Magic or Technology: What's the Difference?

"Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."

Thus spoke Arthur C. Clarke, the science fiction godfather and visionary widely credited with inventing the concept of geostationary telecommunications satellites. He is, of course, absolutely right.

A visitor from Victorian America would be shocked by the idea of horseless carriages and little boxes filled with moving pictures. Taking a time machine from 1969 to 2009 would confront a flower child with unthinkable computer networks and phones that do everything short of ironing your bell-bottoms.

So what magical technologies are coming up next, strong enough to shock a modern American with their seemingly limitless powers? Let's have a look.

Chips for brains
When IBM (NYSE: IBM  ) put together a supercomputer capable of beating Garry Kasparov at chess, it felt like artificial intelligence had come of age.

But chess was actually a very simple problem to solve. A board game with rigidly defined rules and a finite (though enormous) number of available moves is a pretty ideal proving ground for computerized logic. I'm much more intrigued by the off chance that IBM will beat Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter on Jeopardy! next month.

Making a computer understand trivia-type questions in plain English, then find the correct answer without human hand-holding? Now that's more like the HAL 9000 we know and love. It takes thousands of server-grade IBM processors to achieve this feat three seconds or less, but Big Blue hopes to learn from the experience and start making this kind of artificial intelligence a natural part of everyday life.

To me, that's tantamount to magic.

Yo no soy marinero, yo soy mago
Or how about Google (Nasdaq: GOOG  ) ? Big G has introduced a number of mind-blowing inventions around its Android mobile operating system.

You can go to Tijuana and take a picture of a street sign you don't understand, then have an instant translation of said sign right in front of your face. If it still doesn't make sense, the Google Translate application lets you have a nearly realtime conversation with Santiago the churro vendor, even if neither of you knows the other's language.

Android phones are becoming more like Douglas Adams's Babelfish insta-translators every day. How long will it take before the hardware becomes powerful enough to do all this hard work in the blink of an eye, even though the underlying software has become orders of magnitude more powerful and demanding?

Language barriers will soon be a thing of the past. Isn't that downright magical?

The magic is in the game
Some would argue that Nintendo (Pink Sheets: NTDOY.PK) performed a magic trick with its Wii console. Suddenly, video games and physical activity were no longer mutually exclusive concepts.

It took its rivals four years to copy that stroke of genius. Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT  ) did one better with its Kinect add-on for the Xbox 360, which takes controllers entirely out of your hands. Kinect it nearly impossible to cheat your way through supposedly motion-intensive games with a flick of your wrist.

Video games are losing their geeky image. What's more natural than actually dancing your way through a dance game, or playing air tennis with something like correct technique? Microsoft and Nintendo are doing something magical here.

Wizards of a lesser light
Of course, the "magic" label gets slapped onto lots of nifty gadgets that fall far short of true magic. Smartphones in general would be instantly recognizable to anyone who used a Palm Pilot in the 1990s, only with refined software and a wireless phone tacked on for good measure. The real magic of the Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL  ) iPhone lies in its marketing and business performance, not in any technical breakthrough. That won't stop Apple from introducing the iPad 2 as another "magical" device in the next couple of weeks, but the magic works better for Apple than for you, dear consumer.

The MagicJack phone adapter brings "magic" right into its name. The voice-over-IP phone service itself is comparable to similar plans from Vonage Holdings (NYSE: VG  ) or from your Internet service provider, and nobody will call a simple phone hookup "magical" anymore. But the price of that doohickey is nearly magical; you can buy it for less than $40, then call all you want for free. Not even Vonage can match that low-cost proposition. But still, is it magic? I don't think so.

And sometimes, a gizmo's magical nature comes down to a judgment call. A gigabyte of computer memory from Micron Technology (Nasdaq: MU  ) will run you about $15, and can transfer its entire contents to your processor and back again in far less than a second. I paid 10 times that price for half a megabyte of add-on memory for my Commodore Amiga about 20 years ago. Is that magical progress. or just annoying in hindsight?

I'm not calling Google or IBM themselves "magical," nor is the Android platform anything of the sort.  And all the talk of artificial intelligence is getting long in the tooth already. But some of the things we can do with these technologies nowadays has begun to break down the barriers between high technology and magic. These amazing innovations are making science fiction seem less, well, fiction-y.

Sir Arthur would approve.

Fool contributor Anders Bylund owns shares of Google, but holds no other position in any of the companies discussed here. Google and Microsoft are Motley Fool Inside Value recommendations. Google is a Motley Fool Rule Breakers selection. Apple and Nintendo are Motley Fool Stock Advisor picks. The Fool has written puts on Apple. Motley Fool Options has recommended a diagonal call position on Microsoft. The Fool owns shares of Apple, Google, International Business Machines, and Microsoft. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. You can check out Anders' holdings and a concise bio if you like, and our Foolish disclosure policy believes in magic in a young girl's heart.


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