It’s often said that fiction reflects reality, but in the case of science fiction, it can also go the other way around. While the ultimate aim of science fiction is not to predict the future, here are 10 technological advancements that science fiction got right.
In the TV show Star Trek: The Next Generation, characters use sleek handheld PADDs (personal access display devices), which have touchscreen interfaces for accessing and navigating starship controls. In 2010, Apple released the first iPad; it looked eerily similar to Picard’s PADD and had comparable capabilities.
In Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film, 2001: A Space Odyssey, audiences were introduced to the artificial life-form HAL 9000. Artificial intelligence has been a topic of interest in science fiction—and science—ever since. And while machines that think for themselves are still the stuff of fantasy, AI has become an integral part of daily life, from Siri to Alexa and beyond.
The concept of virtual reality was introduced in 1935 in Stanley G. Weinbaum’s story “Pygmalion’s Spectacles,” which depicts a virtual experience indistinguishable from a real one. The idea has been a science-fiction staple ever since; just think of films like The Matrix and Ready Player One. Today’s VR technology is not quite the immersive experience those movies envisioned, but it is advancing quickly and can be used for a myriad of recreational and educational purposes.
Edward Bellamy imagined the credit card, and even used that term, in his 1888 novel, Looking Backward. Bellamy describes the card as a “piece of pasteboard” and explains that it “is issued for a certain number of dollars”—not unlike a contemporary debit card. The first official credit cards, from Diners Club, appeared in 1950.
The first communicators in the original Star Trek from the 1960s looked very much like flip phones. The devices allowed characters to communicate wirelessly. Three decades later, Motorola introduced the first mobile flip phone, and phone technology has progressed rapidly ever since.
Videophones and videoconferencing technology have long been present in science fiction, appearing in television shows such as The Jetsons and films like Back to the Future. Today, making a video call is as simple as FaceTiming or logging in to Skype or Zoom.
Autonomous cars made their debut in Miles J. Breuer’s novel Paradise and Iron, published in 1930. Since then, they have appeared repeatedly in science fiction. While there are no legally operating fully autonomous cars on our roads yet, the technology exists—though it remains temperamental. And many modern cars incorporate features, like blind-spot monitoring and rearview cameras, that are components of autonomous-vehicle technology.
One of the most iconic science-fiction images is the holographic message from Princess Leia that projects from R2-D2 in 1977’s Star Wars: A New Hope. Today, holographic technology is more than just a figment of Hollywood’s imagination. In one of its more spectacular uses, a German circus incorporates projections of animals in lieu of live performers.
In the Star Trek universe, characters request food and drink from a replicator that conjures their wishes out of (seeming) thin air. Real-life “replicators” are better known as 3-D printers, a technology that takes digital models and converts them into objects made from glass, metal, plastic, and other materials, although the process isn’t instantaneous. There’s even a 3-D printer called CocoJet that fabricates chocolate treats. And while we aren’t there yet, scientists theorize that 3-D printers will one day create viable human organs.
In Fahrenheit 451, published in 1953, Ray Bradbury writes of devices called Seashells, which he clarifies as being a “thimble radio.” These contraptions fit snugly into the ears and fill them with “an electronic ocean of sound, of music and talk and music and talk coming in.” There have been numerous iterations of headphones throughout the years, with AirPods coming closest to Bradbury’s vision.
Explore the complete Science Fiction Special Section in Alta’s Summer 2020 issue.