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Despite its immense popularity both in the West and in Japan, Sword Art Online (SAO) tends to be the series that people love to hate. Self admittedly, I am in the “like it” camp. I dare say that SAO is probably my favorite series. Despite recognizing that it may not be the best series ever created, I still love it anyway. As I mentioned, a fair amount of people also dislike the series, which is of course valid as well. Not every series appeals to everyone.
As a long time MMO player, SAO struck a lot of chords with me. I can recall many a night on Ventrilo and TeamSpeak where my guild mates and I contemplated what it would be like if we somehow got stuck in or lived in the game world we were playing, long before we had knowledge of SAO. Past that, other significant events in SAO resonated as well, like the real-life death of guildmates, and the server’s community coming together in memoriam despite not knowing the player either through the game or real world.
Personal feelings of the series aside, with the Alicization arc adaptation airing in full swing, and being set to be long (24 episodes each being about two cours long), some real issues both ethically and scientifically are being brought up by the series that are largely debated today. This led to the greater question of: “How does SAO discuss Futurism?” which is what this article series aims to bring to light.
This piece assumes knowledge of season 1 of SAO. Content of the light novels, both Original and Progressive, are not necessarily referred to for story elements. You’ve been warned for spoilers ahead.
The Pace of Computing Power
SAO is a decently long series. Standing at two seasons of 24 episodes each, it makes sense to start at the very beginning. And I don’t mean the year 2022, when the actual game of Sword Art Online first launched in canon. I’m starting earlier, to the now seemingly distant year of 2003. 2003 was the year that Reki Kawahara wrote the original story of SAO for a short novel contest. The story was self-contained, taking place entirely within Aincrad. Of course, later, the story would continue and be adapted from there. In fact, what is essentially the original novel is still considered volume one of the light novel series.
The quintessential piece of technological equipment of SAO is of course, the Nerve Gear. This fantastical device is responsible for kicking the whole thing off. The Nerve Gear is essentially the next step up from the virtual reality headsets like the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift. However, this wasn’t such a crazy idea back in 2003. It was fair to assume that within twenty years, we’d have computers directly interfacing with a user’s brain. Even as early as 2003, devices had been built capable of interpreting neurological patterns into actions. However, these devices were very primitive to how they exist today, as well as incredibly expensive.
The Slowing of Progress
What made the Nerve Gear so fantastical was not only that this technology reached a consumer level, but it was the next step as well. This technology could interpret brain waves into actions, but also send signals to be interpreted by the brain as well. That is directing sight, feel, hearing, smell and taste. Kawahara described a world with a device that emulated the feelings of the real world. A player could feel the heat on their skin radiating from the sunlight due to the Nerve Gear sending the signals to the brain to sense it.
In 2003, it was a bold but reasonable prediction for the computational future. But how does it stand up today? Unfortunately, not too well, and three years down the line to the fabled year of 2022, not much better.
Since their conception, computers have enjoyed a much faster rate of progression in development by comparison to other technological fields. Computational technology has been largely governed by “Moore’s Law”, which is more of a trend based on observation than a natural law. Moore’s Law states: “The number of transistors in an integrated circuit doubles about every two years”. In simpler terms, computers get smaller and better, at a notable period every two-ish years. After all, just look at the jump between the original iPhone and iPhone 3GS. This observation was originally made and theorized in 1965. This ‘law’ has been used to guide the mega companies like Intel and AMD for developmental planning. By following this, these companies can accurately project when new technologies will be available and implemented.
The Failure of Neuroscience
2003 was certainly no exception to Moore’s Law. For example, 2003 saw the first implementation of cameras on cell phones, something that is a crucial feature today. In 2003 all signs indicated that in twenty years, a device like the Nerve Gear would be possible. However, it isn’t computing that is holding the development of such a device back.
It’s no secret that computers can enhance the research of other fields as well. The medical field saw an advancement in a multitude of areas with the assistance of ever improving electronics. Unfortunately, in the story of the Nerve Gear, the antagonist of this story is neuroscience. The electronic portion of the Nerve Gear is already, if not incredibly close to possible. Knowledge of how to make and implement virtually latency free systems already exist. Unfortunately, the knowledge of neuroscience has not kept up.
Still Distant Future Tech
We simply don’t know how to get the psychological portion of the Nerve Gear correct. It’s stated in SAO that the Nerve Gear emits a low power electromagnetic wave at the root of the spine. That blocks brain waves from transferring to the rest of the body, hence restricting motion. As a result, the user of the device lays motionless in a state that could be likened to a coma. While the technology certainly exists to emit EM waves, the knowledge is not currently present on how to possibly do that safely as seen in SAO. Neuroscience progress can be slow. While we’re getting there and maybe close, to reach a consumer level of such a process would still be considered a ways off.
Reki Kawahara successfully predicted the advancement of technology to make something like the Nerve Gear possible in twenty years from the time of his writing. This was largely due to what he was observing in 2003. Back then, the progress of neuroscience was increasing rapidly due to computers. In 2019, the trend has slowed down compared to what it used to be. Honestly, that’s kind of a bummer. I’m not yet a fan of VR. However, something like the Nerve Gear (minus the death) sounds incredible and is something I really hope I experience at some point in my life. So, while the electronics are there, the neuroscience is not. But hey, breakthroughs are always possible, and we have around four years to make it happen.
Perhaps the next piece of relevant technology exhibited in SAO is the Cardinal System, and by extension, everyone’s favorite pixie: Yui. But for that, you’ll have to wait for part two of this series!