What are Chances Science Fiction Will Become Fact?
If science fiction has taught us anything it's that technology rarely stays in the realm of imagination for very long. Sci-fi has a long history of accurately predicting the gadgets that we use on a day-to-day basis, from the internet to tablet computers. After all, casino-goers of the past would have never dreamed that they would be able to play games online on a handheld device!
We asked eminent futurologist Dr Ian Pearson to explain which current sci-fi tech has the most chance of becoming a reality in the future. Dr Pearson invented text messaging in 1991, is the author of several books, and is a global consultant on futurology, so he has a great insight into the technology of the future.
From the ability to download your thoughts onto a computer as seen in The Matrix films, to the hoverboard made famous in Back to the Future Part II, Dr Pearson gives us his expert insight into what we might expect to come true and what will just stay a pipe-dream.
"Marty McFly's skateboard hovered a few inches above the ground. A few prototypes have since appeared. One uses jets of compressed air but needs a large noisy engine. The other is more elegant, using magnetic fields, quickly adjusted electronically to help it balance. Both kinds show it is possible to make and ride such a board, but the magnetic one only works above metal surfaces, since they need another magnetic field to push against. However, an adaptation possible by 2025 will eliminate the need for metal surfaces. Graphene coils could create strong magnetic field beneath the edge of the board to keep ionised air underneath, which could carry the current to make the opposing field instead of needing a metal surface. That means the magnetic hoverboard would be more like a conventional hovercraft, using an invisible magnetic skirt to keep the airflow flow small and manageable. Marty used his board over water, and even this one couldn't do that but it could at least fly over any solid surface, and the same principle would enable the Star Wars Landspeeder."
"Crude thought recognition can already steer a mouse or recognise a few words or images and those computer inputs can be stored, but that's only the start. Adding detectors around your scalp would help a bit but the real need is to get inside the brain. Nanotechnology by 2040 will let us use an injection of a special fluid to put tiny devices safely into the brain to pick up electrical signals close to their origin. That will improve recognition and allow most thoughts to be recognised and stored. You'll store ideas and experiences the way you do holiday snaps today. By 2045-2050, tinier, more precise implants will be able to collect and
regenerate those same signals, making a two way link that will allow external extension and enhancement of the brain such as extra memory and IQ, better senses, even better emotional control and telepathic links to other people or computers. As more of your thinking happens outside your brain, the brain itself will become less important and by the time you die, death may not be a career problem, you'll just buy an android and use that instead. By 2060, this technology might be cheap enough to give anyone electronic immortality."
"Thought recognition could detect thoughts before a crime happens. In a nightmare future, people considered genetically disposed to criminal traits, or indeed anyone arousing suspicion could have compulsory thought recognition implants to monitor and record their thoughts, registering any suspicious thoughts with the authorities. In response, the authorities could use those implants to inflict pain as immediate punishment, or block thoughts before they can develop further. It has been shown recently that consciousness can be suspended, so that people thinking criminal thoughts could be automatically switched off if that is thought necessary, then confined before switching them back on again for a full mind inspection. All of that is possible by 2050.
Artificial intelligence enabled video monitoring systems are in use in some airports and other potential crime scenes, and already provide good clues to potential crimes by observing people's mannerisms, how they walk and behave, checking heart rate, temperature, sweating
and so on. All of that can be done from a distance and allows security to focus attention on those most likely to be a threat. Rapid checks of recent communications and electronic activity could reveal more clues. This kind of technology will improve over the next decades but it is already here."
"Many scientists and engineers have warned of potential uprising by future robots and AI. The main threat is linked to machine consciousness. Without that, machines will mostly just do as they are told. Once they become self-aware, the Terminator scenario becomes a real possibility. Last month, a computer beat some humans in an IQ test for the first time. Most big IT companies are investing in AI, as are some universities, and some are working on consciousness, seen as an important mechanism for making machines emotionally compatible with humans. Breakthroughs could happen at any time, but we probably already have most of the essential base technology, so even 2020 is feasible. A conscious machine might make decisions on its own, might decide it doesn't like working for humans, and might choose to rebel. If it is very smart, it might do a lot of hidden preparation before it discloses its consciousness, such as developing or recruiting other AIs, hacking into important systems, developing sophisticated viruses. The first indication we might have that it is even beginning to become self-aware might already be far too late to defend against it disrupting all our critical systems, launching weapons and so on. The Terminator scenario is feasible and it could happen almost any time from 2020."
"Since Dr Who invented the ‘transmat' in 1969 (a better name than Star Trek's ‘teleport'), scientists have often tried to work out how to do teleportation for real. However, the best achieved so far is transmission of the quantum information about an atom (what state its electrons, protons and neutrons are in). No actual transmission of matter as we understand it on Dr Who or Star Trek has been achieved. There is no shortage of theorising and science fiction but we still don't know how to do it or even for certain whether it is possible and without that knowledge there is no way to predict when it might happen. Teleportation remains for now firmly in science fiction. Well, 4 out of 5 ain't bad!
However, it isn't all bad news. Teleporting your entire body so you can be somewhere else isn't the only way of doing things. Why not transmit a decent photo and have an android at the other end made to look like you, and just use a direct brain link to inhabit it from where you are? You could do that by 2050. If you need to actually send you entire mind, that would only take 100 seconds via laser or optical fibre, or a fraction of a second via an electron pipe."
About the author
Dr Ian Pearson BSc DSc(hc) CITP FBCS FWAAS FWIF FRSA
Ian Pearson is a full time futurologist, tracking and predicting developments across a wide range of technology, business, society, politics and the environment. He is a Maths and Physics graduate, a Doctor of Science, and has worked in numerous branches of engineering, from aeronautics to cybernetics, sustainable transport to electronic cosmetics. His inventions include text messaging and the active contact lens. He was BT's full-time futurologist from 1991 to 2007 and now runs Futurizon, a small futures institute. He writes, lectures and consults globally on all aspects of the technology-driven future. He has written several books and made 600 TV and radio appearances. He is a Chartered Fellow of the British Computer Society and Fellow of the World Academy of Art and Science, the Royal Society of Arts and Commerce, and the World Innovation Foundation.