30 years ago a little-seen and mostly-forgotten tv series premiered on BBC2. It was an attempt at a telling stories within a realistic setting only 40 years in future. This is was “Star Cops”, the brainchild of Chris Boucher (writer of Doctor Who and script editor of Blakes 7 for the entire run). He would seek advice from NASA and arrange for a set visit from former astronaut, Pete Conrad. The purpose of this post is not review the series or appraise it but rather comment on it’s view of the future, what seemed fantastic then, does it seem mundane now, 30 years later?
In the 3rd episode “Intelligent Listening for Beginners” the concept of a computer virus as a weapon is first introduced as these malicious programs are used in the story to cause a crash on the Channel Tunnel and an explosion at a chemical plant.
The first computer virus was developed in the early 1970’s on the ARPANET (forerunner to the Internet) and the the term was first mentioned in the 1973 film “Westworld”. The first PC virus to get public attention was the “Waterfall” or “Cascade” virus in the late 1980’s and early 90’s. It’s primary effect was that letters on the PC monitors would start to fall ‘down’ the screen and then gather at the bottom.
Flash forward to today and Anti-Virus software is very big business and is an actual arms race between developers of these damaging programs and those who seek to defeat and defend against them. One of the most famous examples of using a computer virus as a weapon is the “STUXNET” virus that was discovered in 2010. STUXNET was developed to target specific components used in the production of Nuclear materials. It was targeted at the country of Iran and is estimated that it infected 200,000 computers and caused 1,000 machines to completely fail. Earlier in 2017, the “WannaCry” Malware proliferated very quickly across multiple networks by utilising a vulnerability in unpatched Microsoft servers.
In the episode “A Double Life”, the team of characters use a portable DNA analyser to implicate a thief who has stolen from the Moon base. They use a portable machine to conduct the analysis and the result is achieved within minutes.
DNA Fingerprinting (or profiling) as it is sometimes called was first used in a criminal conviction in 1986 when evidence was used to link an individual to two rapes that had happened three years apart. At that stage a comparative large amount of DNA material had to be used and it could take up to two weeks to produce a result for comparison, whereas today it takes roughly 24 – 72 hours for the same result.
The retention of this data is still a point of contention with concerns of privacy being at the forefront.
Talking face to face via a screen of some kind is a staple of television science fiction since the original series of “Star Trek”. Video conferencing was first developed in the late 1960’s (influenced by Star Trek?) by AT&T but it wasn’t until the 1980’s that networks would become fast enough that it would become viable but the hardware required would be prohibitively expensive.
It wouldn’t be until the advent of the Internet and the widespread implementation of the TCP/IP protocol (primary communication method of the internet) plus being to able to use off-the-shelf hardware that would really bring Video Calling to the masses.
These days, now we have Facetime, Skype and other services, video calling from anywhere in the world is a reality.
Throughout the series, the lead character, Nathan Spring, is rarely seen without his trusty portable computer he refers to as “Box”. He often engaged in conversation with it and even gets it to call and book a table at his favourite restaurant.
A PDA or Portable Data Assistant is a term first coined in 1992 with the release of the Apple Newton but the first recognised PDA was the Psion Organiser (which doesn’t look too far from
what the Box prop would look like in the tv series). Box in the TV series doesn’t have a screen or buttons of any kind (but does have a nifty Holo Projector) and all interaction with it is done verbally. It can obviously access some kind of cellular network as it is able to query Nathan’s bank balance and retrieve data about movies and poetry when required. Box demonstrates that it is always listening and sometimes forwards ideas and conjecture and so demonstrates a rudimentary artificial intelligence.
Siri and Cortana of today’s devices has nothing like the abilities of Box but a lot of the same functions such as information retrieval and search are now present.
Throughout the series the characters will often bark out “Screen On”, “Sound Off”, “Lights”, etc. and the environment around them will react accordingly.
A concept for home automation was first mooted back in 1975 but there was never much pickup due to the expense of the specialised hardware required. Arguably the first device to pierce the public conscience was the Smart Thermometer by NEST, first released in 2011 which has led to a wide range of similar devices.