The future of computing as predicted by nine science-fiction machines

Science fiction has an uncanny ability to predict the future of technology, from Star Trek’s Padd, essentially an iPad, to the Jetsons’ robot vacuum, basically a Roomba.

Now that the voice assistant is here, that’s another checklist off the sci-fi predictor, but while our Alexas, Siris, Cortanas and Google Assistants are pretty basic right now, if sci-fi continues its great prelude to the future, what will the computers of the future really be like?

According to Amazon’s head of devices, Dave Limp, the next phase in computing is less about the physical thing and more about how and where you access it. He says: “We think of it as ambient computing, which is computer access that’s less dedicated personally to you but more ubiquitous.

“Our vision is to create that Star Trek computer and work backwards from that. The Star Trek computer wasn’t limited to just the Enterprise, they could talk to it from their little badges anywhere, so anywhere where you think that instant access to an intelligent assistant is valuable in an ambient way, then that’s a great place for Alexa.”

The Star Trek: The Next Generation computer

Star Trek: The Next Generation

And as with Star Trek’s prediction of the iPad, the various voice assistants arguably wouldn’t have come to be if Gene Roddenberry hadn’t dreamed up the ever-present computer for Star Trek: The Next Generation, voiced by his wife, Majel Barrett.

From its knowledge of all things, including the various whereabouts of missing crewmen, Star Trek’s computer introduced the concept of a supercomputer at your beck and call. But it wasn’t the first intelligent assistant.

HAL, 2001: A Space Odyssey



‘I’m sorry Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that’ … Hal in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Photograph: Allstar/MGM

HAL 9000, named so that he was one letter better than IBM according to conspiracy theorists but denied by author Arthur C Clarke and director Stanley Kubrick, burst on to our cinema screens in 1968 science-fiction opus 2001: A Space Odyssey.

The big, red, glowing dome starts off as an efficient robot companion and quickly becomes something to be downright scared of. Less Star Trek computer and more rise of the machines.

Skynet, Terminator



Skynet v the world in Terminator Salvation, 2009. Photograph: Industrial Light Magic

If our future is foreshadowed by sci-fi, there’s one computer system everyone had better hope it got wrong and that’s Terminator’s Skynet. Once achieving sentience and figuring out that it no longer needs humans, the Cyberdyne Systems “Global Information Grid” starts nuclear armageddon.

If Elon Musk is to be believed, if the Terminator franchise might be on to something, as he says AI is humanity’s “biggest existential threat”.

Samantha, Her



All you need is (AI) love … Her. Photograph: Allstar/Warner Bros/Sportsphoto Ltd

Not all AI sci-fi ends in nuclear annihilation, however. Something closer to current reality exists in Her, a story of a lonely man falling in love with an AI voiced by Scarlett Johansson. The AI, called Samantha, is eerily close to the Siris and Alexas of this world, and people are genuinely becoming attached to them, prompting a pertinent question of our age: is the love of an AI assistant really enough?

Jarvis, Iron Man



The moment Tony Stark realises that the screen is no longer required. Photograph: Paramount/Everett/Rex Features

If Marvel’s Iron Man is to believed, our AI assistants are more likely to be wise-cracking buddies with serious personality, possibly voiced by Paul Bettany, rather than the dulcet tones of Johansson. As Jarvis, Bettany has access to the internet, can control almost everything in Tony Stark’s life, including his Iron Man suit, and comes across as having the smarts of a real life personal assistant.

How he puts up with the self-professed “genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist” is anyone’s guess.

Kitt, Knight Rider



Kitt’s molecular bondage cell can just about handle the weight of the Hoff at his peak. Photograph: Channel 5

Friendly, wise-cracking sidekicks don’t have to come in suit form, if the 1982 David Hasselhoff vehicle Knight Rider had any predictive power. Michael Knight fought off the bad guys with his trusty sidekick the Knight Industries Two Thousand, AKA Kitt.

An intelligent computer mounted in a 1982 Pontiac Trans Am, Kitt was arguably smarter than his human commander – a theme carried through much of sci-fi – but was faithful, guiding him out of harm’s way or straight up sacrificing himself to protect others.

While a “turbo boost”-equipped robot car might be a bit far-fetched, with voice assistants already making their way into our humble automobiles, Kitt’s not that far from the truth in form, if not quite in function.

MU-TH-UR 6000, Alien



The MU-TH-UR of all sci-fi computers in Alien. Photograph: Everett/Rex/Shutterstock

Sci-fi hasn’t always been fantastic at predicting our future. Take, for example, MU-TH-UR 6000 (better known as Mother) from the 1979 classic Alien. A computer mainframe built into the USCSS Nostromo starfreighter, Mother was responsible for navigating the ship, monitoring the vitals of the crew in stasis and eventually turning on the crew with the synthetic (read: robot) Ash as part of Special Order 937 – the return of the xenomorph specimen.

While the crew could speak to Mother, it could only respond with text on a screen (except for the self destruction countdown), which seems a bit daft these days, but in 1979 speech synthesis was obviously seen as harder than speech recognition.

Deus Ex Machina, The Matrix



The face of a killer baby – and Deus Ex Machina. Photograph: Snap Stills/Rex

Sci-fi computers have a habit of turning on their human creators, and while Skynet is probably the most iconic vision of the singularity, the Matrix and its Deus Ex Machina is another horrifying vision of our future.

The central interface for the machine city, made up of a swarm of insect-like robots and presenting with the face of a killer baby, is the master of the machine world in the series and ultimately responsible for keeping humanity locked up in pods to serve as batteries for the machines.

Who’s to say we’re not already living in a Matrix and that you’re already living in the machine world’s power plant?

Deep Thought, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Not to be confused with former Google, now simply Alphabet’s Deep Mind AI company, Deep Thought was Douglas Adams’s vision of what a supercomputer capable of cogitating the Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

Taking 7.5m years to do so, the computer the size of a small city created by the pan-dimensional, hyper-intelligent species of beings (the mice), came up with the answer: 42. Great. That’s the kind of ridiculously annoying answer I can definitely see AI giving us in the near future.


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