Does art imitate life or inspire it?

By Laura Haight
Originally published as The Digital Maven by Upstate Business Journal

iRobot was on one of my 450 TV channels the other night. I’ve seen it a bunch of times, but what I found oddly disquieting was earlier that same day on the news I had seen a CNN report on nextgen robots that look like us and may be developed to be companions and help mates for us. 

It got me thinking about whether art imitates life, predicts it or inspires it.

Consider:

In the 2002 flick Minority Report (based on a 1956 short story), Tom Cruise walks into a mall and is confronted with personalized advertising messages everywhere (“Those shirts you bought last time are on sale, John Anderton!”). While the individualized video streams may not yet be a reality, we know that the capturing of data points (a hot topic in this column) is leading to customized messages. The availability of iBeacon in mobile devices will move Minority Report’s vision much closer to reality. 

Hungry? Just dial up a snack, maybe a cup of Earl Grey - hot! - from your replicator. That’s what Capt. Jean Luc Picard would do in 1987’s Star Trek Next Generation.  3-D printers don’t do food yet (and they take a bit longer) but they have achieved the highest of coolness factors — saving lives. Doctors in the UK have implanted a bio-printed titanium pelvis for a man stricken with rare bone cancer. Another cancer patient in Beijing received a bio-printed spinal graft - the first of its kind ever recorded. Bio-printing organs - kidneys for transplant, for example - are being heavily researched. And just a few months ago, doctors at a New York City hospital printed a two-week-old infant’s heart. It was riddled with holes and structured abnormally. They used the modeled heart, which had been printed from MRI scans, to develop a surgical strategy for repair and to save the infant’s life with one well-executed surgery. 

Face-Off. Cool movie. OK, a little (yeah, a lot) violent. Back in 1997, the film revolved around the futuristic idea of an identity-swapping face transplant. Whew, good thing that’s not real, right? But it is. Medical technology including the use of 3-D modeling, has made partial and, more recently, full facial transplants possible since 2005. For severely disfigured patients - victims of maulings, physical attacks and shootings - the ability to restore not just appearance, but the sense of smell, capability of speech, and the ability to feel human touch, are incalculable advances. It’s also a hotly debated ethical issue. 

Cars are a truly unique American obsession. Faster, throatier, meaner have always been the most desired attributes. But millennials are reportedly less interested in the hot car and more inspired by cool tech. And there’s nothing cooler than autonomous cars. In 1990, Total Recall introduced us to robot driven “Johnny Cabs”. Last month, a self-driving Audi made its way up the interstate (at up to 70 mph!)  to the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Other car makers like Volvo and BMW are on board. And, of course, there is Google. Autonomous driving may be a lot closer to the masses than we think. Are you asking yourself, Isn’t this the height of laziness? Yes, until we think more expansively. A new world of mobility can open up for the handicapped. Even, perhaps, for seniors who often find that the first chink in their independence comes when they can’t drive anymore. (What tech is crammed into these cars? goo.gl/ZSabIQ).

In fact many of the technologies that we marvel at in flicks and play with on phones and tablets have life-altering, society-changing potential just a few years away. Roy Amara, a futurist and engineer who co-founded the Institute for the Future, is best known for this quote:  
"We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run." 

That said, there are plenty of examples of wasted technology that may not even get a movie cameo. The refrigerator that tweets and the toilet that you can flush using your smart (dumb) phone, to name two.