Science Fiction to Science Fact: How the Past is Predicting the Future. #57 #cong16

By Niall McCormick.

Science Fiction – two strange words that often times mean different things to different people. To some it is a bit of an oxymoron, the idea that something as true as science could be so closely linked to fiction. To many, science fiction evokes images of Star Trek, iRobot, Jules Verne or The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Throughout history, we see countless examples of what could be described as science fiction. Dreamers, the world over, imagining technological and scientific miracles that may come to pass at some point in the future. I’m sure many of these dreamers who created these wonderful ideas in their minds were considered eccentric…at best. I wonder, if their critics could see some of these dreams become reality, what would they say?

The Internet of Things, or IoT is the tech buzzword of the day. This technology, built on the incredible machine that we call the internet, is set to revolutionize the way the world works and communicates. However, the concept of IoT actually predates the invention of the internet itself. In 1932, kinesiologist Jay B. Nash wrote:

“Within our grasp is the leisure of the Greek citizen, made possible by our mechanical slaves, which far outnumber his twelve to fifteen per free man... As we step into a room, at the touch of a button a dozen light our way. Another slave sits twenty-four hours a day at our thermostat, regulating the heat of our home..."

Nash envisioned a world of the sedentary human. A world of automation, of convenience and such complexity that I’m sure many at the time would truly struggle to understand how a world like that could possibly function. And yet here we are. We now live in an age where anyone with basic programming skills and some disposable income can automate much of the mundane tasks that fill our world; shopping, house work, even turning off the lights at night.

This is not an isolated case. A quick Google search will throw up tens of thousands of results – DaVinci, Tesla, Verne, Ronalds, Heron of Greece, Babbage, Plato and countless others. Each of these imagined, and in some cases attempted to create, revolutionary machines or concepts. Concepts that would not be scientifically proven or “invented” for perhaps thousands of years.  Laser guns, robots that learn, space travel, underwater travel, voice control, video calls, steam engines, the list of these concepts is endless.

Heron of Greece suggested the use of steam power in the year 50BC. The suggestion never gained traction as people were fearful that it could cause the loss of unemployment – that’s funny… aren’t there are similar fears today surrounding robotics and automation? Further research will show that this technology was known to the Chinese as early as 800BC. And then? Nothing… for almost two thousand years after Heron’s suggestion, the concept remained just that. A concept, a dream, a vision. The dream only became a reality in 1698 with Thomas Savery’s steam powered pump. 

So that begs the question, what is in store for our future? What of the countless other dreams that science has yet to make a reality? Will we see teleportation in the not too distant future? What about hyperdrive for our spacecraft? An engine that runs on pure water and replaces oil? Will humans and machines join forces to create super beings or will the countless prophecies of films throughout the ages ring true that spell the end of the world as we know it?

We humans are curious beings. We strive to constantly ask questions of the world. Science usually begs the question; why? Why does this happen? Engineering often asks; how? How can we make this happen? I think the key to unlocking the secrets of science fiction lies in these two questions. A fine balance of science and engineering has been shown to lead to some of the greatest technological advancements that the world has ever seen. I believe that some of the greatest technological achievements that are yet to come can probably be found in your favourite episode of Star Trek, your favourite Jules Verne book, or indeed Star Wars: Rogue One. We just need someone to figure out the why, and the how. 



© Eoin Kennedy 2017 eoin at congregation dot ie