Science Fiction Technology I’m Ready For

Science fiction has long been a place of inspiration for new technologies. Our rockets, our satellites, iPads, and Smartphones were all once the imaginings of science fiction. But it’s not all here yet. There are many technologies from science fiction not yet realised, but I want them, and I want them now.

The first technology I want is the Internet. But we have the Internet you say. No, I want the Internet as described by William Gibson in Neuromancer (1984).

Cover of Neuromancer (1984) by William Gibson Image source: Ace Science Fiction
Cover of Neuromancer (1984) by William Gibson
Image source: Ace Science Fiction

The Matrix, cyberspace. I want to be able to ‘jack-in’ and experience another reality. One that I help create, or destroy, as the case may be.

I was a young teen when Neuromancer was first published and as any card carrying nerd/geek I was well versed in computers and technology. Reading Neuromancer was like a revelation. Computers as gateways to new worlds.

Gibson gave us a view of a dystopian future where megacorporations ran the world and if you wanted to get by you had to be wired up or jacked in. I dreamt of having my own implants surgically grafted to my body so I could dive into the Matrix of the Sprawl trilogy.

While we do have an Internet it is by no means the immersive and tactile world as described in Neuromancer and subsequent books. Gibson’s Matrix is too firmly imprinted upon my mind to ever give up the image of that version of the Internet.

The next technology I want right now is not really a technology at all. Frank Herbert gave us Dune in 1965 and with it a universe that gave rise to people that could out perform even our most powerful computer. Mentats.

If you’ve not read Dune (what are you doing here, go read it now) a Mentat’s are people that developed after the Butlerian Jihad when all thinking machines were destroyed and an edict against them was instituted.

First edition cover of Dune by Frank Herbert Image source: Chilton Books
First edition cover of Dune by Frank Herbert
Image source: Chilton Books

Trained from birth, a Mentat’s mind is honed and developed until their thinking processes far surpass anything we might imagine. Young Paul Atreides has been so trained and his father, Leto, reveals what has been done to him, explaining that there comes a time when the trainee must made aware of what is happening and must decide whether or not to continue the training. Pretty heavy stuff.

Right now computers are pretty dumb. Garbage in garbage out. They can mimic thinking in very limited cases such as playing chess, but that isn’t really thought. Rather than expending the effort to develop artificial intelligence, why not put that effort into developing human intelligence. The reason for this is that while artificial intelligence may reason well enough, it will never be able to make the kind of intuitive leaps of imagination that provide for truly spectacular results.

We have at our fingertips vast quantities of information. I think it’s time we started working towards developing human minds so that they can break through the barriers of physics, chemistry, medicine, and any other problem we have.

The idea of a Moonbase or lunar colony has long been a prominent feature of science fiction. I love some of the old drawings from periodicals such as Popular Mechanics showing people living and working on the Moon, or even further. One of my favourite visions of a Moonbase was from the Gerry Anderson show Space: 1999 (1975-1977).

Space: 1999 season one title capture. Image source: Wikipedia
Space: 1999 season one title capture.
Image source: Wikipedia

For two short seasons we followed the adventures of the inhabitants of Moonbase Alpha. For those of you that have never seen the show, the moon was sent hurtling through space after a massive explosion ripped the moon from its orbit around the Earth. Maybe not the most plausible of ideas, but it was pretty exciting.

But more than the plot I remember the views of people (and aliens) living and working on a base on the moon. It was thrilling and compelling. And with the Space Shuttle Enterprise being tested around this time, to my young mind it seemed as if humanity was truly working towards these things. A moon base was going to be a reality.

Guess what. It’s 2013, almost 2014, and there’s still no moon base. I mean really, why am I not writing this from a cosy cubicle on the moon sipping Tang from a squeeze bottle and dining on food tablets. It almost feels as if all those science fiction writers lied to me. Where’s my moon base? I’m disappointed to say the least.

Science fiction is littered with robots and androids. From R. Daneel Olivaw of Isaac Asimov’s Robot series to Star Trek: The Next Generation’s Data, or the Artificial Persons of the Alien films, we see robots interacting with humans. Sometimes for the good of the humans and sometimes to their detriment. Whether your tastes run to the mechanical man or the near human android I’m sure I’m not alone in wanting a robot companion.

Marvin the Paranoid Android from the BBC series The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy television series. (© Kevin Jon Davies)
Marvin the Paranoid Android from the BBC series The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy television series. (© Kevin Jon Davies)

My favourite definition of a robot comes from Douglas Adams’ great The Hitchhicker’s Guide to the Galaxy (I want one of those also):

“The Encyclopaedia Galactica defines a robot as a mechanical apparatus designed to do the work of a man. The marketing division of Sirius Cybernetics Corporation defines a robot as ‘Your Plastic Pal Who’s Fun To Be With’.” – Douglas Adams, The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy.

We see robots in industrial use every day, but I want more than that, I’m more interested a trusted companion than a mere tool. Science fiction has built up the image of robots being more than dumb machines and tools, but of entities capable of bringing out the best in humans. They do so because they lack the ability to feel, and in turn we empathise for them and with them. I believe that a personal robot would be a truly great thing and I’m ready for it.

FTL (Faster Than Light) space travel, time travel (TARDIS please), and many other ideas from the pages and screens of science fiction are all things we may come to take for granted at some future date, but there are things within our grasp that I want now and am ready to experience. One of the great things about science fiction is the way it generates new and interesting ideas, and how these ideas might affect our lives in the future.

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