How the Hitchhiker’s Guide can make the world a better place | Marcus O’Dair

Douglas Adams’s sci-fi classic has inspired real-life tech innovations. So what else could we rip from its pages to aid our ailing society?

The Mobile World Congress, which takes place annually in Barcelona, is usually dominated by smartphones. Grabbing headlines this year, however, is the Pilot earpiece and its promise to instantly translate languages: a real-life version of the Babel Fish from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

‘The “knife that toasts” became a reality in 2015: it’s called the FurzoToasto.’

It is not the first time that elements of science fiction from Douglas Adams’s story have subsequently become science fact. The technology that allows the Hitchhiker’s Guide to be operated simply by brushing with one’s fingers is now familiar from smartphones and tablets. The information the Guide stores, meanwhile, is user-generated, and constantly updated; the approach adopted by Wikipedia. And the sub-etha telecommunications network? That’s the internet, even if it doesn’t – yet – extend across the entire Milky Way. Even “the knife that toasts” became a reality in 2015: it’s called the FurzoToasto. So which of Douglas Adams’s other inventions should scientists bring to life?

Crisis inducer

Though it resembles a wristwatch, this product carries out a very different function: it convinces the wearer that a crisis is imminent. The severity of the crisis can be preselected by the user, but it’s always enough to get the adrenaline pumping. The ultimate cure for lethargy.

Joo Janta 200 Super-Chromatic Peril Sensitive Sunglasses

If the crisis is, on the other hand, all too real, these sunglasses offer a solution: at the first sign of danger, they turn opaque. OK, a “relaxed attitude to danger” might represent only a short-term solution but, for those few moments, ignorance is bliss. Could be useful in 2017.

Infinite Improbability Drive

The Infinite Improbability Drive, the key feature of the Heart of Gold spaceship, can carry out any conceivable action, providing that someone on board knows precisely how improbable that action is. It can, for instance, transform a pair of missiles into a sperm whale and a bowl of petunias, as well as facilitating interstellar travel. Just what we need in the Ministry of Defence.

The Infinite Improbability Drive in action

Total Perspective Vortex

Though powered by a piece of fairy cake, this machine is far from innocuous: in fact, in the Hitchhiker’s world, exposure to the Total Perspective Vortex is the ultimate form of torture, worse even than Vogon poetry. It does this by revealing to users their cosmic insignificance. Might be useful for reining in the egos of certain politicians.

Nutri-matic drinks dispenser

This vending machine won’t issue a drink until it has analysed the user’s taste buds, metabolism and brain. Collecting all this data is pointless, however, as the machine always ultimately dispenses the same thing: a shoddy cup of tea. A properly bespoke drinks dispenser, however, sounds appealing – and, in the era of big data and artificial intelligence, it might not be too far off. Mine’s a Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster.

Bistromathic Drive

Part of the appeal of Adams’s story lies in its combination of sci-fi and the mundane: for all the planet-hopping, The Hitchhiker’s Guide also fits neatly into a line of English comedy running from Fawlty Towers to Peep Show. The Bistromathic Drive harnesses the unfathomable mathematics of restaurants in order to power a spaceship of extraordinary powers. Next time you’re trying to split a bill between a large number of diners, few of whom are paying in cash, imagine you could use those very same mathematical quirks to travel across interstellar distances.

The Restaurant at the End of the Universe

You might be getting a sense, by now, that Douglas Adams liked restaurants – but he never visited one 576 thousand million years in the future. His protagonists, however, enjoy the benefits of time travel, and so are able to visit to Milliways, billed as the Restaurant at the End of the Universe. At Milliways, diners watch the whole of creation destroyed, night after night: apocalypse as background entertainment. There’s no need to book (you can reserve a table retrospectively, when you return to your own time) and the meal is free too: just deposit a single penny in your own era, and the compound interest will take care of even the most exorbitant bill. An instant solution to the cost-of-living crisis.

Point of view gun

‘If you point it at someone and pull the trigger, he or she will instantly see things from your point of view.’

As Stephen Fry, playing the Guide, tells us in the film version of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the point of view gun does precisely what its name suggests: if you point it at someone and pull the trigger, he or she will instantly see things from your point of view. Instant empathy. Something the past 12 months have been sorely lacking.


Marcus O'Dair

The GuardianTramp

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