Zombies are coming. They might arrive around 2075. I like Zombies, or more accurately, I like killing them. I shoot hundreds of them every week on my Xbox, in games like Half Life, Oblivion and Dead Space. There are a fair few zombie films around too, evidence that we just love being terrified by zombies. I think perhaps the big attraction is that they are extremely scary when done right, fictional, only a bit human-like, and of course dead anyway, so it doesn’t cause any guilt when you kill them again. So, I got to thinking whether they will always be fictional, or whether there is some prospect of them arriving, and if so, what can we do about it? Will it be like the computer games and movies, or different? Here goes. Bear with me, since you need to look first at the basic foundations of the technology platform on which their arrival will depend.
As I outlined already, nanotechnology is feeding in to neuroscience by enabling finer probes that can assist scientists in reverse engineering it. Biotechnology and IT are slowly converging, with insights in AI helping brain science and vice versa, but also in that we can now make rudimentary connections between IT and our nervous systems. Synthetic biology is rapidly getting to grips with basic tools and techniques used by nature, and improving on some of them, replicating others, to make entirely synthetic components of future biological systems. We are already designing bacteria to do specific protein engineering tasks, break down waste, and provide sensory capability So, lots of interesting tech is going on.
Listing a few of the important (from a Zombie perspective anyway) outcomes of such research, we can now connect IT to nerve tissue (and the connections are rapidly becoming finer thanks to nanotech). We can modify DNA and simulate and then assemble a wide range of proteins (although this is still very limited and very slow). We are starting to understand some of the basic principles of how to make smart and conscious machines and are already very good at distributed processing, self organisation, sensing and data storage and distribution. In the not too far future, we will be able to enhance human senses by linking various synthetic sensors to our brains. We will be able to link to peripheral nerves to pick up sensations and relay them across networks, stimulating equivalent nerves in other people to create the same or at least similar sensations in them. In IT, we have already progressed some way along the multi-core and distributed processing time-lines, and it is foreseeable that in the far future, computing my well be done by billions of tiny processors suspended in a gel, using optical interconnects. In fact, using progress in biotech and synthetic biology, it is equally foreseeable that this will be done by using bacteria to assemble the IT in their own cells, and using their own energy to power the circuits.
So, round about the time we figure out how the brain works well enough to connect properly to it, we will also be designing conscious machines and very probably using smart bacteria as the platform for them, creating and powering the electronic components in what is best described as smart yogurt. Looking at the basic physics and maths, it is clear that a smart yogurt could have as much raw processing power as all the human brains in Europe! Already scary, but let’s not go all Terminatory just yet, Zombies are much more fun.
Smart yogurt is actually really scary stuff. It would look (and maybe even taste) just like today’s. But each cell would contain electronic circuits, that can be connected to the circuits in other bacteria using optical signals (bioluminescence for example) to make very sophisticated circuits for all kinds of sensing, storage, comms and processing. And because they are still viable bacteria, they will be able to survive and flourish anywhere there is a decent food supply. Being very smart collectively (each yogurt could have an IQ equivalent to the whole of the EU), they will be able to genetically redesign their own offspring to capture and colonise other biological niches. They will be able to design offspring so that they can penetrate the human body and bypass the immune system, or to enter and remain in the brain (let’s not even call these bacteria, since they are more likely to be nothing like natural bacteria when they’ve finished, they may well be as small as viruses but with much more sophisticated capability). Inside the brain, they might connect to individual synapses and monitor and signal the electrical activity to their external allies. These allies might then create an electronic replica of that person’s brain, thereby replicating their mind. They might map out the connections to work out the signals the person uses to move their limbs, to speak or do anything else.
This obviously provides the means to remote control the person’s body, and to intercept or over-ride any thoughts they might have. Smart yogurt could take over your mind, over-ride your brain at will, and to control your body as easily as you can. Keeping a person’s body alive is optional, but obviously comes with advantages of maintaining its capability. Keeping the brain alive is less advantageous, as the yogurt can take over and replace any and all of its functions. So we are likely to have a few varieties of zombies. Some will be brain-dead, but otherwise perfectly healthy. Others will be fully alive but with their minds under supervision and subject to over-ride. They might know what is happening to them but be powerless to resist. Others will have no awareness of their predicament and think they are fine even though they have been enslaved. And finally, we may have some that are fully and properly dead, brought back to an animated state by the yogurt taking over all the main electrical functions while the brain itself is potentially even missing. We could even have headless zombies!
Killing these zombies would probably work much like it does in the games and movies. They all need a body to be in at least partial working order, and if they are going to get around, that means they need a circulatory and respiratory system, and legs (or a mobility scooter at least). So you could kill them by fire, chopping them up, or shooting them in the heart, or various other ways.
The headless and dead zombies sound quite disturbing, but they would be in small minority. The great majority of zombies would look much like normal people. This is more like ‘The Body Snatchers’ than ‘Dead-Space’. How much they will worry us depends mainly on whether they are aggressive. Terry Pratchett wrote amusingly about a zombie being gainfully employed as a solicitor. If they use the technology suggested here, many zombies could be fully functioning, valuable members of the community, even leaders and captains of industry. For a while anyway. But some might be violent. We might try to use zombies extensively in the army or police, for obvious reasons. But if they are as smart as or smarter than people, they will soon have their own culture and inevitably come into conflict with regular people. They might rise against us in a war against humans. Trouble is, if they have superior senses and faster brains and more intelligence and can communicate directly across the net, they will be pretty good competition. We will probably lose.
So, zombies are possible, plausible, even likely, given what we already can deduce about the future of technology. And the time-frame for this possibility is sooner than you would hope. Depending on our reactions and adaptations, they could become a threat to human existence. I’m going back on Dead Space to improve my aim.
The one possibly good thing is that as a way of wiping out life on earth, zombies are only one of 150 alternatives that are feasible this century. We might not last long enough to be killed by zombies. I am not sure if that is good or bad.
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Ian Pearson BSc DSc(hc) FWAAS CITP FBCS FWIF
I’m an all-round futurist/futurologist with a sound engineering foundation and over 1800 inventions. I spend most of my time writing futures material for white papers or to accompany PR campaigns, but I’ve also delivered well over 1000 conference presentations and appeared over 700 times on TV and Radio, often following writing I’ve done for PR campaigns. I’ve written hundreds of commissioned reports, press articles and seven books, most recently Society Tomorrow, Space Anchor, Total Sustainability and You Tomorrow (2nd Edn). I sometimes undertake phone or face-to-face consultancy on any aspect of the future, usually from a technology perspective, using over 30 years experience as a futurologist and engineer. I have demonstrated about 85% accuracy when looking 10-15 years ahead.
I am a Chartered Fellow of the British Computer Society and a Fellow of the World Academy for Arts and Science and the World innovation Foundation.
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