In The Time Machine, published in 1895, HG Wells introduced time as the fourth dimension decades before Einstein brought it into real science. In the late 1960s devices such as communicators and Portable Auxiliary Data Display’s featured as futuristic technologies on the hit television series Star Trek. Today we know these as mobile phones and tablets. Xenotransplants were once the terrain of Margaret Atwood’s eerie pigoons in her 2003-2013 MaddAddam trilogy. And yet, only 6 years later scientists are closer than ever to growing and transplanting human organs from animals. Experiments with interactive entertainment such as the new Black Mirror release Bandersnatch allow us the semblance of control over characters on screen. In our everyday lives, we ask Alexa to put dog food on the shopping list, and we watch, without too much scepticism, as Joaquin Phoenix falls in love with his AI voice assistant in the 2013 tech romance, Her. Since human beings began to self-conceptualise as individuals, our anxieties about the future, legacies, and death have been interwoven with narrative. How is it that we perceive ourselves, and our value as human beings? Might we one day be content with slipping our flesh prisons to be uploaded to the Cloud, rather than live out a terminal physical embodiment? And what of AI? Thanks to developments in artificial intelligence, we are able to speculate about how our fundamentally social species might interact with performatively human-like machines of our own making.
How might today’s science fiction shape tomorrow’s real-world technologies? Will we force robots into a gender binary? Is the future likely to be more exclusionary and more unequal than the present? And if it is likely, is it avoidable?
As Artificial Intelligence and smart-technologies become ever more present in almost every aspect of our lives, we run the risk of society’s trajectory and future becoming the exclusive domain of the engineers and mathematicians responsible for conceiving and shaping these technologies. But the consequences of this trajectory, and the frameworks and norms in which it is decided, span far beyond the realm of the technical sciences. How can, and should, the humanities play a more prominent role in our collective thinking about the future? What do they offer, and is this sufficiently recognized in the knowledge economy?
Our panellists for this discussion were Professor Robert Iliffe, Dr Gretta Corporaal, Dr Alexandra Paddock and Professor Kirsten Shepherd-Barr. They discussed the impact of sci fi on science, the future of labour in the gig economy, and practical applications of AI in literature through the LitHits project, concluding with debate about the future of reading.
For the full conversation, you can watch the launch conversation here.