Fairy stories as a guide to the future?

OK, clutching at straws for a topic this morning, but here goes. Arthur C. Clarke said that sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic and I agree. Engineers often derive inspiration from science fiction (and vice versa), but the magic in fairy stories might be a rich source of ideas too. If we look to fairy stories to see the sorts of things people do with magic, then we should see some markets for real advanced technology. Not all of them will be feasible, but some will. It may not be a very standard futures technique, but it should work. We won’t know if we don’t try. There is a pretty standard formula now for producing ideas and techniques in science fiction and computer games. Just mix together some nice potions such as synthetic biology, nanotechnology, genetic modification, artificial intelligence, neurotechnology, virtual, quantum and so on, and you can’t go far wrong, you will end up with all the magic you can imagine. Fairy stories are a bit pre-technology, but maybe we’ll see some ideas.

Let’s start with love potions, evil kisses, poisoned needles and the like. These are included in many stories as tricks that conceal means to control others, spy on them, make them do things or think things. Could that be done? Yes, probably. I wrote about hacking into people’s brains and remote controlling them in my ‘Zombies are coming’ piece, and about some related concepts in my pieces on immortality via direct links to the brain. It essentially uses bacteria to infiltrate the other person’s body via hand contact, a simple kiss, or eating something, and once introduced, the bacteria reproduce and synthesise the components that then connect to nerves in the brain and form a remote control channel. So you could create anything in their mind – sensations, memories, ideas, anything. You could make them believe anything, love anyone, or just hack into their mind to see what they are thinking, any of those sorts of things. Sure, it would be difficult, but it will be feasible one day.

Mind reading is already with us to some degree. Some computer games can be controlled by thought, wheelchairs for the disabled. Scientists can even work out what videos someone is thinking about by comparing the electrical signal they emit to those gathered when they were actually viewing  a selection of videos earlier.

How about preserving someone? Like sleeping beauty. Well, hibernation research has been going on for ages already, and one day that will come up with the goods too. It probably won’t involve spinning wheels, but an injection of some sort is quite likely.

Invisibility is a common occurrence in fairy stories too, and in real life, scientists can make small objects almost invisible too, using special fabrics that bend light or cameras coupled to light emitting fabrics. So far they only work from one direction, and some only work in small colour ranges, but we’re getting there.

Levitation can be done with magnets and superconductivity. Being in two places at once, well I guess that is called Skype.

I am struggling to think of stuff in fairy stories that can’t already be done in the lab or that we at least have a good idea how to do it. Ah yes, frogs that turn into princes. Well, outside of computer games or virtual worlds, it would be difficult, but as augmented reality becomes everyday stuff, we”’ see lots of people using weird avatars, and who knows, some princes with a sense of fun might well choose to be frogs.

The magic wand would also feature well in augmented reality but in the real world would have little real application except as a simple interface to start other processes.

Actually though, I am going to stop here. Fairy stories are a rich source of ideas for technologies we already have or already know about. A part record of the scope of imagination in days gone by. They maybe aren’t so good as a future tool after all. Maybe we need more science fiction writers to do fairy stories before that will be fixed.

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One response to “Fairy stories as a guide to the future?

  1. Fairy tales and folk myths (and religious promises) point to human desires: to be sexually attractive, socially powerful, wealthier than other people, able to know the future, to see what is happening in other places, to travel to other places instantly… to talk with animals, to travel to other planets, to heal instantly, to avoid ageing, to live forever…

    That’s what we want, so that’s where we’ll focus our tech future!

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