SF in the time of disruption: Why companies are crystal gazing through science fiction

Gautham Shenoy March 3, 2017 6 min

Art Deco flying chairs may not be here yet. But personal jetpacks are not quite far away. And fully immersive virtual reality (VR) or, even better, mixed reality are knocking on our doors.

While the thought of these experiences may hold us in awe, these ideas are not new for science fiction (SF) readers. There’s a reason why any new cutting-edge technology or discovery is more often than not described as ‘sci-fi’. Therein lies the utility of science fiction for people, start-ups, corporations and countries that would like to anticipate the future, lest they be blindsided by what it may bring, and to be “future-ready”, to borrow an oft-used and abused term.

Therein lies the utility of science fiction for people, start-ups, corporations and countries that would like to anticipate the future, lest they be blindsided by what it may bring, and to be “future-ready”, to borrow an oft-used and abused term  

To quote an SF grandmaster, the author Samuel R Delaney, who, while speaking at a Smithsonian event on the intersection of science and science fiction, said: “The variety of worlds science fiction accustoms us to, through imagination, is training for thinking about the actual changes — sometimes catastrophic, often confusing — that the real world funnels at us year after year. It helps us avoid feeling quite so gobsmacked.”

In other words, science fiction can help, more than any other genre of literature, prepare for the future, not just by providing glimpses of it but also by portraying the implications of technology on human society and the world at large. Even more so by helping focus thoughts and efforts in the direction we want to go. No wonder then, that many companies are taking recourse to science fiction, be they out to disrupt the normal or to pre-empt the disruption they will inevitably face. And, needless to say, for inspiration. Because science fiction can seed ideas that, in the fertile mind of an inventor, innovator or developer, can germinate into something truly world-changing.

The two most popular books in the VR community: Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash and Ready Player One by Ernest Cline, for their portrayal of a virtual world

This is very pronounced in the VR and tech industry. Oculus VR for instance, hands out copies of the sci-fi bestseller, Ready Player One by Ernest Cline — where almost all of the story and action takes place in a virtual world — to all new hires, to the extent that it gave out 3,000 copies of this book to attendees of an Oculus developers conference in 2015. Meanwhile, at the company that bought Oculus — Facebook — product managers are required to read the seminal 1992 book that birthed the virtual world of the Metaverse, Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson, the sci-fi- author whose Project Hieroglyph aims to reignite society’s ambition with science fiction and get big stuff done.

As for Stephenson himself, he’s currently the “chief futurist” — the most famous of a few sci-fi writers hired to be a part of the team — at Magic Leap, a startup with no product till date, but one that’s had one the largest C-rounds in the history of financing at almost $800 million, and counts Google and Alibaba Group among its investors. While there have been hints as to what the ultimate product may be, Magic Leap’s mixed reality dreams are expected to bring science fiction to life, and who better to head the many “content projects”, as Stephenson calls them, that are underway at Magic Leap.

Also read: India needs to read more science fiction to imagine and to create

It is known that tech firms like Apple and Google regularly invite science fiction authors to give talks to their employees and meet with their R&D staff, researchers and developers. And it goes beyond just talks and seminars at some companies. Intel, for example, has The Tomorrow Project, an initiative whose aim is to generate science-based fiction that explores possible futures, stories that can be used as inspiration to scientists, or as data for cultural anthropologists. There have been 10 anthologies released as part of this project so far, all of which are available online and free at The Tomorrow Projects page.

A selection of three covers from the many anthologies released as part of Intel’s The Tomorrow Project, which aims to create new stories and use science fiction as a way to having conversations about the future

Microsoft, on the other hand, went one step further and invited the veritable who’s-who of contemporary SF — award-winning sci-fi authors like Elizabeth Bear, David Brin, Nancy Kress, Ann Leckie, Greg Bear and Robert J Sawyer — to its research labs. It gave them them unhindered access to its researchers and labs for a year, and the creative freedom required to posit all the many ways in which to project the cutting-edge research into the future.

The science that these authors used as a foundation to write their science fiction stories are in turn expected to influence the technologies and products that arise from Microsoft’s research. From subjects that range from predictive analytics, machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) to quantum computing and real-time translation, all the stories — eminently readable — are techno-optimistic and explore the many ways in which the interplay between people and technology could play out. The full anthology, Future Visions: Original Science Fiction Stories Inspired by Microsoft, including a graphic novel, is available as a free download. Go ahead, and give it a read.

The cover of the Future Visions anthology from Microsoft, featuring sci-fi stories from well-known SF authors such as Elizabeth Bear, David Brin, Nancy Kress, Ann Leckie, Greg Bear and Robert J Sawyer

If you’re thinking science fiction has utility for and provides inspiration only to tech companies, think again. The United States Marine Corps is using sci-fi stories as a way to prepare for threats 15-30 years in the future. More interested in the nature of future conflict and possible scenarios, the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory/Futures Directorate launched a sci-fi story competition for its officers, and of the many entries received, more than a dozen were shortlisted. The writers of these stories were then paired with established sci-fi authors, like the author of World War Z, Max Brooks. The stories were made necessary reading and the top three, revolving around political chaos, conflicts over water, and the growth of megacities, were released in an anthology Science Fiction Futures: Marine Corps Security Environment Forecast 2030-2045 — available for free to read online.

The cover of Science Fiction Futures, the anthology from the US Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory/Futures Directorate featuring sci-fi stories set in the near-future revolving around the theme of possible future conflict scenarios

What does the future hold? No one can say for sure. But good science fiction does give us a glimpse of what may come to be. In the words of technologist and author, Brian David Johnson, who used to lead Intel’s Tomorrow Project as its first futurist, “Science fiction gives us the language so that we can have a conversation about the future.” And long may these conversations continue! On that hopeful note, I bid you good bye and will see you again next Friday with yet another edition of New Worlds Weekly and explore yet another facet of this literature of ideas that we call science fiction. Live Long and Prosper!


Lead visual: "Cosmos - Rooftops" by artist Ned-Rogers