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Sci-Fi Predictions for the Future That Really Happened

The 1950s was often right too. It may depend on how badly we need something to happen

Last week, we looked at a 1964 prediction of life in the 2020s that definitely did not happen: chimpanzees driving cars and doing housework. Back then, people who recognized that chimpanzees were intelligent seem to have known little about their natural characteristics.

But in fairness, many predictions did come to pass, including the pocket-sized phone that could relay facial images, predicted in a 1956 magazine article:

The journalist, Robert Beason, wrote about features such as touchtone dialing, video calling, voice recognition and small colour screens capable of being used as tiny televisions, built into compact devices.

His interviewee, Harold Osborne, the retiring chief engineer of American Telephone & Telegraph also foresaw other common features of modern smartphones, such as quick call connections, lighted keypads and soothing ringtones, which were all included in the article published in US magazine, Mechanix Illustrated.

Sarah Griffiths, “A 50s vision of the ‘phone of tomorrow’ … and it’s pretty accurate! Engineer foresaw features including Siri, FaceTime in a pocket-sized device” at Daily Mail (January 6, 2015)

Here’s a web version of the article in the September 1956 edition of Mechanix Illustrated.

And here’s another early prediction of the cell phone:

As the video notes, cell phone predictions go right back to Nicola Tesla (1856–1943), who said in 1926 that people would one day have a phone we could carry around in a vest pocket. It was an idea that just had to happen, probably.

Many successful predictions come from science fiction. Space.com has highlighted eleven of them, including instantaneous machine translation:

While exploring space, characters such as Captain Kirk and Spock would come across alien life who spoke a different language. To understand the galactic foreigners, the Star Trek characters used a device that immediately translated the alien’s unusual language. Star Trek’s universal communicator was first seen on screen as Spock tampered with it in order to communicate with a non-biological entity (Series 2 Episode 9, Metamorphosis).

Although the idea in Star Trek was to communicate with intelligent alien life, a device capable of breaking down language barriers would revolutionize real-time communication. Now, products such as Sourcenext’s Pocketalk and Skype’s new voice translation service are capable of providing instantaneous translation between languages. Flawless real-time communication is far off, but the technological advancements over the last decade mean this feat is within reach.

Lee Cavendish, “Welcome to the future: 11 ideas that went from science fiction to reality” at Space.com (March 25, 2020)

And when it malfunctions:

Today, we even have technology for rendering people invisible (sort of) and for “seeing” through walls.

We might look at successful predictions this way: Generally, they focus on things we really want and need, like communication or privacy, that don’t challenge any laws of physics. No law of physics says we can’t have a cell phone tower. That’s where human inventiveness tends to come out ahead. But if someone had predicted time travel or exceeding the speed of light by now, they’d still be waiting — for fundamental physics reasons. The amazing things we can do with technology always work with nature; they don’t change it.


You may also wish to read:

Invisibility is no longer science fiction (or magic). It’s here. A new technique, the “invisibility shield,” which offers the user near invisibility, is reaching the marketing stage. The invisibility effect — refracting light from the subject’s background toward the observer — depends on optics so the shield does not require a power source.

and

New military technology can “see” through walls. Military? How long before our nosy civilian neighbors have one? Strictly speaking, the technology detects, in detail, the shape and movements of living occupants behind the walls. It could be useful in search and rescue.


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Sci-Fi Predictions for the Future That Really Happened