Patrick G Cox

Fiction Driving Innovation?

I read some time ago an article which suggested that science fiction was an essential driver in moving science forward in practical ways. The writer of that pointed to the "communicators" envisioned in Star Trek as a prime example, suggesting that the original concept provided the kernel of the idea that grew into mobile phones. I suspect that can be argued several ways, but it is certainly true that as one looks back at some of the classic scifi, there is a lot to suggest there is something in the idea. I can think of several references in the writing of Heinlein or Asimov that have real examples in everyday use today. Some, of course, like Heilein's "Thorsen Tubes" - programmable "tubes" which provided the memory for his automated machines - have their equivalent in today's solid state hard drives and USB Sticks. Artificial Intelligence, a dream twnety years ago, still very basic in application ten years ago, is now used in quite a large number of applications, though it still isn't quite up to the level of HAL 9000 in the classic scifi movie 2001: A Space Odessey.

While we may be a long way from achieving that sort of AI coomputer system, the advances in almost every field of computer science in the last ten years have been amazing. We tend to forget that in the last century we have gone from horse drawn traffic, to self propelled vehicles, from a motorized box kite to supersonic flight and the space station by way of men walking on the surface of the moon. Will we see men and women eventually set foot on the surface of Mars? I believe the answer is yes, though possibly not for a few years yet. Will we see human colonies on other planets? Again, possibly, though here we run into a number of interesting possibilities, not least being that our current form has evolved for living on THIS planet. We may have to evolve further to make the voyage to a new planet and live in space while we get there, and then we will have to readapt to the conditions on whichever planet we eventually wash up on.

These are exciting possibilities. Certainly they also present some huge challenges, but then our forefather's ventured out to sea in boats made around willow frames and covered with hides, followed by more rigid hulls, which only gradually got larger over centuries. During that time we were also evolving, changing and adapting to new climates, new diets and the new environments we moved invaded. I think we're a very adaptable species, and we probably haven't finished yet. As Stephen Hawking has written in a treatise shortly before his death, humanity, or Homo Sapiens Sapiens, is already evolving and may eventually divide to become a new branch, Homo Sapiens Superiorensis. In fact, that may already be well underway.

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