Don’t you just love the way science fiction has foretold our future? Mind you, there are probably more examples of the genre getting it absurdly wrong than right. I’m still waiting for my personal hovercar to fly me to the office each morning, and a robot Jeeves to take care of washing up and repartee.
And then there are the times science fiction got it right: huge flat-panels that hang on the wall and display colourful images and full-motion video; and surround-sound audio systems that seem to put you into another environment. Okay, it’s not a holodeck, but close your eyes and you could be in a jungle, or on a battlefield with bullets zipping past your head.
I always loved the idea of the video wristwatch, to make face-to-face phone calls with friends, using a gadget you always have about you. You can find such devices now, but the wristphone has been forgotten in favour of a handheld device with a larger screen. Since the late 20th century, modern man has become reliant on the cordless outdoor telephone to talk to distant people in remote places.
Much more recently, that phone has taken on other duties, such as electronic mail, personal and automobile direction finding, and music and video entertainment. It can translate foreign languages (if still short of true Babel fish in-ear translation), and pack volumes of dictionaries and reference encyclopedias. And it gives access to that great repository of data, the internet.
Manipulating and controlling all this sophistication with a brush of the fingertip on a touch-sensitive screen is one thing. Telling your 21st-century electronic companion what to do is something else. Faultless voice recognition is still the holy grail of man-machine interfaces. Google, Vlingo and Apple now have workable systems for the mobile phone.
While Apple’s Siri, exclusive to the iPhone 4S, may not be up to the washing up just yet, he/she does have an interesting line in witty banter. It won’t be long now before we start assigning gender and real personalities to our new digital companions.