Entertainment TEDTalks

10 old movies about new technology

Posted by: Kate Torgovnick May
A scene from the 1957 movie Desk Set, starring Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, with a mainframe computer in the leading role.

A scene from the 1957 movie Desk Set, starring Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, with a mainframe computer in the leading role.

Roy Amara’s classic quote goes: “We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run.”

Rodney Brooks: Why we will rely on robotsRodney Brooks: Why we will rely on robotsIn today’s talk from TED2013, Rodney Brooks invokes this law to talk about robots. While people panic about robots taking their jobs over the course of the next few years, the focus should be on guiding the development of the technology so that, in the upcoming decades, we’ll have robots that can work with an aging world population. As Brooks points out, we are amid a major demographic shift as the number of working-age adults in the United States, Europe and China drops and the number of people past retirement age swells.

The key, says Brooks — the MIT professor who founded iRobot  (makers of the Roomba vacuum) and who now heads Rethink Robotics – is robots that everyday workers can easily interact with. Rather than the complicated robots in factories now, which require knowledge of 6-dimensional vectors to operate – we should create robots more like the TUG from Aethon, which helps out nurses with tasks like bringing dirty sheets to the laundry so that they can focus on patients. To this end, Brooks reveals Baxter, a robot for manufacturing environments who has common sense and the ability to learn as humans do, by trial and error. Because Baxter has eyes that move where he looks, and because his arms respond to human touch, Baxter could not only help older workers stay relevant on the job longer — he could also help them maintain independence and dignity at home. Meet Baxter in this fascinating talk.

In a hilarious aside in the talk, Brooks recalls Desk Set, the 1957 movie in which Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn butt heads over a mainframe computer, nicknamed “Emmie,” being brought into a television network’s research department. While the technology was very new at the time (the first mainframe computer was delivered in 1951 to the U.S. Census Bureau) the tension at the heart of the movie — can computers replace human beings? — was highly prescient and continues to produce anxiety today.

The allusion to this delightful movie made us think: what other movies anticipated technology that would eventually change our daily lives? Here, a look at other old movies that foresee common technology.

The heavyweight champion of films that predicted future tech: Minority Report, the 2002 Tom Cruise thriller set in the year 2054. John Underkoffler: Pointing to the future of UIJohn Underkoffler: Pointing to the future of UI For this film, director Steven Spielberg famously brought together 15 tech and science experts for a think tank. One of the coolest outcomes: computer interfaces operated by a swipe of the hand in the air. Many believe this movie actually created the desire for touchscreens. TED speaker John Underkoffler was a science adviser for the film, and in this talk from TED2010 he demos g-speak, the real-life version of the system. Some more TED Talks that are related to concepts in Minority Report: Pattie Maes and Pranav Mistry on the SixthSense user interface, Shyam Sankar on the idea of predictive policing, and Alessandro Acquisti on facial recognition and personalized advertising.

Tex Avery, creator of Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck and Porky Pig, was also well-known for his World of Tomorrow shorts. In the supercut below, which includes cartoons from 1949 to 1954, the show anticipates the rise of designer prefabricated homes, a computer-like machine that answers kids’ questions (hello, Google) and the pressure cooker of 2050 — even if that one was a little off.

Here’s one for Marty McFly fans. Back to the Future II takes place in the year 2015, but was made in 1989. We’re continuously amused by the hilarious video chatting scenes in the movie, which far predate Skype, Google Plus or Facetime. And check out the scene from the movie, which has characters wearing what looks a whole lot like Google Glass but mostly works as a telephone. “Dad, it’s for you.” (Read the TED staff’s thoughts on Glass.)

The rocket launch in Fritz Lang’s Woman in the Moon looks remarkably real … considering that it was released in 1929 – a full 28 years before Sputnik was launched into space via a rocket. It showed space travel to audiences long before the concept was real to most.

Jurassic Park seemed like pure science fiction … until Stewart Brand’s talk from TED2013, “The dawn of de-extinction.” At his followup event TEDxDeExtinction, Brand and some like-minded friends made the case that we have the tools and technology to bring back extinct species, from the woolly mammoth to the Tasmanian tiger, though not so much dinosaurs. Unless Jack Horner’s TED Talk comes true …

Short Circuit, the Ally Sheedy and Steve Guttenberg flick from 1986, tells the story of an $11 billion anthropomorphic robot who escapes  his military makers. It got a lot right about unmanned ground vehicles and military robots that are a part of our life today. (See the best of TED robots, and watch this TED talk on military bots.)

Yes, the 1998 film The Truman Show, starring Jim Carrey, was amusing. But in many ways, it also predicted not just reality TV, but also the non-stop socially shared life brought about via Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. Sherry Turkle mused on this: Are we connected, but alone?

As this great article from HP’s Input Output points out, when Star Trek first aired in 1966, the automatic door was a brand-new invention. Yet the show included many pieces of speculative technology that now exist, from so-called “replicators” (which are a lot like our 3D printers) to androids, retinal implants, voice-enabled computers and the handheld “tricorder.”

When You’ve Got Mail appeared in 1998, online dating was still uncommon — and thus the perfect backstory for a comedy. By this year, though, a recent study found that a third of new marriages in the United States in 2013 started online.

Special thanks to Emily McManus, Michael McWatters and Morton Bast, who contributed heavily to this piece.

Comments (12)

  • Pingback: Google Glass—in vogue? How the device is shattering the barrier between fashion and tech | TokNok Multi Social Blogging Solutions

  • Dee Baig commented on Aug 28 2013

    It may have looked unrealistic at that point in time to have such a huge computer, and that too taking the place of the main lead in the movie. But then there are a lot of things that seemed rather magical or miraculous in the early day. E.g. flying in the air or going to the depths of the oceans. This is life. It keeps evolving with new intentions taking the place of old ones.


  • tuka sako commented on Aug 22 2013

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  • Srikanth Chakkilam commented on Aug 22 2013

    Mon Oncle (1958) definitely needs to go in here.

  • Roberto Di Donato commented on Jul 20 2013

    Phil K Dick stories gave a lot of inspiration to most the great sci fi predictions. Some others include travelling through earth, magnetic cars, hand embedded phones as seen in the new total real film http://www.previewfilms.com.au/movie-total-recall-%282012%29-1457.htm

    The drones and that easy to fly helicopter in Oblivion http://www.previewfilms.com.au/movie-oblivion-%282013%29-1509.htm

    Smart drugs like in Limitless http://www.previewfilms.com.au/movie-limitless-%282011%29-1196.htm

    Lots more too

  • jinny shrestha commented on Jul 8 2013

    What seemed fantasy in movies are now reality. Wonder whats gonna happen next.

  • commented on Jul 5 2013

    Reblogged this on risangbaskara.

  • commented on Jul 3 2013

    Reblogged this on alien zombies.

  • Anand CV commented on Jun 29 2013

    I like the De-Extinction project and Chickenosaurus. Here is my big idea: One possibility will be a technology that computed from the physiology. We have lot of living descendants of the extinct creatures. And we have some clue on how they evolved. If technology can be applied to understand the evolution of DNA associated with the complete chain, we can interpolate missing links. This is more of a computational problem, so with the advance of quantum computing and advanced genetics, this can be a future if somebody actually want to build a living dinosaur. Else, we can simulate an extinct creature from the artificial DNA.

  • commented on Jun 28 2013

    Republicou isso em Mundo da Pesquisa.

  • commented on Jun 28 2013

    I’ve always thought that concepts tried in movies will soon become a reality… here’s the proof. Great post!

  • commented on Jun 28 2013

    Reblogged this on Words By Axel and commented: