Few stop to think about it, but we now live in a science fiction world. The 21st century, that distant future of our childhood, is now here in full force. Sure, we may not have flying cars and live on other planets yet, but many ideas and gadgets that were once staples in the science fiction of our childhood are now taken for granted in our daily lives.
10. Communications Satellites
Of all the goodies that science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke proposed, his 1945 prediction of communications satellites is the most enduring. At the time, his idea was dismissed as pure fantasy. Clarke wove the idea into many of his future tales, although he envisioned widespread use of vacuum-tube technology and manned geosynchronous relay stations in Earth orbit. And of course, the routine flights to the moon in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey have yet to become reality.
9. Cell Phones
Beam me up, Scotty! The rapid evolution of wireless technology has made the flip-top communicator of Star Trek fame a reality. Of course, the modern phone has scores of applications and features not found on Captain Kirk’s communicator or Dick Tracy’s wristband communicator, as apparently those early innovators didn’t foresee the advent of the App Store.
Nearly every science fiction tale of the near future foresaw the advent of the computer, but few realized how pervasive it would become in nearly every aspect of our lives. At most, computers seemed destined to become sophisticated calculating machines, regulated to cracking analytical problems. No one foresaw the rise of Twitter, Facebook, eBay or the Internet. Especially in the case of computers, it’s worth noting that you just never know what folks are going to do with technology once you set them loose with it…are the brain-implanted hard drives of Johnny Mnemonic in our future?
7. Video Game Warfare
If Vietnam was the first television war, then the modern warfare techniques of today might be termed the first Xbox war. In modern-day combat, an unmanned aircraft controlled remotely from thousands of miles away can destroy a select target, enabling the human pilot to then make it home in time for supper. Such a world was predicted in Orson Scott Card’s 1985 novel Ender’s Game, in which children are raised and trained in the art of cyberwarfare to be conducted remotely against an alien species.
Focused-beam lasers have been a staple of pulp science fiction from the time of Buck Rodgers in the 1920s right up to the present day. Of course, in the Buck Rogers era, they were known as “disintegrators,” or “infra-rays.” Yes, lasers play a key role in modern weaponry, helping lock on and track targets. But modern-day laser technology is also used in science, surgery, communications, and security technology. However, don’t look for Buck Roger’s “inertron jumping belt” to become part of our wardrobe anytime soon.
5. Genetic Engineering
With the mapping of the human genome, the genetics revolution may just be the next big thing ready to shape modern society. Much of this was foreseen by Aldous Huxley’s 1932 novel Brave New World, a dystopia were citizens are made to order and engineered into their role in society. What’s remarkable about Huxley’s novel is that he wrote it before Watson and Crick’s discovery of the DNA double helix a couple of decades later. Conditioning and chemical control of life were semi-understood in his time, but not the underlying mechanism encoding it.
4. Universal Surveillance
George Orwell’s 1984 has been hailed by some as the most essential literary work of the 20th century. While some would debate 1984’s status as a science fiction novel or a political work, his prophecy of surveillance technology is amazing. In the then-future world of 1984, citizens are kept in line by near-constant monitoring and intimidation. Modern technology maintains an uneasy balance between necessary surveillance and privacy rights that Orwell would have well recognized. It’s been said that when we fail to remember the message of 1984 that Orwell’s terrifying world will finally come to pass.
3. Space Stations
Science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke was such a true visionary that he merits two entries on the list. Among his many near-term predictions was orbiting outposts such as the International Space Station that now circles our planet. Clarke was the first to propose the concept of using research in zero gravity to develop ultra-pure alloys and pharmaceuticals, as well as rotating a space station to produce artificial gravity. This sort of environment may not yet be available aboard the ISS, but the station would have looked right at home on the set of 2001: A Space Odyssey.
2. The Intelligent House
In his 1950 book The Martian Chronicles, author Ray Bradbury details a robotic house that continues operation long after the occupants have gone. Appliances continued to churn out foodstuffs for non-existent residents, as robotic mice scurried about, cleaning room by room. Today’s Roombas and intelligent appliances are emerging examples of this reality. Tech-minded individuals have even gone to such lengths as installing speaker phones in their showers or enabling their house to Tweet the status of utilities or security while absent. While we may now have “wall-to-wall televisions,” Bradbury’s pneumatic people tubes have yet to become standard hardware in most homes.
The concept of nanotechnology, or the ability to alter individual atoms or molecules, was first explored in the late 1950s, and the term itself was coined in the mid-1970s. However, it was cyberpunk author Neal Stephenson’s 1986 novel The Diamond Age that introduced the possibilities of this technology to the masses. Later generation Star Trek series co-opted the idea via Borg and futuristic but microscopic technology. As much of the spaceward-looking pulp science fiction of the previous decades came to pass, authors began exploring inner space. Modern revolutions in nanotech may find applications in computing, surgery, and military applications. Already, ultralight, durable materials made of carbon nanotubes are on the market, and other applications may soon be a reality, including the bizarre “smart paint,” comprised of millions of tiny nanoparticles that reorient according to your color of preference.