Predicting the Future
Posted by hyperpat on April 17, 2008
Besides all of its other great qualities as a novel, Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, written almost 50 years ago, had one great technological prediction, that of powered armor suits for the poor foot soldier. These suits, in addition to greatly multiplying the effective physical strength of the soldier and provide at least some protection against stray bullets, also had weapon racks for carrying and launching some really heavy-duty firepower, head’s-up displays of the tactical situation, and multiple comm-link channels to allow the soldier to stay in constant communication with his buddies and the higher ups. Now, at least part of that prediction is coming true. Under contract for the U. S. Army, the first prototype exoskeletons, unimaginatively named the XOS, that can help increase the soldier’s effective physical strength have been developed.
There’s obviously still a long way to go before reaching anything close to Heinlein’s vision, but it’s at least a start.
So how did Heinlein come up with such a prediction in the first place? Basically I think he looked at what a foot soldier really needed to aid the soldier in his mission, and designed his suit around those requirements, not paying any attention to the then current state of technology or how it would be possible to physically implement such a gadget, other than some hand-waving about negative feedback systems. He did much the same thing in The Door Into Summer, where he predicted the invention of robots specifically designed to do household chores, which has also become partially real, with the introduction of the Roomba vacuum cleaner.
Which is probably not a bad way to come up with a new gadget in the real world. Figure out what you need, then worry about the implementation details. But it works really well in the world of science fiction, as all those pesky implementation details can be ignored.