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Science Fiction’s Strange Relationship With Reality

Can it predict the future of technology and society?

14Jan

Science fiction has a long and glorious history of predicting world events, new technologies, and the way human nature and society will change.

In Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, for example, he portrayed a society descending into hedonistic nihilism, with people popping antidepressants like M&Ms - a prediction which many would argue has come true. Friedrich Nietzche similarly wrote in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, back in 1883, of a population that had been consumed by the desire for pleasure and comfort at the expense of all else.

Authors have also managed to predict world events with terrifying accuracy. Frank Herbert’s Dune famously predicted the battle for the planet’s resources, as well as the environmental disasters that most scientists believe to be a case of not ‘if’ but ‘when’.

Science fiction has, however, arguably been at its most accurate when looking forward at the evolution of technology. Jules Verne’s Paris in the Twentieth Century, for example, infamously predicted the electric submarine 90 years before its invention, while H. G. Wells' predicted the atomic bomb in The World Set Free.

The relationship between science fiction and reality is a curious one. In many ways, the predictions made in science fiction become self-fulfilling. People see a product in a movie or a book, they like it, and demand grows among enthusiastic technologists, leading someone to invent it. There is an almost reciprocal relationship, with fantasy and reality feeding off one another. Author Jack Womack even went as far as to suggest that William Gibson's vision of cyberspace in Necromancer may have steered the Internet in the direction that it has gone, while many believe that Wells’ prediction of the atomic bomb actually inspired Dr. Leo Szilard, the man who split the atom, to use nuclear technology for destructive purposes.

Technology in science fiction is created primarily for two reasons - to serve a function in the new world that the author has created, or because the author sees current technology evolving in that fashion, often with society evolving too to suit this technology. So it is logical in some ways that those science fiction works that most accurately predicted how the society we live in functions are going to be the most accurate when it comes to predicting the technology that we have.

Steven Spielberg’s 2002 movie Minority Report, based on the Phillip K Dick short story, has proven to be among the most prescient in predicting technology that is now in the early stages of development. Its central concept of predictive law enforcement is already proving correct, as police departments turn to data analytics to find patterns in criminal activity that could help them foresee crimes before they occur. Minority Report also included adverts that would appear for different individuals based on information about them, something that is already commonplace online, and which is now making its way into shops. Tesco is one of a number of retailers to have installed scanners in its stores that read customer’s faces to determine their gender, and target adverts at them accordingly.

Looking forward, we are seeing a number of technologies once believed to be pie in the sky becoming reality. One of the hoary cliches of the science fiction genre is that of the robot gone mad and destroying the earth. Hal 9000, the robot in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, is a robotic system that people live inside. According to Ronald Arkin, director of the Mobile Robotics Lab, Georgia Tech: ‘Current research agendas, in human-robot interaction, task planning, command and control, etc., could conceivably lead to such an intelligent system’. Another common element of the genre is telepathy, which many are starting to envisage coming to pass in the form of an internet built into the brain. According to Dr. Michio Kaku, professor of theoretical physics at the City University of New York and author of The Future of the Mind’: ‘In the next 10 years, we will see the gradual transition from an Internet to a brain-net, in which thoughts, emotions, feelings, and memories might be transmitted instantly across the planet.’

As with everything in science fiction, the consequences of these technologies tends to be negative. This probably shouldn’t serve as too much of a warning, as films and books would likely be quite boring if everything worked out for the best, but their predictions should never be discounted. 

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