Quantum Levitation and the Science Fiction Imaginary

What is the link between innovation and the science fiction imaginary?

The latest science fiction meme to go viral on the Internet is Quantum Levitation. What started off as a scene from the science fiction movie Back to the Future 2 has been transformed into a real-life quantum physics superconductivity project at Tel Aviv University. Videos of a puck-like object appearing to levitate in space as the result of “quantum locking” have captured the public imagination online. Popular Science has posted videos of French scientists working on MagSurf, a real-world levitating hoverboard. There's even a DIY Superconductivity video available to watch if you want to try this at home. Clearly, science fiction has the ability to unlock the creativity and imagination of not just the public, but also of the real-world practitioners who can take ideas from lab to market.

So what is the link between innovation and the science fiction imaginary?

It turns out that science fiction ideas are a surprisingly effective stimulus for future innovation. In the latest Google Think Quarterly, Amit Singhal of Google gives full credit to science fiction for inspiring the Google Search team, which approached searching the Web with the same wild-eyed enthusiasm usually reserved for space exploration. In the same way, the current generation of touch screens and augmented reality devices owe their inspiration in part to Tom Cruise and the touch screens from Philip K. Dick’s Minority Report. Modern smart phones can be traced back to Star Trek communicator devices. And that's not all.

Robert Heinlein hinted at a world of RFID transmitters, Arthur C. Clarke imagined the Space Elevator, William Gibson gave us the term “cyberspace,” Aldous Huxley imagined a world of test tube babies and Karel Čapek gave us the inspiration for modern-day robots (the word is actually derived from Czech and means "labor"). In fact, the rich provenance of science fiction goes back to at least the 1870's, with Jules Verne and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

This science fiction imaginary, then, can be used to create important, real-world innovations. Imagine if the Tricorder, popularized by Star Trek, one day became a tool for healthcare professionals? There are plenty of other “Star Trek technologies” that might find their way into the real world some day soon. What’s fascinating is how some companies at the forefront of innovation are specifically tapping into the science fiction imaginary for new ideas. Take the example of Intel, which is using science fiction as a way to prototype future ideas.

In fact, there’s an entire website – Technovelgy (say it really fast and it sounds like "technology") – which lists over 2000 different innovations from hundreds of science fiction works, sorted by author, book, category and even timeline. For anyone starting up a tech company right now, any of these innovations could become the basis for a potential “pivot.”

One could even make the bold statement that the health and vibrancy of a nation’s science fiction imaginary is a robust indicator of future innovation within the private sector. As Stanislaw Lem, author of the hugely popular Solaris, once noted: “A man can only control what he comprehends, and comprehend only what he is able to put into words. The inexpressible therefore is unknowable...” By putting the idea of Quantum Levitation into words and images, we may finally have found a way to comprehend and control something that once was thought to be unknowable.

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