I’ve been thinking about science fiction’s influence on technology and vice versa. Are authors technologically prescient or are inventors avid sci-fi fans? I’d guess it works both ways.

I always wondered about the “communicators” in the original Star Trek series (1960s). The characters carry little hand held devices with flip covers, which they use to contact other people in their landing party or on the spaceship. The guy who created the first clunky mobile phone was indeed a Trekkie and took inspiration from there. In later series they didn’t need phones. They moved on to little voice driven technology devices pinned to their shirts. Plus, let’s not forget the Enterprise’s standard use of Zoom calls for ship to ship communication.

When 3D printing came out, I also thought of Star Trek. By The Next Generation series (1990s), Star Fleet had fired their spaceship chefs, gotten rid of their onboard vegetable gardens, and replaced them with food “replicators”. Picard could go to a little hole in the wall (literally), order dinner, and it would be created for him seemingly out of nothing. NASA hasn’t yet made it that far, but have been experimenting with 3D food printing for space travel since 2006.

In a more chilling look at the future, Alice Glaser wrote “The Tunnel Ahead” in 1961, a short story about a family returning from the beach. It’s a piece of speculative fiction that explores a world of overpopulation and government mandated restrictions. The story takes place in the family car which is set to “automatic”, or as we would understand it, “self-driving”. The cars are programmed to follow a path, stop, start, and keep equal distance from each other until they pass through the tunnel. Built-in TV screens keep the occupants of the car entertained. While advanced technology isn’t the focus of the story, Glaser correctly identified a few modern vehicular trends.

Of course, while I’m thinking of sci-fi tech, I had to look up robots. The word “robot” first appears in a 1920 play by Czech writer Karel Capek, called Rossum’s Universal Robots. The origin of the word is ‘robota’ which means “work”. As far back as the 1700s inventors made automatons, mechanical dolls that performed a set of coded tasks. These were created as entertaining curiosities rather than useful machines. Capek envisioned a more complex creation that was actually a living being in itself. The robots were humanoid looking, but not mechanical, and were created to do the jobs humans didn’t want to do. His play ended with a robot revolution and paved the way for other sci-fi authors to run wild with the idea. Thanks to Capek we now call any type of machine that does automatic tasks a robot, whether it looks like a person or not.

What other stories can you name that predict a future technology?