On the sliding scale of science fiction believability, with could-happen-tomorrow scenarios like “The Andromeda Strain” on one end and total fantasy like “Star Wars” on the other, two sci-fi films currently in theaters, “Limitless” and “Source Code,” land squarely on the plausible end. But how realistic are they? Scientists say both movies are currently fantasy, but advances in science mean they could be reality sooner than we think. Beware: minor spoilers lie ahead.
“Limitless” presents a wish-fulfillment fantasy, starring Bradley Cooper as a failed writer who discovers the incredible joys (and sinister side effects) of an untested pharmaceutical drug called NZT-48 that opens up parts of his brain he’s never utilized before. He can process unlimited streams of data and multitask like a high-end supercomputer. He can earn a fortune playing the stock market in a single afternoon and still have energy to jet off to the tropics and cliff dive on a whim.
“What is certainly true is that taking medication or a drug that acts on the brain can have, at least temporarily, beneficial effects,” says Harvard University clinical and research psychologist Paula Caplan, who has been a vocal critic of some aspects of the mental health and pharmaceutical industries.
The bad news for overwhelmed college students and overworked day traders looking to get a leg up is that abuse of prescription amphetamines and other stimulants (the closest reality comes to NZT-48) only serve to focus concentration and don’t maximize any brain usage. They only give the illusion of added intelligence.
“The more you are able to concentrate on the material you need to learn the better you will be able to learn it, as long as you are on the drug again or are still on it when you take the exam,” Caplan explains. “If you go off [the drug] to take the exam, you’ll lose the effect. It’s called state-dependent learning.”
One thing that’s not an exaggeration, according to Caplan, is “Limitless'” depiction of the drug’s pernicious side effects: impaired memory, blackouts, violent mood swings and crippling addiction.
“Any drug that acts on the brain, changes the brain,” she says. “People can have psychotic episodes from taking psychotropic drugs. And when you have a psychotic episode, you don’t remember what you did or where you were.”
In Duncan Jones’ “Source Code,” meanwhile, Jake Gyllenhaal plays a U.S. army captain drafted to have his consciousness sent repeatedly via computer into the mind of a dead man, where he can live out the victim’s final eight minutes of life before he was killed in a train bombing. Gyllenhaal’s task is to solve the mystery of who planted the bomb and to stop him or her.
This is all beyond our current capabilities, but surprisingly the scientific principles behind it are sound. And scientists like neuromorphic engineers Charles M. Higgins at the University of Arizona are working to bridge the gap between organic computers (like our brains) and synthetic ones (like, say, the iPad). Higgins’ current research involves discerning the thoughts of dragonflies and moths and enabling their brains and spinal cords to interface directly with robots.
“As we build neural interfaces, the first places you’re going to see them will be hospitals, where patients who have agreed to surgery so that they may regain activity in their limbs with a robotic device that allows them to walk,” Higgins says. “The second place you’ll see it will be the military. There will be a brand new fighter jet, say 50 years from now, and the only way you’ll be able to fly this jet is if you submit to having brain surgery and have a neural implant. ‘You want to be a fighter pilot in the Air Force? You have to submit to having brain surgery.’”
Right now the neural interfaces are limited to enabling a robot to see with the same visual acuity as a dragonfly via computer sensors wrapped around its spinal column. Moving on to more intelligent animals (or humans) opens up a lot of moral dilemmas, according to Higgins, and keeps the reality of the device in “Source Code” safely in our future.
But one thing he’s adamant about: In order for Gyllenhaal to complete his mission as seen, time travel would have to be involved.
“Even though the scientist in [‘Source Code’] says it’s not time travel, it has to be time travel. What appears to be happening is that you’re transferring consciousness from one live body to a live body of another person in the last eight minutes of their life. What happens to the consciousness of the other person? It’s kind of disturbing.”
But perhaps there’s another science at work. Sergei Gukov, a professor of theoretical physics and mathematics at Caltech seems to think so. His work into string theory leads him to believe that each time Gyllenhaal’s character goes to the train, he’s not going to the same train, but an entirely new universe that’s almost precisely like ours, with minor changes, like the day’s weather, for instance.
“There are many different universes out there. Some of them are quite close to ours and some are quite different,” he says. “This idea sounds crazy, but it’s the current state of science.”
At the moment, we can’t travel to a parallel universe. We don’t even know for certain how many there are, but we do know that even to talk about this a generation ago would have been considered quackery.
“This theory of parallel universes was only accepted 15 years ago, so it’s very recent,” Gukov says. “Until this point 15 years ago, scientists would have said it was only science fiction and not taken it seriously. Now, almost everyone takes it seriously.”
— Patrick Kevin Day
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