Cyberpunk 2020 is a tabletop roleplaying game set in a world of low life and high technology. Devastating wars, bio-plagues and nuclear terrorism have devastated much of the planet, whilst arcologies and combat zones are taking over cities. Powerful corporations vie for power, leaving governments to slowly lose control. Cybernetically-enhanced mercenaries are employed by fixers to do the dirty work of the corporations, allowing executives maintain their deniability.
Following the release of the Cyberpunk Red Jumpstart Kit, which forwards the timeline to the 2040s, a new edition of the game is expected to be fully released in 2020. This will tie into the backstory of the forthcoming video game adaptation Cyberpunk 2077 from The Witcher developer CD Projekt Red, due for release in April 2020.
Although there are some areas where it woefully missed the mark, due in part to cinematic and literary influences, Cyberpunk 2020 was remarkably prescient regarding the future, despite being released 30 years ago. Some of its ideas, like flying cars, were wishful thinking. Others, such as cybernetics, have been eerily predictive.
Wishful thinking: future tech in Cyberpunk 2020 we're still waiting for
Cyberspace and netrunning
These were clearly inspired by William Gibson’s description, in his novel Neuromancer, of “A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators.” Although increasingly realistic VR is being used today, which can for example be used to view a floating webpage, it is not yet being used as a tool for directly interacting with the internet.
The problem stems from the fact that the internet is simply not built to work that way - we do not have relatively viewable perspectives in the internet. Also, gesture control technology, such as Microsoft’s Kinect, is not the most efficient method for interacting with computers. However, eye-tracking is being developed as an alternative control method.
The aerodynes of Cyberpunk 2020 drew from the so-called “spinner” from seminal sci-fi movie Blade Runner, which was one of designer Mike Pondsmith’s key influences.
Whilst creating a flying car has been the dream of many an inventor and engineer, the challenges behind creating such a vehicle have so far proved insurmountable. The thrust required to keep them airborne would create jet wash akin to a hurricane, damaging people and buildings alike. Getting airborne and landing would also present challenges. For example, the take-off and landing site for a Lockheed Martin F-35B short take-off/vertical (STOVL) fighter needs to be resistant to the high exhaust temperatures, as normal airbase concrete will break apart.
Whilst the idea of being able to connect your mind to a machine, such as a car, sounds awesome, the reality is far different. Cyberpunk 2020 posits smartlinks as way of directly controlling technology using your mind, thereby improving awareness and responsiveness.
Unfortunately, creating the neurological connections for the brain to interpret the signals is challenging. The brain is a complex organism, and we are only just beginning to understand how we can form connections with it. That said, a man has been able to move his paralysed limbs with a mind-controlled exoskeleton suit. Although smartlinks are currently wishful thinking, it is more a case of when, rather than if, we finally develop this technology.
Cloning in real life has not advanced anywhere near as it has in Cyberpunk 2020. Despite that, in 2003 the Human Genome Project successfully mapped all human genes. The cloning of human organs is also currently being researched as a form of organ replacement. Whilst we have cloned sheep, and are likely to clone primates, we have not yet cloned a full human being, due to both technological and ethical issues.
Although there is a burgeoning body-modification and body-piercing movement, we have still not yet reached the point of being able to augment our bodies with light tattoos and implanted bio-monitors. We can already do skin grafts, but our bodies naturally reject foreign objects. Consider, for example, how our skin will push out a splinter. Instead, we have gone for a technological route, such as fitness trackers that can monitor our heart rate and sleeping patterns.
Future visions: things that Cyberpunk 2020 predicted correctly
Whilst we do not have the proliferation of cybernetics that was envisioned in Cyberpunk 2020, there are still fantastic developments in this field. Paralympic sprinters are now able to run faster than their able-bodied counterparts, whilst fully-articulated hands are being created at the cutting edge of prosthetic developments.
The release of Alita: Battle Angel highlighted the work of Open Bionics. The innovative prosthetics company has provided an amputee with medically-approved articulated prosthetic hands and arms.
This is a grain-based replacement for fossil fuels, which is similar to biofuels made from plant-based biomass. Whilst Chooh2 was a prolific alternative to fossil fuels in Cyberpunk 2020, biofuels are still not widely used. In their stead, electric cars are becoming an increasingly viable alternative, with charging points becoming an increasingly common appearance.
Artificial intelligence (AI) has always been the stuff of science fiction, yet it is having an undeniable impact upon our lives. From our credit ratings to insurance premiums, our lives are being increasingly defined by decisions made by AI, or “machine learning” as it is more commonly known. Whilst we do not - yet - have the sentient supercomputers envisioned in Cyberpunk, AI is becoming a ubiquitous aspect of our lives.
Although we do not have Cyberpunk 2020’s teams of dedicated netrunners policing the internet, we do have GCHQ monitoring online activities for possible terrorist activity. GCHQ, and similar organisations, recruit hackers to counter malicious attacks on national infrastructure. The National Cyber Security Centre have also warned the National Grid, Whitehall and hospitals to prepare for cyberattacks.
Whilst inner city and gang crime is rising, albeit not to the extent of Cyberpunk 2020, a cultural phenomenon is emerging in Japan that shares similarity with the world of Cyberpunk. Every Sunday in Tokyo’s Yoyogi Park are dozens of people who dress in rockabilly attire. Whilst they are not copying Cyberpunk 2020, it is not dissimilar to the posergangs, who impersonate celebrities and fictional characters - essentially a gang that cosplays as specific people.
Cyberpunk 2020 may have exaggerated some advancements in technology, but there were more than a few times when it was unnervingly accurate in its predictions. For a game that was developed over 30 years ago, its vision of our future was eerily prescient.