Inventing The Future

It’s the danger every science fiction writer faces. The future he or she invents becomes obsolete before the time of the story. You can predict a shiny new device that makes life easier only to realize that Elon Musk thought up a better one over lunch three years ago that will be in Walmart in about six months.

Captain Kirk using communicator


Perhaps the most shining example of this is Star Trek. The communicator was a wonderful device when Captain Pike and company whipped out several of the in the pilot episode, “The Cage.” Flip open a device and talk to a starship thousands of miles away. In 1966, walkie-talkies had only few miles range. Satellites connected only television and telephone, which was still this big, black thing wired to the wall. So a palm-sized gadget to that let you talk over long distances was a miracle that supposedly would not arrive for at least another century or two.

And yet Star Trek: The Next Generation predict the iPad when the Mac had matured and the PC began to have Windows in 1989. By the time the first (admittedly awful) tablet computer appeared in 2000, we were using Motorola flip phones to call, text, and even surf the web. By 2009, TNG’s tablets were a thing and the phone riding in my pocket to the new Star Trek did a helluva lot more than call Uhura or even text. It ordered food, showed me information about the movie, and let me message on Skype, Facebook, and even Twitter (which I never really liked back then.) And the flip phones based on the communicator? Obsolete.

Motorola flip phone

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It’s tricky. Even warp drive and wormhole travel is touch and go. Interstellar proposed a method of wormhole travel that brings the idea very close to an engineering problem rather than a philosophical one or a conflict with Einstein (who would absolutely go bonkers for cracking that nut.) Miguel Alcubierre has laid down the theoretical basis for a practical warp drive directly inspired by the Starship Enterprise. So much for the impossible. Maybe we’ll reach Alpha Centauri in fewer than 13 parsecs. (Chill! It’s a joke. I know parsecs are distance.)

Computer technology is the trickiest. I’ve hedged on this in the Compact Universe by making artificial intelligence like nuclear weapons, something so scary that humans would not allow it to advance anymore and even try to contain it. So in the world inhabited by JT and Davra, humans demand that their AI-enabled technology be “nice and stupid.” But technologies are coming down the pike that promise to make everything we know obsolete. Brain interfaces. Quantum computing. Nanites. All these promise to make the world we live in come 2099 as unrecognizable as 2016 would be to someone at the end of World War II or 1945 would to a soldier in the American Civil War.

The point is that predicting the future is a fool’s errand. Even keeping up on tech in the pipeline for five, ten, even twenty years down the road will not predict what random innovations will emerge in that time.

2 Comments to "Inventing The Future"

  1. May 31, 2016 - 9:31 pm | Permalink

    But somehow we still don’t have flying cars yet. [I don’t see the technology as the barrier, but the deeply rooted human tendency towards idiocy as the real stumbling block.]

  2. June 1, 2016 - 10:13 am | Permalink

    Artificial stupidity is a very doable science. We just program Watson to go “Huh huh. Huh huh huh huh huh.”

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