Science fiction's influence on technology: ideas made real

26 Jan, 2008

The recent Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas provided an opportunity to explore the links between science fiction and the technologies of today and tomorrow.

The Consumer Electronics Show's (CES) myriad strands of conference sessions sometimes throw up the most unusual panels. One such event brought together a journalist, a science fiction writer, an inventor and an actress to talk about the influence of science fiction on the world of technology. The conversation ranged from the optimistic to the dystopian, and from the flying car to the handheld communicator.

Dean Kamen, the inventor of the Segway, was sceptical about the role of science fiction. "The subtlety of the real world and nature and the surprising things in real science generally are even more exciting than the other stuff." But he also saw it "as a very valuable tool that will bring people to the table."

One influence kept coming back - Robert A. Heinlein's novels. Science fiction writer Neal Stephenson reminisced: "When I was a kid I read all of the usual suspects - the golden age writers - the one who stuck with me was Heinlein. I don't know why that is, but he stuck with me more than the others did."

The Wall Street Journal's Walter Mossberg brought up the best-known influence: Star Trek. "All you need to do is look at gadgets - you can absolutely trace the inspiration of devices like the flip cellphone. I think there are billions of dollars of R&D that have been influenced by what they saw - people trying to build transporters and computers you can talk to," he said. Indeed, last year Google's chief technologist Michael T. Jones admitted that Google Maps on the iPhone was his first attempt at creating a tricorder.

Interestingly, many of the terms we use in IT security come from The Shockwave Rider, a book by 1970s British science fiction writer John Brunner. One of a series of novels covering themes he felt were affecting civilisation - from a violent society to over population and pollution - it depicts a networked society where a man on the run uses a 'worm program' to rewrite his identity and hide from a nefarious government organisation. Brunner's book quickly became popular with the nascent IT industry, and the terms he invented became part of the vernacular. Influences run in both directions. The ubiquitous 'helpline' in the book was based on the real-world Point Foundation, the home of the counter-culture Whole Earth Catalogues - which later founded The Well, one of the first public bulletin board services to connect to the wider internet.

But science fiction isn't a tool for prediction, it's for telling stories and actress Lucy Lawless, who appears in the current remake of Battlestar Galactica, thinks it could do better. "Too much time is spent time working with wiz bang things - instead of thinking about the water machine [and] building cities," she said. "These are the inventions that transform lives."

But the worlds of science fiction and popular science magazines don't get things right much of the time. Mossberg pointed to the example of the videophone, saying "The video phone was shown at world fairs and in films, but it took Skype and the internet - which weren't predicted."

There are many things science fiction doesn't predict. The Sci-Fi channel's executive vice president Dave Howe points out that Jules Verne thought that submarines would use plants to generate oxygen but he didn't come up with the light bulb, invented only a few years later. Award-winning British science fiction writer Charles Stross agrees that science fiction isn't always the crystal ball some might perceive it to be. "In general science fiction is rather crap at predicting tech, especially the kind of baroque, reticulated weirdness that keeps coming out of CES and those weird Chinese factories who bring us stuff like USB-powered desktop missile launchers," he said.

It's hardest to look at the day after tomorrow, according to Stross. His latest novel Halting State is set in a near-future independent Scotland. It starts with a bank robbery in a virtual reality game - and only recently Second Life shut down all the in-world banks after a spate of frauds and robberies. "It's really difficult writing near-future science fiction these days," he said. "I wrote Halting State in 2006, finishing it in September. By January 2008, we'd seen large chunks of the novel's plot coming true: bank robberies in Second Life and Ultima Online, international cyber-war between Russia and Estonia, and Chinese hackers attacking western (and South Korean) military computers. By 2018, when the novel is set, it's going to look quaint - I can't begin to project what the real state of affairs will look like then, because there's just too much going on."

It's rare that science fiction explores the effects of technology on business. William Barton's novel Acts of Conscience starts with a stock market boom driven by a new technology, while Peter Hamilton's series of science fiction detective stories set in a post-global warming Rutland also chart the rise of a technology company - looking at the lengths people go to get access to disruptive new technologies.

When science fiction mentions business specifically, it's often to paint technologically advanced corporations as a threat: a good story is more about building tension than increasing productivity. Some stories are intended as cautionary tales and when H Beam Piper wrote about the Zarathustra Company controlling an entire planet he was modelling it on the East India Company rather than proposing a way of funding space exploration. Worldbuilding is about exploring the impact of technology on society and on individuals, not on business. But Neal Stephenson gives Diamond Age a realistic flavour by artificially limiting what his nanotechnology fabricators could make, because you have to pay for the templates.

Fact is already meeting his fiction and if you're thinking about using 3D printers to run off components or objects to use in your office, remember to follow the increasing debate about which 3D designs and product shapes are protected by copyright.

Sometimes you can see the development science fiction and technology clearly. Neal Stephenson has seen two of his fictional technologies made real: the virtual reality in his novel Snowcrash has become today's 3D online worlds and Amazon has used pages from Diamond Age, a novel based around an electronic book in the sample pages on the Kindle ebook.

"The connection is so profound that it comes down to the only difference between science fiction and science is timing," adds Kamen. "Every generation imagines something they want to do and can't do, so they write about it. That inspires the kids so that to go and accomplish it, they develop the technologies and the engineering toolset.

"When you have the advantage of hindsight, it's rather staggering how much of what we do today is last generation's science fiction."