Five Information Technology Blunders and How to Fix Them

Four people on a transporter pad with vertical beams of light over them

In the Star Trek universe, people are just data, and transporters are printer/scanners. This has never caused any plot problems. Not at all.

Science fiction storytellers love futuristic computer technology, and every day it feels like the real world is becoming more like science fiction. Unfortunately, information technology doesn’t always make it easy for us to tell stories. Let’s look at some challenges storytellers face when depicting computers, the blunders that result, and what we can do to avoid them.

1. Easily Copied MacGuffins

A black man and a white man look at a couple monitors In the pilot for Leverage, a man hires the team to steal plans back from a competitor, as though the stolen plans were not only copied, but also erased from every backup. The team apparently performs the same feat.

Storytellers love MacGuffins. For anyone unfamiliar with the term, a MacGuffin is any physical item that’s critical to the plot. Traditionally, it’s a weapon, a key, or a powerful magic item. During the story, the hero, villain, or both will try to get their hands on the MacGuffin, frequently fighting over it. MacGuffins are incredibly convenient for storytellers because they give characters something to do other than kill each other. On top of that, showing the MacGuffin go back and forth between Team Good and Team Evil is an easy way of raising tension and signaling which side has the upper hand.

The tough part is explaining why one item is so dang important. In a fantasy setting, you can just give it a magic power, but in contemporary or scifi settings, that’s a little more difficult. What’s more, story logistics are simpler if the MacGuffin is small enough to be carried or thrown. Because of this, many storytellers have been tempted into making their MacGuffin some data on a disk or flash drive. It’s easy to explain why such data could mean success or failure for either side, but it also creates a bigger problem.

Information can be replicated in a matter of minutes, and any lucid person would think of that. Most people back up everything on their computers. Yet stories keep pretending there’s only one copy of MacGuffin data. Few things are more ridiculous than a villain demanding the return of a flash drive that holds proof of their evil deeds. Sure, the hero can return the drive, but the villain has no way of ensuring there aren’t a dozen more copies that could send them to jail.

How to Fix It

If your plot depends on an un-copiable info MacGuffin, you have two options. First, the MacGuffin can hold a lot of data. An enormous, mind-bending amount of data. Assuming the story happens on an urgent timeline, which it probably should anyway, no one will have time to make a copy. You may need to justify why this critical information takes up so much space – very few things do. Rogue One used this route for the Death Star plans, but some viewers weren’t convinced the plans would be that big.*

The second route is to use incompatible technology, so transferring the data to a normal phone or computer is impossible without engineering new methods. For this, you’ll need some alien tech, or at least some experimental, top-secret stuff. Keep in mind that if the alien device shows a message, someone can just record that with their phone. Fifty hours of a playable message could work, or it could simply be unreadable without decryption.

Instead of avoiding copies, you could also change the plot so copying is a problem for Team Good. Maybe the heroes have to keep the villain from getting their hands on the information. But since data is also easy to delete, Team Good’s incentive to retain the information has to be as compelling as the potential catastrophe if Team Evil gets it. Discovery season two failed at that, so the writers put in some far-fetched scenes where the alien data protects itself from deletion by hacking into the ship’s systems. The entire crew of Discovery forgot they could just pull out some hard drives and smash them.

2. Familiar Alien Systems

Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum play two men flying a mysterious alien vessel. In Independence Day, not only do the heroes learn to fly an alien ship in very little time, but they also use a human computer virus to destroy the mothership. I guess the mothership was using Mac OS 7.5.

Weird tech is a staple of science fiction in the same way magic is a staple of fantasy. And while our characters occasionally make their own fantastical contraptions, putting them into contact with strange stuff they’ve never seen before is part of the fun. Since that stuff’s going to be central to the story, our protagonist will need a way to manipulate it and save the day. Whether escaping from an alien spaceship, rewiring tyrannosaurus robots, or firing a big laser gun, characters frequently have to operate or alter weird tech to move the plot forward.

Therein lies the problem. Humans can barely open a file in an unfamiliar operating system. We wouldn’t be able to deal with a control panel in a different language, much less fly an alien spaceship without practice. Even with directions, operating unfamiliar technology is challenging. If I told you to click the “start” button on a software screen you’d never seen before, it could take you ten seconds just to find the button on the screen, much less execute a series of commands to disable the guns just in time.

Yet somehow in every science fiction story, Team Good can instantly control alien devices without significant errors. UFOs always seem to have a convenient joystick that can be operated by a bipedal animal with two hands. Every control panel has a psychic drive that beams training on how to use it into the brain of the nearest protagonist.

How to Fix It

This one’s a little tricky, but there are some options. First, in many space opera settings, human and aliens could actually use the same or nearly the same gadget. Any galactic economy is going to have huge enterprises that sell vessels or devices to multiple species. To make manufacturing more efficient, they might be designed so they can be operated by species with either hands or trunks. For instance, Boeing may be located in the United States, but it sells planes to countries around the world. So an American pilot in a foreign country might run into the same plane they usually fly, even if the labels on the buttons are in another language.

Similarly, you could make one of your characters have previous experience working for your alien species, giving them a little experience operating alien equipment.

If your plot requires zero contact between humans and aliens prior to the story, but your humans still have to fly an alien ship or operate another strange device, give them an alien voice translation box. If the aliens speak to people, they must have that. Then make the alien equipment respond to voice commands. It’s not perfect, but it’s something.

Last, make the learning curve more realistic when you can. If you can tweak your plot to give characters time to train or study, do it. Then, remember that problems and errors only make a story better. Let the protagonist struggle with unfamiliar tech for a while before they get it right. The clock might be ticking as they produce error after error.

3. High-Action Hacking

Glowing cubes with text on them showing on a laptop monitor In the 1995 Hackers, hacking looks remarkably like playing an arcade game.

Popular culture often views hacking as a glamorous pursuit, much like a jewel thief who scales the outside of a tall building and carefully cuts a clean hole in the glass to get in. Since we’re already keen on depicting advanced computers systems in a huge range of contemporary and futuristic settings, bringing in hackers to duke it out in cyberspace seems like a natural way to create interesting conflicts.

The problem is that hacking isn’t actually exciting. Sure, to a computer admin it’s exciting, but everyone else just watches the admin click around on their monitor. Describing a hacking conflict in any depth gets super technical very quickly. Plus, hacking doesn’t usually happen as a struggle between an admin and a hacker in real time. If it’s not crucial for the system to stay online, the admin might dramatically pull the plug to keep the remote hacker from doing anything, but then it’s over. As long as you have good backups, malicious software is easy to eradicate. The trick is preventing it, and then discovering it after that fails.

However, many popular stories aren’t ready to give up on dramatic high-action hacking. So they make up a bunch of ridiculous depictions that have no basis in technical reality, hoping a nontechnical audience will suspend disbelief. The 1995 movie Hackers has a Pac-Man running across the screen, eating columns of random characters. The show Castle throws a bunch of kitten videos on the monitor. The book Omnitopia Dawn, about an MMORPG, has a virtual fantasy battle where the hackers are fighting their way to a cyber tree that would give them root access to the server, because puns.

How to Fix It

Hacking can be used for conflicts, but it doesn’t work well as the main action for a climactic scene. If you’re a developer and you have a whole novel to explain technical concepts to a reader, it might be possible, but generally hacking works best as a warm-up or an extra complication at a critical time. The one popular story to show hacking accurately is the 1983 WarGames. In that movie, hacking is used to get the teenage protagonist interacting with a dangerous military AI, but not to prevent nuclear destruction at the movie’s climax.

Instead of a battle, you can think of hacking as the opening of a spy movie. The hacker is a spy who is trying to infiltrate the defenses of a heavily guarded building. Once they sneak inside the building, they can eavesdrop, commit sabotage, or even use it as a base of operations for further mischief. That is, until they’re caught. Then it’s over – there’s no fight scene between them and the guards, they just get kicked out.* If they’re really lucky, they might be able to sneak in again later. The building will probably have better security then, but you never know.

Unless this is your area of expertise, avoid focusing on the technical action in favor of highlighting the effects of hacking: information is being leaked and the systems aren’t working quite right. If outside parties discover the hack first, the hacked system might also be blacklisted. Other computers and networks will block it. In a cyberpunk setting, that could be significant.

4. Fatal Cyber Deaths

A woman tends to an unconscious man who is plugged into a computer In The Matrix, not only are cyberspace deaths fatal, but if you’re unplugged suddenly, you also die. Whoever designed this needed to work out some kinks.

Ever since computers became widespread, people have been writing stories about virtual reality. There are few things more interesting than a world where anything you want can appear but nothing is as real as it seems. It’s the perfect place to theorize how technology affects the human psyche or whether technology has its own psyche. You can give your virtual reality the semblance of a medieval fantasy, a utopia, or a western, and still have characters from a relatable, contemporary-like setting.

But any type of virtual reality comes with a big problem: no stakes. Since the world isn’t real, it’s difficult to make anything that happens in cyberspace matter. Without that, any story set in virtual reality will get boring as soon as the novelty of the setting wears off. The book Ready Player One sags in the first half for this reason. The protagonist has a lot to gain by winning the virtual treasure hunt, but nothing to lose.

Cue the slew of stories with ridiculous explanations about how if characters die in the game, they’ll also die in the flesh somehow. The Matrix has a vague line stating that virtual death kills a person’s mind for reasons. Sword Art Online has super-villain-designed headsets that murder people if their avatars die. No one in the headset factory thought these murder machines should be reported to the authorities or the press?

How to Fix It

The best route is to make virtual events inherently matter, rather than inventing elaborate explanations for how the virtual world destroys human flesh. If cyberspace is advanced enough to make it a fun place to set your story, a lot of socially and culturally important things will happen there. You can have high-stakes negotiations or secret rebellion meetings in virtual reality. In those contexts, a nefarious person using a stolen avatar could make a huge difference.

Money can also change hands depending on what happens in cyberspace, and it’s pretty easy to link money to stakes. Maybe your protagonist has joined the virtual tournament because they have only ten hours to come up with twenty thousand credits, or the mob boss will kill them and their family. Your anti-hero might be working as a cyber mule to earn money for a lifesaving operation.

Last, remember that virtual reality could act as an interface for another computer system. Virtual actions might disable the power grid, commandeer military drones, or set off nuclear warheads. You’ll need a reason why someone put those controls in cyberspace, but that’s not too hard. And when Team Good and Team Evil are fighting over the controls to a nuclear missile, a stab wound that only logs someone off is a big deal.

5. Spontaneous Data Generation

An image with the face of one man concealed behind another person. A computer selected highlights both people. In the Deep Space Nine episode Duet, the computer reveals the face of the man in back by swinging the camera around – on a single, static image taken years ago.

Once our settings get far enough into the future, we often take miracle work by computers for granted. Today, machine learning is showing us that computers can perform many tasks better than humans, so it seems natural that in the future, computers will be able to do anything. Perhaps we’ll use them to create a Monet-style painting of our backyards, come up with hot new fashion trends, or even predict how an organism will evolve.

However, there are theoretical limits to what a thinking machine can do, no matter how advanced it is. To figure something out, a computer needs the right information, and even a supersmart computer isn’t all-knowing. Sometimes, the right information doesn’t exist at the current time. If a building is burned into a pile of fine ash, there’s probably no way to reconstruct the exact building even if the computer scanned every molecule that was left.

Yet popular stories forget this basic limitation whenever it’s inconvenient, resulting in some really silly tropes. My favorite is the “enhance” command protagonists frequently use to make parts of a low-quality image readable. Is the suspect’s face a big blur? Just say “enhance” to reveal their identity! Look, if something isn’t distinguishable in an image, it’s because the image has no data for that. I guess the computer could invent a face, but what good would that do?

And as Mythcreants has mentioned before, a computer can’t decipher a completely alien language with only audio of the alien speaking. Repeated context is needed to even guess what unknown words mean.

How to Fix It

In most cases, spontaneous data generation is easy to avoid; storytellers are just being lazy. Tropes like “enhance” are used to make the contents of an image into a slower, more dramatic reveal, one that requires sleuthing by the protagonists. But come on, people, saying “enhance” doesn’t take much skill, and running some technobabble enhancement algorithm isn’t satisfying.

Often, the best replacement is to use an observation to uncover more data. “The suspect has an ice cream cone, he must have just visited the ice cream shop on the corner. There’s a red light camera near there.” They can also use other creative means to gather more information. “That’s the only image we have, but I remember maintenance was running an infrared scan at the time, maybe it can tell us more.” Once the protagonists have multiple sources of data, they can ask the computer to create a composite image or another extrapolation using all of those sources. Computers will be great at that.

Uncertainty created by lack of data can also be used to great effect. In the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode Identity Crisis, Geordi sees an anomalous humanoid shadow in the video he’s investigating and tells the computer to recreate the shadow’s source in the holodeck. The computer reports it has insufficient data, so Geordi tells it to assume the shadow was cast by something about his size. Because the computer still doesn’t know much, it creates a very vague and spooky shape. If the computer somehow knew what the alien looked like, the scene would have been less effective.

In the case of an unknown alien language, the problem is that humans have no data source, but the plot can’t move forward without communication. If you need to keep your aliens mysterious, consider letting your humans transmit lots of language information so the aliens can bridge the gap. You can also provide some data – maybe the unknown language is similar to another language the computer has encountered. This similarity might be an interesting clue about the unknown aliens. “Sir, they are using the same language family as the space worms that destroyed a colony two years ago.”

Assume your audience has basic knowledge of the topics your story covers, and do your best to be accurate. However, if your story really can’t be told without a break in believability, make your explanation simple and brief, be consistent, and don’t call attention to the problem.

P.S. Our bills are paid by our wonderful patrons. Could you chip in?

Read more about



  1. Michael Campbell

    On Action Hacking.
    One thing you can do in a Sci Fi setting (and driver-less cars have already had the done one) is to hack a computerized real world item.

    The guards are taking potshots at our break & enter team. The guards are shooting from the door-frame of the break-room at the loading dock. The B&E team are at the top of the access ramp (leading to the evil clandestine lab) but need to cross the wide open space of the loading dock to get to the vehicular roller-door to leave (with their recently rescued child victims of unspeakable medical experiments).
    Suddenly the hacker says; “I have an idea.”
    He hacks into the automated forklift in the loading dock and drives it straight at the break-room door:- barricading evil inc. security guards into the room.

    It’s not the computing power that makes computers dangerous. It’s the peripherals you’re hooked up to.

  2. Cay Reet

    I do like how the first Artemis Fowl novel handled Artemis deciphering the Fairy language (yes, fairies exist, they live underground, don’t ask why, ‘k?). It’s a long process which requires not only spotting similarities of the fairy glyphs to Egyptian hieroglyphs, but also realizing that fairies don’t write in rows or columns, but in spirals, which means the picture-copy of the Book (the holy book of the fairies, which also grants them their magic) needs to be dissected and reassembled in a shape which the computer can handle and even then, human eyes are needed to smooth out the last translation mistakes until the text makes sense. I also like how fairies, in addition to magic, have high-tech (Foaly, bad-mooded centaur and technology specialist, is one of my faves). The whole plot of the third novel, The Eternity Code, revolves around the trouble Artemis gets in when he puts something together from fairy technology he stole in the first novel and tries to sell it – getting it stolen from him, which forces him to team up with the LEP (Lower Elements Police) to get the tech back, before it does any damage.

  3. Dave L

    While James Cameron’s Avatar had many problems, one thing I did like:

    If you got killed while piloting your avatar you did not die in real life. The avatar was just ridiculously expensive to replace. And impossible to replace if you were opposing the people running the main camp at the time

  4. Innes

    Lets not forget to pour one out for that fiction classic: Ancient and/or Lost Language Easily Deciphered By Hobbyist Explorer To A Series Of Rhyming Couplets. At this point its more of a funny trope to me than a serious one.

    I’m also reminded of a Japanese drama I watched which was otherwise pretty good but had a money laundering subplot in which the act of money laundering was depicted as a computer screen with a loading bar on it labeled “Money Illegally Downloaded.’

  5. Dvärghundspossen

    I think this old Cracked post, where a professional hacker lists movie myths about hacking, was pretty good: Number 5 (so, the first item on the list, since it’s counting down), for instance, is SO obvious once it’s pointed out to you, and yet movies and TV shows work from the premise that everything is online (only beyond some kind of firewall that you need to hack through) ALL THE TIME.

  6. Richard

    The “zoom and enhance” trope is taken to a ludicrous extreme here:

  7. Laura Ess

    As regards fatal cyber deaths , or at least serious injury, THE MATRIX isn’t the only offender. At least in the Matrix you can retcon how that works.

    Anyone on a ship plugged into the Matrix must have been extracted first, so they still have Matrix Hardware in their head. Now “free range” humans DON’T have that but it seems that they can train themselves to read the scrolling code so well that they can follow what’s happening in the Matrix near their colleagues who are immersed in it. Anyway, getting back to humans hooked up to the Matrix, presumably there’s a “kill switch” somewhere in that hardware that just shuts off autonomic functions, thus if they’re killed in the Matrix, that switch trips and URK! Of course there’s issues with that as well. Is it a matter of belief on the part of the user plugged in? Surely agents would simply find ways to trigger that switch rather than beating the crap out of the plugees?

    But there’s similar issues with vaguely similar films like SURROGATES and READY PLAYER ONE.

    In surrogates we have people lying on a VR coach while their life sized puppets roam the world. Those puppets relay sensory data back to the person in the VR equipment., and part of the plot is that someone’s found a way to kill the controllers via that process. Also in that film we see military version of the same thing, fighting overseas on a front line but controlled by soldiers in similar setups. Likewise in READY PLAYER ONE security goons of the evil corporation are hooked up in VR with FULL SENSORY SUITS while they force average folk to labour in the virtual slave farms.

    But why would you have FULL SENSORY INPUT for a soldier/security agent running either? If they get incapacitated or or stunned in VR their real bodies are out of action for a period of time. Wouldn’t they have instead have say, a touch input but NO pain input? It doesn’t make sense.

  8. Dvärghundspossen

    In Stanislav Lem’s “Peace on Earth” they do a remote-controlled android thing much more plausibly.
    The main character is on a space-ship that’s orbiting moon (so as to avoid time delay), investigating dangerous stuff on the surface through a series of androids that he’s hooked up to (they keep being destroyed, so he uses one after the other). So while you’re hooked to an android, it feels just as if you’re really down on the Moon (or wherever you are), experiencing what the android does etc, with full sensory input. If the android is injured, however, you do get pain, but not the amount you would feel if it was really you, in case of serious injuries. The pain feedback is explained as necessary for androids not to be constantly injured; you need that feedback to stay on your toes and take normal precautions. But it’s still toned down, and you can tone it down even further if you want to; say your android breaks a leg, you might want to keep some amount of leg pain present so you don’t forget about it and try to put full weight on it (you CAN shut it off completely if you want to, but it’s not advised you do that). Still, no need to be in agony. And if your android is “killed”, you just bounce out of the android experience, and you’re “back in your body” so to speak.

    • Cay Reet

      Sounds a bit like that ‘Animus’ concept from the Assassin’s Creed series. When you get killed in-game, you get desycnchronised and put back in at your last save.

  9. Jenn H

    On 3, the biggest weak points in most computer networks are 1; the end user and 2; the physical security.

    Sure, your character could “hack” their way into the system, but they could also bribe, blackmail, intimidate or seduce their way in. Or they could drive an armoured vehicle into the server room. “Hacking” is a useful plot device to give characters information they need to advance the plot, and can let the characters pull off cool shenanigans, but probably doesn’t work as action itself.

    • Cay Reet

      Yes, in most cases, the human is a much easier target than the machine, so bribes etc. will probably work more easily and are less likely to be spotted (since a lot of computers have protocol functions of a sort).

      I’ve only used hackers off-screen myself so far. The agency one of my main characters works for has hackers at their disposal and they pick up information for my character and her colleagues to work with, but I don’t describe the hacking. The same goes for another story I finished recenty, where a hacker also provides information. I don’t write about them hacking, I just mention that the characters got their information from a hacker.

  10. Paul C

    Good article, and good points to keep in mind when writing a story involving technology. A few quick points:

    1. Hacking: as mentioned, the majority of hacks depend on successful spearphishing (targeted phishing) through email links, web links, and so on. However, that is not the attack itself; rather, that enables the download of a payload which is the attack or enbles an attack. Some payloads lay in wait for weeks or months before starting their work. Quite boring for a story!

    2. Hacking: War Games had it right (with the “try all the phone numbers” when they were searching for a modem)! Professional hackers do not attack a system by typing madly at a keyboard (Swordfish!!!), they write or use a pre-existing program to break into a system, e.g. Metasploit (the pay version) or the fun NSA tools that were leaked (and are now for sale on certain sites). So, write a script, iterate through the attack vectors, and wait and wait. Again, not good for a story! But…notice how War Games did the initial attack in a fun, not boring way.

    3. Cay Reet’s method is great. We do not need to see the hacking or have it described to us.

    4. Contra Chris (a bit) on the Matrix and Independence Day: I invoke the What-Happens-Next principle. If we care about the characters enough, and the plot question is sharp enough, we will not notice the IT holes. Chris is correct (although, re Independence Day, I think that given time an alien computer system could be hacked if the architecture is anything like ours); but if the story is fun enough, the goofs are forgivable.

  11. The Pink Moon

    #2. I wonder how to do that with Isekai scenario, where protagonist gets transported with a laptop into from “mundane” world to a “magical” world. If another world has completely another hardware, programming languages, software, filesystems, then a protagonist wouldn’t be able to exchange computer information, connect to magical world equivalent of Internet, even install the software (even operating system) of their new homeland to their laptop due to hardware differences. So I think how to justify similarities in technology without disclosure of worlds to each other. Maybe, developers of software/hardware can exchange with each other without realizing that they’re from different worlds. Maybe, for example, the development of computer technology went nearly simultaneously in different worlds, and developers from different worlds can share their work.

    • Leon

      I can’t imagine any scenario where operating systems would be compatable, it’s sometimes a struggle to get pieces of the same computer to talk to eachother nicely, but extracting data from the computer would be simple, its all just ones and zeros in any universe, unfortunately simple normally means hard.

  12. Leon

    A lot of fun could be had with reversing the alien tech thing, or making the difficulties cultural/linguistic rather than mechanical. Imagine an alien explorer on earth in the 1930s, trying to fly a camel biplane. Or maybe the protagonist get into a “hover car” that actually flies in a straight line rather than following the terrain.

  13. Leon

    Manually driven/piloted cars/vehicles in space opera?
    Other than motor sports and hobbyists is there any way to make them plausible?

    • Chris Winkle

      I almost included that in the list. For the most part, it isn’t plausible. However, you could have occasionally situations that require manually piloting because the automated piloting isn’t programmed to do those things. For instance, if Team Good wants to do something dangerous, there’s a very good chance the automation will refuse (big liability for companies), they might have to turn it off and pilot it manually. There might be other niche scenarios were the automation isn’t trained for it.

      Even with those things though, I don’t think having a dedicated pilot on a crew would make sense. You could have a combined pilot/navigator. Being realistic would mean giving people different jobs.

      • Leon

        Yea, in my book the captain of a warship also navigates, “pilots”, and runs all recon drones, comms and automated weapons by “jacking in” to the ship through a mind to machine interface (all warriors down to the infantryman on the ground operate their weapons systems in the same way) because there’s about half a second between sighting the enemy and total annihilation.

        I want to have a car chase scene where the heroine Sjaan Janko has to hang out the window to provide point defense, while her friends struggle to keep her moving in the same direction as the vehicle, so Sjaan can do something other than pushing the Go button on her KillAllTheBaddies machine*. But I’m struggling to come up with a reason for a four seat self drive vehicle to exist.

        * the kill all baddies machine isn’t her mechanical limbs or eyes, but wetware that allows her to operate multiple weapons systems at once. They cant just remove it and implant it in an actual soldier, and they cant make another one because the secret lab that manufactured it, Forge17, was sunk inside a gas giant (factories need to dump heat, so they use gas giants).

        • Michael Campbell

          There were some issues (#280+) of the Invincible Iron Man where Tony Stark used a telepresence unit.
          He eventually quit using it as the lag time for the signals was too slow.

          If you’re in low earth orbit, you can control the robotic unit as the speed of light isn’t really a problem. 300 km up gives you a delay of one one-thousandth of a second (each way).
          But if you orbit, out as far as, the moon, you have nearly a second in delay.
          And if you orbit (the Earth) out as far as Mars the delay is in minutes.
          And all that assumes the machinery runs instantaneously (or there abouts).

          • Michael Campbell

            After doing some research, maybe I should have said issue 290 and onward for a bunch of issues.

          • Leon

            Yea, that’s why there has to be a human brain on the ship. Starships use a gravity drive system that doesn’t use a warp bubble (it works as though the ship is falling toward a very heavy object), so the field is shaped depending on how far the pilot wants to be able to see vs how fast they want to go.

      • Leon

        You and Oren should do an article on Building The Army Of The Future Today, or whenever.
        My pet peeve is future weapons (lazers* and other things that go pew pew), that are actually less sophisticated than what we have now, and aren’t automatic rifles (if we have something better then we don’t have any reason to be fighting).

        * you should know that this is intentional.

        • Michael Campbell

          A kill capable man-portable “lazer” has a use that could be of value on some battlefields.
          The laser beam bends with gravity exactly to exactly the same degree as visible light, therefore when you get your target in your sights, neither high gravity nor low gravity will cause you to miss.

          That being said, the US replaced their M-14 rifles during the Vietnam war with M-16s, which were more properly carbines in length. Hence, they’re assault rifles not battle rifles.
          Because targets weren’t presenting themselves at long range. Not in the jungle.

          SO ultimately future military arguments will be about whether the 7.5mm caseless round with smart sensor guidance fins and depleted uranium core in a full metal jacket of titanium, is better than the 5.5 mm caseless round with high energy high explosive shaped head “package”; for the average infantryman. Rather than whether the Sony-philips “Laser” is better than the General Dynamics “laser”.

          But the “Lazer” should have a purpose on the battle field.
          It should give you a thousand shots in a magazine the size of a cigarette box. It should have a wide-angle mode. It should have a stun mode (Beta wave signals). It should have a disintegration setting for attacks against tanks.
          It should have a bunch of things as technology evolves.

          The laser will never* be a better “punch a hole through a guy” weapon than a slug thrower of one type or another.
          * Or at least not for a very, very long time.

          But the “lazer” should have a military role.

          • Leon

            I completely agree that a fully developed laser weapon would be totally fraking awesome. But It’s got the same issue as teleportation, or propellantless drives. The technology required to build the weapons removes the reason for the conflict.
            I still want me some Lazers though.

    • Jenn H

      If you need to get from point A to point B on a well established safe route, you don’t need a human pilot. There are a few ways to justify using them otherwise:

      *Computer controlled vehicles might be vulnerable to being “hacked” or otherwise interfered with.

      *They might be dealing with hazards the computer hasn’t been programmed to deal with (eg driverless cars can’t deal with kangaroos, you can imagine all sorts of weird hazards that might also pop up in Sci)

      *They’re doing something the company that designed the vehicle wouldn’t want them to do. If the autopilot isn’t open source, they may have to use a human pilot.

      • Leon

        In this universe cybernetic eyeballs are ubiquitous*, so instrumentation data is fed directly into to the visual cortex** from any device that a person may want to use, which makes hacking a problem.
        I don’t think a steering wheel would solve the car being hacked, even if the character had any idea what to do with it. In any commercial vehicle input from the controls would go through a computer.
        I think, unless it’s a rods and wires hobby vehicle, it would have to be a military vehicle, with the excuse that you need a human in the loop to get around those pesky 3 laws***.

        I do like the idea of the characters voiding the crap out of the vehicles warranty. I’ve got two important characters who don’t have enough to do, and their skill sets would easily encompass this.

        Thanks for the suggestion

        * You can record every moment you share with your kids and friends. End of argument.
        ** most warriors have an augmented visual cortex.
        *** basically the only reason JackTroopers and pilots exist.

        • Michael Campbell

          On those pesky three laws.
          There’s already a precedent for autonomous non-human units within the military:- Dogs.
          If some guard dog, mauls to death, a P.O.W.; the dog doesn’t get put before a murder trial.
          Rather, the handler gets put before a manslaughter trial.

      • Leon

        Pick up trucks!
        In any universe where people still matter, it would just be too tedious to explain to the trucks AI how you want it to be positioned. These will always have manual controls available, as well as options to turn off safety mechanisms. Provided its not registered as a robot to avoid road user charges.

      • Sonia

        Of course, you would need a good reason for there to be humans who actually know how to pilot manually –
        – to which I reply: recreation. Manual races might still exist as a sport, and some people might enjoy the thrill of manual piloting (much to the chagrin of transit authorities…)

    • Greg S

      I don’t consider Space Opera to be a realistic genre. If I have to worry about the realism of manually-controlled X-Wings and TIE Fighters, how am I gonna ignore the sound effects happening in a vacuum?

      But I do wish that more “serious” SF genre TV shows and movies would try a little harder.

    • Sedivak

      If you take this idea to its logical conclusion, humans have very little to do in a realistic sci-fi setting. Computers will surely able to drive or pilot better, to shoot better, to navigate better and to better devise tactical, strategic or even diplomatic solutions. With the advent of neuron networks and machine learning, all of this seems plausible within maybe 50 years from now if there was an incentive for it. To crudely paraphrase Dresden Codak: Technology can give people everything except relevance.

      If your sci-fi character shoots their own weapon and decides their own tactics, they can just as well manually drive their vehicle. The reasons for doing so will be similar in all those cases.

  14. Kenneth Mackay

    I see in the news that the first successful experiments in transmitting images from a video camera into someone’s visual cortex have just been made. Science is catching up quickly on science fiction!

    • Leon

      Screens, monitors, displays, tablets and phones in general should be on the list too (at a certain tech level).
      With the limitless possibilities of a direct to brain interface (and there are dozens of reasons to have it), a physical screen couldn’t possibly provide an acceptable level of functionality.

      • Bubbles

        But if something goes wrong, couldn’t it potentially cause brain damage or lead to someone being able to hack your very sensory inputs, which isn’t really possible with physical screens? (Sorry if I’m not correct about this). Mind you, if there are enough benefits, eventually most people will probably use it anyway, like has happened for pretty much all other kinds of technology. I would still expect a few paranoid people to avoid it, which might potentially be involved in the plot. There’s also the question of to what extent direct neural interfaces are even possible in the first place – yes, the basics exist, but could there be an upper limit on how much information can be conveyed through one? Just wondering.

        • Leon

          I don’t think it’s possible to get an answer to that question. I tried.
          I did have a sub plot involving a brother and sister who had their cybernetic systems hacked. And the villain used them as puppets to beat the snot out of eachother until one of them gave up the command codes for their ship (not torture as much as following through on an ultimatum), it gets a bit Eastern European and squicky*, so i cut the scene because the tone was just too dark, and i think they deserve their own book.
          But basically there’s neural augmentations which all have read only software and use wetware to talk to the brain, cybernetic limbs and eyeballs and the like are connected to the cns so although they can be hacked and also used to puppeteer a person, a hacker has no path into a persons mind.
          I can’t imagine any way to do physical damage, there would be too many protection systems. And you wouldn’t be able to fool a human brain. Though you could create a lot of confusion with the right (or wrong), word at the right time or you could just blind them with noise.

          * inspired by several separate real life people.

      • Michael Campbell

        With a certain degree of internal A.I., a screen could provide a high enough level of info. You don’t really need human control over the issue of which knee will my robot bend in order to stand on this uneven terrain.
        You need the human to deal with, is this next shot I fire; immoral.

  15. Candacis

    I think, we are pretty close to AI actually inventing faces that match:

    • Bunny

      Some of those images are truly nightmare fuel!

  16. Grey

    In the Independence Day example, human computer technology was reverse-engineered from the ships at Area 51, and the aliens had already hijacked the satellite networks of Earth to coordinate their forces, indicating a shared OS.

  17. BLAKE 1001

    The thought of not copying some all-important data mcguffin has always bothered me. I mean, to the point of utterly ruining stories for me. Likewise the cyberpunk idea of ‘stealing’ data (hey, the icon’s gone, the data’s been stolen) why not just copy it, the idea you have to virtually swoop in and Alexander Mundy the data icon just fell flat.

    The only way to make it work is when the data’s value is utterly dependent on secrecy in both directions. It’s only valuable if you have it, and no one else does. Thus making copies is dangerous, because any of them could fall into the wrong hands. Likewise simply deleting it to keep it out of the wrong hands is giving up something very important. But, even then, if there’s some horrible villain trying to gain exlcusive access to the data to do something terrible, just spew it all over the ‘net and be done with it. ::sigh::

    (OK, there’s another way – if the data isn’t static data but an ongoing process. You copy it, you just get a profoudnly encrypted or even garbage snapshot. Of course, then it’s not just a flash drive, it’s your baby, you have to keep the juice flowing or the battery fresh or it dies. But that’s awfully fanciful, maybe some sort of quantum computing would yield such a thing.)

Leave a Comment

Please see our comments policy (updated 03/28/20) and our privacy policy for details on how we moderate comments and who receives your information.