Monday, May 09, 2016

Tomorrow’s Tech … Today! #3

Tomorrow’s Tech … Today!

Many futuristic inventions have come to pass, while some may never be realized.

[Some of this was used as content for the Program Book of SoonerCon 24 in June 2015.  Hope you like the idea!]

          You can make up theories to explain a Tractor Beam — selective gravity field, invisible force field, subatomic attraction — but franchises from Star Wars and Star Trek to Dr Who and Spaceballs use it as a handy-dandy extension hand.
           In January 2013, researchers with Scotland’s University of St Andrews, in league with Czech Republic scientists, reported a tiny success.  “Practical scientific theories on real-life tractor beams have been developed since 1960, but it is thought this is the first time a beam has been used to draw microscopic objects towards the light source,” reported the BBC.
          Unfortunately, given the transfer of energy involved, a macro use of this technology would fry its target long before drawing it in, even in the relative cold of space.  

           The dream of instant communication is a commonplace feature of multi-world sf/fantasy.  In Adventure Time, Lady Rainicorn uses such a device to speak English, and it’s a part of Star Trek canon.  The Trekspeak explanation that “certain universal ideas and concepts are common to all intelligent life” may be true, but even combined with a brainwave scan, there’s really no straight-faced way to explain how an alien race’s brainwaves might be analyzed in this way, if they’ve never been encountered before.
          In May 2014, CNN announced the development of Skype Translator.  While such a program will be really helpful with known Earth languages, it’s a sure bet that it will be a long time before any computer could decipher a truly alien communication.  What if the language’s meaning is also in the pauses between words?  How can you tell if a sound is an alien word or a sneeze?  What if hand or tail gestures are part of the language?

          Comic books of the Silver Age were full of variations on this concept, from machines that instantly raised your IQ to “Learning Pillows” that educated you while you snoozed.  Nowadays it can teach you Keanu Fu, if you’re in The Matrix.  Here on Earth, there’s a whole series of guide books called “Instant Expert,” although they require that you actually read something.
           The concept of “sleep learning” was popularized in 1927 as “the Psycho-Phone,” but EEG readings and decades of trying have proven this concept to be unworkable.  That didn’t stop this tantalizing idea from being tried on American TV in places like Seinfeld or My Three Sons, while being treated a bit more seriously in SF literature in works like Flowers for Algernon or A Clockwork Orange.
           For the present, there’s no instant way to learn a skill or field of knowledge.  An old joke about a tourist in New York City expresses the reality:
          Q:  How do I get to the Met?
          A:  Practice, practice, practice!

 See you Thursday!

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