While you can't be beamed anywhere (yet), technology has made many of our other sci-fi dreams come true. In fact, three out of four use their phones to navigate instead of calling for directions, apps like Google Goggles help us identify the sites without a tour guide, and Google Translate can decipher almost 4,000 languages in 63 pairings. So what's next? Top searches leave us looking toward advances in artificial intelligence, cloud computing, and smartphones.

Written by
Christina Park
November 2011


"Computers need to be fun like a friend... and friendly like my cat. They shouldn't make me have to type since I don't like that. I can talk much better!" Researchers at the University of Maryland logged this complaint from an eight-year-old child in 1999, who seemed so matter-of-fact about something that was still the stuff of science fiction.

Just twelve years later, that kid has every right to say "I told you so." In the U.S., 3 out of 4 people rely on their mobile phones to navigate their way home instead of calling a friend. Five billion people around the world can talk at their computers or mobile phones to search for something with Google Voice Search. And although computers may not act like cats now, people are definitely watching a lot of online videos of them: if you were to try and watch every single YouTube video that had 'cats' in its title without sleeping or eating, it would take you over one and a half years.

With technology progressing at an exponential rate, the impossible is now possible. Following on Sci-Fi That Foretold the Future, we look at how tropes from science fiction have become science fact.

I. Ridiculously smart computers

"Space Odyssey: 2001" foreshadowed many of today’s modern marvels and made moviegoers near certain that the creation of an intelligent computer was right around the corner. However, HAL may bristle at the suggestion that just one decade after his stint aboard the spaceship Discover, he’s not the only smart computer in the room. With the explosion of cloud computing, most everything, from bridges to buildings to phones, has an IQ. McKinsey estimates that there are 30 million internet-connected devices in the world. Advancing AI (Artificial Intelligence) technology will give these devices “brains” of their own. Google’s photo sharing service Picasa can recognize faces and suggest tags accordingly, while the Google Goggles mobile app helps you identify many foreign objects -- from landmarks to logos. Google Instant uses AI to guess what a person is searching for as they type keywords into the search box (saving a user two to five seconds per search). Smart computers can recognize speech -- and talk back. For example, "Conversation Mode" in Google Translate will translate (and speak) your words into any of 57 languages.

By 2020, IBM hopes to connect 24 billion devices (right down to your earrings) so that they can send tens of billions of messages to each other every hour. Sound ambitious? In 2007, IBM created a computer that took two hours to answer a question. Just four years later, their brainchild, Watson, beat two of the highest scoring Jeopardy contestants in history.

What are technologists dreaming about today?

Top rising search queries related to "computer and electronics" on Google Scholar for 2011

  1. Smartphones
  2. Artificial Intelligence
  3. Eye Tracking
  4. Cloud Computing

II. The Ubiquitous Screens of America

In films like "WALL-E," "Minority Report" and "Surrogates," Americans spent a lot of time consuming a visual feast from giant monitors (usually from ultra state-of-the-art reclining chairs). Our routine today is more proof that life imitates art: Google Search data shows that the proliferation of screens has users engaging with them at every point during the day. During the workday people are searching from their computers. While commuting to and from work, people whip out their smartphones. In the evenings, tablet usage spikes dramatically, probably with the TV on in the background at the same time: a recent poll found that as many as 80% of people multitask on a mobile device while watching the tube.

So will ubiquitous screens divorce us from our humanity? Here’s some cause for optimism: one out of every four Americans who owned a cell phone or tablet reported downloading a health app. In ten years, the continued spread of mobile technologies could increase productivity and the incomes of smallholder farmers by $138 billion and reduce carbon emissions by five megatonnes. Like WALL-E, today’s technology can be very diligent about helping us.

III. Aliens speaking English

Universal translators were a dime a dozen in deep space. In "Star Trek", Captain Kirk used one to negotiate his freedom from a group of hostile aliens after landing on an unknown planet. "Doctor Who" fans know that when his spaceship navigation failed, The Doctor relied on an omnipresent telepathic field to communicate in the lingua franca of the times. Apparently, there’s more chance you’ll get lost in space than get lost in translation.

Had they been zapped to the present, they'd only have to ask to borrow a smartphone or computer to access services like Google Translate, which offers translations in 63 languages and 3,906 language pairs. Though language barriers still exist, there's proof we’ve made some progress: Google Translate has seen its translate volume increase 10x in the past three years. A group of Google research scientists also found that in 2008, English was very much the dominant language of the web, with about 20% non-English languages linking out to English pages. Since then, there's been significantly more non-English content created. They've also found some surprising new linking patterns, perhaps partially due to voice and page translation services. For example, there are now pages that link from Hindi to Ukrainian, Kurdish to Swedish, Swahili to Tagalog and Bengali, and Esperanto to Polish. It's becoming a small world-wide-web after all.