We have been absolved of the feeling that something can’t be done. “Science is pulling ahead of science fiction,” says Neil Gershenfeld, head of the interdisciplinary Center for Bits and Atoms at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Researchers at MIT are hard at work developing things like computers that can be painted onto surfaces, chips made of viscous liquids and even collapsible electric scooters, which add a new sound to the orchestra of modern mobility concepts. Much of what is part of everyday life today first appeared in literature and cinema. Take Jules Verne’s expedition to outer space, the smartphone-like communicator in Star Trek or the geostationary communications satellites in Arthur C. Clarke’s work. With machine learning, cloned sheep and the global phenomenon that is the internet, we have long since been writing our own real-life science-fiction saga.
Research and the art of engineering are turning the visionary ideas of the future increasingly into reality. William Shatner, better known as Captain Kirk, demonstrates this in his book I’m Working on That: A Trek from Science Fiction to Science Fact. Teleportation, for example, is the stuff of legend. However, in an elaborate experiment, a group of scientists headed by Austrian physicist Anton Zeilinger succeeded in “teleporting” photons for the first time in 1997. Then, in 2004, two teams from the University of Innsbruck and the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Colorado succeeded in performing quantum teleportation with atoms. In other words, they teleported physical material. Incidentally, it is not without irony that it was an Austrian, a native of a country known for a slower pace of life, who refined a method of mobility enabling movement at more or less the speed of light without having to move from the spot.
Alexander Mankowsky is the “knowledge engineer” at Daimler AG, where he is in charge of research on the future. His job is to turn technological utopias into realities. “Ultimately, we are already living in the future,” he says. In addition to the visions that have yet to come to fruition (“Where’s my jetpack?” he chuckles) and those in which there is still much progress to be made (video chat, maglev technology, artificial intelligence), there is one category that he finds particularly exciting: when fantastical ideas come ever closer to materializing – such as autonomous driving.
The origins of sci-fi
In recent times, it’s scientific reality that has been providing creative minds with futuristic material to work with. Science-fiction authors draw inspiration from researchers, whose ideas, in turn, were informed by Star Trek and other examples of science fiction when they were growing up. What were previously bold ideas, such as the coupling of computers and the brain, have arrived in the here and now. Indeed, as early as 2004, the US Food and Drug Administration approved the first clinical test in which a paralyzed person was successfully given a brain implant in the form of a brain-computer interface known as BrainGate. It was placed in the region of the cerebral cortex (the region responsible for movement) and it connects neurons with the computer using a fibreglass cable coming out of the skull. The BrainGate allows the user to control a computer or robotic arm with their mind. A Japanese company is already laying the groundwork for a mind-powered model train.
The British poet William Wilson coined the term “science fiction” in 1851. That same year, Jules Verne published his short story “A Drama in the Air,” about a journey in a balloon. New modes of transportation increasingly became the focus of attention for fans of science fiction. Newspaper illustrations and trading cards in cigarette packs featured spectacular images of a world envisioned 100 years into the future: Zeppelin coaches, flying cars that parked on the landing pads of skyscrapers, complex streams of traffic in big cities, maglev technology and novel forms of communication such as wireless image broadcasting.
In 1928, the Berliner Illustrirte Zeitung published an article entitled “Wunder, die unsere Kinder vielleicht noch erleben warden” (A miracle that our children might one day witness), which rings just as true today as it did back then. “It appears as though radio television, or the transmission of a live image from a broadcaster, has been possible in the laboratory for several months. Using a wireless device, possibly called a ‘Telephotophon,’ we shall be able to simultaneously see and hear our conversation partner in just a few years. There will also be a portable model that will enable us to continue a conversation we started with a friend when we are travelling or out on a walk.”
The realization of such a device in the form of gesture- and voice-controlled smartphones demonstrates just how rapidly this digital transformation has taken place. In many cases, the past has not only caught up with the future, it has surpassed it. The entire process of change has, itself, changed. In the past, there was a status quo, then a change, and then a new status quo. Now, change is the status quo.
There is also a key difference between science fiction and utopia. It relates to the beauty and the unattainability of goals. Science fiction addresses technological issues, whereas utopia is concerned with societal and social concepts. A utopia can be compared with classic astronomical maritime navigation. It’s like using the North Star for orientation – it only works if it is far enough away. Once you get too close, it is no longer of any use. People need utopias.
The roots of our fascination with technology run deep. Cultural philosopher Lewis Mumford touches on this when he describes the uncanny similarity between an ancient Egyptian mummy and an astronaut in a spacesuit: In both cases, great effort is taken to equip them for their journey into the beyond. Some visions, on the other hand, prove to be false starts in the course of history. While small robots like the Mars rover Curiosity have allowed us to explore our cosmic neighbourhood, manned space expeditions have increasingly proven to be astronomically expensive, inefficient and dangerous – just like nuclear technology, which was once naively regarded as the solution to the world’s energy problems. In his 1955 work Ein neues technisches Zeitalter bricht an (The dawn of a new technological era), Professor Robert Havemann writes, “Nuclear power stations offer human settlements the advantage of doing away with smoky, sooty chimneys.” He concludes that “nuclear power stations can even be built in the middle of big cities.”
Space travel for all
Today, green fields on the outskirts of cities are increasingly occupied by data centres – the venues for trade and change in the digital world. Of the three major technologies with which we departed the 20th century and entered the promising new millennium (space travel, nuclear power and the internet) only the internet remains a global driver. In many ways, the web is the democratization of space travel. In the past, only a handful of trained astronauts were given the ticket of a lifetime to embark on a journey into space. But now, with the internet, the vastness of the universe is right at our fingertips. We are all pilots and passengers on the ship into cyberspace.
The internet is currently undergoing major changes to make it ready to meet the many requirements of autonomous vehicles in terms of connectivity. In the coming years, sensors, actuators and electric motors in the Internet of Things will be as commonplace as oxygen and will turn the internet into a new environmental factor. It will become a machine that is not only capable of instantaneously processing massive amounts of data, but also performing what was previously described in children’s books as “wizardry.” The internet will be a magical place. A utopian world that is ripe with innovation, where wishes are made and granted in the same moment, without delay.
At the same time, the cooperative functions of future self-driving cars – the F 015 concept car from Mercedes-Benz, for instance, communicates visually and acoustically with its surroundings – will allow people to remain in control. After all, they already understand these interconnected machines.