Monday, October 31, 2011

Jules Verne: A Novelist Who Accurately Envisioned the Future

The future has been predicted by many people over the years, and some have been quite accurate in their predictions. In December of 1901, an article by Henry Litchfield West included his prediction that, “Aerial cars will ply between great centers of population, arriving and departing on fixed schedules and carrying their human cargoes (Hallion, pg.183).” Other people since and prior to West’s time have made accurate predictions, but very few have made accurate predictions within the framework of fiction like the visionary author, Jules Verne.

It was this world-famous French author, whose books have been translated into numerous languages, that has become known as the father of science fiction. Even today, the works of Jules Verne are popular and some of his books have been turned into movies, such as his books, Twenty-Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and Journey to the Center of the Earth. In both of these books and in most of his other ones, Verne employs the use of vivid, scientific descriptions and technology that did not exist at the time his books were written. Such works of fiction fall into the genre known as science fiction, a genre pioneered by Jules Verne, who is known by many as the father of science fiction. Some might argue that H.G. Wells is also the father of science fiction. H.G. Wells started publishing his books in the 1890s, several decades after Jules Verne’s famous works (which were first published in the 1860s) appeared on bookshelves. Before H.G. Wells had penned his first published novel, Verne was taking his readers on strange adventures through uncharted territories and mysterious lands. His novel Twenty-Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, published in 1869, explored the mysterious and hidden world beneath the sea, in a submarine: a vehicle that did not exist in the 1860s. In his novel From the Earth to the Moon, Jules Verne takes the reader on a journey through outer space in a space capsule, to visit the moon: something that would happen roughly a century later.

Unlike his other famous stories, which are more plausible, Jules Verne’s story about spelunking, Journey to the Center of the Earth, describes an underground cavern filled with a breathable atmosphere, huge mushrooms, a sea, dinosaurs, and giants. At the time of its creation, the geothermal gradient (the rate at which temperature increases with increasing depth in Earth’s interior) was not known and the technique of seismic reflection (the method of determining the density and type of material in the earth by means of creating an artificial seismic wave) had not been discovered yet. Today, the thought of sending such an expedition to the center of the earth is laughable and absurd, but not in Verne’s time. Despite breaking some scientific facts, Journey to the Center of the Earth still remains a well-read classic to this day. One might say, without making an overstatement, that Jules Verne was truly a creative genius who had a visionary and inventive mind that baffles us today with its phenomenal ingenuity and foresight.

His creative mind came up with ideas never thought of or penned down before: ideas which exist today as actual inventions. In an article titled In the Year 2889, published in 1889, he wrote about the future where people regularly communicated via a device that resembles the modern equivalent of video conferencing, where two or more parties can both see and hear each other live through computer or television screens. In this same article, Verne described a form of news that could be heard instead of read. Voices would replace newspaper print. This article was written several years before the first wireless transmission was made. It was on July 27, 1896 that the Italian inventor, Guglielmo Marconi, demonstrated to a small crowd wireless telegraphy for the first time.

Other fulfilled predictions Jules Verne has made include guns that can kill by means of electricity. In Twenty-Thousand Leagues Under the Sea,  Captain Nemo’s men use guns that fire spheres charged with electricity.  On impact, the projectiles release a lethal dose of electricity. A similar technology exists today, which is used by law enforcement officers. The Taser is a small device which can stun by sending electricity through a pair of electrodes that are fired into the skin of a person or animal. Another of Captain Nemo’s impressive devices is a backpack for breathing, used by Nemo’s divers. It was many decades later that the SCUBA tank was invented. But, the most profound technology described in Twenty-Thousand Leagues Under the Sea was the Nautilus, a submarine that ran on battery power. At the time Verne had written his story, no battery-powered submarines existed.

Besides his accurate predictions about underwater technology, Jules Verne has also made stunning predictions about space travel. In his book From the Earth to the Moon, first published in 1865, Cape Canaveral is the launching place for the first manned mission to the Moon, and a bullet-shaped space capsule is fired from a huge cannon. The space travelers, who occupy this capsule, orbit around the Moon and return to Earth. In a manner similar to how the Apollo 11 capsule landed in the Atlantic, their pod splashes down in the ocean. An interesting fact is that it was 104 years after Verne’s book was first published that Apollo 11 was launched, in 1969.

This incredibly accurate ability of Verne to predict the future is not limited to his famous works. One of Jules Verne’s books, which has been in hiding for 131 years, was published for the first time in 1994. Well ahead if its time, Paris in the Twentieth Century is a story that includes descriptions of glass skyscrapers, gasoline-powered cars, and fax machines. The story was set in the year 1960 and portrayed a dystopian world with technology similar to what exists today. Verne’s editor, Pierre-Jules Hetzel, rejected the story as being inferior to his previous work. Hetzel wrote to Verne, saying, “No-one today will believe your prophecy (Bernstein).”

It was years later that Jules Verne was considered to be a kind of prophet and a man ahead of his time. Few men alive then (or today) could have accurately imagined the future and put it into a fictional form. His books include numerous technological inventions, many of which have come true in one way or another. His vivid descriptions and heroic adventures make his stories come alive and contribute to his enduring popularity. His influence has rubbed off on subsequent authors and a new genre of fiction has been formed: science fiction. Jules Verne’s legacy—his amazing foresight, realistic descriptions, attention to science, and sense of adventure—has acted as a springboard for other authors to dive off of into the world of science fiction where the imagination is free to explore the mysteries of the universe in a way that is scientifically plausible.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Mind Reading Technology is No Longer Fictional

The concept of mind-reading, telepathy, or the transference of thoughts from person to person without any direct communication between them, has been in existence for only a little over a century. The word ‘telepathy’ was coined by Frederick W. H. Myers in 1882 and has remained a concept with no scientific proof it could ever occur. During experiments, the subjects, who could supposedly communicate telepathically, would give subtle, nonverbal cues, such as tapping out Morse code with coins. Though Myers was wrong about mind-reading being possible through so-called psychic abilities, reading minds, nevertheless, is possible through the use of modern technology. Mind-reading is no longer fiction: it is a fact.

As a fanciful notion, mind-reading technology has been around a long time. In the year 1919, a whimsical article appeared in The Syracuse Herald entitled “This Machine Records All Your Thoughts”. The imaginary device would record one’s thoughts as fluctuating waves on a long roll of paper, similar to how a seismograph records earth tremors. What is more absurd about such a device is that a secretary had to interpret the waves scrawled on the roll and type out the corresponding words. It would seem more logical to simply dictate to the secretary the sentences one wanted to write.

Another early reference to mind-reading technology appeared in Isaac Asimov’s book “I, Robot”, which was published in 1950. A robot capable of reading people’s minds decides to only tell people what he knows they want to hear instead of answering truthfully. The scenario of the robot lying was used to demonstrate some of the possible ways Asimov’s three laws of robotics could be altered. These laws were his idea for general principles robots should be programmed to have.

Though Asimov’s mind-reading robot is fictional, mind-reading technology is not. In 2007, a team of neuroscientists performed an experiment using a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner. Volunteers were asked to decide whether to add or subtract two numbers which were to later appear on a screen. Before the numbers appeared, each volunteer had a brain scan. Using the data obtained from the scans, the scientists could be used a special computer program to predict what choice each volunteer would make. The predictions were correct 70 percent of the time.

Another brain-scanning technology allows scientists to reconstruct images a person has seen. A team of researchers, at the University of California, Berkeley, headed by Jack Gallant, a neuroscientist, has conducted an experiment where they had participants view brief video clips from YouTube. Using advanced computer software, images seen in the brains of the participants could be reconstructed. A computer matched reconstructed images taken from the participants’ brains with images from the YouTube videos. Though the reconstructed images looked blurry and more like modern art, they did resemble the images from the YouTube videos.

Reconstructing images from the brain is just the beginning of the technological mind-reading trend. Mind-reading applications are being sold at the Apple App Store. One application (or app) called “W.I.L.D.” allows players to do activities such as extinguishing fires, walking through landscapes, and bending spoons. By using a special set of headphones that acts like an electroencephalograph (EEG) machine, brain activity is recorded and sent to a portable device, such as an iphone. The program can detect a change in brain activity, such as concentration or relaxation and used both states to control the games in the application.

Such technology, or similar technology, has potential for many other uses. One, in particular, is a wheelchair for disabled people who do not have the use of their arms. Toyota, a car manufacturer, and RIKEN, a research lab, have partnered to design and build an electric wheelchair that responds to thought commands. The user of the wheelchair wears a cap filled with sensors monitoring his or her brainwaves. By thinking a clear and straightforward command such as “turn left” or “turn right” the user can navigate the wheelchair without touching a single control. This mind-reading technology is now being applied to the auto industry.  (Continued on the next page)

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Ray Bradbury's Fulfilled Predictions for the Future

The origin of "Fahrenheit 451" started with Ray Bradbury's short story "Bright Phoenix," written in 1947. The short story was rewritten into the novella "The Fireman", and published in a 1951 issue of Galaxy Science Fiction, a periodical. Later, it was expanded and given the title "Fahrenheit 451".
The story is about a futuristic world in which firemen do not put out fires, but start them. These firemen are the law enforcement officers who were given the directive to burn books and to arrest those who own the books.
Most people do not read books. Rather, they watch TV and participate in interactive television shows where the audience can interact with the person in the TV screen. Surprisingly, the televisions take up most of a wall and seem strikingly similar to the large flat-screen televisions of today.
Other technological wonders in Bradbury's book include tiny radios that fit into one's ear. The wife of Montag, the main character of the story, constantly listens to music through tiny ear radios. This is hardly different from what we have today.
Montag, the protagonist of the story, is a fireman who has hidden away, in his house, books which should have been burned. Eventually discovered, he decides to flee from his home town. While out in the country, Montag ends up meeting a group of survivalists who have memorized books and are able to quote them verbatim.
Ray Bradbury has stated that "Fahrenheit 451" is not about the topic of censorship. Rather, he said, it is a story of how television destroys interest in reading literature, leading to a replacement of knowledge with "factoids": partial information devoid of context, such as Napoleon's birth date with no explanation of who he was.
Could this be somewhat prophetic of today? Without a doubt. Many people have ear buds connecting them to their ipods, massive plasma-screen televisions in their living rooms, and an addiction to watching TV. At the time the book was being written, televisions were a new technology and not everyone had one. Today, the average American watches four hours of TV per day, according to the A.C. Nielson Company. By the age of 65, a person would have spent nine years of his or her life watching TV. How beneficial was that time spent watching TV?
According to a study conducted by the Higher Education Research Institute of the University of California Los Angeles, 15- to 24-year-olds read for only, on average, 7-10 minutes each day, for their own pleasure. At the same time, this same category of young adults watches TV, on average, for 2-2.5 hours each day.
Sadly, it seems TV has a hold on the general population, just as Bradbury imagined it would. Some questions come to mind: 'Is there something that can be done to change this trend?' and 'Will fiction books become obsolete?'
Despite all this, a new type of book has come out of obscurity and has now surpassed traditional hard cover and soft cover book sales. The ebook is an electronic book that can be downloaded onto a portable device, such as a kindle, a smartphone, or a personal computer. Early in 2010, Amazon announced that it sold 105 ebooks for every 100 normal books. In July 2010, Amazon announced that the sale of ebooks had surpassed the sale of traditional books. According to Amazon, for every 100 paper books sold, 143 kindle ebooks were purchased. A new form of book has taken the stage. Part of this increase was due to the sales of Apple's new ipad with its kindle apps and Amazon's reduced price on its basic Kindle.
Where technology goes from here remains to be seen, but the future may hold many surprises: surprises that Ray Bradbury could not have imagined. Will ebooks completely replace regular books? Only time will tell.