We Live in a Science-Fictional World

Shaw (Watha T. Daniel) Library

We Live in a Science-Fictional World

picture of a spaceshipScience fiction (SF) has always been a place for us to explore the unusual places where human ingenuity can take us. SF writers have dreamed of worlds beyond the stars, humans traveling faster than light, barriers of languages broken down and amazing devices that can accomplish things that we never would have thought possible. The reality is science and technology are actually leading us down roads that make the technological marvels seen in science fiction books and television a reality, not just sometime out in the far-flung future, but today. Here are some of the more recent advances in technology and their science fiction counterparts.

Star Trek and the iPad

In Star Trek: The Next Generation, we see crew members working on little notepad devices, known as PADDs, or personal access display devices. These handheld touch pad devices function similarly to the visual interface panels aboard the Enterprise, and they bear a striking similarity to the Apple iPad.  Ars Technica published a fascinating article about the artists who imagined the PADD and how it compares to the iPad. That said, I remember an episode of Voyager where Neelix gives an entire box loaded with these devices to 7 of 9 for research. Why one would need a box-load of them I have no idea. Haven't they come up with a massive memory storage solution by then?  For a little extra Star Trek geekery, check out this guy who built a touch screen console to control his home media system using the Star Trek LCARS interface. Apparently there are dozens of videos like this, especially since you can download this interface to your iPad as well!

Augmented Reality

While some may say that Doctor Who is really a science fantasy series, where the science is all very vague and magic-like, there are current technological developments that mirror some of the functions of the TARDIS (the Doctor's time machine).  The one I'd like to talk about is the TARDIS's ability to translate everything you see and hear. This always makes the new companion question how aliens can speak English, and why all the signs are in English. The TARDIS, knowing the people who have flown in the ship, gets into your head and translates everything before your very eyes. This sometimes leads to hilarity, like Donna saying "Veni, vidi, vici" to a merchant in ancient Pompeii, who then says he doesn't speak Celtic; and sometimes it leads to fear, like when the Doctor and Rose first encounter the Ood on The Impossible Planet and find a language written on the wall that is so old the TARDIS cannot translate it.

Cell phone app designers have been playing around with exploring your environment in a different way via a process known as "augmented reality." Apps like Layar use your GPS and notes to tell you more about what it is that you're seeing. Some of the sillier ones even lay a picture of an alien over a human being, thus revealing their "true form." This week a company called Quest Visual released an app for the iPhone 4 called Word Lens. Word Lens uses the iPhone's camera to scan the environment for words in a foreign language and translate them. Signs, newspapers, dinner menus and other things are directly translated from one language to another, and the characters are replaced within the screen in the exact same place as the originals. While Gizmodo and Boing Boing have tested the limits of this app, it is still a technological marvel.

All the Books in the World

While it may have been Jorge Luis Borges' vision of madness, see the Library of Babel, the vision of all the books that have ever been published and may ever be written is something that fascinates me a great deal. Being able to access any work that has ever been written is something that has been a dream for many a sci-fi adventurer.  Google Books has been able to make a tremendous dent in that process by digitizing 5.2 million books from countries around the world.  Thanks to partnerships with universities and national libraries in the United States and other countries, Google been able to digitize about 11% of all the material that has ever been published.  Not only that, they are now providing an analytical engine that allows us to study trends in words and phrases over time.  This is leading to a new field of linguistic and literary research dubbed "culturomics."  This has already led to some fascinating results and some interesting conclusions.  Science Fiction blog IO9 has a great preview of the article, but for the more intrepid readers the entire article has been made available for free, an unprecedented move, by the scholarly journal Science

The Stars My Destination

In films like Gattaca and nearly any Robert Heinlein book you'll find corporate endeavors to bring people to outer space.  In the stark world of William Gibson there are luxury gated communities in space somewhere in a sweet spot between the earth and the moon.  With the advent of companies like Virgin Galactic and Spacex, we're starting to move into the world of commercial space travel.  Sure it costs an absolute fortune, and unless you're a billionaire with millions to blow it's not really going to be feasible immediately.  But as with all things, technological advances and investment will start to drive the costs down and we may start having space-cations sooner than we would ever imagine.

Perhaps we all need to get a copy of Charles Yu's book How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe.