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The sci-fi legends who shaped today's tech

Posted on 20 Nov 2009 at 16:17

Science fiction has long inspired real-world technology, but have the authors of sci-fi stories finally run out of steam? Stuart Andrews investigates

From the earliest days of Jules Verne and HG Wells, science fiction and technology have enjoyed a mutually beneficial relationship. Sci-fi stories and novels expressed man’s desire to conquer space, find new worlds or explore the ocean depths, and while man would probably have landed on the moon or launched deep-sea expeditions without them, these tales inspired those who made such giant leaps.

In turn, real-world technology has inspired the science-fiction writer. After all, it’s science fiction that charts what happens when humanity meets high technology, asking what will happen, where it will take us, and what we’ll find when we get there. This is as true of computer technology as it was of the space race. Perhaps, even more so.

The geek and hacker cultures that have powered so much of the PC and internet revolution are hugely sci-fi literate. Writers and experts have even crossed paths; the academics and software engineers becoming sci-fi writers, the writers earning a name as futurologists.

In this feature, we’ll explore how science fiction has motivated trends and products in computing, and catch a glimpse of where this relationship might take us in the future.

Visions of the future

Does sci-fi really have that great an impact on the technology that emerges from the labs of the world’s biggest technology companies? Labs that are so well funded (Microsoft alone spent $8 billion on research last year) that they can afford to scoop up the brightest talent emerging from MIT and beyond? Indeed it does, according to Bruce Hillsberg, director of storage systems at IBM Research in Almaden. For him, the value of science fiction is that it “paints visions of the future that cause people to think about possibilities beyond what is possible today”.

Sci-fi can consciously or unconsciously help authors think outside the box

Hillsberg believes the fact so many hi-tech visionaries are sci-fi fans, tied to fiction’s power to stimulate creative thought processes, means that an interest in the genre can lead to real breakthroughs. “I don’t believe sci-fi necessarily sets the agenda for researchers,” said Hillsberg. “That is, I don’t think most researchers try to invent what they read about or see in movies. Rather, they try to move science or technology forward, and sci-fi can consciously or unconsciously help them think outside the box.”

History bears out his theory. Do a little digging and you’ll be surprised to find how many big names in the computing world are sci-fi fans: Apple’s Steve Wozniak, Netscape’s Marc Andreessen, Tim Berners-Lee, Google’s Sergey Brin and the GNU Linux creator Richard Stallman, to name only a few of the tech elite. Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen has even helped fund a museum of science fiction in Seattle.

To Hal and back

It wasn’t long into the history of computing that the sci-fi greats began to see technology’s potential. During the 1950s, Isaac Asimov wrote a sequence of stories featuring Multivac, a huge, artificially intelligent computer, culminating in the classic The Last Question – a tale that tracks the evolution of Multivac and the human race.

Asimov recognised that computers would grow both smaller and more powerful, with Multivac transforming from a sprawling giant into an entity that exists outside of space and time. He merely underestimated the timescale – Asimov thought it would take thousands of years for Multivac to shrink to a vaguely mobile form.

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User comments

They probably have run out of steam - they being the authors of yesterday - we're now waiting for the new authors to set the scene no matter how radical or bizarre their ideas will be - as long as they entertain and use a bit of magical hardware in some new innovative (or not) way. But I do hope that they will remain brave no matter how ridiculous their ideas seem today or for that matter tomorrow ;)

By nicomo on 20 Nov 2009

There are no multitouch displays in Minority Report. He never touches them.

By bogus39 on 22 Nov 2009

Problem with sci fi

Sf is full of fantastic ideas and has some excellent writers, though it's fair to say that readers of sf are looked down upon by the literary establishment. More on this here:

Generally though, sf has moved on, predicting another gadget is not riveting stuff, so you get people like Greg Egan looking at harder stuff, like the fundamental laws of physics and using that to provide drama. (He does it well, unlikely as that sounds).

If you wanted a taste of modern sf (which declares itself as such), then you could by any one of a number of end-of-year short sf compendiums, or you could subscribe to the like of Interzone or Locus.

By RichardFletcher on 22 Nov 2009

true history of viruses

Pleasant to see someone finally copping to what many have known for decades, indeed, for a lifetime.

But they get some stuff wrong. I note especially:
"However, it was The Shockwave Rider’s description of a self-replicating program that could propagate across a network, destroying all bonds of secrecy, that had unintended results."

Huh? I predicted computer viruses in 1969, published it in a short story in 1970 ("The Scarred Man" in VENTURE) AND also propagated the first virus on the DARPA net.

I sent a memo announcing this and at a meeting, the DARPA folk at Livermore said, sure, you can do that--but why would anyone else? The story describes exactly why (calling them viruses, and predicting software to block them, the first called Vaccine).

The rest of this description, of the 1982 CPU counter, is also far off the mark.

By GregoryBenford on 25 Nov 2009


_The Wrist-Radio/CellPhone
in Dick Tracey comic.
_The networks and database
of Orwell's 1884.
Any more ?

By denlile on 26 Nov 2009


Was this article originally intended for Viz. It's just a series half assed ideas that vaguely fit a model of old sci-fi new technology. I'm currently not aware of any all knowing AI and certainly not one that fit's into a handset that exists outside of time and space.

By dodge1963 on 2 Dec 2009

Yes I agree. I think the main reason is that technology briefly caught up with SF and today's tech wizards are pushing blue sky thinking way ahead of what's possible (quantum computing, nanabots, robotics, flying robots etcetc). With string theory and quantum physics people are already theorising about things being in two places at once, multiple universes, particles having an unlimited number of states.
The problem is that these guys are way ahead of the SF writers.
But don't worry - SF writers WILL catch up and move ahead. Technology has just caught them by surprise that's all.

By zzdave on 3 Dec 2009

Here's A Challenge

Go to, get that sci-fi and read it all the way through. Then post here on whether or not you think the sci-fi in that first installment doesn't allow for an imagination to ponder on the possiblities of future technologies.

By YouRJoking on 28 Dec 2009

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