Minority Report and Prescient Technology

Do popular visions of the future predict future technologies, or inspire them?

Minority Report, released ten years ago this past June, drew critical praise not just for the intensity of its action or the sophistication of the free will questions its team of crime-fighting precogs provoked. It also boasted a unique, glossy vision of the future, more exciting and at the same time more plausible than anything audiences had seen. Crime scene techs studied footage from thousands of surveillance cameras on swipeable touch screens, while advertisements adjust themselves to conform to the user viewing them.

A decade later, that sort of technology has become commonplace. And many of the movie’s devices and concepts are in development – electronic paper, insect security robots, crime prediction software. But that’s not what this is about.

Rather, this article is going to ask which came first.

In order to come up with his vision of 2054 D.C., Steven Spielberg famously convened a three-day think tank of technologists and futurists in 1999. Those in attendance included Stewart Brand (editor of the Whole Earth Catalog), writer Douglas Coupland (Generation X, Microserfs) and VR pioneer Jaron Lanier (also author of the anti-technocratic manifesto You Are Not a Gadget). Between them and the architects and doctors in attendance, they created a future that was sleek and efficient, but with plenty of grime left between the seams.

One of the most striking design elements of the film was Chief John Anderton’s translucent touchscreen display. He used this to quickly organize and manipulate vast amounts of data. No one ever explained how this interface worked – which I loved; excessive exposition is the curse of most science-fiction – but it seemed intuitive. It wasn’t always clear which gesture of his corresponded to which action, but he was clearly commanding something.

This design was a product of Spielberg’s think tank, as recorded by Alex MacDowell in the movie’s “2054 bible,” and the vision of technology advisor John Underkoffler. Spielberg told Underkoffler he wanted an interface that looked “like conducting an orchestra.” The console that we saw was the result. Today, ten years later – and over a generation before the movie’s 2054 start date – you might be reading this article on a tablet that incorporates that same design.

So which came first? Did Minority Report predict the iPad? Or did Steve Jobs set out to make a computer like Minority Report?

While Jobs may have had a vision of gesture-based interfaces for years (given the hype surrounding Jobs’s design chops, it’s hard to say for sure), there’s a reason the iPad came out when it did. Apple wanted to get into tablet computing as early as 1993 with the Newton MessagePad, but the technology couldn’t support it: AAA batteries, poor handwriting recognition and overall lack of connectivity. It took the saturation of the U.S. cell phone market to create an environment, both in terms of market penetration and cellular infrastructure, where a portable computing device with touch-sensitive interface could be feasible. Then, because demand for phones outstripped demand for notebook computers, Jobs had to build the iPhone first. Fortunately, with some help from Cingular, Apple was able to build out the iOS to the ubiquitous presence it is today. The iPad may have been “an idea whose time has come,” to quote Victor Hugo, but it was also an idea whose time couldn’t have come any sooner.

And part of the enthusiasm for touchscreens may have, of course, come from Minority Report. Seen by millions of Americans while in theaters, it put the idea of swiping through multiple screens into the popular consciousness. It’s an almost statistical certainty that at least one of the members of “Project Purple,” Apple’s 2004 think tank that conceived the iPhone and iOS, saw Minority Report.

So, on the one hand, Apple’s interest in tablet computing and the touchscreen interface predates Minority Report. But Apple’s successful tablets and touchscreen products, like the iPhone and the iPad, postdate Spielberg’s movie. So did Minority Report predict the iPad or cause it?

Cosmo: Posit: People think a bank might be financially shaky.
Martin Bishop: Consequence: People start to withdraw their money.
Cosmo: Result: Pretty soon it is financially shaky.
Martin Bishop: Conclusion: You can make banks fail.


For decades, the West has been building a future in the shape of past prophecies. Popular culture inspires a generation of young thinkers, who grow up, enter the lab, and then build the visions of their childhood. The Department of Defense keeps investing money in heat rays, despite their limited utility or cost-effectiveness. The notion of colonies on the Moon or Mars may have inspired millions of physicists and engineers, but it’s indisputable that it would be easier to colonize Antarctica than the Sea of Tranquility. And modern cell phones owe as much to Star Trek-era communicators as to WW2-era radios. These visions of the fantastic drive us onward, whether they’re realistic or not.

A flip-top? What is this, 2005?

Of course, the authors who gave us these visions – H.G. Wells, Ray Bradbury, Arthur Clarke, Gene Roddenberry, and the like – usually weren’t writing as prognosticators. They wanted to create fantastic scenarios and depict adventures. Roddenberry in particular wasn’t concerned with how warp drive or beaming might work. Despite the generations of physicists who’ve followed, insisting that warp speed might one day be possible if certain theories prove true, it’s clear that this was one of Roddenberry’s less realistic visions.

So some assertions about a non-existent universe prove true. Some assertions about a non-existent universe prove implausible. If this sounds familiar, it’s because it’s also a key plot point in Minority Report.

Agatha (Samantha Morton), in one of Fenzel’s least favorite scenes in 21st century cinema, tells John Anderton (Tom Cruise), several times and at piercing volume, that knowing the future allows him to change it. However, by the time the movie enters its final act, we know that to be false. The process of discovering the future that he wants to change puts Anderton in a position where he inevitably completes it: Leo Crow grabs the gun that Anderton holds, discharging it in the scuffle. Agatha insists Anderton has a choice, but maybe there are too many factors beyond him (Crow’s intentions, Witwer’s actions, Burgess’s plans) for him to stop it, just like no one person could get the Pentagon to stop researching heat rays. The future is set once enough causative factors start pointing in the right direction.

Does seeing the future change it? The plot of Minority Report says no: Anderton knows his future, even dragging a precog along with him, and can’t even postpone his future by more than a minute. The outcome of Minority Report as a cultural property says yes: by making Anderton’s interface a gesture-driven touchscreen, rather than a voice-activated holosphere or some other mechanism, Spielberg and Underkoffler shaped the future of portable computing and front-end design.

This raises the question: is a prediction that does not match the future it predicts incorrect or transformative? If the precogs see a murder (John Anderton killing Lamar Burgess, for instance) and it doesn’t happen, is it because they got it wrong or because the act of prediction changed the future? If 2054 comes and the police aren’t using spider robots to scan tenements, is it because Underkoffler was wrong about robotics or because municipal police universally agreed that spider robots would be way too creepy? How do we distinguish our futures?

Sokka: Hey you, I bet Aunt Wu told you to wear those red shoes, didn’t she?
Villager: Yeah. She said I’d be wearing red shoes when I met my true love.
Sokka: Uh huh. And how many times have you worn those shoes since you got that fortune?
Villager: Everyday.
Sokka: Then of course it’s gonna come true!
Villager: Really? You think so? I’m so excited!

Avatar: The Last Airbender, S1E14, “The Fortuneteller”

This is the trouble with all predictions, especially the public ones. Telling someone what’s likely to happen biases them in that direction, just as observing a particle impacts it with a quantum of energy. Making a prediction and keeping it secret removes this risk, but takes all the fun out of making predictions.

So you have two options. One is to seed the future with thousands of predictions, some likely and some outlandish. If enough of them come true, you’ll get a reputation for amazing foresight (like Jules Verne). The other, as Underkoffler did with gesture-based computing, is to make your vision of the future attractive enough that others will step up and make sure it comes true.

There’s a Terminator 2 quote that might fit here, but I’m not giving Mark the satisfaction. I know how he’ll react, though.