Does Sci-Fi drive innovation?

How science fiction inspires real life

The German playwright Bertolt Brecht is often quoted as claiming that ‘art is not a mirror to hold up to reality, but a hammer with which to shape it’ – and while he may not at the time have been thinking about science fiction’s relation to real-world science, the statement certainly rings true in that context too. It might be difficult to pinpoint exactly to what extent science fiction is really responsible for inspiring new technology, but it cannot be a complete coincidence that so much of what we have seen in the genre’s films and literature has been replicated in real life.

The digital sector, artificial intelligence, computation, and robotics have all benefited significantly from the visions of science fiction authors – which may not come as a surprise. In 2007, Google’s Michael Jones reportedly stated that the Maps app was initially intended as a version of the Tricorder from Star Trek. Ideas about artificially creating something equivalent to life can be traced as far back as 1808 with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and robots somewhat similar to those we see today began appearing in films and literature in the 1920s, well before they started being translated into reality. But science fiction has also had important impacts on fields such as astrophysics. Arthur C. Clarke’s story The Sunjammer, published shortly after discoveries were made that light could exert pressure on physical objects, depicted so-called ‘solar sails’ – large, thin sheets of reflective material are propelled through space solely by the sun’s rays. The Sunjammer is widely acknowledged as the motivating force behind physicists’ move to make solar sails a reality, which they have been successful in doing. Solar sails are proposed to have a variety of uses to do with measurements and observations of the wider solar system and even beyond, with projects to send a fleet to Earth’s second nearest star, Alpha Centauri.

Beyond its direct effects on scientific research, science fiction plays a vital role in shaping public perception of, and discussions around, new developments. The genre is extremely effective at exploring possible outcomes of the use of certain technologies, and at delving into the morally murky side of fields like artificial intelligence or gene editing. Of course, it can also serve as a source of misinformation, dramatising something to exaggerate its possible implications and needlessly alienating the public from it. Either way, scientific progress is clearly not a lone endeavour. There are always a variety of forces at play to drive the process onwards; they may sometimes be at odds with each other, but when they move in the same direction – such as in the case of solar sails – each one benefits from it immeasurably.

Francesca VII