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From sci-fi to real life: Government’s changing role in tech innovation

Anyone who ever saw an episode of the original "Star Trek" TV series will recognize the similarity between a flip phone and the show's communicator, the device that Starfleet personnel use to talk to one another across vast distances with no need for wires and dials.

That particular example of life imitating art is more about design than functionality, but the imaginations of science fiction writers have often proved to be inspirational for scientists, whether by inspiring a particular technology or – in the broader sense – encouraging children and teenagers to pursue careers in science and technology.

"Science fiction and science and engineering feed into each other. There's a lot of back and forth," said novelist John Scalzi, whose 2013 book "Redshirts" won a Hugo Award for best novel.

"Why did the Motorola StarTAC phone look like a 'Star Trek' communicator? The answer is because the engineers building it wanted their own communicators, and here was their chance to get it."

Another staple of "Star Trek," the "universal translator" was invoked as a plot device to explain why future humans and aliens alike spoke American English. That too could soon become a reality in online communications systems such as Skype, said science fiction novelist Ann Leckie, author of the "Ancillary" series, which NPR described as a "sociopolitical space opera."

"I know the people working on [the Skype translator] were in fact people who grew up watching 'Star Trek,'" she said. "A lot of the technology we have now does show signs of having been shaped by things that were part of fiction."

Invention begins with imagination, and the creators of imaginary worlds and universes are by definition imaginative. Science fiction writer Scott Jucha, known for the "Silver Ships" series, noted that Isaac Asimov's stories about robots and artificial intelligence presaged recent science and engineering work in those fields, while Jules Verne wrote of a means of transportation that was later invented in reality — the helicopter.

"If you go back to [Edgar Rice Burroughs] and his early stories on Mars, he describes the capability in his airships to locate one another, even across great distances or at night. He's talking about radar, and this is in the 19th century."

Innovators "have loved science fiction for the reason that the ideas fire their imaginations," Jucha said.

That human beings have traveled into space at all, and established intricate satellite networks for communications, surveillance and scientific study, may be attributable to the inspiring science fiction of the 20th and late 19th centuries. Long before Apollo 11 carried three astronauts to the Moon, writers beginning with Jules Verne imagined ways to get them there.

That's not to say that the fiction writers actually solve the scientific puzzles, Scalzi noted. The space travelers in Verne's "From the Earth to the Moon" were shot into space from a massive cannon, after all.

Instead, the fiction writers — and filmmakers and artists — imagine something that scientists can then take as a goal, such as the communicator or the universal translator. "They leave enough blank space that people who are science-minded try to think about how could this work in a way that doesn't violate the laws of science," he said.

The changing equation

Money is one all-too-real limiter for innovation. The private sector tends to spend research dollars only on ideas that are far enough along in terms of development to show commercial promise. Government traditionally has been a key resource for doing the early-stage study, where the commercial prospects are much less certain. That still happens, but on a smaller scale.

Private firms are happy to take over once the financial risk has been minimized — witness the rise of privately-owned space travel ventures such as SpaceX. But SpaceX has a business model partly because NASA spent decades inventing and refining the needed technologies. (The private company also has a founder and CEO in Elon Musk who has both a serious space fascination and a net worth in the billions of dollars, which also helps.)

Government organizations such as NASA and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency are still doing robust innovative research, but overall government's role in advancing technology has diminished.

"By and large, that big blue sky stuff was the role of government," Scalzi said. "These days, no one wants to spend that much money on government anymore, so as a practical matter, the kinds of technology we get are based on what can we sell."

The pendulum could swing back, but Scalzi believes it will take a compelling motivation to make the public willing to spend the needed money. The development of nuclear technology began in earnest with the Manhattan Project, driven by the fear of a prolonged war in the Pacific that the enemy seemed to be capable of winning. The space program was fueled by national pride and competition with the world's other super-power at the time, the USSR.

"It really helps to have an external reason to do these things," he said. "I expect if we have something like that pop up it will be amazing, the kinds of things we can do."

Climate change and the quest for sustainable energy may be the next drivers, he said. So might the ongoing sense of risk from Islamic extremism. "It's absolutely true that war has always been a great driver of innovation," he said.

"I think achieving the goals of tomorrow is a very complex issue. That's one aspect where the government can take a leading role," Jucha said.

The role doesn't have to be in direct innovation, he noted. Strategic support for science and technology education — now called "STEAM" for science, technology, engineering, arts and math — would put children on the path to careers that could change the technology landscape.

“This type of education helps children today look into it,” he said. “By the time they’re at the peak of their education, we’re going to be at the midpoint of the century.”

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