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Sci-fi realities

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June 26, 2004 13:33 IST

Does it sometimes feel like we've stepped into a never-ending science fiction movie or an episode of Star Trek? Here we are barely four years into the new millennium and the last century is already history.

Our ancient television sets are being thrown out and replaced by flat -screen plasma TVs. The latest mobile phones being turned out in Korea will soon incorporate MP3 music systems along with cameras. Video conferencing? That trick from the sci-fi movies is now old hat.

The world's first private spaceship

Earlier this week, the first privately financed manned space flight briefly left the Earth's atmosphere. The project, funded by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, is an attempt to make commercial space travel a reality. We won't yet be heading off for a quick once round the world but Allen's moves will surely make this possible in the not too distant future.

At times it seems that a cascading effect is at work and change is coming at an ever-faster pace. Last week Steve Jobs introduced his iTunes in Europe after surmounting a host of technological glitches.

A host of rivals are already hot on his trail but Jobs has opened an extraordinary way forward that is likely to transform the music industry beyond recognition.

The 99-cent per song iTunes has turned into a technological chart-topper in the United States and it is likely to be the ultimate replacement for vinyl, cassettes, CDs and DVDs, in the not too distant future.

Or, look at what email companies like Yahoo and others are suddenly promising us. From 2MB of storage space email users around the world are being promised a giant 100MB to keep their messages.

What difference will this make? Nobody is quite sure but the nature of communication could undergo a quantum change -- if users can figure out what to do with all that space. Will they send more digital photographs and other space-consuming messages that couldn't have been sent before?

This is all a far cry from the world we grew up in. John Logie Baird, who invented the television, might not recognise the new creations that are being churned out by factories in South Korea and Japan (forget about high-definition TV, next on the cards is ultra-high definition TV). And, Alexander Graham Bell would certainly be baffled by the choice at his fingertips if he was presented a mobile phone.

What's different about the scientific gadgets and developments emerging from today's hi-tech labs? British columnist Matthew Parris once made the point that 20th century wonders like the automobile are still recognisably the same product that came trundling out of the Ford assembly line.

A Charles Rolls or Henry Royce, if transplanted to our era, could presumably slide into the driver's seat and hit the road in the newest BMW-made Rolls-Royce Phantom without too much difficulty. The steering wheel is still in the same place and so are the accelerator and brake pedals.

But now we are moving into an entirely different paradigm when we are leaving sci-fi behind. That's starting to change the world in ways we can barely recognise yet. As a result it's almost tough to see a decade ahead. Will we live in a Bluetooth world without wires or will we live in a world where "hotspots" make connectivity effortless?

A world of non-stop change is, of course, sheer hell for the scientists and businessmen who never know when obsolescence will hit -- and which direction it's coming from. The fax machine was a change in communication systems of extraordinary proportions but it was quickly overtaken by email. And, who would have dreamt that the mobile phone would aspire to take the place of cameras, videocameras, TVs and even music systems.

Try and imagine if the Gutenberg press had been invented at around the same time as the Industrial Revolution was changing life in other ways. Combine the printed word with the steam engine. What's happening in our era is probably more powerful than all that put together and we can only watch and marvel as history unfolds before our eyes.

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Paran Balakrishnan