How Science Fiction Has Helped Scientists Imagine and Create Future Tech !

If ‘necessity’ is the mother of invention, ‘Imagination’ at the very least has to be the father. After all, we may not realise it, but what we have today in terms of technology would have been science fiction for our grandparents’ generation.

For instance, nowadays, when people set out to purchase their dream home, builders present them with a vague notion of how that place would look like through demo flats or static 3D/2D imaging of the same. A student who desires to study ancient Egypt has to be content with boring text and monotonous images that are far from real. Shopaholics who wish to buy clothes/ cool accessories online end up nursing grudges against unsatisfactory products due to often misleading images completely contradictory to how they perceived it to be.

It is amazing how seemingly crazy ideas end up becoming actual inventions and this process is happening even as I write this column. Being an avid reader, I have always been captivated by the way popular arts have ended up influencing science and shaping our future. What set my thoughts in this direction? Well, I just went through a four year old video of legendary rapper Tupac Shakur performing with Snoop Dog at the Coachella music festival. Just to let you know, Tupac was dead at the time of the video, and it was his hologram performing.

A few decades ago, I am sure no one would have even believed such a thing to be possible. Why, back in 1977, when the first Star Wars movie came out, it literally introduced the concept of holograms to the masses. I must admit, I was one among many in my generation to be mesmerised by the magical beam of light that introduced Luke Skywalker to Princess Leia. However, as much as I would have liked for such a technology to be present, I would have never believed it really possible. It was simply cool science fiction at that point.

While we are not yet beaming ourselves wherever we feel like, holograms have become much more than a geek’s fantasy. They have become so commonplace that, you and I hardly raise an eyebrow upon seeing one. Yet, the Tupac video set me thinking about how generations of passionate inventors have pulled off something so close to magic, that, it can only be the former that inspired them.

Contrary to what many people feel, art and science have always had a symbiotic relationship to the extent where, art ends up inspiring as well as explaining science. Some of the most wonderful technologies of our time have been born from popular science fiction, both, literature as well as cinema.

Science fiction has often set the roadmap for discovery and invention by describing a future that has seemed both achievable and impossible at the same time. Writers have long teased scientists into accepting challenges and building the next generation tech. Thanks to companies like Magic Leap and, Microsoft with its Holo-Lens project, we can now unleash our inner Iron Man! The mad geniuses behind these initiatives have ensured that, Augmented Reality (AR) tech has become far more than being a mere figment of movie special effects. So, while the red suit might be some time away, the glowing screens appearing out of nowhere are no longer impossible.

To draw another example from Star Wars itself, ever heard of Aerofex? It is a California based start-up that is on its way to give us our very own ‘Speeders’. The company has already developed a vehicle called Aero-X, a hovercraft with the manoeuvrability of a bike and, with an ability to go up to 10 feet in the air. This indirectly makes Star Wars an inspiration for the next revolution in our mode of travel. The Force is indeed with us!

Talking about the relationship between science fiction and actual science, consider how Astrophysicist Kip Thorne ended up with the perfect simulation of a black hole while helping out Director Christopher Nolan with his Space saga ‘Interstellar’. Last heard, there are two papers being presented basis Kip’s findings while working on the film!

Last but not the least, allow me to delve deeper into history and share that, one of the very first, near accurate descriptions of Virtual Reality or VR can be found in Stanley G Weinbaum’s ‘Pygmalion’s Spectacles’, a science fiction story published in 1930. While Mr. Weinbaum’s story focused on the seemingly hopeless love story between the protagonist and his muse in the virtual world, it also ended up describing just how much of a sensory experience VR could be.

Not many know of this story perhaps, but that does not mean that tech leaders of today have given up on the power of literary imagination. As per a report in the New York Times, Oculus, the face of everything VR, hands out a copy of the sci-fi novel, ‘Ready Player One’ to every fresh hire. Magic Leap, the super secretive AR (Augmented Reality) start-up, has Lord of The Rings Director, Peter Jackson as a Board Member. The idea therefore, is to have creative minds around who can not only predict the next big technological marvel but also determine potential uses of it.

I must say the collaboration seems to be working. Take for example the blog written Terry Myerson (Executive V.P. Windows and Devices Group) on June 1st, 2016. As he writes about the Windows Holographic platform and the possibilities of ‘Mixed Reality’, he uses expressions like, ‘teleport to your next meeting’. Given the pace at which tech giants like Microsoft, Google etc are working to make these fantasies turn into reality, the day of actual teleportation might not be very far away. I have always been a big Doc Emmett Brown fan circa ‘Back To The Future Days’ and, I soon see myself making use of one of the movie’s most popular dialogues which is, “Where we are going we don’t need roads!”

As featured on TechStory