Ideas

opinion | Kelly O’Brien

Designing for a science fiction future

When Julian Bleecker first set foot in a lab at the University of Washington Seattle researching human-computer interaction, he was at a loss. He’d studied electrical engineering as an undergrad, so the lab’s work on an early version of virtual reality was unfamiliar ground. To get the lay of the land, Bleecker was told to read “Neuromancer,” the 1984 science fiction novel by William Gibson in which people connect computers to their brains and experience the data of cyberspace as if it had physical form.

“Neuromancer,” more than any software code, was the lab’s shared language. It was the 1990s, and they were working at the blurry edge of a new technology. Researchers found it easier to explain their ideas by saying, “it’s like that scene . . . ,” then wade into technical, esoteric computer science-speak. The book also gave them something to shoot for. “It validated what we were doing in a way,” Bleecker said. “This was fiction, but now we’re actually making it.”

Today, a handful of people, Bleecker included, are wondering whether they can forge a deeper connection between science fiction and real-life science, one in which the emotional and imaginative power of sci-fi stories leads engineers and scientists to a fuller understanding of the contours of the future they are working toward.

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Twenty-five years after leaving the virtual reality lab, Bleecker articulated his ideas in “Design Fiction: A short essay on design, science, fact and fiction,” which is really a 97-page pamphlet exploring the relationship between science fiction, particularly the 2002 movie “Minority Report,” and technological progress.

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“Minority Report” paints a particularly captivating vision of the year 2054, including not only the structure of its imagined society but also the technological objects that fill it. The film’s iconic image is Tom Cruise as Inspector John Anderton standing in front of a large translucent screen, trying to solve a crime that hasn’t happened yet by puzzling over videos showing snippets of the future.

As Anderton, wearing special gloves, performs a series of hand motions, the screen responds like an orchestra to a conductor. Bits of video disappear at the sweep of his arm or pause when he makes a referee’s “timeout” signal with his hands.

The imagined technology was so appealing that companies are still pursuing less-than-convincing facsimiles. Consider the Nintendo Wii. According to Bleecker, companies are participating in a form of design fiction, even if they don’t know it.

By the logic of design fiction, the gestural interface of “Minority Report” left such an impact not because it was new and flashy, but because it lived in a fully realized world. The movie provided an easy way to understand both the technology’s use and purpose. In the world of pre-crime detectives in 2054, motion-sensitive computer screens were just tools, and they made sense. How else would you piece together the fleeting audio-visual clues to a murder that hasn’t happened yet?

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“To gain cultural legibility takes more than a scientist demonstrating an idea in a laboratory,” Bleecker wrote. “What is needed is a broader context — such as one that great storytellers and great filmmakers can put together into a popular film, with an engaging narrative and some cool gear.”

The MIT Media Lab’s Design Fiction Group is also focused on bringing science out of the laboratory and into a broader, more complicated, and more human context. It is headed by assistant professor Hiromi Ozaki, better known as the artist Sputniko!, who has studied both computer science and “speculative design.” Her group often focuses on sussing out the future implications of advancements in biotechnology, which is learning to manipulate genes in ways that make many people uncomfortable.

In February, for instance, researchers at Cambridge University were able to turn skin cells from two human adults of the same sex into both egg and sperm cells, raising the question of whether same-sex couples could eventually share true genetic children. “Sometimes the questions are so ethically challenging, it’s easier to ask in the field of arts and design,” Sputniko! said.

She and student Ai Hasegawa explored the biotech development by analyzing genetic data from a female couple with the service 23andMe and using it to visualize what the women’s genetic daughters might look like. Then Hasegawa created a “what-if family photo album,” full of realistic pictures of the couple and their two imaginary daughters.

A Japanese news documentary captured the moment when Hasegawa presented the photo album to the couple. Looking at a computer-generated image of her potential family celebrating the girls’ birthday, one woman begins to cry.

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Emotionally resonant projects like “(Im)possible Baby” are much more likely to affect the future direction of scientific research than even the best lab work, Sputniko! believes, because they can change widespread social norms. “Ethics and values really drive where technology heads,” she said. “Because the world is always flowing from people’s minds, if you make a design that can shift perceptions, make people change the way they imagine different futures, the world that flows from those minds will be different.”

Since his 2009 “Design Fiction” essay, Bleecker’s own design work has been focused on changing minds, even as he has left the cutting-edge lab research behind.

He has been practicing at the Near Future Laboratory, a loose affiliation of engineers, writers, and industrial designers he cofounded. It specializes in what’s called the imaginary catalog. One project, called the TBD Catalog, is full of fake ads for products and services that are slightly off-putting in the world they imply.

PlayData® Play Date Service, for example, promises to “find more compatible children playmates with our proprietary algorithmic matching system that uses over 12,000 dimensions to find the perfect playmate for your precious, particular child.”

The service will “identify common interests, parental aspirations, Myers-Briggs quotients, disposition, mood, pharmacological endogenics, sleep cycles . . . and much, much more.”

PlayData®, like many of the near-future products imagined in the catalogs, is “meant to be a mirror back on ourselves and the world we’ve created,” said Bleecker. We already submit our love lives to guidance from eHarmony’s “29 Dimensions of Compatibility” — how long until we trust an algorithm, maybe more than ourselves, to find our kids’ friends?

The imaginary catalogs are meant to provoke questions like that. They’re less like a film with a sweeping technological vision and more like a humble dystopian short story, asking us to consider whether we really want to keep walking down the path we’re on.

On the other hand, some of the Near Future Lab’s projects really are meant to inspire viable future objects or services, to offer a theoretical “alternative to the kinds of crap that Apple and Samsung and on down the line are offering up as supposedly desirable things,” Bleecker said.

If you add Facebook or Twitter to that list of companies peddling supposedly desirable fluff, you have the impetus for the Near Future Lab’s imaginary social media app Humans. Humans synthesizes your friends’ postings to various social platforms into one elegant-looking environment, allowing you to “mitigate that online social service schizophrenia” and “Get access to content stripped out of the social media distractions.”

“In both cases, I’m trying create a representation of a world that isn’t, so that you can kind of have access to it in a way,” Bleecker said. “It kind of plays with your suspension of disbelief. You might look at something for a moment and be like, ‘Oh wait, is this real?’ ”

Academics and artists aren’t the only ones who would like to have access to the future world. Capitalists would like a peek, too.

Four years ago, Ari Popper founded SciFutures, a consultancy that aims to bring design fiction — or science fiction prototyping, as Popper tends to call it — into the corporate world.

Popper’s background is in marketing, not engineering, and he said he thought of the idea while taking a science fiction writing class at UCLA. “I just had an epiphany that the process of writing sci-fi is a really good way to ideate about the future and to really immerse yourself in the future,” he said. “I thought the idea of sci-fi as a business strategic development tool, as a business ideation tool, could be really powerful.”

Now Popper, his partner Scott Susskind, and their stable of sci-fi authors lead workshops in which a cross-section of a company’s employees, including executive types, write their own sci-fi stories as a way to think through new technologies, products, or business models. This approach is a unique take on training futurists because it relies on clients to create their own vision of the future, rather than just taking cues from works of sci-fi from other authors.

“Getting people to apply information in a story forces the brain to process the information in a little different way,” Popper said. “It creates more of an intimacy between the content and the person, and that’s ultimately what successful marketing and business building is all about.”

The output can be circulated internally as a sort of innovation strategy document, said Popper. When SciFutures worked with Lowe’s Home Improvement, artists created short graphic novels about what it might look like when future Lowe’s shoppers came to the store and interacted with artificially intelligent robots instead of salespeople.

Graphic novels as strategy documents may sound like a bit of a lark. But consider what happens when the world has not had time to envision a place for a scientific advancement — the plight of graphene, for instance, in which technology is currently outrunning imagination.

Discovered in 2004, the one-atom thick lattice of carbon is stronger than steel, conducts electricity better than copper, and conducts heat better than anything. In 2010, the two scientists who discovered graphene were awarded the Nobel Prize in physics. The announcement is high on graphene’s potential, predicting a future for the material in everything from faster computers to transparent touchscreens (sound familiar?) to airplane manufacturing.

But as The New Yorker detailed in late 2014, university labs and electronics corporations are still struggling to work out a practical, or profitable, use for graphene. There’s at least one prototype in circulation of a flexible display made with graphene, but you wouldn’t trade your iPhone for it yet. If only Steven Spielberg would make a movie showing us what to do.

Kelly O’Brien can be reached at kelly.obrien@globe.com.