Sci-fi movie gadgets that came true

Science fiction is always trying to predict the future and, particularly, the sci-fi gadgets that we’ll all be using. Sometimes these guesses (because let’s be honest, however informed they are, they’re still guesses) are wide of the mark. According to Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) we’d all have flying cars by 2019 and, according to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), we’d have built a base on The Moon by, you guessed it, 2001. In both cases, we’re still waiting and likely will be for quite some time.

The 1995 film, Johnny Mnemonic had a computer hard-drive implanted in Keanu Reeves’ brain. Make up your own punchline.

So, trying to predict the sci-fi gadgets people will use and the effects they will have on society can be a tricky and thankless task. But, let’s look at a few occasions when sci-fi got it right.

ROCKETS AND SUBMARINES

 

Back in the 1800s, the father of science-fiction was the writer, Jules Verne, who accurately predicted many sci-fi gadgets, some of which wouldn’t come about for decades.

For example, Verne wrote his book From the Earth to the Moon in 1865, in which a missile-shaped spacecraft is launched from Florida to the moon. This was surprisingly similar to what actually happened a hundred years later. The only detail Verne got wrong was his spaceship was launched from a massive cannon, rather than under the thrust of its own engines. 

This notion became the inspiration for Georges Méliès’ 1902 film Le Voyage Dans La Lune, which remains one of the earliest and one of the most popular movies from the infancy of cinema.

In 1869, he published his most famous novel, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Surprisingly, Verne didn’t predict the invention of submarines or underwater breathing apparatus, because they already existed in a primitive form; but he did combine existing technologies in surprising new ways, which inspired engineers and designers to improve the work they were doing in the real world.

That’s one of the great things science fiction can do – it can inspire scientists to make its fictional technology into a reality. Don’t worry about making Terminators, though, guys, we’re alright without.

ROBOTS AND ANDROIDS

 

Building machines that have some human characteristics is not a new idea. Leonardo DaVinci sketched an idea in the 1490s to move a suit of armour with levers and pulleys, while the 18th century saw the creation of many clockwork automata, which hid their own gears and pistons behind a human-looking facade.

The actual word ‘robot’ comes from the Czech word for ‘forced labourer’ or ‘slave’ and was first used by the writer Karel Čapek in his 1921 play, R.U.R. which told the story of a factory manufacturing robot workers.

Strictly speaking, a robot that looks like a human would be called an ‘android’, from the Greek phrase ‘to have the form of a man’.

The most famous android from the early days of cinema is, of course, the False Maria from 1927’s Metropolis, who set the template for movie robots for decades to come. Even C3PO in Star Wars is a visual quote to Metropolis.

Since then, movie androids have evolved to the plastic-and-chrome iMac-inspired machines of I, Robot (2004) and the indistinguishable-from-humans ‘hosts’ from the TV series Westworld (2016). 

By the 1970s, real-world industry was starting to employ real robots – machines that were controlled by computers rather than remote-control operators; but these were typically just a robot arm, such as those used to assemble cars. They looked nothing like the upright walking androids our movies had taught us to expect.

Today, you may even have sci-fi gadgets in your home – such as the robots that do our vacuuming. The military has robots for safely detonating bombs. Meanwhile scientists at Boston Dynamics and NASA, among other facilities, are making real progress in building androids that can stand upright, walk, maintain their balance and tell you the odds of making that jump to lightspeed.

VOICE-ACTIVATED COMPUTERS 

 

In Star Trek, there were many moments when Captain Picard would walk onto the bridge of The Starship Enterprise, look at the screen, at the new planet they are orbiting, and say “Computer, tell me everything about that planet”. A warm, reassuring voice would then issue from a hidden speaker and tell him what he wants to know.

The ubiquitous 2001 also featured Hal 9000, a voice-activated computer which could, rather unfortunately, also read lips.

The boffins at Google and Apple watched all this (back when they were kids) and decided that would be really good to have that kind of voice-activated interface in the real world (not so much the lip-reading), so set about creating a search engine that could store and understand every shred of information in the world so that people who have no idea about SEO and keywords could ask their computer a randomly-phrased question and it would understand the question and answer it. Easier said than done.

We now have Siri and Alexa and any number of other ‘virtual assistants’, which access a vast pool of knowledge as well as deceptively complex artificial intelligence algorithms. Presumably, as this technology develops and becomes more common, the old-fashioned keyboard will become a thing of the past.

SELF-DRIVING CARS

 

If you were a kid in the 80s, you wanted to be Michael Knight – you wanted to have your very own KITT car. Not only did KITT have a voice-acted interface and a sarcastic artificial personality, but it was also a self-driving muscle car.

Depending on whether or not you’re an old-school petrol-head, autonomous vehicles – those vehicles which do the driving for you – might be seen as a dream come true, or a nightmare.

In 1990’s Total Recall, we had the industry-defining Johnnycab – a taxi with an android driver which would take you where you needed to go and annoy you with its banter on the way. Demolition Man followed, in 1993, with future cars which simply have an ‘auto mode’, which takes the steering wheel away and simply won’t allow you to drive recklessly. The idea being that computer intelligence will drive better than the average person. This same option appeared in Will Smith’s car in I, Robot.

Safety is the concern that has fuelled the development of self-driving cars in the real world. Steven Spielberg got Lexus to design futuristic self-driving cars for his 2002 film, Minority Report, and that seems to have alerted the entire car industry to the potential of this new technology. Since then, many of the major car companies have invested heavily in developing this new technology.

So, expect a self-driving car to be parked on your drive far sooner than sci-fi movies predicted.

VIDEO PHONES

 

If you haven’t seen the 1927 silent film, Metropolis, you should really take the plunge. Although knocking-on one hundred years old, it contains many of the ingredients that have peppered science-fiction and, more recently, the real world.

One such notion is the video phone. This phone needed tuning-in like a radio, but the basic ingredients of screen/camera/microphone were all established.

By the time Stanley Kubrick got to include a video-phone in 2001: A Space Odyssey, it worked along the same principles as a payphone. The same was true of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (set in 2019) which has its protagonist using a public pay-phone with a video screen.

Out here in the real world, the public payphone is all-but a thing of the past and we have video phone apps like Skype or FaceTime built into every laptop and every mobile phone. This is one example of a real-world gadget far exceeding the sci-fi gadget that predicted it.

SCI-FI GADGETS OF TOMORROW

Other sci-fi gadgets that the real world is on the cusp of introducing include personalised adverts (such as the billboards that shout Tom Cruise’s character name in Minority Report), replicators (those 3D printers which produce food from, seemingly, fresh air in the Star Trek universe) and air-touch technology (which sees movie heroes like Tony Stark waving their hands around, controlling computer graphics which float in the air). Expect to be waving your arms around in order to answer your emails, any time soon.

Meanwhile, we’re still waiting for our flying car.

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