This is a guest post by Andrew Maynard, Professor at Arizona State University, who is launching his new book today: Films from the Future: The Technology and Morality of Sci-Fi Movies. I am really happy to publish this post on the Making Science Public blog, as it deals with topics like responsible innovation, synthetic biology, gene editing, nanoscale science and engineering and geoengineering in ways that open up these topics to the general reader and cinema goer. Have a look and read the book!
Responsible research and innovation and science fiction movies may seem an odd combination. Yet approached in the right way, it turns out that sci-fi films can provide a surprisingly insightful medium through which to explore the challenges and opportunities of innovating responsibly.
For some time now, I’ve been interested in how emerging technologies can be developed and used in ways that benefit society, without causing more harm than they’re worth. This was initially sparked through my work on the safe development and use of engineered nanomaterials, and my increasing engagement with stakeholders that included innovators and consumers, as well as regulators, advocacy groups and others.
Convergent and responsible innovation
Over the past decade though, I’ve become increasingly intrigued by the challenges of innovating responsibly at the points of connection between technology trends.
This is where innovators have a tendency to pull together ideas and capabilities from every conceivable branch of science and brand of technology as they build capabilities that respond to opportunities (or create new ones) in novel ways. The resulting innovations are rarely constrained by labels like “nanotechnology”, or “synthetic biology”, or “artificial intelligence”, or other neatly-demarked areas that so-loved by academics. Yet these are where the truly transformative breakthroughs often occur.
Because innovation at the convergence between different strands of science and technology is often messy and ill-defined, it’s not easy to develop and implement generally-applicable approaches to socially responsible innovation. But there is an even greater challenge that I continually run up against when working with innovators and entrepreneurs, at least in the US: Many entrepreneurs, it seems, struggle to understand the value-add of academic ideas around responsible innovation, when they are fighting to survive in the commercial world.
It’s not that they don’t understand the inherent importance of producing products that do good, and do no harm. It’s simply that in the world they inhabit, the language of responsible innovation is often jarring, inaccessible, and (when it is understandable) unresponsive to their specific needs and constraints.
Of course, there are exceptions to this, and initiatives such as RRI Tools and others have made serious inroads to helping bridge the gap between what innovators need, and what responsible innovation has to offer. Yet many tech companies and developers are still unaware of, or suspicious of, the ideas behind responsible innovation; despite a growing awareness that they need to do things differently.
Making responsible innovation public
And this is where science fiction movies come in.
Sci-fi movies are great social levelers. People from all ages, backgrounds, professions, and expertise, can sit down together and enjoy watching them. And as they do so, these films have the ability to slip under the barriers people so often raise when trying to stick with their social or professional “tribe”.
Because of this, science fiction movies provide an intriguing medium through which people can begin to see world around them differently. But they also have a couple of other tricks up their metaphorical sleeve when it comes to socially responsible technology innovation, starting with their focus on new and emerging technologies.
Here, science fiction films are notoriously unreliable predictors of the future, or even the present. Rarely if ever will a sci-fi movie producers let reality get in the way of a good story. And yet, because these films touch on new and often intriguing extensions of emerging technologies, they still provide a natural starting point for thinking about the consequences of current technological trends.
The second trick—and perhaps the more powerful of the two—is that the vast majority of sci-fi movies are ultimately stories about the complex relationships and dynamics between people and technology.
Because of this, with some help, science fiction movies can open up surprising insights into the potential dangers of unthinking or naive innovation, and reveal potential ways to steer new technologies toward more socially beneficial and responsible futures.
And because these films have the ability to slip underneath the instinctive barriers that are raised whenever someone tries to “educate” or “enlighten” someone else, they open the way for developers, users, and influencers, of emerging and converging technologies, to better-understand the complex risk-landscape around them, and how to effectively navigate it.
This is the premise behind my new book Films from the Future: The Technology and Morality of Sci-Fi Movies. The book is unabashedly aimed at anyone who is entertained by science fiction films, intrigued by emerging trends in technology innovation, and curious about the social questions they raise. It’s written for a popular audience, and so won’t be winning any awards for convoluted academic impenetrability and obfuscation. Rather, it’s designed to make sense to anyone interested in how to ensure emerging technologies are developed socially beneficial and responsible ways, without them having to get an advanced degree first!
The book is built around a series of twelve movies, which were picked to support a loose meta-narrative around biotechnology, AI and cyber-technologies, advanced materials (including nanotechnology), and the capabilities that arise out of convergence between them. It’s also very selfishly built around movies that I enjoy watching. I have, after all, had to live with them for nearly two years now! And it intentionally combines some well-known films with some that are less well-known.
The resulting chapters take readers through a tapestry of emerging technological capabilities that move from gene editing and “de-extinction”, through predictive policing, smart drugs, human augmentation, and AI, to nanoscale science and engineering, and geoengineering. In each case, the movies are the catalyst for exploring what scientists and innovators are beginning to achieve, and how these might potentially impact society.
In this way, the movie Jurassic Park opens up conversations around de-extinction and where responsibility lies for who decides to what and when. Minority Report leads to a deep-dive into pre-emptive crime prevention, and the ethics of predicting criminal behavior. The 1995 Anime Ghost in the Shell provides a backdrop for thinking about the pros and cons of human augmentation. Ex Machina enables an intriguing exploration of AI through the allegory of Plato’s Cave. And so on.
The individual accounts of real-world technology innovation in the book are often intriguing and disturbing—the exploration of machine-learning as applied to predicting criminal tendencies for instance, or the dangers of immoral logics when justifying far-reaching technological interventions. But it’s when these are threaded together that a larger picture of what it means to think about socially responsible innovation arises.
This is where the book sets out to open the eyes and minds of readers to new possibilities. It intentionally doesn’t provide instructions on how to innovate responsibly. Rather, through reading it, I hope that innovators and others will better-understand how socially naive innovation ultimately serves no-one, and will begin to think about how they can do things differently.
And this is where, hopefully, they will be able to turn to a growing community of responsible innovation experts and practitioners.
And, of course, a bunch of science fiction films.
[for more info you can also read this piece in The Conversation – or indeed read the book itself!!, BN]
Films from the Future: The Technology and Morality of Sci-Fi Movies (ISBN 978-1633539075) is published by Mango, and is available from Amazon.com and other book sellers.
Andrew Maynard is a professor in the Arizona State University School for the Future of Innovation in Society and Director of the ASU Risk Innovation Lab. A physicist by training, he’s worked for many years at the intersection between technology innovation, science and technology policy, and societal risks and benefits. He can be found on Twitter at @2020science