Back to the Future
Back to the Future
By Tedd Roberts, Neuroscientist
My friend Stephanie Osborn asked for some guest blogs, and I was happy to oblige. However, I then was faced with the question of what to write. Unlike Steph, I am not a Rocket Scientist, and I'm not always certain that what I *do* is of interest to those who are not in my field; but the recent passing of Astronaut Neil Armstrong (not "Neil Young", NBC – and not "Lance Armstrong", Facebook) and "the future that never was."
Those of us who grew up reading Golden Age Science Fiction expected that by the 21st century arrived, we'd have cities on the Moon, and maybe even Mars. Earthbound cities would have floating buildings, flying cars, personal jetpacks, and moving sidewalks that could whisk us away in the blink of an eye. We would have computers that talk, and robots that (hopefully) didn't. If you were a bit younger or read exclusively the post-modern cyberpunk futures, you may have expected a Blade Runner future with ten-time-overcrowded cities, scarce resources, homicidal androids and unwieldy pollution. Alas, the former future never came, and fortunately, the latter is not yet upon us.
As I look around, however, I see a future that none of us quite imagined. I don't have Dick Tracy's 2-Way Wrist TV – but only because we 21-cen humans don't like our screens to be that small. Many of us carry a computer more powerful than the entire Apollo program on our belts – complete with videophone. Like Star Trek's Commander Spock, we can ask our computers practically any question and get a near instantaneous response – and we didn't have to wait for the 23rd century to create Google, Yahoo, Bing, Ask or Wikipedia. My music is all digital, and comes from a device even smaller than my pocket phone – or my tablet, computer, or car – and is delivered wireless to tiny earbuds with the equivalent sound of a room-sized stereo system of just 20 years ago. Lasers are no longer mysterious devices that will save or destroy civilization, but pocket novelties to be sold at a convenience store.
Nowhere is the advance of future technology more evident than in the field of medicine. We may not have Dr. "Bones" McCoy's biobeds with an instant readout of the patient's health, but modern medical imaging has advanced well beyond Star Trek imagining. Advances in "Diffusion Tensor Imaging" map water molecules with such precision that doctors can trace the large connection pathways made by the axons of neurons in the brain and determine the precise location (and type) of damage that causes brain areas to no longer communicate with each other. Computed tomography and conventional MRI provide nearly instant 3-D images of the inside of the body, and nuclear medicine provides tracers that can be used with such positron emission tomography to track medicine and chemical flow throughout the body and even identify regions with abnormal activity prior to detectable cancers.
Last weekend I watched an SF movie in which one of the protagonists was a double-amputee. Even 10 years ago, it would be extremely rare to see this even as a peripheral (or aftermath) character – but there was a scene in which this man (a real-life hero, incidently) stood up on his titanium and plastic legs and charged the enemy. DARPA has a program to build brain-controlled prosthetics for arms and hands, but for the past 10-15 years, medical science has been providing advanced leg and foot prosthetics to that provide many of the functions of flesh without the computer interfaces that we used to think were necessary. I was motivated to enter my field 35 years ago by the TV show "The Six Million Dollar Man" (and Martin Caidin's "Cyborg" books [on which “The Six Million Dollar Man” was based -Steph]). While we don't have the bionics imagined by Caidin, we certainly have a good start; especially since a South African double-amputee (Oscar Pistorius) ran in the Olympics this year – not the Paralympics, the Olympics – in the 4 x 400 m relay.
The future is here, we are living it. It's not the future we imagined, but in many ways it is better. Now it's time to go out and imagine the next future – it may not come true, but if the 21st century has taught us anything – it's that the future will sneak up on us before we even expect it.~~~
Tedd has his own blog, Teddy's Rat Lab, that is very worth perusing: http://teddysratlab.blogspot.com/
I thank him most kindly for a wonderful analysis of where we are, how far we've really come, and where we want to be.