It is more of a creative or artistic profession than a scientific or engineering one but is there an argument for science fiction writers to be credited as the driving force behind the latest technology in the world? There could well be, at least on some level.
The way our brains work means that it is impossible for us to imagine something completely new. Try and imagine a new colour. You can’t. Experiments involving children born blind and later operated on to give them sight provide many interesting insights. We think that there is a logical connection between the physical ‘feel’ of shapes such as squares and circles and how they look.
But if someone who is only just able to see is blindfolded and given a square and round object to touch and differentiate, they will of course be able to say which is which. However, then remove the blindfold and ask that person, who has never ‘seen’ a circle or square which object is the one their sense of touch distinguished as the square and they cannot. Our brains are simply so used to associating the touch with the image that we mistakenly believe they are logically connected.
It’s another strong example of how our brains are very good at extrapolating from their empirical experience or creating ‘new’ things by mixing up components from other things they do have experience of. But very poor, if not incapable, or dreaming up the genuinely ‘new’. Further, those with an outstandingly strong left side of the brain, that which performs tasks related to logic such as maths and science, rarely, if ever, have an equally impressive right side of the brain, which performs creative tasks and powers the imagination.
As such, it is perhaps no surprise that individuals with outstanding right sides of the brain tend to be those that dream up new ‘inventions’ and concepts. Those with outstanding left sides of the brain, having been provided with those concepts or ‘inventions’, are then inspired to find a way, if there is one, that can bring them into existence.
This relationship between extraordinarily talented individuals that fall on either side of the divide between imagination and understanding how the imagined could work and executing that theory, can be credited with the emergence of much of the latest technology in the world.
Back in 1945, decades before the first satellite was sent into orbit around the Earth, British science fiction author Arther C, Clarke described long distance communication achieved through radio signals bouncing off satellites. The wrist watches of Star Trek bare a remarkable resemblance to today’s smart watches and Knight Rider featured an autonomous vehicle with AI long before Google, Tesla and the rest started work on the real thing. An MIT article highlights research being carried out by a team at the University of Hawaii led by Philipp Jordan exploring how scientists working on AI and human-computer interaction ‘use science fiction in their work’. The article goes on to expound:
“And they find not only that science fiction plays a significant role, but that its impact is on the increase”.
And to quote the team’s paper:
“We speculate that the explicit referral of sci-fi in human-computer interaction research represents a fraction of the actual inspiration and impact it has had.”
So, while it would be wrong to take any credit away from the great minds that invent the latest technology in the world and produce breakthroughs in scientific understanding perhaps we should also give more to the science fiction writers whose imagination inspires much of their work. Without them long-distance communication networks that work via satellites might never have happened.