The sci-fi legends who shaped today's tech

Science fiction has long inspired real-world technology, but have the authors of sci-fi stories finally run out of steam? Stuart Andrews investigates

Stuart Andrews
20 Nov 2009

From the earliest days of Jules Verne and HG Wells, science fiction and technology have enjoyed a mutually beneficial relationship. Sci-fi stories and novels expressed man’s desire to conquer space, find new worlds or explore the ocean depths, and while man would probably have landed on the moon or launched deep-sea expeditions without them, these tales inspired those who made such giant leaps.

In turn, real-world technology has inspired the science-fiction writer. After all, it’s science fiction that charts what happens when humanity meets high technology, asking what will happen, where it will take us, and what we’ll find when we get there. This is as true of computer technology as it was of the space race. Perhaps, even more so.

The geek and hacker cultures that have powered so much of the PC and internet revolution are hugely sci-fi literate. Writers and experts have even crossed paths; the academics and software engineers becoming sci-fi writers, the writers earning a name as futurologists.

In this feature, we’ll explore how science fiction has motivated trends and products in computing, and catch a glimpse of where this relationship might take us in the future.

Visions of the future

Does sci-fi really have that great an impact on the technology that emerges from the labs of the world’s biggest technology companies? Labs that are so well funded (Microsoft alone spent $8 billion on research last year) that they can afford to scoop up the brightest talent emerging from MIT and beyond? Indeed it does, according to Bruce Hillsberg, director of storage systems at IBM Research in Almaden. For him, the value of science fiction is that it “paints visions of the future that cause people to think about possibilities beyond what is possible today”.

Sci-fi can consciously or unconsciously help authors think outside the box

Hillsberg believes the fact so many hi-tech visionaries are sci-fi fans, tied to fiction’s power to stimulate creative thought processes, means that an interest in the genre can lead to real breakthroughs. “I don’t believe sci-fi necessarily sets the agenda for researchers,” said Hillsberg. “That is, I don’t think most researchers try to invent what they read about or see in movies. Rather, they try to move science or technology forward, and sci-fi can consciously or unconsciously help them think outside the box.”

History bears out his theory. Do a little digging and you’ll be surprised to find how many big names in the computing world are sci-fi fans: Apple’s Steve Wozniak, Netscape’s Marc Andreessen, Tim Berners-Lee, Google’s Sergey Brin and the GNU Linux creator Richard Stallman, to name only a few of the tech elite. Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen has even helped fund a museum of science fiction in Seattle.

To Hal and back

It wasn’t long into the history of computing that the sci-fi greats began to see technology’s potential. During the 1950s, Isaac Asimov wrote a sequence of stories featuring Multivac, a huge, artificially intelligent computer, culminating in the classic The Last Question – a tale that tracks the evolution of Multivac and the human race.

Asimov recognised that computers would grow both smaller and more powerful, with Multivac transforming from a sprawling giant into an entity that exists outside of space and time. He merely underestimated the timescale – Asimov thought it would take thousands of years for Multivac to shrink to a vaguely mobile form.

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