As It Happens

Meet the Star Trek writer who predicted the smartphone

It seemed obvious to David Gerrold back in 1999 that people would one day be walking around with powerful, internet-connected mobile devices in their pockets.

'It was much more obvious to me than the flying car,' says sci-fi author David Gerrold

Sci-fi David Gerrold wrote a 1999 column predicting a future in which people carry around small, Wi-Fi enabled personal computers in their pockets. (Submitted by David Gerrold)

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It seemed obvious to David Gerrold back in 1999 that people would one day be walking around with powerful, internet-connected mobile devices in their pockets. 

"I felt was inevitable simply because the technology was going to make it inevitable," the science fiction writer told As It Happens host Carol Off. 

"Much more obvious to me than the flying car."

Gerrold is a Hugo-award winning science fiction author who wrote for the original Star Trek series and penned the classic episode The Trouble With Tribbles.

He also wrote a 1999 article that essentially predicted the modern smartphone.

Published in the now-defunct magazine Sm@rt Reseller — eight years before the first iPhone hit shelves in 2007 — it was recently resurfaced online by the magazine's editor Esther Schindler.

The article describes "a box less than an inch thick and smaller than a deck of cards" that would would function as a TV, radio, cellphone and camera.

Gerrold wrote that it would come with a high-resolution screen, wireless connectivity and "enough processing power and memory to function as a desktop system."

"And it vibrates," Gerrold said. "I missed that one. I didn't realize that we would put vibrators in them."

Converging and shrinking 

So how did Gerrold know what was coming? He just looked at the technology that already existed at the time, he said.

"It was a question of convergence. All these little boxes on my desk — calculator and music player — why can't these all be in one box? And I've been building and using computers since 1977 so I knew that things were coming together," he said.

Gerrold's description of the 'PITA' is eerily similar to the modern smartphone. (CBC)

"We saw the chips get smaller and faster and smaller and faster. By the time the late '90s — well, even the early '90s — I had a flip-phone and I could see how technology was shrinking."

The privacy problem 

In his article, Gerrold dubbed his future gadget  "a PITA," short for Personal Information Telecommunications Agent.

"The acronym also can stand for Pain In The Ass," he wrote, "which it is equally likely to be, because having all that connectivity is going to destroy what's left of everyone's privacy."

We gave up privacy a long time ago. The minute we attached a telephone, the old landline, we were giving somebody permission to ring a bell in our house any time they felt like it.- David Gerrold , sci-fi writer 

While even Gerrold could not have predicted the current climate of cybersecurity challenges and social media data mining, he said he could already feel technology eroding his personal privacy back in 1999.

"One day I was in a bookstore and my phone started ringing. I took it out of my pocket and it was the wrong number. And I realized I am now carrying around a box in my pocket that anybody anywhere in the world can press a button and annoy me," he said.

"I could be anywhere in the world, and here is this electronic leash."

What's next?

And as we feed our phones more and more information, that leash is getting shorter. 

That leads Gerrold to his next big prediction.

"I'm working on an examination of why artificial intelligence is inevitable," Gerrold said.

It all goes back to the core concept of a computer, he said. We feed it data in exchange for convenience and connectivity.

Gerrold wrote the iconic Star Trek episode The Trouble With Tribbles, in which the starship Enterprise is infested by small, fluffy creatures. (Paramount Pictures)

"We don't mind telling Google where we are with the GPS because in return it can tell us how to navigate to some place we've never been. So that's taking pieces of data and returning useful information," he said.

"The more data that we can collect, the more sophisticated the intelligence engine has to become to deliver the kind of useful information that we want. That's only going to get more sophisticated."

So does that mean we're going to lose whatever semblance of privacy we have left?

"We gave up privacy a long time ago," Gerrold said.

"The minute we attached a telephone, the old landline, we were giving somebody permission to ring a bell in our house any time they felt like it."

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by Mary Newman.

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