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How science fiction still inspires real technological innovation

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Mar 26, 2021, 6:00 AM EDT (Updated)

As science fiction know, the genre has helped the development of new technologies, or at least predicted them long before they became reality. From Arthur C. Clarke's contribution to the development of geostationary satellites to Star Trek's 'mobile phone' that inspired Motorola's StarTAC, the tradition of prescience is long and impressive.

More recently, Ready Player One became a must-read at Oculus Rift. Palmer Luckey has openly declared the inspiration he took from Ernest Cline’s book, which is distributed to all new employees. After his company was bought by Facebook in 2014, virtual reality became even bigger and the ambitions coming from science fiction were kept alive by Mark Zuckerberg.

In a 2016 interview, Facebook’s co-founder said that this was something he has been dreaming of since he was a kid. “I remember in middle school I would sit in my math class with my notebook and write code. I didn't even have a computer in middle school. I'd just, like, go home and write it," he said. "And I sketched out how I thought that eventually the operating system and experience should be 3D, and basically more of a VR thing." Zuckerberg was in middle school in 1995, the same year when Neal Stephenson released his novel Snow Crash, in which he describes a dark version of a computer-generated alternate reality called the "metaverse."

Mark Zuckerberg Oculus

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In this same decade, other movies such as The Lawnmower Man (1992) and Strange Days (1995) were paving the way for The Matrix (1999) and The Thirteenth Floor (1999), all films that focus on the question of an immersive virtual reality. With the rise of new theoretical authors such as Ray Kurzweil and Alvin Toffler, Future Studies became more popular to the point that Kurzweil and Peter Diamandis, another futurist, founded Singularity University, a business incubator and an institute that offers educational programs at the NASA Research Park.

Since then, Google has realized how important those predictions and discussions about the future were for the future of competitive corporations. And so Google co-founder Larry Page personally hired Kurzweil to work on new projects involving machine learning and language processing. Other Silicon Valley companies made similar moves, including immersive technologies startup Magic Leap, which hired Neal Stephenson to become their Chief Futurist.

On the other hand, companies and organizations that prefer to get a third-party view on the future of their businesses can still hire freelance futurists for consulting or research companies such as Envisioning, which has been working with clients such as the Swiss Army, KLM, the Government of Canada and, more recently, with Swarovski. (Full disclosure: I work at Envisioning.)

What is most peculiar about Envisioning’s methodology is that science fiction is really considered as one of the sources when mapping future technologies. That is both because science fiction is indeed a field in Future Studies (including Forecasting, Coolhunting, Futurism and Futurology), but also because it is a valuable asset for researches like that.


Toffler himself declared in his 1970 book Future Shock that, even though science fiction may be held in low regard as a branch of literature, it is still “a kind of sociology of the future.” The genre has an “immense value as a mind-stretching force for the creation of the habit of anticipation,” he wrote. He named names, too: “Our children should be studying Arthur C. Clarke, William Tenn, Robert Heinlein, Ray Bradbury and Robert Sheckley, not because these writers can tell them about rocket ships and time machines but, more important, because they can lead young minds through an imaginative exploration of the jungle of political, social, psychological, and ethical issues that will confront these children as adults.”

Envisioning worked on the project "Sci-Fi, Sci-Fact" for Swarovski during the beginning of this year. According to Thiara Cavadas, head of research at Envisioning, when mapping technologies that are still an idea, science fiction proves to be a valuable source in at least two areas: when envisioning future technologies and scenarios and when, consequently, disseminating these new concepts with a more didactical approach. “For Swarovski, science fiction was used as a collection of signals that pointed to some future trends," she explains. "However, we already used this narrative structure in other ways. In the case of One Health, an insurance company, we created science fiction chronicles to introduce future scenarios that we already had built according to emergent technologies, but in a more tangible way."

Some of the conclusions Envisioning got after working on this project for Swarovski was that science fiction has an important role in the acceleration (or stagnation) of technological development: "As a story, science fiction has the power to inspire or prohibit new ideas from ever becoming reality. But to understand its role, it's important to take a step back and look at the process of technological development as a whole."

More than books, movies and video games, science fiction is thus able to reimagine the past and create a different present or envision the future by providing an emotional connection to the lives that people may want to live and the scientific background to enable such realities.

In this sense, science fiction has become a major influencer of technological development for its power of visualization and inspiration, since great stories say both about the technical and social sides of reality and when they are analyzed within a methodological framework such as Envisioning's, it is therefore possible to understand how that influence plays out.