Last Friday I went to at talk by Brian David Johnson from Intel. That sentence sounds like any other that an academic could write–always with the going to seminars we acahacks are. That is until you hear that Brian David Johnson is a “consumer experience architect” in the Digital Home – User Experience Group at Intel. Okay that is a bit odd for a typical seminar speaker, but still lies in the “reasonable” range. And then you find out the title of his talks is “Brain Machines: Robots, Free Will and Fictional Prototyping as a Tool for AI Design” and you say, whah? Which is exactly what a group of about forty of us said upon hearing about this seminar, and is exactly why we showed up to hear the talk!
In his day job BDJ (sorry with a name that long, it gets turned into a TLA) is involved in television. That sounds kind of odd, but a company like Intel, which is constantly looking 5 to 10 years out in designing its new chips, has to be ready to supply the computing power in the proper form that is going to be relevant to the future of the company. Thus it would make sense that Intel should care about where technology is going, and why it is going that way. In particular this involves a lot of trying to understand how we incorporate technology into our lives. So yeah, dude’s got a cool job where he gets to think about where technology is going and how consumers use technology. But that’s not really what the talk was about.
What the talk was really about was an intriguing idea: is it possible to use science fiction to aid in creation of commercial products and research opportunities? Now that’s a crazy idea. Here is a chunk of an abstract on the subject:
How can science fiction help prototype emerging science theory and experimentation? Expanding on the framework of consumer experience architecture, this talk explores how a fictional story, based specifically on current works of scientific research, can lead to the expansion and further experimentation of a dramatic new approach to artificial intelligence and domestic robots.
On a first reflection you could color me skeptic on this idea. I mean, sure, many scientists were influenced by reading science fiction at a young age (one need look no further than this to explain the many amusing personality traits of your scientist friends.) And yeah, sure, there are cases in which science fiction presages technical breakthroughs (step forth Greg Egan, and accept an award for a novel about quantum computers speeding up calculations in 1992!) Indeed, the hard nosed scientist in me (and probably the scientists in many who listened to the talk), says, this is kind of crazy, how could writing a science fiction story help in advancing science or technology?
And then, of course, the literature major in me kicks in (yeehaw!), and I think about why I like fiction. The best fiction in some manner transports your thought process into a new setting. A story can test what it would feel like if the world worked in a certain way, and, if it is good fiction, does so in a way that connects with your model of the world. This is true not just of science fiction, which tends to a cartoonish technologically heavy version of projection, but of all sorts of other fiction, where the new space explored tends to involve such things as love, hate, death, and the long list of subjects that lie at the heart of our lives. And thus, I would say, the idea that stories can help shape your research isn’t all that crazy: the creative act of telling a story shares many similarities with the creative act of developing a new research idea or inventing a new technology. In particular I would point out that in both processes you need to make sure that you maintain a connection to reality in your speculation (for stories your must connect with a reader and in science you must not go against the constraints of what experiments have taught you.)
Indeed in reflecting more about this, I thought, “welI I know at least one researcher who I secretly suspect actually operates this way!” And then I realized, that, oops I know another, albeit less successful dude: The Equilibrium Theory of Games and The Library of Laplace are two short blog stories I wrote which, in some ways, are science fiction prototypes for research projects. Indeed the later is related to ideas I have explicitly tried to work on for years, but have never achieved any success in hashing this into a “real” research result. So I am not a successful science fiction prototyper, but at least I’ve experienced this idea up close.
Which brings me to the final point: should we be doing science fiction prototyping? Can taking current research and attempting to project it onto stories help us understand the next step in research? Can find we new technologies by writing “Do iPhones Dream of Electric People?” Well, I don’t think we can answer that until we give it a try, and I’m particularly intrigued by the idea because thinking of good new creative ideas is extraordinarily difficult (at least for me!) And, of course, as an occupation, science fiction prototyper sounds like an awesome job. So if there is any company out there interested in hiring a science fiction prototyper, please consider my application submitted.