Tag Archives: future technology

Cyberpunk aesthetics and concepts.

What is cyberpunk — and are we already living in it?

In its simplest form, cyberpunk is a science fiction subgenre that brings together advanced, futuristic technology, with a decline in societal decay. Think of a society featuring advanced artificial intelligence, cybernetics, massive skyscrapers, but with many people living in slums or being controlled and lacking social freedom. But cyberpunk isn’t only a sci-fi subgenre, but also a cultural movement that has some influence on things like entertainment, design, gaming, architecture, fashion, and technology. In fact, you could argue we’re already living in a cyberpunk world.

Image credits: Raasgendor/Pixabay

Cyberpunk often features a flashy visual theme and an underlying dystopian theme of this genre. It depicts a world where technological development is at its peak, artificial intelligence co-exists with humans, people have access to robotic brains and body implants — but at the same time, the social order is heavily disturbed, corrupt multinational corporations (or machines) own and controls everything, crime has become an integral part of society, and most of the population has a poor standard of living.

The “high tech, low life” concept of a cyberpunk world has been popularized by comics, films, animes, and books of the same genre. Writers like Philip K. Dick, William Gibson, Katsuhiro Otomo, Bruce Sterling, Rudy Rucker, and many others in the 70s and 80s introduced different characteristics. Thin neon city lights, electronic music, dark streets, cyborgs, holograms, rugged and vibrant clothing style, drug syndicates, cramped apartments, illegal tech markets, and a broke society) — those are the tell-tale of a cyberpunk world that later became symbols of the genre. Cyberpunk protagonists are typically rebels, hackers, reluctant heroes clinging to individuality in a world where invasive control is the norm. Unsurprisingly, many see cyberpunk as more than just an artistic current, but rather as a social critique.

Cyberpunk elements in the real world 

Remarkably, many famous novels, anime, and movies in the cyberpunk style from the 80s and 90s that popularized the genre are set in the current time. Ridley Scott’s iconic sci-fi flick Blade Runner shows events from 2019, Software, a critically acclaimed cyberpunk novel from Rudy Rucker is based in the year 2020, P.D. James’ highly popular dystopian fiction, Children of Men is set in 2021 (its movie adaptation is based in 2027), whereas Bruce Sterling’s thrilling sci-fi book Islands in the Net tells a dark futuristic story from the year 2023.

But cyberpunk is still going strong now, we’ve just pushed the date by a few years.

Cyberpunk-type scenery from Tokyo. Image in public domain.

Learning from cyberpunk

Science fiction is reality ahead of schedule, Syd Mead, concept designer of tron and blade runner once famously said. So is cyberpunk a realistic expectation of what’s to come?

Researchers have suggested in the past that technology can fuel economic inequality. Big tech companies, in particular, are fueling inequality, and although technology as a whole is alleviating poverty, there are fears that it could fuel rampang social inequality. In addition, while making us richer, technology can also be used to control and impose dystopian measures — as we’re already starting to see in China, for instance.

In fact, what makes cyberpunk different from other sci-fi genres is its ability to manifest our fears associated with hi-technology and the perils it could bring, perils such as over-capitalism, drug addiction, gadget dependency, media oversaturation, crime, and data privacy. So while cyberpunk is a literary and artistic current, we’re definitely starting to see some of its signature trademarks in the real world.

Cyberpunk in the real world

Aesthetically, cyberpunk is distinctive in its neon urban lights. Perhaps unsurprisingly, cyberpunk scenery is becoming more and more common, as some of its underlying aspects are also creeping into our world. If we look around carefully, it’s not hard to find various cyberpunk elements around us. Here are just a few examples.

  • A cyberpunk world where powerful multinational corporations much of society. In the real world, multinational tech corporation like Google, Facebook, and Amazon control the web and most of our digital assets. A normal internet user may never know even if his data is sold on the dark web or his privacy is compromised on some level. Moreover, from time to time, these trillion-dollar tech companies are accused of putting their profits above democratic principles. Recently, an ex-Facebook (now Meta) employee Frances Haugen told CBS in an interview “The thing I saw at Facebook over and over again was there were conflicts of interest between what was good for the public and what was good for Facebook. And Facebook, over and over again, chose to optimize for its own interests, like making more money.” Oh, and we’re just beginning to see their influence.
  • Places like Las Vegas, Chongqing city in China, Japan’s major economic centers Tokyo and Osaka, and various parts of Singapore (Golden Mile complex), and Hong Kong (such as Montane Mansion and Monster building) are loaded with visual cyberpunk-ish aesthetics such as giant neon signboards, skyscrapers, stacked apartments, dark alleys, large advertisement screens, neon-lit commercial complexes, and crowded streets. In fact, Tokyo has been the inspiration for various fictional cyberpunk cities in video games and movies.
Akira, an anime, is one of the most influential cyberpunk operas of all time, featuring many of the genre’s characteristic elements (both visual and phylosophical).
  • Chatbots and voice assistants like Alexa and Siri that monitor our preferences using algorithms are an example of artificial intelligence co-existing in the real world. Similarly, the ability of social media and online advertisements to manipulate our emotions, thoughts, and decision-making ability indicates how deep technology has entered into our lives.      
  • A popular cyberpunk video game called Cyberpunk 2077 features an in-game personalized virtual world called Braindance. Though we have not been able to develop a futuristic VR experience as advanced as Braindance, VR devices in the present also allow us to experience virtual reality. Games and applications like Fortnite, Decentraland, Second Life, and Facebook’s newly launched Horizon World are examples of virtual worlds existing within our own world. 

Moreover, prosthetic body parts, augmented reality-based applications (like the game Pokemon GO), cyberpunk-themed clothing (such as cybergoth, futuristic gothic, etc), as well as the advent of brain chips (such as Neuralink), machine learning, smart weapons, humanoids (like Sophia and Ameca) and Internet of Things (IoT)are some of the developments that are taking place in the real world but also share a striking resemblance to various elements shown in the cyberpunk themes of Terminator, Akira, Blade Runner, Alita Battle Angel, and Ghost in the Shell.

Cyberpunk and transhumanism  

Although to many people, cyberpunk is merely an aesthetic style, we’ve already mentioned that there’s some hardcore social critique to it. The main reason for this is that cyberpunk involves heavy philosophical concepts.

Transhumanism is believed to be the core philosophy behind the development of the cyberpunk genre. Transhumanism is a social, philosophical, and intellectual movement that favors the invention and use of advanced innovations that can enhance human ability. Basically, transhumanists want us to evolve past our human nature using technology. Any technology capable of improving intelligence, physical strength, health, cognitive ability, memory, and lifespan of humans is part of transhumanist progress. 

Image credits: Ben Sweer/Unsplash

Transhumanist thinkers predict emerging technologies and examine their possible positive and negative impacts on human society. Writers in the 70s and 80s are also believed to have analyzed the influence of the internet, terrorism, drugs, computers, cybersecurity, and sexual revolution while working on various cyberpunk themes. This can also be understood from the fact that the nature of the protagonist in various such works is of a transhuman, for example, Ghost in the Shell’s Motoko Kusanagi was also a transhuman.

However, due to its dystopian nature, most of the fictional works in the cyberpunk genre reveal a negative side of a transhumanist approach. Novels and films like Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, Alita: Battle Angel, Cowboy Bebop, Terminator, etc shows how advanced technologies can promote corruption, greed, destruction and ultimately lead to a chaotic world. According to Robert M. Geraci, who is a professor of religious studies at Manhattan College, “cyberpunk as a genre attempts to caution against transhumanism by exposing the problematic elements of the social economy that supports it.”

Nobody wants to live in a dystopian world (especially after the pandemic) but in the coming years, it would be really interesting to see if some popular cyberpunk technologies such as cyborgs, laser weapons, advanced VR devices, and flying cars become a reality.

Flyboard Air from Zapata.

Hoverboards are now real — and the science behind them is dope

What could be the coolest way of going to work you can imagine? Let me help you out. Flying cars — not here yet. Jetpacks — cool, but not enough pizzaz. No, there’s only one correct answer to this question: a hoverboard.

A whole generation of skateboarders and sci-fi enthusiasts (especially Back to the Future fans) have been waiting for a long time to see an actual levitating hoverboard. Well, the wait is over. The future is here. 

Franky Zapata flying on Flyboard Air. Image credits: Zapata/YouTube.

There were rumors in the 90s that claimed hoverboards had been invented but were not made available in the market because some powerful parent groups are against the idea of flying skateboards being used by children. Well, there was little truth to those rumors — hoverboards haven’t been truly developed until very recently. No longer a fictional piece of technology, levitating boards exist for real and there is a lot of science working behind them.

A hoverboard is basically a skateboard without tires that can fly above the ground while carrying a person on it. As the name implies, it’s a board that hovers — crazy, I know.

The earliest mention of a hoverboard is found in Michael K. Joseph’s The Hole in the Zero, a sci-fi novel that was published in the year 1967. However, before Michael Joseph, American aeronautical engineer Charles Zimmerman had also come up with the idea of a flying platform that looked like a large hoverboard.

Zimmerman’s concept later became the inspiration for a small experimental aircraft called Hiller VZ-1 Pawnee. This bizarre levitating platform was developed by Hiller aircraft for the US military, and it also had a successful flight in 1955. However, only six such platforms were built because the army didn’t find them of any use for military operations. Hoverboards were feasible, but it was still too difficult to build them with the day’s technology.

Hoverboards were largely forgotten for decades and seemed to fall out of favor. Then, came Back to the Future.

A page from the book Back to the Future: The Ultimate Visual History. Image credits: /Film

The hoverboard idea gained huge popularity after the release of Robert Zemeckis’s Back to the Future II in 1989. The film featured a chase sequence in which the lead character Marty McFly is seen flying a pink hoverboard while being followed by a gang of bullies. In the last two decades, many tech companies and experts have attempted to create a flying board that could function like the hoverboard shown in the film.

Funnily enough, Back to the Future II takes place in 2015, and hoverboards were common in the fictional movie. They’re not quite as popular yet, but they’re coming along.

The science behind hoverboards

Real hoverboards work by cleverly exploiting quantum mechanics and magnetic fields. It starts with superconductors — materials that have no electrical resistance and expel magnetic flux fields. Scientists are very excited about superconductors and have been using them in experiments like the Large Hadron Collider.

Because superconductors expel magnetic fields, something weird happens when they interact with magnets. Because magnets must maintain their North-South magnetic field lines, if you place a superconductor on a magnet, it interrupts those field lines, and the magnet lifts the superconductor out of its way, suspending it into the air.

A magnet levitating above a high-temperature superconductor, cooled with liquid nitrogen. Image credits: Mai Linh Doan.

However, there’s a catch: superconductors gain their “superpowers” only at extremely low temperatures, at around -230 degrees Fahrenheit (-145 Celsius) or colder. So real-world hoverboards need to be fueled with supercooled liquid nitrogen around every 30 minutes to maintain their extremely low temperature. 

All existing hoverboards use this approach. While there has been some progress in creating room-temperature superconductors, this technology is not yet ready to be deployed in the real world. But then again, 30 minutes is better than nothing.

Some promising hoverboards and the technology behind them

In 2014, an inventor and entrepreneur Greg Henderson listed a hoverboard prototype Hendo hoverboards on the crowdfunding platform Kickstarter. The Hendo hoverboard could fly 2.5 cm above the ground with 300 lb (140 kg) of weight but just like maglev trains, it required a magnetic track made of non-ferromagnetic metals to function. 

The hoverboard followed magnetic levitation, a principle that allows an object to overcome gravitation and stay suspended in the air in the presence of a magnetic field. However, the hoverboard didn’t go into mass production because Henderson used the gadget only as a means to promote his company Arx Pax Labs.

A year later, another inventor (Cătălin Alexandru Duru) developed a drone-like hoverboard prototype (which is registered under the name omni hoverboard) and using the same approach, he set a Guinness World Record for covering maximum distance with an autonomous hoverboard. During his flight, Alexandru covered a distance of about 276 meters and reached a height of 5 meters. 

ARCA CEO Dumitru Popescu controlling his ArcaBoard through body movement. Image Credits: Dragos Muresan/Wikimedia Commons

In 2015, Japanese auto manufacturer Lexus also came up with a cool liquid-nitrogen-filled hoverboard that could levitate when placed on a special magnetic surface. The Lexus hoverboard consists of yttrium barium copper oxide, a superconductor which if cooled down beyond its critical temperature becomes repulsive to magnetic field lines. The superconductor used both quantum levitation (and quantum locking) to make the hoverboard perfectly fly over a magnetic surface.

The same year in December, Romania-based ARCA Space Corporation introduced an electric hoverboard called ArcaBoard. Being able to fly over any terrain and water, this rechargeable hoverboard was marketed as a new mode of personal transportation. The company website mentions that ArcaBoard is powered by 36 in-built electric fans and can be easily controlled either from your smartphone or through the rider’s body movements.   

Components in an ArcaBoard. Image Credits: ARCA

One of the craziest hoverboard designs is Franky Zapata’s Flyboard Air. This hoverboard came into the limelight in the year 2016 when Zapata broke Cătălin Alexandru Duru’s.Guinness World Record by covering a distance of 2,252.4 meters on his Flyboard Air. This powerful hoverboard is capable of flying at a speed of 124 miles per hour (200 km/h), and can reach as high as 3000 meters (9,842 feet) up in the sky. 

Flyboard Air comes equipped with five jet turbines that run on kerosene and has a maximum load capacity of 264.5 lbs (120 kg). At present, it can stay in the air for only 10 minutes but Zapata and his team of engineers are making efforts to improve the design further and make it more efficient. In 2018, his company Z-AIR received a grant worth $1.5 million from the French Armed Forces. The following year, Zapata crossed the English Channel with EZ-Fly, an improved version of Flyboard Air.

While ArcaBoard really went on sale in 2016 at an initial price of $19,900, Lexus Hoverboard and Flyboard Air are still not available for public purchase. However, in a recent interview with DroneDJ, Cătălin Alexandru Duru revealed that he has plans to launch a commercial version of his omni hoverboard in the coming years.