On Imagining the Future

I have long been a fan of Science Fiction.  I can recall watching Star Trek: The Next Generation series and movies as a kid with my dad (who now denies ever having watched SF in his entire life).  I also recall watching Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back and the lesser-known The Last Star Fighter from my childhood years.  I was reading Jules Verne and HG Wells while most of my class mates were still struggling with Nancy Drew and The Hardy Boys.  Then I discovered Foundation by Isaac Asimov in the public library in the town where I went to college and I knew I had found one of my favourite authors (though I like the Robot novels and short stories best).

I have also long been a fan of science.  Between the ages of 10 and 12 I received a microscope, chemistry set and electronics kit for birthdays and I did every experiment in their instructions.  I’ve been working on a computer daily since I got my dad’s old IBM 386 for my thirteenth birthday.  I read books on geology, astronomy and natural sciences.  I watch documentaries for fun.

I’m also very into technology.  I’m not an early adopter and I use Windows, not Linux, so don’t call me a techno-nerd, but I love the gadgets available today.  I love the fact that my cell phone can kick that first computer’s ass and that I’m typing this post an a tablet with a touch screen and will save it on a memory card smaller than my pinky nail.  (Anyone remember those old 5 inch floppy disks and the punch cards that preceded them?)

What is very interesting is the way in which science and science fiction have merged the past few decades.  Submarines and spaceships are a common thing nowadays.  Robotics, originally a word invented by Asimov for a story, has become a science in it’s own right.  (On a side-note, I do hope the people in this field will remember about the three laws of robotics when they reach the point of truly intelligent robots to prevent an earth as shown in Terminator and The Matrix of coming to be.)  Many things that used to be science fiction are part of our lives today.

I am, however, intrigued by the technology of today that the SF writers of the past did not imagine.  Take my tablet, for example.  The other day I had to add some numbers and was too lazy to do it manually, so I whipped out the tablet, opened the calculator app and did my sums by touching the screen itself.  While I was busy with that, the thought struck me that nowhere in Asimov’s books do I recall every having read of a computer screen.  He imagined robots with self-programming ‘brains’ that mimic human thinking and are capable of independent and even creative thought.  He created a spaceship that is propelled by manipulating gravitational fields and steered by the pilot’s mind.  He even wrote of a supercomputer that could analyse all data on earth to the point that it only needed a single vote from a single person in order to determine who the next president should be.

But, with the exception of the spaceship steered by thought, the computers in his stories get their input through keyboards and output is either printed or in the form of holographic projection, but never on a screen.  I have often wondered about that.  Did he make a conscious choice not to give his computers screens?  Or did he look at the early technology in this regard and decide that we’ll quickly realise this is inefficient and come up with something better, like holograms?  Maybe he didn’t even think about it.  Or maybe he did and decide something like a touch screen is way too far-fetched to work in one of his stories.  They do say that truth is often stranger than fiction.  Maybe that’s what happened here.