How Sci-Fi Influences Real-World Tech and Innovation

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!

Wireless Communication: Cell Phones, Tablets, and Smart Watches - Inspired by “Star Trek” and More

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 its 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. 


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 a variety of 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. Prior to that, devices such as the PalmPilot and Linus Write-Top preceded it. 

Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality: “Brainstorm,” “The Lawnmower Man,” and More

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 analyzing the effects of VR on the user, as well as 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 the “let’s weaponize it” trope. While “The Lawnmower Man” may be a rapid departure from current VR as well as 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. 

Smart Homes: “Smart House,” “Demon Seed,” and More

Connected devices and smart home technology are here to stay. But Internet of Things (IoT) gadgets were once merely a vision of the future. 1999 Disney Channel Original Movie (DCOM) “Smart House” is a shockingly ahead of its time movie. 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 true 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.

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 in unpredictable ways. 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 Image Manipulation: “1984,” “Looker,” and More

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 itself 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 to boot.

 

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 as well as rewrite history. With the slew of connected devices, from smart phones 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.

How Sci-Fi Influences Real-World Tech and Innovation: Final Thoughts

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?


By Moe Long

Moe Long is an editor, writer, and tech buff with a particular appreciation for Linux, Raspberry Pis, and retro gaming. When he's not hammering away at his keyboard, he enjoys running, reading, watching cinema, and listening to vinyl. You can read his writings on film and pop culture at CupOfMoe.com and check out his thoughts on movies on the Celluloid Fiends podcast.

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