Oct
2009

“Back To The Future”

The Internet was born out of great intentions. The idea was to share information in a fast way to save time and money. What no one had the foresight to factor in was the human element.

The human element is unpredictable. Unlike computers, humans have ideas, emotions, and goals. There is great good in humans, but also a considerable amount of evil. History has taught us that with any new advancement in technology humans have always found a way to abuse it. So as we move into an amazing future of unpredictable new technology, how can we prepare ourselves to not make mistakes that can hurt society, and damage our world? The answer is in science fiction.

Poet George Santayana once wrote, “Those who cannot learn from the past, are condemned to repeat it.” So how can we learn from our past as we look to the future of technology? In a sense we already know the future. All we have to do is look to our past to see it. Our favorite TV shows, movies, and books are the keys. Our collective past has always found great entertainment in the realm of science fiction. Many of today’s astronauts chose their career paths after watching “Star Trek as kids.

Our history of science fiction is both our future and our past. As silly as it may sound, within our science fiction; we can learn our greatest lessons.

For example, we all know those little Bluetooth devices many people wear use for their cell phones? What if those devices could connect to your brain, and download information for your day? Sound impossible? Well here is an example of what I mean:

The clip is from television’s longest-running science fiction show, “Doctor Who.” Since the beginning of this show back in November of 1963, this show has asked its viewers to dream the impossible dream; humans being whisked away to travel through time and space with an alien known only as ‘The Doctor,’ in a rickety old police box called a TARDIS (which stands for Time And Relative Dimensions In Space). Here, take a quick look:

Now, you might stop and laugh, and your initial thought may be that I have lost you, but stay with me. Before I launch off into a lecture about how great both the old and new “Doctor Who” episodes are, consider a simple, more basic idea. Yes, travel in time and space, may be out of our reach, but what if we can take a small space and make it bigger on the inside? What about the dimensions? What if we could take a cramped little blue box, and make it gigantic on the inside?

As absurd as the idea could seem, what if the Fab Lab at M.I.T. could figure it out? If anyone can, I think the think tank at the Fab Lab could do it. Under their sales pitch of any idea is possible, why not make something bigger on the inside? Just imagine how this would solve so many of our worlds’ problems. Now obviously one could argue we have too much stuff as it is in this country, but just how amazing would it be to have an entire house, full of stuff, fit into a tiny little box? You may not want a little box like me, but the ideas could be endless.

To slightly flex my geek muscle for just a moment, The Doctor’s TARDIS has something called a “chameleon” circuit. In the show, this circuit is broken, but when it’s working right the TARDIS transforms to blend in with the area they land in. It takes into account the time around it and turns into something that makes sense for the landscape. Now how about that? How handy would that be too? Sick of how old- looking your car is? Well, activate the chameleon circuit and “pop” you have a new-looking car (but sadly with all the same old problems).

I dare say that even some of the things they dreamt up, on the show, in the 60’s and 70’s are even possible today. Take for example, The Sonic Screwdriver:

The Sonic Screwdriver has been with The Doctor since the early 70’s. While it has taken multiple shapes over the years, one thing has stayed the same: it’s a screwdriver with multiple functions. Nowadays you have to look high and low to find just a plain simple screwdriver. Most modern screwdrivers have multiple functions or the very least different heads. So there you have it: one incredibly simple way Doctor Who has predicted a piece of technology we have right now.

It goes way beyond that though; think of all the technology we use everyday. How many of those devices have multiple functions? A great majority of them; Cell phones, MP3 players, cameras, printers, copy machines, the list can go on and on.

Science fiction doesn’t just help with the development of our future, it also influences where we will go. So many of our great thinkers were influenced from the science fiction they loved as kids. Here is a great example called “How William Shatner Changed The World:”

Maybe it’s strange, but it’s definitely true. Some of the most brilliant minds that attend the TED conference every year were once little children sitting at home watching shows like “Doctor Who” and “Star Trek,” and dreaming of a world where the things they saw on TV could actually exist. Would we have nearly half of the technology we have today if it weren’t for Star Trek?

Think back to the opening of each episode of Star Trek; “Captain’s log, star date…” does that sound familiar? It should because it’s a podcast. If it were written down, then it would have been a blog.

Remember the phaser on Star Trek, so often set to “Stun?” Well, now we have stun guns. The police try to use them more often then real guns. If it weren’t for Star Trek we might never have lived through; “Don’t Tase me dude.”

Obviously not society’s most dignified moment, but certainly one many of us remember. Now the most obvious of all devices we use today is the cell phone, most of which have a push to talk feature. This resembles the communication device they would use on the show. Maybe that was also the first use of the speakerphone.

How about when the captain would say “plot a course” and the navigator would program in their destination. Well, today we have GPS devices for our cars. We can plot our own destinations for anywhere we want to go.

I could spend a career going through popular TV shows in modern history and showcasing where some of today’s technology may have gotten their inspiration. From “The Jetsons,” to “Quantum Leap,” we have been raised on dreaming up ideas for the future. All of our wants and desires have been established through our science fiction pop culture. I never would have wanted an iPhone if it weren’t for the device Al would use on Quantum Leap.

On the show the device was a remote to a super computer called “Ziggy.” Al would use it to download information to advise Sam on what happened in the timeline. He could call back to the base, compute calculations, and so many other functions. This was when the show was supposed to be based in 1998.

Again, I could go on endlessly about how science fiction has influenced the technology we currently have, but the bottom line is to learn from the mistakes laid out for us in our history of science fiction

I will conclude on this thought. In the movie “The Invention of Lying,”

The characters live in a bland world where there is no creativity. There are no far-fetched ideas, just what is practical. Ricky Gervais explains that in order to be creative, we must be able to allow our minds to wander off into a world where we can dream of a better life and leave reality behind. It’s that dreaming of better things that leads us to create science fiction. Then the inspiration of science fiction allows us to wonder if such things are possible, then it’s on to create such impossible things.

The potential of technology is truly endless. We will never know how far we can push the world unless we try. With each idea we put out there, someone else might just pick up on it and take the next step.