Science Fiction Prototyping

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.

21 Replies to “Science Fiction Prototyping”

  1. Doesn’t SF give a feel for how tech would be used. Think of Blade Runner Decades ago using a zoom in/zoom out for playing around with video. Play with Google Maps pictures and we are right there. (Absent the infinite sharpness) Think of Shockwave Rider by John Brunner with its worms and security attacks. All from the ’70’s.
    I am not sure that anything would not have been done, but it doesn’t hurt to have something concrete like that in mind when you are designing something. That I think is where it helps. to give an idea of what it would be like personally. If you were using that tech, what would it feel like.

  2. Yes, there are hits in the record. Adding to Markk’s list:
    Star Trek (original) gave us 3 1/2 inch floppy disks and flip-phones. But only as use-cases. But it did not (yet) give us talking computers that explode when presented with Godelian assertions of the form “this is not a true statement”. There was no ‘science’ in the SF of Star Trek, but there were enough monkeys pounding the keys to get some things close enough to reality that later its fans were able to make them for real.
    Then there were A. C. Clarke’s stories about geo-centric communications satellites (IIRC, based on a non-fiction paper he wrote around 1945). But in this case there was some science: the orbital math was right, just no then extant way to get the satellites up there. And then again, he was not alone, the idea was already “in the air” and had been since at least 1925.
    But there is lately somewhat of a confirmation bias about the success stories from SF. They are not as numerous as is wanted to be believed. Even the big hits – Star Trek, Blade Runner, etc – have mostly unreal ideas.
    But I will take issue on one little point: you must have had a very narrow exposure to SF to make the statements “science fiction, which tends to a cartoonish technologically heavy version of projection” and “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”. Yes, Sturgeon’s Law (90% of everything is crap) holds in SF as much as anywhere else, including mainstream fiction, but that last 10% does indeed exist. Sorry you missed out. Try Ursula K. LeGuin’s books, or more recently Judy Czernada. The best SF stories are just like the best mainstream stories, but with the twist that the conundrums faced by the protagonists have a speculative basis in as-yet unrealized science, and where that science has at most one speculation but the rest is based on known results. It does exist, it is tougher to write because of the tech constraints. And it may also be that the writers and audience for SF are tending into ASD a little, rendering our inner experience of SF somewhat different to that of a normal.
    To finish, I think the idea of SF Prototyping could be better expressed in the form of presenting use cases of an idea in the context of a fiction story in which the technology plays a role. I think it might be mostly fruitless to mine SF for tech ideas since there is no search algorithm by which to recognize the ones with real value as distinct from all the rest of the flights of pure fancy. Start with the idea and candy-wrap it, don’t start with the candy-wrapping and hope there’s a useful kernel inside.

  3. Yeaaaah. If somebody at intel had had that kind of predictive power (5 to 10 years!), they (the giant that they are) would easily have beaten the iPod and the Kindle the tivo and what have you to the market.

  4. I thought Quarantine was an utterly hilarious satire of the Copenhagen Interpretation, in the vein of Stanislaw Lem’s more fantastical excursions.
    So I looked online, and found that everyone seemed think it was supposed to be a serious take on the implications of quantum theory.
    Then I thought, “How can such brilliantly conceived and executed comedy be sailing over everyone’s head?”
    So I looked at page that Blake links above.
    Then I thought, “Crap.”
    (Thus I am now trapped in a coherent superposition of mental states, my two different selves now respectively believing and dismissing the notion that Rucker wrote Postsingular as a systematic p*ss-take on every one of the tropes of its genre, with a shout out to P.Z. Myers squid fetish thrown in for good measure.)

  5. My only criticism is that authors can have considerable biases.
    I like Larry Niven, and he was noted to be a Misogynist and Human Supremacist. So alot of his books are outdated.

  6. @Koray — “If somebody at intel had had that kind of predictive power (5 to 10 years!), they (the giant that they are) would easily have beaten the iPod and the Kindle the tivo and what have you to the market.”
    Koray – not fair! Intel has been a commercial superstar. Remember the BUNCH (Burroughs, Univac, Sperry, NCR, Honeywell, Apollo, Sun, Altair, Imsai, etc etc…) You are picking a select number of successes — but ignoring the many more failures. (Tivo is a cool technology, but a commercial disaster. Kindle may/may not be a BetaMax). Only the Ipod stands out. And here the statistic is cool:
    Since 12/31/82 (first year that apple went public):
    Apple’s compound annual rate of return: 16.22%
    Intel’s compound annual rate of return: 16.12%
    Dave: I volunteer for your prototype team. I’ll do the financial projections…so long as I get to play with the toys!

  7. Well, the government has reached out to science fiction writers before to help goose their thinking about the future, so I don’t see why other sectors couldn’t give it a shot.
    U.S. Mission for Sci-Fi Writers: Imagine That, Novelists Plot the Future Of Homeland Security
    By David Montgomery
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Friday, May 22, 2009
    The line between what’s real and what’s not is thin and shifting, and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has decided to explore both sides. Boldly going where few government bureaucracies have gone before, the agency is enlisting the expertise of science fiction writers.

  8. I find that a lot of Robert Heinlein’s books, though they are often quite fantastical when alien life is brought into the equation, are very firmly based in real math and physics. His books helped spur the hippie movement as well as NASA’s MMUs, among many other things. He also had quite workable ideas relating to space suits, artificial gravity, long distance space travel, and mechanized suits, which are all just starting to be looked at in more than a theoretical sense.

  9. (1) I coauthored, for pay, a decade ago, a book on how Science Fiction has influenced actual business. This was to have been published by the #1 Business book publisher in the USA, who listed it in their catalog. The coauthor went nuts, after our Caltech co-alum Dave Brin helpfully suggested that the guy should have a written contract with me, money stopped, book never appeared, though about 1/2 completed, long story.
    (2) One of my mentors, Dr. Herman Kahn (ex-Caltech PhD postdoc, head of RAND, founder of Hudson Institute, highest score seen before or since on standard U.S. Milkitary IQ test) explicitly used Science Fiction in a big way in his monumental book The Year 2000: A Framework for Speculation on the Next Thirty-Three Years, (ISBN 9780025604407): Herman Kahn, Anthony J. Wiener. He had a full-time employee who did little but read Science Fiction magazines and classify the ideas therein, Patrick Gunkel, with whom I’ve talked f2f.
    (3) I do a lot of refereed paper publishing and international conference speaking with a Full Professor of International Business and Economics, who also publishes Science Fiction.
    Any questions?

  10. @Dave – One of my marginal ASD issues is not knowing when my leg is being yanked. Sometimes funny, sometimes sad.
    That said, it’s a blast to have lived through those old sf fantasies and lasted long enough to see the beginning of the hockey stick their realizations is evoking. One’s sense of time passing at my advancing age is not only flashing by – a month is a much smaller percentage of my lifetime now – but also the accelerating pace of change in the environment in which I live and work just makes a year seem so much further in the dim past. Sort of an analog of the expanding Universe in the context of subjective time.

  11. Rocky,
    The products I mentioned are brain dead straightforward ideas (mp3 players, e-book readers were already in the market BEFORE these products). Predictions accurate enough for 5-10 years ahead would let you see the real deals coming, let alone these pesky derivatives.
    Intel indeed has been a commercial superstar. Not because of their vision. And not without evil.

  12. About 1999 or 2000, I was contracted by the European Space Agency to research and write two articles for a series that looked to science fiction for ideas on the future of space exploration. My two topics were propulsion techniques and colonization techniques.
    That was a really fun project (and they paid really well too).
    The .pdf is here:

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  14. The best SF stories are just like the best mainstream stories, but with the twist that the conundrums faced by the protagonists have a speculative basis in as-yet unrealized science, and where that science has at most one speculation but the rest is based on known results.

  15. I do remember hearing on the history channel or something that the IBM guy who came up with cordless phones got a phone call during a Star Trek episode and would have to miss a portion of it and thus inspired him.

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