Some of the technological innovations of 2017 sound more like sci-fi, but according to the brains behind a few of them, the future is still full of surprises
It is the work of science fiction writers to imagine future worlds and expand the scope of what we think is possible. It’s no wonder then that so much of the technology available today was first created in science fiction.
Jules Verne’s 1865 novel From the Earth to the Moon tells the story of three men who use a space gun to shoot themselves to the moon. The crew on Star Trek: The Next Generation used an electronic tablet called a PADD. The Jetsons, the 1960s cartoon family, even had a little robot vacuum cleaner, not unlike today’s Roomba.
“So many ideas have actually come from science fiction,” says Steven Prawer, Professor of Physics at the University of Melbourne and chief technology officer of iBIONICS, a company developing a diamond-based bionic eye.
“Arthur C. Clarke talking about satellites or Jules Verne’s trip the moon — these things have been very influential in imagining what might be,” Professor Prawer says.
“The job of a scientist — my job now — is to turn these ideas into reality.”
Here are five ways researchers are pushing the boundaries of scientific discovery — turning science fiction into science fact.
Kayla Heffernan, a PhD student in the Department of Computing and Information Systems, can unlock her front door with a wave of her hand.
That’s because the microchip inserted into the side of her hand has been programmed to work with the card reader lock she has installed at her house. Another microchip in the webbing between her thumb and forefinger can be scanned with a smartphone to open her website.
Ms Heffernan is studying biohackers, people like her who choose to wear what she calls “insertables” — devices, such as microchips or magnets, implanted inside the body for non-medical purposes. They are using insertable technology to pay for lunch or sense faraway earthquakes.
It almost sounds like a form of telekinesis, like the character ‘Eleven’ in the tele-series Stranger Things, who can control objects with her mind.
But the technology is very basic, she says. It isn’t much different from the MyKi card people use on Melbourne transport, it’s just that rather than carried in your wallet it’s implanted in your hand.
“It’s not as fun or as sexy as it sounds,” she says. “I can open my front door. That’s not really a superpower.”
Ms Heffernan is also studying public discourse about insertable technology, especially misconceptions about the ways microchips can be used, largely because people only understand them in the context of science-fiction films.
She says she regularly reads online criticism from people who see microchips as a sign of some dystopian future, based on the tracking chips they have seen in Total Recall or other films.
“People are just terrified and the reason that they’re terrified is sci-fi,” Ms Heffernan says.
“They don’t understand how the technology works, so they fall back to what they’ve seen in sci-fi. They think the government’s going to microchip us and track us.”
Many biohackers are experimenting with ways that insertable technology can make their lives more interesting or convenient, such as paying for a coffee with a swipe of your thumb.
But Ms Heffernan says the concept has real benefits for people with disabilities or other medical conditions.
“If you have severe arthritis and you cannot physically operate a key to open your door, this could change your life,” she says.