After a lifetime spent devouring science fiction and loving it, I made the worst mistake possible. I spent six years getting a graduate degree in that most science fictionish field of real science… robotics. I studied all my favorites: humanoid robots, autonomous vehicles, and rovers – swarms and snakes and smart houses, oh my!
And just like that, I ruined my best-loved science fiction.
Did you know that a humanoid robot designed to murder John Connor would likely have a utility function with a score inversely proportional to the distance of its prey? A Terminator would never, ever pick up Mr. Connor and throw him farther away (before stalking slowly toward him once more). With a biologically-inspired skeletal system, I have serious doubts that a synthetic like Bishop would have the dexterity to play the “knife game” at that speed without severing one of Bill Paxton’s fingers. And seriously, just how in the heck could it be that hard to detect a Cylon?
Knowing too much about anything can permanently harm your suspension of disbelief. Although I love science fiction (and I love robots most of all), there is now a small, judgmental part of my brain with the mistaken belief that real robotics has something to do with my enjoyment of sci-fi.
But there is still hope. Once in a while, something too fantastic to deny demolishes my science filter without any apologies. One of my favorite short stories of all time is “The Nine Billion Names of God,” by Arthur C. Clarke. At the end, all the stars go blinking out of the sky one by one. Sigh, another violation of basic physics: the light from those extinguished stars would need centuries to arrive. But even so, the speed of light in a vacuum couldn’t match the speed of the goosebumps that climb down my forearms every time I reach the end of that story.*
* Metaphorically speaking. Obviously, light travels faster than goosebumps. I mean, that’s just science!
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