I recently had the opportunity to play Bloober Team’s latest game, Observer—a fantastic game for those who are interested in cyberpunk. The world-building in it is the strongest I’ve seen among any piece of sci-fi—and I read a lot of sci-fi.
The main thing I love and hate about cyberpunk is a lot of the tech we see referenced in those works are in real-life development. While these works are still somewhat fictional in nature, they are often a foreboding of our future should we misuse the tech we create. We see this in novels like Neuromancer and in many other novels, films, and games that have come out in the last few decades. Cyberpunk is a special kind of dystopia, one in which mega corporations may control society, but also one that we created with the intention to benefit humanity.
The idea of cybernetic enhancements and genetic engineering both amaze and terrify me, and that has lead me to speculate on the future outcomes of real life research in my own work.
Observer, for me, is the most recently created fictional world that captures that sense of foreboding. I’ve never been a fantasy person, not because I don’t like escapism, but because it’s a genre that I feel teaches us the least about where our own society is headed. If you look to science fiction, and all the sub-genres that branch from it, you’ll find the most potent commentary about humanity.
And the technology presented in Observer is more of a reality than many of us realize.
Warning: This article contains game spoilers.
The moment you discover the doctor’s basement lair it illuminates exactly how he is growing and selling organs to people on the black market. Around a corner, there is a bloated big with large lumps of excess growth protruding from multiple points around its body. A virtual reality headset covers its eyes. It squeals in panic, large globs of saliva dripping from its mouth as it cries. During the lockdown, a power surge interrupted the VR program that was keeping the pig sedated and, I assume, that it’s acutely aware of the organ farm growing inside of it; from the doctors notes, you’ll discover that multiple human kidneys, livers, hearts, and lungs are being grown or are nearly fully grown inside the pig. You have two options: reactivate the VR or put the pig out of its misery.
Of course, in Observer, these organic organs are being sold to people who want to replace the artificial ones in their bodies—which is tied to a loosely referenced “remove your implants” movement in the game in response to a lethal nanophage. In the real world, a biotech start-up by the name of eGensis is just one of several companies using CRISPR technology to make pig organs suitable for humans to help alleviate the shortage of transplant organs. In an article in Science, they explain why humans reject pig organs and what genes they need to change in the pig organs to make them suitable for transplant. Their research combines gene editing and cloning, which has seen amazing advancements in recent years, but eGenesis’ work is still experimental and unpredictable.
Speaking of genetic alteration, this is another scientific advancement that is also touched on in Observer. The Wolfman character underwent various genetic changes to turn himself from a human into the classic horror character he greatly admires. When you scan his blood, you are told there are abnormal alternations in his DNA, and you find out later that he was going to a genetic splicing lab to have his DNA altered to become a werewolf—and would send his family photographic updates of his transition, freaking them out in the process.
Scientists are making many advancements with the CRISPR technology itself where genetic engineering is concerned. As the Broad Institute notes, the term CRISPR is used loosely to refer to the “various CRISPR-Cas9 and -CPF1, (and other) systems that can be programmed to target specific stretches of genetic code and to edit DNA at precise locations.” This means that researchers can permanently modify genes in living cells and organisms. CRISPR-Cas9 is currently the most efficient and customizable alternative to other genome editing tools. In 2015, a US biotechnology company called OvaScience announced plans to apply CRISPR to human embryos, as noted in the MIT technology Review. Their goal? To correct genetic mutations before they generate your child.
Of course, this application is different than splicing human DNA with that of a wolf, but if scientists are trying to make pig organs suitable for human transplant by altering their DNA or ejecting pig embryos with human cells to achieve the same end-goal, who’s to say that we won’t figure out, at some point, how to alter our human biology and physiology? As New Scientist reveals, there are as many as 20 human CRISPR trials starting around the world at the moment. They say one of these trials will “involve the first-ever attempt to use CRISPR to edit cells while they are inside the body” and that the aim is to prevent cervical cancer cells. Most current gene editing and gene therapy research involves treating illnesses and diseases, which can be seen a noble pursuit of science, but what happens once we achieve that goal?
An underlying yet serious issue in the world of Observer is the nanophage, a virus that infects those with cybernetic augmentations that can be contracted both digitally and biologically. Once it has fully taken hold of someone, they are beyond help and will eventually die. This virus causes the nanobots (nano-machines that were programmed to aid in the merge of cybernetics and living tissue) to attack the host organism. This virus doesn’t sound like too far a stretch of the imagination, so without being too much of an alarmist, maybe we should just stop while we’re ahead. The lore of the game mentions that without nanobots, cybernetic augmentations would not be possible. Would that be true in real life?
In the real world, people have already successfully implanted external devices into their bodies—Neil Harbisson is one of those people. He was born with total colorblindness but had an antenna-like sensor implanted in his head to translate different wavelengths into vibrations on his skull. So, in effect, he hears and feels color, and has upgraded his antenna to “see” in infrared and UV. In an interview with National Geographic, he says that “such technological augmentation is natural, and maybe even necessary, strategy for humans to adapt to an uncertain future.” This is often the underlying pinnacle of ethics and morals in cyberpunk, Observer included; the game features some characters who choose to live as Immaculates—people who don’t alter their bodies with cybernetic enhancements. Others, fearing the nanophage, had their implants removed.
Harbisson didn’t need nanobots, but I don’t think his cybernetic enhancement works in the same way we often see in science fiction. The way that nanobots have been traditionally portrayed in science fiction, is that they can be an unstoppable force—a microscopic horror that attacks you from the inside out like the venom of a brown recluse spider. The nanobots from The Borg in Star Trek: The Next Generation work this way, taking over many host functions and assimilating the host into The Borg collective. The nanobots in the TV show Revolution were designed to heal wounds, among other things, but their programming was disrupted; they multiplied out of control and caused an entire global meltdown by destroying any and all forms of electricity. Other shows like the X-Files have dealt with the nanobot phenomenon as well.
While nanobots aren’t a real thing, it doesn’t mean they aren’t currently being researched. The NanoRobotics Laboratory at Carnegie Mellon University has, for more than ten years, been working on some forms of micro and nanotechnology. One of their current projects includes designing miniature medical robots for minimally invasive interventions and diagnosis. These scientists are not the only ones to join in on the nanobot revolution. Drexel University engineers, for instance, recently developed a method to electrically control bacteria-powered robots. Nanotechnology is happening; will we see it in our lifetimes?
On a somewhat lighter note, throughout your time spent questioning residents behind their locked doors in Observer, you will converse with a sex robot, a FemCom 6.0. It’s kind of an unsettling experience. Near the end of your conversation, the female robot makes an off-handed comment. Daniel Lazarski says, “I’d say goodbye, but I guess there’s no point,” and then the FemCom replies, “Yeah, because that would humanize me.” Daniel asks, “What did you say?” and the FemCom backtracks on her comment, saying, “Please feel free to use me.”
Without delving too much into the psychological and philosophical underpinnings of using something that looks and talks exactly like a real person solely for sex, artificial intelligence is a bit more fact than fiction at this point in time. Google is developing AI technologies. Facebook recently had to shut down its AI program after it created its own language and was communicating with itself in that language. Maybe because of science fiction we have a greater sense of caution surrounding this kind of technology, but that’s not stopping us from trying to develop it for various uses.
What does this have to do with sexbots? Well, there have been articles published in tabloids about future armies of sex robots being hacked to murder their owners in their sleep. It’s a laughable concept, mainly for the fact that tabloids are publishing this, but it’s a great concept for a novel. In fact, there have been several stories already written that deal with android or AI uprisings, like The Matrix, I, Robot, and the upcoming video game Detroit: Become Human. If we somehow figure out how to combine artificial intelligence with humanity, we run the risk of, at the very least, hurting the feelings of a FemCom who realizes she’s just being used for sex—or, worst case scenario, the entire human race gets wiped out by machines.
Science fiction has had a not so subtle influence over the evolution of technology. E. M. Forester’s The Machine Stops, for example, was first published in 1909, yet it succinctly covers the role technology currently plays in our lives with chilling accuracy. Observer is one of the latest additions to these types of cautionary tales, and it brilliantly paints a grim picture of what our technological future could look like should we put innovation before humanity.