of collapse begins planning to invade Earth. What follows is the answer to whether or not, with the prospect of a foreign threat, humanity welcomes the unknown or fights ruthlessly against it, with a dash of virtual reality and a hefty dose of perplexing quantum theory, thrown in.

One of the most interesting concepts proposed by The Three-Body Problem is a new, machine-made, subatomic particle called a “sophon,” which can change dimensionality as a way of storing information. Etched into the sophon particles are circuits of information that string together to form a kind of quantum computer (consisting of 11 dimensions!) which is capable of spying on mankind.

10. Microchips to raise IQ | Flowers of Algernon

Cover of Daniel Keyes' Flowers For Algernon - white rodent leaving maze. The walls of the maze are covered in circuit-like patterns

Daniel Keyes’ Flowers for Algernon is a particularly moving book which explores the idea of mind-machine technology and its ethical implications. Named after a laboratory mouse, Algernon, who has undergone surgery to enhance his intelligence, the book’s protagonist, Charlie Gordon, decides to sign up to be the first human subject for the equivalent procedure.

The reader is taken on a journey tracing the developments in Charlie’s intellect and his disappointing realisation of how those with special needs are frequently demonised, patronised, and isolated within society. Keyes calls the reader to reflect on the ultimate question: is ignorance bliss?

9. Accurate crime-prediction software | Minority Report

People floating in futuristic illuminated pool from Minority Report

Minority Report is set in Washington DC in the year 2054 where a specialised police crime department, termed ‘Precrime Unit’, apprehends criminals on the basis of technology that can accurately predict future crimes. When the head of Precrime, Tom Cruise, is accused of murder, albeit a future murder, he embarks on a mission to prove his innocence.

Philip K. Dick’s novella turned action film, Minority Report, was not just prophetic in a general sense, it has been the inspiration for over 100 patents by fans of the franchise. Some of the technological predictions stemming from the 2002 film that has now come to fruition are flexible displays, voice activation, and gestural interfaces.

Let’s hope nothing remotely close to the core technology integral to Minority Report is deemed worthwhile as a business venture. Thankfully, scrying is not part of MI6’s protocol.

8. Biomedical scanners | Elysium

Medical scanner in futuristic hospital environment

A rather prescient technology that takes a leaf from sci-fi cinema has been the development of biomedical scanners which are capable of detecting early-stage cancer and other biological abnormalities. In the film Elysium, set in 2154, people can undergo this medical treatment to help them repair physical damage and extend their lifespans.

The medical company Human Longevity has its own equivalent, costing the patient approximately $25,000 per scan. If you were to undergo this treatment your entire genome would be sequenced and analysed to help detect any issues, including 8,000 rare DNA variants linked to disease. One day this highly expensive treatment may even go mainstream.

7. Dark matter engines | Futurama

The Planet Express Ship from Futurama

The matter that we are aware of only makes up 5% of the universe. Dark matter, however, outweighs visible matter at a ratio of six to one, comprising 27% of the universe. Imagine what the world would be like if we had the ability to harness the power of dark matter. This question underpinned a rather unique technology central to Futurama‘s diegesis.

One of the core spaceships which appear in Futurama, the Planet Express Ship, is run via an engine that utilizes dark matter by burning it in huge furnaces. The ship however does not merely move through the universe, the universe moves around the ship (a propulsion system capable of re-shaping the fabric of spacetime is referred to as a warp drive, if you fancy travelling down a fascinating rabbit hole or two). A rather mind-bending idea indeed.

Though the show was not accredited by the physicists, a similar concept was proposed in a paper titled ‘Measurement of Impulsive Thrust from a Closed Radio-Frequency Cavity in Vacuum’ (although you might need at least an MSc in order to understand it).

6. Dream-processing software | Inception

Two people plugged into the Portable Automated Somnacin IntraVenous (PASIV) from Inception

An often unexplored subject matter within sci-fi is dreaming. Watching Christopher Nolan’s ambitious movie, Inception, feels very much like a dreamscape - the lines between waking life and dream states constantly blurred thanks to a seemingly infinite array of visual and narrative tricks.

For anyone that hasn’t had the unique, and disorientating, pleasure of watching this cinematic masterpiece, Inception follows the bizarre antics of a con man, Dominic Cobb, who is hired by corporations to steal secrets by entering other people’s dreams.

Dominic and his team of sleuths have been tasked with something they have never done before. Rather than stealing an idea, they have to plant an idea into the mind of an illegal heir to a billion-dollar fortune. Viewers are encouraged to accept the dream-stealing technology with no explanation as to its fundamental workings, since, well it’s hardly like this sort of technology could ever exist in real life, right? Not quite.

The movie has a particular focus on lucid dreaming and dream sharing. The ability to interact with such phenomena is certainly beyond scientific capability at present, however, the ability to codify and deconstruct waking thought/s through technology is indeed possible (to some extent).

A research team at Carnegie Mellon University, led by professor of psychology Marcel Just, have been able to tap into the mind’s of others though finding correlations between thoughts and their manifestation on MRI scans. So far, they have found that complex thoughts are constructed of 42 components. These components include categories such as ‘person’ and ‘action’. By identifying these components and their associated brain activity, the professors managed to match 240 sentences through the use of a self-improving algorithm. Through reverse engineering, the system works both ways - neural activity can be predicted, and semantics can also be gleaned from various parts of the brain lighting up on MRI scans.

Thought is not, however, merely made up of one’s internal monologue and the odd earworm. A fundamental part of the thinking process is what we see in our mind’s eye. In a similar vein to the researchers at Carnegie Mellon, Yukiyasu Kamitani at Kyoto University used the neural activity displayed on the MRI scans of various subjects to study the fundamental visual patterns underpinning thought.

Based on observing the blood flow and brain activity of the study’s participants in response to 1,000 images, AI software was designed to create painting-like visual representations. Refining such technologies’ accuracy and extending their capabilities to dream-state thought detection or insertion is something that will likely be staying within the dream realm (or the nightmare realm), for the foreseeable.

5. Sentient planets | Avatar

Two characters from avatar walking through illuminated purple and blue strands

Trees talk to each other. Perhaps they don’t share jokes or have DMCs, but they are, however, capable of sending nutrients to each other when a tree within their cloister is struggling. Avatar, the CGI up the wazoo animated motion picture directed by James Cameron, takes this idea to its ultimate fantastical end with the concept of sentient planets.

The flora and fauna on the luscious planet Pandora have tentacle-like protrusions which allow them to communicate with each other. Alongside the octopus-like shrubs proliferating the planet, the trees on Pandora have a globe-wide neural network which dwarfs the neuron count of a human brain. These sentient trees can also communicate directly with the planet’s inhabitants. The indigenous species, Na’vi, are able to connect with a sacred willow tree, called the Tree of Souls, to share spiritual ceremonies and commune with ancestors and the Mother-Earth deity, Eywa.

4. Cancelling people (literally) | Black Mirror

people in a town plaze greyed out/censored

Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror is full of sci-fi technology that disturbs and stuns in equal measure. From bee-shaped spy drones to boyfriend clones, to tech that desensitizes soldiers from the realities of war.

Various technologies that the show has grappled with have since been created, such as the social credit system of season 3’s first episode, now paralleled in China, as well as the invasive memory-capturing technology within ‘The Entire History of You’ reflected in such projects as Neuralink and Snap Inc’s camera glasses.

Futuristic, outlandish tech doesn’t disturb in quite the same way as concepts that extrapolate from contemporary technology. One particularly disturbing episode is ‘White Christmas’ which contains three novel technologies: EYE-LINK, Z-EYE, and the cookie. EYE-LINK allows people to share their experience in a similar vein to live streaming via a pair of glasses (not so troubling).

Z-EYE however is an advanced brain implant that can allow its user to block people out, turning them into nothing more than fuzzy, amorphous blobs, if so desired. Lastly, the cookie, an egg-shaped gadget which can be used to replicate consciousness, to an alarming degree.

In ‘White Christmas’, the show’s protagonist is proven to be a murderer. Thanks to Z-EYE technology, he is ousted from society in every conceivable sense, reduced to a faceless, voiceless glitch who lives out the rest of his days alone and with no chance of rehabilitation. Alas, the internet never forgets, and rarely forgives.

3. Faster-than-light travel (via potted plant) | Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Tree in plant pot flying through space

On a little less dreary note, what could be more mind-bending than the possibility of time travel? In the classic sci-fi film The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a spaceship known as ‘The Infinite Improbability Drive’ is able to achieve speeds faster than the speed of light. Near instant time travel to anywhere, anytime, any place.

As for the likelihood of instantaneous time travel? Never going to happen.

2. Balloons, baby! | Sent Into Space

Sent Into Space didn’t invent meteorological balloons, we certainly weren’t the first to travel into space, nor were we the creators of a world-famous sci-fi franchise. However, we were the first company to provide Near Space commercial flights for marketing and research purposes.

If you would like to promote your product or service (or a sci-fi fanfic or original) with a spaceflight, please get in touch. We’re full of ideas and are always keen for another trip to sci’s favourite place: space!

1. Selective memory erasure | Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Woman with blue hair lying next to man in beanie hat on a surface of cracked ice

‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’, directed by Charlie Kaufman, follows the tumultuous and bittersweet relationship of Joel (Jim Carey) and Clementine (Kate Winslet). As the film progresses, we learn that Clementine has opted to have her memories of their relationship erased thanks to the NYC firm Lacuna, only for Joel to later follow suit. Despite undergoing this experimental surgery, the couple are drawn together once more for a second shot at love.

Whilst drug-induced amnesia is an available treatment for some, as it currently stands, selective memory suppression is not achievable other than through therapeutic techniques. Utilising gamma knife machines or neuron-destroying technology poses too high a risk to the patient. Such procedures would likely lead to other problems that could reduce one's quality of life even further than the difficulties faced by those with PTSD, for instance. Destroying a specific memory or group of memories remains within the sphere of sci-fi, for now.

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