Monday, September 28, 2009

You have much to teach us, Johnny 5

It is widely agreed, I think, that the most prominent technological trend generally unanticipated by science fiction is the enormous growth in computer technology.  This results in older science fiction often having technology that seems like a mismatched jumble of the astonishing and primitive: interstellar civilizations with faster-than-light travel where microfilm is the state-of-the-art in data storage is a common example.  I'm not bothered by it, but it certainly jumps out.  (And there are exceptions, including what is arguably the most prescient SF story ever- Murray Leinster's astonishing "A Logic Named Joe," which predicted home personal computers, the internet, search engines, and internet telephones.  Not bad for a story published in 1946, when a cutting-edge computer cost more than five million inflation-adjusted dollars and weighed 30 tons.)

What brought this to mind was an amusing example I was recently reminded of.   A friend of mine caught the movie Short Circuit 2 on television few days ago.  Not exactly rigorously hard science fiction, but it was, in its time, one of the more prominent popular depictions of the idea of artificial intelligence.  (And perhaps the high-water mark of the  obsession with wacky comic relief robots that loomed like a vast black shadow over much of the 1980s. )  Protagonist Johnny 5, a self-aware robot with at least human-level intellect, boasts at one point that he possesses "5oo hundred megabytes of memory."

I'm typing this on the computer I use for work and most other things writing-related.  It's a few years olds, and was not a top-end model even when it was made.  It has 160 gigabytes of memory.   I have a 1 gigabyte USB flash drive shorter than my pinky finger.  I paid about $20-30 for it a few years ago; compared to what you can get now for the same price, 1 gigabyte is nothing impressive.

A figure intended to make audiences think "amazing computer technology from a secret government lab" when I was a child is now dwarfed by cheap consumer electronics you can buy in a Wal-Mart clearance aisle and carry in your shirt pocket.  It makes me wonder what technological trends (and soical trends, for that matter) present-day science fiction is missing, and what glaring omissions will strike readers 40 years from now as the equivalent of "Wow, 500 megabytes!" or interstellar starships that calculate their trajectories with microfilm records and a slide rule.  If anyone has any guesses, I'd love to hear them.

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John Lunn said...

Fifty years from now people will be saying "wow, imagine folks back then simply drinking caffeine in liquid form. Now that we mainline it, life is so much simpler."

What I wonder about SF, including Short Circuit, is when we get away from technology being built for military. If that trend changed, it would be a watershed era.

Emperor said...

I dont think there is a market for the research. Often, some of the greatest consumer products we have now, were bi-products of military resarch. IE Velcro, the Internet, etc.