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2017 ‘A’ Levels GP Essay: How far is science fiction becoming fact?

Fans around the world were waiting with bated breath, in eager expectation of the release of the latest Star Wars movie premiering earlier this week. The franchise had come a long way since George Lucas released the first installation of the film. Commanding a massive cult following worldwide, Star Wars has firmly established and cemented itself as an essential mainstay in popular culture. However, not many may know that Lucas’ first Star Wars film almost never happened as many producers of the day initially thought that the genre was too childish. The unexpected resounding success of the film perhaps suggests that there is still an inner child in every one of us, who never ceases to imagine and dream. The science-fiction genre, then, offers people a hope and a platform where seemingly unrealistic ideas can be carved into “reality”. In this vein, science fiction can be seen as an outlet for our cathartic expressions and thought experiments. With humans becoming more and more adept in actualisng our abstract ideas, much of what we see in science fiction – especially in the area of technological innovations – is now not far from becoming fact.

Man has always dreamed of a more automated world with great convenience at his fingertips, and this can be seen in many science fiction settings in the form of voice-activated systems and facial recognition technology. Many of these elements probably started out in science fiction as imagination but have now become very much part of reality. In fact, voice-activated systems are no longer considered novel by today’s standards; be it Apple’s Siri or Android’s Google Assistant, many mobile devices are now equipped with at least basic voice-activated self-help systems. Increasingly, facial recognition technology is being employed to speed up identification processes, notably by airline companies and custom checks. Earlier this year, Finnair had invited 1000 of its frequent flyers to take part in a face recognition test in their efforts to incorporate facial recognition technology for airport check-ins to improve customer experience. Just a few months back, Alibaba also debuted “smile to pay” facial recognition technology at KFC outlets in China, advancing another step forward in creating a truly cashless society in their country. With many being more than eager to push the envelope in incorporating biometrics in everyday use, the runway for innovation and implementation of such technology will only shorten. It is indeed no exaggeration to say that much of such automated technology that used to be mere science fiction fantasy is fast-becoming fact and even increasingly commonplace.

Space conquest is another area popularised in science fiction. Given the vastness of space, it is fair to say that it is near impossible in the foreseeable future that Man can conquer or even explore the whole of it. Nevertheless, the numerous significant breakthroughs in space exploration suggest that ideas such as space travel and colonisation that are commonly featured in science fiction are plausible and possible. Even right now, Virgin Galactic, a commercial space travel company founded by Sir Richard Branson is already fine-tuning its technology, and expects to launch its first commercial flight before the turn of the next decade. If space travel is only a few steps away from reality, it is not too presumptuous to think that some degree of space colonisation can be realised within our lifetime.

Apart from technological innovations, many science fiction stories also sublimely tell cautionary tales of how our scientific pursuits may backfire on us. In this aspect, we must be thankful that the dreadful doomsday scenarios commonly depicted in science fiction have yet to become fact. The wide range of undesirable consequences explored in many science fiction works – ranging from the chilling ending in Wells’ “Time Machine” where the time traveller never returned, to a full on apocalypse in the movie “I am Legend” where a supposed cancer vaccine became a lethal strain that almost wiped out the world – elucidates the point that some of these ill consequences can be severely devastating and more importantly, irreversible. The attitude that undergirds such science fiction also mirrors many conservatives in reality who are hesitant to delve into realms where we may not be able to afford the costs. Hence, while we do not see the same exact scenarios in science fiction played out in real life, many do recognise and acknowledge the same concerns. In a sense, we have very much embraced the spirit and message behind these science fiction stories as worthwhile and valid; it is a fact that most would affirm that careful consideration and due process must be undertaken before we embark on our work on potentially “dangerous” technology.

The fact that we have not encountered many of the grave consequences described in science fiction today is testament that we had exercised sufficient caution and wisdom in our pursuit of technology thus far. This does not necessarily bode well for us in the future. If our past successes had only bred an insatiable ambition to pursue our goals at all cost, then the tragic end foretold in those science fiction stories will be our inevitable future. With the expanse of destructive technology at our disposal, we are already well equipped to thrust ourselves into our own demise. Will Donald Trump fire the first missile at North Korea? Will Kim Jong Un unleash his nuclear weapons on the world? Is there a vicious virus strain that is already developed in some mad scientist’s laboratory waiting to taste its first blood? With the rising tensions in today’s world, there is legitimate fear that the first tile may soon be dropped to trigger a domino effect that will bring us down to rock bottom: the science fiction “prophecies” are not far from being fulfilled.

Nevertheless, there are yet loftier science fiction ideas such as time travel, teleportation and parallel universe that are arguably no closer to being fact now than decades ago when they were first mooted. While it remains true that not all of science fiction have been realised as fact, it is plain ignorance to think that most of them are just pipe dreams. We have ridden on waves after waves of technological breakthroughs since the Industrial Revolution, and gained enough traction in knowledge and expertise to be capable of making many science fiction ideas become facts. Even in areas such as space travel and colonisation where we have yet to claim complete success, we already have a clear road map that will bring us there in the near future. However, we must never downplay the warnings beneath the veneer of novel ideas in science fiction. We had heeded them well to be able to reap the fruits of our science fiction dreams and avoid the forewarned calamities thus far, but the end times portrayed in science fiction can easily become fact if we carelessly miss a step in the treacherous terrain we are treading on today.

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