Science Fiction to Science Fact
Technology: Self-driving cars.
As seen in: Demolition Man; Minority Report; Total Recall.
The rationale: Film has dreamt of this for years, but actually this technology is very, very close, if not actually here. You might even have seen it, depending on where in the world you live. Several cities in the USA and UK are in the early stages of trialling driverless cars, and it seems likely that they will become more and more common over the next decade or so. The potential benefits are enormous - from helping people who are usually unable to drive (due to visual problems or epilepsy, for example) to simply meaning a night out doesn’t require a designated driver, and a hundred things in between.
When we might see it: Present-2030.
Technology: Artificial intelligence.
As seen in: Terminator, A.I. , Wargames, Ex Machina, 2001, Flight of the Conchords*.
The rationale: Another central idea of science fiction - usually in the form of a psychopathic machine intelligence hell-bent on destroying or subjugating humanity, though occasionally nice. In fact, AI of some degree is all around us. True, Siri probably won’t send a horde of lethal death-bots to pre-emptively stop us from smashing our I-whatevers, but it is a form of AI. The real question is when AI might outstrip human intelligence, and what will happen when it does. As intelligence is actually a somewhat tricky thing to define, and has lots of dimensions to it, this in itself is problematic question. Lots of real-world work is trying to tackle the problem of AI in many different directions, from attempts to “evolve” AI, to trying to reverse-engineer a brain within a computer (the Blue Brain Project is an especially interesting and staggeringly ambitious example). One interesting thing is that as soon as a “strong” AI is produced, it is possible that the process will become exponentially swifter and more powerful, as these minds go on to make even more intelligent minds, and so on. And as to what will happen next - dystopia, utopia, a translocation of human intellect into a sort of computerised descendent of us - well, no one knows…but at least the movies can hazard a guess.
When we might see it: Predictions vary, but strong AI is certainly unlikely in the first half of this century.
As seen in: Star Trek: First Contact ; I, Robot; Cowboy Beepbop
The rationale: This favourite has been knocking around for a while, providing a nasty weapon for the bad guys to brandish, or a miraculous tech blessing that can help humanity with all our woes. In fact, the range of uses to which a swarm of microscopically small, dextrous robots could be put is huge; and like any technology, it is double-edged. Actually, in a small way (pun not intended) we are starting to see some genuine advances in various forms of nanotech. The medical applications are enormous, and while we are still a long way off having a horde of tiny bots scrape the gunk out of an artery or supercharge our neurones, relatively simple wonders are already being achieved. For example, experiments have been performed where blood has actually been cleaned of bacteria by tagging the bugs with iron, then simply scooping them out magnetically.
When we might see it: 2030.
Technology: Terraforrming other worlds.
As seen in: Total Recall; Star Trek 2; Aliens; Serenity.
The rationale: While it may transpire that the Milky Way is replete with planets capable of sustaining (human) life, given that it would take over four years just to get to the closest star even if we could travel at the speed of light, it might be better to set our eyes on something a bit closer, if us humans are ever to colonise another world. The problem is, none of the other planets (or moons) in our solar systems seem especially friendly to us right now. They are too hot, too cold, too acidic, too dry, or just too unpleasant generally to be even remotely appealing. While there is an argument to be made that we should probably sort out all the ghastly things we’ve been doing to our own planet before mucking up any of the others, there is something appealing about the sheer audacity of changing the whole atmosphere and structure of a world to our specifications. Actually, scientists have been saying terraforming might be theoretically possible for years. Mars and Venus are particularly juicy targets, though the outlay would be in the hundreds of billions of dollars, the specifics would be hugely challenging to work out, a truly global effort would be required, and the whole thing might not work, anyway. Still, it’s nice to dream, right?
When we might see it: 2150 (and even that would be a surprise!)
Of course, there are a million other new technologies that have been imagined by science fiction, and any number of those might well make an appearance in the real world some time soon. Why not head over to the forums, and share your ideas about what science fiction might soon be science fact?
*: OK, so this is television, not film. But still, those robots look pretty impressive, right?
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