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Sci-fi: fiction or prophecy?

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Brillo. Humans. And robots giving lectures about the future of AI. My latest Feed had me feeling like I was living in an ’80s science fiction movie. And then things got skewed. When it comes to sci-fi, where’s the line between fiction and prophesy? 

So what’s Brillo? Well contrary to my initial thoughts, what it’s not is an Englishman proclaiming approval or an aid to washing up. It is in fact Apple’s new answer to the Internet of Everything. And it is terrifying. At Google’s I/O conference, Senior VP Sundar Pichai described it as “Android, polished down…an end-to-end functioning operating system.” But Brillo is also Weave, a communication layer that will enable IoT devices to talk to the cloud, each other and of course, your phone. So if you’re feeling a little lacklustre and need a pick-me-up ready for you at breakfast, no need to peel back the duvet. Just put the coffee machine on with your phone. Or if you’re mid-commute and realise you’ve forgotten to lock your door, don’t sweat it. Your mobile’s got you covered.

After listening to all this sci-fi madness unfold before me, I wandered downstairs in slight bewilderment and retold the story to my housemates. The ensuing discussion led us down some pretty scary roads. A future civilisation segregated by technology – the rich living on salaries earned by busily building up their data haul (by gardening, shopping, drinking coffee etc.) and living in tiny box apartments where they’re continuously fed personalised advertising. And the poor scavenging on dumping grounds, building shelters from reclaimed computers, and trying to grow vegetables amongst the aftermath of an ‘intelligent’ civilisation.

I’ll admit, we do have the tendency to exaggerate. But if you really think about it, how outlandish does this actually sound? This is where I entered some unsettling ground. I started to think about the connections between historical science fiction and todays reality. Robots, solar energy, space hotels and artificial intelligence. We’ve heard it all before. In books and films and TV shows, writers have been predicting our future for centuries.

Here are some examples of wonderfully prophetic works from the science fiction world:

Universal credit

In his 1888 novel Looking Backwards, Edward Bellamy created a utopia whose citizens carry a card allowing them to spend ‘credit’ from a central bank on goods and services without paper money exchanging hands. Fast forward nearly a century and networked ATMs entered our world.

Personalised advertising.

In John Carpenter’s subversive masterpiece They Live (1998), the protagonist Nada is confronted with personalised advertising everywhere he goes. Nowadays you take a peak at a dress and it follows you around the Internet until you’re forced to pull out your wallet. Next up it’s facial recognition technology (It’s already in use in UK petrol stations). And I’m sorry but the new company that’s offering to rent ad space in your own windows, is just too much.

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Robots fight back

The 2004 Will Smith film I, Robot gave a terrifying insight into the dangers of relying on technology by predicting a robot uprising. This month, a man was killed in a German car factory, by a robot. I’m not usually one for sensationalism, but this really got to me. Then I heard that a guest speaking about the future of AI at TEDxBristol in November, will be an actual robot. I’ll be attending with care.

Video conferencing

Consumer video conferencing came into the world in 1964. Crowds were struck dumb at New York World’s Fair, where AT&T displayed the ‘Picturephone’. But it was in 1911 that Hugo Gernsback’s ancient serial Ralph 124c 41+ brought us his foretelling of the technology. The tale told of a device called the ‘telephot’ that let people have eye contact while speaking across long distances. As well as awkward Skype conferences, we can also thank Gernsback for solar energy, the illustration below looks remarkably familiar.

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Illustration by Frank R Paul, from Ralph 124C 41+. A Romance of the Year 2660, Hugo Gernsback

The cloud

Robert Heinlein’s Solution Unsatisfactory created a world where atomic warfare puts an end to World War II. After they use it, it spurs the rest of the world into a nuclear arms race to keep up. Published five years before Hiroshima, Heinlein’s vision of atomic destruction served as a disconcerting foretelling of the Cold War.

So how much much of science fiction is codswallop, and how often does it predict the future? Well I don’t have a ratio, but in light of this Feed, if sci-fi writers could lay off producing work with sinister tales of AI uprisings or global self-destruction, that would be swell. Just in case.

 

 

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