IT and SciFi Cross Fertilization

How linked are sci-fi and IT?

‘42’ is the answer to the question of life, the universe and everything, as any sci-fi-fan knows. But ‘42’ is also the name of a new ‘IT university’ in Paris. The university is funded by private investors to educate more French IT engineers. The inspiration for the name came from the popular SF-books ‘The Hitchhiker's Guide to Galaxy’, in which planet earth was in fact a supercomputer built by pan-galactic beings (white mice) to determine the question behind the answer ‘42’.

When in Seattle I visited the Science Fiction Museum. It is funded by one of Microsoft’s founders, Paul Allen. Paul, a big SF fan, generously donated all his SF books and SF movie memorabilia to the Museum. I stood eye to eye with the Terminator, a Storm Trooper, an Alien and marveled at the countless light sabers, phasers and space ship models. But what struck me most was Paul’s SF book collection, the way it was categorized and analyzed as a genre. The essence of science fiction according to this analysis is ‘What if’?

What if interplanetary space travel would be possible? What if robots would have consciousness? What if the internet would dwell with live avatars? What if the world population explodes, and food becomes scarce? What if alien life forms exist? All of these questions formed the bases of great science fiction writing. ‘What if’ is the basis of futuristic simulations, it fuels the imagination and creates strategic thinking. And it is a fundamental building block in computer programming.  

‘If’ then, is the most basic of all the control flow statements, or in human language, it tells your computer program to execute a certain section of code only if a particular test is true. So here you have my personal bridge between the science fiction and computer programming. Both require similar logical thinking and imagining what would happen next. Scifi is also based on ‘technology’ and extrapolating what would happen with a certain technology in the future. Information technology is just a subset of this technology extrapolation.

Or maybe it is just the simple fascination for ‘technology’ combined with ‘imagination’ which conjurs both great sci-fi and imaginative new IT applications. In both the Big Bang Theory and The IT Crowd, ITers are still stereotyped as geeks, who spend their time reading comics and watching goofy science fiction movies. At the same time we have people like Bill Gates who imagined a ‘PC in every home’, then launched Windows. Or John Walker who imagined the ‘Golden Age of Engineering’, then created AutoCAD. Or Sergey Brin and Larry Page, who wanted to make all information accessible to everybody at all times, and catapaulted Google into the world. Or Mark Zuckerberg, who’s vision is to connect everybody in cyberspace through Facebook.

I could not find a 1:1 mathematical relationship between IT and sci-fi, but there seems to be a lot of cross fertilization going on, with sometimes astonishing results. As for me, I love a good sci-fi book or movie, like Snow Crash, Street Station Perdido, Sunshine or Blade Runner. They feed my imagination, and this helps me in my IT industry job, thinking how to make things less repetitive, smarter, faster and generally more intelligent. Why? Because it frees up time, so I can read another mind expanding book.


By Roel Castelein, GTM Strategy for EMEA, EMC