Movie released: 2009 | Set in: 2017?

Summary Table
Event Likelihood Time frame
Widespread use of robotic avatars very low 2050+
Full-sensory brain interface low 2040+

Approach to the future

Single-element scenario exploration (with metaphorical undertones)


Futurism: 6
Essentially, only one aspect of the future changes in this movie, but it is explored thoughtfully enough.

Entertainment: 8
Where the plot is going, and why, are kept sufficiently mysterious.

Plausibility: 3
The central concept — robotic avatars — would be technologically challenging and likely to meet widespread resistance; vast social changes have occurred extremely rapidly, but without many secondary effects.

Future events depicted


Robotic avatars — or reverse avatars, as they represent their owners in the real world — are used nearly universally, enabling people to live as “better” versions of themselves, living life remotely and in safety.  These “sims” employ sophisticated brain technology (see below) to convey the experiences of the robots back to their users.  Most people choose a more conventionally attractive version of themselves, though some switch gender or race.

This immense change has spread rapidly: it is only 14 years since the experiments in which monkeys controlled robotic arms via neural monitoring, which in the real world occurred as early as 2003.  Now, 98% of the world’s populace uses a sim.  Real humans out in public are looked on with suspicion; some deride them as “meatbags.”  Crime has been all but eliminated, and no homicides have occurred for years, at least in Boston, where the story takes place.

Three years before the movie’s present, some have turned against sim use, and against technology more broadly, and have established “reservations” on which sims are not allowed.  Somehow the “dreads,” as the Luddites are known, have already negotiated broad legal separation from the rest of society, and their enclaves seem to have a kind of sovereignty.

The movie does not deal with the fact that technology is always distributed unevenly.  Given that many of the world’s poor cannot afford even aspirin, how are they going to buy even a low-end sim?  That issue is likely to manifest in the real world with various augmentation and life-extension technologies, and could prove highly divisive.

Secondary effects seem oddly absent.  Though the sim robots are highly capable, enhanced versions of humans, everyone seems to be living their pre-sim lives, whether working in a beauty parlor or delivering mail.  Futurist Christopher Kent points out that no one seems to be pursuing more radical paths, such as having three arms.

This lack of innovation is apparent in the military applications.  Soldiers fight via “GI Joes,” generic sim robots that they inhabit until the sim is disabled in combat, at which point the soldier simply takes over another sim on the battlefield.  But why use large, fragile androids?  It might be much more effective to be smaller, armored, stealthy, or tracked, for instance.  This is already happening on real battlefields, of course: Predator drones and bomb-disposal robots are sims in non-human form, and are proliferating rapidly.

Highly realistic, physically adept robots are reasonably likely within a few decades, though their level of innate intelligence remains in question.  The scenario in this film faces two bigger obstacles:

  • The difficulty of interface (see below) — without full sensory feedback, these “virtual selves” simply would not catch on for everyday use.
  • The social and psychological barriers — as futurist John Cashman asked, what percentage of the population so dislikes life that they would want to remove themselves from it in this way?  On one hand, it would be regarded by many as an “addiction” and “perversion,” as one character puts it, and on the other it would be seen as antisocial and threatening by the non-using majority.

Brain technology

The sims use extremely advanced brain technology.

They convey a full sensory suite back to their users, including sexual sensation, so that sim use can fully replace being out in the real world.  This is accomplished with only eye patches and a headset, implying that this all takes place through brain interface, including the users’ control of every aspect of sim behavior.

While this might logically build out from the current primitive brain activity-controlled devices and research on, for instance, restoring sight through the tongue, this two-way information flow is extraordinarily beyond present capabilities, and not likely to be achieved for decades.

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The futures depicted in the movies