I am working on a new spring course to explore the interplay between science fiction and computing technologies. In broad brushstrokes, the inspiration for this was born from the realization that many technologies that we use today were may have come directly or indirectly from sci-fi movies, novels, and short stories. Since I am a computer scientist, my main interest in this course is to explore the computing technologies that have appeared in sci-fi throughout the existence of the genre.
We will go back through a few decades of books, movies, and TV shows to identify the interesting computing technologies and devices that appeared in those stories. More than just casually enjoying our travels through sci-fi media, I am interested in relating our findings to the computing developments that have already been turned into tangible products, to ongoing research for the future, and to ideas that can serve to inspire us to aim higher.
Here are few of examples to get a conversation going (we can discuss many others in the comments, if you like):
- In 1986, when William Gibson published Neuromancer, there was no such thing as the World Wide Web and cyberspace wasn’t a word yet. The technology, which is almost as prominent as the protagonist in the book, might have been a prophecy.
- When the first version of the iPad came out, it suddenly dawned on fans of Star Trek: The Next Generation that they had seen tablets before. Many a character in the series used to carry similar devices around the Enterprise instead of clipboards. Now, we have tablets which they look better and seem capable of more than those from the sci-fi show.
- Vernor Vinge talked about the concept of a network of small sensors with processing capability in A Deepness in the Sky (2000). The technology he presented in this book, which has been called “smart dust,” has been the focus of research for quite some time (read more about Kris Pister’s project). The question is: how close are we to having really tiny sensor networks and what will be the impact they have on society?
- Going off on a slight tangent, sci-fi visionary Sir Arthur C. Clarke didn’t create the concept of the geostationary satellite (due to Herman Potočnik, 1928), but in he did popularize the placement of those at a given circular orbit, in a work of non fiction in 1945. His proposal became known as the Clarke Orbit, at a distance of 35,787 km.
Beyond what we know was first envisioned in sci-fi, we can explore conjectures which may be no more than crazy, fun extrapolations or which may possibly become reality some day. Take for example Robert J. Sawyer’s Parallax Trilogy, which starts with the novel Hominids. In this work, research on a quantum computer opens a portal to an alternate universe where the homo sapiens became extinct and the homo neanderthalensis thrived as the prevailing intelligent species. Quantum mechanics is explained with two alternative paradigms: superposition of states (mind boggling), and parallel universes, both are treasure troves for works of sci-fi. Hominids explores the latter and with some suspension of disbelief, it’s not hard to accept the idea that quantum computing could open portals to alternate realities.
In this course, we will research sci-fi media (books, movies, and TV shows), identify interesting computing technologies and investigate how they relate to real ongoing projects. We will also analyze them critically to attempt to understand what impact they will have on the evolution of our society and the survival of the homo sapiens. I am still working out how this course will fulfill elements of the Bucknell’s Common Core Curriculum for Arts & Sciences students and of the Engineering Curriculum for Engineering students. Regardless of these details, the course will involve a fair amount of reading and movie watching and considerable doses of critical thinking, in class discussions, public speaking, and writing. (I expect it will be a W2 course.)
How would you like to take a course like this? I’d love to hear your thoughts, so please don’t be shy and leave me some comments!