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Shaping the future through sci-fi at ASU

Illustration by Alvim Corréa
June 04, 2014

The next time you call your boss from a traffic jam to say you’ll be late for work, offer a silent “thank you” to Captain Kirk. The fictional hero of television’s “Star Trek,” Kirk often talked to his crew through a handheld communicator. Martin Cooper, the man who invented the cell phone, says the show was the inspiration for his idea.

From the geostationary satellite to the Taser, the submarine to virtual reality, many technologies we use today were originally conceived of by writers and artists. These visionaries imagined future inventions with remarkable accuracy, even if they didn’t know how to actually make them.

Science fiction books, movies, TV shows and art also allow us to explore the social implications of these advances. Do clones have rights? What about sentient robots? How might advances in genetics and behavioral prediction affect privacy?

The Center for Science and the Imagination at Arizona State University brings together writers, artists, scientists and other creative thinkers to reignite humanity’s grand ambitions for innovation and discovery. They link human narratives to scientific questions and explore the full social implications of cutting-edge research. Ed Finn, director of the center, says that science fiction continues to influence science today, leading to fascinating discussions at the center.

“Science fiction is a kind of laboratory to experiment intellectually with all sorts of ideas, and whether they’re technical or social changes, it allows you to examine all sorts of cultural assumptions about everything from justice to gender to physics,” says Finn, who is also an assistant professor in the School of Arts, Media and Engineering and the Department of English.

The center experiments with these changes and ideas through several of its own projects. Project Hieroglyph, a collaboration with author Neal Stephenson, allows scientists and researchers to write their own works of science fiction that envision futures shaped by technological innovation. Additionally, the center co-hosts Emerge, an annual festival that brings scientists and writers together to create tangible, visceral depictions of the future.

“The most important thing science fiction gives us is a sense of possibility and a more active relationship with the future,” says Finn. “The big problem is that our time horizon is very small, and it’s very difficult to think beyond the next few years or beyond the next election cycle. Science fiction is an important tool to show us the full spectrum of possibilities for the future and to paint it as a series of choices that we’re all invested in.”

The center also explores data-mining works of science fiction to look for technical ideas that might not have made their way into scientific literature. What was once merely a work of fiction could now be a plausible research question.

In the realm of social impact, Finn and David Guston, co-director of ASU’s Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes, are leading a multi-institutional, bicentennial celebration of the novel “Frankenstein” that will take place from 2016-2018. This seminal work of science fiction demonstrates the unintended consequences that our creations can wreak upon society.

“‘Frankenstein’ beautifully captures issues such as creativity and responsibility, and the difficult balance between letting your imagination run wild and dealing with ownership and parental responsibility of that idea,” says Finn.

These ideas have permeated our culture in all sorts of ways and spawned countless derivatives and adaptations of the iconic monster. Indeed, Frankenstein’s own name has become shorthand for the delicate relationship between creativity and responsibility.

Joey Eschrich, editor and program manager for the center, is also working on the “Frankenstein” bicentennial and grappling with the important questions the novel raises.

“‘Frankenstein’ allows us to come together around a shared point of reference. One of our main goals is to create arenas for conversation where everyone feels like they have a voice in shaping the future and that their opinion is valuable,” says Eschrich. “‘Frankenstein’ and other science fiction stories are platforms where individuals can feel connected to other fields and feel comfortable expressing their thoughts and ideas.”

One of Eschrich’s personal influences is the neo-noir thriller “Minority Report.” The movie presents a world in which a hyper-effective law enforcement system can predict – and punish – crimes before they even happen.

“‘Minority Report’ captures the way that science fiction can be deliberative about ethics and how our technological systems affect the way we interact with one another,” said Eschrich. “We can see how the technological landscape and infrastructure of the film’s fictional world shapes people’s lives and relationships.”

Finn cites “The Diamond Age,” a cyberpunk novel by Neal Stephenson, as one of his own influences. The novel takes place in a future where nanotechnology pervades all aspects of life, and is a coming-of-age story that explores education, social class and ethnicity.

“The novel excels at asking profound questions about social structure and education,” says Finn. “In my field, it’s especially relevant for reflecting on, and putting into practice, different forms of education. Why have we not yet created some of the technologies he’s imagined?”

Researchers and faculty at the center believe there is great value in keeping scientists and engineers engaged with these imaginary worlds, as well as keeping writers and artists connected with science and technology. This interaction helps us to stay conscious of the broader implications and consequences of our scientific advances.

“What resonates most with us is that moment of estrangement when you realize there’s something in this world that you’ve never experienced in your own life, combined with real human stories,” says Finn. “The story itself is really a blueprint for the universe, and we’re creating it with our own imaginations and agency.”

Written by Lorraine Longhi, Office of Knowledge Enterprise Development