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Computers In Science Fiction - the Basics

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Concepts and Elements of Science Fiction in TV and Films
Computers In Science Fiction: Classic Movies | Computers in Science Fiction: Contemporary Movies | Computers In Science Fiction: TV | Computers In Science Fiction: Novels and Short Stories
Robots in Science Fiction | Androids in Science Fiction | Cyborgs in Science Fiction

Computers in fiction fall into one of two categories: contemporary PC-like machines that can usually fulfil whatever tasks the plot requires of them; and futuristic, intelligent computers generally found in science fiction.

The purpose of this series of entries is to show HOW the evolution of computers - whether stationary or semi-sentient artificial intelligences like androids and robots - has been portrayed, and how these portrayals have changed as our knowledge and perceptions of technology have grown.

Machine Intelligence

The main idea of computers in science fiction is that they are intelligent, meaning able to hold a conversation with humans. This is best summed up in the Turing test. This is a simple, blind test, where a human communicates remotely with someone (in such a way that they cannot tell if it is a human or a machine) and if they cannot tell which it is, the machine has passed. Most, but not all, of the science fiction computers in this series of entries fall into this category. Most of the computers in the contemporary movies section do not.

There is a distinction between computers that can hold a conversation, such as KITT from Knight Rider, and computers that can talk to humans and understand spoken commands, like the computer on board Star Trek's Enterprise.

Contemporary or Future

There are many misconceptions in Hollywood films about what PC- and Mac-like computers can and cannot do. To some extent, most computers in TV and film have science fiction elements to them, as they all seem to operate in a way that does not match their real-life counterparts. Other factual errors include the way computers in government departments, such as the US Department of Defence, are shown to have a five digit password for accessing the nuclear missiles; said computers are - naturally - hooked up to the Internet and accessible by your average 14-year-old computer geek.

The distinction between contemporary science in fiction and specifically science fiction therefore, can be a fine one. For the purposes of this series of entries, subjects are classified as 'contemporary' or 'science fiction' based solely on when the story is set. Therefore Independence Day is listed as contemporary, as the human technology shown is more or less at the level of current scientific development. TRON and Lawnmower Man are listed in science fiction, as they are based on technology that doesn't actually exist yet. Knight Rider is of course TV Science Fiction, as, despite being set in a time superficially similar to the 1980s, its technology is way beyond the development of the time. Later episodes of the series were set in the far future, which again confirms the series' technology as being science fiction-based.

Vision of Future Computing

Science fiction shows the writer's vision of the future of computing, from the iris scanners in every public location in Minority Report to Isaac Asimov's Multivac, the computer that controls the world. Asimov's stories were written when the idea of a computer in every home was laughable. At the time, all computers were monstrous installations taking up entire floors of buildings, with terminals scattered about the building. As an idea of scale, a room-sized computer in 1960 had less storage capacity than a modern portable MP3 player or memory stick for a PC. So what once filled a building could now conceivably fit in your pocket.

Rather surprisingly, mobile computing featured early in science fiction. In the late 1960s, Star Trek: The Original Series introduced 'tricorders', small hand-held communications devices that had computing abilities separate from the ship's main computer. Many science fiction writers realised that the people of tomorrow would need to take their computers with them, and that consequently, they would need to be small and versatile, like the mobile computers in the film Red Planet.

As with tricorders and mobile phones, computers in science fiction have evolved alongside real technology. Many advances in modern computers have counterparts in much earlier works of science fiction, like a pocket sized computer you can write on appearing in Star Trek: The Original Series and optical data networks. And as with real technology, computers in science fiction continue to evolve...

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