Oct 8, 2021, Business

How did Stanislaw Lem predict our future?

Aneta Skoczewska Business Consultant

Stanislaw Lem, a great Polish sci-fi novelist, had a revolutionary gift that totally changed our perception of the future. His technologically bright mind came up with some of the most crucial hi-tech ideas and created a solid foundation for actual well known and frequently used solutions. It’s quite thrilling to read a novel written in the 1960s and come across a bit about potential tablet prototypes or the concept of virtual reality. And as it’s the 100th anniversary of Lem’s birthday, we’d like to take you into the world of his most profound predictions.

The future is now

Being hailed as the best science-fiction writer in the world, Lem had his books translated into 41 different languages, entertaining people from nearly all continents. But do the optons, lectons, fantomatons and trionsands actually ring a bell? Although they may seem as some foreign, incomprehensible words, they represent devices and solutions most of us use on a daily basis.

Paper books as a relic of the past

Who would have thought that paper books can be replaced by machines? Well, Lem surely did. About 40 years before the first trials of using e-paper, he mentioned a similar concept in his 1961 ‘Return from the stars’ piece. He presented an ebook as crystals used to save the content and recapture it on an opton – a special device contemporarily represented by an ebook reader. ‘It even looked like a book, but it had only a single page between the covers. When you touched it, next pages of the text appeared.’ Sounds familiar, right?

Books with an audio feature

It was the same year and the same novel in which Lem mentioned yet another alternative to a paper book – a lecton. ‘Optons were rarely ever used, as the robot seller told me. The audience preferred lectons – they read loudly and could be set up to a particular type of voice, tempo, and modulation.’ Yes, they’re today’s audiobooks!

Predicted the Internet and experienced its outburst

Connecting high-power computers to enhance their data processing capabilities? Lem saw it as a possible development path as early as in 1957 in his ‘Dialogues’ – ‘As a result of gradual accretion of all IT machines and memory banks, we will create continental and then even planetary computer networks.’ And he even lived to see the revolution with all of its unquestionable perks and obvious drawbacks. 

Accessing a huge virtual database

You remember Google, right? Lem described it in his 1955 ‘The Magellanic Cloud’ novel as a ‘Trion Library’. In his definition, trions were quartz crystals with a changeable molecular structure and worked similarly to our pendrives. Connected to radio waves, they created a large database including ‘not only different kinds of photos, maps, pictures, charts or tables, but all that can be accessible through our own sight.’ Trion could easily store sounds like human voice and music, as well as scents. Although today Google still doesn’t have this last feature, we’re still waiting for it to revolutionize the internet world.

Small portable TV always at hand

‘The Magellanic Cloud’ included a description of the first smartphone-like device – a portable TV with instant access to the Trion Library’s data. ‘Whether it’s an Australian studio, moon observatory, or a plane – how many times did we use a pocket device to induce the Trion Library’s central, mention a desired piece of work and have it in front of us on a TV screen in just a few seconds’. Let us remind you that in those times the smallest computer fitted solely an extremely spacious room, and the idea of the internet gained a solid foundation only two decades later. 

3D printing machine

Being a quite productive piece, ‘The Magellanic Cloud’ described the process of creating goods similar to today’s 3D printing as well. According to its thesis, a trion can include a record of a ‘product recipe’. This way, using a radio-connected machine, it can build a desired object, satisfying even the most sophisticated whims. Today, a 3D printer can be bought in most electronic stores, and the ‘recipe’ is substituted with an AMF format file. One way or another, it works just great.

The Sims simulation game

The creator of Sims, Will Wright, mentioned Lem as his core source of inspiration. And indeed, ‘The Cyberiad’ novel which fascinated him most told the story of a robotic constructor, Thurl, who has created a microworld the size of a box. It was a kind of simulated civilization locked in a casket and built for an exiled dictator for him to rule. And, as in the later Sims game, an ethical dilemma connected with playing with somebody’s life arose in the novel as well.

Virtual reality

VR as a totally fresh invention? Lem mentioned it as early as in 1964 naming it fantomatics and describing thoroughly in his ‘Summa Technologiae” essays. A fantomaton machine was able to create alternative realities nearly impossible to distinguish from the actual ones. Choosing from many different options, a human couldn’t be sure if he’s reached the original one, which blurred the line between the truth and the fiction. 

‘I have seen the future’

Lem’s legacy shows quite vividly that technological development doesn’t go solely with breakthroughs in science or engineering. Every revolutionizing concept evolves from a vision and creativity. And although any advancement of this kind comes with probable flaws, it’s still worth digging deeper into the future and believing that impossible is nothing.