A TALE OF FACE SCANNERS, GENETICALLY OPTIMIZED DUMPLINGS AND TIME-TRAVELLING SCIENTISTS
By Diana Wu David
We step out of the time portal onto the corner of Hennessy Road in Hong Kong just as the light turns green. There it is -- the same mad crosswalk with twenty people across and thirty deep striding across to do their shopping. The same tscha-tscha clicking sound starts up to let us know it’s time to cross. The only change to let us know we’re in 2053 is the stripes of the crosswalk, which glow an iridescent rippling green to signal us to proceed.
I grab Arnaud’s arm and we walk with the crowd and duck into a building to get a lay of the land. He sets his black backpack down with a heavy thunk and I notice some strange sideways glances at his blonde hair. He’s oblivious to it. For a scientist, he’s not a very good noticer.
Maybe because, in addition to keeping an eye on me, he has his own agenda, measuring the air quality to see if it is more polluted than the metrics China committed to in the Paris agreement in 2043. He’s already unzipping the pack to get his handheld monitor out. The fact that we are using the opportunity of time travel to shame rivals proves that the more we change, the more we stay the same.
I also have my own agenda.
Interstellar travel takes its toll on people and it’s different for each of us. For me, the effect is intense hunger. It doesn’t help that the familiar smells of roast pork waft over from the street stalls nestled at the base of silver and steel high rises as we gather our things and plunge down an alley into the heart of Causeway Bay.
Hong Kong always did have the best food in the world. What could be more perfect than dim sum as a window into life 30 years into the future?
We get in line for the elevator, and it’s my early instincts, not my space training, that tell me a line for food is a good sign. I nudge Arnaud’s oversize physique into the overcrowded elevator and we whoosh up to the 13th floor for dumplings. I’m hoping the Ying Jee Club is still there. It’s an old building. When the doors open, hurrah! The familiar lettering in the blue oval is the same. But through the doors, the scene is all wrong.
Instead of sassy ladies pushing clattering carts of dim sum and yelling their specials, the place is full of quiet whispers. It’s eerie, like entering a church without chanted prayers and the smell of candles and incense. We watch each silver robot arrive at the table, scan the diner’s face, and print out a dish in its microwave like chest to deposit on the table.
Arnaud and I look at each other and stop short. We can’t have our face scanned here. Who knows what that would reveal. We are definitely not in any database. Backing out of the restaurant, I bump into the elegant young man waiting behind us. He sizes up our Arnaud and our high-tech black clothes and backpacks.
“Waiguoren?” he asked. “Are you visiting from abroad?” If he only knew just how far “outside his country” we were from.
I nod, not trusting my Mandarin, Cantonese or English to not give me away as a visitor from the past. We have been forbidden to discuss details of the past with the future locals. He’s draped in an elegant black silk Mao suit that makes him seem older than his years. Thirty, perhaps? He’d be the same age, I think, but I quickly shelve that thought. No one needs to know about my life before training. “We don’t have so many visitors anymore. Since we optimized for our citizens’ health, it’s less friendly for visitors. Outsiders can’t order or pay at local restaurants. But I can invite you as my guest if you would like to sample our simple food. It won’t be optimized for you, but I know the owner, so at least can order extra dishes beyond my calorie limit.” Some things never change. It still matters who you know in Hong Kong to get a table. Xiaming works in the government. But now the Hong Kong government has gone from bureaucrats to technocrats. He pioneered the idea of matching DNA to custom printed nutrition. The cell cultured meat in our xiao long bao dumplings is tender, juicy, and injected with vitamins for peak performance. This is why he is friendly with many of the restaurant owners. “Ultimately, we developed the face scanner which detects current deficiencies, matches to your DNA profile in the database and delivers the best combination of nutrients for your diet. Once you eat, it is registered and recorded. The face scanner on my refrigerator will repeat the process tonight to prepare dinner. It’s quite new. We rolled it out for mass consumption this year in Hong Kong and once we work out the issues, we’ll roll it out across China, province by province.” “Can it detect my love for fish balls based on my micro-expressions?” I ask, and he laughs. The tech is incredible. I wonder if this is happening in other countries. I can’t imagine my cousins in Texas ceding control of their beer fridge to the government. “Xiaming, what got you interested in DNA?” I am curious about our host. There is an easy camaraderie. Perhaps because we are both scientists in our 30s trying to do groundbreaking work that goes beyond what’s possible. Him within the body and me focused on travelling through space, and now time. Also, I can’t afford for him to be asking the questions. “I am adopted and was quite sick as a child. I didn’t know my parents, but DNA testing was just starting then. The orphanage was…high end. They were able to get my DNA tested and the result pointed to a rare vitamin D deficiency that was easily solved and then saved my life. It put me on this path.” He looks wistful and I notice he is playing with his chopsticks. He’s a lefty, like me. “Did you find out who your parents were as well?” Arnaud asks. It’s an intimate question. Not one for strangers, but our host has an easy way about him, and the good food has weakened Arnaud’s discipline. “My father, yes. It turns out he was a film star but married. I don’t think to my mother. My mother’s file was classified.” My body flushes with heat from my stomach and into my chest and I hope not up to my face. Suddenly I can feel the crisp white linen of the hospital gown, the feel of my feet in metal stirrups, the pain, as my body split in two. Followed by the ache and longing for what wasn’t mine. Arnaud is in scientist mode and has moved on to questions about Xiaming’s work, the effect of this nutrition plan on food wastage, its integration to the smart toilets and plans for export. He doesn’t notice my out of body experience. I would get kicked off the force if anyone knew. But what are the chances of this encounter? “What about your own family, Xiaming?” I interject when Arnaud helps himself to more of the steamed green stalks of gai lan. “I’m lucky. I married my college lab partner,” he says blushing. “Our daughter is three. We nicknamed her Star because I put glowing stars on the ceiling above her bed and she falls asleep whispering to them. She prefers rocket ships to dolls. My wife and I worry though. Hong Kong is a world biotech center. If she truly loves space, one day she will have to move to the training center in the Gobi Desert and we will lose her.” Xiaming looks behind me and into the distance, wistful as he thinks about his daughter’s future. Arnaud is smiling, thinking no doubt about his own teenage daughter, though he doesn’t share. “We want the best for our children,” I say, my heart aching. A thought is blossoming quietly in my mind. “Where did you say you were visiting from?” Xiaming asks us. Arnaud is ready for the question; we both are. “Luxembourg,” he answers. A nation few people will feel threatened by and too small for most people to have visited. Before Xiaming has time to answer, I see an opening. “Arnaud, I think I left something at our arrival spot.” I put panic in my voice. He knows this would be bad. A clue about where we were really from would be disruptive. His face flashes alarm and Xiaming responds with a worried look. “You go on ahead and I will meet you downstairs in five minutes.” Arnaud and I are not supposed to separate but our conversation with Xiaming has been so pleasant he takes the bait. Xiaming taps his watch twice and the watch immediately autopays for lunch. I turn to watch Arnaud’s back as he goes into the elevator. “Is everything ok?” Xiaming asks as he registers my increased tension with concern. I reach into my bag and rip open a small seam at the top and take out the one thing that never leaves me. A tiny locket on a thin chain. Inside, a tiny constellation of stars in the zodiac sign of the day he was born. Behind the panel, two tabs of DNA, one mine, one his. I always thought one day I might send this to him. When he was older. Never had I imagined it might be today. “This is for your daughter,” I say handing it over. He looks surprised but accepts it. “I will tell her a great traveler gifted it to her,” he says graciously with a tilt of his head. As they ride down the elevator, I take one last hard look at him. Considerate, intelligent, warm; almost filial in his concern. A mother couldn’t hope for more.
Diana Wu David
Diana Wu David is a former Financial Times executive, and a Top 50 Global Influencer for future of work and bestselling author of the Inc. magazine Top 10 Innovation book, Future Proof: Reinventing Work in the Age of Acceleration, about how to adopt more agile mindsets and practices to prepare for success in a fast-changing world, across a 100-year life.