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USJI Voice Vol.44

Trends in the application of innovations that turn science fiction into reality

October 19,2020
Hirotaka Osawa
Assistant Professor, University of Tsukuba

1. Trends in the application of innovations that turn science fiction into reality

The power of imagination that underpins fiction, especially science fiction, is now an important component of today’s society and a driving factor behind our vision of the future. Inspired by science, science fiction has emerged as a narrative format that depicts the impact of technology on society, the drama of human life, and the transformation of value systems. Conversely, it has also become a set of guidelines for scientists and engineers when they envision the future of society in the real world. There are also many technical terms that have their origins in science fiction, such as “robots” (“robotics”), “technological singularity,” and “cyberspace.” Not only that, many researchers and businesspeople, both in Japan and abroad, claim to have been influenced by science fiction, including the robotics engineer professor Rodney Brooks, who was involved in the founding of iRobot, and Palmer Luckey, who founded the virtual reality (VR) company Oculus.

In recent years, the idea of proactively utilizing science fiction as a sort of hidden cultural asset in society has been gaining traction.
In the academic world, the science journal Nature has been publishing collections of science fiction short stories since 2009 to help paint a picture of advances in science for both researchers in various fields and casual readers. In Japan, academic societies that focus on information, machinery, and electricity—such as the Japanese Society for Artificial Intelligence, the Robotics Society of Japan, the Society of Instrument and Control Engineers, and the Human Interface Society—have been continuously publishing special features on science fiction. The Japanese Society for Artificial Intelligence has been especially active on this front, creating an ethics committee on artificial intelligence that includes science fiction writers as its members and publishing many novels and commentaries that predict the future of AI in collaboration with science fiction writers.

In the design field, a method called speculative design has emerged as a design method for discovering and exploring problems rather than solving them. The roots of this method can be traced to several sources, one of which is a concept known as “design fiction,” a term first coined by the American science fiction writer Bruce Sterling. The concept of the maker movement involves consumers—rather than large corporations—designing products that are easy to use. This concept was popularized by Chris Anderson (former editor-in-chief of Wired) in his book Makers: The New Industrial Revolution, which Anderson himself admits was influenced by the science fiction novel Makers by Cory Doctorow.

A notable example of a trend in the utilization of science fiction in government policy is the science fiction workshops conducted by the United States Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory. In 2016, 18 members of the US Navy and Marine Corps wrote short stories under the guidance of science fiction writers. These works have been made available to the public in a collection entitled Science Fiction Futures: Marine Corps Security Environment Forecast 2030-2045. Also, the French Navy brought together science fiction writers in 2019 to predict the wonders of the future, studying disruptive scenarios that military personnel would be unable to predict.

One example of a corporate trend is Intel’s use of science fiction prototyping as a method of developing products. Microsoft Research has also invited science fiction writers to create and publish a collection of works inspired by their research, called Future Visions: Original Science Fiction Inspired by Microsoft.

2. Trends in Japan, the US, and China

To study these trends more directly as part of this project, we conducted at exploratory visit to Arizona State University’s Center for Science and the Imagination (CSI), which promotes research that combines science fiction and the concept of a future society, at the end of January 2020 in collaboration with the Mitsubishi Research Institute. At Arizona State University, a number of science fiction workshops were conducted to suit a variety of purposes. One of the most striking features of these workshops was that the methods employed for professional workshops, which consisted of teams of researchers and other experts working together with science fiction writers, differed from those employed for workshops consisting of non-expert participants. The main difference was that the latter workshops were designed to help people who are unfamiliar with science fiction to think about a science fiction-inspired future. The executive office prepared some sticky notes that had predicted future events written on them. At the workshop, the participants would roll a dice to create a timeline for the future through random choices and then modify some of the sticky notes to create a future inspired by science fiction. Through this game-like methodology, participants were able to imagine a future that was realistic but at the same time beyond their own expectations.

These links between science fiction and the industrial world and government are not unique to the US. In recent years, the science fiction industry in China has been growing at a rapid pace. According to the “2019 China Sci-Fi Industry Report” (published by the Science and Imagination Research Center, Southern University of Science and Technology), the total market value of China’s science fiction industry reached 31.564 billion yuan in the first half of 2019 (http://j.people.com.cn/n3/2019/1105/c206603-9629435.html). This growth is thought to be partially due to the Chinese government’s investment in and support for Chinese science fiction, which has gained traction since it began capturing the attention of businesspeople in the US in recent years with the publication of the Three-Body Problem and other such works. Today, science fiction is often discussed in China in the context of education and technological development. Liu Cixin, the author of the Three-Body Problem series, regularly gives advice to Chinese companies and government agencies.

In comparison, Japan has not yet seen much movement toward utilizing science fiction in a variety of ways, but some organizations—such as Anon Inc. and the Wired Sci-Fi Prototyping Institute—provide consulting services using science fiction prototyping. In this project too, we have already started using science fiction prototyping in collaboration with Mitsubishi Research Institute and applying it in a wide range of fields, thereby allowing us to accumulate a wealth of knowledge. Some of the benefits of science fiction prototyping that have become evident through these practices and observations are described here. When creators, researchers, businesspeople, and other parties are brought together to create a fictional story set in the future, one of the benefits that companies gain is the ability to cultivate a critical vision of the future. Through dramatic storytelling, a novelist imagines how human society will change based on certain technologies, making it easier to identify problems and gain new insights that engineers may be unable to anticipate. These exercises also encourage cross-departmental communication within a company about its developed research and technologies and help it to construct a common vision.
The science fiction writers themselves also enjoy some benefits. Essentially, these exercises give them a chance to gain expert knowledge and practical expertise from companies and to view things from a variety of different perspectives, thereby allowing them to create works that they may have been unable to produce on their own. In addition, if writers collaborate with companies in the creation of works, the writers can be introduced together with the products that are sold, giving the writers an opportunity to expand their reach around the world. This also allows them to transcend not only national barriers, but also the boundaries of genre as their readership expands from sci-fi fans to include businesspeople.

As the above demonstrates, science fiction prototyping can be a useful tool for allowing people from various walks of life to collaborate and innovate, as long as the setting is properly coordinated for each individual case. In Japan, the concept of science fiction prototyping is still only known by a limited segment of the population, but it is expected to help spur innovation in Japan going forward by creating a movement among various researchers and professionals.

The USJI Voice is a policy-related opinion paper produced by researchers at USJI-affiliated universities. The USJI Voice is written for experts in areas connected to U.S.-Japan relations. Please share with us your opinions and suggestions related to your areas of interest.

The USJI does not take specific political positions. All views and conclusions expressed in the USJI Voice are those of the authors in their private capacity and do not represent or reflect the views of the USJI as a whole.

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