Project Hieroglyph in Washington, DC: Event Recap

By Torie Bosch

This article originally appeared on Slate’s Future Tense channel on October 3, 2014.

Are robot babysitters ethical? Will the future of the Internet look like You’ve Got Mail? How can we use science fiction to inspire scientists?

Neal Stephenson, Patric M. Verrone, and Ellen Stofan Panel
Futurama writer Patric M. Verrone, sci-fi author Neal Stephenson, and NASA Chief Scientist Ellen Stofan. Photo by Liana Simonds/New America Foundation.

On Oct. 2, Future Tense and Issues in Science and Technology hosted “Can We Imagine Our Way to a Better Future?” at the National Academies in Washington, D.C., to discuss how science fiction can help us create a 21st century—and 22nd, and 23rd—that we and our descendants can be proud of. The event was inspired by Hieroglyph: Stories and Visions for a Better Future, a new sci-fi anthology intended to bring scientists and writers together to imagine big, bold technologies. Edited by Ed Finn, the director of Arizona State University’s Center for Science and the Imagination, and Kathryn Cramer, Hieroglyph is a sort of antidote to the dystopian fiction that rules the current sci-fi scene. It was inspired by a conversation sci-fi great Neal Stephenson and ASU President Michael Crow had at a Future Tense event long ago, in 2011. (Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and ASU.)

The event was delightfully nerdy, optimistic and creative yet pragmatic, featuring speakers from universities, NASA, DARPA, the SyFy Channel, the Washington Post, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, and even Futurama, plus sci-fi writers Cramer, Stephenson, Ted Chiang, Elizabeth Bear, Karl Schroeder, Kathleen Ann Goonan, Madeline Ashby, Lee Konstantinou, and Vandana Singh. The discussion ranged from the ethics of robot babysitters and space travel to the difference between “democratic science via grassroots” and “government-directed global cooperation.” The ideas debated largely fell into four categories: the role money plays in innovation, the policy challenges of new technologies, the ways people are affected by and can affect advances, and the challenges and triumphs of imagination.

The money

Real innovation doesn’t come from “small, ragtag groups” or even from solitary geniuses. It comes from corporations, argued Stephenson in his opening remarks. In other words, innovation requires money and investment—whether it’s public or private.

Companies’ influence over technologies can come at a cost. For one thing, the entrepreneurial world’s recent embrace of “fail quickly” may be shortsighted. Give up on big ideas too soon, and they’ll never come to fruition, Stephenson warned.

Another warning came from sci-fi writer Lee Konstantinou, whose short story in Hieroglyph discussed drones and the Internet, offered a terrifying vision: The future Internet could look a lot like the America Online of yesteryear, with high walls erected by corporations to keep customers in place. Even more disturbingly, Vandana Singh, who in addition to being a sci-fi writer is a theoretical physicist, noted that the pursuit of profit has helped create today’s environmental mess. We aren’t living in the Anthropocene—the age in which humankind shapes the climate; rather, she said, “it’s the Capitalocene.” Money and investment are changing the Earth. But maybe technology offers some hope here, too: While discussing neurological technologies, which her Hieroglyph short story “Covenant” explores, Elizabeth Bear noted one possibility of “a process that can remove sociopathic tendencies. Well, there goes Wall Street.”

The policy

Money isn’t the only factor that can gunk up technological revolutions.

“Where I’ve seen law and policy go horribly wrong is because they get frustrated talking to technologists … then you get tremendously bad laws,” Dan Kaufman of DARPA said. Ryan Calo of the University of Washington also noted that it can be difficult to have “the right stakeholders at the table” to write a law. These policy challenges have real-world ramifications that could, say, delay Amazon’s grand plan to unleash delivery drones.

Science fiction offers one way to help bridge that gap. But as Daniel Sarewitz of Arizona State’s Consortium for Science Policy and Outcomes said, “We haven’t yet gotten very good at using narrative to affect how we make policy.”

The people

But we are better at using narrative to help explain technology to individuals.

“The most powerful tool we’ve had for surveillance policy is 1984,” argued Kevin Bankston of New America’s Open Technology Institute. “It helps everyone understand what’s at stake.” When you say “Big Brother,” even somebody who isn’t comfortable with technology knows what you’re talking about.

This is important because, as Kaufman put it, “Technology is not a thing that should be happening to you. Technology should be participatory.” That holds true whether or not you know what PGP is, for instance. A healthy, population-wide debate about the introduction of new technologies is particularly important when it comes to personal autonomy. Bear asked, for example, whether a person suffering from depression could be forced to undergo a neurological treatment that might make them feel better, or whether the “neuroatypical” could be required to bring their brains in line with the norm: “Our concept of personal autonomy is not actually based on ‘Well, you’ll thank me for it later,’ unless you’re parenting. ”

Gender plays an enormous role in many of these discussions. As Bear and bioethicist Jonathan Moreno discussed, mental health was used in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as an excuse to hospitalize women for vague problems like “hysteria.” But technology could also offer a shortcut around some current gender problems: Cramer noted that today, mothers are often criticized, even arrested, for letting a child play outside alone. Perhaps a babysitting robot could help. Of course, she said, we could also “just say actually, the kid’s not going to die, why do we need a robot?” But making a robot that can hold a child’s hand while crossing the street might be easier than fighting society’s gender roles.

The imagination

“You can’t invent something that someone didn’t imagine,” said Stofan, distilling the major takeaway of the day: Great sci-fi has the power to inspire scientists and technologists to create a world we’re excited by.

The dystopian (think 1984) can be powerful in helping us avoid a future that makes us wince. Konstantinou said that he “couldn’t help but include … a dystopian vision of the Internet” in his story.

But some sci-fi today has its shortcomings. Patric Verrone, who wrote for Futurama, among other shows, said, “Science fiction is now about discussing internal things, rather than sending skyscrapers into space” or otherwise dreaming big and bold.

One possible constraint to this kind of big thinking could be technology itself. Chiang said at one point, “Our thinking is partially being done by algorithms now. How much of our cognition do we want to cede to software?” A corollary to that is: How much of our imagination do we want to cede to software? Algorithms even create fiction and help companies like Netflix decide what content to invest in. Furthermore, Karl Schroeder noted, “Sci-fi never imagines that we can improve the way we make decisions.”

Just as we may want to consider the subtle ways software could be stymieing creativity, we should also be wary of constraining ourselves by today’s version of the future. “I don’t think technology is ever used the way we think” it will be, said Kaufman. For instance, DARPA created Siri for the military, “to do scheduling, but it turns out we like to talk to our computer and have it tell us wrong things a lot. So, you’re welcome.”

Perhaps the most wonderful thing about science fiction, though, is how it allows for ambiguity in discussing new technologies and the conundrums they can create. “I see my job as having ethical arguments with myself in public,” Bear said. Singh echoed that thought: “Don’t judge my morals by my stories. That is the beauty of fiction.”

To watch the event in its entirety, visit the New America website.

More on Project Hieroglyph and the role of science fiction on Slate:

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University.