PROPHETIC FICTION: How Sci-Fi Shapes And Is Shaped By Technology

Written By: Heba Malaeb

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

― Arthur C. Clarke 

The future: the realm of possibility. Though an endless canvas for imagination, the future is increasingly defined by scientific advancement – and few things have been as synonymous with the future as science fiction. The genre was a way to cope with rapidly-changing technological tides, by making meaning through storytelling. Science fiction was earlier called speculative fiction, but we’ve observed that it’s often also somewhat prophetic. We enjoyed discovering some instances where sci-fi shifts from the realm of the speculative, to make surprisingly accurate predictions. 

Science fiction takes a kernel of technological truth and, through carefully constrained imagination, turns it into worlds.

“Hard-science fiction” takes real science and extrapolates it into fantastical stories; but increasingly, sci-fi is mostly just inspired by science and technology, weaving them into fantastical setups. The process of devising the setting for sci-fi is called worldbuilding, which we find reminiscent of how designed objects and systems intentionally define the world around us. 

Which is why it’s fascinating when the inspiration reverses direction: when design and technology are in turn inspired by fiction. From video calling to antidepressants, many ubiquitous products and processes of our time first appeared in sci-fi. Science fiction has even sometimes gotten it right on social and political dynamics. But Orwellian surveillance dystopias notwithstanding, sci-fi predicted some pretty remarkable – and useful – everyday things. 

Real-life Sci-Fi

3D printing

Sci-fi Tech: 3D printing idea back in the 1930s

The concept of an additive, layer-by-layer manufacturing process has appeared in a lot of science fiction, as early as 1939. But perhaps the most famous “prediction” of 3D printing is Star Trek’s Replicator, which prints food through rearranging atoms and molecules. Today, 3D printing is a quickly developing technology that may well bring us to sci-fi levels of advancement; astronauts print components in space, and doctors are continuing to develop 3D printed organs for transplant operations.

Financial futures 

Looking backward - Edward Ballamy

Edward Bellamy’s 1888 utopian novel Looking Backward, the main character wakes up in the year 2000, where the US has become a socialist utopia. One feature of that imagined future is “credit cards”; but instead of owing the bank, each citizen was actually given an equal amount of credit by the government, and could use the cards to make purchases both domestically and abroad. Though he didn’t predict the financing, it’s fascinating that the way his imaginary cards work – down to the double receipt – is pretty accurate to how it ended up playing out in real life.

Some works of sci-fi even had the foresight sharp enough to think up cryptocurrencies. Bruce Sterling briefly described an anonymous, untraceable global currency, unbacked by any government in his 1994 novel Heavy Weather. But sometimes the technological developments that enable science fiction to become fact are less linear than others. Though it’s a seemingly simple idea, the technology necessary to make crypto run (and take the world by storm) was not anonymously created until years later. Without Blockchain technology – which uses a very specialized system of data encryption and relies on a huge amount of power – Bitcoin et. al. could not exist, even though the idea had been dreamt up decades ago. 

Body

Exoskeleton

Sci Fi Tech: Exoskeleton in real life

Perhaps a more blatantly sci-fi invention, exoskeletons or exosuits act as a power-up to human bodies, supplementing strength and offering special features. In real life, this is watered down into various applications, like suits that allow delivery personnel to stack a larger number of boxes on their backs. But beyond maximizing production efficiency and the inevitable cliché of supersoldiers, exoskeletons can help ensure occupational safety and health for laborious jobs, and provide increased mobility to people with physical disabilities, whether as bionic vests that help carry heavy weights with less muscle strain, or braces and armatures that assist someone in going up the stairs or support their spine to help them walk. And some companies are even developing “powered clothing” to supplement natural movements, and even track and enhance athletic performance. 

Earbuds

In Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, published in 1953, he described a product called Seashells – what he called “thimble radios” that fit in your ears and were the size of, yes, a thimble. Just six years later, radios were indeed small enough to fit intra-aurally, but it wasn’t until the auspicious pairing of earphones with Sony’s Walkman that in-ear speakers really took off in the late 80’s. Market forces encouraged further design refinement in terms of both function and comfort. Years later, Apple introduced its signature white iPod headphones, leading us to today, where earbuds have become as commonplace on our bodies as clothing.

Science fiction and technology: Ear bud parts vs thimble radios

Mind 

AI

Science fiction is not just an exercise in dreaming up cool futures. It often grapples with the social realities and fears of the day. We as a studio have certainly been thinking about issues surrounding artificial intelligence. Whether as design interns, or in Siri, Alexa, and therapy apps, AI raises concerns and excitement. Many works of early sci-fi tackled the question of the “humanity” of robots. Though there are countless examples of near-human AIs, the most classic one might be Philip K. Dick’s 1968 Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, more commonly known in movie form as Blade Runner (1982), where “replicants”, AI, are indistinguishable from humans. Google’s Duplex feature that makes appointments for you through very human-sounding voice calls begins to touch on this realm of the uncanny. 

Brain-computer interfaces

Moving into turning sci-fi technology into reality: Neuralink

Another emerging technology we are thrilled to be at the forefront of is thought-based user interfaces. In M.T. Anderson’s 2002 dystopian novel Feed, young people are “plugged in” to the feed via a surgically-implanted device that enables them to communicate with each other, and provides access to endless entertainment and constant, seamless advertising. But in the novel, the brain-computer connection causes people to become self-absorbed and detached from the larger world, by constantly occupying their minds. As we know from various dystopias, new technology is often frightening for its potential to be used harmfully. But it’s heartening to see this kind of avant-garde tech actually used to benefit people. Today, brain-computer interfaces are used to lend autonomy and restore function to people with neuromuscular disorders. 

With Neuralink, we worked together to develop a combined wearable and implantable system discretely worn behind the user’s ear. The system enables them to control devices, ranging from robotic arms to mobile phones to electric wheelchairs, with the power of their mind in order to live a more independent life

Learning from Sci-fi

Sci-fi is pure design without the constraints of the real world; but as designers, our role is not just to envision the future; we try to create it. Like sci-fi writers, we are guided by our intuition and imagination, and inspired both by the past and by relentless advancements in technology. But what science fiction provides in dystopias and utopias, we try to rewrite as an optimistic and grounded approach to the future of human-tech interaction. We hope to contribute to the creation of a future world that is more efficient, more accessible, and more sustainable than the one we inhabit today. 

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