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From science fiction to science fact

by Colin Strong , 21.08.2012

Tech brands inevitably want to understand what our future technologies might look like and what we might want of them. As such, much of our time as market researchers is spent exploring how technology can meet consumer needs both from a shorter and longer-term perspective. Of course, innovation is often developed incrementally. Much of the success of Apple, for example, is arguably based less on groundbreaking ideas and rather on the excellent execution of existing technologies. Yet, as technology becomes increasingly ubiquitous and devices are less about specific functions and more about general enablers (think basic mobile device versus smartphone), the task of understanding how technology devices and services will be used in the future gets ever more complex.

With this in mind, science fiction has a role to play to develop our thinking, unencumbered by practicalities. By creating science fiction, writers, designers and film makers are effectively trying and concept-testing new technologies for us. And this is not as obscure an idea as you may think; Intel’s Futurist, Brian David Johnson, draws inspiration from science fiction to help map out the future of technology. As such, Intel has launched a programme called The Tomorrow Project to engage with the science fiction community. The programme considers that ‘Science fiction gives all of us all a language so that we can have a conversation about the future and these conversations make dramatic changes’[1]. Meanwhile, the slightly more sober UK publication New Scientist has launched a new sister publication, Arc. This too uses science fiction to explore the future.

Examples of innovations reportedly inspired by science fiction are common. Google Earth was allegedly inspired by the futuristic novel Snow Crash, while the short story A Logic Named Joe from 1946 described the internet. The iPad is alleged to have been inspired by the tablets in 2001: A Space Odyssey, while iris recognition technology was predicted in Blade Runner (based on the novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep).

To further illustrate the opportunities for integrating science fiction into our work, we have explored its use in Natural User Interface (NUI) development and in Robots and Artificial Intelligence below.

Science Fiction & User Interfaces

The area of NUI makes our interaction with technology more immersive and organic, using our own gestures, movement, touch, voice (etc) as controls. The touch interfaces seen in most smartphones and tablets go some way towards this while motion sensors (such as that in Microsoft’s Xbox 360 Kinect) are also moving in the this direction. However, these are still markers on the way to those dreamed up in Hollywood Blockbuster, The Matrix.

Whilst The Matrix and Minority Report give developers much to consider, other examples in the science fiction world that could equally inspire and inform innovation. Japanese anime television series Dennō Coil tells the tale of a Japanese school girl as she navigates her adventures in a futuristic city in which all people wear augmented reality glasses. The glasses show the user the cyber world, a world which is overlaid on to the real world. Through the glasses, she can bring up a virtual screen which appears to be projected in front of her and she can control it with gestures and physically grasp it. In a similar vein, the inhabitants of the Metaverse (a kind of virtual world) in Neal Stephenson’s novel Snow Crash access the world through goggles or less high-tech public access terminals. Both examples share some parallels to Google’s Project Glass.

And much has been written about direct neural interfaces (interfaces with a direct link to the brain). Although there are many practical obstacles to overcome, novels such as Neuromancer and films such as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind allow us to explore questions of what life would be like in an augmented reality world.

Robots, Artificial Intelligence & Science Fiction

Science fiction brings to life a world where we can imagine how robots might interact and help us in our future life. There are many examples of science fiction which feature benevolent robots co-existing with humans:

Iain M Banks' Culture series immerses us in a world where scarcity doesn’t exist. We have evolved to a society with limitless material wealth and no disease or death. This world is full of benevolent spaceships and robots that both fulfil menial tasks and provide the basic structure or governance for society. Indeed, as many are sentient beings, they themselves form a large part of the dominant society. Astroboy was a television series about a robot with almost human emotions and super powers which were always used to help humans. Even though he was a robot, his good-hearted spirit was a large part of his appeal. R2D2 and C3PO from Star Wars are well loved cultural icons that need no introduction. Many of today’s robotic experts cite them as the reason they became interested in the field. It could be said that Google Translate owes part of its development to C3PO (also Douglas Adam’s Babelfish from Hitchhiker’s Guide).

These robot characters provide an interesting framework for pondering such questions as what will people want from robots in the future, what should they be like, look like, act like and what should it be like to use them? By getting to know the characters and following their adventures, science fiction enables us to be more empathetic to the experience of using and interacting with robots.

But understanding what not to do can be just as critical. An additional common theme in science fiction is of robots taking over and replacing humans (as in Asimov’s I, Robot) or exterminating them (as in The Matrix and The Terminator). Developers in this area can now draw upon a whole field of robo-ethics. This seems ever more important given the position of robotics now, where we are already developing agile and robust humanoid robots and robotic dogs for military use.

Indeed, there is a growing army of followers of ‘The Singularity’, a movement inspired by Ray Kerzwell, which proposes that we will be able enhance our bodies and minds with technology. Here, it is easy to see the way in which science fiction could be used to explore the implications of these developments for our society and mankind generally.

Conclusion

The current revival in science fiction is perhaps unsurprising given the technology revolution currently underway. Can it have a role to play in helping us to navigate the opportunities and implications for tech companies and consumers alike? Brian David Johnson would certainly say so as he champions ‘future casting’, a technique that involves the use of science fiction to create a pragmatic future vision of consumers and computing. And given the speed with which technology is shaping the way we live, there is certainly value in using it to embark on a much wider discussion about the role of technology in society guiding us through the implications for the way we live.

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