More Fiction in Science!

Von Philipp Thesen | September 2019

When did the great Apple iPad first see the light of day? In April 2010? This answer is right and wrong. Such tablets could already be found on a console in the starship canteen in the classic 1968 film 2001 A Space Odyssey. In a scene from this film, two astronauts, Frank Poole and Dave Bowman, watch a TV show on their tablets during their lunch break and the
supercomputer HAL 9000 relays the fact it is content with being an artificially intelligent and autonomous specimen. This scene was screened by Samsung as part of a lawsuit in 2011, to highlight that it wasn’t Apple, but the film’s director, Stanley Kubrick, who invented the computing tablet. For designers today, this scene merely shows that the tablet came to the market nine years later than the year 2001 that Kubrick had imagined this innovation to exist.
How can it be that a technological innovation of today was foreseen almost 50 years ago? Is this just a one-off incident? Or is there something systematic about it? Was it just a case of brilliant science fiction authors accurately predicting the future? Or did their visions actually serve as blueprints for the engineers who simply translated literary fantasies into new technologies? The famous chicken-egg discussion is one that science fiction authors have truly appropriated for themselves. If you were to evaluate all literature, you would see that writers have won this debate – purely from a statistical perspective. Many of the technological innovations that facilitate and determine our everyday life today were described in books written 30 or 40 years ago.

One particularly impressive example is the author Philip K. Dick. Up until his early death in 1982, Dick wrote about 120 short stories and more than 40 novels. He is considered one of the greatest science fiction authors of all time. Dick’s stories are still relevant to the present-day reader. They make us question reality and the existence of humans and machines. How they would coexist, what there differences and similarities are.

While Dick’s stories and theories were overlooked during his own lifetime, more than 30 years after his death the author is regarded as one of the most perceptive visionaries of the digital age. Dick was claustrophobic, he hardly ever left his house in middle-class Californian suburbia. Dick never did any research – the Internet didn’t exist back then – so he invented everything himself. In Dick’s imagination, he travelled through countless worlds aided by extensive drug experiments.

Films like The Matrix and eXistenZ are based on Dick’s ideas. This writer almost single-handedly defined the technological visions of the future that are portrayed by Hollywood. The list of film adaptations of Dick’s novels and short stories is as long as it is impressive: Blade Runner, Total Recall, The Man in the High Castle, Screamers, Paycheck and Minority Report.

It has already been more than 15 years since Steven Spielberg created the film Minority Report, based on the short story by Dick. This film, with Tom Cruise in the lead role, captivated audience members with its numerous innovative technologies that were novel to the audience at the time: ubiquitous large-format digital displays, iris and facial recognition, and much more. Today, we can observe many of these concepts being close to come to life. For example, in experimental settings large-scale displays are able to recognise consumers standing in front of them. And displaying advertisements targeted specifically for whoever is standing there.

What we once admired only in movies now determines many aspects of our real lives. The idea of operating a computer by mere hand movements, like in the film Minority Report, evidently inspired developers at Apple and Microsoft. Precrime, where police departments of the future use precognition to prevent murder, also used in Minority Report, is increasingly being utilised around the world. Today, numerous “Predictive Policing” models analyse case data with the help of Artificial Intelligence, calculating the probability of future crimes.

For a designer, the most impressive thing about Minority Report is the background story of its production development. At the start of the project, Steven Spielberg invited well-known futurologists and MIT scientists to a three-day seminar with the aim of finding out what the world might look like in the year 2054. This approach differs very little from the methods of design thinking, which designers use when describing the future. From the results of the seminar and the opinions of experts, Spielberg created a list outlining how medicine, transport technology, urban architecture, design, etc. are expected to develop by 2054.

When Spielberg was interviewed after the release of the film, he was quoted as saying, “I wanted to give the film some roots – get more science than fiction from it.” This describes what we propose CEO’s, business unit leaders and innovation managers to do: Read science fiction and involve scientists to predict how the future might look like.

Von Philipp Thesen | September 2019