The world of our future is imagined through the dreams of our past.

The conversations we have about our technological trajectory into the 22nd century always bring me visions. Topics like artificially intelligent robot companions, flying cars, spaceships, and eccentric billionaires building colonies on Mars must lead to daydreaming for some of you as it does me. It makes me think, where did we even come up with these lofty ideas?

The invention of the microchip does not necessarily predestine the invention of the smartphone or the drone. There is some art to these sciences that make them as successful and compelling as they are. Then it dawned on me. I have seen all of these inventions and so many more before today.

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Through the stories our generations have grown up on, we have all lived with these inventions since we were born. Like veritable time travelers, we have glimpsed the future in our modern day mythos. Stories like 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Neuromancer, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Star Wars, Bladerunner, Minority Report, and even The Martian have dreamed up inventions that at the time were just fantasy, and today are close to if not already a reality.

The Nautilus, the ship in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne was “electrically powered” even though the book itself was published in 1870 and humankind had not yet figured out how to use electricity to power a lightbulb, which was invented by Edison in 1879. Today electric vehicles are commonplace, with even larger vessels like trains relying solely upon it. In essence, Jules Verne envisioned the potential for electrical energy.

Neuromancer, a seminal Sci-Fi book by William Gibson (and one of my all-time favorites that I strongly recommend) is based on the idea of a virtual-reality global computer network in “cyber-space” called “The Matrix”. Yes, The Matrix. I’ll give you three guesses as to where one of your favorite movies got its name and concept from. In Neuromancer, the main character enters into the Matrix via computer terminals to control other computers on the other side of the world. That book was released in 1984, just one year after the first public trial of ARPAnet, the first ever attempt at an internet network (not to be confused with intranet networking which began in the 1960’s) spearheaded by the US DOD. Although some of Gibson’s allusions to what this new thing he called “The Matrix” could do have certainly become reality i.e. interconnected cross-continental supercomputers and virtual reality via cyber-space, I truly hope some of his other visions are wrong. Like, for example, the half-human-half-AI antagonist that threatens humanity after exceeding its pre-ordained limitations and going rogue. Spoiler alert: he actually turns out to be good! Hey, wait, didn’t we talk about that recently?

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To finish up my examples and move on, space colonization and artificial intelligence were primary themes in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Flying cars and spaceships are ever-present in Bladerunner and the Star Wars saga (I am still waiting patiently for lightsabers), Minority Report predicts the use of using people to predict crime i.e. Social Media and cameras, and The Martian shows us what colonizing Mars might look like in practice.

The point is, no idea is novel. The amazing thing about the time that we live in is we have front row seats to see what was once fantasy and what is now possible collide. We are truly getting a chance to see dreams come true. I would put money down right now to bet that, if asked, Elon Musk would admit that some of his fascinations with space travel and the colonization of Mars stems from some type of Sci-Fiction or fantasy story from his lifetime. E.T. maybe? Or Robinson Crusoe on Mars? (Talk about a reboot…) Maybe I should just ask him? Brb.

Elon Tweet

Alright, I’ll let you know how that goes (yes, I sent it). But for now, let’s keep talking about Sci-Fi and technology. I believe we are at a point with technology that we are starting to see fewer and fewer novel ideas in popular culture. Sci-Fi is more popular than ever, but it that because of new ideas or because of how close we are to the realities portrayed on page and screen?

In one of our discussions for #IS6621 I would like to have a free-form chat on where we think this is all headed. Can any of us predict what will be the next big revolutionary advancement? I am not talking about programming cars to drive themselves around or getting to Mars. I mean, what is going to be the next electricity or internet? Where do we go from here?

Obviously, this is a two-way street. There are some that are sage in their predilections for the future, like the ones I have covered here, and others that are late to the show or just way off, like Planet of the Apes – hopefully. 2001: A Space Odyssey, for example, may have been ahead of its time on AI, but their space suit designs were directly reminiscent of the Mercury and Gemini variant space suit designed in previous years. Same with the Star Wars Rogue squadron suits. I mean, look at these comparisons.

 

If many of the stories that we all grew up on have one thing in common it is that someone will dream it up before it becomes possible. The sky is no longer the limit when it comes to the future of technology and how it will affect mankind. I would love to hear from anyone who thinks they have found that nugget of imagination that will predict our next big revolution. Will it be an author, a playwright, a politician, or scientist? Whoever it may be, I doubt we’ll see it coming until it’s right at our doorstep.

10 comments

  1. I have to tell you this post was excellently written and while being done professionally, I sensed pure passion and admiration for some of the technolgoy we have developed over the years. It is in fact crazy to see that some of our grandparents wildest dreams have become our reality. It’s also really interesting how far off some ideas are (for instance I don’t think I saw anything about smartphones in old writing, but flying cars are almost everywhere). Part of me wonders if theres not a reason we haven’t developed some of the technolology (such as flying cars) that our forefathers dreamed of.
    I do know that we need to walk a careful line because while I love the idea of living in a world like Futurama, the iRobot reality is still very much a fear I have every time I hear about AI.
    Great post!

  2. My favorite line from your post was that “someone will dream it up before it becomes possible.” Although it is a simple line, it really encompasses the depth of the rest of your post. This is definitely something that I have thought about but you found the perfect words to make it into a very cohesive and insightful blog post! I think when we were younger, we were often told that books have to power to take us to new worlds and now its crazy to think that parts of those worlds are coming to life. I do agree with @profgarbusm in the sense that a part of me still is fearful of a reality that includes parts of iRobot. There are certain things we don’t to become reality. I also think when we talk about this topic, it is important to bring up the speed at which technological innovations have been growing. Its exponential. The amount of new technology possible each year multiplies at an incredible rate. Just five years ago, there were so many things that would have seemed out of reach and now they are here. At this rate, our world is so exciting that I’m in constant awe of all the new things people can dream up. Part of me thinks that our world is becoming so entertaining that less people feel the desire to read books to be transported to a different world. I’m still waiting for video holograms to become a common place feature though.

  3. Kyle I’m a huge fan of this point, my inner tech nerd goes crazy just thinking about the potential technological advancements in the years to come. Although we tend to focus more on specific technological advancements to consumer products like flying cars and AI assistants I would argue that the world of medicine has seen just as creative advancements over the past decade as consumer products. Life changing procedures along with technological tests for diseases and cures are all things that people would dream about years ago. Movies such as Prometheus, Elysium, and Cloud Atlas all largely focus on technological advancements in medicine that we are already beginning to see.

  4. Entertaining post as always, Kyle! Another example…I recently re-read 1984 and its amazing the tech predictions made in this 70-year-old book: Big Brother/surveillance, fake news, Newspeak = hashtags/emojis, Speakwrite, and others.
    If we are to believe what we see on the internet, and as we will learn about in next week’s class, many think blockchain technology will be a bigger deal than the internet. Sadly distributed ledgers don’t make for exciting sci-fi films, but at least we get Silicon Valley’s Pied Piper.

  5. This post is great, and I look forward to hearing what Elon Musk responds to your tweet if that happens! Unlike you, I have rather been skeptical about these futuristic, way advanced technologies like flying cars and AI dominance becoming reality. Yet, you point out great examples from past predictions accurately matching our current society, and this makes me wonder if our next generation will dream about things a lot more wild (an advanced version of hologram/VR, artificially made food used daily, and so forth). Although there are inherently impossible ideas such as time machines or using a warp machine to travel from one place to another within seconds, I believe the word “impossible” will slowly fade away in the tech realm.

    What makes your argument even more realistic is the recent boycott against a top South Korean engineering university, KAIST, who has been working on AI tech for military purpose. Given South Korea’s current endangered situation, I believe it is honestly an interesting path and research that South Korea would be interested in taking if the capability allows. Yet, many other engineering academic institutions see it as a step before AI military domination becoming a reality. I believe this can actually be true (like terminators); it’s only the matter of who breaks the ice first. Given all these futuristic guesses to become reality, we are better off accepting those facts and figuring out what to avoid or prepare for those changes (if they potentially bring significant damages to us).

  6. Great post! I don’t think I’ve ever read Neuromancer, but I played an RPG in highschool that was based in it. I did read 2001: a Space Oddysey recently, and there was a foreword reminding the reader what didn’t exist when the book was written, and how much of it was speculation at the time. It was pretty fascinating. My most recent favorite Sci Fi books were Ready Player One and Suarez’s Daemon and Freedom ™. Both solid.

  7. @profgarbusm I never thought of it until I read your comment, but now I think I have a solution… I’ve always believed we don’t have flying cars mainly because there is not a market for it. One might ask, “Who wouldn’t want to buy one?” Well, they would be ridiculously expensive in both time and money (high price + loads of training and maintenance necessary). However, now that we are approaching the autonomous vehicle age we can trust flying car travel (assuming we can figure out the ethics @realjakejordon).

    @kylepdonley Your description of Neuromancer remindeds me of another great sci fi book called /Ancillary Justice/. In the story, bodies of political prisoners are transformed into ‘cyborgs’ to be used as a police force controlled by AI. I think what prevents us from developing this and some other science fiction technology are ethics remaining in science. While technological advances may seem great, sometimes they are not worth the cost (i.e. if we could feasibly get zombies to work as free labor, what would be the ethical implications?). Of course, some things may be discovered to be completely impossible because we learn new things about physics, but here’s to hoping one of those things isn’t time travel.

  8. It’s wild to consider how close the horizons are on a lot of these things. I didn’t follow tech at the time, but if you had told me coming into college that we would have autonomous flying vehicles in the next ten years I would probably laugh. Thinking about these time horizons got me thinking about Silicon Valley. The show is not science fiction, but more a parody of startups in Silicon Valley. The idea of “middle out compression” and “a new internet” seem to make technical sense, would be revolutionary, and a quick Google search demonstrated to me that a lot of people think it is already real. The beauty of TV shows, books, and movies like these are that they put something really cool and whimsical in the spotlight, and broadcast the idea to thinkers around the world. They may be dreams, but they’re advertised heavily to real scientists, create real excitement, and hopefully will lead to real innovation in the very near future.

  9. Hey Kyle, some great stuff in this post. I would love to read Neuromancer sometime seeing as one of my favorite books right now is Ready Player One and I absolutely loved the Matrix and Inception down to the T. Anyways, I wonder though if so many ideas are coming out that we naturally are going to come across the tech of the future purely because the worlds are so intertwined. Authors look to advancing fields for inspiration and the volume of literature which is produced then covers such a vast span of ideas that naturally one would hit it on the nail.

  10. Thanks for the thoughtful comments, everyone! No comments from Elon yet…

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