Technology: fiction turning real (or not)

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The iKettle

The iKettle

I love technology. The picture is of the iKettle – advertised on Amazon as the first-ever wifi kettle. With your iKettle, you can switch it on via your smartphone with an app or set it to switch on at a particular time; you can invite your friends around for a cuppa via the ‘share’ function, and it will ask you whether you want a cuppa when you arrive home.

Totally cool. I want one.

OK, I’m probably not going to get one, because while totally cool, it’s also kind of useless. It’s a gadget ahead of its time. One day, all kettles will be wifi-enabled. The days of a watched kettle never boiling will be over, because we’ll switch our kettles on via our phones, and only amble into the kitchen when the water is ready. However, at the moment, it’s just a bit excessive. And expensive. Saving 5 minutes of kettle-watching doesn’t mean enough to me that I would spend nearly ¬£100 on a wifi-enabled kettle.

But kettles aside, we can already control home heating and the lighting via smartphone. We can pay for small items in shops via smartphone. Your smartphone is personal organiser, clock and calculator all in one.

If anyone has read Arthur C. Clarke’s Imperial Earth, first published in 1975, they will recognise the fictional ‘minisec’ as the modern smartphone. Likewise, in J.D. Robb’s In Death series (first published in 1995), heroine Eve Dallas wears a ‘wrist unit’ which supplements her ‘comlink’ – which items of technology bear a striking resemblance to a smartwatch paired with a smartphone.

Star Trek‘s replicator is now – sort of – available in the form of 3D printers, at least for non-food items. A tractor beam has been created at Dundee University.

On the other hand, some science-fiction technology predictions are being shown to be way off the mark. Aldous Huxley’s one-man light aircraft in Brave New World (the flivver) has never got off the ground in reality, despite several attempts – not the least being the Ford Flivver.

Both Isaac Asimov and J.D. Robb have a lot of robots (‘droids’ for J.D. Robb) in their books; robotics just hasn’t taken off in the way it was predicted to do twenty years ago (or fifty or a hundred years ago). We don’t have robot servants; producing a robot that will replicate even some of the functions of a person is proving to be much more difficult than originally thought.

Even for robots, though, there is still hope. Although the human-like robots of Isaac Asimov and J.B. Robb (let alone Star Trek‘s Data) are proving to less attainable than originally thought, you can already get a robotic vacuum cleaner¬† and robot ‘carers’ for the elderly are in development.

But the picture is actually more complex than what is technologically possible. As the Japanese have been discovering, it’s one thing to manufacture a robot – it’s quite something else to get people to use it. At the moment, it seems that the complexity of the technology isn’t the only reason that robot servants and helpers are looking relatively unlikely for the future – it’s the fact that people prefer to be looked after by other people. People are happy to use robot vacuum cleaners, or robotic chairs or toilets – or even a robotic pet, up to a point. But it seems that a line is drawn when it comes to something that looks and seems to act like another person.

Is the resistance to humanoid robots simply the reaction to something new and strange – or is it deeper than that, a deeper desire to draw a line between People and Not People? With a vacuum cleaner, it’s a pretty simple concept: it’s not a person, it’s a device. When we’re talking Commander Data, though, a robot who looks and acts like a human, where do we draw the line? Is he a person or is he a device (a question that was considered in one episode of Star Trek.)? There are already ethical questions being asked about the use of robots in caring for the elderly.

Then there are the advances that weren’t predicted at all. J.D. Robb’s Eve Dallas still uses cash (‘credits’) instead of simply tapping her wrist-unit or comlink against a reader to make an electronic payment – yet we are starting to see not only tap-to-pay near-field-communications payments but also software that allows money to be transferred electronically between friends. In Star Trek, a character might have a number of PADDs, indicating that the tablet-like devices possibly come preloaded with information, or only have a very limited capacity – yet in the real world, we only have one tablet computer (usually) and download the information we want, then delete it when we don’t need it any more. References to ‘book disks’ in several series is jarring – now we have electronic book readers, we don’t use disks to load books onto them: we download directly from the internet, or download to a desktop computer program and then transfer. No disks involved.

What changes will the future hold? Robots haven’t taken off the way it was originally envisaged, and we don’t all have a personal flying machine, but computers have mostly exceeded authors’ expectations, with smartphones and smartwatches now able to control our homes and keep us in touch with our friends and with the news. But the most difficult thing about writing new technology, I think, is not the technology itself, but how people deal with it.

Authors did not predict our human reaction to humanlike robots, or the changes that social media, coupled with smartphones, have made in people’s daily routines. This isn’t surprising – there are always going to be some ‘misses’ along with the ‘hits’. But it does mean that anyone writing science fiction needs to learn from the mistakes of the past, and pay attention not only to the real technology that caught on (smartphones) but the technology that didn’t (humanoid robots).

Really good science fiction isn’t just about inventing some great new technology – it’s about telling the human story around it.

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