Science fiction writers can be eerily prescient. Consider what John Brunner got right about our world in 2010, as described in his 1968 novel Stand on Zanzibar: a world shaken up by terrorist attacks and school shootings, the near-abandonment of Detroit, a zeal for upgrading everything, including our bodies. When Isaac Asimov envisioned in 1964 what 2014 would be like, he described what we’ve come to know as satellite phones, Skype calls and driverless cars.
Of course, with all the hits, there have been some misses. We don’t have Brunner’s single super computer that powers the world, but the rhizome of the Internet with servers all over the globe; we don’t have the moon colonies that Asimov assumed we’d already have. Still, the power of science fiction comes from the license to dream—and, in many cases, to have nightmares.
We asked experts: What idea from science fiction would you most like to see become reality?
Instant Messaging Across Galaxies
There are many concepts in science fiction that would be truly revolutionary if they were to change from fantasy to fact. Strong artificial intelligence, for example, would demote us as the rulers of the planet. Our species might take on a new status—as pets.
Building orbiting space colonies is another staple of sci-fi that would have major effect. Getting some of the population away from Earth and mining natural resources from asteroids or other bodies would permanently relieve many of the environmental pressures on our world.
These are examples of developments that would shift Homo sapiens into another gear. But they’re not truly spectacular because, frankly, they’re too plausible. They’re almost certain to happen, and perhaps quite soon. They don’t violate physics.
However, here’s something that’s in a different camp altogether: instantaneous communication. It does violate physics, at least the physics that we know. We’re not talking warp drive, but warp communication: the ability to exchange bits of information between any two locations, no matter how great the separation, without delay.
Consider what happened when the alien planet Alderaan is destroyed in the Star Wars film A New Hope. Millions of people are killed, but thanks to the instant messaging capability of "The Force" (whatever that is) Obi-Wan Kenobi feels their pain immediately.
That capability would change everything, and forever. Face it, there can never be a galactic empire in which biological beings cooperate or compete as long the delivery time for messages (“Help, Klingon attack!” or “Join the Vulcan book club”) is tens of thousands of years.
Searching for extraterrestrial intelligence would become trivial and gratifying. All that’s necessary is to systematically ping every star system in the galaxy, and—without delay—check for a response.
Instant communication would put everyone everywhere online. It would unite the cosmos intellectually and culturally. Goodbye isolation; hello socialization.
Seth Shostak is the senior astronomer and director of the Center for SETI Research at the SETI Institute, a Mountain View, California-based organization that aims to explore, understand, and explain the origin and nature of life in the universe. Shostak is also the author of the book, Confessions of an Alien Hunter, and host of the radio show, Big Picture Science.