Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Awesome Fictional Things: Webcomic Edition

Comics have often depicted fantastic worlds of their author's imagination. Some of them are sci-fi worlds with semi-plausible concepts, some of which I'd love to have, and I'll explain why.
A note that this contains major spoilers for those who have not read the series I discuss. If you hate spoilers, feel free to come back tomorrow.
Also, I'm going to try to limit this to Sci-Fi type strips. Fantasy strips with outright magic are awesome, but a bit too far from actual reality to have anything to do with this blog.

Idea: Dimensional Door
Taken from: Real Life
The Dimensional door is, in the comic, the invention of Tony, a mad scientist, who also makes various other impossible things, like a huge space station with artificial gravity, an instantaneous, conservation-of-matter-defying, cloner, and a trans-dimensional portal.
The dimensional door is wrapped around a regular door frame, after which it connects two very separate points in space as if they were together. This is Tony's favorite means of transportation, and he tends to show up frequently in places that he logically shouldn't be using this technique. He has, however, since the construction of his space station, cut down on this, citing security concerns. (He doesn't want government forces to just waltz into his space station and start telling him what to do.)
The main character, Greg, seems ignorant of the implications of this invention. Greg lives in a modest San Franciscan apartment. If I had access to dimensional doors, I would live in a glorious mansion, most of which would be in states with cheap land, and with a few tiny rooms in expensive places like San Francisco. I would utilize climate disparities to minimize heating and cooling expenses

Idea: Robots
Taken from: FreeFall
In Free Fall, set in the distant future on a far-away terraformed planet, robots outnumber humans and perform all the cheap labor. The robots are built with Isaac Azamov's three laws: Non-injury to humans, obedience to humans, and self preservation. I rather like the robot's personalities for the most part, who tend to be inquisitive, polite, even charming. And if one is a jerk, I can order him to pull his own head off.
However, it is cited that the robots are built cheaply, of cheap plastic, and are flimsier than humans on average (because they're made of low quality plastic), and some of their mental quirks sound a tad frustrating to deal with. For one, they have a conversation once about how it's more important to get the job done than to preserve their own lives. (I would argue that dying mid-job has a way of making it hard to get the job done.)

Idea: Terraport
Taken from: Schlock Mercenary
In the strip, the Terraport system is the big invention of one of the main characters. It teleports things up to 200 light years by sucking them through countless tiny wormholes, and powers the entire system by destroying a small amount of the item's mass. I image that this would cause injury to a person, but somehow it manages not to in the strip. (People are terraported all the time in the strip without injury.)
During the course of the strip, the system is refined four times, developing denial systems (that stop terraports from occurring,) authentication systems (to allow denial systems to decide to allow certain teleports, but not others), and a few other improvements.
Aside from the obvious things to do with teleportation, I think I could terraform Mars and Venus for cheap with something along these lines. Teleport airtight buildings to Mars, teleport Venereal atmosphere into them, and teleport plants into that. Periodically teleport over wearing a space suit and carrying a watering can, and water the plants. Buildings should be human-habitable within a year. From there, I can start importing water from outer-solar system ice, or Venereal sulpheric acid. I could teleport the Martian core around until I have a rotating molten one like the earth does. I could teleport Venus's atmosphere to where it would be the most useful, teleport asteroids into it until it spins fast enough for a 24 hour day, and teleport cities onto it's surface. The terraforming cost is reduced by a factor of at least a thousand. (Maybe even a million...) Governments could afford a billion dollars, and probably would be willing to pay to have it terraformed at that cost.

Idea: Death Ray
Taken from: Narbonic
Narbonic is a strip about a mad scientist. There is a death ray that kills things with a "ZOT" sound. Since everyone is involved is evil, it gets used on people.
I think I'd primarily use it on household pests (cockroaches, moths, wasps), although I imagine if I had one, defense contractors would be drooling down my neck for a copy.

Idea: Bowman's Animals
Taken from: FreeFall
Dr. Bowman is never directly shown in FreeFall, but one does get to meet one of his creations. The main character Florence is Dr. Bowman's modification of a red wolf, producing an anthropomorphic canine. Florence is trained as an engineer. She also has medical and biological knowledge, and is able to explain Dr. Bowman's modifications.
The modifications are described as a "sentient bolt on brain addition." That is, add it to any existing brain and one gets a self-aware person that "threads" from a basic survival brain. The resulting anthropomorphic being has instincts from the lower brain, but sophisticated thoughts from the upper one. It is later revealed that many robots have a Bowman brain, threaded onto a badly functioning neural net. (The initial neural nets were faulty, and Bowman's work was used to "fix" it, with strange results.)
Only Bowman's wolves are actually depicted, but a chimp variant is also discussed. The chimps have rather nasty personality defects, having a poor temper control and a tendency to have poop-flinging tantrums. (There's a one shot joke about them making excellent executives in spite of, or perhaps because of, these flaws.)
Bowman's animals do seem like reliable beings, for the most part, even if they are kludgy in nature (Modifications to their life-cycle to ensure that they live to human-length lifetimes has resulted in Florence growing winter fur every 5 years, instead of every year, which sounds inconvenient) and have mental "safeguards" that would drive almost anyone insane. I'd want to have a collection of certain animals just to see how their instincts and thoughts interact. (Would Bowman's cats be aloof loners, Bowman's cockatoos be emotionally needy dancers, and Bowman's budgies be perpetually happy playful people?)

Idea: Antimatter
Taken from: Schlock Mercenary
In the world of Schlock Mercenary, antimatter is used casually. Many systems are powered by matter-antimatter annihilation reactors, antimatter grenades are commonly carried as weapons, and it seems as easy to buy antimatter in that world as buying gum would be in this one. Since it's set at least a thousand years in the future, presumably some means has been discovered to produce antimatter at less than a trillion dollars per nanogram.
Antimatter would mean clean energy production, easy disposal of toxic waste, and cheap energy for trillions of years. The only downside is that in a world where antimatter grenades are easy to get a hold of, terrorists and other ner-do-wells also have easy access to such weapons as well.

Idea: Biologically embedded USB port
Taken from: XKCD
While when posed, this was not a serious suggestion, but instead the author's satire on the attitude Linux has about device drivers. Nonetheless, I love it.
If I were trying to interface myself with a computer, I would probably have an internal computer, with a USB or RJ-45 connector, and use that to interface with outside computers. The internal computer would be designed by a cybernetic expert, like Dr. Warwick. Computer-to-computer interaction is well understood, computer-to-brain might have some side effects. Also, I sincerely doubt I could structure my thoughts to match any USB protocol, even if I were reading the white paper at the time.

Idea: Gravity Mesh
Taken from: Real Life
In the strip Real Life, Tony the mad scientist has a space station. One with artificial gravity. As cool as floating in space would be, it could get old fast. Also, studies by NASA have revealed that we humans need gravity, and without it our bones turn to mush.
Aside from space travel, this would be handy in gyms. Double the gravity, double the intensity of the workout. It could also be useful to transportation, by reversing the gravity in storage, which would presumably make it way easier to haul.

Idea: Gender Change Liquid
Taken from: Narbonic
In the strip Narbonic, the main character's gerbil invents a drug that changes the user's gender. (The gerbil is intelligent, if not very dexterous. The main character is an insane biologist. Long story.) It's primarily used as a prank, again because everyone involved is a tad evil.
If I could synthesize such a thing for less than $10,000 per dose, I think I would retire a billionaire. There are a lot of transsexual people in the world, and they're limited to a surgical gender change that costs as much as the world's best sports cars, requires a lot of very invasive, painful surgery, and leaves them sterile because we can't synthesize certain parts of the reproductive system. The fictional drug converts them in 2 wet and uncomfortable minutes. (Fertility is not addressed, although it is implied, a male character converted to female is explicitly described as menstruating in one scene.)
However, I'm pretty sure this is impossible. On a genetic level, converting a female person to male is impossible. In us humans, we have two "sex" chromosomes. There are two extant models, "X" and "Y". The male pattern is "XY", the female pattern is "XX." The X chromosome explains how to build certain proteins required to live, the Y chromosome makes you male. You inherit one from each parent, and if you get "XX", you turn out female, if you get "XY" you turn out male. If you converted a female person into a male with the drug, where would they get their "Y" chromosome traits? Also, two minutes to absorb a complete reproductive tract and synthesize another one?

Idea: NanoRobots
Taken from: Schlock Mercenary
Robots, the size of molecules. This would revolutionize manufacturing, medicine, and engineering. In the strip, nanorobots, or nanites, can regenerate people from as little as a severed head, can construct all manner of goods, can repair damaged infrastructure, can give people superhuman powers by reengineering their body, and produces infrastructure that heals itself.
Since nanites are described as self-manufacturing (you make one, and it makes a gajillion more of itself), many experts worry about the "Grey goo" scenario in which one out of control nanite consumes the entire biosphere of the earth to make more of itself, until the entire planet consists of nothing but nanites. Somehow in the world of Schlock Mercenary, this hasn't happened, and people live on thousands of worlds, so the loss of one planet would be merely a tragic disaster, not the end of life as we know it.

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