Science…or Science Fiction?

Electrically Conductive Roads: On the planet Sarvage, roads are electrically conductive, and vehicles do not have engines or battery packs. A small capacitor provides enough energy to move short distances when off the road. Is this possible in the real world?

In Sweden, they started a trial with a short stretch of conducive road that opened in May 2018: https://www.scania.com/group/en/worlds-first-electric-road-opens-in-sweden/ and they have long-range plans to expand the program by 2030. In the midst of a wave of electric cars and motorcycles, one thing is overlooked: if we spent more money on the roads, we would increase overall efficiency for everyone. One of the major complaints about conductive roads is that they would deteriorate too soon. Sure, based on the current average weight of vehicles, about 4000 pounds. Of that, 300-600 pounds is the engine and transmission that would be eliminated, along with other connecting parts for further weight reduction. We could easily drop the average vehicle weight by 25-50%, which would reduce the strain on the road. And do we really need all those batteries if we have a steady supply of electricity? With the road as a power supply, small electric motors at each wheel could be very efficient. The 2020 Acura NSX has a combustion engine that is supplemented with electric motors directly driving each wheel. We could get rid of the engine and simply use small electric motors at each wheel. Imagine never needing to stop for gas or charging stations, and each car could be identified and billed according to how much energy it used. Electrically conductive roads? Science.

Computer to Brain Communication: Elias, the protagonist in Rebellion on Planet Sarvage, has computer implants that he communicates with directly by silently thinking the words as he moves the muscles in his throat. He uses the AI computer implants to translate and feed information directly to his brain; certainly, this is impossible in real life. Or is it?

The idea of using mechanical bodies with human brains (either robotic or in tanks) or a master AI controlling humans are steady sci-fi themes. But what was “futuristic” in the 1950’s is now close to reality. Starkey Hearing Technologies has a hearing aid that can translate 27 languages, and according to https://news.mit.edu/2018/computer-system-transcribes-words-users-speak-silently-0404 “MIT researchers have developed a computer interface that transcribes words that the user verbalizes internally but does not actually speak aloud. The wearable device picks up neuromuscular signals in the jaw and face that are triggered by internal verbalisations — saying words “in your head” — but are undetectable to the human eye.”

That covers translation, but what about our brain linking directly to a computer? Companies like BrainGate and Neuralink are already working on it. However, these chips are meant to treat neurological disorders such as spinal cord damage or stroke by placing small chips to act as sensors for specific functions; they do not think for the person or answer questions through a direct brain-computer link.

Perhaps it is an indication of what to expect in the future that dozens of universities in the United States and around the world offer formal degree programs in BCI (brain-computer interface.) We’re doing more now than ever thought possible, and advancing technology makes even the impossible seem within our grasp.
Computer chips in the brain? Science. The brain linked directly to a computer? Science fiction.

Genetic Alteration/Enhancement: Within each chromosome are hundreds of genes, each containing tens of thousands of base pairs with genetic information. A doctor on planet Sarvage attempts to extend and enhance life by adding a new gene to an existing chromosome. The doctor takes specific genetic traits from animals and adds them to humans. How close is this to reality?

The process of treating or preventing disease by inserting a gene is called Gene Therapy, https://ghr.nlm.nih.gov/primer/therapy/genetherapy. The US government sponsors hundreds of research studies for gene therapy and continues to refine the method of genetic alteration called CRISPR. There are also international gene therapy efforts, such as led by ISCT: https://isctglobal.org/?

Repairing defective DNA so that the natural expression of traits are normal is quite different from changing the genetic information to make super-humans. This is a murky topic, even setting aside the privacy and ethical issues. As scientists learn more about how the building blocks of life are designed and function, we open up a world of opportunity—and danger. A common concern is how genetic alterations may affect future generations. However, only changes made to an egg or sperm are able to be passed on to subsequent generations. This form of genetic research, called germline, is illegal in many countries.

It is only a matter of time before we see real-world application of gene therapy to treat specific diseases and defects such as tuberculosis, HIV, sickle cell anemia, cancer, and leukemia. What about after that? After we are able to treat and possibly eliminate diseases? Do we then turn to “improving” our genetic code? And how will we “normal” humans interact with genetically improved humans? Hmmm, this could be the start of a new story.
Genetic Alteration? Science. Genetic enhancement? Science fiction…for now.

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