Review: 'Minority' tech mostly on target

By SCOTT R. BURNELL, UPI Science Correspondent  |  Dec. 17, 2002 at 10:30 AM
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(Editor's Note: "Minority Report" is being released Tuesday on videotape and DVD. UPI is reprinting Scott Burnell's review of the scientific vision that went into last summer's thriller.)

The seeds already have been planted for much of the technology portrayed in Steven Spielberg's "Minority Report," yet the movie seems confused at points as to how much humanity can achieve in a mere half-century.

Of course, we are not speaking of the fantasy futurevision of "Pre-Cogs," as the psychics who can predict imminent crimes are called. We will acknowledge them as a necessary plot device and move on, directing our attention instead to the more day-to-day devices and ideas featured in the Tom Cruise star vehicle.

The movie's ever-present eye scans, for example, and their tie-ins to most aspects of a person's life, are closer than you might think.

Biometrics, or the science of identifying someone by physical characteristics such as retinal scans or fingerprints, is a red-hot field of study, given the war on terrorism. It is no stretch of the imagination at all to say reliable biometric systems will be widespread in 50 years, even in such mundane places as subway stations, where they could be used to automate the payment system (and of course, track suspects when necessary).

Having ads call you by name is a logical extension of that biometric capability, given a publicly accessible ID database. As for automated stores remembering your last purchase, they are almost here now. Credit card companies already track spending habits to detect possible fraud. Retailers also compile lists of what you like to buy, where you live and when you last bought something.

The moviemakers also stayed close to reality in having computer storage devices appearing as simple pieces of glass or plastic. The real-life equivalent involves research into holographic storage, where lasers encode information inside plastics or other translucent material, using two- or three-dimensional patterns.

Companies large and small have been pursuing this avenue of science seriously for more than 10 years -- although it sometimes seems researchers have spent that time constantly saying we are right around the corner from success. If today's disk drives can store hours of full-motion video and audio in a package no bigger than a deck of cards, five decades' worth of advances should easily bring the movie's vision to life.

As for "Minority Report's" computing in general, moviegoers can draw a logical straight line between "point and click" and the characters' hand-waving control of their various systems. Computers already are able to monitor and record human movements -- just look at today's sports video games, based on superstars' bodies and actions. Having a computer translate a hand's twists and turns into data manipulation would be child's play in 2054, especially with brightly lit fingertips, a direct nod to today's motion-capture methods.

The movie's "spiders," used to quickly search entire buildings, can trace their roots to ongoing work into "swarm robotics," where many small robots would work cooperatively for such tasks as determining how widespread a chemical spill is. The scene where a bursting air bubble alerts one spider and brings the whole group running is funny yet quite realistic.

Spielberg's scientific vision clouds over in favor of plot development and entertainment at a few points, most notably in the Precrime unit's "jetpacks." Sure, it is possible to envision ducted fans, perhaps powered by miniaturized fuel cells generating electricity from hydrogen, being strong enough to lift a gear-laden soldier or policeman. Flames shooting out the back of the jet, however, requires internal combustion, and no fuel has enough kick to do the job that would not also require a huge storage tank.

Another quick scene reveals a technology paradox even tougher than knowing your own future soon enough to change it -- as a subway rider reads his paper that eventually reveals the manhunt for Cruise's character, it quickly displays "Nanotech Breakthrough!"

The problem here is even today's most pessimistic observers of nanotechnology, the science of manipulating both organic and inorganic matter at the atomic and molecular levels, acknowledge it will be used throughout society in about 30 years. Having only a breakthrough in 2054 would mean the miniaturized components essential for the spiders and ubiquitous eye scanners would not have been built yet.

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