How have novels inspired inventors?

Robots, smartphones, autonomous cars… Many technological innovations were first imagined by science fiction authors, before inspiring inventors.

Virtual reality has been around for nearly a century

In the novel PlayerOne by Ernest Cline, released in 2011, (in its cinema version), the hero connects to the Oasis, a digital parallel world, thanks to a virtual reality (VR) headset. If this novel is the bedside book of the American Palmer Luckey, the inventor of the very real Oculus Rift headset, the idea of ​​VR is even older: in 1935, the American Stanley G. Weinbaum laid the foundations without know it in his news Pygmalion’s Shows, where he describes a pair of glasses delivering a film whose story “is centered on you, who are the actor”. In 1992, the American writer Neal Stephenson conceived the word metaverse, a virtual world where one can both work and have fun. Inspired by the concept, Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebookchanges the name of his company to Meta in 2021, and launches the race for metaverse. Ironic, when you know that the virtual universe described by Stephenson is controlled by a multinational!

The mobile phone, inspired by a TV series

One of the series’ most visionary technologies star trekin the late 1960s, is none other than the famous flip-flop “communicator” that allows characters to contact their ship from planets distant. At the time, American engineer Martin Cooper had been developing portable radio systems for Motorola since 1954. The first episode of the series reinforces his conviction as to the interest of such devices. Good point: it is he who presents the first cell phone in 1973. The device then weighed 1.5 kilos and had a ten centimeter antenna!

The A-bomb

HG Wells here we go ! This is what the Hungarian Leo Szilard, one of the fathers of the atomic bombwhen the fission of uranium was described in 1938. The physicist had been marked by the novel Liberating Destruction, published in 1914, in which the British author anticipated the workings and the devastating consequences of a nuclear weapon. Szilard pushed the United States to develop this bomb before Nazi Germany…and then spent the rest of his life campaigning for disarmament.

From the famous Beetle to the autonomous car

Choupette (Herbie in English), emblematic tacot gifted with speech from the film A ladybug’s love, released in 1968, is one of the first autonomous cars in cinema! Since the development in 1977 of the first automotive capable of following markers on the ground, autonomous vehicles continue to progress and now manage to drive in simple conditions (motorway or traffic jams). But the models are still far from being able to achieve the exploits of fictional machines, like Choupette or Kitt in K2000!

In the absence of dinosaurs, we are already cloning sheep

As early as 1932, the Briton Aldous Huxley staged in Le brave new worldmass production ofcloned humans. His fictitious process is based on the division of the same ovum fertilized by a spermatozoon… like what happens with identical twins. The author never mentions theDNA, and for good reason ! Its structure was only discovered in 1953. Cloning has become a reality since the birth of the dolly sheep in 1996. However, unlike those in SF, the actual clones turn out to be imperfect copies, due to the technique used which deprives the clone of some of the model’s genetic material. “Resurrecting” the dinosaurs also remains out of reach today, the DNA of the original models being too degraded. Finally, many ethical barriers prevent human cloning to date. In short, Huxley’s nightmare has not (yet) come true!

Cybersecurity and Crime Prediction

In his news Minority Report (screened by Steven Spielberg in 2002), the American Philip K. Dick imagined, from 1956, mutants able to predict homicides, precogs (for precognitive). If these creatures still do not exist, the progress of the big data (the sorting and analysis of huge masses of data) nevertheless approach their faculties. By compiling the history of crimes Committed in Chicago between 2014 and 2016, researchers created a program capable of anticipating the places where new crimes would occur a week in advance… with a reliability of more than 90% during the tests! We dare not think of the consequences that the pirating of this type of data would have. The idea had been explored by the American visionary William Gibson in his novel neuromancer, as early as 1984. He evoked the possibilities of massive looting of data by hackers, foreshadowing the current challenges of cybersecurity. At the time, however, the Internet was little more than an experimental system!

The bank card, a… socialist project

In Looking Backward (One Hundred Years Later or the Year 2000)published in 1888, the American Edward Bellamy recounts a utopian society centered on the sharing of wealth, where the ” credit card allows everyone to access their share of the product of the nation. In reality, it was the desire not to be burdened with cash that motivated its invention in 1950.

Videoconferencing, described by Jules Verne

Work meeting or aperitif between friends, millions of French people have been indulging since confinement in the joys of “visio” exchanges. The writer Jules Verne had already had the intuition of it in 1889. In his short story An American Journalist’s Day in 2889 , the genius of anticipation invented the phonotelephote to telephone while seeing his interlocutor. In reality, it was not until 1970 that AT&T launched its Picturephone II, the first videoconference.

The jetpack, a century-old idea

In flight under the Eiffel TowerFrenchman Franky Zapata designed a jetpack, the Flyboard Air, with which he managed to cross the English Channel in 2019. This idea of ​​a flying suit, widely used in SF, from the hero Iron Man to the bounty hunter Boba Fett in Star Warshad been dreamed up in 1928 by the American writer Edward E. Smith, in his short story The Skylark of Space (The Curée of the stars, serialized in the American magazine Amazing Stories).

Dangerous robots?

If automatons have existed since Antiquity, the term robot did not appear for the first time until 1920, in the play RUR (The Universal Robots of Rossum) by Karel Capek. The word refers to the Czech ” robota (“chore”). It was not until 1961 that the first real industrial robot was designed. Since then, progress has been dazzling and machines are everywhere, from autonomous vacuum cleaners to military drones. The Ameca robot designed by the British start-up Engineered Arts perfectly imitates human facial expressions.

However, these humanoids have not reached the stage of development of the robots of science fiction, endowed with a real intelligence. In the movie I, Robotof 2004, and inspired by the works of the Russian Isaac Asimov, another genius of anticipation, a human is killed by a robot. Capable of feeling emotions,artificial intelligence who governs it believes that it must take control of humanity to preserve it from its own misdeeds (war, pollution), one of the favorite themes of SF. Already in Czech Čapek’s play, the mass-produced android servants ended up revolting. Could humans be supplanted by their countless machinery ? This is one of the questions posed by artificial intelligence (AI), since the first mathematical model allowing the creation of a network of neuronsin 1943. AI has come a long way since then, and some programs now manage to pass the famous Turing-testthat is, to impersonate humans in a conversation.

Others are now beating human champions, such as the very difficult game of go, AlphaGo software. But these programs, ultra-efficient, are only so for very specific tasks: strategy games, image recognition, etc. The development of a real “general” intelligence still seems beyond the reach of science, the human-robot war is not yet topical.

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How have novels inspired inventors?

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