ASU exhibit at Arizona Science Center sees state through future generations' eyes

Two young girls use their hands to manipulate an electronic map at the "Mission Future" exhibition, located at the Arizona Science Center

“Mission Future — Arizona 2045” opened early this year. Photo courtesy NISE Network


Adult siblings Lucas and Isabela debate innovation against tradition as they run their family farm. Twin teens Zoe and Ava ponder whether they will live on Earth or shift their career aspirations off-planet.

These stories are the core of  “Mission Future: Arizona 2045,” a new exhibition at the Arizona Science Center. The interactive experience, developed by Arizona State University, opened early this year and combines space and earth science, storytelling and hands-on elements. 

“‘Mission Future: Arizona 2045’ allows guests to see ourselves in our potential collective future as Arizonans,” said Sari Custer, chief of science and curiosity at the Arizona Science Center“We’re thrilled to be able to partner with (Arizona State University), the National Informal STEM Education Network and NASA to bring this exhibit to life and help participants think about the impact their everyday actions have on our immediate ecosystem.”

Through following perspectives of Lucas, Isabela, Zoe and Ava via video recordings, audiences of all ages are prompted to think about a future driven by human actions both on and off Earth. 

“We’re seeing the future through the eyes of generations that will inherit the planet from us,” said Paul Martin, a research professional in the School for the Future of Innovation in Society and co-director of the Center for Innovation in Informal STEM Learning, or CIISL. “Mission Future takes us to the future, but it’s close enough to the present that it’s still real. The person telling you their story could be your child or grandchild.” 

Visitors are guided through the experience by a fifth fictional character: AILI is an Artificial Intelligence Learning Investigator studying how humans interact with systems to create desirable future outcomes. The guide tells visitors that they are not a real person, but they are still alive — “don’t overthink it.” 

Martin said AILI was created with a combination of AI and human efforts. Her voice and general design were both created by AI, which serves as an example of how quickly technologies can advance. 

“We were excited to actually have AI be involved in the exhibit,” said Rae Ostman, a research professor in the School for the Future of Innovation and Society, in the College of Global Futures, and co-director of CIISL. “The exhibit focuses mostly on climate change and earth and space exploration, but including AILI was a way to weave in the idea that a lot of things will be different in our future, including how we’re interacting with AI.” 

Ostman said it was important to find a balance between unexpected changes and present-day familiarities, both for realism of the experience and to support the exhibition’s self-guided nature. 

“It’s an immersive space where you can do activities without being given a list of instructions,” she said. “You draw more information from the context clues put around the activities, so it really puts you in the world.” 

Ostman and Martin, both senior global futures scientists with ASU’s Julie Ann Wrigley Global Futures Laboratory, agree that the future shown in “Mission Future: Arizona 2045” is just one possibility. 

“What will the future be like?” AILI asks exhibition visitors. “That’s for us to decide.” 

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