Using science fiction as a means to predict and build the future

WHY THIS MATTERS IN BRIEF

Sci-fi and the future are kindred cousins, and its no coincidence that one inspires the other.

 

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One of the most influential products of the 21st century wasn’t dreamed up in Cupertino or Mountain View, its development began over a half century ago in the pages of a monthly pulp fiction magazine. In 1956 Philip Dick published a short story that followed the daily life of a police chief in a future dominated by humans wired to computers, predictive computers, and screen based video communications. Sound familiar?

Dick’s work, like the work of many other similar sci-fi writers before and since, then inspired generations of engineers, entrepreneurs, researchers, and scientists to think deeply about what the future might, and could, look like, then invent it.

As a case in point, and back to our own story, 50 years after writing his short story it became the basis of an as yet unnamed $100 million Hollywood blockbuster and the director of the movie, Steven Spielberg, sent his production designer, Alex McDowell, to MIT where a researcher and, as it happened, lifelong Dick fan named John Underkoffler was experimenting with new ways to let people manipulate data with gloved hands.

Spielberg then used a more honed version of Underkoffler’s crude prototype in his future blockbuster Minority Report that, along with Underkoffler’s sci-fi user interface, went on to be a cult hit and quickly became one of the most influential sci-fi movies of all time. However, if you think that’s where our story, and Dick’s influence, on popular culture ends then you’d be wrong.

In 2002, after Minority Reports success, an engineer called Bas Ording, one of the chief UI designers of the original Apple iPhone, told people his work was inspired directly by the gesture based system he’d seen in the movie.

The iPhone, and more importantly its iconic interface was born, and the rest is, ironically, history. The smartphone era began, the world changed, and it was all because of a short story written in 1956.

For the past century this messy, looping process in which science fiction writers imagine various futures, then others bring those visions to life, has yielded some of our most innovative and inspirational technologies and products. The late sci-fi author Thomas Disch called this process “Creative Visualisation” and noted there was no more persuasive example of its power “than the way the rocketship daydreams of the early twentieth century evolved into NASA’s hardware.”

Artificial intelligence, 3D printing, holograms, hoverboards, robots, smartphones, tractor beams, virtual reality, and many more all have their origins in sci-fi.

Minority Report alone, which is just one of hundreds of sci-fi movies, produced over a hundred patents and helped rapidly mainstream the concept of gesture-based computing – not just the iPhone but all touchscreen tablets, the Kinect, the Wii, and many others. Furthermore, it also became cultural shorthand for anyone looking to point their ventures toward the future.

Before they even had a script though Spielberg convened a two day “Idea Summit” around the film with the intent of establishing “a lifelike future world.”

Icons like virtual reality pioneer Jaron Lanier and Whole Earth Catalog creator Stewart Brand joined folks from DARPA and the Washington Post and spent days dissecting cultural trends and technological trajectories. Then they drew a detailed road map to a world dominated by autonomous cars, invasive surveillance drones, and targeted video advertising – things that may have seemed outlandish in 2002 but are all too real today. The film’s world – not its plot or stars – became an aspirational culture product in itself.

“I wish I could get away with charging my clients a fee for every time they say ‘Minority Report’ to me,” one Los Angeles commercial artist remarked a full decade after the film was released. To certain observers Minority Report helped establish the bridge between science fiction and real technology, and turn it into a pipeline.

In the decades since the business world has been increasingly aware of the genre’s potential. In 2017 PWC, the professional services firm that advises 440 of the Fortune 500 companies, published a blueprint for using science fiction to explore business innovation. Then, the same year the Harvard Business Review argued that “Business leaders need to read more science fiction” in order to stay ahead of the curve.

“We’re already seeing science fiction become reality today,” said Google’s then-CEO Eric Schmidt in 2012. “Think back to Star Trek, or my favourite, the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – much of what those writers imagined is now possible, and we’re building it,” he said, ticking off electronic books, universal translators, and voice recognition.

Even Amazon’s product developers built the Kindle to spec from Neal Stephenson’s book The Diamond Age, and Stephenson himself became the Chief of the Future at Magic Leap, the multi-billion immersive reality startup.

Elsewhere, in the venture capital market, Josh Wolfe, a managing partner at Lux Capital, is pouring millions of dollars into companies building what he explicitly describes as “the sci-fi future.”

“I’m looking for things that feel like they were once written about in science fiction,” he told Fortune in an interview. “The gap between sci-fi, that which was once imagined, and sci-fact, that which becomes manifest and real, is shrinking.”

Additionally, a variety of companies, including ourselves, and a loose constellation of consultants, designers, and marketers, have emerged to expedite the messy creative visualisation process that used to take decades and have fine tuned it to help governments and organisations everywhere use the genre to their advantage.

From prototyping plausible and possible futures for clients complete with the characters who live in it, to building rich speculative worlds chronicling their potential, and, finally, envisioning how those futures might fall to pieces, we all aim to do what science fiction has always done – create the future.

Sometimes referred to as Future Casting, Sci-fi Prototyping, or World Building, with the latter being our favourite, the goal of these companies is generally the same – help clients create forward looking fiction to generate ideas and IP for progress or profit.

As ever though, as advantageous as these services are clients and society at large also have to be aware of the downsides of such strategies, and that’s yet another fascinating story – with an obvious but often overlooked twist in the tail …

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