Consider Doctor Who’s Clara, the Man of La Mancha’s dream and Star Trek’s deflector shields. What do they have in common? All are impossible … or are they?

At the beginning of this year, I looked at technology trends and made some predictions. For one trend, I cited fictitious research from Spacely Sprockets: “By 2020, traditional supply chains will no longer exist. Instead all objects will be created at the point of use by 3-D replicators.” Then I predicted that this “dimensional disruption” would drive all supply chains to zero length.

This prediction was intended to be interesting, yet quite impossible. But look at what is happening in our digital universe: fantasy and reality appear to be converging to achieve impossible things.

The Art of the Impossible

“The difficult we do at once; the impossible takes a bit longer.” -- Author unknown

There is much to learn from pursuing the impossible. The Man of La Mancha’s To Dream the Impossible Dream is a perfect anthem to help us appreciate courage and tenacity in this pursuit. In this story within a story, Don Quixote follows his quest (no matter how hopeless, no matter how far). The impossible girl, Clara Oswald, from Doctor Who is like a sci-fi Don Quixote. She embodies bravery and dedication.

When an enemy jumps into Doctor Who’s timeline to attempt to destroy him by rewriting history, Clara follows suit, making the ultimate sacrifice and proving herself to be the penultimate companion. Clara travels with the Doctor in the TARDIS. And how can we overlook the impossibility that is TARDIS (Time and Relative Dimension in Space), a time-traveling police call box bioship that is “bigger on the inside”? We learn in The Impossible Planet episode that it can take years to grow a TARDIS that draws its/his/her power primarily from an exploding star in the process of becoming an (again) impossible black hole.

In "The Physics of the Impossible: A Scientific Exploration of Phasers, Force Fields, Teleportation and Time Travel," author and theoretical physicist Michio Kaku injects in each discussion of science fiction technology an explanation of the hurdles to “realizing concepts as reality.” According to Kaku, technological advances that we take for granted today were declared impossible 150 years ago, like “heavier than air” flying machines, X-rays and the radio.

Kaku considers time travel as one of the Class II Impossibilities that are “technologies that sit at the very edge of our understanding of the physical world," possibly taking thousands or millions of years to become available. In fact, time travel in the TARDIS is the subject of a scientific paper written by physicists Dr. Ben Tippett and Dr. Dave Tsang. The paper studies black holes and Einstein’s theory of general relativity and proposes a real life TARDIS in a bubble of space-time capable of moving backward and forward along a loop of time. If several of these loops could be spliced together, it would allow the proposed TARDIS to travel between any point in space and time.

And what about impossible Star Trek technology like deflector shields? In fantasy fiction, force fields (a.k.a. deflector shields) are barriers made of energy or particles that protect a person, area or object from attacks or intrusions. While they are a popular sci-fi concept, serious nonfiction books like The Physics of Star Trek consider their merits, and scientific research into force fields is real and ongoing. Whether possible or impossible, we can all appreciate the determination of Star Trek Enterprise chief engineer and “miracle worker” Scotty as he vows, “The haggis is in the fire, but I’ll not lower my shields.”

With these examples in mind, my impossible zero-length supply chain prediction seems quite plausible. Yet when I wrote about 3-D printers that would shrink traditional supply chains, it was the prediction I thought least likely to come true. Though I considered the potential practical impact of 3-D printing, I joked about the Jetson’s food replicator and the machine that instantly "creates" consumables featured in the fictional Star Trek universe.

But now NASA is studying whether a real replicator might be the answer to feeding astronauts on a long-duration flight to Mars. And last month, the dream of a “self-sufficient space-faring civilization moved a step closer to reality as a commercial 3-D printer was installed aboard the International Space Station for a tryout in orbit.” The printer has now successfully completed the first 3-D print in space! Turns out this might have been my best prediction.

Predicting the Impossible

There is a knack to technology predictions. Predictions need to be challenging but not obvious, right? Like Schrödinger's cat as famously explained by Dr. Sheldon Cooper on The Big Bang Theory (my authority for all things science and technology), you want your predictions to be both possible and impossible at the same time.

At times, technology predictions can be embarrassingly wrong. The Worst Tech Predictions of All Time includes an anecdote about how tech pundit Robert Metcalf, the founder of 3Com and inventor of Ethernet, confidently predicted in 1995 that the Internet would soon go spectacularly nova in a “catastrophic collapse" and promised to eat his words if it didn't. It didn’t, and he did.

Sometimes technology predictions are cautionary tales. Sci-fi author Isaac Asimov penned a New York Times essay in 1964 entitled Visit to the World's Fair of 2014, a glimpse 50 years ahead into the future of human history. Asimov's imaginative predictions included “the world will be seriously automated.” Asimov imagined that "the world of A.D. 2014 will have few routine jobs that could not be done better by some machine than by any human being. As a result,

mankind will suffer badly from the disease of boredom, a disease spreading more widely each year and growing in intensity. This will have serious mental, emotional, and sociological consequences, and I dare say that psychiatry will be far and away the most important medical specialty in 2014. The lucky few who can be involved in creative work of any sort will be the true elite of mankind, for they alone will do more than serve a machine."

Earlier this year, I wrote my version of Asimov’s cautionary tale. My article, about helping the Insurance industry to better serve their customers, makes it clear that automation can be used “To serve man.” Case management automation enriches and improves how knowledge workers and production workers do their jobs:

When insurers invest in a case management approach they organize work around the customer with processes that can efficiently handle exceptions and operate in an omnichannel world. Case management establishes guardrails, not edicts for work, lending necessary flexibility when straight-through process automation is impractical.”

We are most drawn to aspirational technology predictions. In frog design’s Tech Trends 2014, Kenji Huang makes his Mind Control predication, saying, “If someone from the 1500s came to us now and looked at what technology has enabled us to do, they’d think we were superhuman. In 2014, we’ll make even greater advancements. Our ability to control objects with our minds will be within reach as more companies look toward experiences that directly harness electrical signals from our brain.”

The news is filled lately with stories about the new exoskeleton created based on research from Dr. Miguel Nicolelis. This application is enabling paralyzed veterans like US Army Sgt. Dan Rose to walk again with exoskeleton technology that was also used during the World Cup’s “first kick.” Clad in a metal vest, sporting a blue cap dotted with electrodes, a young man kicked off this year’s biggest soccer championship in an exoskeleton. It was, according to the scientist behind the exoskeleton's kick, "meant to shock the world." But even more shocking than the exoskeleton's first tentative steps is learning how it worked: controlled by the paralyzed patient's mind.

It’s All About the Magic

Whether aspirational, cautionary, fantastic or just plain wrong, we continue to be entranced by predictions. The British writer Arthur C. Clarke went so far as to formulate the three laws of prediction:

  1. When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.
  2. The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.
  3. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

Back in January, my predictions article shared a quote from Deloitte’s Alison Kenney Paul who predicted that “[3-D] customized and on-demand products in-store will revolutionize the customer experience and help retailers improve their inventory and supply chain management.”

As we enter the 2014 holiday season, there is a very magical 3-D story to share. Microsoft and John Lewis have co-created “Monty’s Magical Toy Machine” -- a tech-enabled in-store experience. The Kinect 2-enabled 3-D interactive experience, designed to let children bring their toys to life, will be available in the flagship John Lewis department store on Oxford Street in December. “Children can scan their favourite toy into the machine through photogrammetry technology, and it will then appear on screen as a moving, life-like 3-D image. This interactive digital replica then magically dances for the child.” The logical next step would of course be creating the toys themselves in store.

So I think I’ve done really well this year with my impossible zero-length supply chain prediction. I do have one item though that remains on my impossible list: my unlikely goal to win Dancing with the Stars. But, who knows? The year’s not over yet.

Title image by NASA Marshall Space Flight Center (Flickr) via a CC BY-NC 2.0 license