Sunday, March 7, 2010

Technovelgy: Tracking How Science Fiction Becomes Science Fact

This is really a short follow-up to my earlier post, "Where's my #@%&!*S jetpack?! Oh, wait," from January 12.

I am writing a book for Lerner Books on elephant communication, and yesterday was researching an arcane bit of elephant sensory anatomy in the trunk called vellus vibrissae, sensory whisker-like hairs that don't break the surface of the skin. This sent me off on a long tangent into the science of the mammalian whisker as a sensor, and I soon uncovered some awesome whiskered robots. From there, it was a short jump to the technovelgy website: an exhaustive list of inventions predicted by science fiction writers, and a subset of those that are coming true. (One of my favorite science fiction novels, Jonathan Lethem's Gun with Occasional Music, is distressingly less fictional all the time. The self-aware talking kangaroos still aren't here, it's true, but the arsenal of pharmaceuticals with names like Acceptol, Avoidol, Forgettol appears to have arrived.) At last count, the brain(s) behind technovelgy has assembled 1,865 examples of science fiction inventions, dating back to Johannes Kepler's description of weightlessness in his 1634 work, Somnium. Check the "Science Fiction in the News" part of the site to see which ones are coming true.

Of course, robot mice without whiskers are hardly new: this competition for robot mice to run a maze dates back to the 1970s.

Robots with whiskers have real-world applications, including being able to search rubble after natural disasters. The ScratchBOT robic "rat" in development at two UK universities may soon be put to use in search and rescue missions. Amazing video of it at work here.

Who is this technovelgy guy? It's not really clear. But I am signing up for the RSS feed and checking out his blogroll.