Imagination is, so I'm told, the key to successful story telling. I'm inclined to think it is about 10% imagination and inspiration and the rest is sweat and tears. I draw a lot of my inspiration for stories from either science discussions, or from reading history. Sometimes an idea just demands to be developed. Such weas the inspiration for the AI systems on the ships I have set in my Harry Heron tales. My idea of a sentient computer came from a conversation with a man who has made a career out of developing systems for computers.
Asked whether we were even close to developing a computer capable of 'Artificial Intelligence' or AI, he smiled and admitted that work was being done in that field - but then threw in the wobbly. "The computers won't look anything like the ones we're building now."
That makes sense, in a way, since the current crop of computers are limited by their processor capacity, their memory and the speed with which things can be retrieved, sorted and arranged. They certainly are capable of 'managing' simple tasks and overseeing a range of activities, but essentially, in their present form, they are limited to that. So, what would an AI computer look like? My friend wouldn't say exactly, but he did say it would be a 'Neural Network' with nodes, interfaces, feedback loops and super processors.
OK, so I tried to envisage something like that in my writing. Perhaps a computer that uses fibre-optics instead of electrons where it needs linkages between nodes, then many 'nodes' organised in a manner similar to the human brain with specific functions handled by specific sections, a huge 'subconscious' data store, and the ability to sort and identify responses to inputs. It makes sense in my head at least, and I'm told it is something being considered in the industry. In essence, at present, a computer can be programmed to 'manage' a wide range of tasks, using dedicated single task 'processors' which actually run a particular function. An example is a machine stamping out parts for a car, connected to another machine which perhaps drills holes and taps a thread into the holes, and a third machine which does an electronic check, then accepts or rejects the part.
Now add an ability to 'interface' directly with the computer and we are into the realms of science fiction. Or are we?
Cranial implants are already used to allow people to hear, see and to manage seizures in the brain. Micro-surgery is a fact, as is laser surgery, and the advances in neuro-surgery are simply staggering. I predict that within the next twenty years at most, someone will dicover the means to 'fix' a range of genetic diseases by gene therapy or manipulation. Both of these concepts I have used in my books and already I am finding that some of these things are 'already there' in prototype or development. It seems that 'imagination' is not the sole property of the story-teller. Perhaps it never was.
Somehow I find that encouraging. As long as someone is asking 'what if?' there will be a desire to find an answer. Some may lead nowhere, but many will lead us forward. As a history teacher told my class many years ago - "History is cyclic, civilisations rise and fall, but the ideas they brought to the world remain. Technology, once discovered, remains with us though it may be passed to another group for a time." He was, at the time, discussing how western Europe - Britain in particular - lost the technology for road building, drains and water supplies for around 500 years, then 'rediscovered' them when scholars fled the Muslim invasions from Byzantium. It is something I realise again and again as I read history or research something for a book.
Imagination: the essential stock in trade of both the story-teller and the inventor, and sometimes, I think, they overlap.