When I was younger, I remember seeing the Encyclopaedia Britannica for the first time. There were thirty or so volumes, all with around a thousand pages containing articles about everything that was worth knowing. Whatever questions I had in my childish mind – why is the sun hot? Who decided that a week should be made up of seven days? –could be addressed by this marvellous work which had been in production since the 1700s. As I got a bit older, I became a fan of Star Trek (‘The Next Generation’ – it was new at the time and I used to watch it whilst pretending to do my homework), I loved the idea that you could talk to a computer as if it were a human being and for it to reply in kind. The computer’s ‘brain’ would have access to thousands of encyclopaedias and you could ask it pretty much any question in the world and get an (albeit sometimes cryptic) answer.
Fast-forward to adulthood and Star Trek’s computers are looking decidedly old-fashioned and the Encyclopaedia Britannica, in its printed form has become an anachronism – its role reduced to collecting dust whilst trying to look aloof on the shelves of an old-fashioned school – Hogwarts, perhaps.
The internet, browsers, search engines, smartphones, Siri and many other inventions have brought technology that most of us thought would always the stuff of sci-fi, into our reality. Instead of sitting down for an hour or more, searching through the Encyclopaedia Britannica for the answer to my childhood questions, I can simply ask Siri and get the answer within a second. In fact, Siri must be getting a bit fed up with me as I tend to ask whatever comes into my mind on a whim – answers that would have taken some serious researching during my childhood years I now take for granted. Why do we have two eyes? How can I remove chocolate stains from a white T-shirt? When did people start wearing T-shirts and eating chocolate?
It’s difficult to be a sci-fi fan without being a fan of now. Perhaps we should rename ourselves ‘sci-fact fans’. The ‘universal translator’, that one could speak into and have your words translated immediately to a foreign language has become a reality, as has the ‘phaser’ – disappointingly known in real life as the ‘dazzler’ – a weapon which uses electromagnetic radiation to stop a person’s advance.
It’s not just Star-Trek either, hoverboards (although not exactly like the ones in ‘Back to the Future’) and other cool ways of getting around (like the ones at The Electric Rider) have become a common sight. Robots are everywhere and do everything from complicated stuff like building our spaceships to stealing even our most mundane jobs.
In our great-grandparents’ generation, a trip to another continent was something most people would never do and if they did, it would likely be a one-way journey meaning that they could never see or speak with the people they left behind ever again. Even when I was growing up, an international phone call was something really special, even if you couldn’t really follow what was going on due to the echo and delay. These days, people fly from New York to London and back on consecutive days, holding video conferences in mid-air with people in Tokyo, Moscow and Buenos Aires. It’s like the planet, which not so long ago seemed as big as the universe, has shrunk to become the size of a large village.
It’s not all good news, though. Cloning has become a reality and it can’t be long until some evil dictator decides to build a clone army to take over the, ahem, galaxy, a la Star Wars. And if not clones, then it will be computers who realise just how much smarter they are and turn their former masters into slaves. Just recently, the creators of the computer which has beaten the human world-champion of the ancient Chinese game ‘go’ (we have 3,000 years of practice but the computer doesn’t respect that), warned other developers to approach the technology with the moral respect it deserves –a hidden warning about the dangers of our new sci-fi reality.