Sci-Fi Sunday: What Happens When Our Technology Outpaces Our Understanding?

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Though the sci-fi short “Burnt Grass” deals with themes related to futuristic technologies, it doesn’t bother to develop said future in detail. It is, after all, a short film. You’ve got to pick your battles. What does the director substitute for matter transporters and clone farms? Yup. A patch of burnt lawn in the backyard.

But of course, this isn’t just any ordinary square foot of charred Kentucky bluegrass. It does weird things to organic objects that get too close—like, for starters, making cute puppies vanish in a pop.

If you’ve made it this far, hopefully you’ve watched the film. So, spoilers. First, I think making the replicating tech a hole in the lawn is an interesting choice. It requires the same suspension of disbelief we employ whenever entering a fictional world—but there’s no ruse. No guise of science to quibble over.

Smoking hole in the ground, mind uploading machine, advanced cloning tech—it doesn’t matter. None exists. The story isn’t about the tech, it’s about the implications of the tech. Who knows how we’ll get there, but if we do, here are some strange consequences worth considering before leaping in with both feet.

And the consequences are strange indeed. The most difficult idea in the film also happens to be its prime source of tension. The couple with the magical patch of burnt grass in their yard start to experiment. (As you do.) It all starts innocently enough. A flower. A chocolate cake. No big deal.

Then the woman replicates herself—and that’s problematic. There’s no way to separate clone from original. For the male character, it’s trickier than dating a twin. Both women have identical bodies, brains, and memories up until they were replicated. And both think they’re the original.

He’s forced to sort out a suddenly (insanely) complicated relationship. Who is the original, and how would we possibly know? It’s obviously a difficult (maybe impossible) question to answer. Are we our body, brain, memories? That sense of continuity that is the sum of all these things together?

“Burnt Grass” poses more questions than it answers. But one thing seems clear. It is, I think, a commentary on our relationship to new technologies and the accelerating pace of progress.

As we race ahead, it’s plausible we’ll get in over our heads from time to time and that our technology will outpace our understanding of it. In truth, it’s already happening. Many of us understand smartphones, even televisions, about as well as we would that magical smoking hole in the lawn. They just…work.

Yet we more rapidly adopt new technology now than at any time in history. I think this worry, that we’ll open Pandora’s box and there will be no going back, is a fundamental driver of tech anxiety.

The best we can do is responsibly develop new technologies and contain irresponsible, malevolent, and destructive inventions and applications. Because we have no way to stop, or even slow, this train. If we could, perhaps there would be no nuclear weapons—a technology we’ve been trying and failing to stuff back in its box for over 70 years. The good news is we’re still here. The worrisome news is the story isn’t over.

Many new technologies, like biotech or artificial intelligence, are equally powerful. But not without risk. Are our good intentions enough to ensure good outcomes outweigh bad? I hope so.

But there’s only one way to find out.

Image Credit: Burnt Grass

Jason is managing editor of Singularity Hub. He cut his teeth doing research and writing about finance and economics before moving on to science, technology, and the future. He is curious about pretty much everything, and sad he'll only ever know a tiny fraction of it all.