“Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?”
I can’t get Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” out of my head as I ponder what I watched this week in “Upload,” the new Amazon Prime Video series about a not-so-distant future in which humans who are near death can be uploaded into a virtual reality afterlife of their choosing.
[Spoiler Alert: If you haven’t seen the first couple episodes yet, proceed at your own risk.]
The 10-episode sci-fi comedy series from creator Greg Daniels (“The Office,” “Parks and Recreation”) focuses on the life and afterlife of playboy coder Nathan, whose autonomous car crash ends reality as he knew it. He’s uploaded to a luxury hotel setting called “Lakeview,” with his in-VR credits paid for by the girlfriend he left behind.
“Upload” is supposed to be set in 2033, and there are noticeable technology advances and gadgets in the real-world setting that caught our attention: self-driving cars everywhere; phone screens projected from fingertips; 3D-printed food; traffic-cop drones; robot grocery cashiers. That’s all on top of the notion that “heaven” is a VR setting where angels who cater to the eternal needs of customers are basically tech support workers.
GeekWire reached out to several experts who’ve spent a good deal of time daydreaming about what the future might look like — real and fantasy — and asked them to weigh in on a TV show set just 13 years from now.
Yonck found “Upload” to be funny, but to him, most of the technology was well beyond where we’ll be in 2033, from the sophistication of the autonomous vehicles to the very premise of the show.
“Even the most rudimentary uploading is many decades away,” Yonck said, adding that the glitchy nature of artificial intelligence and other systems depicted in the show is what resonated with him the most. “That’s going to be reality for a long time, especially for any newer technology.”
Yonck appreciated the show’s playful focus on human behavior around the different technologies, but he said writers/producers definitely got it wrong by having people in VR headset designs from 20 years earlier.
“Given all of the other future-forward design work on the show, it’s like including a giant brick cell phone from 1983!” Yonck said. “I almost wonder if it’s an intentional visual joke.”
Berit Anderson is a writer and director of programs at Strategic News Service, whose content and events aim to anticipate the future of technology and the global economy. Her overall impression of the show was that the 2033 culture hasn’t changed enough from the present day.
“We can expect to see massive climate shock and income inequality driving large parts of society and the way it functions,” Anderson said. “‘Upload’ portrays a slightly overcrowded but generally squeaky clean human future that just barely puts its toe in the water on income inequality.”
3D-printed food as a signal of the working class left a bad taste in Anderson’s mouth, too, who figured we’re still years away from widespread adoption of fully formed meals that look and feel and taste like normal food. And it certainly won’t be happening in the homes of everyday people.
“Good food is actually really complicated —just look at how long it’s taken us to perfect the synthetic hamburger patty,” Anderson said. “When it happens, I expect restaurant conglomerates, the nouveau riche and corporate cafeterias will be the early adopters — those with a cocktail of sufficient funding, enough mouths to feed and low culinary standards.”
But a food replicator is nothing compared to upload technology, which Anderson called highly implausible, especially since we don’t even understand the way the brain works yet.
“Even if we could hard-code our memories on some kind of oversized hard drive, how would you code your emotions, your sense of self, your personality?” she said. “The virtual reality part we can do. That’s just a video game. But the human part is going to take a long while.”
Jonathan Cluts, the former director of the Strategic Prototyping Team at Microsoft, is currently consulting with companies about future technologies and “watching the technology future unfold.”
Many of the concepts in the show were things Cluts explored in previous work: AI, automation, ubiquitous multimodal interactions (voice, gesture, etc.) — all are shown in “pretty good context” in his opinion.
“What the show really does well is it shows that all the technology is secondary to the human interaction and relationships,” Cluts said. “My personal view is that this will always be the case.”
Characters in the show are constantly making and taking calls on smartphone-like screens that are projected holographically between the L shape of their thumb and forefinger. Cluts called it a tough physics problem in general, but there’s no attempt to show what is producing the image.
“Certainly a piece of visible hardware would be required if they are truly projected,” he said. “The more likely scenario is that the operator is wearing glasses/contacts that creates the image in the operator’s field of view.”
He also echoed Yonck’s complaint about the VR headsets, calling the overly chunky versions surely outdated by 2033.
Glen Hiemstra is the founder of Futurist.com, an author and an expert on future trends. His timeline for some of the tech depicted in “Upload” differed from the show. The driverless cars might be more like 2040; the hand/phone screen might not be too far off; the uploading is probably decades or even centuries away; and the automated grocery store is essentially here now with Amazon Go.
Hiemstra, who echoed Anderson’s point about a high-end food replicator in a working-class character’s home, was more put off by the show’s notion that people would have to decide, in the moment, whether to go to regular death or upload. And the the idea of afterlife as a resort hotel is “a bit sad” to him.
“It is the most implausible thing in the show, that creators could assemble an actual afterlife yet lack the imagination to create anything more than a resort hotel,” Hiemstra said. “It would be like living ‘Groundhog Day’ on the ‘Love Boat.’”
Furthermore, Hiemstra noticed that all the tech failed to make much of a difference in income and life inequalities. He would have liked to see a future where super tech alleviates the rich-poor gap and doesn’t make it worse.
As for whether any of our future-minded show watchers would want to live in the time that’s depicted in “Upload,” Yonck said that in answering as himself in 2020 he’d definitely say “no,” but that we’ll eventually find ourselves surrounded with some combination of these technologies, even if not everybody thinks they’re a good idea.
“While many of us would say we’d never want to live in such a future, our society continually adapts to the new expectations, trends and behaviors progress brings about,” Yonck said.
Anderson offered her own blunt decline to move beyond the present to the “Upload” future.
“Upload” is currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video, and on Friday it was reported that Amazon Studios has ordered a second season of the series.