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Does Science Fiction Influence Technology or Vice Versa?

Does Science Fiction Influence Technology or Vice Versa?

A well-known science fiction editor and writer argues that technology must be imagined before it is created.

"Imagination is more important than knowledge." ~ Albert Einstein

Science fiction has long been an inspiration for science and especially technology. The early Apple Newton was in some ways a first attempt at the tricorder from the 1960’s Star Trek TV series. What effect does science fiction really have on technology? Are we seeing the impact of such inspirations in the biomedical space? These are a few of the questions I asked Lou Anders, a long-time and well-known editor and author of science fiction and fantasy novels. 

Design News: What affect does science fiction have on technology?

Lou Anders: There is a wonderful website called “Technovelgy.com” – where science meets fiction – on which they list every sci-fi idea that has become reality. The last time I went to the site, they had something like 2,500 entries listing both the device and the expression of the device. A great many of the devices are there because someone read about them in a sci-fi story.

Design News: How about that other way around, i.e., what affect does technology have on Sci-Fi?

Lou Anders: William Bison and Bruce Sterling created the cyberpunk movement in science fiction. Gibson first wrote about cyberspace on a manual typewriter. Later, he talked about getting his first computer, sent to him by a company that wanted his endorsement. He took apart to the computer and was absolutely depressed to find a disk inside. He said, “well, this is just a record player.” He had expected to see some kind of crystalline thing with red lasers shooting out it. Instead, he found a record player. He said he never would have written cyberspace in “Neuromancer” if I had known that it was implemented on little more than a record player.

Design News: Record player? I assume what he found was the computer’s hard drive or perhaps an early floppy disk. Both systems do look like record players. That brings up an importance difference between science fiction and technology innovation. Most technology improvement, as brought forth by engineers, is accomplished by incremental changes. That’s because most designs are constrained by cost and time-to-market pressures to use existing technology. 

Lou Anders: Do you recall Microsoft’s Project Natal demonstrations? It was the Nintendo Wii minus any kind of physical controller. A camera sat on top of the Xbox monitor just tracks what you’re doing. I saw the demo that they showed their game developer partners event. Microsoft was showing their partners what was coming so the partners could start thinking about what games to put on it. Here’s one example: A kid walks into the living room. On the screen is a monk, who sees him walk in. The monk spontaneous says, “ I see you have returned for another lesson.” Then the kids and the monk battle each other. The kid has no hardware on him at all, not controller or anything. But his image suddenly appears on the screen and his motioned are copied realtime into the game. It blew my mind.

Design News: I knew that Intel and others have been developing commercial grade facial recognition systems, but this application is amazing. It is far more interesting than the digital signature application that I’ve written about. Variations on that theme include headbands that respond to thoughts in the brain, as well as recent developments in chips implants.

Lou Anders: I wouldn’t mind wearing a chip, as soon as I was sure they couldn’t spam it. Nothing frustrates me more than having my computer’s browser stop working when you can’t make a connection. I’d hate to not be able to access my own brain.

We have an author named David Louis Edelman who wrote a trilogy called The Jump 225 Trilogy. It’s a world where, at some point, there was a robot revolution which caused a backlash against technology. Now the society is rebuilding. The way that the people deal with their fears of external technology is to restrict all tech to internal systems. Everybody has nanite threads throughout their bodies and software companies compete for the rights to build the software that runs on it. In this society, you have small 4 and 5 person companies who compete to write this software. One programs is called Poker Face 3.5, which you run during a business meeting so you don’t give anything away during negotiations. All of these software programs are loaded into your body. Whenever a new program comes out, it’s ranked based upon popularity and performance.

But remember; this author wrote this book in 2000. Again, the model is not huge corporations, but smaller five person teams writing quick software that is dumped into a data sea and then ranted instantly. It mirrors what have become the applications on an iPhone!

The crux of the story, though, is the creation of a program called “multi-real,” which allows instantaneous parallel processing of anything you might want to do. So the nanites in a person’s body that run multi-real can do anything. It’s a real game changer for that society.

Design News: Even in this example, science fiction touches upon reality. Embedded multicore systems are everyone, although not yet in our bodies. But few of these multicore devices are true parallel processors. I recently interview a multicore software expert at Intel – Max Domeika – who reiterated that the software challenges in true multicore processing are significant. Here, too, we find that technology moves by increments. Although multicore processors are now readily, software technology is lagging. Most programs are still using non-parallel languages on multicore like C/C++. We must use legacy system for economic and other reasons. That is the inertia. There are “game changing” technologies, like superconductors, nanotech, and other. But they take a while to be realized. Still, the direction we select may be greatly influenced by our imagination – not the engineers, but the writers of Sci-Fi.

Lou Anders: I remember a quote from Robert Anton Wilson: "The future begins first in imagination, then in will, then in reality."

Image Source: Photo by Stefan Cosma on Unsplash

Design News: The theme of our conversation seems to be one of man’s merging with his creations, resulting in the connectivity of everyone at some bizarre level - hardware being the commodity, software being the dynamic variable. How about other areas of technology, like biomedical?

Lou Anders: I think that we have only scraped the surface of genetic engineering. I remember reading somewhere that there is a 60 year cycle from the invention of the technology and the revolutionizing of the world by that technology. We build the first computers and they are giant things that take up whole suites of business building. Now, 60 years later, they have become miniaturized and everyone has one on their watch. Genetic engineering is not yet 50 years old. At some point in the near future, we’ll have a genetic revolution that will be equivalent to the computer revolution. Right now, we’re at the stage where transistors are so cheap that you can buy a birthday card that players music and then throw it away! That will happen with genetic engineering.

Design News: I wrote up a lecture by the late Freeman Dyson on this very topic: “Freeman Dyson, the Great Tidier, Lived Between Two Worlds.”

Lou Anders: Some say this genetic revolution is still 50 to 60 years away. But that is still the 21st century. For the last 40,000 years, we have just used plows to till the earth and hit each other with sticks. Then suddenly, in the last couple of hundred years, we are ramping up asymmetrically. So if I don’t see a genetic revolution in my life time, my children and grandchildren will. That’s still an astronomical leap. I firmly believe that we will not end this century as one human race. We’ve already cracked the genome. Within the next 50 years we will be able to tinker with our own genomes to the point where people will start splicing themselves into what every they want to be. We will be a multiplicity.

Michio Kaku, famous physicist and technology evangelist, has said that 90% of what you see on Star Trek to be real by the end of this century.

Design News: Which 90%, I wonder. Some of the technology on Star Trek was pretty wild.

Lou Anders: It’s interesting what he puts downs as possible and not possible. He’s one of those who think that artificial intelligence – a form of genetic engineering – is a lot further out in time. He thinks that thought processes in the brain at an order of magnitude deeper than people think they are. On the other hand, he thinks the teleporter technology and faster than light travel is right around the corner.

Design News: Right around the corner – direct conversion of mass to energy and vice versa? That doesn’t seem possible. It may be scientifically possible, but to bring it to reality is a daunting task for the engineer. As an engineer, you must move forward cautiously, even pedantically. Of course, you need to be able to dream the future, true. That’s where our science fiction brethren help.

Lou Anders: Science fiction, like science, has to be extremely conservative. Sci-Fi is the art of taking the improbable (not the impossible) and making it seem convincing. Fantasy is taking the impossible and making it seem credible. Sci-Fi is taking the improbable and making it seem convincing. 

One of my favorite quotes of all came from Paramount Studios. DC Comics wanted to create a Star Trek-Superman cross over. They asked Paramount if Superman can go to the Enterprise? The people at Paramount said “no,” since Superman isn’t real, which meant by extension that Star Trek was real because it uses technology.

Design News: Science fiction seems to help shape the future of our technology. What does the future hold for Sci-Fi?

Lou Anders: It’s an odd time for Sci-Fi. It’s being outsold by fantasy and fantasy is being outsold by urban fantasy. That’s any book you see with a girl’s back with a tattoo on either her shoulder or right above her buttock. It actually represents a confluence of the Sci-Fi genre with romance readers.

I think the Sci-Fi category is migrating out of adult and back into Young Readers (YR). Perhaps this is where is should have been, since the golden age of science fiction is 12. At the same time, Sci-Fi is migrating to the mainstream literature, with writers like Cormac McCarthy, Michael Chibon, and everyone else.

I met someone recently who told me that they were a huge fan of Sci-Fi . They went on to describe the physics of faster than light travel and warfare in space. His descriptions sounded a lot like the Mass Effect games form Bioware. Turns out I was right, and he had never read any science fiction. All of his admiration and knowledge came from playing games. This is a little bit what Sci-Fi is up against. Its audience are teenage boys which are getting their Sci-Fi fix from the video games or TV.

Design News: Seems like a bit of an incomplete fix.

Lou Anders: I’m surprised at the sophistication of some of those games and not just in science fiction. Red Dead Redemption 2 is every bit as good as any western film I’ve ever seen. Fantastic dialogue and narrative.

What seems to be happening is that people are getting tired of just blowing the same stuff over and over again in these games. They are looking for more sophisticated narratives. I think long term we will see video games looking to actual writers to bring in the complexity.

It’s the same thing that is happening in Hollywood. The Matrix films – are they progressively better films or worse? Setting aside the narrative, you can see that the technology in the films is improving by leaps and bounds. But what happens when you can do anything with special effect, when they are ubiquitous? Then narrative becomes important again. You need special effects married to a good story. I think that is starting to happen in gaming. Just look at Walter John Williams who wrote the dialog for Spore. We certainly see a wealth of fantasy and science fiction on TV and film. Of course, Michael Chabon is now show-running the new Star Trek: Picard series, so we continue to see parallels between video games and science fiction.

Image Source: Image by 024-657-834 from Pixabay 

John Blyler is a Design News senior editor, covering the electronics and advanced manufacturing spaces. With a BS in Engineering Physics and an MS in Electrical Engineering, he has years of hardware-software-network systems experience as an editor and engineer within the advanced manufacturing, IoT and semiconductor industries. John has co-authored books related to system engineering and electronics for IEEE, Wiley, and Elsevier.

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