"It's a fable," says Melissa Sterry. "This is what our world could be." The London-based futurist is talking about Blade Runner, and its upcoming sequel, Blade Runner 2049. The films, she says, are versions of possible futures which run heavy with a bleakness that feels all the more frightening in how real it might actually seem.
Blade Runner 2049, in particular, provides an unnerving idea for what Los Angeles will unfold into about three decades from now. The film immerses itself in ideas only a select few people really think about on a day-to-day basis. To that end, it's useful to pick the brains of futurist researchers to see just how close we might be to such an unsettling future.
"The first Blade Runner film was such a beautifully scripted piece," says Sterry. "It felt more realistic than so much science fiction films before it. But this new film, my goodness, it just feels so present. Blade Runner 2049 is almost sending up the worst, most cliched concepts of 2017 technology and saying 'This is a nightmare.' It's a fantastic backscape to narratives and new conversations for examining the present as well as the future."
Sterry and New York City-based futurist Gray Scott both believe the number-one future trend worth talking about is the changing environment. The few snippets of the trailer that give a glimpse of L.A. at the century's medial depict a future Earth with a misshapen form of climate — snow is falling in L.A., for crying out loud.
"Even if we don't see a huge amount of sea level rise — and I do believe we'll see something significant by 2049 — it's really not about that," says Scott. "What it's about is what we're experiencing right now, which is the enormous drought which lasted for four or five years." The result of that drought inundated the west with huge wildfires and fluctuations in weather.
Sterry strongly concurs. "My goodness — California has a major threat coming from wildfires," she says. "The urban framework is not going to cope very well with what's coming. For the rest of the century at least, it's going to be a major challenge."
Scott has spoken to several scientists who say environmental effects currently being observed right now are about 30 to 40 years delayed. "In other words," he says, "the pollution produced in the 1970s, those effects are just now being felt. Imagine 30 years in the future. We're already seeing cities wiped out today," again, referring to the recent spate of hurricanes hitting Central America and the Southeastern U.S. that are arguably being augmented by climate change. He thinks this is just a fraction of the type and number of disasters bound to manifest in 2049.
And of course, the eradication of coastal cities will create a huge influx of climate migrants pushing their way inland. "When an area that used to be farmable suddenly becomes a desert, what will those people do?" At least a few scenes in Blade Runner 2049 show off such deserted landscapes, in which Ryan Gosling's Officer K character is nearly cloaked in a fog of dust. "It looks impossible," says Scott. "But if you look at what's happened in the last 10 years, that would've seemed impossible in the '70s."
Moreover, those arid landscapes are sure to create massive respiratory problems and other negative health consequences in the rest of the population. "With L.A.'s history," says Sterry, "I think that's a very possible scenario. At the level of the atmosphere, I think the movie gets it right."
There's one major facet of Blade Runner 2049 (and the original movie, for that matter) that Scott and Sterry believe won't come to fruition. L.A. is a low-rise sprawl of a town. The only place you're going to find tall buildings is downtown, and even that skyscraper seems pretty tame compared to other cities. Could L.A. actually transform itself into a dense, altitude-searing marvel like New York City?
Almost certainly no, says Scott. "Los Angeles is a very industrial city in a lot of ways, but it's not a vertical city. It would still take another 20 to 30 years for the city to come even remotely close to what's being shown in the film. I just don't see any developers looking to do that." Once again, Sterry agrees. "There's absolutely no way any developer would be on board for that."
In fact, while certain areas may bulk up in density, other areas of the city or suburban regions may hemorrhage populations. These dead zones might be caused by a number of factors, climate change being one of them, and Scott thinks they'll be fertile grounds for what he calls "digital nomads" — migratory individuals without a permanent home, able to eke out a living through a laptop computer or other mobile device, as long as they have Internet access. "If you're willing to put up with living in an arid area that has no way of providing continuous food and water and shelter, digital nomads could move in and take over in waves."
This is sort of like Mad Max. "To me, Mad Max is what happens after Blade Runner ends," he laughs. "Digital nomads and cyberpunks and renegade tribes who don't immediately care about their health would probably inhabit these areas," such as mansions in Malibu, which can no longer be sustainably supported. "It's so bizarre to think about, but we've seen before when people migrate out of wealthy areas of cities, there are extremists who move in, because they're willing to take the chance."
Populated areas will also manage to adapt. "The idea of having snow-sweepers in the movie, I thought, was genius," says Scott. "It shows you can automate some of the solutions to upcoming problems." As a techno-optimist, a small illustration like that is closer to what Scott believes the future will be — not a dystopic hell, but a society with its share of problems and a share of solutions to those problems.
Another part of the movies Sterry takes issue with is the almost complete lack of natural plant and animal life. Though that's a critical trait of the old Philip K. Dick novel on which the setting is based, Sterry says in reality the greenery and animals would depreciate but not go near-extinct — certainly not by 2049. "That's maybe one thing to be happy about," she laughs.
Some advancements seem almost passe to think about. Scott thinks it's easy to see autonomous flying cars by 2045. A couple short scenes from the trailer show off brightly lit billboards, and one scene show Officer K interacting with looks like a gigantic hologram figure — the future of capitalism. "We are seeking novelty," says Scott. "The idea that you can create any single novelty, whether it's advertising or event space or something else. The idea that you're able to walk up to a hologram and have it interact with you, I think we’re going to see a lot more of that."
All of this, however, sidles by the most central aspect of Blade Runner and Blade Runner 2049: the manufacture of synthetic androids — replicants — as a source of labor and service, whether it's working on the off-world colonies or operating as a sex-bot.
"We're already in the first generation of robotic labor," says Scott. People are already working on machines that are supposed to do work that's too dangerous for humans, or become sexual partners for people who wanna get laid. In Sterry's mind, "it's not unrealistic to think, theoretically and technically, we might have synthetic humans by 2049. We can already make clones of other organisms." Sterry says the biggest obstacle is probably just world politics and ethics that make illegal the work toward creating an artificial human.
Scott points out that while the bodies might be ready, the minds aren’t. "It's dumb — this is the first generation of A.I., learning to learn," he says. "And this is just there very tip of the notion of humanoid robots, like replicants."
Scott argues that facial expressions and features are the key to making replicants work. "People's conscious minds don't typically understand what body language is. They don't pay attention to the body. What they really pay attention to is the face."
But right now, human-like faces made artificially are still plop in the middle of the uncanny valley, looking quite too eerie to feel warm and comfortable. "We're still at least 15 to 20 years away from being in a room from another machine and not being able to tell it’s not a human being."
And of course, all of this is just a prelude to a bigger notion for intelligent machines — self-awareness. Scott actually argues that self-awareness for machines is not even really the underlying issue — the ability to act self-aware will be what causes problems. "If we can get these machines to mimic self-awareness [through action], they're going to start asking very difficult questions, such as why they have to execute actions that threaten their own safety."
And that's where we run into the issue of runaway replicants.
Ultimately, Scott thinks Blade Runner and its successor are critical in bringing up a question few big-budget movies are capable of asking: What does it look like, and what does it mean to mimic humanity in a machine body? We're heading to that future soon, and if Scott is right to call technology a mirror of humanity, we’ll also soon learn what exactly it means to be human. "The old Blade Runner, and probably the new one, is really not about the machines we build. It’s about us."