July 28, 2010 -- Want to predict the future? Maybe you should head to the movies or crack open a book.
Before technology can be tested in a lab, it has to be hatched in someone's brain. And, often, those brains don't belong to scientists and product developers, but to imaginative science fiction writers and movie makers.
Sometimes it's deliberate and sometimes it's not, but science fiction writers and scientists have long mirrored each others' work.
"It's incestuous," said science fiction writer and futurist Brenda Cooper. "I think there's a sort of constant dialogue that goes on with science fiction writers and scientists and product designers."
A complete list of all the science fiction prophecies that came true would fill pages. But check out some of our favorite recent examples below.
'Minority Report'-Like Software Fights Crime
It sounds like the basis of Steven Spielberg's 2002 film "Minority Report": a police unit dedicated to uncovering crimes before they even happen.
But for police officers with the Memphis Police Department, this is almost reality. Instead of relying on human-like psychics, however, the officers rely on a sophisticated computer program.
It evaluates a wide range of factors – data on arrests, reported crime, probation, parole and even the weather – and then helps law enforcement identify patterns in crime as well as potential hotspots.
"If you can identify what kinds of crimes are occurring in a location, what days they are occurring and what time frame [in which] they are occurring, you really do have a sense of where to put the police," said Richard Janikowski, director of the Center for Community Criminology and Research at the University of Memphis.
The predictive analytics software, called CRUSH (for Criminal Reduction Utilizing Statistical History), is owned by IBM but has been adapted by the police department.
IBM and the Memphis Police Department announced this month that, since the program started in 2006, crime in Memphis has dropped 30 percent overall and violent crime has declined about 15 percent. Janikowski said organization and leadership changes contributed to the decrease in crime, but the technology played a significant role.
Next time you go to Japan, you might have your very own "Minority Report" moment.
Japanese railway companies are trying digital billboards that can determine the gender and age of people looking at them and then show them customized advertisements.
According to the Agence-France Presse, a group of 11 companies launched a one-year pilot of these high-tech billboards last month.
Unlike the billboards that called out to Tom Cruise's character in "Minority Report," these boards can't identify individual people. But, using cameras, they can determine an onlooker's sex and approximate age and then offer up an appropriate ad.
Flying Car Company Unveils Latest 'Roadable Aircraft'
So it's not the saucer-shaped vehicle George Jetson took to work. The skies are still waiting to welcome cars that fly.
This week, Terrafugia, a leading flying car company in Woburn, Mass., unveiled its most recent "roadable aircraft."
The dual-purpose vehicle is equally comfortable on the road and in the sky. Its wings can fold up to let the aircraft drive on the road and fit in a garage. The wings extend so that the Terrafugia can take flight.
The company said the vehicle, recently approved by the Federal Aviation Administration, reaches 115 mph in flight.
Imagine that you're on a camping trip in the middle of the woods and realize that you forgot to pack a screwdriver. Or you're hours away from home when your car breaks down and you need just one crucial part.
Cooper said that it might not be so long before a 3-D printer lets you create those objects on the spot.
In "Star Trek," Captain Kirk and his comrades called them replicators. But Cooper said military officers might soon be able to use 3-D printers to manufacture parts they need for their tanks while fighting wars in the desert.
"I think it's kind of where PCs were 20 years ago," she said. "I think we're going to see this become much more capable really fast."
For example, a Brooklyn, New York-based company called Makerbots sells 3-D printer kits for about $1,000 that let people "print" 3-D plastic objects. Once customers assemble the kit, they feed the machine a 3-D design. The company says the Makerbots can create almost anything that's four by four by six inches.
Though most 3-D printers mostly deal in plastics, Cooper said printers that produce metal objects -- and even human organs -- could be down the road.
In the sci-fi classic, "2001: A Space Odyssey," a Pan Am space plane shuttles passengers to a space station. We're not there quite yet, but thanks to commercial space pioneers like Sir Richard Branson and Elon Musk, we're getting closer.
Branson's Virgin Galactic is testing spaceships that could carry tourists on suborbital flights and, according to the Associated Press, already has a list of 300 clients willing to pay for the $200,000 ticket.
Musk's SpaceX reached a major milestone in June, when one of its rockets achieved Earth orbit as planned. At the time, Musk said the successful maiden voyage bolstered President Barack Obama's plan to give private companies contracts to carry cargo and people to the space station.
"That makes you think of these sci fi heroes that could always design spaceships to go off planet," said Cooper. "That used to be something we wrote a lot about."
Motion-Controlled Computing Reaches Consumer Electronics
Gesture computing and control is another fiction-becomes-reality kind of technology.
"Gestural computers – computers that respond to hand gestures – that's become associated with the 'Minority Report,'" said Annalee Newitz, editor-in-chief of the popular tech blog io9.com. "Actually, the first time that people probably saw computers like that was in 'The Day the Earth Stood Still.'"
In that 1951 black-and-white film, she said, one of the characters simply uses his hands to manipulate data on a massive computer screen. In "Minority Report," Tom Cruise's character pulls on a glove and then is able to do the same thing.
The average computer may still come with a keyboard, but more and more technology is becoming motion-controlled.
Last month, Microsoft launched Kinect, its new game controller that recognizes players' gestures and voices. Even Apple's multitouch iPhone, laptop trackpads and new Magic Trackpad use technology that responds to users' hand and finger movements.
Newitz said MIT's MediaLab is taking that kind of innovation even further with an experimental "invisible" computer mouse. "Mouseless" lets a user control a cursor on a computer screen by moving her empty hand across a table the way she would move a real mouse.
The MediaLab's Sixth Sense project goes beyond even that. With a wearable projector and camera, it lets users turn any surface (even a hand or arm) into a touchscreen control panel.
An essential sci-fi staple, robots are increasingly finding their way into real-life scenarios, both at home and at work.
In May, researchers in Germany presented an "autonomous robot car" with sensors, scanners and camera systems that could potentially help avoid military fatalities from bombings. In Japan, a 4-foot-tall robot called I-Fairy led a wedding ceremony.
"I can go to Costco and buy a robot to clean the floor… in Japan, they're beginning to expand with medical robot," said Cooper.
While Asian countries are friendlier to robots that Western countries, she said, we'll continue to see more and more innovation in robotics.
Frankenstein may seem like a far cry from reality but, in truth, scientists have already learned how to create an organism from man-made DNA.
In a small but important step in synthetic biology, in May, scientists from the J. Craig Venter Institute created the very first cell totally derived from DNA synthesized in a lab.
Did Science Fiction Predict the Demise of the Phsyical Book?
"Synthetic biology is really making a lot of strides," said Newitz. "It goes all the way back to Frankenstein – the original synthetic creature."
Scientists aren't going to turn out a whole human being anytime soon, but Newitz said that they have "grown" organs – such as lungs and a heart – for living lab rats. Those techniques could potentially lead to the reconstruction of organs for human patients.
Tablets and E-Books
From the "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" to "Star Trek" to "Minority Report," the sci-fi genre has long promised an iPad-like computer that can be held in your hands.
But Bill Christensen, a Web application developer and owner of Technovelgy.com, a website on science fiction innovations, said electronic books were written about by a science fiction writer decades ago.
In the 1961 novel, "Return from the Stars," he said Stanislaw Lem predicted the end of the physical book.
"No longer was it possible to browse among shelves, to weigh volumes in hand, to feel their heft, the promise of ponderous reading. The bookstore resembled, instead, an electronic laboratory. The books were crystals with recorded contents. They can be read the aid of an opton, which was similar to a book but had only one page between the covers. At a touch, successive pages of the text appeared on it," Lem writes.
"That sounds pretty much like a Kindle to me and that's fifty years ago," said Christensen.
This week, he said, the reference was even more striking: For the first time ever, Amazon said it sold more electronic books in the last quarter than hardcovers.