Life imitates art: how sci-fi invents the future

From intelligent networks to self-driving cars to 3D printing and digital snooping, many of the ideas we first see in science fiction often materialize in the real world – such as the HUD-based operating systems as seen in Steve Spielberg’s Minority Report and the first visions of Cyberspace, as predicted by William Gibson’s ground-breaking Neuromancer. Roll back the years further and we can see how many of the mass-market products of today were once a writer’s fantasy.

As science fiction legend Ray Bradbury wrote in 1996, “In science fiction, we dream. In order to colonize in space, to rebuild our cities, which are so far out of whack, to tackle any number of problems, we must imagine the future, including the new technologies that are required.” 

Here’s some nuggets of prescience.

The iPod

Ray Bradbury’s 1953 novel, Fahrenheit 451 predicted that headphones used for portable audio would become white “little seashells…thimble radios” that bought an “electronic ocean of sound, of music and talk.” Years later in 2001, Apple introduced the iPod with its classic white earbuds to perform this function – today, you have Bluetooth earbuds for audio playback, no cables required.


Modern Electrics magazine in 1911 published Hugo Gernsback’s Ralph 124c 41+. The story included a device called a telephot that let people see each other while speaking at a distance. Years later in 1964, attendees at the New York World’s Fair got to see consumer video conferencing for the first time, and today video is integrated into enterprise and consumer communications, from Lync to Mezzanine and beyond, .

Video surveillance

George Orwell’s dystopian 1949 novel, 1984 predicted the arrival of a world monitored by a network of connected security cameras. Today video surveillance takes place across every part of public life, from transportation to the local park to the schoolyard. It does some good, of course, enhancing personal security and enabling solutions for efficiency in public transit management, but these benefits come at what appears to be an ever-increasing cost in personal privacy. Meanwhile the CCTV market is set to expand at a CAGR of 20.5 percent.

Satellite TV

For a glimpse at a future of TV from space, take a look at Arthur C Clarke’s The Space Station: Its Radio Applications (written in 1945). This proposed the use of geosynchronous satellites being used for telecommunications and television relays. What makes this vision so astonishing is that TV was far from the vast commercial organization it has become today – the world’s first channel had launched just a few years before, when the BBC opened its station at Alexandria Palace, North London.

Electric cars, dreams and

John Brunner’s astonishing 1968 novel, Stand On Zanzibar, offered an eerily prophetic vision of the US in 2010, replete with terrorism, casual relationships and cyber spying. A supercomputer called Shalmaneser is capable of listening to and scanning conversations for keywords and which is thought to be becoming self-aware. Arthur C Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey also appeared that year, describing events when a self-aware supercomputer called HAL 9000 has a breakdown and decides to defend itself. Brunner’s book also describes cars powered by rechargeable electric fuel cells, Tesla Motors fans.

eBooks and tablets

Arthur C Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey predicted the iPad in the form of the NewsPad, an electronic book. Similar predictions appeared in the earlier (1961) novel, Return from the Stars, by Stanislaw Lem. This talked about optons, electronic books, and lectons, electronic books that read themselves out loud that could be set to voice, tempo and modulation. These days you have voice support in tablets from a variety of manufacturers and low cost models from the likes of Amazon.


You may get frustrated with your intelligent personal assistants, but as Apple recently pointed out their accuracy is improving – Siri is 95 percent accurate today, the company recently said. In his book, The New Age of Pussyfoot, Frederik Pohl saw these things coming back in 1965. He wrote about the ‘Joymaker’ a voice-based, self-programming assistant that can translate your words into actions performed by computerized systems all around him. These days we have similar AI capabilities being introduced to our connected devices, from smart homes to smart cars.

3D printing

“Passing the last bank of cabinets, he found himself facing a machine,” wrote Eric Frank Russell in his 1947 short story, Hobbyist. “It was complicated and bizarre and it was making a crystalline growth. Near it, another and different machine was manufacturing a small, horned lizard. There could be no doubt at all about the process of fabrication because both objects were half made and both progressed slightly even as he watched. In a couple of hours' time, perhaps less, they'd be finished…”

It turns out he wasn’t so far from the facts, as 3D printing moves into the mainstream - NASA has even put a 3D printer on the International Space Station to print small components as and when these are required. Star Trek fans can even buy themselves a Foodini, a 3D food printing solution that’s a little like a Replicator.

Do you have any better examples of sci-fi predicting the future?


Orange Business actively supports innovation. If you are trying to invent the technologies for tomorrow’s world, then do explore Orange Fab, our accelerator program for innovators.

Jon Evans

Jon Evans is a highly experienced technology journalist and editor. He has been writing for a living since 1994. These days you might read his daily regular Computerworld AppleHolic and opinion columns. Jon is also technology editor for men's interest magazine, Calibre Quarterly, and news editor for MacFormat magazine, which is the biggest UK Mac title. He's really interested in the impact of technology on the creative spark at the heart of the human experience. In 2010 he won an American Society of Business Publication Editors (Azbee) Award for his work at Computerworld.