When viewed through an engineering lens, science fiction deals in dubious possibilities that become conceivable when reason and know-how are applied. Science fiction emboldens the aspirations of innovators and of dreamers, and it drives the pursuit of tools that will reach the far ends of the world and beyond.
Science fiction has been coined “the literature of ideas” because it feeds the process of ideating the future. It does not predict it, however. It simply contemplates it.
Last year, two professors at the famed MIT Media Lab, who believe that current students don’t read as much science fiction as they did in the past and, therefore, have lost some of the benefits that come from it, began teaching a course called “Science Fiction to Science Fabrication.” The focus was on developing physical prototypes and code-based interpretations of technology based on classic science fiction—films, books, television, and even comics. Among other selections, the class studied urban surveillance as depicted in DC Comics’ late-1990s Transmetropolitan and also the 1974 short story, “The Day Before the Revolution,” which tackled aging, death and grief, and even sexual conduct.
As groundbreaking as it was, there are many examples of technology imitating science fiction outside of the Media Lab. In his 1865 novel, From the Earth to the Moon, for example, Jules Verne proposed the notion of light-propelled spaceships. Not surprisingly, technologists today are actively working on solar sails. If you’re a fan of Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 epic science fiction film 2001: A Space Odyssey, you felt a tinge of nostalgia when a robotic probe launched by the European Space Agency’s mission control in Germany landed on a comet last November. Consider also the symbiosis of science fiction and IBM’s recent $3 billion R&D investment in technologies like non-silicone computer chips, quantum computing research, and computers that mimic the cognitive function of the human brain.
At the rapid rate of technology innovation, some of what is considered science fiction today will become reality in the next 50 years. Soon enough, replacement organs could grow in labs, and drones might fly over our cities and towns delivering packages. To many of us, the prospect of these types of emerging technologies sounds exciting, but a recent study by the Pew Research Center shows that even while recognizing the benefits of sci-fi technologies, many in the United States do not embrace these advances.
The study shows that 59 percent of Americans are optimistic that scientific and technological changes will improve quality of life, but 30 percent are afraid the changes will make life worse. In the findings, 81 percent of respondents think that it will be possible to grow organs in labs, and 51 percent think computers will be able to create artwork just as well as humans. But fewer than 40 percent expect that teleportation will be possible in the next 50 years and only 33 percent say they expect that humans will be colonizing other planets.
In this month’s cover story, associate editor Alan Brown and contributor Brittany Logan talk with several innovators who tell us how science fiction informed their work. For them, the future represents an open canvas where they can paint their vision of reality inspired by the unrestraint of fiction.