Type to SearchView Tags
Ajai Kumar

From Fiction to Reality
Ajai Kumar Vice President - Engineering R&D | November 26, 2015

From Fiction to Reality

October 21st, 2015 (which just went by) is one date, which a lot of movie buffs might relate to.

“Back to the Future Part II” released in 1989, showed its lead character Marty McFly go to the future on this very date (Oct 21st , 2015).  I am sure a majority of us would have watched this movie and some of you (like me) might have seen it several times. The movie gives us a glimpse of what the creative team way back in late 1980s had envisioned the future to be in 2015. While we may laugh off on some of the predictions like wearing two ties together or Chicago Cubs shown as the world champions (by the way, Chicago happens to be my hometown J), I think it is worthwhile to revisit some of the predictions in the current context specially when some fantasy then have become much realistic now:

  1. Though flying cars are still not a household reality as predicted, but Moller Skycar M400, Xplorair PX200, Terrfugia TF-X, SkyRider X2R, AeroMobil 3.0, Honda Flying Sports car, or Honda Fuzo, make us believe that we may see this as a reality in the coming future;may be as early as in 2017.
  2. This movie was made in the time zone when TVs used to come with bulky CRT picture tubes. But they showed big screens with video conferencing facility, very much similar to what we have today. Ironically, they still showed the printouts coming from a dot matrix printer.
  3. During dinner, the family at home is shown to be wearing some high technology goggles which may be fairly close to the Google glasses.
  4. Though still not common, but flying hover boards may be round the corner with Lexus, Hendo, and Omni aiming to make it a reality soon,
  5. During a scene in the film, a USA Today drone around the Hill Valley courthouse was shown taking pictures. Major media companies, including CNN, are now looking into using the tech for news purposes. Drones have already found their place in several walks of life today. For instance, the earthquake @ Los Angeles in March 2014 was first reported by a robot/drone.
  6. When the lead character. McFly used his hands to hold remotes and plays an arcade game “Wild Gunman”, the two kids watching it called it as “baby’s games”. Microsoft Kinect is one such pioneering motion sensing input device, which allows users to control/interact with the game console without the need for a handheld controller/remote.

Nike apparently gave a real pair of self-lacing Nike MAG sneakers recently to Michael J. Fox (Marty McFly of Back to the Future series), which were same as the ones shown in Back to the Future 2 movie. These shoes automatically lace themselves. Not only that, Nike also promised to put them on sale for real, in the spring of 2016. The amount from the sales proceeds will benefit Fox's Parkinson's disease research foundation.

This move made me think on the potential influence of creative field (like movies, books etc.) in the development/launch of some of the innovative products/technology, which we see/experience today. We normally discuss about the role of technology into different aspects of our day to day life. The point to ponder is whether such movies or books provided inspiration to the technology groups/companies/individuals to come up with new innovative products thinning the line between fiction and reality. 

Let’s look at some interesting data points:

  • We have always thought telepathy as seen in Sci-Fi movies to be a cool concept. I was reading an article which talked about the first prototype tested successfully, where two individuals exchanged thoughts via “mind to mind communication” (telepathy). Most interestingly, this was non-invasive –not being aided by implantable devices. This was facilitated by using internet-linked ElectroEncephaloGram (EEG) and robot-assisted image-guided transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) technologies.  Two people, one in India (is that any surprise) and one in France — could mentally transmit the words "hola" and "ciao." Talk about stretching the limits of IoT (Internet of Things) or rather, Internet of Everything. A great example of transforming landscape from science fiction to reality.
  • On several long international flights, I used to always hope that someday soon, the technology of instantly beaming people through one teleportation device to another in distant locations will be made available. Something on the lines of how William Shatner (Captain James T. Kirk) and his crew of the Star Trek Enterprise were shown to travel way back in 1970s and 1980s. Recently, a 20-part wrench was designed on Earth and emailed to astronaut Barry Wilmore who printed it through a 3D printer in his spaceship. So may be the beaming of individuals itself may be much closer than what we anticipate making this fantasy much realistic. On a lighter note, sometime back, I saw a cartoon in which a Pizza store owner is seen talking to someone on the phone and saying that “No ,I cannot send your pizza as an attachment through an email. Technology is not that advanced yet.” However, this may be a possibility now, with Systems and Materials Research Corporation (SMRC) experimenting with 3D printing of food on a contract from NASA.
  • I might lose count of how many movies have shown the concept of people becoming invisible to others by wearing a cloak (Harry Potter), wearing some electronic band (Mr. India – Hindi movie), or through some science experiment (The Hollow Man). Recently, researchers at the University of Rochester developed a cheap and surprisingly effective cloaking device that's being heralded as the first to perform 3D, continuously multidirectional cloaking in the visible spectrum of light. To do it, they combined four standard optical lenses that keeps an object hidden — even as the viewer moves side to side. The system could eventually be used to eliminate blind spots in vehicles or let surgeons see through their hands during surgery.
  • Robots have been most common entity in Sci-Fi movies and some have even gone ahead to embed feelings and emotions, including the latest 2015 movie “Chappie”. While we have already seen Robots in action in different parts of our life (pls refer to my other article on this subject (https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/robots-human-peaceful-co-existence-ajai-kumar), a recent development caught my attention where scientists have put the brain of a worm inside a Lego robot and it actually moved much like the worm itself! This is claimed as a major breakthrough in creating artificial life.  In parallel, researchers from New York University Langone Medical Center reconstructed a synthetic and fully functional yeast chromosome; yet another big achievement.
  • This list of such examples could be endless:
    • Face scanners shown in Minority report are now available even on a few Android Phones.
    • Mission Impossible 2 released in 2000, shows Ethan Hunt receiving his next assignment through Sunglasses showing him the details of his mission. The potential launch of Google Glass 2 is making rounds of news to have same or even better features.
    • Watch Phone - So many movies have them. The Smart Watches are extremely close - and probably even more. E.g. Star Trek's PADD, a tablet PC way before the idea was even born.
    • Suspended animation on humans has been shown in movies “Prometheus” or “Avengers” and interestingly is now in trial stage at UPMC Presbyterian Hospital for emergency preservation and resuscitation. This involved dramatically cooling down trauma victims and keep them alive during critical operations. The patient's blood is replaced with a cold saline solution, which slows down the body's metabolic functions and need for oxygen.

It is not just the movies though. Let’s take a closer look at some of the sci-fi authors mentioning some path breaking ideas which later got adopted in real world-

  • Is there any linkage between the current versions of Credit and Debit cards to the idea coined by writer Edward Bellamy in his 1887-88 novel “Looking Backward”? The novel introduced the concept of “universal credit.” Citizens of his future utopia carry a card that allows them to spend “credit” from a central bank on goods and services without paper money changing hands.
  • While the first battle tank was deployed in 1916, H.G.Wells mentions it, in his 1903 story “The IronClads”.
  • Ray Bradbury in his classic “Fahrenheit 451” in 1953 described something which is very similar to the modern earbuds.
  • Jules Verne’s “From Moon to Earth” published in 1865 not only describes the space rocket vehicle getting launched from somewhere in Florida but also attempts to estimate the force required to propel that rocket into the space. What is interesting is the fact that the Apollo 11 landing on moon in 1969 had very similar looks and even Verne’s estimate on the force required was pretty accurate.
  • When George Orwell wrote his famous book “1984” and talked about a society where authorities used to monitor life of people through inter-connected security cameras. Obviously when this was published way back in 1949, it seemed like completely out of place. However, it is a common practice in today’s world with CCTV, video surveillance, GPS tracking, NSA surveillances etc.
  • Arthur Clarke talked about geosynchronous satellites being used for telecommunication relays and most notably for television signals, way back in 1945 in his book “manuscript”. Not only that, there is also a mention of a newspad, something similar to the current form of iPad, in his another book “2001: A Space Odyssey” which got published way back in 1968. The first video game was created somewhere around 1958, it is really astonishing to find the mention of virtual reality games in his book published in 1956.

The BIG question is how much of an impact creative teams (authors and movie teams) have on upcoming technologies? Did some of the leading tech companies/entrepreneurs get inspired by such fictional creations? One of the leading software companies Infor, has hired an 80 member creative team (from various fields like fashion, writing, movies, etc.) that play a critical role in shaping their new product releases. My organization HCL, believes (& executes) in a disruptive/unique “Ideapreneurship” program and partnered with Infor to create great solutions. Hence, I do believe in the power behind both “generation” as well as “execution” of the idea. May be its time for us as a society to take a step back and evaluate if we need to credit some of the creative teams who envisioned few of the leading edge technology products way before someone else started working on it further. This potentially could be as confusing as the question around “strategy vs. execution” or the “chicken egg” for some of us.

Look forward to your thoughts/inputs.