We’ve been here before, I thought as I watched a presentation from futurologist David Smith, who took us through his tech predictions for the future at a recent company get-together.
David was painting a picture of the future in which we’ll be living well into our hundreds, dwelling in smart cities, with the ability to 3D print what we want, when we want it, and assisted by intelligent personal assistants.
Yes, I knew I’d been here before – I’d been reading about it and watching on TV since I was a child. I was brought up on Star Trek, Blake’s 7 and Battlestar Galactica, and hoovered up books from HG Wells, Iain M Banks and Arthur C Clarke.
But even right now, we’re already getting use to intelligent personal assistants in our homes, vehicles that help us drive, drones and wearable technology.
These were all things I dreamt about as a child.
It led me to wonder, how many of these technologies have been directly inspired by science fiction?
As it turns out, many. Motorola’s first mobile phone designs were said to be directly inspired by communicators used by Captain Kirk in Star Trek. Siri was surely influenced by HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Virtual reality has been seen in science fiction through Philip K Dick’s Total Recall and countless other films and novels.
Tim Berners Lee has cited Arthur C Clark’s Dial F for Frankenstein as inspiration for his invention of the world wide web. iPads are very similar to the PADD (aka Personal Access Display Device) shown in Star Trek – perhaps explaining why Steve Jobs used footage from a Star Trek film to show off the tablet’s capabilities.
The question that springs to mind is would we have any of these inventions if it wasn’t for science fiction?
It’s an impossible question to answer empirically, but there’s enough anecdotal evidence to suggest that scientists and technologists have a strong tendency to be science fiction fans. And when the blueprint of the future is laid out so clearly, it’s hard not to follow its natural direction.
Science fiction also acts as a warning about the potential misuse of technology – a theme I think we’re only just scraping the surface of. But it’s not just scare-mongering, science fiction can provide guidelines on how to deal with the issues at hand. Take Isaac Asimov’s three laws, used to govern the behaviour of intelligent robots:
- A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
- A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
- A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.
You can see how similar principles could apply to our own increasingly intelligent systems.
Without science fiction I find it hard to believe that many of the technologies that have become part of our everyday lives. It has provided us with the inspiration to innovate – in the future it will also provide the guidelines for how we use technology in the right way.