Former Secretary of State John Kerry in a Google Self-Driving Car
What once was the playground of sci-fiction is now the fodder for today's innovators PHOTO: U.S. Department of State

The 1950s TV anthology Science Fiction Theater (SFT) featured farfetched ideas to entertain young viewers. Episodes covered outlandish concepts like driverless cars and wireless mobile heart monitors. 

Wait, what? 

Yes, many of today’s innovations were once the fodder for sci-fi drama. Several SFT episode themes have been top of mind lately in light of recent technology news.

The Phantom Car

In one of my favorite SFT episodes, an old prospector claims he was almost run over by a driverless car in the desert. Driverless? Impossible! 

But once a woman is seriously injured by the same car, the sheriff starts to believe the prospector's story. As it turns out, there is such an experimental vehicle, remotely controlled by radar, and the experiment has gone horribly wrong. The controls are jammed and the car is heading for the city — it's a deadly weapon because radar can’t see humans. Spoiler alert: they stop the car in time.

Fast forward to 2017 and the notion of “driverless cars” is everywhere: not as threats but as potential saviors of our safety on the road. Certainly, consumers already appreciate the automated technology currently available in cars: lane assist, self-braking, hands-free park assist and collision avoidance. 

Autonomous vehicles have moved from the realm of science fiction to becoming a real thing. New York State has started a pilot program to allow testing of driverless vehicles, and companies like Google and Uber have been testing the technology in other states for years.

While driverless car technology may have solved detection issues for humans (except for bicyclists), kangaroos not so much. As a recent Gizmodo news story explains, “It turns out the hopping of a kangaroo throws off the car's detection system. The cameras and sensors aboard a self-driving car typically use the ground as a reference point. Volvo found that the system has a tough time predicting the random jumping movements of a kangaroo.”

Looks like driverless cars are indeed a fact, but we still have a few challenges ahead to make our current generation of “phantom cars” a practical reality.

Signals From the Heart

In this episode, a doctor certifies a train engineer as fit for duty and then is blamed for the train wreck caused by the engineer’s fatal heart attack. The crash kills two dozen people. To make up for the damage, the doctor determines to develop a new cardiogram that will detect heart attacks from a distance. Is he destined for disappointment?

If you wonder whether this crazy idea could ever prove feasible, check your current news feed. Last month, the FDA cleared a wireless cardiac monitoring device, the Eko Duo. This handheld device enables remote monitoring and diagnosis for patients, and can seamlessly stream data for specialist or clinician monitoring.

And take a look at this cool Kardia mobile-enabled EKG app and device, an AI-powered platform designed for clinicians “to monitor patients for the early detection of atrial fibrillation.”

mobile EKG

Mind Machine

This episode explores what happens when technology is used to understand and leverage our greatest human asset — our brain. A scientist has invented a brain wave machine to read and transmit our thoughts.

OK, the mind machine looks like an inverted bowl hovering over your head and sends its results to what looks suspiciously like an old fashioned typewriter. Yet it still represents a very cool idea.

Sci-fi enthusiasts might recognize this SFT episode as early inspiration for the connected cybernetic lifeforms known as the Star Trek Borg. It also foretells the "race" of cybernetically-augmented humanoids known as the Cybermen on the awesome Doctor Who series.

But could this episode be a precursor of true scientific brain-to-machine and brain-to-brain communication? Today, this is a lot closer to real science than we might think.

Modern technologists and entrepreneurs are definitely making moves to computerize our brains. Elon Musk has launched a company called Neuralink that aims to implant tiny electrodes in the brain "that may one day upload and download thoughts.”

And startup Kernel intends to build a new breed of hardware and software neural tools that allow the brain to do things it has never done before. As Kernel’s founder says, "What I really care about is being able to read and write the underlying functions of the brain." This is exactly what the SFT Mind Machine was designed to do. Guess we’ll have to stay tuned.

The Human Circuit

Though much of what was first introduced as sci-fi in years past has now become real science, we humans have not yet completely conquered a few fictional technologies.

Case in point, check out this SFT episode where a nightclub dancer claims she saw a top-secret nuclear blast hundreds of miles away during a seizure she suffered. Her physician and his scientist colleague, believing her to possess clairvoyance, take steps to explain how her particular talent works scientifically. Then they start thinking about other supernatural phenomena like witchcraft.

Though the scientist admits he cannot explain these phenomena with scientific fact, he believes we will in the future if “enterprising [scientists] have the courage to explore into the unknown.”

And I would suggest this as a fitting mantra for all of us involved in technology innovation these days.

Side Note: While the fictional technology in The Human Circuit has not yet come to fruition, a psychedelic rock band formed in 2006 with the same name ... and that’s a fact.