Sci-fi prophets of the past predicted a future we now explore.
By Walton R. Collins ’51
My favorite postmodern media moment comes exactly 57½ minutes into Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. Flung back from the 23rd century into the late 20th (never mind how), the Enterprise crew is on a mission to save planet Earth by saving the whales. Scotty, the spaceship’s engineer whose specialty is casually working technological miracles, finds himself in front of a PC in contemporary San Francisco.
“Computer,” he purrs, employing the command that primes 23rd century computers to do a job. There’s no response.
Scotty breaks into an oh-shucks grin, realizes he’s dealing with primitive technology and brandishes the mouse microphone-style. “Computer,” he repeats. No response.
Finally, he begins using the keyboard. “Keyboard,” he muses, “how quaint.”
Audiences respond to that scene with laughter. For once, we naïve members of a pre-warp civilization are the experts. We know something the future-savvy visitor doesn’t.
Science fiction appeals to its fans for many reasons; one is to sneak a peek into the technological future. But something odd has happened in the last five or six decades: In many ways, the future has arrived.
Several staples of science fiction — computer voice recognition, cloning, retinal scanning, artificial intelligence robots, multiple-language translation devices, space travel — now are ho-hum topics in the daily newspaper or scientific journals. Who needs escape literature when there’s all that cool stuff at Best Buy?
Consider Star Trek: Some of the “futuristic” props from the original series (1966-1969) have now rematerialized as part of everyday life, like the data disks that resembled nothing so much as the 3.5-inch floppies that wouldn’t be invented for another 20 years, and those flip-top communicators that look uncannily like the cell phone I carry.
The future envisioned in science fiction is lapping the present in other ways as well. Take robots.
Robots Among Us
“Gladia was asleep and the house was dark — by human standards. It was alive, however, with motion and action, for there was much for the robots to do — and they could do it by infrared. The establishment had to be put into order after the inevitable disordering effects of a day’s activity. Supplies had to be brought in, rubbish had to be disposed of, objects had to be cleaned or polished or stored, appliances had to be checked, and, always, there was guard duty. There were no locks on any doors; there did not have to be. . . . Every establishment and every human being were, at all times, guarded by robots.” — from Robots and Empire, by Isaac Asimov (1985).
Before there were R2D2 and C3PO, there was Asimov. Robots are hallmarks of his stories throughout his career, their interactions with humans governed by Asimov’s own Laws of Robotics. (Law #1: “A robot may not injure a human being, or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.”) The prolific storyteller held no patent on the robot theme, of course; robots have fascinated science fiction writers for more than half a century. When SF moved from magazines with lurid covers onto TV and film screens, robots dutifully followed — the comic robotic duo in Star Wars, for example, and the android Data in Star Trek: The Next Generation.
These days, industrial robots perform a variety of repetitive or hazardous or delicate tasks better suited for machines than distractible humans. Robots were used to remove radioactive sludge from Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. During last fall’s anthrax scare, a robot was employed to open some infected mail in the nation’s capital. Even in medicine, robotic devices are now “assisting” in some surgeries.
Humanoid robots with advanced artificial intelligence, the sort envisioned by Asimov, don’t yet stroll among us, but a two-legged walking robot named Asimo has been fashioned by Honda, and a Japanese research group has produced an advanced model named Morph. Researchers in Australia recently announced an image-sensor that promises to develop into artificial vision for robots. At a more mundane level, a British entrepreneur has created vacuum cleaners that decide what to clean and when, and scoot deftly around obstacles.
Computerized “smart homes,” though still chiefly the stuff of Sunday magazine stories, are anything but a new idea, and only the cost of retrofitting keeps them from being more abundant. In a poignant post-nuclear-holocaust story written in 1950, Ray Bradbury described a smart house that went through its daily routine in a world scoured of human life:
“In the living room the voice-clock sang, Tick-tock, seven o’clock, time to get up, time to get up, seven o’clock! . . . The morning house lay empty. . . . ‘Today is August 4, 2026,’ said a second voice from the kitchen ceiling. . . . ‘Today is Mr. Featherstone’s birthday.’ . . . Eight-one, tick-tock, eight-one o’clock, off to school, off to work, run, run, eight-one! . . . _Outside, the garage chimed and lifted its door. . . . After a long wait the door swung down again. . . . _Two thirty-five: _Bridge tables sprouted from patio walls. Playing cards fluttered onto pads in a shower of pips. . . . Music played. But the tables were silent and the cards untouched . . . . _Six, seven, eight o’clock: The dinner dishes manipulated like magic tricks, and in the study . . . hearth a fire now blazed up warmly. . . . Nine o’clock: A voice spoke from the study ceiling: ‘Mrs. McClellan, which poem would you like this evening?’ The house was silent. The voice said at last, ‘Since you express no preference, I shall select a poem at random. . . . Sara Teasdale.’ . . . ‘There will come soft rains and the smell of the ground,/ And swallows circling with their shimmering sound. . . .’"
The story’s title, borrowed from the poem: “There Will Come Soft Rains.”
Send in the Clones
In her 1976 post-holocaust novel, Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang, Kate Wilhelm told the story of a handful of human survivors who created clones to help preserve the species. But problems soon emerged.
“Each generation lost something; sometimes it couldn’t be regained, sometimes it couldn’t be identified immediately. . . . They were happy because they didn’t have enough imagination to look ahead.”
And:_ “‘Our goal is to remove the need for sexual reproduction. . . . If we need road builders, we can clone fifty or a hundred for this purpose, train them from infancy, and send them out to fulfill their destiny. We can clone boat builders, sailors . . . a hundred farmers to relieve those who would prefer to be working over test tubes. . . . For the first time since mankind first walked the face of the earth . . . there will be no misfits.’ ‘And no geniuses,’ a voice said.”_
The two-caste downside of a cloned world is explored in Blade Runner_, a 1982 film drawn from a 1968 novel by Philip K. Dick with the intriguing title, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?_ In Blade Runner, set in the year 2019, several replicants (human clones programmed to live for four years) escape an off-world colony and travel to Earth to find their maker. They are tracked by an ex-cop whose specialty is “retiring” (i.e., killing) clones.
These days, cloning is a hot topic, and a controversial one. Animal cloning has already included mice, pigs, goats, dairy cattle and Dolly, the pioneering sheep who developed premature arthritis at age 5 1/2. Human cloning is paused at the threshold as legislators and church leaders around the world scramble to make the procedure illegal.
They may be too late. In Italy, a pair of researchers has threatened to move ahead with human cloning for infertile couples, and in Massachusetts a cloned human embryo has been created at a private biotechnology company. The purpose of the latter experiment was aimed not at creating a human being, it’s reported, but at providing a source of stem cells used to treat disease — a notion that has compounded the ethical debate over stem cell research.
More than Human . . . or Less
He jacked in. Nothing. Gray void. No matrix, no grid. No hyperspace. The deck was gone . . . And on the far rim of consciousness, a scurrying, a fleeting expression of something rushing toward him, across leagues of black mirror. He tried to scream." — from Neuromancer, by William Gibson (1984).
A staple of modern science fiction is the cybernetically enhanced human, and Gibson set the pace. His dark novel coined the word “cyberspace” and launched the “cyberpunk” strain of science fiction by merging punk subculture and computer hackers. The protagonist in Neuromancer has sockets implanted in his head that allow him to “jack in” to cyberspace, which Gibson defined as a place of “unthinkable complexity.” When we meet the neurologically crippled character in the novel, “he still dreamed of cyberspace . . . he’d still see the matrix in his sleep, bright lattices of logic unfolding across that colorless void.”
Although jacking in hasn’t happened in our times, contemporary researchers are busy exploring the brain-computer interface. Duke University scientists have implanted electrodes into the brains of monkeys and used the animals’ brain signals to drive a robotic arm. Somewhere down the road, the scientists hope, a similar procedure might give paralyzed individuals the ability to move prosthetic limbs that are “wired” into their brains.
Another group of researchers at the University of Texas has experimented with grafting a microelectronic circuit onto a brain cell. “We can now take a semiconductor and position it where we want it on a cell,” one of them told Wired magazine. “We can interface microelectronic materials with cells.”
Ultimately, these forays raise philosophical questions about what makes humans human, a topic that fascinates some science fiction writers. Data, the android crew member on the Star Trek: The Next Generation series, is “fully functional” (and then some) physiologically and intellectually, yet he lacks the emotional resonance that defines humanity — he doesn’t get jokes and he can’t feel sad. His series-long quest is to become genuinely human — to gain, perhaps, a soul.
Who Goes There?
Characters in science fiction almost never use money or carry identification papers. In lieu of cash, they electronically withdraw credits from an account. To prove their identity, they may rely on implanted computer chips or retinal scans or various other bioelectronic devices, and they may be tracked by relentless cameras as they go about their lives. If this has a familiar ring, it’s because we are quickly catching up with such a future.
Item — Bank debit cards are moving us swiftly toward a cashless society. You can make phone calls, fill your gas tank, check out of a retail store or buy a plane ticket with a swipe of a debit card.
Item — The U.S. military is distributing “smart” I.D. cards that will give 4.3 million personnel access to buildings and computer networks. In addition to the familiar magnetic strip, these enhanced versions of debit cards contain a tiny programmable digital chip. Future generations of smart cards are likely to use embedded thumb prints, and perhaps iris scanning, rather than PIN numbers.
Item — A growing number of roadway intersections in the United States now have cameras positioned to monitor traffic, and in some cases to record the license numbers of cars that run red lights. Banks and other businesses have long used camera monitors. And then there are geopositioning satellites to track our movements.
Item — A recent Wall Street Journal article made this prediction: “Some day in the future, maybe a year from now, you may have a ‘trusted traveler’ card. Congress wants it, the airlines need it and security experts endorse it. . . . With a tool to separate the wheat from the chaff, security forces can focus scrutiny on people who could be potential threats. . . . The Air Transport Association, the airlines’ main trade group in Washington, says these government-issued cards — essentially domestic passports — would go only to people cleared by intelligence and security agencies. Names would be checked against lists from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Central Intelligence Agency and the national Immigration Service.”
In this sort of technology, science fiction showed the way. In the novel Congo, published in 1980, Michael Crichton wrote: “She stepped onto the third-floor elevator, glancing up at the scanner lens mounted over the door. The elevators . . . all were equipped with passive scanners; it was one way [to keep] track of the movements of personnel while they were in the building. . . . She emerged into a small square room with a ceiling video monitor, and faced the unmarked outer door of the Communications Control Room. She repeated ‘Karen Ross,’ and inserted her electronic identicard in the slot, resting her fingers on the metallic edge of the card so the computer could record galvanic skin potentials. After a cycling pause, the door buzzed open.”
The TV Family
Some SF extrapolations strike today’s readers as eerily prescient. Ray Bradbury, in his 1953 book-burning novel, Fahrenheit 451, anticipated the ubiquitousness of a medium that was barely out of the gate then. Wall-size television panels (compare to today’s wall-mounted, flat-panel TV screens) keep people in the 21st century mesmerized day and night. A really affluent family may have a four-wall televisor, a device, one of the novel’s characters remarks, that “tells you what to think and blasts it in. . . . It rushes you on so quickly to its own conclusions your mind hasn’t time to protest, ‘What nonsense!’”
In one of the novel’s vignettes, the wall televisor talks to a Mrs. Montag: “The converter attachment, which had cost them one hundred dollars, automatically supplied her name whenever the announcer addressed his anonymous audience, leaving a blank where the proper syllables could be filled in. A special spot-wavex-scrambler also caused his televised image, in the area immediately about his lips, to mouth the vowels and consonants beautifully. He was friend, no doubt of it, a good friend. ‘Mrs. Montag — now look right here.’”
Among other things, this presages interactive television.
Bradbury had one of science fiction’s keener eyes for future technology. Half a century ago he wrote about air-propelled trains, jet cars, thimble-size radios that fit into the ear and jet bombers that fly at 5,000 mph. He also anticipated handprint security well before Crichton:_ “He put his hand into the glove hole of his front door and let it know his touch. The front door slid open.”_
Beam Me Up, Scotty
Getting from one place to another tends to be a lot easier and faster in science fiction than it is now, but if you ponder our species’ journey from horseback travel to space flight, even improbable futures become a little less far-fetched. For long-distance travel, “warp” (i.e., faster-than-light) technology solves a lot of SF problems. For short hops — from an orbiting spacecraft to a planet’s surface, for instance — teleportation via matter-energy conversion has a lot going for it.
Neither of these technologies is even lurking around the corner. The speed of light is still an unbreakable limit, and disassembling a human being atom by atom at point A and reassembling all the atoms at point B is the kind of thing that prompts a lot of people to scoff at the word “science” in science fiction. Still . . .
An international group of scientists including IBM Fellow Charles H. Bennett started playing around with teleportation in 1993. They concluded it’s possible in theory, but only if the original is destroyed and a replica is created. Bennett explained it this way: “A teleportation machine would be like a fax machine . . . that would work on three-dimensional objects. . . . It would produce an exact copy rather than an approximate facsimile, and it would destroy the original in the process of scanning it.”
Okay. Teleportation has a way to go before I climb onto the beam pad.
Warp drive, meanwhile, is a handy way for SF writers to get around the fact that interstellar travel, even at a significant fraction of the speed of light, would be a multigenerational trip to all but our closest planetary neighbors. Some science fiction does deal with multigenerational trips — Arthur C. Clarke’s Rama series, for instance — but most SF writers prefer to send their characters warping merrily around the galaxy in ships that use antimatter engines and dylithium crystals, whatever they are. (Clarke’s credentials, in case you’ve forgotten, include authorship of the short-story/novel/film_ 2001: A Space Odyssey_ and of a 1945 paper that showed how satellites in geostationary orbit might improve long-distance communication on earth.)
It’s probably not a good idea to hold your breath until warp flight arrives. The concept flouts a basic principle of the relativity theory: the impossibility of exceeding the speed of light. But NASA has established something called the Breakthrough Propulsion Physics Project to study such matters as hyperfast travel. And in the January 2000 issue of Scientific American, a journal not given to publishing kooks, Lawrence H. Ford and Thomas A. Roman wrote in the article “Negative Energy, Wormholes and Warp Drive”: “Contrary to a popular misconception, Albert Einstein’s theories do not strictly forbid either faster-than-light travel or time travel. In principle, by harnessing the elusive force of negative energy, one can shorten stellar distances by bending space-time around would-be star trekkers.”
Right. I’ll skip the pop quiz on negative energy, but at least some members of the scientific community can foresee us boldly going where no one has gone before. Maybe. Someday.
We Come in Peace
We’ve at last confirmed that other solar systems exist, but whether there’s life of any sort out there, much less intelligent life, remains unclear. First contact with aliens, however, is a favored theme of modern science fiction; one of the best known examples is the 1985 novel Contact by Carl Sagan, in which an astronomer engaged in SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) fields the first interplanetary hello and decodes a blueprint for a transportation device that takes her to an alien world. SETI, incidentally, is a 40-year-old research project that scans the heavens for non-random patterns of electromagnetic emissions. Anyone with a home computer can be part of the search by downloading a free program from the SETI website. This project links the computing power of thousands of home computers, during their idle times, to help process radio telescope data.
The issue in first-contact stories is, always, are the aliens good guys or baddies? In the early part of the 20th century, SF stories reveled in alien BEMS, short for bug-eyed monsters, and they were universally up to no good. Hence the lurid covers on the SF magazines of the day. More recent stories deal with subtler issues and often feature heroes and heroines who have trouble convincing Earth’s governments that the encounter will be peaceful.
If aliens do get here and turn out to be baddies, don’t expect them to arrive with guns and cannon blazing. Energy weapons — phasers and other laser-related devices — are preferred by virtually all SF writers. “We know about weapons and defenses; yours are still crude,” warns an alien in the Walter Tevis novel, The Man Who Fell to Earth.
But that boast dates to 1963. Now we’re learning to stop incoming missiles with space lasers, Star Wars style. Once again, ready or not, the future is here.
Walt Collins, the former editor of this magazine, teaches in Notre Dame’s John W. Gallivan Program in Journalism, Ethics and Democracy.
Notre Dame Magazine, Summer 2002