Archive for the ‘Prophecies’ Category

Prophecies: sound-cancelling earplugs

Sunday, February 8th, 2009

Ben recently made me aware of this article about earplugs that protect the hearing of soldiers:

British troops getting ready to deploy to Afghanistan are being issued with electronic sound-cancelling earplugs designed to let them hear what they need to — orders, conversations, enemy footfalls — but prevent hearing damage caused by explosions, gunfire and so on.

Science fiction author Larry Niven predicted this technology in 1975. From his story “The Borderland of Sol”:

“Earplugs,” said Ausfaller, holding up a handful of soft plastic cylinders.

We inserted them. Ausfaller said, “Can you hear me?”

“Sure.” “Yah.” They didn’t block our hearing at all.

“Transmitter and hearing aid with sonic padding between. If you are blasted with sound, as by an explosion or a sonic stunner, the hearing aid will stop transmitting. If you go suddenly deaf, you will know you are under attack.”

The real-world earplugs are slightly better than Niven’s; instead of cutting off all sound, they can simply reduce it to a safe level. (So you can hear the explosion without suffering hearing damage from it.) But apart from that detail, Niven’s description was spot on.

Prophecies: video phones

Monday, May 5th, 2008

It’s become a cliche to joke about how, even though it’s now the 21st century, we still don’t have jetpacks or flying cars. But it’s funny how some of the other futuristic concepts that we first encountered in science fiction have become realities, and they sneaked up on us so gradually that we didn’t even notice when they arrived.

Video phones, for example. As a grade-school pupil in the 1960s, I learned that “Picturephones” had already been invented, and in fact they were demonstrated at the 1964 World’s Fair. But they never actually showed up in people’s homes. The explanation I always heard was that nobody wanted them, but that was only part of the truth: in the 1960s, the technology for making video phone calls would have been terribly expensive, and few people would have found the benefits worth the cost. Whatever the reason, video phones remained in the realm of science fiction for the next several decades. (Remember Heywood Floyd’s video phone call to his daughter from a space station in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey?)

But a few years ago, it dawned on me that this technology wasn’t science fiction anymore. I was at a holiday gathering of my wife’s family in Charleston, SC, which was attended by almost everyone descended from her parents (four generations in all, comprising several dozen people). The notable exception was one of my wife’s nieces, who had married a Navy guy and was, as a result, in Hawaii. She and her husband and children were not able to attend the gathering in person, but they were able to participate in real time over the Internet. The computers at both ends had inexpensive video cameras (“webcams”) connected to them, and AOL had recently added videoconferencing capability to its instant-messaging client. Setting up a two-way video connection between South Carolina and Hawaii proved to be quite simple, and the conversation went on for several hours, with family members in both locations taking turns in front of the computer.

I don’t think anyone really thought of this as a “phone call”, probably because the participants weren’t talking into a handset. But in fact, this was indistinguishable from the Picturephone future that we were promised in the 1960s, except that it didn’t cost anything in addition to the AOL subscription fee the family was already paying. And, in fact, they were using AOL over a dial-up connection, so it really was a phone call. Video phones had arrived with no fanfare at all.

Dial S for Skynet

Saturday, March 22nd, 2008

When I wrote a few days ago about how Arthur C. Clarke predicted the World Wide Web, I was not aware that he had actually inspired its creation. But since then, I have learned from multiple sources that Tim Berners-Lee cites Clarke’s 1964 short story “Dial F for Frankenstein” as a major inspiration for his invention of the Web.
I have read that story before (in fact, I just reread it; it’s only five pages long), and it has never occurred to me that it might have anything to do with the Web. It describes how the activation of new satellites unites the world’s telephone networks into a single global system that is as complex as a human brain. This global network becomes conscious, with dire consequences for humanity.
“Dial F for Frankenstein” does strike me as a prediction (or, possibly, an inspiration) of something that came decades later. But, with all due respect to Sir Tim, I don’t think it’s the Web. Anyone who has seen Terminator 2: Judgement Day will know exactly what I mean.

Prophecies: the Web

Wednesday, March 19th, 2008

Arthur C. Clarke has died in Sri Lanka at the age of 90. To commemorate Sir Arthur’s passing, I’d like to highlight yet another of his predictions that has come true: the World Wide Web.
In his 1976 novel Imperial Earth, Clarke describes a device called the home communications console, or Comsole for short. Its elements are quite familiar: “the blank gray screen, the alphanumeric keyboard, the camera lens and speaker grille.” But what does it do? In a diary entry, main character Duncan Makenzie describes how his daily routine begins with the Comsole: “I dial the Comsole for any messages that have arrived during the night — usually there are half a dozen. . . . Then I set the news abstractor to print out anything that’s happened in my area of interest, and scan the result.”
But that’s just a small part of the Comsole’s capabilities. A later passage provides an overview:

Duncan walked to the Comsole, and the screen became alive as his finger brushed the ON pad. Now it was a miracle beyond the dreams of any poet, a charmed magic casement, opening on all seas, all lands. Through this window could flow everything that Man had ever learned about his universe, and every work of art he had saved from the dominion of Time. All the libraries and museums that had ever existed could be funneled through this screen and the millions like it scattered over the face of Earth. Even the least sensitive of men could be overwhelmed by the thought that one could operate a Comsole for a thousand lifetimes — and barely sample the knowledge stored within the memory banks that lay triplicated in their widely separated caverns, more securely guarded than any gold.

On this particular occasion, Duncan is merely trying to locate an old friend who is somewhere on Earth, so he uses the online directory to look up her contact information and then uses the Comsole to call her and have a sound-and-video conversation.
We take all of this for granted today, but when I first read Imperial Earth 32 years ago, the first home computers — the kind you had to build from a kit — had just come on the market. The idea that personal computers would connect to a global information network and provide instant audiovisual access to everything and everyone was stunning, and utterly beyond anything I had previously read. Clarke even predicted when it would happen: “The home communications console — or Comsole — had reached its technological plateau in the early twenty-first century.” We haven’t reached that plateau yet, but the Web is only a little more than a decade old, and almost all of what Clarke described is already available.
Imperial Earth begins with an incident from Duncan Makenzie’s youth, as a ten-year-old living in an underground city on Titan, the largest moon of Saturn. Attempting to use his Comsole to call his grandmother, he enters the wrong number and ends up connecting to something else:

There was no ringing tone, and no picture. . . . Duncan guessed that he had been switched into an audio-only channel, or had reached a station where the camera was disconnected. In any case, this certainly wasn’t Grandma’s number, and he reached to break the connection.
Then he noticed the sound. At first, he thought that someone was breathing quietly into the microphone at the far end, but he quickly realized his mistake. There was a random, inhuman quality about this gentle susurration; it lacked any regular rhythm, and there were long intervals of complete silence. . . . He was listening to the voice of the wind, as it sighed and whispered across the lifeless landscape a hundred meters above his head. . . .
Somewhere — perhaps in an abandoned construction project or experimental station — a live microphone had been left in circuit, exposed to the freezing, poisonous winds of the world above. It was not likely to remain undetected for long; sooner or later it would be discovered and disconnected.

When I read those words in 1976, the idea of using a computer terminal connected to a global information network to listen to the sounds of wind in the atmosphere of Titan was pure science fiction. But less than thirty years later, I did exactly that. Sir Arthur was right on the money.

Prophecies: long distance

Tuesday, February 5th, 2008

In 2061: Odyssey Three, Arthur C. Clarke wrote:

The coming of the jet age had triggered an explosion of global tourism. At almost the same time — it was not, of course, a coincidence — satellites and fiber optics had revolutionized communications. With the historic abolition of long-distance charges on 31 December 2000, every telephone call became a local one, and the human race greeted the new millennium by transforming itself into one huge, gossiping family.

Clarke made that prediction in 1987. While it hasn’t come true in a literal sense, I think he’s not far off the mark. It’s been years since the last time I paid for a long-distance (LD) phone call. My family’s mobile phone plan provides us with an ample pool of minutes. And it doesn’t cost us anything extra to use them for LD calls. So we make all of our LD calls on our mobile phones, and we’ve come to think of LD telephony as free.
Do we even need an LD carrier? Well, not under normal circumstances. But the cellular phone networks can become unavailable as a result of either excessive demand or power failure. The most likely scenario for either of those events is a disaster of some sort; New York City experienced cellular network collapse on 11 September 2001, and again during the Northeast Blackout of 2003. Unfortunately, it’s in exactly that sort of situation that you most want to place LD phone calls.
So it’s prudent to have a backup plan for doing so. But it’s silly to pay a monthly fee for an LD plan that you hope never to use. A few years ago, I called MCI (our LD carrier) to find out what could be done about that. The customer service representative offered to switch us to a plan that had no minimum fee, and I agreed.
Yesterday, I received a card from MCI informing me of a new monthly minimum. Beginning March 1, we would have to pay a $5.99 per month even if we made no LD calls at all. It was time to cancel. At first I had difficulty reaching a live human at MCI, but after ten or fifteen minutes of listening to elevator music, I remembered the gethuman 500 database that I wrote about a few months ago. Following the instructions on that site, I reached a customer service representative in a couple of minutes. After verifying that it was no longer possible to avoid the monthly minumum fees, I canceled our account.
I assumed that our LD backup plan would now be to use a 10-10 dial-around service if the need arose. But when I started to research the available dial-around services, I learned that there are still some LD carriers that have little or no monthly minimum. The best of these seems to be ECG, which offers an interstate rate of 2.5 cents per minute (much better than the 7 cents per minute I didn’t pay MCI for the calls I wasn’t making). I signed up.
ECG does charge a “regulatory recovery fee” of 59 cents per month. That’s not quite the free LD that Clarke predicted, but I think I can live with it.

Prophecies: calculators

Tuesday, October 16th, 2007

From 1941 to 1949, Isaac Asimov wrote a series of science fiction stories about the decline and fall of a Galactic Empire. These stories were published in the magazine Astounding Stories, and in 1950 were reprinted in three volumes titled Foundation, Foundation and Empire, and Second Foundation. Collectively, the three volumes became known as the Foundation Trilogy.
When the first four stories were assembled into the book Foundation, the editor complained that the story began too abruptly, and asked Asimov to write a fifth story to precede the other four. Asimov complied, producing an account of how mathematician Hari Seldon establishes two Foundations at opposite ends of the galaxy to preserve the knowledge of the human race and serve as nuclei for the formation of a Second Empire. At one point in the story, Seldon is shown using the tool of his trade:

Seldon removed his calculator pad from the pouch at his belt. Men said he kept one beneath his pillow for use in moments of wakefulness. Its gray, glossy finish was slightly worn by use. Seldon’s nimble fingers, spotted now with age, played along the hard plastic that rimmed it. Red symbols glowed out from the gray.

In 1950, the standard calculation tool used by mathematicians and engineers was the slide rule, but Asimov described a future in which the slide rule was replaced by something new: a handheld electronic device.
As luck would have it, I read the Foundation Trilogy for the first time in the early 1970s, just as the first pocket calculators were appearing in stores. They looked exactly like what Asimov described, right down to the belt pouches and glowing red symbols (the earliest calculators had displays that used red LEDs). Two decades before its invention, he had predicted the calculator with virtually perfect accuracy. And it did completely replace the slide rule.
A few years later, Asimov wrote a short story (“The Feeling of Power”) in which pocket calculators are so ubiquitous that people have forgotten how to perform calculations without them. This idea seemed farfetched in 1958, but today . . .

Prophecies: mobile phones

Saturday, July 7th, 2007

Today is Robert A. Heinlein‘s centennial; he was born exactly 100 years ago, on 7 July 1907. I am tempted to write a tribute to him and his influence on science fiction and popular culture, but there’s really no need. Many other people have already done a better job of this than I possibly could. My favorite example is Spider Robinson‘s essay “Rah Rah R.A.H.”, which you can read online courtesy of the Heinlein Society. (That piece and a number of others are collected in Requiem: New Collected Works by Robert A. Heinlein and Tributes to the Grand Master, if you want to read more.)
Instead, I’m going to commemorate Heinlein’s centennial by kicking off a series of posts I’ve been planning to write for some time. It’s called Prophecies, and each post will talk about a technological or social development that was predicted (often with uncanny accuracy) in written science fiction. My knowledge of SF is heavily weighted toward the Golden Age classics, so a lot of the predictions are from fiction that’s at least 40 years old, and sometimes much older.
My first example, of course, is from a Heinlein novel: Space Cadet, one of Heinlein’s earliest juvenile novels. The title is probably enough to make today’s audiences dismiss it, but the book is remarkably sophisticated for something written in 1948 and intended for preteen and teenage readers. Most of the story is about the training and education required for all officer candidates for the Interplanetary Patrol, a spacefaring force responsible for peacekeeping, exploration, and diplomatic contact with extraterrestrials. (Sound familiar?) One of the themes of this novel is that Patrol officers must understand the cultures and customs of alien races, so that they can present themselves as sentient and civilized by the standards of those aliens. In effect, Heinlein invented Starfleet and Starfleet Academy decades before the original Star Trek series.
But that’s not the prediction I want to talk about today. In the very first scene of Space Cadet, as protagonist Matt Dodson is arriving at Patrol headquarters to begin his training, he meets fellow cadet Tex Jarman and strikes up a conversation. A moment later, Jarman remarks, “Say, your telephone is sounding.”

“Oh!” Matt fumbled in his pouch and got out his phone. “Hello?”
“That you, son?” came his father’s voice.
“Yes, Dad.”
“Did you get there all right?”
“Sure, I’m about to report in.”
“How’s your leg?”
“Leg’s all right, Dad.” His answer was not frank; his right leg, fresh from corrective operation for a short Achilles’ tendon, was aching as he spoke.
“That’s good. Now see here, Matt — if it should work out that you aren’t selected, don’t let it get you down. You call me at once and –”
“Sure, sure, Dad,” Matt broke in. “I’ll have to sign off – I’m in a crowd. Good-by. Thanks for calling.”
“Good-by, son. Good luck.”
Tex Jarman looked at him understandingly. “Your folks always worry, don’t they? I fooled mine — packed my phone in my bag.”

A perfectly normal, everyday scene, right? But when I first read it in the 1970s, I was astonished at the notion of a telephone that you could carry in your pocket. A telephone was a stationary appliance, connected to a wall socket by wires. It was also bulky and heavy — an object that sat on a tabletop or was bolted to a wall. The notion that it could weigh mere ounces, be carried in a pouch or bag, and work almost anywhere was . . . well, it was science fiction.
Now we all have these phones, and we take them completely for granted. But let it be noted that six decades ago, Robert A. Heinlein described, with perfect accuracy, the mobile phone as we know it today. Rah rah R.A.H.!
UPDATE: Taylor Dinerman, in a column on Heinlein’s legacy, points out that he also described a mobile phone in the 1951 novel Between Planets — again, in the very first scene. Protagonist Don Harvey is riding a pony named Lazy in New Mexico when a snake startles the pony. After Harvey dispatches the snake (with a ray gun!), the two of them resume traveling:

He clucked and they started off. 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. “Mobile 6-J-233309, Don Harvey speaking.”

I had forgotten that scene. Dinerman is right; that’s definitely a mobile phone.