Arnold sitting in the memory implantation chair from Total Recall Still from Total Recall. (Tri-Star Pictures, 1990)

Total Recall: Science Fiction or Science Fact?

I’ve always thought of Arnold as kind of a futuristic person in his own right. Not just because of his taste in film projects, but also because he is a pro-immigrant Republican wise to the perils of climate change. We may not be 100% aligned politically, but I can get down with Arnold. So, when Netflix suggested that I might enjoy watching Total Recall I thought: why not?

I was surprised to find myself not just escaping into a campy fantasy, but feeling surprised at how plausible the story seemed. Experience shows that overtime science fiction can become science fact. So — how realistic is Total Recall?

Plot Summary

Loosely adapted for Phillip K. Dick’s short story We Can Remember It for You Wholesale published in 1966, Total Recall is more than an action packed blockbuster starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. Under the surface, there are provocative questions about the reliability of our memory and technology’s growing capacity to influence what we perceive as real.

Arnold Schwarzenegger plays a regular-guy type who dreams of taking a vacation to Mars. Unfortunately his wife (Sharon Stone) is not interested. So he opts for the next best thing: the implantation of a memory of a vacation tot eh red planet. Of course, there’s an upgrade. Why have a memory of just a normal vacation, replete with sightseeing and a continental breakfast? Why not experience a the fantasy of being a secret agent on Mars, fighting corruption and standing up for the people? Arnold goes for the upsell.

The adventure ramps up during the implantation his new memory. Something has gone awry and Arnold is thrashing, struggling to break free from the implantation machine. His memory was already altered, and is true identity scrubbed away. At least until the procedure backfires in the office of the travel” agent. From there, the story takes us through a conspiracy involving a labor dispute on a martian mining colony. There is plenty of shooting, and great practical make up and production design. In the end, it is ambiguous if what transpires is reality — or takes place only in Arnold’s mind.

Life on Mars

3d rendering on a futuristic RV on Mars.

Illustration of a pressurized rover on Mars. (NASA)

We know we can get there. Humanity has already made more than a handle of successful unmanned landings on the Martian surface. In June 2021, China announced plans to send humans for Mars by 2033. According to Elon Musk, a million humans could live on Mars by the 2060s. NASA is even developing concepts for bringing #vanlife into space.

There’s money. There’s vision. Life on Mars is looking pretty credible (even if the announced timelines eventually miss the mark). Especially if the downside health effects of space travel (including cancer, cardiovascular disease, cognitive decrements, nutritional deficits) can be solved.

Personally, I am not very enthusiastic about the commercial push into space. Especially when it is framed in a kind of life boat” contingency, where a segment of humanity blasts off to escape planetary collapse.

IMHO, if you have enough money to unilaterally build a space ship life boat, you are probably avoiding your taxes and the government (aka the people) should be able to allocate some of that wealth towards dealing with critical issues on Earth — where most of humanity will continue to reside.

Clip from The Matrix. (Warner Bros, 1999)

Memory Implantation

It turns out, using the power of suggestion to create false memories is nothing new.

In 1995, Elizabeth Loftus developed the lost in the mall” technique with Jim Coan and Jacqueline Pickrell. In an experiment describe in the article The Formation of False Memories, participants were provided with four narratives, all supposedly provided by family members. However one of the stories — describing a time when the subject was lost in a mall – was false. 25% of the participants reported being able to remember the event – even though it never happened.

The lost in the mall” experiment has been replicated, and further research shows — though most people resist the implantation of false memories — it is a science fact that human memory is a fallible and malleable system.

Current research in optogenetics have made it possible to not only visualize the network of neurons that make up a memory, but also to influence them.

Optogenetics makes use if inserting the light-sensitive algae protein ChR2 into neurons. Neurons augmented with this protein can be turned on and off using a blue laser. Steve Ramirez is a leading researcher in this field, and has successfully used optogenetic techniques to implant false memories in mice.

In 2016, HRL Laboratories in California attempted to record and copy the experiences of trained pilots into beginners’ brains. Researchers measured the brain waves of experienced pilots as they flew a flight simulator and isolated the signals they believed corresponded with flying skills.

The trainees flew the same simulation while wearing an electrode cap designed to stimulate their brains to mimic those of the experienced pilots. Researchers found that the trainees who had their brains stimulated performed 33% better in the simulations.

More recently, the same lab, used transcranial stimulation in combination with virtual reality to enhance the recall of specific, targeted memories.

Given enough time and resources, these quickly developing techniques could be combined with deepfake technology to create especially realistic and credible memories using the faces and voices of people we already know and trust – potentially to deliver the once-in-a-lifetime experience of being a secret agent on Mars.

Total Recall: Campy, but plausible.

After hitting the search engines and doing some basic research, it’s clear that there is a lot of momentum in both areas. While it may be a bit campy by today’s hard sci-fi standards, the world of Total Recall is more plausible than it seems.

September 8, 2021 Science Fiction or Science Fact Neuroscience Mars

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