Science

Sci-fi: A pathfinder to innovation

Yoda, Dr. Who, Tony Stark, Frankenstein…characters of popular science fiction stories have captured the imagination of people across borders and ages. I’m sure you have your favourites too.

While sci-fi movies and stories have a distinct entertainment value, they have also inspired innovations we see around us. By innovation, we do not mean just complex technology, space ships and rocket science. Anything from a safety pin to a driverless car are examples of simple product innovations. If we could sequence patent citations of leading technology innovations, elements of transformation from fiction to reality will become evident.

In his book ‘From the Earth to the Moon’, French author Jules Verne describes a group of men worked to build a gun big enough to launch a rocket to the moon. Written in mid 1800s, this sci-fi story is said to have inspired NASA’s Apollo programme which indeed put the first man on moon. In 1900s, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky used Verne’s initial ideas and proposed the theory of spaceflight.

Igor Sikorsky who invented the modern-day helicopter, was enthused by another Jules Verne’s book ‘Clipper of the Clouds’. Sikorsky often quoted Jules Verne, saying “Anything that one man can imagine, another man can make real.” American inventor Simon Lake is said to have been mesmerized by the idea of undersea travel from the time he read Jules Verne’s classic science fiction ‘Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea”. Later Simon built the first submarine to operate successfully in the open ocean earning him a congratulatory note from Verne.

The inventor of the first Liquid Fuelled Rocket Robert H Goddard was inspired reading a newspaper series by English author H G Wells, based on his novel ‘War of the Worlds’. The ‘replicators’ that first appeared in Star Trek, a popular American series featured machines that could produce food out of thin air. It is no longer a sci-fi prop. Anjan Contractor, who is commercialising the NASA 3D printer technology through BeeHex, Inc, envisioned a 3D Pizza Printer for NASA’s astronauts. The pizza printer spits out starches, proteins, fats, texture, and structure, while the inkjet sprays on flavour, smell, and micronutrients, thus baking the perfect pizza for astronauts. Star Trek has also reportedly motivated Martin Cooper, Director - R&D at Motorola, to design the first mobile phone. Stever Permlan of Apple Inc is also said to have drawn inspiration from Star Trek series in developing QuickTime – Apple’s multimedia program.

Knight Rider, a popular TV series from the 1980’s, which features AI car seems to have turned into a reality today with Google’s Driverless Car Technology. Fictional hoverboard used by the character Marty McFly in the ‘Back to the Future’ has already been accomplished. It is also worth noting that the time for transforming sci-fi ideas from lab to reality is significantly shortening. While it took over 100 years since Jules Verne’s idea of travel to moon to become a reality, it took less than 25 to translate Star trek ‘PADD’ to popular tablet computers of our time.

Does your favourite sci-fi hold potential ideas for a futuristic innovation? Why don’t you find out for yourself? May the force be with you!

Lokesh Venkataswamy is Vice-Chairman, IET Bangalore Local Network. He is Managing Director and Innovation Jockey at Innomantra Consulting Private Limited. Innomantra is an Innovation and Intellectual property consulting and services firm.


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Printable version | Oct 24, 2021 3:36:34 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/in-school/sh-science/scifi-a-pathfinder-to-innovation/article8348812.ece

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