PBS // 2011 // 60 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // April 9th, 2011
Take a look into the future.
Predicting the future is a tricky business. In some ways, the modern world has transcended even the wildest expectations of science-fiction writers of yesteryear. On the other hand, we're still a long way from those flying cars we were all supposed to be riding around in by now. Perhaps because it doesn't want to be regarded as a silly relic by future generations, What's the Next Big Thing? doesn't make any wild, silly speculations about what the world's going to be like 50 years from now. No matter how much analysis we do, history has demonstrated again and again the development of technology isn't on a predictable path.
Instead, What's the Next Big Thing? more or less focuses on technologies that already exist -- they just haven't been mainstreamed or perfected yet. Thus, instead of flying cars, we get an exploration of vehicles that have the capability to drive themselves. These bite-sized, cramped little vehicles (there's enough room to stand, but not to sit) are not only able to determine the best way to get to your destination, but they're also programmed to avoid accidents...uh, with other vehicles of the same sort. It only works if you get everyone a vehicle with the same technology; otherwise these glorified tin cans are little more than coffins on wheels. Still, it's an intriguing glimpse into what might be ahead in transportation.
An brief examination of electricity and smart grid technology is offered, along with technology which supposedly has the ability to predict earthquakes. The latter piece is particularly interesting in the wake of the recent earthquake in Japan, which has inspired more conversation about whether reliably predicting earthquakes will ever be possible. The segment focuses primarily on the earthquake in Haiti and claims that the technology shown was able to forecast it -- but clearly the information received wasn't detailed or reliable enough to save the hundreds of thousands of lives which were lost in that tragedy. There's also a brief profile of a guy named Jay Keasling, a farmer developing designer microbes in the hopes of working to fight malaria at a minimal cost.
The longest and most fascinating stretch of the special focuses on robots. While some of the robots featured are the types of moderately useful creations we see on news stories all the time, there's one in particular that's nothing short of fascinating. The robot's name is Philip K. Dick, and it looks exactly like the late sci-fi writer. Not only is "Phil" able to engage in surprisingly thoughtful, even philosophical conversation about anything by accessing the resources of the internet along with some written material, he looks alarmingly like a real human being. Using a patented fake skin formula and dozens of tiny motors which allow the robot's face to move realistically, Phil's creator has produced a robot which feels in many ways like a sentient being.
The DVD transfer is fine, offering sturdy detail and relying mostly on crisp, clear stock footage and talking-head interviews. Some of the CGI effects used during the interstitials are a bit awkward, but otherwise this is a good-looking special. Audio is perfectly fine, though it's mostly limited to narration, interviews and an unobtrusive score. There are no extras included on the disc.
While the robot sequence is far and away the highlight of What's the Next Big Thing? (and the only sequence that really tantalizes the viewer with ideas of the wonders the distant future could hold), the whole affair (genially hosted by the invaluable Neil DeGrasse Tyson) is worth a look.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 60 Minutes
Release Year: 2011
MPAA Rating: Not Rated