We’ve long known that life imitates art as art imitates life. But science fiction complicates that famous formulation, forcing us to acknowledge that life only imitates certain types of art when technological progress allows for it. Increasingly it does and, also increasingly, human inventors seem to be taking cues from the Star Wars universe, building the sort of tools used by the Rebellion and the Empire in their ceaseless game of intergalactic red rover. Let the cynics dwell on why lightsabers would never work, it’s still remarkable that we already have six futuristic technologies (and some planets) cribbed from a trilogy of movies that absolutely shattered minds when it was released a little less than three decades ago.
These are those technologies:
We all remember that scene at the end of The Empire Strikes Back: Luke’s hand — sliced off during a confrontation with Darth Vader earlier — is back. Only it’s not really his arm; it’s got a bunch of metal and wires strewn around. It was an artificial limb. But unlike conventional prosthetics, this one was basically as good as the real deal. It could move with full functionality. It responded to sensations induced by external forces. And it was encased in a skin-like exterior. It was pretty much the same as the other arm.
In the real world, we’re not at the point where we can just replace our limbs with artificial ones and get along with life just as well — but we’re made steps to that. Late last year, researchers at DARPA were able to construct a prosthetic hand connected to a patient’s spinal cord and give that person an ability to move the mechanical arm and even feel sensations induced on specific areas of the limb.
“Help me Obi-Wan Kenobi. You’re my only hope.” Those words were immortalized by Princess Leia, but it wasn’t her saying those things directly — it was a hologram version of her. Without question, we are now in the age of holograms. We already made Tupac come back to life and perform at Coachella via hologram — and it looked pretty damn impressive.
This isn’t just an important technology for entertainment purposes. Holography is also seeing a significant impact in teaching medical students how to identify and interact with different parts of the body to diagnose and treat illnesses. In the future, your physician might just let you sit around while they pull up a holographic version of you to examine and see what ails you.
If you think of robots as a version of droids, this isn’t even a stretch of the imagination. We’ve got droids that look like humans (and they are as clumsy and lazy as us, too!); droids that trudge around like animals; droids that follow us around and show us weird shit, etc.
It’s just a matter of time before we have droids that run around and tell us how bad all of our ideas are.
A vehicle that can hover in mid air and zip across large distances? Impossible, right?
Well, we’re not totally far off from seeing speeders become a reality. We already have trains that levitate using magnets. Elon Musk’s proposed hyperloop transportation system is already being built by two different companies.
Most of all, hovercraft technology is progressing fast.
A heads-up display shows someone a digital interface overlaid whatever screen they’re using to see out in the real world. They provide access to information that doesn’t require you to pull up an entirely new device, and sometimes interacts with what’s happening ahead of you in a way that augments what your visual space looks like. Remember when Luke was gearing up to blow up the Death Star, and switched off his targeting computer? That could be considered a version of an HUD.
Nowadays, we’re already seeing HUDs in the form of smart glasses, smart cars, pilot displays in aircraft, and many other systems.
Last but not least, tractor beams are now a real thing. Researchers from Britain developed a device last year that can use high-amplitude sound waves to create an acoustically-driven hologram to move small objects around.
It’s a miniature form of a tractor beam, but it still counts — and illustrates a possible method that could be advanced for scaling up a working tractor beam that could move large objects around with just a flick of a switch.