Machine

How do we create devices which can serve humanity without sacrificing some of what it means to be human? When do man and machine achieve a symbiosis so that they become a new form of life? Is technology neutral, or can some machines truly be described as evil?

Contemporary science fiction, like the contemporary society it is created for, is often apprehensive of machines. These days, the gizmos we see trundling across the silver screen rarely seem designed to tuck us into our beds at night. Instead, a legion of Terminators, Replicants and AIs seem intent on disembowelling us and wearing our entrails as a hat. They seem to become particularly piqued when we trespass on their territory. Thus when we jack into many of the virtual worlds depicted in science fiction, there always seems to be some psychotic machine waiting for us, hellbent on mechanical mayhem and trying to melt our synapses.

One of the most famous machines explored in science fiction is the robot. The hoary old chestnut of the mad inventor manufacturing a humanoid automaton only for it to turn on its creator could not be a clearer message: the creation of a new technology often has negative consequences.

Yet this was not always the case. Science fiction’s past is littered with imaginative attempts to envision a future in which machines are our friends, utopian visions of gleaming metal spires in which labour-saving legions toil industriously to serve our every whim. Perhaps we have become too mistrustful of the machine. In a world where we rely upon machines in such areas as transportation, medication and entertainment, why do we still view every device as a potential handmaiden of destruction?

The exuberance with which science fiction once embraced the machine is nowhere found more strikingly than the spaceship. It is this device more than any other that reminds us that at heart we are inventors and explorers, constantly seeking to push boundaries. It is no coincidence that the opening narrative of one of the most influential science fiction products ever created was based on the words of Dr James Killian, science advisor to President Eisenhower, who remarked in the proposal for a national space program that

‘It is useful to distinguish among four factors which give importance, urgency, and inevitability to the advancement of space technology. The first of these factors is the compelling urge of man to explore and to discover, the thrust of curiosity that leads men to try to go where no one has gone before.’

In turn, acknowledging their debt to Star Trek for helping to popularise humanity’s journey into space, it was perhaps inevitable that NASA in 1976 should bow to pressure (in the form of a write-in campaign from fans of the show), and change the name of its first space shuttle from Constitution to Enterprise.

Within these webpages you will find examples of some of the concepts, principles, technologies and machines which have crossed from fact to fiction and from fiction to fact.

To claim that a particular scientist or author is the ‘inventor’ of a technology is to dismiss the armies of scientists and writers and engineers and artists who have contributed towards making the initial spark a reality.

Mixed in with ‘big picture’ concepts like jacking in, the Internet, cyberspace and the robot, we also find more mundane entries like the joystick, screensavers and the mobile phone. All these and more have contributed to the creation of the futureworld that we inhabit. From the way we are able to intstantly communicate with the world, to the ability we have to live our lives without ever having to talk to anyone at all, science and science fiction have been busy inventing the future and, as you will see, the machine has played a pivotal role.

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