Is Fiction Influencing Science?

This is an article I did last year for the Magazines and Markets unit of my second year. I finally managed to get this piece of work back from my lecturer yesterday and I was planning on having it in my port folio but then I noticed, underlined quite vigorously, that he said it ‘ is so much worse than what you are capable of.’

To be honest with you he’s right, but the fact that it wasn’t up to my usual standard mixed with the annoyance of handing it in late (completely by accident, I thought it was in my folder only to look in my bag once the deadline had passed to find the actual piece of work in my bag) which meant I was docked 10% of my marks and I still came out with a 2:1 is pretty good.

I wrote it for Wired (obviously) and I should probably get down to improving it so I can add it to my port-folio without any qualms. But for now I give you the original and when I’ve bettered it mayhap I shall post that too. It’s a bit long (the word count was 2000).


Is Fiction Influencing Science?

On the brink of entering the technological age that as envisioned for the human race many years ago, it seems that scientists are finally giving fiction substance. With holograms, robots, portable computers, cloning and a lot more, does the inspiration behind all these breakthroughs come from fiction?

Fans of science fiction are eager to believe that fiction might well be behind what is around today. Amy Davies, 20, a science fiction enthusiast is one of those believers: “Star Trek started in the 60s all about space travel and look at what happened in 1969. The first man on the moon,” she says. “I remember reading something recently about a scientist making a breakthrough with teleportation.”

Holograms have been on the forefront of our collective mind since the late nineteenth century, one of the earliest mentions of a hologram can be found in Jules Verne’s novel The Castle of the Carpathians.

The technology he mentioned was only in its early stages during his lifetime, needles to say that his readers at the time were shocked and impressed with his vision.

Since this holographic debut the technology has emerged in many a science fiction series from The Jetsons to the entire Star Trek franchise.  

Always the technology that has been featured throughout these cult classics has appeared to be far too complex to enter everyday life; the future has felt beyond reach.

However with recent developments, scientists are on the verge of creating the future that hs been romanticized about for decades.

Two airports have invested in the future and commissioned separate companies to create and install two holograms each.

The first to unveil their new addition was Manchester Airport. Julie and John were made in the image of two real life employees and are being used to remind passengers to have their boarding passes at the ready and to explain the liquid restrictions that are in place.

 Julie and John were created by Musion Systems who are one of, if not the, biggest companies in holography.

 The company has a huge port-folio ranging from Adidas to Bicardi, BT to Fiat. Yet the project they are probably best known was the ambitious task of creating a hologram for each member of the Gorillaz, to continue the intriguing concept of the band’s cartoon alter egos.

Musion Systems has an impressive music background; they were the ones behind the Frank Sinatra hologram at Simon Cowell’s 5o birthday and they also collaborated with the Black Eyed Peas on their hit single The Time (Dirty Bit).

The future is here and it is being used for trivial jobs that people would rather not do. The same thing is happening in Luton Airport except this time they’ve been called Holly and Graham, see what they did there?

However this is not a trend that is welcomed by everyone. Stephen Carter is a customer service trainer for Lloyds TSB and not entirely happy with this new direction of customer service. “You’ve got to look at how technology has grown. When I first started work computers would fit in a room, but now they fit in your palm,” Carter explains. “We think about what we’re saying and we act appropriately. I think a hologram couldn’t do that.”

Davies, however, looks forward to the day they’ll be capable of achieving more, “I quite like the idea of them,” she enthuses, “although what could power a robot and would it drain our natural resources faster? At least with people you need only a meal which is vital but is renewable.”

While the cultural history of the hologram might be impressive it is nothing compared to that pf the robot. Another eagerly awaited stepping stone to tenderly lead the human race into the true technological age is this particular form of artificial intelligence.

Perhaps because they are seen a the epitome of human achievement, robots have especially been a vital part of the foreseen future and a popular choice amongst science fiction writers.

However the idea of these devices comes from a surprising location. Homer’s Illiad is not just a fantastically constructed epic poem not is it just Ancient Greece’s defining piece of art; it is in fact the first documented use of ‘mechanical servants’ in western literature.

‘Two female forms uphold,

That moved and breathed in animated gold;

To whom was a voice, and sense, and science given.”     

 While the words vary from translation to translation the meaning is still clear. The ‘animated gold’ is moving metal, the universal image of a robot.

There has always been much enigma surrounding both the identity of Homer and the date that the epic poem was first written down. Yet many years before the pen was put to paper the poem was passed on through generations verbally.

Although the date the Illiad was first composed is uncertain the fact that the Ancient Greeks were the first to concoct the idea of artificial intelligence suggests at how old the concept really is.

Millenia after the idea first emerged it is not uncommon to see robots whizzing down isles of chaotically organised goods in warehouses.

Rory Barratt is of the opinion that human “needs don’t actually change much and most technology exists to help us overcome the limitations of being human.” Even though the Illiad has ‘mechanical servants’ that were created  serve the gods, reality has them serving a much more demeaning purpose.

The iRobot has revolutionised vacuuming, designed to be left to its own devices it acts as a maid. Both this and the robots in the warehouse is far from overcoming the limitations of being human but rather make life easier and more convenient.

The creation of these two forms of AI is not the only step towards the future that scientists have taken. Touch screen technology has always ben an overlooked constant, especially in the form of hand-held tablets that can download information from other devices.

The present day equivalent is the iPad, it can hold vast amounts of information and can communicate with other pieces of technology via Bluetooth and Wi-fi. However. not everybody is convinced that recent technological developments are anything to do with past science fiction references.    

Joshua Engel, a self-proclaimed polymath, with a degree in computer science, believes that science fiction writers are given too much credit with regards to innovative inventions. “Write enough sci-fi, wait long enough, set a loose enough criteria for what constitutes a match and you’ll find a few of them,” Engel explains, “for example, the Web bears little resemblance to the network described in Neuromancer, which was heavily space-dependent; attempts to get closer, like Second Life, are dismal failures.”

Neuromancer is a book that was published in 1984 and is widely believed to have lanched the cyberpunk and revolutionise the science fiction genres.

Although Engel is right in saying that the internet is nothing like the network featured within the book since the Web was in its infancy at the time.

While the potential of the World Wide Web was limited at the time William Gibson, the author, envisioned what the internet could become in the future.

The present day internet is completely different to what it started out as in 1982 but that isn’t to say tha Gibson’s vision is any closer to coming true.

The closest it has come to would be through Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games (MMORPG), people cannot ‘jack in’ but they can log in and send their avatars marauding through an alternate world and socialise with people far from where they live.

Second Life is an example of this, instead of the quests and adventures that can be found in a game like Runescape, Second Life is more like a live version of The Sims.

It mirrors life and allows users to conduct normal activities with people they may otherwise not have met.   

Considering Gibson created world in which people could connect directly to the internet and socialise with other users in person rather than through an avatar. In this sense Second Life, like Engel says, is also quite far from the reality Gibson predicted.

That doesn’t mean tha at some point in the future it won’t be possible but as Engel believes, the creation and development of the internet cannot be credited to the imagination of science fiction writers. 

The internet was well under way and its development had been in process for a good few years before Neuromancer was published.

Engel is not the only person to think that fiction does not have a place in science. Rodney Lyons, a programmer, believes that the possibilities outlined in fiction are in fact holding back a scientist’s ability to create something better than what has been imagined. “I do believe scientists, being really people whom enjoy normal hobbies like reading sci-fi novels and watching movies like Tron, have had their imaginative power curbed towards those phenomena,” Lyons states.

He goes on to say that although a scientists might be making advancements in their field, their visions of how the technology might be used are distorted by the culture of sci-fi.

This is something that could be said of touch screen technology and the sudden need to have everything at the fingertips. Last year eBooks outsold physical books in America, it is not entirely clear whether this is because of the novelty of having a Kindle eReader or of it is a trend that will last, but some authors are of the opinion that is because of the latter.     

 Erica Friedman writes manga and thinks that the future of books lies in their digital counterparts. “From a publisher’s perspective, there is nothing good about the paper book model,” she says. “There is no reason to keep cutting trees down to distribute content. I’m working on a new book now and while we’ll provide a print on demand version for those folks who want paper, the digital version we’ll offer will be a better deal in every possible way.”

Print on demand is one technique of decreasing the damage used by the destruction of trees. Consumers can search for a book that they want online and print it for a fee.

With this method there would be no surplus books and wasted paper yet it is not something that as completely captured the imaginations of the consumer, instead the eReader has muscled in on the market.

Friedman, however, is realistic when it comes to the eReaders that ar available today. “As a reader, there has to be a better choice than proprietary formats and systems before I adopt digital as my sole reading venue, but I can see the day where it will be.”

The desire for new technology has affected one of the constant things in our culture again echoing the possibility that it is only there to make life easier.

Davies believes there is a bit of selfishness to be contributed to the development os technology: “Scientists are trying to make their dreams that only before lay within the sci-fi genre, like those who dream of finding that special someone in their lives enjoy reading romantic novels.”

As well as this Davies also thinks that fiction presents humans with loads of possibilities and as such an insatiable curiosity has arisen. “What benefit does going to the moon have on the human race? Research appears to be based on curiosity rather than advancement,” Davies explains, “this could be from the novels that they have read, it’s a possibility that scientists are trying to realise their dreams.”

While it appears that science and technology are mirroring events in fiction many people are sceptical of this notion. Engel criticises the short sightedness of the sci-fi genre: “nobody in sci-fi predicted the ways in which mobile phones would change the way we organise our lives,” he explains. “Designers given tiny processors and lightweight screens would have invented tablet computing even if Star Trek had never existed.”

And there it is, the popular consensus among people, even if science fiction did not exist the human race would have been able to visualise and create the technology of the future anyway. Yet Engel does appreciate the fact that science fiction may have inspired some people to enter the field.

“A show like Star Trek certainly inspires people to get into science,” he states. “Several female astronauts specifically credited Lieutenant Uhara. I think we could give sci-fi more credit for being socially foresighted than technologically.”   


One response to “Is Fiction Influencing Science?

  • chattingwithspirit

    This is a most interesting post for me. From a spiritual point of view, i do wonder where some of the inspiration comes from when there are huge leaps forward in technology. I will be writing about the possibility of spirits involvement in our inventions in an upcoming blog. Having spoken directly to ‘those in the know’ and having also read several accounts of spiritual intervention, it will hopefully be a topic that will be interesting.

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