Is the future of techology to be found in fiction?

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When Jurassic Park was on at the cinema, I remember laughing out loud with a couple of my computing mates when the young girl, Lex, looks at a computer screen and says: It’s a UNIX system. I know this. At the time, UNIX didn’t have much in the way of a graphical-user interface (GUI), unless you wanted to write one yourself. And it definitely looked nothing like the screen she recognised. Nowadays, a quick look around the many Linux and UNIX distributions demonstrates that GUIs are everywhere. There are probably some as fancy as the screen she was looking at before she got the Jurassic system up and running again to save them all from being eaten by dinosaurs.

There are many other examples of life (in this case, technology) imitating art (well, blockbuster movies). I only hope no one gets it into their heads to set up a system like the one in Minority Report. I liked the pre-cogs’s visions being recorded and then watched by Tom Cruise. The data gloves were great too, worn by Tom as he interacted with the images in a fine example of direct manipulation.

Toilet window disks

The alarms bells began to ring however, when he wanted to transfer things from one system to another. His colleague got out a big piece of glass – bigger than an old 5 1/4 inch floppy disc – and all credibility vanished. I certainly wouldn’t have had my eyes replaced when that system printed out my name on a wooden ball, that would have been thrown out years ago down at the Gala Bingo. I would have popped on a pair of shades whilst I figured out why I could wirelessly manipulate video footage but could only move data using a disk which looked like a toilet window.

Spielberg aside it seems that technology does imitate art. Jules Verne predicted satellite tracking in his book The hunting of the meteor over 100 years ago. Since then scientists have set up similar systems based on his description, although Verne’s satellites naturally orbited the earth and weren’t launched into space by scientists.

Philip K Dick

Cloning, biometrics, voice recognition software systems and virtual reality have appeared in many films such as 2001: A Space Odyssey and Total Recall which was based on a Philip K Dick short story, as was Minority Report. Dick was a prolific writer with loads of ideas. Today these ideas are reality, even for the consumer. Laptops and hand held gadgets have fingerprint scanning on them. You can pick up voice recognition software for a reasonable price and ask it to open the pod bay doors. Or, use a retinal scanner instead of a key to open your front door. You can buy yourself a robot dog or have a smart house which would react to your needs.

For the more ambitious, trips to the moon are only a matter of a few years away and the human-computer interaction research community is busy designing artefacts for space travel. I wonder if they will wander down to the Design Museum and look at the props from Kubrick’s film. There have already been five space tourists – one went last month.

Sci-fi ideas that writers had 50 years ago are now part our daily lives. Ask any scientist working in technology today about sci-fi and I bet their knowledge will be just as encyclopedic as their techno know-how. If you want to know how the future will look, read some recent science-fiction and see what tomorrow’s scientists will be making.


  1. I helped a friend with a Mac diagnose some networking problems a couple of days ago. Not having used a Mac since the 1990s, I was very happy to find that the Macs of today have a Unix command line! I was dying to type all of my favorite diagnostic commands (ping, netstat, tracert, etc.) – when my Mac-using friend saw the output of netstat, for example, she said “Do you actually understand that stuff?!”

    So, the computer which is purported to have the best GUI, actually now has a Unix command line: I thought of the very same scene from Jurassic Park! Now I am reading your blog 😛

  2. Well I think we can see this partly because fiction gives us an idea of what technology can be used for. With the idea of satellite tracking from Jules Verne, I’m sure it inspired a generation to dream of how they could realise this, influencing science to an extent in fuel of this dream, until we got where we are today.

    Fiction like using genetic modification to bring back the dinosaurs may have been “out there” at the time, but it gives us ideas as to what we can do with technology, and sort of creates a concrete goal to work towards.

    Just the thoughts I had whilst reading.
    BTW: totally out of date comment, but I found this blog entry whilst scouring the net for something completely unrelated, and it caught my eye. Great article! 😀

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