• Jon Richter

Five amazing new technology advances that have inspired me… to write creepy stories


Any science fiction or horror writer worth their salt regards a new technological advancement as great news; not for the benefits it will bring to society, but for the raw nightmare fuel it provides for sinister stories of malfunctions, malevolent misuse, or unexpected consequences…


Today I am delighted to announce that my next novel, the cyberpunk thriller London 2039: Auxiliary, is now available for pre-order, either in paperback or for your eReader device – follow this link to get your fingers, claws or illegally-installed weapons-grade retractable blades on a copy now!


In writing it, and choosing to set it in the alarmingly imminent year 2039, I wanted to predict how current technological trends might develop in the next couple of decades into what I hope is a frighteningly plausible dystopian setting. Here are five of the emerging innovations that I think might take our society in some very interesting directions in the coming years…



1). Robotics


This is hardly a new field, and has been inspiring writers for decades since the term was first coined in Czech playwright Karel Capek’s 1920 work R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots). Since that story kick-started our fascination with mechanical men, we’ve seen everything from humble humanoid helpers (think C3PO and Red Dwarf’s Kryten) to the terrifying, murderous automatons of the Terminator movies, with virtually every online article on the subject featuring the iconic image of one of James Cameron’s skull-faced metal monstrosities.


But I think that, until recently, the gap between current-generation mechanoids and those envisaged by Isaac Asimov, George Lucas and countless other creative giants has been large enough for us not to think of them as a real, present-day possibility; in our minds, robots are a conceivable prospect, but in our hearts they are consigned to the realms of science fiction.


Until now.


With companies like Boston Dynamics providing a steady stream of unsettling YouTube clips (this footage - about 50 seconds in - of an early BigDog prototype scrabbling to regain its footing on a patch of ice is almost a decade old, but remains my all-time favourite disturbing robot video), driverless cars already active on North American streets, and long-standing rumours of Amazon’s intention to deliver parcels via drone drop-off, we can finally see the robot revolution taking shape. And that impending upheaval is the part I’m most interested in – not the distant future where robots are indistinguishable from the humans that built them, but the much nearer horizon, where creepy metallic dogs replace night-time security guards and lonely men forsake the company of women to settle down instead with their rubber-skinned sex dolls.


Get ready, because the deepest denizens of the Uncanny Valley are about to come clanking, clattering and crawling to a town near you.



2). Artificial Intelligence


Another well-mined seam for fiction writers, we’ve already encountered many truly frightening and iconic AIs (none more so than 2001: A Space Odyssey’s HAL9000, although my personal favourite is AM, the Allied Mastercomputer from Harlan Ellison’s short story I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream – this sentient supercomputer rapidly develops a hatred for humanity so intense that it makes Skynet look like a kind-hearted grandmother).


The idea of a human creation whose intellect surpasses our own is as deliciously poetic as it is genuinely worrying, and minds as esteemed as Stephen Hawking have predicted in recent years that our own AIs will be responsible for humanity’s ‘extinction event’.


Historically, such fears have been expressed in fiction as an omniscient, omnipotent entity who decides – whether through malicious will or a misinterpretation of its own programming – to act against its human masters. But, again, I think the actual direction of travel in this field is leading us in an even more alarming direction.


Big data is the innovation du jour, with trillions of bytes of information being fed into neural networks to enable them to learn purely by copying. No thought, no sentience, no understanding; just fearsomely intricate code that can be taught by painful repetition to recognise faces, to create faces (check out my earlier blog post on this), to humiliate world champions at games as complex as Go, to learn to be racist and homophobic within days of being ‘released’ into the wild frontiers of social media… and it’s this mindless imitation of intelligence that I’ve used as the inspiration for what I hope is a more realistic AI overseer in my new book.


It seems to me that the only thing scarier than a computer that can outthink us is one that can outpace, outperform and outstrip us without even having to think at all.



3). Synthetic meat


Now for something a little more obscure – and potentially disgusting, depending upon your dietary preferences!


The race to produce the most convincing meat alternative is big business. Vegans and vegetarians are tired of paltry imitations, and an increasingly environmentally-conscious public is starting to realise just how large the farming industry’s carbon footprint really is, as awareness is raised of the deforestation required to house livestock, the inefficiency of using food to nourish them instead of feeding humans directly, and of course the animals’ infamous methane output. Fake meats are getting more realistic by the year, with products like the Impossible burger grabbing headlines with its convincingly juicy-looking patties (and rivals like Incogmeato conjuring up increasingly terrible puns!)


But what if we didn’t need an alternative at all? What if we could just have real animal flesh, minus the environmental impact, and minus the need to actually kill or mistreat any animals? Welcome to the world of synthetic, or ‘cultured’ meat, where meat that is genetically identical to real meat (in effect, it is real meat – there’s no way to tell the difference, even under a microscope) can be grown in vats from stem cells extracted from living animals. In this video, the presenter scoffs chicken nuggets while the chicken whose meat he’s eating struts around happily and unharmed in the background. I’m convinced that this technology will be game-changing – if only they can reduce the cost from tens of thousands of pounds per burger, and find a way to grow the meat without having to bathe the stem cells in a bath of fresh animal blood (which somewhat defeats the whole point…)


And once this guilt-free solution is commonplace, why stop at traditional meats like beef and chicken? If no animals need to be harmed, we could soon be sampling panda burgers and tiger steak with impunity… or even ‘the other other white meat’ (in London 2039: Auxiliary I’ve envisaged restaurants selling prime fillets grown from the DNA of celebrities; Beyonce Burger, anyone?)



4). Augmented Reality


You’ll doubtless be familiar with Pokemon Go and the stories of people blundering into dangerously deep water or off the edges of cliffs while trying to snag their next cute companion. But you could also include in this category any of the myriad face-distorting apps that we use to make us laugh when our video call is getting boring; the point is, you look through the screen of your phone at the real world, and a computer program changes the perceived reality somehow, either by warping it, by adding something that isn’t there, or by transforming it entirely.


But what about when this additional ‘layer’ of reality isn’t only available through our iPhones? What if our future selves are sporting the latest pair of iGlasses (I admit they might need a catchier name…) or contact lenses, or even direct eye implants? We won’t have to stare down at our phone screens to follow Google Maps directions, because there will be a big flashing arrow hovering in the sky above our destination. We won’t need to ask someone their name, because (depending upon their privacy settings) it will be floating right above their head. And we won’t need to splash out on expensive furniture, decorations or paintings when we can just project them onto our bare walls instead.


I believe that ‘what’s really real’ will become less and less important in the coming years, gradually replaced by ‘what seems real enough’, or even just ‘what do I want to see right now’. Imagine being able to change the colour of your wallpaper with just the click of a button?


Or even just a simple thought… read on.



5). Brain-Computer Interfaces


When I describe this emerging technology, it will seem like the far-fetched and magical ramblings of a crazed science geek… until you find out that Elon Musk is already investing heavily in it, and that it’s already in use by people with prosthetic limbs. Something like Bluetooth on steroids, BCIs utilise EEG technology to read the electronic signals firing across your brain and convert them into meaningful outputs to drive whatever hardware you’re synced up to.


Combined with a few of the afore-mentioned developments in robotics, this means that your smart apartment could theoretically prepare and serve your evening meal, along with a steaming cup of coffee, as well as switching on the TV to your favourite channel just by reading your mind.


If that sounds like paradise, consider whether the big corporations that will doubtless be pioneering this technology will be happy for their relationship to work in one direction only… or whether their terms of use will allow data extraction directly from your brain. But don’t worry – they’re only going to feed your thoughts directly into a massive neural network processor whose sole aim in life is to know your deepest desires, so that they can sell you things more effectively.


And you thought the future was looking bleak…



If this post hasn’t terrified you too much, and you’d like to explore these ideas – and many more – a little further, combined with a healthy dose of noir detective whodunit thriller storytelling, then please do check out my new novel! It’s released on 1st May, but is available for pre-order here, and I’d be over the moon if you’d buy a copy.


I can also promise that, for right now at least, it won’t be delivered by a robot.



Until next time,


JR