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Could Sci-Fi Hold the Key to Our Future?

08/08/2013 14:51 BST | Updated 08/10/2013 10:12 BST
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In a world of tech start-ups and digital innovation, have the best minds of our generation dedicated themselves to small-scale projects and forgotten about the lure of sci-fi style space exploration?

Peter Thiel, one of the Silicon Valley boffins behind Pay Pal, believes this could be the case. And he says the 'collapse of science-fiction' since that 60s could be an explanation.

'There was a great deal of literature about the future and what the world would be like, the future history of the world, and that has really dissipated,' he told the BBC in 2010.

'We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters.'

It is true that some sci-fi has been a direct inspiration behind the development of various technologies. Martin Cooper, inventor of the mobile phone, claimed his idea came from the communicators used in Star Trek.

Author Jules Verne is credited with having been the direct inspiration behind two familiar pieces of military kit: the first submarines used by the US Navy (from Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea) and the modern helicopter (from Clipper in the Clouds).

And the first liquid-fuelled rocket was conceptualised then built after scientist Robert H. Goddard read a serialisation of H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds. He had said the idea of interplanetary flight 'gripped my imagination tremendously.' He is consider a founder of modern rocket science.

According to Peter Diamandis, co-founder and chairman of the X Prize Foundation, 'Science fiction helps scientists and technologists think in disruptive ways.'

But with the waning popularity of science fiction, have we put our priorities elsewhere?

In the week that celebrates the one year anniversary of NASA's Curiosity rover landing on the Mars, the answer is surely no. In 12 months, the robot has taken incredible pictures of rocks that specialists agree were most likely formed by centuries of water washing over them.

And this has also been the year that has seen nearly 80,000 applications to live on Mars. Excitement for the imagination, indeed.

Still, some see science fiction as essential to creating the awe that leads to greater belief in human potential.

The Centre for Science and the Imagination at Arizona State University has brought scientists and sci-fi writers together, under Project Hieroglyph, to create stories that in turn inspire science. Neal Stephenson, founder of the project, says it is an attempt to encourage writers to infuse sci-fi with an optimism, a la Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, that could inspire a new generation to 'get big stuff done.'

Ed Finn, project director, says our ambitions have dropped: the US has gone from Apollo missions and large infrastructure changes of the 50s and 60s, to dropping their own space program. 'Our goal is to try and expand the horizon, to consider the full possibility of space and what we could do.'

Perhaps, then, the key to mankind's future needs to start with bigger dreams and more thought for the Final Frontier. To Infinity and Beyond!