May 03 2020

Zenia Tata

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Pick a problem, any problem: from world hunger, war and climate change to even just being able to see your family safely during the Covid-19 lockdown. Now imagine solving it in your mind. Devise any solution, no matter how wild and crazy it may seem. Perhaps a 3D printer that doesn’t need special printing material, but which can actually transform air on a subatomic level and convert it into any meal or drink, whenever you want it. 

This isn’t just childish wish fulfillment. It is the pure, unbridled joy that is science fiction. The world around us is full of gadgets, technologies and concepts which have resulted from the thought experiments of our greatest sci-fi writers and filmmakers. From electric driverless cars to household AI assistants to drones, concepts which once seemed fantastical and ridiculous are today helping us with our everyday life. Of course, all these great ideas required years of research and expertise to realize, but the first, imaginative steps were taken in the world of sci-fi where the public were allowed to journey into the world of their own imaginations. 

For me sci-fi is about ‘future optimism’, it is a way to create something to look forward to; free of the limitations imposed by our present. It is the chance to play - and I really mean the joyful and explorative essence of the word play - with new concepts. Creators of the future - from researchers to scientists to engineers - can read sci-fi, not just as entertainment, but as a mine of inspiration for new ideas about what the future can be. 

But for scientists and engineers these futuristic inventions also serve as an inspiration for real, world-changing tech. In the 1950s Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke were both playing around with the idea of driverless cars in their literature. Similar cars can be seen on TV and film screens from Knight Rider’s KITT in the 1980s right up to the latest Marvel blockbusters. And there are far older examples too, after all how different is the “magic” of Aladdin’s flying carpet to our own ambitions for driverless cars. Thanks to science fiction, the reality of a driverless car isn’t actually far away.

An autonomous car project, funded by the US’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) brought self-driving vehicles onto real roads as early as the 1980s. Today companies like Tesla, Waymo, and Audi have all pushed the science forward, creating cars that are already driving themselves on roads all over the globe. And it isn’t just our roads that are automating: Uber Elevate and China’s EHang are pioneering driverless, flying cars too. It turns out Aladdin’s flying carpet, isn’t such a crazy idea after all... 

And it isn’t just driverless cars that futurists are already trying to bring off the pages of sci-fi and into reality. There’s the universal translator Babel fish (from Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy) which in part inspired Google’s Pixel Bud headphones instant translation features. J.A.R.V.I.S. Tony Stark’s Iron Man suit-controlling AI, clearly influenced the more than 100 million Alexa devices Amazon have sold worldwide, but it also helped far more advanced IBM Watson AI XPRIZE semi-finalists like Iris.AI, a Norwegian science assistant that can call a library of the world’s entire scientific research to answer scientific questions. 

Of course, lots of sci-fi is dystopian. It portrays a future where everything appears to have gone or be going wrong. Take Star Wars for example. Advanced societies (in this case not actually in the future at all but rather ‘A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…’) who have mastered warp speed interplanetary travel, advanced AI robotics, cloning and even created lightsabers - are witnessing the collapse of their democratic, civilized society. None of their advanced technologies seem to be capable of fixing the problems with their society but rather they are used mainly to facilitate war, destruction, and conflict. 

But this isn't the science fiction I find inspiring. 

Note that I say futures, plural. This pluralistic view of our collective future is very important when it comes to sci-fi. I always say there is no one future because every time we talk about the future we are really speaking about many different outcomes because everyone’s future is perceived differently. And sci-fi lets us map out endless different models of how the world could turn out. We do this by creating a fully fleshed out world and dropping advanced technologies into it. Here, outside of the restraints of our reality, we can test out the benefits and risks of that technology, and most of all, see the limitations that a society will put on it. Sure you have made a truly AI personal assistant, but how will humans live alongside it? Will they fall in love with them (like in Spike Jonze’s Her) or will they go to war with them (as in James Cameron’s Terminator franchise)? Neither offer a strictly accurate prediction of the future, but both let us play with the concept of how AI and society could co-exist. 

In this way, science fiction is a platform for us to test out the interoperability of ideas and concepts. What do I mean by that? Let’s take a perennial piece of sci-fi technology like Star Trek’s replicator, a matter converting tool that would allow humans to instantly synthesize anything they want from food and drink to inorganic objects (and even recycle them once they’ve been used). Of course, for the writers of Star Trek the replicator was a narrative tool, a way of bringing characters exactly what they need for any given episode while the crew are floating around in the nothingness of space. But for viewers it offers a glimpse into another world in which many of their most basic problems have been solved. No more waiting around for a Deliveroo driver to bring you pizzas, no more waiting for fresh fruits to come into season, and best of all, no more starvation anywhere on the planet.

Then, and this is where sci-fi really comes into its own, we see a progression from mere wish fulfillment to complex, social modeling for any given idea. How will geopolitics, social etiquette, economics all be affected if suddenly people could have anything they want, whenever they want it, totally free of charge? This small, otherwise innocuous piece of imaginary technology suddenly allows us as humans to see the knock on effects that actually inventing replicators of our own may one day create. 

In this way, sci-fi is the first step towards the future. As far back as 2015, confectionary companies like Nestle and Hershey started working on 3D printed chocolate - a harder task than you might imagine. An Israeli startup called Jet Eat, which was founded in 2018, has already started to produce 3D printed steaks which they say will be widely available by 2020. And while both are still just examples of 3D printer technology, researchers in Imperial College London have discovered a way to turn light into matter - giving hope to the idea that one day a real-life Captain Picard will be able to command a hot Earl Grey tea into existence with his own replicator. 

Some of the greatest technological ideas and concepts came out of the golden age of American sci-fi in the 1950s when writers and film makers were living through the existential threat of a nuclear holocaust. This is what I find most inspiring about science fiction: it is the essence of human problem solving and imagination. Faced with the threat of total annihilation we create impenetrable supermen to protect us, when confronted by ecological disaster we envisage bountiful distant planets we can live on. 

It will be interesting to see what sci-fi writers are already working on during our current Coronavirus crisis. XPRIZE recently announced a short story writing contest as part of a unique online sci-fi anthology of stories imagining the novel uses of telepresence technology in the future. The fictional technology at the heart of these stories, that can transport a human’s senses, actions, and presence to a remote location in real time, was actually inspired by the real-life $10 million ANA Avatar XPRIZE, a four-year global competition focused on the development of an avatar system. With so many people trapped in their homes sci-fi is the promise of a future where the problems of the present have all been fixed. A place where we all want to go. 

Zenia Tata