Imagine a future in which memories can be implanted into your brain. Want to go to the Caribbean? India? Mars? Can’t afford the trip? No problem – if you have the memories of going, what’s the difference?
Of course, this is the plotline from recent sci fi remake Total Recall, and not a world we’re ever likely to inhabit. Or is it? It may sound implausible, but last month, scientists from MIT announced that they had achieved false memory implantation in mice.
To do this, the scientists put the mice into a specific setting (environment A), then moved them to a new setting, environment B. Whilst in environment B, the researchers activated a group of memory cells in the brain of the mice, compelling them to remember their experience in environment A. They also gave the mice small electric shocks to their feet as they explored environment B. When the mice were returned to environment A, they exhibited behaviour indicative of fear. What’s more, the memory cells of the brain responsible for recalling this memory were activated once again. The scientists had made the mice remember receiving electric shocks when moving around environment A, an event that had never taken place.
These controversial experiments show that Total Recall-style mind manipulation has the potential to become science fact. When Philip K Dick wrote the short story upon which the film is based, ‘We Can Remember It For You Wholesale’, way back in 1966, the concept must have seemed far from reality (although my boyfriend – a bit of a sci fi geek – has asked me to point out here that the likelihood is that Philip K Dick himself would have believed that this dystopian future could, or even was, happening: serious mental health issues and a propensity for drugs had made the author somewhat unhinged). This led me to wonder what other new technologies have been predicted by science fiction. Here are three of my favourites.
1/ Mark Twain invents the Internet… in 1898
Ok, so I’m stretching the boundaries of what constitutes a ‘new’ technology here, but Mark Twain’s predictions regarding the world wide web in his short story ‘From the ‘London Times’ of 1904’ are really quite impressive. The story itself, it has to be said, is generally regarded as being pretty blummin’ awful (judge for yourself here, if you have more time then sense), but the technology imagined within in is uncannily similar to the modern day Internet. Twain describes the invention of a ‘telelectroscope’ a device that uses telephone lines to transmit information in the form of pictures and videos across the world. So far, so accurate. What’s more, he apparently had the foresight to see that humanity would primarily use such a device for idle gossip and self promotion- in other words, for social networking – although Twain himself puts a rather more positive spin on it: “Day by day, and night by night, he called up one corner of the globe after another, and looked upon its life, and studied its strange sights, and spoke with its people, and realised that by the grace of this marvelous instrument he was almost as free as the birds of the air”. A romantic description of twitter if ever I heard one. Maybe I should suggest they use it for their homepage. Although I think technically it has too many characters.
2/Lab grown beef burgers, as seen on TV
Only those who primarily inhabit subterranean dwellings are likely to be ignorant of the recent production of the world’s first laboratory grown ‘beef burger’. The shamburger was made from muscle stem cells taken from a living cow, which were then grown in the lab. The scientists, from Maastrict University in the Netherlands, induced the cells to multiply and so form strings of muscle fibre. The strings were compacted into a patty – about 20 000 strings were needed for one burger. Finally, colourings and flavourings were added to make the patty taste more like a real burger. The methodology used to make the faux burger is unique, but the idea of lab grown or synthetically made food has been around in the sci fi world for a long time. For example, Isaac Asimov often wrote about ‘zymoveal’, a protein made by vats of yeast, that was the only source of protein available to working class people in an overcrowded dystopian future. In his short story ‘The Evitable Conflict’, this yeast protein could be engineered to take on the appearance and taste of other foods, including steak.
There are many other examples of ‘fake’ or ‘synthetic’ foods throughout sci fi literature and cinema, including in the films Alien and Brazil. A running theme is the lack of taste in the synthetic foods when compared to the original. Take the Matrix, for instance, in which the food eaten in the real world is “single cell protein combined with synthetic aminos, vitamins, and minerals” – a combination that doesn’t sound far from the contents of the real lab grown burger. The ‘real world’ gloop in the Matrix apparently tastes like ‘runny eggs’ or a ‘bowl of snot’. In a case of life imitating art, the results at a tasting session of the lab grown meat earlier this month appeared to be slightly underwhelming. The patty failed to replicate the juiciness of real meat, due to the lack of fat. More bleurgher than burger, perhaps? Sorry, I couldn’t resist.
3/ Online newspapers on your Ipad, envisioned by Arthur C. Clarke
Arthur C. Clarke predicted a good many things about the future that have in fact come to pass. For starters, he promoted the idea of geostationary satellites, which we now use for things such as communications and broadcasting. However, I think one of his most impressive visions for the modern day world comes from his novel ‘2001: a space odyssey’, which was released alongside the film of the same name. The Internet as a worldwide network wasn’t established until the 1980s, but in his 1968 novel, Clarke predicted that we would one day use it to keep up to date with global news stories. He describes a ‘Newspad’, a portable device that the astronauts use to check up on the news from earth. “He would plug his foolscap-sized Newspad into the ship’s information circuit and scan the latest reports from Earth. One by one he would conjure up the world’s major electronic papers… Here he was, far out in space, speeding away from Earth at thousands of miles an hour, yet in a few milliseconds he could see the headlines of any newspaper he pleased…The text was updated automatically on every hour; even if one read only the English versions, one could spend an entire lifetime doing nothing but absorbing the ever-changing flow of information from the news satellites.” A foolscap, in case you’re interested, is a piece of paper measuring 33cm by 20.3cm. An Ipad is 24.1cm by 18.6cm. Not a bad guess. Clarke cannot be credited with the invention of the tablet computer itself, as (very) primitive, non-computerised forms of tablet were around before ‘2001’ was written. Nonetheless, his prediction of the appearance and use of modern day electronics are, frankly, just really cool.