Ask The Experts: The Truth About Sci-Fi (Part Two)

Arts, Technology
The Island (2005). Directed and co-produced by Michael Bay.

The Island (2005).
Directed and co-produced by Michael Bay.

By Zacharias Szumer
With thanks to Benjamin Laird and Megan Munsie

by Banjamin Laird

Travelers (2016-2018) is a Canadian time travel show. The characters have journeyed back from their post-apocalyptic future where humans live in domed shelters following a nuclear winter. This future society is managed and controlled by a single artificial intelligence (AI) called the Director. Time travel is achieved by the Director sending the consciousness of people, travellers, into the bodies of those about to die (the “Traveler Program”). To correct the future, teams of these travellers are sent on missions to change the past in order to avoid the events that lead to the apocalypse. So in a reversal of the AI as future ending (The Terminator, The Matrix), in Travelers the AI is attempting to avoid the world-ending events.

Thematically, the show addresses a present condition, a sense that through climate destruction and war, the world is heading for a state of desolation. The events though are seemingly easier than climate change to reverse, initially an impact from an asteroid and then later a disease. In some ways, the ultimate failure of the team – for the Traveler Program fails – suggests that individuals may not be enough to fix these problems.

In Travelers, the future is reliant on records that humans have left behind in order to understand the past. Abundant information from social media and surveillance is used as legitimate sources to understand the past. It is not an objective truth, however, but the appearance of truth. For example, the initial team is incorrectly chosen for the missions they need to carry out; one traveller arrives in the body of an intellectually disabled woman on the basis of a fake social media profile done as an exercise with her social worker. Another arrives in the body of a drug addict, because his obituary claimed he had died after the first time he used heroin. Neither were malicious “fake news”, but rather the simple greyness in the way people present themselves, or are represented, online.

Travelers (2016-2018). Created by Brad Wright.

Travelers (2016-2018).
Created by Brad Wright.


Perhaps the most significant aspect of the show though is the faith the main characters place in the Director. The Director is an artificial intelligence that controls the characters daily lives in the future, and through intermediaries, command their missions in the present. We, now, delegate much of our lives to computer systems. The complexity of present society and the interrelated software systems are not understandable in their entirety by a single person. While this complexity is currently achieved by many people working together, even if on very different software systems, disentanglement is not possible. When will we cross the line from delegating difficult and/or repetitive tasks to delegating entire decisions? How will we run our lives in relation to a computer system that knows better?

Benjamin Laird is a software developer and poet. His poems and essays have been published in various print and online journals. His electronic poetry includes The Durham Poems, a chapbook of biographical poems about William Denton, a nineteenth century spiritualist, scientific lecturer, and radical; and ‘Core Values’, a response to Dorothea Mackellar’s ‘My Country’, which was shortlisted for the 2018 Queensland Literary Awards QUT Digital Literature Award.

The Island
by Megan Munsie

As a scientist involved in stem cell research that seeks to understand and treat intractable diseases, pop-culture that tackles regenerative medicine and cloning often hits a nerve for me. For example, The Island (2005) puts forward the premise that in the year 2019 the rich can grow their own spare parts using technology developed by Merrick Biotech – a nefarious corporation that uses a person’s cells to effectively sell biological insurance policies. However, unbeknown to the wealthy (and celebrity) clientele, the technology developed by the evil founder and his eponymous company actually creates clones. These clones are held captive in a compound where order is maintained by tempting them with the alluring possibility that if they work hard (and stay healthy) they may ‘win’ the lottery that will see you reach a form of nirvana called, wait for it, The Island. Of course, the winning ticket is an appointment with the knife and a gruesome end.

I initially viewed this film with great frustration. The technology and its application were misrepresented, scientists and biotech companies were vilified, and many aspects of the story line just made no sense. For example, why would you need to create a clone when arguably a ‘younger’ donor’s organ might function better; and why kill the clones if only a kidney or part of a liver is needed? In the graphic example of surrogacy, why create and then brutally kill the surrogate when she could provide the client with another child in the future? It also seemed highly improbable that no one knew about the antics of the evil corporation given the number of staff employed and the extent of its barbaric practices. All of these aspects of the film played into rising concerns at that time about scientists wanting to play god, clone people and essentially “farm embryos”.

The Island (2005). Directed and co-produced by Michael Bay.

The Island (2005).
Directed and co-produced by Michael Bay.


However, late last year it was revealed that genetically modified babies had been born in China. While not on the scale of unethical conduct portrayed in The Island, the news that it is still possible today (even with clear laws and guidelines against such use) for rouge actors to use technology in ways that are out of step with societal views (and scientific guidelines). While I had been involved in discussions about whether we should be able to use the new generation of genetic modifying technology to manipulate the genome of human embryos (currently prohibited in Australia and many other jurisdictions around the world) to better understand early human development and what goes awry in certain diseases, I was strongly of the opinion that we did not know enough about the technology (and how to ensure any future child – and their children - were not at risk of harm) to even consider its use. I was gobsmacked when the announcement was made. I was also shocked by the lack of contrition and acknowledgement of the breach of faith shown by those involved; this “achievement” took many more scientists and doctors than just Dr He Jiankui.

Notwithstanding my aversion to sensationalist portrayals of medical science in film, perhaps this recent example suggests that we need to be reminded of what is possible if we don’t continue to openly discuss where such technology is at. We need to talk about its benefits, but also its limitations, and clearly address how the complex regulatory and ethical issues are best overseen, and by whom.

Associate Professor Megan Munsie is a scientist who has combined her extensive technical expertise in stem cell science with an interest and understanding of the complex ethical, social and regulatory issues associated with stem cells in research and in the clinic. A/Prof Munsie is currently the Head of the Engagement, Ethics and Policy Program at the ARC funded Stem Cells Australia initiative and Deputy Director of the Centre for Stem Cell Systems at the University of Melbourne.

Zach - Szumer.jpg
Zacharias Szumer is a freelance writer who lives in Naarm/Melbourne. His writing has previously appeared in Overland, Arena, Cyclic Defrost and The Jakarta Post.