Jules Verne to Star Trek: Does sci-fi show the future?

The Borg Queen & Captain Janeway in Star Trek Voyager You will be assimilated: The impact of technology on humans has long been explored through various science fiction themes, such as the Borg in Star Trek

"We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters."

So said Silicon Valley entrepreneur and venture capitalist Peter Thiel, lamenting the scope of some of tech's most well-known products.

Technology of Business

Having co-founded internet payments service PayPal, and been one of the funders behind Facebook, Mr Thiel is no stranger to the stars of the tech world, but believes the best minds are too busy creating small-scale products with little impact on our lives today and the future.

Speaking to the BBC in 2010, Mr Thiel said the 'collapse of science fiction' since the 1950s and 60s is a big reason for this.

"There was a great deal of literature about the future and what the world would be like, the future history of the world, and that has really dissipated," he said.

Instead most mainstream sci-fi is about technology gone bad. So do scientists and technologists need sci-fi to inspire new products?

Peter Diamandis Peter Diamandis of the Singularity University and the X Prize thinks there is plenty of big thinking around
Thinking big

Author Jules Verne is credited with having directly inspired the inventor of the US Navy's first submarines (Simon Lake who was inspired by Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea) and the modern helicopter (Igor Sikorsky inspired by Clipper of the Clouds).

Start Quote

Science fiction helps scientists and technologists think in disruptive ways”

End Quote Peter Diamandis Co-founder, Singularity University and Chairman, X Prize

Motorola's director of research Martin Cooper credited Star Trek's 'communicator' with inspiring the first mobile phone in the 1970s.

And Taser is an acronym for 'Thomas A Swift's electric rifle', a creation of fictional inventor Tom Swift. Nasa physicist Jack Cover was a fan, and went on to create the first real life device.

Not everyone agrees we lack ambition today.

"The fact of the matter is that flying cars are coming," says entrepreneur, engineer and co-founder of the Singularity University Peter Diamandis.

Mr Diamandis says plenty of people in Silicon Valley are thinking sci-fi sized ideas.

He points to the Google X Lab and their work on Google Glass and flying cars, Elon Musk's Space X, which aims to colonise Mars, and his own X Prize Foundation, which organises technology competitions.

Tricorder Star Trek's Tricorder device has inspired a prize by the X Prize Foundation for a similar product

A current X Prize challenge is to create a Tricorder, the hand-held device from Star Trek which can diagnose illnesses. The Tricorder X Prize is worth $10m.

"Science fiction helps scientists and technologists think in disruptive ways," he says.

However he agrees many of today's best known tech products follow Silicon Valley's model of incremental innovation.

Ethical question

Angel investor John Taysom believes the value of sci-fi lies elsewhere.

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It lets you explore the good and bad sides of technology”

End Quote John Taysom Angel investor

Having invested in products such as DuoFertility (a patch that monitors fertility levels) and Gazoob (educational apps for children), he sees few actual products that have been inspired by science fiction.

Instead he thinks it's an important platform through which to explore the consequences of new technologies.

"You can think of sci-fi as being about technology, but it's also about ethics," he says. "It lets you explore the good and bad sides of technology."

Computer scientist and Harvard University's Chief Technology Officer Jim Waldo agrees.

Mr Waldo helped create DarkStar, a gaming and 3D development platform, for Sun Microsystems Laboratories. He says none of his creations came from sci-fi, but it has helped him examine their impact.

Premiere for Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith May the force be with you: How long before Luke's light-sabre or Boba Fett's jet pack are available at a shop near you?

"We tend to not think of the consequences of our technology very often," he says.

"Seeing what the implications of that technology might be is a wake-up call for the people who are creating it," Mr Waldo explains, "and realising that what they do may make a real difference in the moral and political evolution of the world."

Looking around us

For some, science fiction could also explore the longer term impacts of technologies we are already using.

Social media is one area where our dynamic interactions with certain products may affect us differently over time.

Neuroscientist Susan Greenfield has been delving into the long-term impact of social media on the brain.

Alongside her conventional research she has written a science fiction novel, 2121, to explore these questions.

Film still from Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea Jules Verne's novel Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea inspired the US Navy's earliest submarines

She says one problem with scientific research is it is easy to get bogged down in the detail.

Writing sci-fi enabled her to focus on the bigger picture of her research.

It also helped her explore different areas of the human experience.

"You can also explore the age-old issues which are not there in classic science papers that there are in fiction of relationships, of identity, and of what makes one person different from another," she says.

Jason Silva Documentary film maker Jason Silva believes in the importance of awe to inspire humans
Awe-inspiring narratives

Narratives can help scientists and technologists in other ways too.

Documentary film-maker Jason Silva believes science fiction is important for creating the very mindset needed to realise human potential and to come up with game-changing ideas - awe.

Mr Silva, who hosts Brain Games on the National Geographic Channel, focuses on the power of awe to not only inspire us, but in changing the very chemistry of our brains - letting us push boundaries and come up with big ideas.

He cites the work of psychologist Nicholas Humphrey, who says being awe-struck reconfigures the brain, giving us a sense of purpose which pushes us to strive.

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It's about changing the story we tell ourselves about the future”

End Quote Ed Finn Arizona State University

Furthermore, throughout history narrative has been an important way through which humans realise their potential.

"As mankind we think in narratives," he says.

"Narrative is needed for this," he says, "to keep people dreaming."

This is what the Centre for Science and the Imagination at Arizona State University is trying to do.

Project Hieroglyph has brought together sci-fi writers and scientists, so they can collaborate and create new narratives about human potential and the future.

"The mission of the centre is to get people thinking more creatively and more ambitiously about the future," says director Ed Finn.

Helicopter Jules Verne also inspired the design of the earliest mass produced helicopters, used here to put out a fire in California

Mr Finn says our ambitions have dropped considerably: the US has gone from Apollo missions and the large infrastructure changes of the 1950s and 1960s to not having its own space programme and people still driving on 50-year-old bridges.

The centre believes that science-fiction is essential for ambitious thinking about the future.

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We are heading towards a society where artificial intelligence and robotics are going to transform the workplace in the next 20 years”

End Quote Peter Diamandis Co-founder, Singularity University and Chairman, X Prize Foundation

"Our goal is to try and expand the horizon, to consider the full possibility space of what we could do," Mr Finn explains.

"It's about changing the story we tell ourselves about the future."

Governments need sci-fi

But perhaps it is an entirely different group which most needs sci-fi: governments.

Mr Diamandis believes technology is changing society in a way for which we are ill-equipped.

"We are heading towards a society where artificial intelligence and robotics are going to transform the workplace in the next 20 years and where a lot of the old-style institutions, government institutions, even industrial structures are going to rapidly change, collapse, and be replaced.

"All of these structures were created hundreds of years ago during a very different time," Mr Diamandis explains.

"I think our government officials and our economists and our sociologists are going to need to look at science fiction as a way of thinking how we re-organise society."

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