From sci-fi to reality: the tech the writers invented
Isaac Asimov’s positronic brain
Asimov’s fictional device was supposed to provide robots not only with logic, but with consciousness. In the words of IBM’s Bruce Hillsberg: “We have a project called the SYNAPSE Cognitive Computing project that aims to create artificial synapses and cortexes based on new non-biological materials. The analogy in science fiction is Issac Asimov’s positronic brain, which he writes about in the I, Robot books. Of course, we’re a long way off from that – we’re at the beginning of the journey.”
Minority Report’s gesture recognition
Everyone loved the way Tom Cruise analysed the future crime scene using glowing fingertips and a huge, transparent screen. In fact, the technology was based on actual research, and its exposure in the film has helped its creator turn it into reality. A rival interface project from Sony using glass “data tiles” to show video and data in a rich, graphical form, takes its inspiration not only from Minority Report, but also the glass tiles that made up HAL’s memory in 2001.
Authors from William Gibson to Charles Stross have described technologies that combine real-world sensory perception with overlaid data inputs, either through advanced eyewear, retinal implants or direct connections to the sensory systems. Actual products such as the Wikitude AR Travel Guide on Android and Sony’s EyePet AR toy on PS3 show the way forward. SixthSense, a research project from MIT, combines projector-based augmented reality with a gestural interface.
One of Cyberpunk’s most regularly used tropes was “jacking in” – using hi-tech electrodes or a direct, digital connection to the cortex to break down the barrier between humans and the virtual world. We’re still a long way from a direct, visual field, but controllers are emerging that will enable us to move onscreen avatars by thought alone. With devices such as Emotiv’s Epoc headset, facial expressions and electrical activity in the brain take over from clumsy fingers and thumbs.