All in all I am not as convinced that Science Fiction influences reality – our lives – as much as we think – or would like to think. It’s the old argument of life imitating art or vice versa.
I write science fiction – I love science fiction. To write it I observe and understand current technology and extrapolate where it might be sometime in the near future, say thirty years from now. I have had a few instances where Google has endeavoured to catch up with my thought processes but I doubt very much that it’s because I have influenced Larry Page or Sergey Brin through my writing.
No, I think sci-fi writers simply think ahead of the curve – we find answers for our needs – it’s what we do for entertainment J If you are a lead thinker in real science, such as Stephen Hawking, you spend a lot of time thinking about how to get there – how to solve similar needs – that’s how real-world technology evolves as well. Humbly, I prefer to get there rather than work out how exactly – I doubt the detail of that particular journey would be entertaining but to any but a very small minority.
Here are a few examples that bring into question the science fiction influence in life:
Science Fiction Influences Reality – Self-driving cars
– sort of reality now – sci-fi films where self-driving cars were used:
Demolition Man – frustratingly safe
I, Robot – way less fun than in manual mode – we can definitely thank this film for the Audi TT
The Jetsons – I think the father drove the family car – mostly
Minority Report – they look good but self-driving – where’s the fun in that?
Total Recall – The Johnny Cab – probably the most annoying self-driving vehicle ever, although the Google self-driving car looks like it might be a close contender
Batman – the Batmobile – in the ‘60’s they had awesome ‘self-driving’ cars – shame you had to wear leotards and a cape to have it take notice of you!
Fifth Element – more useful and the driver had better repartee than the Johnny Cab – and it certainly looked more fun when flying!
Knight Rider – anyone watching in the ‘70’s loved this car – fast, indestructible, obedient and not always sarcastic to the driver – what a car!
Logan’s Run – another boring pod car!
Timecop – clearly of its time in aesthetic form – not even vaguely good-looking but at least it had time on its side
Science Fiction Influences Reality – Communications:
Dick Tracey’s watch – 2-way radio was the first real celluloid comms device to be remembered by the general public – it was cool when you think that in 1952 the most mobile radio was the Infantry Walkie-Talkie – not exactly something you could put in your pocket or put on a table in a restaurant. Modern comms was inevitably going to reduce in size as technology improves – we are now at a stage when getting smaller is not an option – ease of use is compromised if devices get too small. This demonstrates a natural development around size and capability. Very small devices such as smart phones on wrists tend to be loaded with only a subset of functionality to make them manageable.
The Star Trek comms device – we all know this one – did it really influence the Motorola Flip-TAC’s design? Life imitating art or vice versa?
While we’re talking about Star Trek, it doesn’t matter whether you like it or not, the long-running programme does appear to have been a pretty great influence on the World. Or has it? Although you can point to it as having first mooted everything from tablet computers, body health analysers, and all the way through to translation devices, was it really the parent of all that progeny? Or was this kind of development really just the logical next step? After all, the computer keeps getting smaller and more powerful so all of these inventions might be argued as being inevitable. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.
Science Fiction Influences Reality – Weaponry:
With respect to conventional weaponry, ‘advances’, if they can be called that, will tend towards the more autonomous devices and the integration of AI (Artificial Intelligence). A simple yet powerful example of using modern technology to kill more effectively is the XM-25 Grenade Launcher – its rounds might yet not be able to follow a target (like the ZF-1 multi-weapon in Fifth Element) but it is laser aimed and rounds can be set to explode when it is near the target using accurate distance measurement. Don’t bother hiding around the corner! Still not autonomous though. Why?
As of yet we are still to be allowed to use armed autonomous robots – the fear is that they will have problems differentiating between friend and foe – we’ve all seen Terminator or heard about Tay, the racist and generally anti-human AI from Microsoft. Considering the all too frequent friendly fire of sentient beings I tend to agree with this approach. Not even modern weapons are perfect, only more efficient at killings. Will Asimov’s 3 laws of robotics be enough to protect us? If you say yes they will, then I suggest you read the book “I, Robot”, and not just watch the film.
The closest automated device is probably the remotely controlled Maars system; it has four grenade launchers and a machine gun that packs 400 rounds of 7.62 calibre ammunition. Nothing you would want pointing in the wrong direction – wonder how that would defend us if we introduced it to Tay? Of course, there are always armed drones – they may not be autonomous yet although they do have autopilot, fortunately they are manually controlled when it opens fire yet still they have their share of detractors and controversy.
In the 21st century we are heading towards lasers and true star wars, and not simply political posturing. Laser weapons are the most exciting, most potentially dangerous and accurately targeted but also have the capacity for the longest distance killing field. Even the Rail Gun (a hand held version was used in Eraser along with a see-through-anything laser sight) cannot compete – its ammo travels at almost the speed of light but still sits in second place because in the end the ‘bullet’ is still only a physical projectile mass that, even at its amazing speed still has a parabolic trajectory – back to Earth. By 2023 it’s been announced that the US Navy (and others probably) will have laser weapons.
I could wax lyrical about weapon technology for ever – after all, we make our best technological progress when working out how best to kill another person – but it’s not really the point of this article.
I hope I have given you some insight into the fact that those who give thanks to science fiction for a number of modern inventions may not have been quite right in their assertions as some would have you believe. What you should realise is that science fiction, especially near-future science fiction is not as easy as you may think and that technology will eventually make these quantum leaps towards reality without necessarily being guided by a good story.
Nevertheless, good science fiction is still good science fiction!