Sci-Fi Tech From Movies And TV Subjected To Scientific Scrutiny
Photo: The Rise of Skywalker / Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Sci-Fi Tech From Movies And TV Subjected To Scientific Scrutiny

One of the best things about living in the 21st century is learning just how realistic some of the sci-fi devices of decades past actually were. There was once a time when gadgets like teleporters, hoverboards, and holographic companions seemed like they would forever remain in the realm of the make-believe - but they’re already becoming more feasible by the day in the modern era, and some have already arrived outright.

Countless individuals have dreamed about getting their hands on some futuristic piece of tech like a lightsaber or an invisibility cloak, and they might be getting their wish a lot sooner than anyone would have expected. Is the world ready for what happens when science fiction becomes science fact?

  • Transporters - ‘Star Trek’

    Transporters - ‘Star Trek’
    Photo: NBC

    Despite their fairly mundane name, Star Trek transporters are actually a revolutionary piece of technology. As seen in virtually every iteration of the franchise, transporters are capable of teleporting any person or object to another location through the process of rematerialization and dematerialization - or, in layman’s terms, converting something into energy and then beaming it at a target. 

    The good news is that scientists have already developed a way to instantaneously beam particles from one location to another, but the bad news is that it only works at the quantum level - and that it will never work on human beings unless a method of non-lethally breaking one’s body down to the atomic level is discovered, which seems unlikely. 

    For one, the mathematics required would be practically incalculable, or, as physicist Chad Orzel puts it:

    There are something like a hundred billion neurons in a human brain, and about a hundred trillion connections between them. That's about 2¹⁰⁰⁰⁰⁰⁰⁰⁰⁰⁰⁰⁰⁰⁰⁰⁰ possible states to worry about, or roughly 10³⁰⁰⁰⁰⁰⁰⁰⁰⁰⁰⁰⁰⁰. That's considerably more states than there are particles in the known universe, and if you need one entangled pair to teleport each of those (as a ballpark estimate), well, let's just say the odds aren't very good.

    And that’s not even getting into the moral dilemma of whether a reconstituted person would really be the same individual, or merely an identical copy created in an alternate location after the original was destroyed. Quantum teleportation might be useful for data transfer and secure communication, but they’re not going to be beaming anyone up anytime soon. 

  • Invisibility Cloaking - ‘Predator’

    The notion of invisibility in science fiction goes back at least as far as H.G. Wells, but cloaking technology is a more recent invention - as seen most prominently in the Predator franchise, where it’s just one of many futuristic gadgets in the titular alien’s arsenal. It’s also something that has already arrived in the real world, albeit in limited fashion.

    Light-bending material has long been used to reduce the visibility of objects and people, but true invisibility has recently been achieved through something known as “spectral cloaking.” The technology works by changing the frequency of light it comes into contact with, making it so that light passes through the object being cloaked rather than interacting with it. 

    One of the individuals behind spectral cloaking, Jose Azana, explains

    We have made a target object fully invisible to observation under realistic broadband illumination... We reconstruct the [light] wave exactly as it was, so it’s exactly as if there were no object... Our work represents a breakthrough in the quest for invisibility cloaking.

    By programming a spectral cloaking device to affect the entire visible spectrum, any object could be made completely invisible to the naked eye - even an interstellar trophy hunter.

  • Pre-Crime Technology - ‘Minority Report’

    Pre-crime technology, which allows for individuals to be arrested for acts they’ve yet to commit, is central to the plot of Minority Report, where it’s made possible by the existence of precognitive psychics. But similar technology is already used by modern law enforcement throughout the world, and there are no superhumans required.

    Essentially, real-life pre-crime technology is just a matter of data and predictive algorithms being applied to policing. Through an increase in monitoring, both of internet traffic and through more conventional means like security cameras, information can be collected and analyzed by software searching for patterns that might predict future crimes, which can then be investigated. 

    As law professor Andrew Guthrie Ferguson describes it

    As an attempt to apply a public health approach to violence. Just as epidemiological patterns reveal environmental toxins that can increase health risks (like getting cancer), criminal patterns can increase life risks (like getting shot).

    Of course, the effectiveness of predictive policing is only one half of the issue, and problems relating to personal freedoms and privacy are already rearing their ugly heads - just like they did for John Anderton in Minority Report

  • Instant Subliminal Learning - ‘The Matrix’

    When Neo escapes from The Matrix and wakes up to the real world, he learns a lot of new information, including the nature of his very existence - and a boatload of useful skills, which are forcibly downloaded into his brain via something known as instant subliminal learning. The technology itself isn’t actually named in the film, however, and that moniker comes from the cutting edge of real science, where it’s already on the way.

    Through the scanning and then stimulation of certain brain patterns, scientists can use “decoded neurofeedback” to amplify the act of learning within the mind. As Takeo Watanabe, a neuroscientist who has studied the process puts it:

    It's not like The Matrix yet, but this can be developed to be a very strong tool which could realize some aspects of what was shown in the movie. Motor learning is similar to perceptual learning, so we are almost sure it can be applied to motor learning, but motor learning requires an improvement in a sequence of motions, so it may take a lot of time. Maybe it is possible to make the subject learn to make one movement better than before within one year or so using this technology.

    So, users of subliminal learning might be able to say “I know kung fu” one day - but it won’t be instantaneous at all. 

  • Flying Cars - ‘The Fifth Element’

    Flying cars have long been a staple of various sci-fi futures, as depicted most prominently in films like The Fifth Element and Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones. The technology itself already exists - the AeroMobil 3.0, for example, can fly for 430 miles on a full tank of gas - but the notion of it becoming an everyday method of transportation is a lot more questionable.

    More properly known as “vertical takeoff and landing vehicles,” flying cars are currently in development at several major corporations, including Boeing and Porsche, and are expected to become commercially available sometime in the next decade. But several pieces of important tech required to make them practical have yet to be invented, and then there’s the issue of how to regulate their ownership and operation. 

    Or, as PAL-V vice president Mark Jennings-Bates puts it

    What we see today is a whole pile of concepts that aren’t necessary solutions. They are short on technology. The tech doesn’t exist in most instances, and they are short on regulation... The best the industry has seen so far with an electric drone vehicle is a projection that it can fly for 20 minutes. That makes it an unusable aircraft because it must have a half-hour spare capacity. We have some great prospects out there, but we have to follow that up with technological advancements before we can really offer a timeline.

    In other words, it’s going to be a long, long time before flying cars are commonplace - and, in between, they’re probably going to enter the scene as a way for the rich and famous to avoid traffic. 

  • Hoverboards - ‘Back to the Future Part II’

    According to Back to the Future Part II, hoverboards should have already been available for purchase by the year 2015 - and, self-balancing scooters aside, that didn’t end up coming true. But several different companies are attempting to get true floating skateboards on the market as soon as possible, and they’ve been at it for years, exploring multiple methods of levitation.

    Hendo created a hoverboard of sorts using electromagnets, and even let Tony Hawk ride one around. “This is real, folks,” said Hawk. “This is the real hoverboard right here, so forget everything you know” - but they’ve since struggled to make their device practical outside of the lab.

    Others have made boards of their own using various forms of propulsion, including Franky Zapata, who flew his hoverboard over the English Channel in 2019.