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Merging Man and Machine: 'NOVA ScienceNOW: What Will the Future Be Like?'

Wall-E gives a more vivid and thought-provoking picture of the future than this NOVA scienceNOW program.

NOVA scienceNOW: What Will the Future Be Like?

Director: Chris Schmidt, Terri Randall, Joshua Seftel
Cast: David Pogue
Distributor: PBS
Rated: N/A
Release date: 2013-01-05

With an overly dramatic host (David Pogue), dated examples, no bonus features, and shoddy production, this NOVA DVD about the future surprisingly seems like it’s from the past. Despite promising an exciting exploration of humanoid robots, mind-reading machines, augmented reality, and the scientific potential of video games, NOVA scienceNOW: What Will the Future Be Like? misleadingly provides a rather dull 60-minute program that doesn’t talk about the future so much as the recent.

The overarching theme, while not explicitly summed up in anything even remotely resembling a conclusion, is the merger of man and machine: living with, wearing, and even implanting technology. Rather than presenting commentary from a range of specialists to produce a productive dialogue, the program highlights only a handful of distinct research projects, all dealing with advances in technology, but not necessarily the future of those technologies. These projects are presented as cutting-edge science, but really offer nothing all that novel to educated viewers, a large constituent of NOVA’s audience.

The majority of the program deals with robotics, especially the construction of humanoid robots. The claim here is that, in the future, robots will be welcomed into our homes, performing our dangerous or unsavory tasks. In order to function in human spaces, these machines will therefore have to conform to our physicality--C-3POs instead of R2-D2s. Constructing bipedal robots is extremely difficult, though, as mankind’s innate sense of balance is not explicitly programmable, and must actually be taught to robots through reinforcement learning.

Moving beyond simply living with machines, the benefits of wearable robots are exhibited in a series of predictable demonstrations. In particular, the HULC exoskeleton assists in carrying a great deal of weight, so Pogue gradually dons and weighs notoriously heavy firefighter gear piece by piece to demonstrate. Inspirational in the hope it gives for paraplegics, this research, while still in the early stages, is not based on a new idea. Experiments with powered exoskeletons date back many decades, and one such apparatus was even featured in an episode of Glee back in 2010.

Presented as “mind-reading machines”, the projects exhibited next are nowhere near as impressive as this title implies. A headset that reads brainwaves via the scalp, for example, is admittedly rudimentary, easily getting “confused”. Another way of combatting paralysis involving directly implanting sensors on the brain to control robotic armatures suffers from inaccuracy and necessitates extensive practice. So the attractive but unsupportable concept of mind reading quickly digresses into brain mapping, despite the centuries-long history of research in such functional specialization. Again, Pogue jumps in, as a computer identifies the simple objects on his mind based solely on brain activity. Sounds pretty impressive, right? Here’s the catch: the computer picks between only two functionally disparate objects--better than a 50/50 chance.

The “augmented reality” segment quickly digresses into a discussion of smartphone apps and integrating technology into day-to-day-life -- something we are already intimately familiar with. The big new project presented is none other than Google Glass, the smartphone-in-a-headset that has been all over the news, so, once again, nothing new here. Even the work with holograms (painfully pronounced “hoe-low-grams” by Pogue) is shown to be primitive, displaying pixellated images on a visor rather than the Star Warsian projection we all envision.

This NOVA special then tangentially spotlights Adrien Treuille’s science-based video games such as Foldit and EteRNA (released 5 and 3 years ago, respectively). These games harness the brain power of their thousands of players to make real scientific discoveries about proteins and RNA. Although offering a refreshing approbation of video games as opposed to their typical condemnation, this segment really expresses nothing about the future other than a hope for wider recognition of the benefits of video games.

A concern about the potentially negative effects of technological advancement is, however, conspicuously lacking. Any valid dissenting arguments are omitted, and only a couple vague comments from MIT’s Sherry Turkle represent this viewpoint, with such sweeping and sententious statements as “it’s pushing us against a moral imperative,” expressing a concern for the “integrity of the body, integrity of the mind.” Promptly dismissing this side of the argument by merely acknowledging the need for “guidelines,” the focus swiftly shifts to the educational activities of robotics clubs.

“What Will the Future Be Like?” doesn’t answer its own question. Highlighting technologies that, in this fast-paced world, are no longer on the cutting edge and making very few actual predictions about the future, this NOVA program is unremarkable. Most of the supposedly fascinating information is likely to already be known by the viewer, and the contentious nature of technological progress is only minimally addressed, a serious rhetorical flaw. Wall-E gives a more vivid and thought-provoking picture of the future than this NOVA scienceNOW program, which only predicts that humanoid robots will be better at soccer than the 2050 World Cup champions.


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