Predicting the future with Hollywood science fiction films

i30_010013It has long been known that certain science fiction authors have, through their research, knowledge of science, and creative imaginations, developed, or at least written about concepts which (while usually not laying out all the necessary theory to actually implement the concept) have subsequently been proven to be workable. A classic example (perhaps the most famous) is Arthur C. Clarke’s article on geostationary satellites, which appeared in Wireless World magazine in 1945, long before the existence of such satellites.

It recently occurred to me however that many recent developments in consumer electronics and networking, as well as other developments were previously contemplated in science fiction books, TV shows, or film, with the resulting objects becoming part of our daily lives. Others, which were previously seen as fun ideas, but not for serious consideration are now firmly in the laboratory, being prepared for future launch.

Just after I decided to write this post I came across this article on the BBC website: ‘Welcome to the world of sci-fi science‘. The site talks along very similar lines to what I had been thinking, but tends to focus on a number of more extreme sci-fi ideas such as teleportation, time-travel, and antimatter (but they seemed to miss ‘anti-gravity’, which underlies so many sci-fi films). In only one case did the BBC raise a concept which is now entering reality (wireless electricity), which has recently been touted as the way mobile phones will be charged in future (see here).

I set out below examples of former science fiction concepts that are becoming, or have become reality:

  1. Mobile phones – seen by many ahead of their time as personal communicators in Star Trek, mobile phones are now ubiquitous.
  2. Nuclear powered personal electronics – in Isaac Asimov’s ‘Foundation‘ trilogy Hari Seldon was said to have carried a nuclear powered personal force-field, with a walnut sized power supply unit that lasted a lifetime (see here). Such batteries are now being developed (see this BBC article, ‘Tiny nuclear batteries unveiled‘), and it may only be a matter of time (and ecological acceptance) before they end up powering our mobile phones, mp3 players, digital cameras, etc.
  3. Head-up displays / augmented reality – selected data can now be shown in the line of sight/field of vision, for example on iPhone displays, in a manner similar to the in Robocop/Terminator (see a BBC article on this topic here).
  4. Space stations – the International Space Station is a different shape to the space station in Arthur C Clarke’s ‘2001: A Space Odyssey‘ (written in 1968, long before the existence of any space station), and not yet providing the same level of luxury or comfort, but the International Space Station already has residential visitors.
  5. Electric cars – In the past electric cars quietly ‘whooshed’ around in sci fi films. Today some car manufacturers are even considering adding sci-fi style sound effects to their newly developed electric cars, so that pedestrians hear the cars coming, and thereby reduce accidents caused by pedestrians stepping out into oncoming electric cars because of the electric cars having no motor noise (see here). Hybrid cars form a growing proportion of cars on the road, and the major OEMs are all talking of pure electric cars being part of the product portfolio in years to come (see the Chevrolet Volt, here).
  6. Video telephony – old sci-fi shows, such as the Jetsons, dreamed of black-and white cathode ray TV screens sitting built into desktop telephone units; today we have Skype, integrated into laptops with built in webcams, with (assuming a decent broadband connection) nearly perfect full color video images.
  7. Tablet computers and touch screen displays – It now seems that ‘Minority Report‘ was a watershed moment in the conceptual development of interactive, touch screen displays – iPhone was the first widespread consumer object to contain multi-touch, touch screen control – going forwards Apple is widely expected to bring out a multi-touch, touch screen tablet computer in 2010, while many developers (eg, Microsoft, here) are developing larger ‘panels’ that might form a table top or be hung from a wall.
  8. Satellite navigation – In ‘Demolition Man‘ the satellite navigation computer also ‘drove’ the car (autopilot style, until the driver chose to take over). Nowadays the driver still drives the car, but has the benefit of satellite navigation advice (audio and visual) that adjusts itself real-time when the driver leaves the proposed route. TomTom grew strongly from adoption of its moveable sat-nav units, however such tools are now becoming available as applications (apps) for mobile telephones and smartphones (iPhone, etc.).
  9. Biometric security controls – Firstly fingerprint recognition, and then optical recognition. National border controls (such as at Birmingham airport, or as explained here, at Heathrow Airport) are now starting to employ such checks. Until recently such ideas were restricted to Terminator, Minority Report, Demolition Man, etc.
  10. Newspapers with moving pictures (video) – Many have seen ‘The Daily Prophet’ in the Harry Potter films, but how many were aware of the recent publication of Entertainment Weekly (an issue in September 2009), which contained video embedded into the pages of the magazine, thanks to a company called Americhip (example here).

So that leaves us to speculate where the future might go next. Here are five more examples, which might result in exciting (and maybe scary) future developments (ignoring sci-fi weaponry, such as light sabers, etc. in the hope that the future is somewhat more peaceful):

  1. Virtual vacations (‘Total Recall‘, 1990)
  2. Cyber police (‘Robocop‘, 1987)
  3. Clones/Replicants (‘Moon‘, 2009; ‘Blade Runner‘, 1982)
  4. Space elevators (‘The Fountains of Paradise‘, Arthur C. Clarke, 1979)
  5. Hologram communications (‘Star Wars‘, 1977)
  6. Human ‘hibernation’ (‘2001: A Space Odyssey‘, 1968; ‘Demolition Man‘, 1993)

Beyond the films even, one might imagine a day when contact lenses overlay a digital (augmented reality) display over our field of vision, or computer chips might be implanted under our skin, giving us telephone capabilities just by pressing different fingers together and talking and hearing via computer chips implanted just under our ears.


4 Responses

  1. […] in the past were only conceivable in the realms of science fiction (see also my blog post ‘Predicting the future with Hollywood science fiction films‘, on this same […]

  2. Interesting related article on the New Scientist website, ‘Gallery: Ten sci-fi devices nearing reality’:

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