Science fiction literature has inspired a (to me) surprising number of technological innovations that have actually been created. Of course, not all technology was inspired by science fiction, and some has been merely popularized by science fiction after being brought to light in the scientific community. It is surprising to me that other pieces of existing technology have not really been mentioned significantly in science fiction despite their large or probably large effect on our future.

The following is an attempt at listing inventions and the fiction that may have inspired them...

The first item that usually comes to people's mind is the cell phone, which is now available in models smaller than the original Star Trek communicator. I suppose the even older wristwatch communicator predates Star Trek; while this is possible (and exists), it has not gained popularity.

Jules Verne was probably the first popular author whose wild speculation came true. His most famous inventions were the submarine and space travel. His fiction probably inspired many young scientists, and even some movies.

Arthur C. Clarke claims to have invented the artificial satellite in one of his short stories. He is widely credited with discovering the geosynchronous orbit used by many communication satellites.

Star Wars may have been a long time ago in a galaxy far far away, but its name has been abused as a label for "futuristic" Reagan era space weapons. This is probably because Star Wars brought to more people more technology dreams than any other single movie, and so was a handy label. Who knows if droids, blasters, x-wings and the rest will ever be built, but I'm sure someone will try. There are already a surprising number of high tech lightsaber mock ups.

Electronic paper and its variants are currently being developed by a large number of companies. In this case, it appears that research preceded science fiction, although neither the product nor the application are yet commercially available.

Transparent aluminum, suggested by Star Trek is a possibility. As we explore the structure of matter, and the nature of transparency of materials, perhaps eventually we will discover a metal alloy with this property. Tokyo Institute of Technology accidently discovered a semiconductor that is transparent, so why not discover an actual metal too... (News Flash! This exists now!)

Warp drive or hyperdrive is a main stay of science fiction but there is current active theoretical work being done on it now. While the warp drive is purely theoretical, the thrust from an ion drive is quite realistic, and has recently been tested.

Fuel cells have been used by NASA since the early days of the US space program, but were never mentioned in science fiction, and are only now showing promise of becoming available commercially.

Rapid prototyping is a technology that has been around for at least 10 years, and may lead into things such as the Star Trek replicator or The Diamond Age matter compiler in another 50 years or so.

Cold fusion was purportedly discovered in the lab, but the news was leaked before it could be properly verified, and is now doomed to underground research.

Nanotechnology conceptualised by Richard P. Feynman is another current hot topic of research that has been mentioned in many stories. The carbon nanotube may be the critical material needed to create the space elevator described in Clarke's The Fountains of Paradise and Robinson's Red Mars, as soon as we can figure out how to make them long enough. Star Trek has also made multiple weak uses of nanotechnology. Also many current commercial products use the precursor to nanotechnology under the label MEMS.

The Universal Translator from Star Trek may some day soon exist! Attempts so far include the internet Babel Fish and others. To date, these make a valiant attempt to translate, but are far from perfect. The greatest failing is caused by the lack of a one to one correspondence between words in different languages. A true universal translator will need an AI behind it good enough to semantically puzzle out the languages, rather than just trying simple word and phrase recognition and translation.

 

This list is (of course) not comprehensive. I'll add to it as I find more. /msg me or add your own writeup if you think I missed some.

Of course, no list of this nature can ever be more than an abstract representation, given the astounding number of ideas that were inspired, anticipated, or outright invented by science fiction writers and the fact that SF writers tend to be part of the scientific, or at least engineering, community. Keep in mind that hard science fiction writers make their living by looking at the current state of science and technology and extrapolating from it. The best of them not only extrapolate the engineering, but take serious looks at its impact on society. The results are sometimes surprising, and often seem like sheer fantasy, which is why so many people use the term 'Science Fiction' to deride supposedly far-fetched ideas like global warming, identity theft, organ theft and extinction-level comet impacts. People who do this are never readers of hard SF - at most they may have endured a couple of Star Trek episodes or cracked open a Michael Crichton thriller during a long flight. These are often the same people who can be heard to proclaim "No one could have foreseen this", to describe catastrophic situations that finally come to pass twenty to thirty years after being described in science fiction books.

The writers, however, usually have a very good knowledge of technology and science - so good that they are often the only people qualified to comment on new developments (William Gibson is probably getting good and tired of responding to interviewers' questions on how he feels about the development of the World Wide Web). These writers are, quite often, engineers and scientists in their own right and have made significant contributions to their fields outside the pages of their stories - Arthur C. Clarke, for example, did invent the concept of satellites using a geosynchronous orbit, and found the exact orbit now used by most of our communications, weather and spy satellites.

Science fiction has, in the course of its history, been so entwined with actual science and technological development that it is often hard to say if a concept was invented by a scientist or an SF writer. The entire field of rocketry and space exploration has been propelled by SF just as much, if not more, than it contributed to the genre. Reusable spacecraft, satellites, lasers and gravity swingbys were all staples of SF long before they became reality. This does not necessarily mean they were first conceived in SF stories. The same can be said of almost all developments in the computer sciences - SF has been using computers practically since it was born. It has investigated every conceivable aspect of the field and made many predictions about computers. Some of these predictions came true. The vast majority of them did not.

However, it is fair to say that SF has at least driven the field of computer development with its rosy visions of future computers. By discussing the possibilities of computers that were faster, smaller and smarter than present technology allowed, SF may have given the engineers these goals. I'm sure a few engineers were convinced that ENIAC was as far as computers could go, but others were likely inspired by SF tales to continue pushing the envelope. This is, of course, pure speculation on my part. Total science fiction.

A few additions to ssd's list:

Magnetic Levitation ("maglev" for short, used on monorails and some rapid trains) - invented by Jonathan Swift in "Gulliver's Travels".

Organ Transplants - Mary Shelley, "Frankenstein".

Organ Theft - Larry Niven, sometime in the Sixties.

Teleportation - currently being researched as an offshoot of quantum mechanics, this is such an old idea in SF that I have no idea who came up with it first. Star Trek, of course, makes wide use of its "transporters", but the best account of teleportation's real-world effects has to be in Larry Niven's Known Space stories.

Digital Newspapers - another old idea, but the first use that I can remember offhand was in "2001: A Space Odyssey" (Arthur C. Clarke again)

Geosynchronous Orbit - Sir Arthur may not have invented the satellite (I'm not sure who did), but he certainly used them in his stories long before they existed and did, in fact, invent the geosynchronous orbit, AKA "The Clarke Orbit".

Walkmen - Ray Bradbury in "Fahrenheit 451", although I believe Clarke has also laid claim to this concept. I think Bradbury got there first.

Interactive Television - Ray Bradbury, "Fahrenheit 451". There is a good reason we call him "Uncle Ray". The man was not the best at inventing new technologies, but was astoundingly good at seeing the effects new technologies would have on people. He not only invented the concept of interactive TV, but immediately realised that it would be put to the most mind-numbingly mundane of uses - namely, personalizing the soap operas.

Robots - Karel Capek, "R.U.R." - 1920

Corrective eye surgery ("Lasik") - Isaac Asimov, "The Caves of Steel". Possibly even older.

Clones - another really, really old SF idea.

Remote Operation (AKA "Waldoing" or telefactoring) invented by Robert A. Heinlein in a 1942 story called "Waldo".

Global Warming - a list of the SF writers and the stories which have used this concept, recently accepted by an overwhelming majority of scientists and even more recently conceded by (some) politicians, would be far beyond the scope of this node and would probably be more suited to a doctoral dissertation or a book.

Cyborg or Human/Machine hybrid technology

    “I am Locutus; of borg.”




Perhaps one of the most famous lines in the Star Trek shows and in the sci-fi genre, the comment above portrays Captain Jean Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) of the Starship Enterprise as having been taken over by the multi-manned but single-minded collective of the borg, a race that is controlled by technology, and who’s very existence relies on that technology. The race is feared and hated throughout the Star Trek universe for the fact that it enters an area, uses it’s technology to “assimilate” or transform and take over the beings in the area, and then moves on. The Borg portray the darker side of what are potentially thought of as Cyborg technology, or Human/Machine hybrid beings.

But there are people in our very day and age that fit that definition of humans using technology to enhance ourselves. A good example of that is portrayed in an article by Janet Kornblum of USA Today, in her article titled: “Today’s Cyborgs get an Eyeful.” Where she discusses the mixed definition of what is and is not a cyborg.

    “Thad Starner is lying flat on his back on his office couch, staring at the ceiling. Don’t bother him. He’s working.”

The article starts off to describe how Thad Starner is using a set of computer imaging displays on his glasses, about the size of a chiclet, and his hand is gliding over a one-handed keyboard called a “Twiddler.” His glasses contain a “MicroOptical” display in which he can see words, or pictures, or whatever else you might see on a computer screen.

Starner is an assistant prof. of computer science at The Georgia Institute of Technology, and is just about the closest as anyone can be to being a cyborg, which stands for “Cybernetic Organism,” without actually being one. He’s not exactly like the Borg of Star Trek fame- humanoids who get assimilated into a giant collective and are controlled through mechanical implants. But the few people who consider themselves to be actual cyborgs, aren’t that far away from it.

Starner would consider himself more to be “extremely wired.” The people who fit that description often have the technology on them almost constantly. They wear it everywhere; sewn into their clothes, or mounted onto their eyeglasses- sometimes nearly invisibly. They use these machines to constantly integrate the virtual, with the real. While people like Starner, and Steve Mann, who pioneered cyborg technology (and has been wearing it for 22 years, now at the age of 40) are talking to you, they may also be answering mail, or finding information on the world-wide-web, or even altering their perceptions of their surroundings.

The device he uses, known as an EyeTap device, causes the rays of eyeward-bound light to be replaced with rays of synthetic light having the same characteristics. What does this do? Essentially he can send the image of his garden to his eye, and see a garden, whereas others see what is actually there. (But no need to worry- he’d still see an oncoming car.)

The conclusion? As Janet Kornblum puts it-

    "people who consider themselves cyborgs are quick to point out that a lot of us regular folks are dancing on the edges, if not tumbling to the center, of borgdom. Wearable computers are being deployed everywhere from the military to the assembly line. Thousands of people depend on electronic pacemakers and cochlear implants, among the computerized health equipment. And an increasing number consider the addition of cell phones, pagers, and PDA’s as part of daily dress.”

Overall the effect of these cyborg implants and additions to humans is merely to help us, or hurt us, depending on the use. The view that each man takes is his own unto himself, but the technology has great capabilities; put to the right uses it could make any number of great things possible. Look at The Six Million Dollar Man and the Bionic Woman. They show the great potential of this technology. The effects differ by the use, but can potentially increase our lifespan (or decrease it in the case of The Terminator) and they can help us live a better, healthier life.


Actually, in truth this technology, which I talked about above, is more likely inspired by science fiction; inspired by old stories; inspired by the tale of Daedelus and Icarus. (See also The Flight of Icarus) Thanks to Psuedo_Intellectual for pointing that out to me.


Sources


  • "Legacy Systems and Functional Cyborgization of Humans"

    Chrislenko, Alexander 1995- (As soon as I find the website, I will put it up.)
  • "Todays Cyborgs get an Eyeful"

    Kornblum, Janet USA Today

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