Categorised | Columns

The science of invention

WATCHING the fourth season of Battlestar Galactica the other day, I got hooked on what the Cylon rebels and Dr Baltar were up to. This got me thinking about the impact science-fiction series and books have had on our lives.

A lot of stuff we take for granted made their appearances first in science-fiction books, television series and movies. Star Trek: The Original Series, for instance, gave us automatic doors; mobile phones, called “communicators” in the series; full-body medical scans, now called MRIs; floppy drives; memory cards; Bluetooth headsets; and voice-recognition technology, among others.

And the series continues to inspire even more inventions. For instance, the ubiquitous tractor beam is now a reality. It’s called an optical tweezer, and here’s a video of the optical tweezer playing a microscopic game of Tetris:

MIT researchers have also managed to pick up, hold and move around individual cells on the surface of a microchip using a beam of light.

Scientists are also closing in on transporter technology — I can’t wait, but research shows it’s a good 100 years away. Researchers in the US and the UK have used differing technologies but are getting there with a cloaking device. And we might be seeing the phaser gun soon — available in lethal and non-lethal forms.

Of course, a lot of the stuff we take for granted was foreshadowed in works by such celebrated authors like Arthur C Clarke, Isaac Asimov, Frank Herbert, Robert Heinlein, Ray Bradbury, Jules Verne, HG Wells, Aldous Huxley, George Orwell, Mary Shelley and Philip K Dick, among others. Many of them later made an appearance on TV before worming their way into our lives. For an exhaustive listing, check out the Timeline of Science Fiction Inventions.  

Ray Bradbury (© Alan Light)
You’d be surprised at the number of mundane things on the list. The credit card, radio, DVD-VCR, live news telecast, internet, computer, television, laser, X-ray, GPS, remote control, TiVo, eBook, genetically modified food, TV dinners, and scuba-diving made their appearance in books first. Even the shopping mall appeared first in Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, published in 1888.

Which naturally leads me to wonder what the future holds for us. Can science fiction open a window to what may come?

Defining science fiction

Before we get ahead of ourselves, we might want to define what we term as science fiction. A handy definition courtesy of Heinlein is this: “[R]ealistic speculation about possible future events, based solidly on adequate knowledge of the real world, past and present, and on a thorough understanding of the nature and significance of the scientific method.”

But I actually prefer the definition provided by Rod Sterling, the guy most famous for The Twillight Zone. He said science fiction is “the improbable made possible.” Note: improbable, not impossible. Everything begins with an idea — and we are not just talking about material things. Even a concept like democracy began as an idea.

So what ideas are percolating in the sci-fi world that may alter the way we live 10, 20, 100, even 1,000 years from now?

Let’s start with human biology. Bad news — we won’t be very different in the future. No bigger head to accommodate bigger brains or feet that are stunted and jelly-like due to lack of use. And we will not have telepathic abilities or be completely free of disease either.

(© Dez Pain/
The reason is time. Evolution cannot be observed happening because it takes place over tens of thousands of years. One thousand years is just a tiny fraction of time in the evolutionary scale of things.

Another reason is that natural selection — that old Darwinian theory explaining why homo sapiens came to rule the world — is no longer important for us humans.

Professor Steve Jones, a geneticist at University College London, points out that natural selection ensures that those whose genes are best adapted to the prevailing environment are most likely to survive and reproduce. However in an interview with the March 2006 issue of New Scientist, he says that in the developed world, survival no longer depends on genes.

He goes to further expound on his beliefs in a 7 Oct 2008 lecture at the University College London entitled Human evolution is over. Jones argues that there were three components to evolution — natural selection, mutation and random change.

“Quite unexpectedly, we have dropped the human mutation rate because of a change in reproductive patterns,” Professor Jones told The Times in an interview.

Of course, many scientists take issue with Jones’s view. But it’s safe to say that a time-traveller visiting planet Earth in 4008 would encounter humans who don’t look much different. You could argue that the way things are going, there won’t be any humans at that time but you’d just be splitting hairs.

(© Miguel Ugalde/

One can only dream

My own view of the future does not involve flying cars though the idea is cool. Who needs cars and parking problems when you can teleport? But instead of everyone having a personal teleport device — dangerous, because you may end up teleporting on to someone else — there will be teleport centres in each community.

And the devices will have a signal lock to prevent you from teleporting to another country. To do that, you would still need to go to the airport, where you’d have the usual immigration and customs clearance to go through. But after that, you just step into the designated bay to arrive at the destination.

So no more planes in the future — which is a good thing, since we would have run out of fossil fuels by then.

As for the other stuff — well, I don’t have any high hopes for world peace. Although I do believe we would have another system of religion by then.

Human colonies in space are a real possibility, though they may end up the preserve of the rich and famous.

(© Rodolfo Clix/
We will also have robots doing every kind of work that humans don’t care to do. And then, of course, they rebel and annihilate us.

Cloned organs will be an accepted part of life — cloning humans will be banned by a Universal Proclamation.

And finally, implanting trackable data chips and personal communication devices into people will become a reality sooner rather than later.

Oh, did I mention that humans would all be implanted with contact lenses due to chronic myopia caused by staring at screens all day? Of course, these lenses will also be able to carry image projections, so in the future there will be no need for monitors.

Hmmm… I’m liking this future already.

N Shashi Kala believes that we need to be optimistic about the future and embrace the lessons from Ray Bradbury’s The Toynbee Convector.

Post to Twitter Post to Google Buzz Post to Delicious Post to Digg Post to Facebook Post to StumbleUpon

Comments are closed.

Most Read (Past 3 Months)

Most Comments (Past 3 Months)

  • None found




  • The Nut Graph


Switch to our mobile site