How Well Do Sci-Fi Movies Predict New York City’s Future?

“Truth is stranger than fiction.” One would think Mark Twain’s famous rule would apply to New York City as much, if not more than, any place else in the world. But when it comes to science fiction, oddly it doesn’t.

The internet is full of articles about sci-fi movies that accurately predict the future, technologically and otherwise. Often, the future happens on the west coast—Los Angeles is particularly popular, according to multiple listicles devoted to the topic of movies that predict technology accurately. Although, oft-cited in the top 10 of the list, Minority Report, released in 2002, is actually set in Washington, D.C., in 2054 A.D.

But, even if some of the technology—like virtual reality, voice-interactive computers, and frighteningly personalized advertising—does exist today, when it comes to predicting New York City’s actual future status, the movies, for the most part, fail spectacularly. This science fiction is definitely stranger than any true thing about New York.

The original 1968 Planet of the Apes is set on a planet approximately 2,300 years in the future where man is pre-lingual and apes are the dominant, advanced, species. Four astronauts crash land on the planet (one is dead already) and are captured by the apes. After more than their fair share of anguish, torture and surreal moments, one astronaut, Taylor (played by Charlton Heston) escapes, follows the shoreline and sees the remains of the Statue of Liberty. So the “planet” is really New York City, more than two thousand years after a nuclear holocaust.

While it’s only 2017, and not 3978 A.D., at this point there’s no sign of an all-out nuclear holocaust and if we look at the painful and horrific example of Hiroshima, cities can recover from a nuclear bomb without humankind reverting to cave days. So, no, planet Planet of the Apes is not future New York City.

In 2022 (yes, that’s in five years) 40 million people will live in NYC, in dilapidated housing or on the streets, according to the 1973 sci-fi classic, Soylent Green. The premise is that the 20th century’s industrialization would lead to overcrowding, pollution, and global warming due to the greenhouse effect. Most of the population would survive on rations produced by the Soylent Corporation, the latest being Soylent Green, a green wafer advertised to contain “high-energy plankton” from the World Ocean.

Now, there is a homeless population in New York City, and New Yorkers do love their green foods and supplements (there is even a company called Soylent which creates powdered and liquid food substitutes.) At the same time, global warming is widely accepted as actual, scientific, fact. But in five years, will all New Yorkers rely on wafers that are actually made out of human corpses? Doubtful, exceptionally doubtful.

Movies from the 80s didn’t show a New York that fared much better. In 1981, Escape From New York predicted that Manhattan, in 1997, would be one giant maximum security prison following a war with the Soviet Union. By actual-1997 the Soviet Union had collapsed, and New York had not morphed into a prison. Also, thus far, no Presidents have been kidnapped and left in the hands of criminals in Manhattan.

The Fifth Element, released in 1997, certainly depicts New York City traffic, and taxicabs, in a relatively authentic way. In 2263 will we have cabs that fly? It’s more than possible, according to this New York Times article from April 2017.

The ability for a New York City lab to reconstruct a humanoid woman from the severed hand of an alien race? Even knowing that it’s mandatory to do so in order to save the universe, it still seems unlikely that our biotech (or casual hobnobbing with aliens) will have progressed that far in 146 years. Then again, 150 years ago who would have predicted that it would be possible, today, to bioprint human tissue?

The 2004 film, The Day After Tomorrow, does an admirable job flooding and then freezing New York City. But, it’s set in 2004 and while we did have the coldest January since 1977 that year, and summer brought hurricanes Ivan and Jeanne, the city survived both admirably. Also, the main branch of the New York City Public Library is an excellent place to weather any storm.

One more scenario that didn’t happen: I Am Legend. Great movie, but Will Smith has not actually turned out to be the only fully human survivor of a viral plague that swept the city in 2009. Between the anti-vaxers and the prevalence of viruses, it could, still, happen — maybe. But it hasn’t.

Which sci-fi movie, then, does get it right about New York City? In my opinion, that honor goes to The Adjustment Bureau.

The movie, starring Matt Damon as ambitious politician David Norris and Emily Blunt as beautiful contemporary ballet dancer Elise Sellas, hit theaters in 2011. It was set in present-day New York but in an alternate reality (discovered by Norris) in which the men of The Adjustment Bureau have a “plan” for each person.

The central question posed by the film is do we control our fate, or does fate control us?

It’s New York City, and no New Yorker—Norris included—is going to put up with predestination. The two characters fall in love and, despite the odds (presented by the agents of Fate itself) at the end of the movie they are together. Love conquers all. (Except, of course, subway delays.)

By |2019-05-30T19:17:51+00:00March 20th, 2018|Technology|

If We Live in a Simulation, Let’s Hope We Never Prove It

Odds are, you’ve pondered off-hand the nature of our shared and individual reality. Am I real? Is anything real? To most mature, sober adults, the consideration seems absurd. But there are some that think this a possibility not only worth pondering, but investigating. Believe it or not, many philosophers, physicists, and futurists think there’s a good chance the answer to both queries is “no.”

You may have heard of simulation theory before. It’s been most notably depicted in the Matrix Trilogy, wherein Keanu Reeves’ Neo discovers that his reality is a computer simulation created by sentient machines that control humanity. Simulation theory is basically that, but without a robotic antagonist and human bodies in pods. If human consciousness can be simulated, the theory goes, we could be all be characters in a virtual reality and never even know it.

The case for simulation

Why on earth(s) would this be the case? This is where the sci-fi element gets a bit more plausible. The first rationality is statistical. Assuming it is possible for humans to simulate reality in the future, post-humans would have the ability to run countless simulations, potentially of their ancestors (us), all at once. Statistically, then, it would be infinitely more likely to be part of one of these simulations than not.

Considering the rate of improvement in video games and virtual reality—by which we’ve gone from “Snake” to photorealistic VR in half a century—it seems unlikely that humans won’t someday reach this point. If you are a technological optimist and think humans can and will create simulations down the line, you’ll have to accept the probability that it’s happened already, and here we are. This belief also lends itself to the theory of nested realities, by which people in simulations create more simulations, forming a chain of virtual worlds.

Some scientists have equated the realization (if it could ever be proven) with Copernicus’ discovery that the Earth moves around the sun. Once you get it, everything else becomes simpler. If we are indeed part of a simulation, it may explain why, against great odds, we evolved from ooze into conscious beings. If this rare and miraculous evolution happened just once, trillions upon trillions could relive it in simulations. It could also explain why the universe is based on mathematical laws, and why objects are only measurable once they are observed.

The hypothesis was first laid out by Oxford philosopher and futurologist Nick Bostrom in 2003, but has since piqued the interest of prominent scientists. Elon Musk, for his part, thinks that there is a billion to one chance we are living in base reality. He also says we should hope we are, because if not civilization could be near its end. NASA scientist Nick Terrile agrees. “If one progresses at the current rate of technology a few decades into the future,” he tells the Guardian, “very quickly we will be a society where there are artificial entities living in simulations that are much more abundant than human beings.”

Is it possible to test such a hypothesis? Two Silicon Valley billionaires, for their part, have enlisted scientists to try and figure it out. Some things to look for would be irregularities, finite points that prove the universe isn’t endlessly expansive, or evidence of a creator “cutting corners.” But perhaps the only real solution would be to succeed at simulating reality and consciousness. In this regard, we have a long way to go.

What it would mean—and should we worry?

The greater question is, if we are to accept simulation theory (or somehow prove it), does it even matter? Is it good for the world, or bad? The revelation might inspire a sense of purpose in some, causing them to do more to make things interesting for the game-maker. This seems like a stretch—personally, I can’t imagine a collectively positive reaction in today’s day and age.

Casting a tidal wave a doubt over the world’s religious billions, for starters, would the extinguish (or at least badly damage) the moral purpose of huge portions of the population. People would question the meaning of their day-to-day lives and struggles, and be embittered by the idea of a mortal creator watching for amusement. If there were concrete proof of a simulation, humanity would doubtless attempt to make contact, or cause enough of a commotion to merit intervention. This would be a recipe for mass anarchy.

Lest I end this on a dark note, it’s worth taking a moment to realize that whether or not we are in a simulation, the odds of us proving it any time soon are miniscule. And there are perfectly good reasons to disbelieve the theory entirely. Simulations rely on physical properties, after all, and it boggles the mind to think of the time, space, and effort necessary to create a perfect, mammoth simulation that grasps the minuscule details of reality so expertly. Think of it this way: if simulated water tastes and hydrates just like water, is it a simulation anymore, or just water? Further, there is no evidence yet that computation can replicate consciousness on any level.

There will probably be no real answer to this question in our lifetime, and simulation theory is in this way kind of like religion. If believing in it drives us to be better people, and strive for an improved, advanced humanity, I may still call it creepy, but I won’t knock it.

If the concept alone drives us to mayhem, well… it wouldn’t be the first time belief in a higher power led to war.

By |2018-10-31T18:11:36+00:00April 5th, 2017|Technology, Urban Planning|
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