The History of the Future

 

Once upon a time, I took this unconventional class called The History of the Future. It was a history class that studied historical social and political issues through the lens of science fiction.

The premise of the class was that science fiction writers take contemporary issues and technologies and then project them into the future with both utopia and dystopia outcomes.

Science Fiction of the Past

During the class, we watched the distopia of Fritz Lang’s famous movie from the 1920s, Metropolis, where mechanization and industrialization took the world by storm. After, we discussed how the massive industrialization efforts of the time inspired such a story.

We discussed the micro-nuclear gadgets that were prolific in Azimov’s first Foundation trilogy — also written in the 1920s during the heyday of nuclear research. We compared that to the computer technology in Azimov’s second Foundation trilogy, written in the 1980s, written during the beginnings of the personal computers. Although both trilogies took place in the same future, the first trilogy made no mention of computers and the second trilogy made no mention of nuclear gadgetry.

Science Fiction and the Present

While at MIT, I was introduced to the reality of science fiction.

Professors developed devices that used cameras to provide artificial sight to people blinded by macular degeneration, much akin to Geordie in Star Trek. They explored the depth of the oceans with underwater robots, much akin to Tom Swift and His Diving Seacopter, written in 1956. They invented electronic ink that could refresh into new paper and laid the groundwork for the Kindle and other e-readers of today. I saw the imagined technology of my youth becoming reality.

The Science Fiction library at MIT has a public, open-shelf collection of science fiction literature. Frequently, students use those stories to escape into the future and imagine how the technology of those times will work.

Science Fiction and the Future

The imaginations of science fiction writers continue to drive us into the future.

Miniaturization and nanotechnology are creating a new class of materials, with mechanical and electrical properties that are still being explored. So far, scientists have found new ways to bend light, hide objects, and strengthen mechanical properties, among others. These new materials have the potential of becoming the tear-away superconducting cloth of Ringworld. NASA and ESA’s recent landing on asteroids could be the beginning of putting an asteroid in orbit around the Earth. An orbiting asteroid was also the first step of building a space elevator around Mars in Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy.

Meanwhile the 3D printing of food is putting us one step closer to food replicators.

Science Fiction: Catalyst for Reality

All of us at MIT Enterprise Forum Northwest are excited to present a program on science fiction and reality as the final Innovation Forum program of our 2014 – 2015 season.

Science fiction teaches us of the past and inspires the future. So we felt it appropriate to take a step back, look at our progress over the last 30 years and celebrate what technology has done for us. With that knowledge and insight, we can project our own thoughts into the near future and imagine the benefits and challenges facing us very soon.

Technology got us to where we are. And technology will get us to where we are going.

 

Jimmy Jia

Board Chair
MIT Enterprise Forum Northwest

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