Monday, March 31, 2008
Science fiction and innovation
Henry Ford, founder of the Ford Motor Company, once said:
"If I had asked my customers what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse."
Most research and trends forecasting reflect the present. To envision the future takes an imaginative curve ball. There’s no formula for innovation, but the kind of thinking found in science fiction can open your mind.
Science fiction is a fusion of the logic of science and the magic of fiction, a potent hybrid where rational and emotional worlds collide. In science fiction, rules can be bent or circumvented, reframing problems to reach novel solutions. It opens up possibilities for exploration and helps make the impossible happen. The genie is let out of the bottle, the kraken wakes...
Science fiction overlaps with philosophy of science. Philosophical thought experiments allow us to imaginatively explore a range of possible futures and examine the practical and moral implications of actions. So, science fiction helps us not only to innovate, but to innovate responsibly. Though often perceived as cold and mechanistic, or as depicting outlandish adventures in space, science fiction tends to be grounded in human behaviour. It can help us manage technological development in a way that benefits people.
A famous example of a thought experiment is the ‘brain in a vat’ scenario. Basically, every person in the world could be no more than a brain, suspended in a scientific vessel, perhaps located somewhere on Mars, being stimulated by alien scientists to feel as if they were having the experiences of life on Earth – going to work, socialising, touching, feeling. Our experiences would be no different qualitatively – in other words, we have no way of knowing whether the world we live in is real. Yet somehow, intuitively, we rail against the idea.
The idea may sound convoluted on paper, but the film The Matrix brings the concept vividly to life. Science fiction makes complex ideas easy to imagine, inspiring developers to make them come true. Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey is credited for popularising the idea of space stations, spurring on NASA scientists to build them.
Many of the computer technologies emerging today, including voice and face recognition, were foretold by Philip K. Dick in his 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? True Names (1981) by cyberfiction guru Vernor Vinge, became a cult classic among software developers and influenced the creation of multiplayer online worlds. In medicine and nanotechnology, artificial skin that fights infection was heralded by Frank Herbert in his 1977 novel The Dosadi Experiment.
Science fiction manifests the power of dreams. Instead of thinking, ‘that’s impossible’, it invites us to muse, ‘what if it were possible?’ and find a way to make it happen.
It holds the key to new inventions, to date unrealised. Concepts, such as Arthur C. Clarke’s space elevator (Fountains of Paradise), and planet colonisation, as seen in Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy, continue to inspire and drive scientists. Their cross-over into reality is being made (almost) imminent by very serious research projects.
At the intersection of technology, design and marketing, concepts that once seemed to be science fiction are transforming brand and retail experiences. Interactive kiosks, such as those used on the Levi’s Fit tour, allow customers to design their own customised products. Museum or art gallery tours are being delivered via PDAs for a more personal, interactive experience. Social networking, integrated into retail environments, allows shoppers to get a second opinion from friends, wherever they are, via interactive mirrors in changing rooms (Icon Nicholson's social retailing). James Law Cybertecture create intelligent, customised spaces that will transform the cities of the future.
Wherever fresh thinking is needed, science fiction can help us envision what’s at the very edge of our imaginations. We get the car, not the faster horse.