I love science fiction, because not only does it often paint an optimistic picture of who we may become as a society, but what the future might hold.
Science fiction authors, from Jules Verne to Gene Roddenberry and George Lucas, have made many bold predictions of where our technology may take us, and many of them have come to pass. Here are four technologies from science fiction that exist today. What an exciting time to be alive!
1. Crime Prediction
What if law enforcement could stop crime before it happened? That was the idea behind the 2002 film Minority Report, which in turn was inspired by the Philip K. Dick short story of the same name. A trio of mutated humans have the ability to see murders before they happen, and it’s up to a crack team of police officers to stop them.
Psychic mutants sit on the most fantastic fringe of science fiction, but maybe the idea of trying to predict crimes before they happen isn’t too far out there.
The Los Angeles Police Department has been using big data and predictive analytics to guess when and where a crime might take place. This experiment has borne fruit, and in the areas where the software has been used, there’s been a 33% reduction in burglaries, a 21% reduction in violent crimes, and a 12% reduction in property crime. This is significant when you consider the relatively high crime rate of Los Angeles and the large size of the city.
The software is based on those used to predict earthquakes aftershocks. The LAPD has used its record of 13 million crimes committed over the past 80 years. This is used to predict what crimes will occur after another crime has been committed. These predictions are then used when making decisions about planning patrols and assigning officers.
2. Talking Computers
From Star Trek‘s Data and the computer, to HAL 9000, and even Her (CA, UK), it has been predicted that one day we would be able to converse with our computers as we would with a friend or a colleague. Although we’re far away from the palpably human experience that some science fiction writers have imagined, we’re getting close. Just check out this device from CommBadge Technologies.
You can thank two specific technologies for this: voice recognition technology and natural language processing (NLP).
The former transforms the analog sound-waves created by your mouth into text. This has existed for a really long time, but for a while the technology struggled with accuracy and efficiency. Now it’s at the point where it can be used to dictate an entire document — much progress has been made.
The latter takes that generated text and then interprets the meaning of it. Modern NLP algorithms are based on machine learning, with many of those algorithms taking advantage of artificial neural networks to determine what the user wants and to learn from previous interactions.
The end result of this is that we now have programs like Apple’s Siri and Microsoft’s Cortana, which allow us to ask questions and dictate questions to our phone and actually get a meaningful response. We can even ask follow-up questions to the responses we get and hold something that almost — almost! — feels like a real conversation.
3. Personal Communicators
When Captain James Tiberius Kirk was on an away mission and needed to contact the Enterprise, he’d use his trusty communicator. This was a flip device which would allow him to talk in real-time with whoever was left at the helm. At the end of the 1960s, this was utterly unthinkable.
But then the 90s came along and gave us flip-phones. These were essentially what Rodenberry had imagined, both in function and in form-factor, but with the added bonus that these could play Snake.
Yes, it could be argued that the cell phone is essentially what a Star Trek communicator is.
Later series of Star Trek turned the humble communicator from a handheld device to one that was embedded into a badge pinned to a uniform. While we’ve yet to create something as sleek and as good looking as what Picard and Sisko wore, we’re getting there.
Other science fiction cannons have imagined what communications technology could be, if only we had advanced a bit more. In Star Wars: The Phantom Menace (CA, UK), for example, Qui Gon Jin used a communicator called a Comlink that was no bigger than a stick of gum. It could be argued that here Lucas was trying to reflect trends at the time for consumer technology to be increasingly miniaturized.
Not long after, we saw entire mobile phones fitting into chassis no larger than a car key fob. Indeed, my first Android smartphone — the Sony Ericsson Xperia Mini 10 — was no larger than a box of matches, so perhaps Lucas wasn’t that far off the mark.
4. Food Replicators
One of the most ambitious inventions of the Star Trek universe is the matter replicator. This could create — quite literally — anything out of thin air: food, water, clothing, even weaponry. Here’s how Wikipedia explains it:
A replicator works by rearranging subatomic particles, which are abundant everywhere in the universe, to form molecules and arrange those molecules to form the object. For example, to create a pork chop, the replicator would first form atoms of carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, etc., then arrange them into amino acids, proteins, and cells, and assemble the particles into the form of a pork chop.
Okay, so we’re a long way away from that. But maybe — just maybe — we’ve got something close. Right now, we actually have 3D printers that can create dishes from recipes using a set of base materials, and the most well-known of these is the upcoming Foodini from the Barcelona-based startup Natural Machines.
Foodini’s ambition is to make it as convenient to create healthy meals as it is to shove a pizza in the oven. If one wanted to make fresh ravioli, for example, here’s how it would work:
… load the dough and filling into Foodini, and Foodini will print individual raviolis for you. The 3D printing of food — in this case, creating a layer of pasta, a layer of filling, and covering it with a layer of pasta again — is assembling the ravioli. The same as you would do by hand, except Foodini automates it.
Another one which has been compared to Star Trek‘s replicator is the Genie. This is a bit harder to explain, so just imagine if your Keurig coffee maker actually cooked you dinner. Pods of healthy, natural ingredients are inserted, and the machine works its magic (no pun intended).
We’re far away from the machine Gene Roddenberry thought would end world hunger, but not that far off.
Which Sci-Fi Tech Do You Wish Existed?
Are there any science fiction technologies you’re desperately excited for? Are there any you dread? I want to hear about it! Leave me a comment below and let me know.