How Project Hieroglyph helps researchers use sci-fi concepts to invent the future of tech

In this article...

  • Sci-fi stories that contain hopeful elements—even if they are rife with drama, conflict and robot battles—have the potential to inspire real innovation
  • Project Hieroglyph brings together top science fiction writers and engineers to create a vision for the future grounded in emerging technology


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"Science fiction," said celebrated physicist Stephen Hawking, "is useful both for stimulating the imagination and for diffusing fear of the future." History reveals numerous cases of science fiction evolving into science fact, inspiring the technological innovation that becomes part of our day-to-day lives and providing inspiration to designers, engineers and entrepreneurs around the world.

HAL, the natural language computer in “2001: A Space Odyssey,” paved the way for Apple's innovation with Siri. John Brunner's 1975 novel “The Shockwave Rider” presaged the Internet and the problems that come with it, including hacking and identity theft. And the Star Trek franchise is the sci-fi gift that keeps on giving: its "communicator" voice-communication device inspired the form of the clamshell mobile phone, its computer has been the template for Google's ideal search experience and the influence of its holodeck can be seen in The Void.

"Science fiction can be a useful lens through which to glimpse the fears and anxieties, but also the hopes and aspirations, of people in specific time periods in specific places," says Ed Finn, director of the Center for Science and the Imagination (CSI) at Arizona State University (ASU). "In artful stories, these fears and anxieties aren't just presented to us on the surface, but are encoded in a more complex way in narratives, characters and themes."

“Sci-fi can be a useful lens through which to glimpse fears, anxieties, hopes and aspirations.”

But what does today's science fiction, which often shows a dark bias, tell us about our present-day concerns? More importantly, what real-life innovation, if any, might arise from these narratives? "It's sometimes easier to tell a gripping story with compelling conflict in the context of a gloomy or dystopian future," Finn admits. "Making hope and optimism engaging in the context of a narrative is tricky."

Stopping anxiety from marring innovation

Compelling science fiction can introduce entirely new worlds. William Gibson, Pat Cadigan and Bruce Sterling's cyberpunk created a new sphere of cyberspace, "through which authors and readers can grapple with the complex relationships among and between humans and the machines we create," Finn says. "Those cyberpunk stories betray anxieties about the increasing power of multinational corporations, and fears about the virtualization of our lives through computing, but they also unfold entirely uncharted realities that are filled with possibility—and cool fashion and gadgets." The subgenre became a quasi-blueprint for the pioneers of virtual reality and other digital domains.

Science fiction writer Neal Stephenson had been concerned that modern sci-fi might not spur the big ideas of tomorrow the way earlier generations did. "Good science fiction supplies a plausible, fully thought out picture of an alternate reality in which some sort of compelling innovation has taken place," Stephenson wrote in a 2011 article for the World Policy Journal. "It has a coherence and internal logic that makes sense to a scientist or engineer, and provides them with a template that they and their colleagues can use to organize their work."

Rather than waiting for the next robot or rocket ship to emerge, Stephenson—whose 1992 cyberpunk novel “Snow Crash” painted early pictures of what would eventually become Second Life and Google Earth—launched Project Hieroglyph at ASU's CSI. The goal: replace hackers and cyber disasters with ideas to inspire actual innovations. Project Hieroglyph brings together top science fiction writers with scientists, engineers and other experts to collaborate on visions of the near future grounded in emerging technology.

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Creating a world worth pursuing

"It's really inspiring to see scientists, engineers and innovators take inspiration from literature and bring thrilling new technologies into being. But what we're more interested in is how science fiction can help us bring a human touch to designing new technologies," says Finn, who co-edited the first Project Hieroglyph anthology, which includes works of "techno-optimism" from 20 leading writers and thinkers. "Taking a more hopeful approach to the future can expand people's sense of agency. The future isn't a fixed point that we're hurtling toward uncontrollably; it's the outcome of choices we make together. But we need to be active agents in creating the future we want—it won't just materialize because we think it's cool."

“Science fiction can help us bring a human touch to designing new technologies.”

These stories are hardly brimming with sunshine and rainbows. But "stories that contain hopeful elements—even if they are rife with drama and conflict and robot battles—have the potential to suggest constructive paths forward," says Finn. "They can give us ideas about things we might want to pursue technologically, culturally, socially and scientifically, as opposed to ideas about things we should avoid."

Dystopian storytelling is clearly compelling, and it can illuminate the potentially catastrophic consequences of technology run amok, from HAL 9000 to “Minority Report's” pre-crime detection systems. "It's important to have science fiction stories that illustrate the dangers of poor decision-making about science, technology and society," Finn says, "but if we want to motivate people to get involved—build something, get involved in the political process, get organized or create tangible change—stories that are hopeful can help generate ideas that we might want to collectively pursue and work toward."

Project Hieroglyph has served in support of the concept that sci-fi can (and should) play a structured role in altering how researchers, technologists and entrepreneurs think about the future, and it has spawned new projects with sponsors including the National Science Foundation, NASA and the World Bank. The greatest minds of our time still have much to dream about.

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