Futurist Ray Kurzweil spends most of his time thinking about how technology will develop in the coming years, so it’s no wonder he took an interest in Avatar, a movie that provides a breath-taking view of a future conflict between technological haves and have-nots on a distant planet. Avatar’s been scorned and lauded by political pundits, praised for its advancement in digital film-making, but rarely analyzed for its assumptions on technology. Kurzweil does just this, questioning why an advanced human civilization that can travel through space is fighting with guns and missiles. While the central technological device to the movie, the avatars, is a remarkable example of prowess in genetics, brain computer interface, and wireless communication, the rest of the movie is littered with mediocre machines that either exist now, or could be developed very soon. Hollywood seems unable to take the great leap forward and show us a future where technology has pervaded and upgraded every aspect of our lives.
The blending of future and present technology is actually a fairly standard Movie and TV trope. As we saw with SyFy TV series Caprica, writers are pretty good at taking the scientific developments of today and creating a few remarkable devices for their fictional futures. But in Caprica, humans are still talking on mobile phones (not even smart phones) and driving cars. In the recent Star Trek movie, humans still look like the humans of today, and Kirk drove a motorcycle. Avatar has space marines communicating via radio and video and without a robot in sight. This sort of mixed presentation of the future – some remarkable technologies, some you already know and love, is a technique to get an audience to identify with the characters. It’s good story telling, but it’s bad futurism.
Kurzweil critiques Avatar on several key points. First, besides the avatars themselves, the technology that we see in the movie is often adapted from things we already have today. Transparent LCD screens are in development. 3D interactive displays and large wrap around display screens, like those seen in Minority Report, are on their way now. Exoskeletons are being developed for military use, and we’ve had enormous aircraft for decades. Wouldn’t these technologies have been upgraded or replaced by successors by this point in the future?
Second, Kurzweil explains that besides being applied unevenly, technological developments in Avatar don’t seem to be very pervasive. I agree completely. Where are the computers embedded in clothing and cigarettes? We have genetic engineering, but people haven’t decided to get taller, or change their skin colors, or add claws? If you can send your thoughts to a giant genetically engineered blue body, why can’t soldiers communicate in the same way? Wouldn’t everyone want to use that technology? That would make computer screens obsolete. If the marines really wanted to kill the Na’vi, why don’t they just release a genetically crafted virus – they must be able to make one, they created an entire Na’vi avatar after all. If you can travel between stars, couldn’t you just kill people from orbit with powerful lasers? Well, those solutions wouldn’t be very entertaining, I guess.
Finally, Kurzweil questions the themes of the movie itself: technological aggressors are out to destroy a primitive culture and steal their resources. He notes, and I think everyone can agree, that such a theme has been played out in our history many times over. Still, are we actually going to find humanoids on another planet and play out this sort of tragedy again? Why would there even be humanoids on another planet? Why would we only use technology to harm another species/civilization/nature? Kurzweil points out that tech gets a bad rap in Avatar – nature has to defeat it and remain pure. The truth is that our future will hopefully be one where technology enhances and protects nature, evolving the human experience.
In my own opinion, the making of Avatar is much more revolutionary than the movie itself. CGI, 3D digital simulations during filming – James Cameron is really innovative as a producer/director. Yet as a visionary of the future…the movie is just too bogged down in today to understand what tomorrow may be like. With advances in energy, we won’t need a bizarre rock on a distant planet. Brain computer interfaces will allow us to interact with machines and each other in ways that we’ve never experienced before, hopefully fostering a sense of global community. Genetics and medicine will keep us healthy well into our later years. Programmable matter (smart materials) could provide us with all the devices we need and recycle the ones we don’t. I admit, that these predictions are a form of story telling, they paint a fairly rosy picture of the years ahead. But we already have many institutions (like Singularity University) working to solve the grand challenges of today. Which makes more sense: that humanity will use technology in all parts of their lives to better themselves and their world, or that we’ll go to the stars and get beaten up by tribal Smurfs?
*Kurzweil’s critiques of Avatar can be found in their entirety here. His arguments are more expansive and detailed than I’ve had a chance to cover. Hopefully he won’t mind the paraphrasing.*