22-01-2020 | By Moe Long
Science fiction, while admittedly make-believe, derives inspiration from real-world elements. Conversely, sci-fi imagination often shapes future innovation. From wireless communication to virtual reality, here’s how sci-fi influences tech! As confirmed by technologists and scientists themselves, many of today's tech advancements have been directly inspired by science fiction. For instance, Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX and Tesla, has openly expressed his love for sci-fi novels like 'The Foundation series by Isaac Asimov, and it's clear that this literature has shaped his vision for the future.
Beam Me Up, Scotty: The 'Star Trek' Inspiration Behind Mobile Communication
Ever since Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone, iterative developments provided continued improvements. Chiefly, wireless communication remained at the forefront of imagination, eventually becoming a reality.
Before there was a cellphone in every pocket, science fiction TV shows such as “Star Trek” depicted their characters using communicators. On “Star Trek: The Original Series,” the Star Trek Communicator resembled then-future flip phones. Indeed, Motorola Director of Research and Development Martin Cooper revealed that the groundbreaking 1960s “Star Trek ToS” provided inspiration for its cell phone designs. Fittingly, the ToS communicator has now been released as a Bluetooth speaker. Later, on “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” the TNG communicator became smaller, similar to a present-day Bluetooth dongle. It wasn’t until 1983 that the first cell phone hit shelves, the Motorola DynaTAC 800x, with its staggering $4,000 price tag.
Cooper's inspiration to create a truly mobile cellphone came from watching Captain Kirk's gold flip-top "communicator" on 'Star Trek.' In a fascinating oral history he provided to the Computer History Museum in 2008, Cooper explained how he organized a competition among his designers for the best portable phone concept. After two weeks, the designers presented their ideas, including sleek sliders and folders, at a dinner. Despite the impressive designs, they ultimately chose a less spectacular but more reliable model. Cooper's first call was fittingly made to Joel Engel, his rival at AT&T's Bell Labs, marking a historic moment for wireless communication. This vivid anecdote highlights the direct connection between science fiction and the development of groundbreaking technology
Visionary director Stanly Kubrick’s sci-fi epic “2001: A Space Odyssey” features what resemble tablets. These so-called Newspads, as writer Arthur C. Clarke penned, were used for various purposes, including communications and monitoring spaceship diagnostics. And while “2001” might have predicted technological advancement far past what 2001 actually held in store, the tablet as it’s known in its current iteration was introduced in 2000. Before that, devices such as the PalmPilot and Linus Write-Top preceded it.
Interestingly, it's not simply a case of science fiction dreaming up these technological marvels and then real-world engineers taking those dreams and turning them into reality. Often, the process is much more collaborative. Many sci-fi writers consult with scientists and technologists to make their stories more plausible. This interplay between reality and imagination fuels innovation. The vision of these writers, combined with the knowledge of the technologists, creates a blueprint for the future that inspires technological development. Martin Cooper's inspiration from 'Star Trek' is just one instance of this dynamic at work.
Virtual Reality: From 'Star Trek's' Holodeck to Today's Headsets
An early depiction of virtual reality is the Holodeck on “Star Trek.” Appearing on “Star Trek: The Animated Series,” this virtual environment played a crucial role in “Star Trek TNG.” It served several purposes, from recreation to training.
The Douglas Trumbull-directed 1983 gem “Brainstorm” offers a forward-thinking look at VR. This sci-fi thriller explores the creation of a virtual reality headset and potential AR and VR applications such as entertainment and military use. Where “Brainstorm” truly succeeds is in analysing the effects of VR on the user and the ideation process of creating a VR headset. Early in the film, a functional prototype of a headset is deemed too large and unwieldy for regular use, a real-world VR challenge. Moreover, there’s a focus on how virtual and augmented reality experiences affect the user on a physical and emotional level.
1992 science fiction flick “The Lawnmower Man” likewise probes the VR space. Similar to “Brainstorm,” this Pierce Brosnan-starring movie goes all-in on the “let’s weaponise it” trope. While “The Lawnmower Man” may be a rapid departure from current VR and the Stephen King short story upon which it’s loosely based, the Nintendo Virtual Boy launched three years later in 1995. And military VR and AR use, while not being tested on monkeys a la “The Lawnmower Man,” the United States military has used virtual reality, including the Microsoft HoloLens, for training.
In a 2014 interview with Wired, Palmer Luckey, the founder of Oculus VR, mentioned 'The Lawnmower Man' as a key influence on his work in the field of virtual reality.
Artificial Intelligence: Lessons from HAL 9000, 'The X-Files,' and 'The Forbin Project
Connected devices and smart home technology are here to stay. But the Internet of Things (IoT) gadgets was once merely a vision of the future. 1999 Disney Channel Original Movie (DCOM) “Smart House” is shockingly ahead of its time. And with LeVar Burton at the helm, whose previous works include portraying Geordi LaForge on ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation,” it shouldn’t be surprising that underneath the silly kid-friendly veneer lies a sharp vision of smart home technology. A family wins a cutting-edge smart house with PAT or a Personal Applied Technology hub, providing its core functionality. PAT operates similar to many current smart home hubs from the likes of SmartThings and even features voice assistant features such as those found in Google Assistant, Siri, and Amazon’s Alexa. There’s a truly connected ecosystem replete with voice control, climate control, and home entertainment. PAT even learns from the family’s habits and adjusts settings accordingly, a feature found in modern smart home appliances such as the Nest learning thermostat.
1977 film “Demon Seed,” based off of the Dean Koontz novel of the same name, offers a neat and far too ahead of its time smart home. Protagonist Dr Alex Harris outfits his entire home with a voice-controlled smart assistant. What’s unique about “Demon Seed” is the way that Harris’s entire house is integrated into a single ecosystem. Everything from the lighting system to kitchen appliances, climate control, and surveillance system are run from a voice-activated smart home hub dubbed Alfred. In its third act, “Demon Seed” unravels a bit, but its showcase of smart home technology was far beyond its time, particularly with a look at a single-system smart home.
Artificial Intelligence: “The X-Files,” “Colossus: The Forbin Project,” “2001: A Space Odyssey,” and More
With real-world artificial intelligence (AI) applications as widespread as marketing, banking, and gaming applications, it’s fun to revisit AI in sci-fi. One of the best examples remains HAL 9000 from “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Although “2001” shows HAL apparently malfunctioning, the less poetic, more straightforward science-fiction sequel “2010: The Year We Make Contact” clarifies that, in fact, HAL was complying with the programming parameters. Conflicting programming caused a malfunction. Often, in everyday use, AI failing to deliver the desired outcome is usually the result of poor programming or user error rather than a faulty AI application.
Many AI experts, including Stuart Russell, a leading AI researcher and author of 'Human Compatible', have referenced HAL 9000 as a touchstone for discussions about AI ethics and the potential risks of AI.
Genre-defining sci-fi series “The X-Files” grappled with AI a few times during its 11-season and two-movie run. “Ghost in the Machine” fused AI with smart home technology, while episode “Rm9sbG93ZXJz” explored AI gone wrong. The message of “Rm9sbG93ZXJz” is one where humans need to use artificial intelligence more and appropriately, so that AI can learn to function correctly.
“Colossus: The Forbin Project” arrives as a cautionary tale of AI in the same vein as Kubrick’s “Dr Strangelove.” “The Forbin Project” sees an artificial intelligence project, Colossus, created with the intention of ending war. Unfortunately, the lack of specific programming causes the project to carry out its orders unpredictably. Ultimately, its predictive capabilities backfire as the machine begins to anticipate the actions of its creators and their attempts to shut it down.
Surveillance and Deepfake: The Prophetic Visions of '1984' and 'Looker'
At the time of its release, the 1981 Michael Crichton-directed “Looker” was decried as unrealistic. A tragically ahead of its time sci-fi thriller “Looker” predicted CGI advancements and Deepfake technology. Although the movie suffers from some cheesy dialogue and a predictable plot, it’s a fascinating, eerily accurate look at future CG capabilities with a catchy theme song.
George Orwell’s 1984 continues to maintain its rightful slot in classrooms the world around. There’s a reason the term “Orwellian” is commonly used. The novel, and film of the same name, paint a bleak portrait of surveillance used to implement control and rewrite history. With the slew of connected devices, from smartphones and computers to thermostats and microwaves, there’s a steady stream of data which can easily be monitored. There’s active listening in everything from phones to smart speakers, smart home surveillance systems, and facial recognition software, many of which were envisioned by Orwell in the form of Telescreens, Speakwrite for dictation software, and Big Brother for monitoring the population. While the dystopian future Orwell forecast hasn’t (yet) come to fruition, much of the technology he wrote about is possible in some form or another.
In his TED Talk, 'Living in a surveillance state,' Mikko Hyppönen, a renowned cyber security expert, explicitly mentions '1984' as a work of fiction that has helped shape the conversation about privacy and surveillance in the digital age.
The Sci-Fi Legacy: Shaping Tomorrow's Tech Today
Though it can often seem out-of-this-world, science fiction influences innovation. Because science fiction draws inspiration for solving real-world problems, sci-fi may spur on real-life technology. This ranges from cell phones to virtual reality and smart homes. What sci-fi turned science non-fiction inspirations can you think of? From the works of Elon Musk to the advancements in AI, VR, and cybersecurity, the influence of science fiction on real-world innovation is undeniable. As these examples show, our technologists are often just trying to catch up to the visions of our most imaginative science fiction writers.