Art imitates life, but inspiration can go both ways. In the latest Star Trek movie, Star Trek Beyond, Captain Kirk describes a ship cloaking technology that uses holographic camouflage to conceal a spacecraft from detection. Military researchers in the U.S. and U.K. are currently developing a similar technology that conceals soldiers from view by projecting images of their surroundings onto cloaks, allowing them to blend in with their environment. Such an example illustrates how technology in both science fiction and real-life often come together. Here are four examples of SF visions that preceded real-life technology in use today.
The roots of the robot date back to the 3rd century B.C. Greek mythological epic The Argonautica, where a bronze giant named Talos guarded the island of Crete. In the Middle Ages, a legend arose that St. Albert the Great invented a talking robot that annoyed St. Thomas Aquinas. The 18th-century French inventor Jacques de Vaucanson built mechanical flute-players and ducks and even attempted a rubberized man. In the 19th century, Edgar Allan Poe envisioned a mechanical chess player. And In 1898, Nikola Tesla patented a radio-controlled robotic boat.
In the 20th century, robots entered the science fiction mainstream through pioneering works like Czech writer Karel Capek’s 1920 novel R.U.R., which introduced the term “robot,” and German director Fritz Lang’s 1927 expressionist SF classic Metropolis. Today robots are a reality poised to transform the global economy. Amazon currently uses robots to handle warehousing tasks, signaling an accelerating trend towards the minimization of manual labor, while China is building an army of millions of robots to replace human workers.
Experiments with autonomous cars date back to the 1920s and 1930s when U.S. Army electrical engineer Francis Houdina began demonstrating radio-controlled cars in New York City, Milwaukee, and Fredericksburg. By 1935, driverless cars were appearing in SF pulp magazines, inspiring GM to portray automated highways in its Futurama ride at the 1939 World’s Fair. Experiments with automated vehicles continued after World War II and throughout the Cold War, leading to practical applications such as the Mars Rover vehicles of the 1970s. In 2004 the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Administration brought the dream of autonomous cars into reality by funding a project to improve technology enough to develop driverless military vehicles by 2015. Today companies such as Google and Uber are competing for preeminence in the rapidly-emerging autonomous car market.
In 1946, Chester Gould’s comic strip detective Dick Tracy began using a 2-Way Wrist Radio to aid his fight against crime. Tracy’s gadget inspired both popular toys and practical inventions, with New York City Police adopting a similar communications device in 1958. James Bond received a digital message on his custom-made Seiko wristwatch in the 1981 film For Your Eyes Only, and the niece of 1980s Bond parody Inspector Gadget used her watch to communicate via phone calls and video calls. Pebble’s Kickstarter brought smartwatches to the market in 2012, paving the way for, which can send and receive calls, emails, and texts, in addition to tracking daily activities.
Seminal science fiction writer Isaac Asimov introduced the idea of a portable calculator pad that could compute future history in his novel Foundation, originally serialized in Astounding Science-Fiction between 1942 and 1950 before being published in book form in 1951. The tablet concept reached movie audiences in 1968 through the adaptation of Arthur C. Clarke’s novel 2001: A Space Odyssey, which depicts people using a NewsPad to watch TV and read newspapers. The same year, computer scientist Alan Kay invented what became known as the Dynabook, a personal educational computer with a tablet-like design. Tablets were also featured prominently in the 1980s and 1990s TV series Star Trek: The Next Generation. And In 1987, Apple started on a tablet project, which ultimately bore fruit with the 2010 introduction of the iPad.