The age-old question of “what happens after we die” is at the heart of Amazon’s “Upload,” a show about a man who dies and his consciousness is resurrected in a digital afterlife. He can still talk with his living friends and family, something that might provide a lot of comfort to many people who lose a loved one suddenly. There’s a catch, of course: The dead person’s afterlife only exists so long as their storage space on a gigantic server is paid up. People can opt in to this afterlife party if they want, and if they have the resources to support it, and the idea of death shifts greatly for those who make this purchase. They’re literally buying extra time, but they can’t physically touch or hold or interact with people, and technology doesn’t exist to download their minds into another body.
Would you take the chance of living, if not forever, for longer than your physical body can allow? If it were possible to upload your brain and personality, and one company is already promising they can make that happen, what would that life (or afterlife) involve? A company called Netcome pledges to preserve your brain, internally and externally, down to the smallest detail, replacing the blood in your brain with embalming chemicals and freezing it from the inside out.
They haven’t quite figured out how to take that brainsicle and make your personality live again, but they’re working on it. Let’s just hope they figure out a way to protect a digitally recreated brain from being hacked and someone stealing your virtual identity after you’re dead.
Watch our episode “What if you could upload your brain?”
9. The Expanse
If the student activists and scientists and climatologists and professors and Al Gore are right, our time on Earth is limited because we’ve pretty much started on a path toward suffocating it to death, causing temperatures to rise, wreaking havoc on the environment and consuming resources at unfathomable, greedy and selfish rates. At some point, humans might need to leave Earth and find another home somewhere else. Our salvation would come in the form of spaceships, ferrying us to another world. We’d spend unknown months or years aboard these interstellar vehicles, living, breathing, maybe dying while trying to reach a new home. We might even have to live on these vessels, as on Star Trek or The Expanse.
If the writing on the wall from climate experts is accurate, and we take no action to reverse our damages to Earth now, the best second option is to invest more in space exploration and start building ships. Evacuating Earth would be no small feat, and we’d need a TON of ships built, tested and ready to go when given the orders. How bad a scenario is it? When Houston evacuated during Hurricane Rita in 2005, 2.5 million people needed to get out of town, it created traffic jams hundreds of miles long, forcing people to sleep in their cars on the highway. Evacuating Earth would be an operation 3,080 times bigger, requiring an estimated 750 MILLION rockets just for the people, not to mention little luxuries like food, equipment to build shelter, toilet paper (if we’re going to eat, after all), and oxygen.
Earth: Love it or … well, leaving isn’t really a possibility right now.
Watch our episode “What if you had to evacuate Earth?”
8. Tales From the Loop
Who hasn’t wanted to magically blink themselves into another location? Call it teleportation, call it time travel, call it whatever you’d like — there are always other places we’d like to be.
What’s great about a show like Tales from the Loop is we get to see people, either members of the family at the heart of the show or peripheral characters, get magically moved into places inspired by scenes in the background. This show is different from others in that it doesn’t really show how or why these transportations are happening. It just kind of … happens. The show’s creator wants to provide people with a question to ponder: If you could drop in on yourself living a totally different life, would you?
Much like our dreaming about robots, humans have often embraced the idea of time travel. Would we be the ones who stepped up and stopped Hitler before it was too late? If so, what about the other consequences of that action? Or what if your future self came back to give you advice now? Remember, too, that traveling through time isn’t a direct line — a trip that feels like it takes a few minutes might actually take weeks, months or years on Earth, meaning you couldn’t exactly come back to where you started.
Is it worth losing years to gain knowledge? Maybe time will tell.
Watch our episode “What if time travel was possible?”
Comets are pretty cool to watch as they travel across the sky, but they’ve also been a favorite subject of conspiracies, cult fascinations and movie plots. In the 2013 film Coherence, a comet travels close to Earth and messes with time, naturally, realities (multiple!) blur and get all confused and contorted. People flit between realities unnoticed at first, because they look and sound the same from one reality to another, but eventually things don’t add up and then it becomes clear that there’s more than one timeline and one Earth happening at the same time.
String theory wants us to think about the possibility of multiple universes, some of which might be the same as ours but just a little different. There might be millions of parallel universes out there, maybe just a million trillionth of a centimeter away. While it sounds like it’d be super simple to trip into another universe, that’s not likely true, as each universe might have its own laws of physics or other guiding principles that would make it tricky to go between them.
Watch our episode “What If We Could Open a Portal to a Parallel Universe?”
6. High Life
Is there anything more fascinating and terrifying than a black hole? We don’t know much about these gigantic whirlpools of nothing, other than, as Neil deGrasse Tyson once put it, a person would be turned into a long string of atomic spaghetti once they got too close to the edge. We know they’re created, usually, after a star dies and its mass collapses in on itself. We’re pretty sure there’s no escaping the middle of one, unless it’s the end of a wormhole, but that’s a whole different cosmic question for another day.
The film High Life wants people to think about the inevitability of death when approaching a black hole, but then provides an ambiguous ending, prompting audiences to wonder whether the main characters — the last living people possibly in the universe — could maybe somehow survive crossing the event horizon. The director doesn’t provide a clear answer in any interviews, instead wanting us to think about it and draw our own conclusions.
Einstein suggested the existence of black holes more than a century ago but we didn’t know they were real until 1971. Scientists are pretty sure there’s no way to escape a black hole because the gravity coming from deep within is just too strong — so strong that light itself cannot escape, hence the name — but even if a person were to survive falling into one, they’d be crushed by the infinite density at its core.
So, you know, be safe and smart and avoid black holes altogether.
Watch our episode “What if you fell into a black hole?”
If we accept the basic premise that time is linear and only moves in one direction — forward, into the future, and never backwards — we kind of have to accept that we cannot travel back in time, not really. As mentioned previously, even trying to go forward in time and then return wouldn’t be a zero-sum situation, as time dilation would have us returning months or years after we left and nothing would be the same as when we last saw it. But let’s pretend time is fluid and malleable, like on the show Dark, in which the main character grieves the death by suicide of his father, who is also the son of the man his mother is now having an affair with. Got that? Good. Cue the “time is a flat circle” meme.
But let’s forget about that. If you met a time traveler, some things might seem off. First of all, how would they prove it? Stephen Hawking famously threw a party for time travelers, sending out the invitations after the party was to have happened. He thought, if time travel were real, the guests would arrive on time, but no one did. Then there’s the question of how the traveler would arrive, how their technology would mesh with ours and whether we’d believe them if they told us the truth.
Would you take an investment tip from someone who claimed to be from the future? Don’t bet on it.
Watch our episode “What if you met a time traveler?”
Mars, the next planet in our little celestial neighborhood, is often looked at as humanity’s best and closest hope if and when we burn Earth to a crisp or it becomes otherwise uninhabitable. We know it’ll take a bit of time to get there — at their closest passes, Mars and Earth are 56 million kilometers (34.8 million miles) apart but the average distance is closer to 225.3 million kilometers (140 million miles), meaning it could take between 39 and 162 days to complete interplanetary travel — except we haven’t quite perfected the space technology to allow humans to safely travel and colonize Mars. But things could always go wrong on the way to the Red Planet, as is the case in the film Aniara. In this movie, people wave their farewells to Earth and prepare to spend three weeks on a spaceship before arriving on their new home. Weeks turn into days, then years, and people start to lose their cool. The ship’s AI tries to provide soothing memories, but eventually even that fails. Will they ever find a new home?
And would Mars even be habitable? It would take serious time and resources to create a settlement on Mars — civilization would have to start from scratch, building not just shelters but ways to capture and clean air to breathe and survive, as Mars doesn’t have an atmosphere like Earth. Nor does it have potable water, or water for agriculture. There’s no grocery store on Mars, no big box store for necessities.
It begs the question: If humans can’t get along enough to take care of Earth and clean up our act, would we be able to live longer than a few days or weeks on Mars, if we made it there at all?
Watch our episode “What if you lived on Mars?”
Is the story already written, or do humans have actual control over their lives? Don’t laugh — people have been seriously exploring and studying the possibility that we’re nothing more than fabricated beings tricked into thinking our world is real when it’s all just an illusion, a game, a computer program. It makes us wonder whether coincidences are real, or just glitches in The Matrix. Take a show like Devs, on Hulu, which asks these questions and more, pushing viewers to feel uncomfortable and doubtful of the things they take for granted, like existence. Looking at it another way, if it were possible to use technology to control not just your life, but everyone else’s, would you do it? Would it be ethical?
Right now it seems unlikely that we’re living in a simulation. But is it impossible? And who designed it? Why did they do this? And, simulation or reality, what’s the point of all this? We don’t yet have the supercomputers needed to support such a grand illusion but that doesn’t mean they won’t be real some day. When we do, if humanity can create a realistic simulation of a world that looks and feels real to its inhabitants, wouldn’t that lend credibility to the suggestion that everything around you is just another simulation?
The possibilities are both finite and endless.
Watch our episode “What if you lived in a computer simulation?”
2. Black Mirror
We know technology is both a blessing and a curse. It allows us to keep in touch with friends and family, something especially important during times of social distancing, but it also makes bold people who spew vile opinions and cliches from the safe anonymity of their computer and phone screens behind screen names and social media handles. It’s a true double-edged sword that younger generations are becoming more comfortable accepting without question. Unless they watch Black Mirror, a show in which social media allows a person’s circle of friends to rank their every interaction and parents have the ability to control, via an implant and tablet-loaded app, their children’s lives, complete with limiting their vision to avoid seeing dangerous or upsetting things.
What if it were possible to do something that seems slightly less terror-inducing — what if we could communicate with people not through social media, but just by thinking a thought in their direction? If we think, on average, 35 thoughts per minute, at a fraction of a second each, how much more quickly could we communicate ideas, work through problems and come up with creative solutions if we could just send ideas between people? In emergencies, we could summon help just by thinking about it — this could be a lifesaver for someone in a domestic abuse situation who fears for their very life.
On the other hand, though, sharing thoughts opens the door to controlling thoughts, and maybe we’re a little too close to Big Brother and 1984 as it is already.
Watch our episode “What if we could communicate from brain to brain?”
We humans have had a fascination with robots since the dawn of science fiction literature. In books, TV shows and movies, we’ve dreamed about interacting with robots, having them do our dirty work for us, like Rosie on the Jetsons, or becoming part of the family, like on Small Wonder. Westworld goes beyond this and envisions a world in which fleshly humans spend their vacations at a western-themed resort, described by one writer as “Jurassic Park with robot cowboys instead of dinosaurs.” Visitors can be gunslingers, lawmen or partake of a brothel with lovely robot creatures who look very much like humans. And in accordance with Isaac Asimov’s three laws of robotics, our cyborg friends will do nothing to humans.
But what would it be like to cross the line and start incorporating robotics into our actual selves? A human-robot hybrid like a cyborg definitely has some perks: Razor-sharp, crystal clear vision, incredible strength, the ability to seamlessly integrate and communicate with our homes, cars and offices. As artificial intelligence becomes more integrated into our world, the more alluring and closer we get to becoming comfortable with technological implants — whether that’s cochlear implants for the deaf or chips that contain banking information and eliminating the need for credit cards or currency.
Maybe Westworld — a revamp of the 1973 film written and directed by Michael Crichton — is more a sign of things to come.
Just remember, science fiction is just that — made-up tales that can inspire, educate and cause us to think twice about our actions before we allow the great savior of technology to run amok.
If you’re still looking for some “safe” escapism, cartoons are always an option.