When science fiction becomes reality

a picture of glasses and a fake eye


This post is a little different to my usual ramblings about PhD life, with some thoughts on how science fiction always seems just a short step ahead of science & technology – enough to captivate and tantalise some of us with the awesome (and occasionally disturbing) possibilities.

Given the combination of my long-standing interest in psychology and the constant awe and gratitude I feel at some of our day-to-day technological wonders, I really love when psychology and technology collide through art. By art, I mostly mean films and books, but there is currently an exciting-looking exhibition on at the Wellcome Trust in London, which I really want to check out – it deals with the concept of how people are continually developing new ways to enhance our bodies (from physical features such as height, to our senses and minds).

Sometimes it seems that the fictional worlds and technologies I like to watch or read about are all too realistic. Last December, I watched Charlie Brooker’s 3-part Black Mirror TV series. The last episode (which you can apparently still watch here, but probably only if you live in the UK) was about a world where everyone seems to have an implant in their brains which records everything they see and hear, with the possibility of replaying it in your own head or on a screen for others to see. Arguments are changed forever when it is so easy to just go back in time and prove to someone what exactly they said and did, in a parallel way to how nowadays, disagreements in the pub about what year something happened or whatever are quickly followed by someone putting an end to the conversation by looking up the answer online.

In a very similar vein, I remember really enjoying The Final Cut, a film about brain implants which record everything you see, so that a film of the highlights of your life can be created once you die and the implant is salvaged. Morbid, yes, but a good story nonetheless.

More recent fictional ideas I’ve seen have gone some steps further, beyond implants recording information to reality augmentation. Last week, H+, a new web series of (very) short episodes started. It’s set in a world where people have a brain implant connecting their minds to the internet. On the other hand, in a short film project, called Sight, the fictional technology allows you to play games and watch TV in your head, get nutritional information, plan your wardrobe and have access to all sorts of other information.

Which brings me to Google glasses, a real item, which looks like it might be on the market someday very soon. These appear to be a version of a smartphone worn as glasses, with a little screen and camera in one corner. They give you access to a seemingly infinite number of apps, as well as recording and being able to share what you see. Sound familiar? Although I’m not convinced how practical these will actually be and definitely not keen on the potential for marketing and ads getting in the way, I can easily envision a future where they are as common as smartphones, which themselves can be viewed as an enhancement – a way to store information without needing to try to remember things and a combination of unlimited tools, given that there is basically an app for everything nowadays. I wonder if the Wellcome Trust exhibition will have mention of Google glasses and other such reality augmenting technology.