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Ask HN: Favorite technology predictions in science fiction?
52 points by focal 35 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 59 comments
I loved @ajus's comment about Stansislaw Lem's ebook prediction in 1961[1].

Another favorite is E.M. Forster's prediction of video calling and more in 1909 with The Machine Stops[2]. "But it was fully fifteen seconds before the round plate that she held in her hands began to glow. A faint blue light shot across it, darkening to purple, and presently she could see the image of her son, who lived on the other side of the earth, and he could see her."

[1] https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=18896513 [2] http://archive.ncsa.illinois.edu/prajlich/forster.html

The Diamond Age (Neal Stephenson, 1995) had many eerily prescient visions but I've always liked some of the more subtle ones: the "Neo-Victorians" who put extra value on handmade goods in a world where anything can be printed foreshadowed Etsy and the modern "artisanal" everything, the use of pictogram based language foreshadowed rising use of emojis, the Primer as a source of education accessible to anyone foreshadowed Khan Academy (and maybe YouTube's how-to-anything more generally).

I was recently re-reading The Diamond Age and was dumbstruck by the prescience of this quote: “One of the insights of the Victorian Revival was that it was not necessarily a good thing for everyone to read a completely different newspaper in the morning.”

Another of his books Snow Crash, which is kind of precursor to Diamond Age had some pretty interesting predictions.

I read somewhere stuff like Second Life, Google Earth etc were directly inspired by Snow Crash.

There's some other themes in Snow Crash we are just starting to see as well:

-Government difficulties with taxation of digital goods and currency

-Companies competing to attract drivers/messengers etc (basically the uber/gig ecconomy)

-For profit surveillance and commercialization of intelligence data

> -Government difficulties with taxation of digital goods and currency

Cryptonomicon covers this, too. Arguably so does REAMDE.

Snowcrash is probably the best example of a near future anarcho-capitalist society. Particulary showing it in a light which is far from utopian, perhaps more of a realistic devolution.

I was at a book signing at Microsoft after 9/11 and N.S. seemed to believe that The Diamond Age was no longer relevant and seemed to regret even writing it. I wonder how he feels now.

>the "Neo-Victorians" who put extra value on handmade goods in a world where anything can be printed

From Veblen's Theory of the Leisure Class (1899):

...the cheap, and therefore indecorous, articles of daily consumption in modern industrial communities are commonly machine products; and the generic feature of the physiognomy of machine-made goods as compared with the hand-wrought article is their greater perfection in workmanship and greater accuracy in the detail execution of the design. Hence it comes about that the visible imperfections of the hand-wrought goods, being honorific, are accounted marks of superiority in point of beauty, or serviceability, or both. Hence has arisen that exaltation of the defective, of which John Ruskin and William Morris were such eager spokesmen in their time; and on this ground their propaganda of crudity and wasted effort has been taken up and carried forward since their time. And hence also the propaganda for a return to handicraft and household industry. So much of the work and speculations of this group of men as fairly comes under the characterisation here given would have been impossible at a time when the visibly more perfect goods were not the cheaper. - p162

That book is simply sublime, and were it not for the class differences, I would welcome that future.

Welcome it or not we're probably on our way to living it...


Asimov in "The Caves of Steel"; Earth has a huge population that lives in huge cities, therefore it needs powerful computers as it has to track/police its massive population. Asimov guessed in 1953 that computers are a surveillance tool!

"R. Daneel came to his desk with a sheaf of papers. "And those are?" asked Baley. "A list of men and women who might belong to a Medievalist organization." "How many does the list include?" "Over a million," said R. Daneel. "These are just part of them." "Do you expect to check them all, Daneel?" "Obviously that would be impractical, Elijah." .... Baley said, abruptly, "How did you get your list?" "It was a machine that did it for me. Apparently, one sets it for a particular type of offense and it does the rest. I let it scan all disorderly conduct cases involving robots over the past twenty-five years. Another machine scanned all City newspapers over an equal period for the names of those involved in unfavorable statements concerning robots or men of the Outer Worlds. It is amazing what can be done in three hours. The machine even eliminated the names of non-survivors from the lists." "You are amazed? Surely you've got computers on the Outer Worlds?" "Of many sorts, certainly. Very advanced ones. Still, none are as massive and complex as the ones here. You must remember, of course, that even the largest Outer World scarcely has the population of one of your Cities and extreme complexity is not necessary."

The comment about "three hours" was of course supposed to impress you with the sheer speed of it- but I can't help thinking it would take only minutes today!

Unless you worked for some orgs I've worked for where info was siloed in different systems that didn't talk to each other well, and nobody wanted to spend the resources to unify or coordinate it all.

Or real time. Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction.

Niven and Pournelle predicted unrepairability in The Mote in God's Eye -

    Renner [said] "I remembered something. Have you got your pocket

    "Certainly." She took it out to show him.

    "Please test it for me."

    Her face a puzzled mask, Sally drew letters on the face of the
    flat box, wiped them, scrawled a simple problem, then a complex
    one that would require the ship's computer to help. Then she
    called up an arbitrary personal data file from ship's memory. "It
    works all right."

    Renner's voice was thick with sleep. "Am I crazy, or did we watch
    the Motie take that thing apart and put it back together again?
    You know that's impossible, don't you?"

    She thought it was a joke. "No, I didn't."

    "Well, it is. Ask Dr. Horvath." Renner hung up and went back to

    Sally caught up with Dr. Horvath as he was turning into his cabin.
    She told him about the computer.

    "But those things are one big integrated circuit. We don't even
    try to repair them."

Your quote is unreadable on mobile due to your abuse of the code tag for quoting.

Not retrofuture, but I can’t stop thinking about the drug described in Nexus by Ramez Naam (and I read the book years ago).

The drug binds to individual neurons allowing an external system to manipulate the brain and e.g. overlay an OS GUI on your vision, enhance sensory input, basically make you a programmable superhuman.

The trilogy is good but mostly because it’s fun to think about this tech. If you’re at all into cyberpunk you’ll really enjoy it.

I came across the "overlay an OS GUI on your vision" ideia in a series I watched some years ago. I've been trying to google the title for an hour but I can't seem to find it anywhere.

It was about successful "neuralink" implants that did the whole brain-computer interface work but one day there was a glitch/virus/broken update and anyone with the chip who got into contact with the internet would update, fry their brains and die so I remember people hiding in what I think was an underground garage.

Does anyone remember this one?

Edit: It was called H+ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZedLgAF9aEg

Kinda sounds like LSD, or entheogens in general. It's not yet common (AFAIK) but they can be used in conjunction with sources of information, like logging into an administrators account.

Is this what the film 'Limitless' was loosely based on?

The thing about Lem is that he was reading a lot (I mean, a lot) of scientific journals and later scientific papers (in an interview with him he mentions Soviet "Priroda", "Scientific American", some French and German journals of this type), plus books of Dawkins/Hawking/Penrose /Shklovsky/Soviet scientists etc., and all of that in 60's-70's-80's

Therefore his predictions are not that much original research/predictions, but rather a good compilation and clever choice of ideas which had appeared earlier in various sci papers. I suspect his quite striking description of "Kindle reader" from 60s was based on some previously read paper/article. Still, it's a very very good prediction as for 60's.

To add to his "predictions": Golem XIV is a philosophical desciption of technological singularity (from 80's), and his Summa Technologiae (from 60's) tackles a ton of then veeery novel stuff, like Machine Learning (a precise description even for today's standards), SETI research, VR, AI, and all of that in a "scientific" way, i.e. concreete and directly based on then published papers, and not simply made as an effect of extrapolation of then current trends (sort-a what Asimov liked doing)

Vernor Vinge, everything but most immediately the notions if security hygene in "Rainbows End". Wearable augmented reality is ubiquitous, so anyone who corrupts your digital life can really impact not just your credit card but your perception of reality... So people develop security habits akin to personal hygiene in response.

You have to love a book where one of the superweapons is a top level security cert revocation...

Mind uploading predictions are fascinating (Edmond Hamilton, 1936; Isaac Asimov, 1956, 1957; Arthur C. Clarke, 1956; Bertil Mårtensson, 1968).

Also predictions about automating boring and mundane human tasks:

Waldemar Kaempffert, 1950: "When Jane Dobson cleans house she simply turns the hose on everything... After the water has run down a drain in the middle of the floor (later concealed by a rug of synthetic fiber) Jane turns on a blast of hot air and dries everything."

"With the advent of frozen foods in the shape of bricks, cooking as an art is only a memory in the minds of old-people. A few die-hards still broil a chicken or roast a leg of lamb, but <by using ingredients in frozen bricks> Jane Dobson can serve a steak in less than three minutes, and an elaborate multi-course meal never takes more than half an hour to prepare.

"discarded linens and underwear are recycled and turned into candy."

Isaac Asimov, 1964: "Gadgetry will continue to relieve mankind of tedious jobs. Kitchen units will be devised that will prepare 'automeals,' heating water and converting it to coffee; toasting bread; frying, poaching or scrambling eggs, grilling bacon, and so on."

About Asimov's predictions: those (incl. listed above) either haven't yet materialized, or are rather funny from today's perspective (Robotics, AI and "psychohistory" as described in the Foundation series). He's been rather poor futurologist IMO, contrary to the level of his popularity.

Larry Niven predicted organ harvesting from political dissidents, as well as black-market organ transplantation more generally. (See his Gil the ARM stories, as well as another short story whose name I can't recall :/)

He did miss out on tissue culturing and organ printing, though!

In the 1982 film Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Captain Kirk accesses classified information in the ship's computer through a retina scan. This was well before the word 'biometrics' became a more familiar term. The filmmakers had the tricky task of how to represent a retina scan in a highly visual way. So what we see is a flythrough inside Kirk's eye until the retina is reached and verified.

Douglas Adams' The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (HHGTTG) is a pocket electronic book that contains all the accumulated knowledge about the universe. In the BBC TV series broadcast in 1981, the HHGTTG was represented by a 'computer graphics' aesthetic which was entirely hand animated. The animations still hold up brilliantly (and are better than the animations in the 2005 film).

Robert Heinlein, 'Between Planets'

'A few hundred yards further on Lazy shied again, not from a snake this time but from an unexpected noise. Don pulled him in and spoke severely. "You bird-brained butterball! When are you going to learn not to jump when the telephone rings?"

Lazy twitched his shoulder muscles and snorted. Don reached for the pommel, removed the phone, and answered.'

Nothing unusual there - except that this was published in 1951. Heinlein was extrapolating one particular technology trend and got it spot-on, 60+ years before it happened.

There are so many others - H.G.Wells' 'World Brain' for one (aka the Web)

_Space Cadet_, 1948, references pocket phones as well, with this funny bit about avoiding them -

    Tex Jarman looked at him understandingly. "Your folks always worry, don't they? I fooled mine -- packed my phone in my bag."
The phone usage in Between Planets involved call signs and was clearly projected from Ham radio practices at the time.

My favorite phone technology miss was their total absence from Gibson's _Neuromancer_, something that he's a little chagrined about, and tired of hearing about, too . . .

Your quote is very hard to read even on desktop - can you surround the quoted text with asterisks instead of indenting it?

In Ender's Game there is a description of an Ansible, a personal handheld device used to communicate, join to public forums, read news and influence in political discussions.

That's not what the Ansible was, but I don't want to actually describe it in case someone here hasn't read Ender's Game yet, since it's pretty pivotal to the plot.

Also, Ender's Game was written in 1984 - the idea of networks wasn't so new then, but I agree that Card had a very prescient take on Locke and Demonsthenes' influence over world politics.

Fahrenheit 451 managed a few disturbing ones:

- The Hound, an automated drone for assassinations

- Seashells, in-ear music playing

- Large flat-screen TVs playing reality soaps that the viewer interacts with

I think you mean stuff that has mostly come to be but first I wanted to throw one out that I really want, an ansible. If we could find a way to communicate faster than light (especially if we could figure out instantaneous communication regardless of distance) just imagine what it would do for space exploration! Instead of waiting 2 years to retrieve seconds of data recorded as New Horizons sailed by Ultima Thule we could have the data real-time or nearly real-time.

If you could figure that out, I think it alone would result in us learning more about our solar system in a couple of years than we have to date. You could send small probes at pretty much everything you wanted and either have a very small amount of buffer memory or just transmit it real time back. You could also have real-time, or much closer to real-time, control of rovers!

Stuff that has come to be:

- Small portable computers (tablets, smart phones)

- Personal communicators (cellular telephones, smart phones)

- 3D printing

- Video phones

- Westinghouse M-27 Phased Plasma Pulse Rifle for fighting Sky... wait we don't have this one yet.

It's not so much a technology prediction, but Back to the Future predicted the "Biff future" pretty well.

The character of Biff was partly influenced by "that person", according to Wikipedia. (Warning: Naming the person gets one instant negative moderation points.)

I remember when I was very young, back around 1960, that I said it was very likely that we'd have space stations, rockets to the moon, hand-held computers and excellent robots. But the one thing we'd never ever have, because of the Inverse Cube Law, was any sort of Ray Gun.

Just to spite me, I'm sure, that was the very first of many Sci-Fi predictions that became reality for me. I read a write-up on lasers in Popular Electronics as early as 1963.

Popular Electronics, July 1963 "Lasers -- The Light Fantastic"

Star Trek predicted automatic sliding doors and flat screen TVs

Apparently not the automatic sliding door.

Star Trek the original series 1966.


“In 1954, Dee Horton and Lew Hewitt invented the first sliding automatic door. The automatic door used a mat actuator. In 1960, they co-founded Horton Automatics Inc and placed the first commercial automatic sliding door on the market.[4]”

And not just flat panel displays, but capacitive touch screens.

The portable data "tapes" are similar to the much-later 3.5" diskettes.

I hope some day we invent Tricorder as well!

I wish. Our smartphones would be halfway there if manufacturers could be bothered to include a few more sensors.

Alas, I don't see tricorders happening soon, because they're "action movie" tools. That is, looking from economical and social POV, almost every use case for a tricorder would be better handled by a team of specialists with heavy equipment, and not in a hurry. Real life is boring this way, and technology in the real world isn't about empowering indivduals - at least not in any way that conflicts with the mundane.

There was a $10m XPRIZE for a Tricorder[1] and they awarded a $2.6m prize to Final Frontier Medical Devices in 2017 [2]. We're getting closer.

[1] https://tricorder.xprize.org/prizes/tricorder [2] https://tricorder.xprize.org/prizes/tricorder/articles/famil...

In Fred Hoyle's book The Black Cloud you could argue the prediction of the internet. He proposes a radio based data network with IIRC both compression and encryption.


The book is only so-so as a novel but it is compelling in terms of ideas.

Another fascinating question is this: How much influence does science fiction have on current technological innovations ? Are there inventions that have been directly inspired by science fiction concepts and novels. (like ebooks mentioned by OP in his post)

I have no idea where the idea originated from but you see it sometimes in science fiction, that is the idea of mutable identity, from a superficial point of view. In other words the concept of anyone being able to represent themselves as they would like to through implants or body modification.

Clarke's "The City and the Stars"

Technologically enabled immortality (in an interesting manner).

Massive, crystalline data storage.

Immersive gaming, including the negative, subsuming aspects of same.

The individual as radical.

The radical as an essential component of long-term planning and viability.

It seems the sci-fi trend for huge data storage back then was "crystals!". So were many of remote viewing devices, alien navigation systems and space fuel.

A comment on another thread, made about a day after my GP comment, mentioned an influential paper published in, IIRC, 1944 speculating on crystalline storage of complete human genetic information. (I'm assuming this would encompass a pre-double-helix understanding/conception of said data.)

That would tie into Clarke's story well (originally in several forms, that got consolidated into "The City and the Stars" with a 1952 copyright. And he would have been in a position (scientifically active) to have encountered it.

I don't know that any such thing happened. But, it was an interesting coincidence to run across that comment. (Sorry, I don't have it to hand.)

Maybe we have yet to fully explore the potential of that idea? https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/5D_optical_data_storage

Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities, where conversations are being surreptitiously recorded in code, to be recalled later and used against people.

Star trek communicators and ipads!

Leonardo Da Vinci predicted helicopters and tanks.

What's the line between predicting and inventing?

Inventing is building a working device.

Not necessarily. Da Vinci had the basic concepts right, but many practical details were missing. "Half inventor"?

Yes, necessarily. The "many practical details" are usually the key to it working. For example, the details are why the Wright bros. airplane flew, and the others didn't. The same with the light bulb, the telephone, the Xerox machine, rocket engines, etc.

Maybe the Patent Office accepts concepts, but that leads to nothing but trouble. The real work to inventing is getting something to actually work. Anybody can have an idea, ideas are a dime a dozen.

Re: Maybe the Patent Office accepts concepts, but that leads to nothing but trouble.

Perhaps, but definitions don't have to be practical nor rational. Vocabulary is typically driven by common usage (language), not by logic. I'm just the messenger.

If you want a dictionary definition, that's easy enough to find online.

I'm not sure what your point is then, to be honest. Yes, final products often take a lot of experiments and tuning. But I'm not sure all of that is "inventing" any more than testing software and fixing bugs is "inventing". When is tuning inventing and when is it not?

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