Who invents the future?
So much of the world in which we now live was science-fiction just a few years ago. I mean that quite literally.
Science-fiction writers tend to deny trying to actively predict the future. “You can’t really predict the future. All you can do is invent it,” wrote science-fiction author and editor Frederik Pohl. And there’s a lot of truth in that. For their part, writers may have a particular perspective, sometimes looking at social ramifications of technology rather than the technology itself, but their ideas give the technologists an image of things to come.
American inventor Simon Lake, for example, was so intrigued by the notion of undersea travel after reading Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea in 1870 that he went on to design the modern submarine.
In 1942, Robert Heinlein wrote a short story about a physically handicapped inventor, Waldo F. Jones, who created a remotely operated mechanical hand. Manipulator arms developed for the nuclear industry a few years later were called “waldoes” in recognition of Heinlein’s idea. They still are.
But what fascinates me most is the synergistic process, this fascinating dialectic between technologists and literary visionaries. Wernher Von Braun, for example, who developed the V2 rocket for Nazi Germany during The Second World War, and went on to design NASA spacecraft, has written about being inspired by the rockets in Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon serials. In turn, Von Braun’s rocket designs were themselves popularized in 1950’s films, books and magazines.
Many of today’s devices were clearly inspired by SF television shows of the 1960’s and 1970’s, like Star Trek and The Six Million Dollar Man. Martin Cooper, chief engineer at Motorola, has cited the voice recognition capability of the Star Trek communicator as an inspiration. “Suddenly, there was Captain Kirk talking on his communicator; talking with no dialing. That was not fantasy to us,” Cooper says, “that was an objective.”
Perhaps the most influential science-fiction work of recent times is the 2002 film Minority Report, based on a science fiction short story by Philip K. Dick. It’s a great thriller, but a lot of companies were inspired by the film’s depiction of personalized advertising, such as videos that identified the Tom Cruise character by name, and offered information based on data about him.
Idomoo, a Tel Aviv-based company, is already offering something remarkably similar, personalized videos which can be produced en masse, for clients. Their videos can address the recipient by name, and be individualized with personal and relevant data about a client. Undoubtedly, other technologies inspired by the film are coming soon.
If anyone doubts the power of words, they should consider just a few of science-fiction’s brainchilds. And if you’re a Silicon Wadi technologist hoping to create the next big thing, consider looking for inspiration at the science-fiction section of your local library or bookstore.
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