Over the last century and a half, science fiction has evolved just as science has evolved. But does this mean there is actually a causal link between futurology and real scientific research? Could science fiction actually determine what technologies humanity ultimately invents? And if so, can this new generation of crowd empowered futurists be the ones who shape our future world?
Jules Verne first started the futurology movement around 150 years ago by predicting amazing future technologies in science fiction classics such as Journey to the Centre of the Earth and Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea. Ever since, futurology has evolved and expanded in terms of reach, popularity, diversity, social application and scientific vision. Verne's initial vision became the inspiration for other science fiction luminaries such as Edward Bellamy, HG Wells, Hugo Gernsback, Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke. Futurism, or visual art devoted to science and science fiction, then took off in Italy from the 1920s. Since the early 1950s, futurism has grown exponentially via TV and cinema, with the Star Trek and Star Wars franchises becoming notably influential.
It is undeniable that numerous futuristic technologies predicted by science fiction have ultimately become reality. Modern inventions such as airplanes, submarines, space-rockets, radio, television, computers and mobile phones are all examples of once fictional predictions that are now everyday reality.
Ironically, the once futuristic inventions of cinema and television have dramatically broadened the appeal and diversity of science fiction beyond the written word. But despite this increased popularity and acceptance in our society, is science fiction simply limited to the imaginative prediction of future technologies? Are futurists limited to only the discussion of what may be plausible — or can they make a bigger contribution? Can futurology actually seed invention and influence the direction of scientific research to develop its predicted technologies? Can the futurists of the world do more than merely predict the future? Can they in fact shape the future?
At first glance, a direct causal link between science fiction and real science appears fortuitous at best. Science fiction typically deals with the science and technology of the future. While the content needs to be imaginative and the science more or less plausible, these stories usually involve partially true /partially fictitious laws or theories of science. Scientific fact and technical feasibility are not strict guidelines to a good science fiction story — but partial believability definitely is.
Science fiction also focuses on the social and moral consequences of scientific innovation making it a literature examining both human and technological ideas. No doubt, works of science fiction have expanded the imagination of many scientists and contributed to scientific debate over time. However, science fiction is not generally regarded as an ideas factory that directly contributes to technological development. Real scientific research is based on real scientific fact about what is technically possible and feasible in the universe. Science also generally occurs on a much smaller more incremental manner than science fiction, which is not limited by plausibility, scientific knowledge, and technical capability. Any direct connection between science and science fiction is surely limited to the statistical probability that a certain percentage of plausible predictions might one day become true.
A science fiction author may have to wait tens or even hundreds of years to find out if their imagined vision of the future is plausible enough to become reality. Even if a fictional prediction about a future technology is technically feasible that doesn't necessarily mean that it will one day become a reality. Not all technically viable ideas make good inventions or marketable products. Many other factors come into play such as the political direction of scientific research, trends in society, profitability of an invention and the availability of research funding. Surely there is no way for science fiction and futurist art in general to directly shape scientific research and the invention of new technologies. Or is science fiction and science much more connected than we initially think?
The famous Russian author Vladimir Nabokov is quoted as saying "There is no science without fancy and there is no art without fact".
Many futurists have recently started to think about how they can actually shape the future directly. Movements such as transhumanism and Humanity+ are investigating ways that technology can elevate the human condition. The goal is to use technology to help humans evolve into superior beings that may one day become immortal. Scientists and futurists are now beginning to work together in many research areas including medicine, micro-biology, nanotechnology, artificial intelligence and robotics. The H+ movement represents a significant shift in the direction of scientific research with an increased focus on long term vision and futurism. There has also been a corresponding shift in futurism, with more real science and fact going into the art of science fiction. It seems the combination of science and art is a natural and mutually beneficial relationship — one that enhances both scientific research and artistic vision.
Humanity's great scientific breakthroughs have often resulted from imaginative, visionary and creative thinking, which is also the bedrock of all great art. With the emergence of the transhumanist movement, science and science fiction are gradually moving closer together, which extends the reach and validity of both. Hence it seems sensible that the most natural environment for imaginative scientific research is alongside visionary and futuristic art. Artists can inspire scientists with vision and scientists can inform artists with a deeper technical knowledge about the universe. Most importantly the concepts developed by science fiction and futurism can also influence scientists and guide the direction and vision of scientific research.
As a scientist myself I can certainly admit to being significantly influenced by science fiction. As a major Star Trek fan in my geeky teenage years I always wanted a "Phaser". Phasers are ray beam devices used in the famous sci-fi TV series to either stun enemies, analyze unknown phenomena or heal wounds. The analogy to laser technology is obvious. Perhaps that is the reason I ended up completing a PhD in Laser Physics some twenty years ago.
And even stranger than fiction, I am now involved in two separate research projects developing "Phaser-like" devices. One is the Lightning Gun project which is developing a non-lethal laser weapon that can stun human beings and neutralize guided missile threats. The other is the Infrared Healthcare project which is developing a laser probe that detects and locates a soft-tissue injury and then heals it with the same laser. It might have taken 50 years for laser technology to catch up with Star Trek predictions, but now these two projects are within sight of becoming reality. Hence from a personal view I definitely believe in the power of science fiction to determine future scientific reality. No doubt there are many more examples of science fiction directly influencing the technical vision of scientists and their research.
Recently an educational organization has emerged with the aim of nurturing the relationship between science and futurism for the cause of human evolution. The Singularity University in Silicon Valley is a research institution that is devoted to investigating the many exponential technologies that may dramatically increase human capability. This important educational faculty not only focuses on the effect of technology on the human condition — it also provides an ideal learning environment to inspire tomorrow's technology leaders and futurists. However, institutions such as SU are only the first step in the merger of futurism and science. The next step in the evolution of futuristic research needs to be more commercially focused, even more inclusive of art, and actually use an exponential technology to accelerate its reach into society.
While adopting a focus on futurism, SU is essentially a scientific research and teaching institution with a futuristic vision. However there are many technology and design projects that are more immediately commercial in nature. They are not purely scientific or artistic in nature and not considered appropriate for university research funding. Unfortunately many of these projects are also not yet close enough to becoming a commercial reality to attract funding from the traditional investment community. Hence these highly creative projects often find themselves caught in the space between concept and reality, between experiment and product, between today and tomorrow.
Fortunately a new exponential technology is now helping to meet the gap in funding options for these previously un-fundable projects. The recent explosion in crowd-funding, or the use of social media to fund creative projects, is rapidly filling a gap in the funding market. Crowdfunding platforms such as Indiegogo and Kickstarter are exponentially growing to fill a huge unmet funding niche. Now there is a real commercial option for many imaginative and futuristic projects that were previously caught in a funding limbo.
But crowd-funding is not as easy as it sounds and there are plenty of traps for those who enter the crowdfund market unprepared. Furthermore, many of these projects need some basic infrastructure, professional advice and social media presence before they can successfully crowdfund their dreams into a reality. Many creative people need some initial infrastructure and additional capabilities to realize their dreams. And many science, art and social media professionals need a central facility or platform to exchange shared ideas.
What is now needed is a connection between the academic work of the Singularity University and the commercial reality of building a new technology or design. What is needed is an incubator for imaginative science and futuristic art projects that have real commercial potential. A place where scientists and artists exist in the same environment and can leverage the exponential power of social media. What is needed is a research environment where imaginative scientists, artists and social media professionals can inspire each other to create tomorrow's reality. What is needed is a commercial incubator to assist science fiction becoming reality.
Now we get to the ultimate point of this discussion. I am currently involved, with several other like-minded scientists and artists, in an effort to build such an incubator environment. We are planning to found the Science, Art and Social Media Institute (or SASM Institute) as a research incubator for imaginative science, art and social media projects.
While the SASM Institute will focus on science and technology just like Singularity University, it will also have a focus on futuristic art, social media and the interplay between all three. Consequently, the ideal location for the SASM Institute will be around 30 miles north of Silicon Valley in San Francisco. San Francisco has long been a hub of creative art and now it has emerged as the global center of the social media revolution. We hope to turn the SASM institute from basic concept into a bricks and mortar reality later this year. We also hope that it will contribute to expanding the reach of the futurology movement. Our vision is to create a commercially viable platform to launch some truly unique and visionary projects. Who knows what is possible when you put a bunch of scientists, artists and social media experts all together in the same building?
The SASM Institute will lie at the intersection of science, art and the crowd. It will be building on the great work started by the Singularity University and others in the H+ community. It is just one small step in the evolution of Verne's futurology movement and there is so much more that can be done. But perhaps one day soon, futurism may have the direct ability to create future technologies instead of simply conceiving or predicting them. When that happens science will have truly merged with art — and social media will have been the exponential technology that enabled it to happen.
This article is a call for action to all futurists. We can actually shape the future directly instead of just predicting it. The SASM Institute already has two science projects, two art projects and a social media project on board. At this point I should reveal that the social media project is in fact titled "Big Scary Ideas! – the Social Media Experiment."
If you are a scientist, artist, futurist or social media professional who is interested in helping the SASM Institute get off the ground we welcome your involvement. You can contact me directly via Big Scary Ideas or search me out on Facebook or Linkedin.
Set phasers to stun and beam us down, Scotty!
This article originally appeared at Big Scary Ideas.