Why Today's Inventors Need to Read More Science Fiction

MIT researchers Dan Novy and Sophia Brueckner argue that the mind-bending worlds of authors such as Philip K. Dick and Arthur C. Clarke can help us not just come up with ideas for new gadgets, but anticipate their consequences.

How will police use a gun that immobilizes its target but does not kill? What would people do with a device that could provide them with any mood they desire? What are the consequences of a massive, instant global communications network?

Such questions are relevant to many technologies on the market today, but their first iterations appeared not in lab prototypes but in the pages of science fiction.

This fall, MIT Media Lab researchers Dan Novy and Sophia Brueckner are teaching "Science Fiction to Science Fabrication," aka "Pulp to Prototype," a course that mines these "fantastic imaginings of the future" for analysis of our very real present. Over email, I asked Novy and Brueckner about the books they'll be teaching, the inventions that found their antecedents in those pages, and why Novy and Brueckner believe it is so important for designers working in the very real world to study the imaginary. An edited transcript of our correspondence follows.

What inspired you to teach a class at the Media Lab about science fiction? Why do you think it's important?

Dan Novy: One might assume that there would be many science fiction fans at the Media Lab, since many future and futuristic technologies are being created here daily. And yet we found this not to be the case.

Science fiction is often derided as too fanciful or not rigorous in thought. There is still a stigma against those who read it, and yet if you look at the great advances in science and technology during most of the 20th and 21st centuries, they are often preceded by descriptions in works of science fiction written decades before.

Just a few concrete examples are Arthur C. Clarke's description of Geostationary Satellite Communications in 1945; the invention of the TASER used by law enforcement worldwide ("TASER" is an acronym for Thomas A. Swift's Electric Rifle); and Winston Churchill’s attempt to create a “Death Ray” ("a staple of scientific and horror fiction during the 1920s and 1930s"to knock enemy planes out of the sky, which led to RADAR. With the help of MIT, the latter invention was responsible for winning the Battle of Britain.

The book that inspired the TASER

The number one goal of the class is to expose students to the genre, and hopefully affect the way they think and create. Nicholas Negroponte, the founder of the Media Lab, often says that if industry could eventually build an idea you’re working on, you’re not being ambitious enough and should stop. Science fiction illuminates a path to following Nicholas’s advice.

Sophia Brueckner: Science fiction is incredibly relevant to the work going on at the MIT Media Lab. The Media Lab is made up of many different research areas like Biomechatronics, Tangible Media, or Fluid Interfaces, for example. Each of these groups has a corresponding subgenre of science fiction, often whose authors have explored related topics for decades. These authors do more than merely prophesy modern technologies -- they also consider the consequences of their fictional inventions in great detail.

DN: Some great Media Lab projects were inspired by reading science fiction stories. I have a project called the Narratarium, which is a context-aware immersive environment. It began as an idea from a brainstorming session with one of the members of the Lab, but I quickly realized that I was building a mashup of the immersive environments from Ray Bradbury’s “The Veldt” and The Young Lady’s Primer from Neal Stephenson’s Diamond Age. The Narratarium environment surrounds you, but also takes input from you and alters the environment as you tell a story or experience a narrative.

The Narratarium (Dan Novy)

My realization about the science-fiction precursors made developing the Narratarium easier, and even suggested new features. This isn’t a direct relationship; I didn’t set out to build the exact video technology of the Veldt or an exact copy of the Young Lady’s Primer, but they informed and guided the design process. And that’s the relationship we’d like to see in projects in the class. No one knows exactly how Philip K. Dick’s Empathy Box operates in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and I think it would be great to see eight or nine different students' interpretations of it. 

SB: I also am in the middle of building a kinetic sound sculpture inspired by J. G. Ballard’s short story “The Singing Statues” published in 1971. With incredible foresight, he imagined a world where art merges all the senses, is highly interactive, produces visual and sound compositions using algorithms, and even responds to the thoughts and feelings of its audience in real-time. I am trying to realize the concepts described in the story using computer programming and other technologies that are now available. 

Overall, we want students to get an appreciation for the genre and be exposed to a large variety of authors and styles while focusing on books that discuss devices and other technologies that could inspire Media Lab projects. We are hoping to inspire the students to build functional prototypes of either ideas directly out of the books or encourage them to take their current research and combine it with more of a science fiction context.

What are some specific examples you'll be looking at?

SB: For example, we will be reading the classic Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick, who is one of my favorite authors and is a master of crazy gadget ideas. The devices he describes in his writings can be very humorous and satirical but are truly profound. People have probably seen Blade Runner, an excellent movie based on this book, but the book is very different! Many of the most compelling devices from the book did not make it into the movie. 

Wikimedia Commons

For example, the Mood Organ is a device that allows the user to dial a code to instantly be in a certain mood. The book contains multiple funny instances of people using this device, such as when one character plugs in the code 888 to feel “the desire to watch TV no matter what is on,” but Dick also points out some disturbing implications resulting from the existence of such a technology. “How much time do you set aside each month for specific moods?” asks one character. Should you be happy and energized to work all the time? This character eventually concludes that two days a month is a reasonable amount for feeling despair. Today, we are hoping science and technology will find the secret to forever happiness, but what will happen if we actually succeed?

Another one of my favorite gadgets from Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is the Empathy Box. A person holds the handles on the Empathy Box and is connected with all other people using it at the same time by sharing the feelings of a spiritual figure named William Mercer. Amazingly, even in 1968, Dick saw the potential for technology to not only connect people across long distances but to do so with emotional depth. Dick writes that the Empathy Box is “the most personal possession you have! It's an extension of your body; it's the way you touch other humans, it's the way you stop being alone.”

Actually, I just realized while answering this question that I’ve been attempting to build a version of the Empathy Box as part of my thesis! I believe people crave for their computers and phones to fulfill this need for connection, but they manage to do so only superficially. As a result, people feel increasingly estranged and alone despite being connected all the time. Like Dick, I also am intrigued by how to use technology to promote empathy and a greater sense of genuine interconnectedness with one another, and I am currently working on designing wearable devices to do this.  Some of my best ideas stem from reading science fiction, and I often don’t realize it until later!

And, of course, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? had ersatz animals in it too! These didn’t end up in Blade Runner either, for the most part. In this case, Dick’s prophecies did come true, and we now have devices like PARO, a robotic harp seal, which is used as therapy in hospitals and extended care facilities.

What do such examples show about the relationship between fiction and reality?

DN: Fiction, specifically science fiction, is a way to see, as Cervantes would say, “life as it ought to be,” not just life as it is. Storytelling is how the human brain understands reality, by comparing the input it is currently sensing and comparing it to stories it’s experienced or heard before.

On the deepest levels, your consciousness doesn’t make a distinction between experiences you’ve had and the experiences of characters in stories you’ve heard. This is why fiction is so powerful and why human beings seem to need to tell, collect, and understand stories. Fiction allows you to live more lives in the space-time of one lifetime than you would normally be able to. It allows you to benefit from the outcome of simulations without being exposed to the dangers or time constraints that you would be forced to undergo if you had to live every experience that informs your reality by yourself. In a post-industrial society of tool using primates, like ours, technology is one of the defining factors, and so science fiction, with its tendency to emphasize technology, is a way of running exponentially iterative design processes to conceive and create new technologies.

Presented by

Rebecca J. Rosen is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Business Channel. She was previously an associate editor at The Wilson Quarterly.

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