Total Recall – What They Got Right and Wrong About the Future

Total Recall is a 1990 Schwarzenegger blockbuster that, until yesterday, I had never seen.

The movie centers around the story of a construction worker who is treated by a company that claims to be able to “implant memories” of exciting or fulfilling experiences. From there, the audience is never sure if we’re observing reality, or an artificially implanted immersive experience.

The theme of using brain implants and brain stimulation to alter someone’s memories, experiences, or personality is an interesting one – mostly because it’s one we’ll have to deal with in the coming decades.

In this article I’ll explore how experience-altering technology is presented in Total Recall, and where the directors got the future right, or wrong.

I (like you) can’t do any better than an educated guess, but I believe some situations are drastically more likely than others, and I’ll aim to make my case for more and less likely scenarios in the sections below.

What Total Recall Gets Right About the Future

1. People will gladly pay for “false” conscious experiences

Happiness is what we’re after. If a better conscious experience can be bought, people will buy it. There is no greater market than the market for positive experience – as it is the ultimate motive of arguably all action. Look at the amount we already spend on antidepressants, or on alcohol, or on elicit drugs.

Nozick was mostly wrong about his “experience machine” thought experiment. People will choose “false” wonderful conscious experiences over “true” terrible conscious experiences, and this will only become more and more the case as virtual life becomes the norm.

2. The real and simulated worlds will become mixed and confused

When Doug Quaid (Schwarzenegger’s character in the film) learns of the fact that all of his experiences and memories were recent uploads and not “real,” his wife Lori says:

“Sorry, Quaid, your entire life is just a dream.”

Today, our experiences of the present and memories of the past are wholly tied to what we suspect to be a coherent “real” world.

As we transition through the phases of the Posthuman Transition (from phases 2-4), our relationship with the digital world will evolve:

  • Initially, the digital world will be a place to carry out our objectives in the physical world (talk to friends, finish work assignments, entertain ourselves, etc). Even our entertainment will mostly just be virtual replicas of what we enjoy in the physical world (Hawaiian beaches, hot tubs with attractive members of the opposite sex, touring the Louvre, etc).
  • Then, we’ll spend more time experiencing things that aren’t real at all, experiences vastly different than what’s possible in the physical world (see Phase 4).
  • At some point, many people will choose to live the majority of their lives in programmatically generated worlds calibrated to their own preferences… worlds that other people wouldn’t understand or relate to. In this phase, the distinction of “real” loses its importance, and the only state of consciousness is a state of exploring consciousness itself without any desire to access some kind of “base reality.”

While the Cartesian evil demon scenario (famously reimagined in The Matrix) is disturbing to many of us today – it will be less and less disturbing as more and more people never had access to a “base reality” in the first place.

What Total Recall Gets Wrong About the Future

1. Improving wellbeing will be achieved through more powerful interventions than “implanting memories.”

Ultimately, people will only use Total Recall-like neurotech if they believe it will improve their experience. In the film, these “memory vacations” are marketed as a way to achieve some level of happiness in a future where (much like today) most people lead lives of quiet desperation.

But there will be vastly more powerful ways of improving wellbeing if this kind of experience-injecting tech actually exists in the future. Examples include:

  • Augmenting the brain to experience a generally higher level of baseline wellbeing (from, say, a 4 on a 1-10 scale, to a 7 or 8).
  • Providing the user with an immersive programmatically generated experience designed to improve their mood and be explicitly pleasurable or enjoyable (read: Lotus Eaters vs World Eaters). This experience might even be set as a default, even while one is working or handling other practical concerns.

I suspect it will be vastly easier – in the coming 20-30 years – to provide a rich AI-personalized VR experience for users (responding to their brain signals, mood, and goals in real-time) than it will be to “implant” pleasurable memories.

Memories are a strange and niche use-case. It is possible that as this technology develops, it’ll be easier to implant memories rather than real-time experiences or skills. In fact, to the credit of the writers of Total Recall, this seems somewhat plausible (in mice!).

Memories seem to have a number of practical challenges, however, including:

  • The fact that memory doesn’t seem to be centered in any one part of the brain, and altering memories may involve altering many other brain functions and circuits that could harm a patient/participant.
  • The fact that someone with implanted memories returning to the “real” world might believe that they married someone they never married, or have a career they don’t in fact have – and this false memory might cause them to act in a way that we might describe as psychosis.

2. The technology will be used for practical, not just recreational purposes.

The film portrays a comically limited number of implanted memories that a user (presumably a male) can select from:

Total Recall Experience Selection
Total Recall, Tri-Star Pictures

In our 2021 AI Futures interview series at Emerj, Dr. Robin Hanson argued that virtual reality would truly take off once it had consistently practical benefits (i.e. helping people fulfill their duties in work or life – from writing code to closing sales). I beleive that brain-computer interface will take off in much the same way.

This kind of escapism is interesting, but much of the initial work on implanted experience will be less about “I want to win be Tom Brady and win the Super Bowl” and more about “I want to be a master SaaS salesperson” (a la The Matrix’s “I know kung fu” scene).

While many kinds of knowledge will simply be accessible via the cloud (a la Kurzweil’s hypothesis of extended intelligence). Skills, though, are more complex than facts, and would likely require some kind of neurological equivalent to physical experience.

Interesting Technology Predictions from Total Recall

The focus of this article wasn’t to look at all of the various technology predictions in Total Recall, but to look specifically at the technologies that that matter in terms of the post-human transition – specifically the use of brain implants to program memories and experiences.

That said, there were some interesting examples of “futuristic” technologies (from the perspective of 1990) that are indeed part of our daily lives – albeit in different forms than they were predicted in the film.

1. Self-driving cars

Self-Driving Cars - Total Recall
Self-Driving Cars – Total Recall

The film correctly predicts a world full of both self-driving and human-driven vehicles, though the self-driving cars in the film – which happen to be taxis – are operated by grotesque humanoid robots – which will almost certain not be part of our future in the 2030s.

2. Video calls

Video Call - Total Recall
Video Call – Total Recall

Like the original Blade Runner (and nearly all science fiction in the 80’s and 90’s), Total Recall imagines thick, clunky machines with awkward, blocky green text on a black background.

3. Hologram workouts

Hologram Workout - Total Recall
Hologram Workout – Total Recall

I can’t help but think that the founders of FORME, the “smart” workout mirror, were overtly inspired by Total Recall, which features a scene of Lori learning tennis form from a hologram instructor.


Header image credit: Tri-Star Pictures