Fact or Fiction?

IEEE Spectrum Magazine, July 2001

As an engineer I have been fascinated by two recent best-selling books describing possible technological futures.  Michael Crichton in Timeline uses quantum teleportation to enable 21st-century visitors to time-travel to adventure in the middle ages, while Arthur C. Clarke and Stephen Baxter in The Light of Other Days imagine a future in which wormholes in space allow the remote viewing of any place or time in the past via “wormcams” connected to the net.

Each of these books takes a theme from modern physics and stretches it well past the breaking point into a science fiction setting.  They make good reading, but there are underlying issues in each that are worthy of deeper consideration.

In a series of blockbuster novels Michael Crichton has used some aspect of technology or science as the kernel idea in his work, and I think that he has been brilliant in discovering these kernels.  In Jurassic Park he foretold the recreation of lost species using preserved DNA.  In Rising Sun he used sophisticated picture processing as the key to his plot.  As the years have passed I have increased my admiration for his skill in the discovery of technology-based plots.  However, I blush to recall a time when I was more critical of this artifice.

In 1981 I was asked by Spectrum to write a review of Crichton’s new book, Congo.  Alas, I made fun of it.  And I was critical of the technological misinformation that had been cast in a setting accompanied by 65 references, including IEEE journals.

He predicts that the 1980s will be characterized by a critical shortage of computer data transmission systems, but worse yet (now brace yourself) “within ten years electricity itself will become obsolete.”  Apparently future computers will only use light circuits.  “Light moves at the speed of light.  Electricity doesn’t.  We are living in the final years of microelectronic technology.”

 Of course I never thought that Crichton would see my review when it was published in the IEEE Institute.  But he did, and he wrote a letter to the editor, complaining that, after all, this was fiction, and he was entitled to make things up.  I replied that he had made it sound like fact.  In an exchange of letters we agreed that each of us had a point, and he said that perhaps the fact/fiction game that he had defined was too difficult to continue.  Maybe, he said, he would stick to non-fiction in the future.  Fortunately for all of us, he didn’t, although I consider his autobiographical book Travels his finest literary work.

Now skipping ahead 20 years, in Timeline he writes an introductory chapter about how quantum engineering is poised to transform the world.

It posits a world where computers operate without being turned on and objects are found without looking for them.  An unimaginably powerful computer can be built from a single molecule.  Information moves instantly between two points, without wires or networks.  And teleportation – “Beam me up, Scotty” – is ordinary and used in many different ways.

In fact, as the references in this chapter attest, teleportation of single photons has recently been accomplished in several laboratories.  Only a few years ago it was considered impossible to recreate the quantum state of a photon at another location, because of the fundamental limitation to the measurement implied by the Heisenberg uncertainty principle.  However, the recent experiments convey the missing state information by forming interactions at both sending and receiving locations with paired particles, whose quantum entanglement engages Einstein’s “spooky” action-at-a-distance between the sites.  That much is real, but it’s a long way from there to teleporting humans to the middle ages.  Give Crichton credit, though, for finding out about the new experiments and creating compelling fiction from them.

The Light of Other Days, by Arthur C. Clarke and Stephen Baxter, also uses a quantum principle, wormholes, to be the cause of a world where there is no longer any vestige of privacy.  Everything that anyone is doing or has ever done can be viewed on the web using the ubiquitous wormcams.  Here it is not the pseudo-science, but the sociology that is fascinating, because we see these same privacy issues being exacerbated even by today’s technology.  Incredibly, even as I was writing these words a banner ad appeared on my computer screen for a tiny, wireless, web-enabled camera!

I remember Arthur C. Clarke telling me many years ago about his proposal to the United Nations to make the data from the spy satellites available to all nations.  His belief was that this openness would promote peace.  His latest book carries this openness to the extreme.  Governments fall, corporations crumble, and religions tremble at the relentless explorations of their past deeds.  The world becomes one of voyeurs and dropouts.  The question I groped with was whether this transparency was ultimately good for society.  It was unclear to me where the authors stood.

Writers of science fiction have always played an important role in our profession.  Their dreams and nightmares make us aware of the possibilities of our science and technology, and these two books are among the best of the genre.

Robert W. Lucky