Inspiration is a small but essential part of innovation, and science fiction stories have been a seminal source of inspiration for innovators over many decades. In his article entitled “Innovation Starvation,” Neal Stephenson calls for a return to inspiration in contemporary science fiction. That call resonated with so many and so deeply that Project Hieroglyph was born shortly thereafter.
The name of Project Hieroglyph comes from the notion that certain iconic inventions in science fiction stories serve as modern “hieroglyphs” – Arthur Clarke’s communications satellite, Robert Heinlein’s rocket ship that lands on its fins, Issac Asimov’s robot, and so on. Jim Karkanias of Microsoft Research described hieroglyphs as simple, recognizable symbols on whose significance everyone agrees.
What science fiction stories—and the symbols that they engender—can do better than almost anything else is to provide not just an idea for some specific technical innovation, but also to supply a coherent picture of that innovation being integrated into a society, into an economy, and into people’s lives. Often, this is the missing element that scientists, mathematicians, engineers, and entrepreneurs need in order to actually take the first real steps towards realizing some novel idea.
While the mission of Project Hieroglyph begins with creative inspiration, our hope is that many of us will be genuinely inspired towards realization.
Project Hieroglyph is administered by Arizona State University’s Center for Science and the Imagination.