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.
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?
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.
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.