by Joshua Sky
It’s an incredible time to be alive. The average American has a better quality of life than royalty that lived a century ago. We have limitless information that can be summoned in an instant, and it seems that all one needs to start a company is a great idea, a laptop and an internet connection. Ironically, so many of the technologies we rely on today were born in the pages of pulp science fiction magazines, comics and novels of yesterday, many of which were written between the 1920s and the 1980s. What’s amazing is that it wasn’t until recently, in the last two decades, that many of these technologies have finally become real. Here are five examples of flights of the imagination that have come to pass.
Rockets to Mars
Companies all over the world have ignited an optimistic and aggressive space race, firing rockets into the sky in the hopes of making orbital travel commonplace for a low price. From Virgin Galactic to SpaceX, rockets are being launched year-round and the vision is straight out of the pages of Ray Bradbury. Today, private companies are competing to advance these technologies for big government contracts and for a chance to make mankind an interstellar species. Hearing Elon Musk seriously discussing his ambitions of starting a colony on Mars, or seeing a Falcon 9 launch and then land on the same pad is both awe inspiring and almost unbelievable. Almost.
Private enterprise dominating the space industry was something prophesied by Frederick Pohl, scribe and editor of Galaxy magazine, not to mention Starship Troopers writer Robert A. Heinlein. In fact, it was during the moon landing in 1969, in a televised conversation between Heinlein and Arthur C. Clarke, that Heinlein discussed his surprise that the moon landing was led by a government space agency, not private industry. His instinct, which he thought was wrong at the time, would prove true — five decades later. Now when stuck in traffic, LA motorists may look to the sky and wonder if the chemtrails being traced across the atmosphere are from an airplane or something more.
Fun Fact: Rocket scientist Wernher Von Braun was a science fiction fan who enjoyed reading Astounding magazine, both for its stories and nonfiction articles. During World War II, the German government at his behest would send a private car to the Swedish embassy, a neutral country, to pick up the latest issue of the magazine and have it driven all the way back to him in Berlin every month.
Television & Virtual Reality
There’s more entertainment at our disposal than there are hours in a lifetime. Streaming has been gaining ground for ten years, yet it only makes up for 10% of the global television market and the industry is set to have a global boom that has already eclipsed all eras of the medium since its inception.
Alongside television, VR has been making huge strides. For several years, VR has had pop-up boutiques in malls, right beside those stands where salespeople try to hawk Dead Sea salt. VR has seen heavy investment from branded entertainment to the porn industry as well as military applications and it’s only improving with time. It won’t be long before everyone has a headset and will plug-in. Eventually, we won’t need a headset at all.
Fun Fact: TV was one of the main ideas that was predicted and heavily advocated for by Hugo Gernsback, the modern father of the science fiction genre and publisher of Amazing Stories. He was a Jewish man from Luxembourg for whom the Hugo Award, science fiction’s greatest accolade, was named. His protégé was Martin Goodman, the first publisher and owner of Marvel Comics. Gernsback foresaw the rise of VR – albeit a primitive version than what we have today. Picture wearing a sealed, steel scuba helmet, clamped down with bolts with a glass screen before your face that transmits images and voila! you have the late 1920’s version of an Oculus Rift. Crude, but the idea was there …
Brain Controlled Interfaces
The first paralyzed person to receive a brain implant that allowed him to control a computer cursor was Matthew Nagle. In 2006, Nagle played Pong using only his mind. The movements of the game took him four days to master, as reported by the New York Times. Since then, paralyzed patients have moved robotic limbs in labs with just their thoughts.
Now, Elon Musk’s company, Neuralink, has been developing brain-machine interfaces with the goal to eventually merge mankind with technology. Scientists from Neuralink hope to use laser beams to penetrate the skull, rather than drilling holes to install interfaces, and they hope to have human patients by the end of 2020. Musk’s primary ambition is “to achieve a symbiosis with artificial intelligence.” He believes that even in a benign scenario humankind would be left behind due to technology evolving past our species, hence why he wants to create tech that will allow us to merge with AI.
Fun Fact: Robocop, a film about a future cop who utilizes a machine body was co-written by Ed Neumeier, who also adapted Starship Troopers to the big screen. Neumeier came up with the idea for Robocop while working as a PA on the set of Blade Runner.
Is it strange to think that cloning made its watershed breakthrough back in the 1990s with a sheep? Gene editing could one day make fixing a genetic flaw or hereditary illness as easy as it is to screw in a lightbulb. It may even allow us to determine whether there is a gene that causes aging and to eliminate it. Of course, there are ethical dilemmas surrounding the technology — the possibility of creating superhuman designer babies, or even newer species of animals and lifeforms that might thrw ecosystems or food chains out of whack. The technology remains nascent, but it’s advancing: in 2018, a Chinese scientist, He Jiankui, sparked global controversy when he created the first gene-edited babies without consulting the international science community. And in February of 2020, a US trial utilized CRISPR gene editing on three cancer patients. The effort did not cure their cancer, but it proved that there are non-toxic ways to edit genes.
Fun Fact: In 1983, writer David Brin published Startide Rising, a novel set in a future universe in which no species can reach sentience without being “uplifted” by a patron race. But the greatest mystery remains unsolved: Who uplifted humankind? Seven years later, in 1990, Michael Crichton published Jurassic Park, perhaps the most famous science fiction story exploring the consequences of genetic tinkering. Crichton came up with the idea when he realized that there was no pressing need to create a dinosaur … except perhaps for entertainment, thus an amusement park was born.
Okay, so we don’t have commercial rocket packs just yet, but we do have fossil-fuel-free vehicles from Tesla, with more on their way from other automakers. And, there’s also a number of mind-blowing emerging energy technologies that could make recharging vehicles and devices even easier. Or, so that we never have to recharge anything ever again. One such technology is Wireless Energy Transmission. Researches from the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) have succeeded in transmitting energy utilizing targeted microwaves through the air. One of their main projects is to use the technology to create satellites which can harness solar energy and transmit it to earth. The agency is currently planning on deploying a geosynchronous solar collector which weighs 10,000 metric tons.
Fun Fact: Gene Roddenberry, creator of Star Trek, dreamed up the concept of transporters in order to cut down the show’s special effects budget. Originally, crew members were meant to land the starship itself, but that would have been cost prohibitive and unfeasible for filming – it would also make the episodes run longer, having to show takeoffs and landings. Transporters were devised as a low-cost alternative and first appeared in the original pilot episode, “The Cage.”