Does science fiction drive real technological development?
First, go watch this video at Greg Laden’s blog, of a man exercising a prototype exoskeleton. Take special note of the enclosed mock-ups and the description of its fine control.
Then read the following excerpt from Robert Heinlein’s 1959 novel, Starship Troopers:
But I do want to mention a little about powered suits, partly because I was fascinated by them and also because that was what got me into trouble. No complaints – I rated what I got.
An M.I. lives by his suit the way a K-9 man lives by and with and on his doggie partner. Powered armor is one-half the reason we call ourselves “mobile infantry” instead of just “infantry.” Our suits give us better eyes, better ears, stronger backs (to carry heavier weapons and more ammo), better legs, more intelligence (“intelligence” in the military meaning; a man in a suit can be just as stupid as anybody else – only he had better not be), more firepower, greater endurance, less vulnerability.
A suit isn’t a space suit – although it can serve as one. It is not primarily armor – although the Knights of the Round Table were not armored as well as we are. It isn’t a tank – but a single M.I. private could take on a squadron of those things and knock them off unassisted if anybody was silly enough to put tanks against M.I….
There are a dozen different ways of delivering destruction in impersonal wholesale, via ships and missiles of one sort or another, catastrophes so widespread, so unselective, that the war is over because that nation or planet has ceased to exist. What we do is entirely different. We make war as personal as a punch in the nose. We can be selective, applying precisely the required amount of pressure at the specified point at a designated time – we’ve never been told to go down and kill or capture all left-handed redheads in a particular area, but if they tell us to, we can. We will…
No need to describe what it looks like, since it has been pictured so often. Suited up, you look like a big steel gorilla, armed with gorilla-sized weapons…
But the suits are considerably stronger than a gorilla. If an M.I. in a suit swapped hugs with a gorilla, the gorilla would be dead, crushed; the M.I. and the suit wouldn’t be mussed.
The “muscles,” the pseudo-musculature, gets all the publicity but it’s the control of all that power which merits it. The real genius in the design is that you don’t have to control the suit; you just wear it, like your clothes, like skin. …
Two thousand pounds of it, maybe, in full kit – yet the very first time you are fitted into one you can immediately walk, run, jump, lie down, pick up an egg without breaking it… and jump over the house next door and come down to a feather landing.
The secret lies in negative feedback and amplification…
- Robert Heinlein, Starship Troopers, p. 79, 80, 81, emphasis mine
Despite its technological prescience, Starship Troopers is a political novel. (Seriously, it was a crime to apply that title to the scarcely-related piece of cinematic drek spewed out of Hollywood.) And Heinlein’s work is full of bang-on technological predictions like this. Amazing what happens when you combine legendary fiction-writing skills with real-world knowledge of physics, chemistry, biology, military culture, etc. He took the trouble to know what the hell he was talking about and it shows.
Anyway, I have a hunch that real military visionaries read that novel and have been salivating over the strategic possibilities for decades, waiting for it to be possible. What you see in the video is a prototype but there’s no mystery where it’s going.