Many technological innovations originate from science fiction.
“For better or for worse, tech innovators draw on these stories for inspiration,” says Thomas Price, an English literature teaching assistant at an Ontario university.
Price always begins his teaching year dramatically.
“I walk over to the blackboard and write the word ‘CELLPHONES’ in capital letters,” Price says.
The students, according to Price, are expecting to hear the standard day-one classroom cellphone policy. He asks them to take out their phones and place them in their laps. Some of the students are nervous, resistant or annoyed.
“I then give a short lecture about how cellphones were partly inspired by a comic in the early 20th century, and they all breathe a sigh of relief,” Price says.
He does this to demonstrate that many people take technology for granted.
To Price, it is important to recognize where these ideas originated.
“By studying the stories where these ideas came from, I hope students can form a better relationship with the technology most of us use daily.”
An internet ruled by corporations
“The internet, as an idea, didn’t come from science fiction. The idea that an internet-based society would be ruled by mega-corporations? That comes from cyberpunk,” explains Price.
The genre Price is referring to, cyberpunk, has been a popular form of storytelling since the 1970s. It often features a dark, gritty, futuristic urban setting, explains Price. Advanced technology, greedy corporations and protagonists on the outskirts of society are common themes, he adds.
“In the early 1990s, hackers directly based their ideology on cyberpunk philosophy,” Price says. “They hated corporations and restriction of their freedoms and actively fought against it illegally,” he explains.
It is unclear how prevalent these ideas were due to the anonymous nature of hackers. That said, WIRED agrees that cyberpunk-inspired hacking was an early internet phenomenon.
The subculture in the early ‘90s was significant enough to have Time Magazine report on cyberpunk in 1993. Predicting a world where it would become a large youth counterculture.
“This type of angry-at-the-world hacker still exists into the 21st century in the form of hacktivist collectives like Anonymous,” Price says.
To Price, cyberpunk is an ideal genre to ask pressing 21st-century questions.
“How much power should corporations be granted? How much privacy should people be allowed? How should we interface with technology in responsible ways?” he asks.
Do AI ethicists dream of electric sheep?
Many experts agree that science fiction introduced AI to the world. However, academics argue when the concept was initially introduced. Suggested origins include anywhere from ancient Greece to the early 20th century.
“That kind of hints at a really important question in AI ethics, actually,” says Eric Nguyen, a graduate student studying ethics and morality in AI. “Why were people thinking about machine intelligence well before computers were ever invented?”
To Nguyen, the reason is simple: people want to make sure they’re using technology responsibly.
“It’s kind of the underlying point to a lot of sci-fi stories, isn’t it? ‘Future technology goes wrong because society didn’t think of the moral implications of it,’” he says.
According to Nguyen, the AI field often and openly uses science fiction stories for inspiration. He points to the works of Isaac Asimov as examples. Nguyen says the purpose is to ask questions about how the technology in development should be used.
“Asimov and others like him get talked about pretty frequently because he had this utopian view of AI and robotics,” Nguyen explains. “It’s all about creating better societies through technology, rather than the opposite.”
The opposite, as Nguyen puts it, has been featured heavily in more dystopian views of technology.
“Not that I’m an English professor, but I believe that these stories are meant to be warnings for people like me,” he says. “As an AI researcher, the last thing I want to have happen is anything negative. Technology can be and should be used for good.”
Science fiction’s role in modern times
“I don’t think it needs to have a role per se,” says Price. “It can just be entertaining, and that’s it.”
Price is quick to clarify that though science fiction does not need a role—it has one.
“It always has been and always will be, I think, a way for people to make sense of technological advancements,” he says.
To Price, it is human nature to look forward and develop new technology.
“When you look at the history of humanity, we’ve gotten where we are today because of technology,” he says. “At the same time, we have to really scrutinize the way we use science, and we don’t always use it well by any stretch. Science fiction is a tool to analyze our relationship with our inevitable technological progress.”
About the author
Eliot is a journalist for Youth Mind. His background is in English and creative writing at York University. When not writing, he studies medical laboratory science in Kingston, and enjoys hand spinning yarn, cooking, and gardening.