Big Question: How does science fiction predict the future?

For more than a century, science fiction writers have been the fortune tellers of human progress, dreaming up amazing devices, events and phenomena that would become reality years after their works were published.

Curiosity contributor Susan Sherwood looked into the history of these fiction-to-fact journeys, and here's what she turned up.

In 1984's The Final Encyclopedia, Gordon Dickson presents readers with the vision of a computer containing the sum knowledge of humans. Sound a lot like the Internet we access today? Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft, sought to emulate Dickson's vision and began investigating how to expand knowledge on the Net even further in 2001 [source: Gillmor]. Author William Gibson, who coined the word "cyberspace" in 1982, also imagined an interactive Internet, as well as the popularity of reality television.

For more examples of science fiction brought to technological fruition, we can time-travel to the 1960s and the original television series Star Trek (1966). The "communicators" used by the Enterprise crew members were essentially high-end, flip-top cell phones. And what about their "tricorders"? They resembled tablet devices with excellent apps, allowing them to access information and record data. Jump further back, to 1951, and Isaac Asimov was envisioning something very similar to e-books in his children's story, "The Fun They Had" (1951). In it, a boy and a girl discuss a "real" paper book, comparing it to the books they read on television.

If we go back to the turn of the 20th century, Hugo Gernsback described radar, remote-controlled TV and solar power [source: Murdock]. At the end of the 19th century, Jules Verne, a veritable science forecaster, references technology very similar to lunar modules, videoconferencing, ocean splashdowns for spacecraft and even the taser [source: National Geographic].

In the end, "predicting" the future might be a little strong to describe what such sci-fi writers have done. "Anticipating" could be a better term. Some writers, such as Asimov, were trained scientists. Verne wasn't a scientist, but he made a point of keeping up with the cutting-edge science and technology of his time. And sometimes scientists and engineers are themselves sci-fi fans, latching onto an idea as readers and developing it later on, when the technology allows. For example, the engineer at Motorola who led the development of the mobile phone admitted to being influenced by Star Trek. So perhaps our future is, in part, determined by the creativity of our past.