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Ever wonder how engineers, programmers and scientists come up with ideas for new inventions - the search engine, virtual worlds, the Internet? Does it every feel like it's all coming out of science fiction? Well, much of it does.

NPR's Laura Sydell examines how for more than a century, inventors have been inspired to create what they read about in novels, or see in the movies, or on TV.

LAURA SYDELL: As a boy in India, Amit Singhal dreamed of space, the final frontier.

(Soundbite of "Star Trek" theme music)

Mr. AMIT SINGHAL (Search Engineer Fellow, Google): Those were my favorite times as a little child, on a hot summer day sitting in a room watching "Star Trek."

(Soundbite of "Star Trek" theme music)

SYDELL: Singhal now works at Google.

Mr. SINGHAL: I am in charge of maintaining all of Google's search algorithms. But my main job is to dream what search would look like a few years from now.

SYDELL: And what are those dreams of what search can be?

(Soundbite of TV show, "Star Trek: the Next Generation)

Mr. BRENT SPINER (Actor): (as Lieutenant Commander Data) Computer, this is Lieutenant Commander Data. Please access all Star Fleet Command orders to starships, star bases and colonies for the last six months.

Unidentified Woman (Actor): (as Computer) Working.

Mr. SINGHAL: The thought of someone was talking to a computer or so on was just so intriguing. So it really piqued my interest in technology, and that translated into an interest in search. And for the last 20 years, I've been doing search.

SYDELL: Singhal works on Google's voice-recognition search products. If you are, say, looking to buy a baseball...

Mr. SINGHAL: Sports Authority.

Computer Voice: (Unintelligible) turn right at North Shore Line Boulevard.

SYDELL: Singhal is not unique. Scratch the surface of a lot of inventors in Silicon Valley and there is a kid who loved science fiction.

Professor PAUL SAFFO (Stanford University): Basically, what happens is teenagers read these things, they fall in love with the novel, they get inspired by the technology, and they keep it in the back of their minds till they're about 30, and then they build it.

SYDELL: Paul Saffo is a technology forecaster. He reads science fiction to help him forecast the future.

The grandfather of science fiction, says Saffo, is probably Jules Verne, who wrote "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea."

Prof. SAFFO: Our first nuclear submarine, the Nautilus, was named after the submarine in Jules Verne.

(Soundbite of newsreel)

Unidentified Man (Announcer): At Groton, Connecticut, a new naval era dawns with the launching of the Nautilus, one of the largest submarines ever built, and the first atomic-powered craft in history...

SYDELL: Since Jules Verne, there have been a long list of inventions that come right of science fiction: Buck Rogers inspired space exploration; Ray Bradbury predicted home-theater systems; William Gibson imagined something like the Internet while writing "Neuromancer" on a manual typewriter.

Not long after him, Neal Stephenson predicted virtual worlds in his 1991 novel "Snow Crash." One of his readers was Philip Rosedale.

Mr. PHILIP ROSEDALE (Founder-CEO, Second Life): My wife bought me the book and said, You're going to love this.

SYDELL: Rosedale loved it so much, he wanted to build a virtual world based on it. But it wasn't until the late 1990s that the technology caught up to the novel.

ROSEDALE: You looked at that and you said, well, we could actually do that. There's not really a whole lot of reasons why we couldn't actually do what's in that book.

SYDELL: Rosedale built the virtual world Second Life, which now has a million active users. It's based on the Meta-verse in the novel. It has avatars that are representations of real people, signed in from their computers. It has virtual retail shops, bars, houses, and even virtual television studios and virtual celebrities on virtual talk shows.

(Soundbite of virtual show, "Tonight Live")

(Soundbite of applause)

Ms. PAISLEY BEEBE (Host): Welcome to "Tonight Live." Im Paisley Beebe. The handsome man on the seat next me to me here in the studio is Maxwell Graf.

Mr. MAXWELL GRAF (Guest): Thank you. It's really good to see you and good to be here again.

Ms. BEEBE: Now, just to fill people in with...

Mr. NEAL STEPHENSON (Author, "Snow Crash"): I think it is pretty much what I imagined, yeah.

SYDELL: "Snow Crash" author Neal Stephenson. His novel inspired other inventions, such as Google Earth. Engineers and programmers usually work in cubicles on narrow technical problems. Stephenson says science fiction helps them see the meaning of their work.

Mr. STEPHENSON: It was possible for these people to see a coherently realized vision of what all of their efforts could eventually lead to. Rather than sitting around in conference rooms trying to brainstorm - what is it we're trying to build, whats the end point - it made possible to just say, well, we're just trying to do something like "Snow Crash," Page 235.

SYDELL: But "Snow Crash" is a dark book. The world it depicts is filled with petty criminals, violence, environmental problems, greed. In fact, talk to most science fiction authors and they will tell you that their work is cautionary.

Ms. CONNIE WILLIS (Author): While the futurists are plowing ahead and excited about this possibility or that possibility, we're always standing there going, hang on just a second, let's think about this a little more.

SYDELL: Science fiction author Connie Willis has won numerous Nebula and Hugo Awards for her work. She's imagined everything from alien life forms to a Hollywood where actors are replaced with digital replicas.

Willis says while the technology in science fiction is attractive to readers, it's also a way to talk about the present and take on issues readers might rather avoid.

Ms. WILLIS: Because they already think they know what they think about any given hot topic of the day.�But if you can convince them that you're talking about a planet millions of miles away and hundreds of years in the future or the past, you can actually get people to look, examine more closely what's going on right now.

SYDELL: But many inventors don't like to dwell on the complexities of what they create. Google search guru Amit Singhal looks to science fiction almost like a blue print for the future, which to him looks brighter.

Mr. SINGHAL: Those dreams are what keep people running towards a goal.�You shoot for the stars, a great thing happens.�And those stars are put in our visions by all these wonderful science fiction creators.

SYDELL: Singhal probably needs that positive attitude to motivate him. Author Connie Willis admits the cautionary attitude of most science fiction authors would probably keep them from actually building anything new. Ultimately, she looks to other fiction writers like William Faulkner as her guide. Faulkner said it is the job of fiction to explore the human heart, and that, says Willis, never changes.

Laura Sydell, NPR news, San Francisco.

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