From Telepathy to X-Ray Goggles: How Science Fiction Becomes Science Fact

The influence fiction has had on scientific achievement has been, at times, quite profound. Innumerable are the designs and innovations that were directly inspired by the minds of creative writers of speculative fiction, whose imaginations have spelled out the future of mankind’s advancement in short stories and novels over the years.

In retrospect, when we watch a film like 2001: A Space Odyssey, we are met with a number of fictional elements which, resemblant though they are of modern technology, are a number of years–if not decades–behind. We see telecommunication in use aboard the Clavius Moon Base near the film’s outset, which bears striking similarity to modern video chatting systems like Skype. On the other hand, mankind is still many years away from manned missions to other planets like Jupiter, let alone the construction of a lunar base on Earth’s own modest little satellite.

It might be argued, however, that Clarke’s actual vision of the 21st century would not have fallen in line with what we see in 2001. An interview with Clarke, conducted by the AT&T company in 1976, indicated what turns out to be a far more accurate vision the author had of what future life on Earth might afford us through technological innovation. Among Clarke’s predictions had been communications systems which, according to Clarke, would consist of “a high definition TV screen, and a typewriter keyboard,” through which any kind of information could be exchanged with others around the world.

“You can call in through this [system] any information you want,” Clarke said. “Airline flights, prices of things at the supermarket, books you’ve always wanted to read.” Just as Clarke had guessed, all of these things would be eventually become available via the World Wide Web. Though perhaps even more intriguing, Clarke had managed to accurately predict how search engines like Google would be used in the future to obtain specialized news and information.

“You tell the machine I’m interested in such and such items: sports, politics, and so forth, and the machine will hunt down the main central items, and bring all this to you, selectively. Just want you want, and not all the junk that you have to get when you buy the two or three pounds of wood pulp that is the daily newspaper.”

The entire 1976 interview with Arthur Clarke can be viewed below:

Similar to Arthur C. Clarke’s imaginative predictions about the future, even today we continue to see technology that mirrors what we’ve previously seen only in fiction. Just as an example, The Guardian recently reported on a new 3D imaging device which is designed to allow its wearer to see within an object through the use of virtual overlays. In other words, this 3D helmet effectively helps to facilitate x-ray vision. “The Daqri Smart Helmet is designed with industrial use in mind,” the Guardian piece reported. “It will allow the wearer to effectively peer into the workings of objects using real-time overlay of information, such as wiring diagrams, schematics and problem areas that need fixing.”

While the Daqri Smart Helmet does not present actual “x-ray vision” in the most literal sense, technology along these lines brings us closer to what had once been relegated to comic book characters like Superman. However, x-ray vision isn’t the only science fiction technology we may be seeing in real life within the coming years. Recent studies carried out at the Kyushu Institute of Technology, Japan, are seeking to institute a kind of functional “telepathy” with technology that interprets brain activity that occurs when certain words and syllables are spoken.

“Each syllable produced a distinct brain wave activity from the initial thought to the actual utterance,” the Daily Mail reported of the study. “Activity could be seen up to two seconds before a word was spoken.” The researchers created a database which compiled different sounds, allowing them to match words with specific brainwave patterns, even when the words hadn’t actually been spoken. In other words, the brainwaves might one day be used to communicate words an individual is thinking, with or without ever having to actually speak aloud.

Such technology isn’t quite on par with what mutant mind-readers like Charles Xavier in the Marvel Comics universe might have done, but for the time being functional forms of “mind reading” like this may only be possible with the help of machines.

Though Arthur C. Clarke’s visions of the future may have seemed to border on the kind of precognition that machines may one day allow, it was his work with mathematics and computer systems had allowed him to be particularly well informed–perhaps unusually so–for his day. Thus, it stands to reason that Clarke not only had a clear vision of how he thought the future might be, but he also played a direct role in shaping it. Clarke had, after all, been as much a futurist and scientist as he was brilliant among his peers in science fiction. But even in a world without the likes of Clarke around to predict trends of the future, a number of new technologies continue to appear that indicate, with little question, the profound influence science fiction still has on technological innovation of tomorrow.

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