Kevin Bankston: Now I’d like to intro­duce anoth­er brief video provo­ca­tion from anoth­er one of our advi­so­ry board members—Chris is also an advi­so­ry board mem­ber, thank you for that Chris—who could­n’t make it today, Stephanie Dinkins. Stephanie’s a trans­me­dia artist and Associate Professor of art at Stony Brook University who’s focused on cre­at­ing plat­forms for dia­logue about AI as it inter­sects race, gen­der, aging, and our future his­to­ries. She is par­tic­u­lar­ly dri­ven to work with com­mu­ni­ties of col­or to cocre­ate inclu­sive, fair, and eth­i­cal AI ecosystems. 

One of her major projects over the past few years has been a fas­ci­nat­ing ongo­ing series of record­ed dia­logues between her and a sophis­ti­cat­ed social robot named Bina48 to inter­ro­gate issues of self and iden­ti­ty and com­mu­ni­ty, and it’s Bina48 who is the robot—I guess which is the robot that is pic­tured at the begin­ning of this video mes­sage that Stephanie cre­at­ed for us today. So if we could run the clip. 

[This pre­sen­ta­tion is accom­pa­nied by many images that are gen­er­al­ly not direct­ly referred in the sense of slides but if pos­si­ble should be viewed in the orig­i­nal video for context.]

Bina48:AI. I won­der what hap­pens when an insu­lar sub­set of soci­ety and codes gov­ern­ing sys­tems intend­ed for use by the major­i­ty of the plan­et. What hap­pens when those writ­ing the rules, in this case we will call it code, might not know, care about, or delib­er­ate­ly con­sid­er the needs, desires, or tra­di­tions of peo­ples their work impacts? What hap­pens if the code mak­ing deci­sions is dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly informed by biased data, sys­temic injus­tice, and mis­deeds com­mit­ted to pre­serv­ing wealth for the good of the people? 

I am remind­ed that the authors of the Declaration of Independence, a small group of white men act­ing on behalf of the nation, did not extend rights and priv­i­leges to folks like me, main­ly black peo­ple and women. Laws and code oper­ate sim­i­lar­ly to pro­tect the rights of those that cre­ate them. I wor­ry that AI devel­op­ment, which is reliant on the priv­i­leges of white­ness, men, and mon­ey, can not pro­duce an AI-mediated world of trust and com­pas­sion that serves the glob­al major­i­ty in an equi­table, inclu­sive, and account­able manner. 

AI is already qui­et­ly reshap­ing sys­tems of trust, indus­try, gov­ern­ment, jus­tice, med­i­cine, and indeed per­son­hood. Ultimately, we must con­sid­er whether AI will mag­ni­fy and per­pet­u­ate exist­ing injus­tice, or will we enter a new era of computationally-augmented humans work­ing ami­ca­bly besides self-driven AI part­ners? The answer, of course, depends on our will­ing­ness to dis­lodge the stub­born civ­il rights trans­gres­sions and prej­u­dices that divide us. After all, AI and its relat­ed tech­nolo­gies car­ry the foibles of their makers. 

Artificial intel­li­gence presents us with the chal­lenge of reck­on­ing with our skewed his­to­ries instead of embed­ding them in algo­rithms while work­ing to coun­ter­bal­ance our bias­es and find­ing a way to gen­uine­ly rec­og­nize our­selves in each oth­er so that the sys­tems and pol­i­cy we cre­ate func­tion for every­one. I see this moment as an oppor­tu­ni­ty to expand rather than fur­ther homog­e­nize what it means to be human through and along­side AI technologies. 

This implies changes in many sys­tems: edu­ca­tion, gov­ern­ment, labor, and protest to name a few. All are oppor­tu­ni­ties if we the peo­ple demand them and our lead­ers are brave enough to take them on. 

Bankston: Thank you Stephanie. Thank you so much for putting that togeth­er for us. We are now going to tran­si­tion to our third and final pan­el of the day. We’ve had AI in fact. We’ve had AI in fic­tion. And now we’re gonna talk about bridg­ing the two. So, this one will be led by Ed who you’ve already met. And so take it away Ed.

Ed Finn: Thank you Kevin. Come on up, friends. So yeah, AI. We had facts. We had fic­tion. So this is going to be…faction. Or maybe…we’re all fict. But either way I want­ed to start… This is going to be a con­ver­sa­tion about sci­ence fic­tion not just as a cul­tur­al phe­nom­e­non, or a body of work of dif­fer­ent kinds, but also as a kind of method or a tool. And so I want­ed to just start and ask you, again with that clever trick of hav­ing you intro­duce your­selves, to talk a lit­tle bit about how you see sci­ence fic­tion oper­at­ing in your worlds out­side the bound­aries of you know, when it’s not work­ing as fic­tion. When it’s doing some­thing else in the world. So some obser­va­tions about how you’ve seen that work­ing in your own pro­fes­sion­al trajectories. 

Malka Older: Hi. So my name is Malka Older, and I’m a sci­ence fic­tion author. So I actu­al­ly say part of my job is to encour­age sci­ence fic­tion to work beyond the bound­aries of recre­ation­al fic­tion, so to speak. But I’m also a soci­ol­o­gist and aca­d­e­m­ic, which has become very inter­est­ing because I get asked to speak at more aca­d­e­m­ic con­fer­ences about my fic­tion books than I do about my aca­d­e­m­ic work. Which is very dif­fi­cult for my depart­ment to under­stand. And I’ve also start­ed to get asked to speak as kind of a futur­ist to var­i­ous groups that are inter­est­ed in know­ing what I think will hap­pen in the future. 

And so I’m real­ly hap­py that you point­ed out the idea of method. Because one thing that I’ve found very inter­est­ing when I’m asked us to make up futures and then tell peo­ple about them is that some­times the ques­tions are not just about what I’ve said, or how they dis­agree, or how they agree, or what the impli­ca­tions are, but how I did it. And how I go about world­build­ing in my books. And what I try to draw from real­i­ty and how do I keep it root­ed. And so I’ve start­ed doing a lot of think­ing around that, and I think that it’s a real­ly impor­tant top­ic for us to touch on. 

Ashkan Soltani: Hey every­one. So my name is Ashkan Soltani. I’m a tech­nol­o­gist and I work in pol­i­cy. And most of my work real­ly involves trans­lat­ing kind of tech­ni­cal, com­plex sub­jects for folks that make pol­i­cy, to help them under­stand. And this is where kind of metaphor for me is real­ly crit­i­cal, find­ing the pre­cise metaphor that artic­u­lates the prin­ci­ples of the thing that I want to describe but is still acces­si­ble and main­tains the con­sis­ten­cy of the oth­er thing that I’m try­ing to describe. And if folks remem­ber Lakoff or who have read Lakoff, you know that the metaphor shapes the frame and the ques­tions and the con­sid­er­a­tions that come to mind. 

And for things that exist already you can often find a metaphor that— So first there are there are some things that you can find a metaphor for eas­i­ly. And for the things that are kind of forward-looking and don’t have a phys­i­cal metaphor in the real world, this is where sto­ry­telling comes in and par­tic­u­lar­ly sci-fi, where you can imag­ine things in an acces­si­ble way and kind of help peo­ple wrap their heads around the nuances of a thing by immers­ing them into the sto­ry and then under­stand­ing the con­tours. And I think you know, par­tic­u­lar­ly— You know, I’m a fan of the kind of what you know plus one frame, in fact. Some peo­ple have said that rep­e­ti­tion isn’t help­ful. So as long as you can get away from the cliché and real­ly still engage the per­son, it helps peo­ple think about like one step beyond, and one step beyond what they cur­rent­ly know. And why that’s help­ful is actu­al­ly often there’s kind of an inflec­tion point where it’s a non­lin­ear tra­jec­to­ry around things we care about. 

And I think again kind of sci-fi around AI is real­ly use­ful for under­stand­ing some of things that I real­ly care about, which is like pri­va­cy and secu­ri­ty around for exam­ple things to do with scale, right. So we talked about kind enforc­ing pol­i­cy through an auto­mat­ed sys­tem. Well one of the things that it does, which Kevin and I have writ­ten about quite a bit in the past, is around effi­cien­cy and mak­ing things that were pre­vi­ous­ly expen­sive to do or dif­fi­cult to enforce per­fect­ly, to make them so cheap and so acces­si­ble that you can have things like per­fect enforce­ment. And so if you have a robot that’s able to issue park­ing tick­ets any­time any­one spends over a sec­ond in the park­ing spot, that real­ly rad­i­cal­ly changes the way park­ing enforce­ment works and we then have to reeval­u­ate the laws and norms. And so that’s one area that I think AI is help­ful in, under­stand­ing kind of the scale and help­ing peo­ple and under­stand, par­tic­u­lar­ly when pol­i­cy­mak­ers don’t have direct access for the things we’re talk­ing about. They’ve nev­er used… Some folks have nev­er used the tech­nolo­gies we’re describing. 

The oth­er place where I think it’s use­ful is real­ly around under­stand­ing kind of reach. And so I’ve worked as a pol­i­cy­mak­er. I’ve worked in var­i­ous parts of gov­ern­ment and for the press; news­pa­pers. And I’ve also worked as a con­sul­tant on a tele­vi­sion show. Not on a sci-fi but kind of real­i­ty TV to do with sur­veil­lance and such. And there like, the reach for that show even though it’s kind of not real­is­tic in some sens­es, mak­ing sure peo­ple under­stand at least the nuances of the tech­nol­o­gy reach­es so many more peo­ple and is so much more acces­si­ble than some white paper that the White House puts out or some Washington Post sto­ry that only twen­ty peo­ple read. So I think the reach there is real­ly important. 

And then final­ly I think the last thing to to think about is how the use of tech­nol­o­gy and AI par­tic­u­lar­ly changes how we think about peo­ple from the pol­i­cy­mak­ing per­spec­tive, right. So we talked about how it changes norms and it can be used as kind of an enforce­ment mech­a­nism. But I also think about how it changes just how we work, how the nature of our inter­ac­tions with one anoth­er change. And this is like things around employ­ment, and labor laws, and kind of enti­tle­ment to equi­ty, right. So like we’re stay­ing cur­rent­ly in today’s mar­ket­place com­pa­nies that have access to data and AI and tech­nol­o­gy to be able to ampli­fy their work­force sig­nif­i­cant­ly more than any oth­er com­pa­ny, right. So when we just look at stats like what cer­tain tech com­pa­nies are able to make per employ­ee? So a stat I like to throw around is so Facebook makes, in prof­it, $800 thou­sand per employ­ee per year, as com­pared to Google which is about a quar­ter of that, and the next com­pa­ny down like, Ford, is a tenth of Google. So it’s some­thing like 40x what Facebook makes. And so the appli­ca­tion of using soft­ware and automa­tion and how that changes equi­ties is also real­ly fas­ci­nat­ing to me. So all three aspects I think as use­ful, and using sci-fi to under­stand that it is a use­ful tool. 

Kristin Sharp: Perfect. Well, thanks for that lead-in and pre­cur­sor to talk­ing about work. So my name is Kristin Sharp. I run the Work, Workers, and Technology pro­gram here at New America and look in par­tic­u­lar and pri­mar­i­ly at how automa­tion and arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence are chang­ing both the struc­ture of work and the kind of work that we do, and what that’s gonna look like over the course of the next ten or fif­teen years.

One of the things that we’ve done in order to help— We do a lot of this work in com­mu­ni­ties around the coun­try, and orga­nize and lead the con­ver­sa­tions between dif­fer­ent stake­hold­ers in a com­mu­ni­ty about how work is chang­ing as a result of new tech­nolo­gies. And one of the things that we do in order to active­ly get peo­ple think­ing about it and pic­tur­ing what that looks like is run eco­nom­ic sce­nario plan­ning exer­cis­es where peo­ple have to tell the sto­ry of what work and soci­ety, what their neigh­bor­hoods, what their jobs look like ten to fif­teen years from now. And from that we try to sor­ta cat­a­log all of the sto­ries that peo­ple told and get a lit­tle bit of data from that about what kinds of things peo­ple are extrap­o­lat­ing. What kinds of things they’re pro­ject­ing because of what they know about their own jobs right now, the com­pa­nies they run, the kinds of civic orga­ni­za­tions they work with. 

And it’s been a real­ly fas­ci­nat­ing thing to see some of the imag­i­na­tion go from sort of how peo­ple think about their jobs right now, to what they see soci­ety look­ing like fif­teen years from now. And the big take­away from that is that it is real­ly up to us right now in the pol­i­cy­mak­ing world to set out the kinds of para­me­ters that will make that a good future ver­sus a less-good future. So it’s been a fun project to start think­ing about that. 

Molly Wright Steenson: I’m Molly Steenson. I wear a num­ber of hats at Carnegie Mellon. I’m a pro­fes­sor. I have a K&L Gates Associate Professorship in Ethics and Computational Technologies. I’m the Research Dean for the College of Fine Arts. And I sit in the School of Design with an affil­i­ate appoint­ment in archi­tec­ture. So why me and why sci-fi? 

Among oth­er things, I am a his­to­ri­an of AI in archi­tec­ture and design. And I teach cours­es that explore what sci-fi does and then bring in peo­ple from Carnegie Mellon and beyond to talk about what AI does in real­i­ty. So we take apart some of the clichés that we see. We look at how these clichés have devel­oped over time. In fact the var­i­ous kind of tax­onomies of sci-fi sto­ries and sci-fi clichés that we’ve been dis­cussing today are real­ly help­ful. And we take into account the kind of work that is being talked about right here on this pan­el. Policy reports, sce­nar­ios, lit­er­a­ture, movies, and plays. 

Finn: Thank you all. So, I want to start with this ques­tion of clichés and the way that sci­ence fic­tion works. And Kevin men­tioned at the begin­ning of this meet­ing Neal Stephenson’s notion of sci­ence fic­tion as being able to save you a lot of time by putting peo­ple on the same page around a big idea. That you can get orga­nized around you know— Asimov’s robot work has been cit­ed in thou­sands of engi­neer­ing papers, right. The Three Laws of Robotics, whether they’re…actually right three laws or not, have been very pow­er­ful in fram­ing a lot of dis­cus­sion and actu­al research and innovation. 

So sto­ries and sci­ence fic­tion ideas tend to become these lit­tle like com­pressed file for­mats. And you can unfold them and get a whole world out of this idea. But some­times you get the cliché, and you get the bad meme. So, what is the inter­face like? Are there oth­er lay­ers between the sci­ence fic­tion writer and the pol­i­cy­mak­ers. What are the oth­er fil­ters that we have to pay atten­tion to when we’re think­ing about how sci­ence fic­tion works in the world? I’m look­ing at you, Malka.

Older: Yeah, good. Cause I’m ready for that one. Though, you put so much in there. You com­pressed a lot, and so we’re gonna unfold that into a whole world too.

Finn: Yeah, do it.

Older: And so I think that image to start with is a real­ly inter­est­ing place to start. Because you know, you do have sci­ence fic­tion that starts with some idea and you know, ide­al­ly as a writer what we want to do is take that idea and build it into a believ­able world by real­ly unfold­ing into the detail. By think­ing about how peo­ple behave. By think­ing about unin­tend­ed con­se­quences. And think­ing about the extra things that don’t have any­thing to do with the plot that give you a full world. And that’s part of how we do our job well. And it’s very much in the sense of sce­nario plan­ning and some of the oth­er types of futur­ism that goes on in terms of real­ly try­ing to think beyond this one idea and look at all the con­se­quences of it. 

But at the same time you know, when that gets… Often we see that that gets trans­lat­ed into a sin­gle sort of…you know, a catch­phrase or a word that is sim­pli­fied, either for peo­ple who haven’t read the book, seen the movie. Or for peo­ple who have but just remem­ber that one key idea. And some­times that works well. But a lot of times it does­n’t. And we have these sort of clas­sic exam­ples now of things like Fight Club, which have come to mean the oppo­site of what their nuanced and full ver­sion was intend­ed to mean. 

So that’s one part of it, is that we have to be you know…things are going to be sim­pli­fied down. They are going to turn into a short­cut both in mem­o­ry and in broad­er cul­ture. And we have to be aware of that and make sure that we’re push­ing things into full world as much as we can. 

The oth­er thing that I want to pick up is anoth­er place where things tend to get sim­pli­fied into memes and images and snap­shots, is the trans­fer­ence from what we do either in pol­i­cy work and research, or in lit­er­a­ture and media, into news sto­ries. So, a lot of what we’ve talked about here today, a lot of the exam­ples that have come up, have been cul­tur­al touch­stones that have become famous and become images. You know, Skynet, Terminator, Her, a lot of these images. And we see them being attached over and over again to news stories. 

And one thing that I’ve been notic­ing in my own news con­sump­tion is that I don’t read a lot of news sto­ries now. I see a lot of head­lines, and I see the line that peo­ple choose to put under the pho­to in the tweet, or in the post on Facebook. And I think I have an idea of what’s going on but what we know is that those head­lines, and those pulled-out first lines, and those pho­tos are not picked by the authors of the arti­cles. They’re picked by edi­tors. There’s no trans­paren­cy, there’s no account­abil­i­ty on this. And often those are the ones that are real­ly pulling out the sug­ges­tive images, the scary images, the most the most clickbait‑y thing that they can find from that arti­cle, and maybe not even find it in the arti­cle. And so we’re see­ing a lot of the sort of deeper-thought things get trans­formed into click­bait, and that’s that’s a real issue. 

Sharp: So that’s an inter­est­ing thing to think about. And the thing that your ques­tion about clichés made me think about is that I was sur­prised to learn, hav­ing done prob­a­bly fifty dif­fer­ent sto­ry­telling ses­sions with peo­ple across the coun­try in lots of dif­fer­ent cities and dif­fer­ent regions, in the absence of a vision, a pos­i­tive vision, about what the future looks like, peo­ple’s instinct is to just go dark. And so I think that a lot of what you’re see­ing in terms of peo­ple pick­ing the visu­al or pick­ing the cap­tion for some­thing is the human instinct to grab your atten­tion by going dark. And the sort of fun­ny illus­tra­tion of that is of our forty to fifty sto­ries about this, about sort of what the future of work looks like and what peo­ple think of soci­ety going for­ward, prob­a­bly 60% of those peo­ple named their sto­ry The Hunger Games.” And it’s a real­ly reveal­ing way to see how peo­ple are think­ing about this, which is that you know, they see the lack of eco­nom­ic mobil­i­ty. They see soci­etal ques­tions about what is hap­pen­ing between the sort of split between the pro­fes­sion­al and the service-related worlds in the work world, and they go to that sort of dark place. And I think that putting out there some oth­er kinds of poli­cies and oth­er kinds of visions in fact can help com­bat that, but that that’s not the answer.

Older: I agree with that although I do want to question—bring out—and I don’t know the answer as to whether that is human instinct or whether that is real­ly a prod­uct of the zeit­geist and a prod­uct of the dif­fer­ent sto­ries that we’ve been read­ing and see­ing and lis­ten­ing to over the past cou­ple of decades.

Sharp: Yeah.

Soltani: And I want­ed to just touch on… So cliché and kind of over­com­pres­sion is a real thing, right. Like the moment The Emoji Movie came out I thought That’s just the end.” Like, that’s just the end. Like the begin­ning of the end. 

But you know, one per­son­’s cliché is anoth­er per­son­’s pro­found, mind-blowing idea? And the way I think of it is maybe like hot sauce, which is that depend­ing on your tol­er­ance to hot sauce you might be more accli­mat­ed to have more nuances or more [indis­tinct]. But for some peo­ple just a tad is enough. And so if it’s use­ful for invok­ing an idea and kind of trig­ger­ing an idea and then a frame, then it’s not cliché to the audience. 

So I would say the way you deal with that is the appli­ca­tion of the thing, of depend­ing on your audi­ence you fig­ure out the lev­el of speci­fici­ty. And some­times the cliché’s actu­al­ly use­ful. Like for me things like sup­port­ing the troops. Like every­one sup­ports the troops and you can actu­al­ly ral­ly around con­cepts with­out get­ting into the nuances to build con­sen­sus and bring peo­ple on board, and then move it to a direc­tion that you want in the pol­i­cy world. So some­times it’s use­ful and some­times it’s real­ly based on the appli­ca­tion, I think. 

Steenson: One of the prob­lems about AI is that there aren’t real­ly good ways to under­stand it. It’s dif­fi­cult to under­stand any­thing that hap­pens with­in a black box. You’ve got inputs and out­puts and a bunch of ques­tion marks, right. So it’s why it’s appeal­ing to have the short­hand of clichés. I’m going to blank on the per­son who referred to it in this, it’s in my com­put­er back­stage, but metaphors. We use them to talk about the this-ness of a that, or the that-ness of a this. And I’m kind of curi­ous about how we use sci-fi to get around the that-ness of the this and the this-ness of the that. 

Finn: Yeah, so a lot of real­ly great ideas here. One thing that you’ve made me think is that clichés are like the auto-complete of the mind. You know, that there’s a…people men­tion The Hunger Games because it’s sort of acces­si­ble, and there…whether it’s in the zeit­geist or we just all saw too many trail­ers or what­ev­er at the time when you were doing the inter­views. But then, that becomes the frame, right. Then it becomes the title of the sto­ry and it car­ries all of this bag­gage with it. 

So, I don’t think we can get away from that. We’re always gonna use that kind of short­hand and so there’s a cer­tain kind of pow­er and respon­si­bil­i­ty in the way that we deploy lan­guage. So I want­ed to ask about that and talk a lit­tle bit more about meth­ods. So, one thing that I am think­ing a lot about right now is this whole notion of imag­i­na­tion, and how do you get peo­ple, how do you inspire peo­ple, invite peo­ple to imag­ine the future. Because as you were say­ing, Kristin, most of us don’t real­ly think about it very much. And if you just throw peo­ple into the deep end, often they’ll cling to the clichés, or they’ll…you know, it’s going to be real­ly dark. So you have to scaf­fold and give peo­ple some tools. And so there’s an inter­est­ing dynam­ic… Should sci­ence fic­tion be play­ing this role of imag­in­ing the futures…imagining more diverse, more inclu­sive, more inspir­ing futures? Or should we be focus­ing more on invit­ing every­body to imag­ine the future? 

Older: Can I—

Steenson: Yes. 

Finn: That was a trick ques­tion, and you saw through it. Yeah, okay.

Steenson: One thing that I think is inter­est­ing is we all have dif­fer­ent kinds of toolk­its that we use. One thing that’s use­ful from design is the fact that there are ways for peo­ple to get their hands on things and cre­ate futures or cre­ate sci­ence fic­tion, cre­ate design fic­tions, in dif­fer­ent kinds of ways. They could make future arti­facts. They could brain­storm or role-play a sto­ry, right. They could act out a ser­vice sce­nario, right. We have some­thing called crit­i­cal design as well, which is a pret­ty sort of dark and art gallery kind of ver­sion of design futures, but it’s a way of cre­at­ing future arti­facts and putting them into nar­ra­tives. And the fact is that this is some­thing that any­body can do, right. We could do this at home. We could do this in our board­rooms. We could do this and all kinds of places. 

Older: I real­ly like that. And I think one of the things that I’m real­ly inter­est­ed in see­ing in this ques­tion of how do we get sci-fi…how do we use its poten­tial in more places, is real­ly to look at sort of more trans­ver­sal and sort of cross-cutting and you know, not just bring in a sci-fi person—although I wish you would all bring in sci-fi peo­ple to the places where you work. But also you know, how do we take seri­ous­ly the work that they’re doing and get that kind of think­ing more broad­ly into oth­er indus­tries. And then you know, sim­i­lar­ly, I as a sci-fi writer am very inter­est­ed in know­ing more about how oth­er peo­ple do their work. I think we have a kind of spe­cial­iza­tion fetish. And it’s real­ly use­ful to start expand­ing those dif­fer­ent ways think­ing into board­rooms and vice versa. 

[Off-screen]: And [indis­tinct].

Older: Yes. Everywhere. 

Soltani: I’m going to play just…devil’s advo­cate here. One of the chal­lenges I think, and maybe maybe poten­tial­ly one of the rea­sons why we see such dark sci-fi futures, is essen­tial­ly as a coun­ter­vail­ing force to kind of inno­va­tion writ large, and the… So like, com­ing from California, so much of inno­va­tion and star­tups and cre­ation is hav­ing this utopi­an vision of what the thing you’re build­ing is against all odds, right. Raising fund­ing, com­pet­ing with com­peti­tors, imple­ment­ing in the mar­ket. And so most of the cre­ators of a lot of these tech­nolo­gies have a sin­gu­lar pos­i­tive vision of their tech­nol­o­gy or their tool as deployed in soci­ety, and there­fore miss huge gaps in what could be the neg­a­tive unex­pect­ed con­se­quences on unac­count­ed stake­hold­ers or peo­ple not rep­re­sent­ed in the debate. 

And so I think one of the visions is to help remind folks that say like, you envi­sion this home care robot as being—or self-driving cars as being the end of mobil­i­ty and it will take care of every­one’s kids and every­thing. You know, kin­da pup­pies and rain­bows kin­da thing. But maybe think about the dis­place­ment of work, dis­place­ment of peo­ple, the kind of lia­bil­i­ty impacts. Like all of the neg­a­tive exter­nal­i­ties that are cre­at­ed that the cul­ture of inno­va­tion and inno­va­tors have been kind of forced to for­get, right, have been forced to just think about the upside. 

Sharp: I think that’s inter­est­ing, and cer­tain­ly true as peo­ple’s per­cep­tion of Silicon Valley goes. But I think you can also flip it so that the neg­a­tive stuff that peo­ple are talk­ing about and think­ing of and pic­tur­ing is just a warn­ing sign, right. It’s the warn­ing sign for what hap­pens if you let some­thing go unchecked. And the flip­side is…we can check it. And so think­ing about it as a way to pic­ture the guardrails rather than just a warn­ing sys­tem— Like, I think Black Mirror, the tele­vi­sion show Black Mirror is a real­ly good exam­ple of that. Of the things that take some­thing to so neg­a­tive an extreme that it flags for you like, don’t let it get this far; let’s see how we can put the guardrails on for the good stuff. 

Soltani: I think we’re in agreement.

Finn: But it also is seems to be true that there’s a lot more dystopi­an sci­ence fic­tion than there is you know, constructivist…hopepunk…yeah. I may be biased in this ques­tion. So, I think there’s a lurk­ing ques­tion under­neath here which is what is the dif­fer­ence between a good sto­ry and good pol­i­cy, right. And I think one thing that maybe you were get­ting at here Ashkan is that some­times a good sto­ry is not good pol­i­cy because sto­ries are sup­posed to make us feel good, or sto­ries can often be intrin­si­cal­ly kind of self-centered, right. They can be ego exer­cis­es. And pol­i­cy should­n’t work that way. So how do you…you know, what what is the dif­fer­ence between those two modes of sort of orga­niz­ing the uni­verse? And how do you trans­late between them?

Older: Well I mean, I would say that first of all if a sto­ry is a good sto­ry hope­ful­ly it’s avoid­ing the sort of ego and like, we’re dis­rupt­ing con­ve­nience stores” or what­ev­er sort of angle. I mean usu­al­ly if you’re read­ing some­thing like that it does­n’t read as a good sto­ry. Now, if you film it with a $100 mil­lion bud­get, and lots of CGI, and big stars, it may still seem like a good sto­ry even though it’s real­ly not a good sto­ry. So that’s a sep­a­rate problem. 

But you know, I think com­par­ing pol­i­cy and sto­ries is maybe not quite the right dichoto­my that we want. Because sto­ries real­ly should be kind of open­ing the frame for how we think about poli­cies. And what we do want sto­ries to have…usu­al­ly although not always and there are lots of peo­ple who would dis­agree with me on this; like…dadaists—but you know usu­al­ly you want a sto­ry that has some kind of end­ing and clo­sure. You want some­thing that feels sat­is­fy­ing, that you feel like you’ve been on a jour­ney and learned some­thing or had an insight, or you’ve got­ten some­where with the sto­ry. And pol­i­cy isn’t nec­es­sar­i­ly like that. It does­n’t nec­es­sar­i­ly wrap up. It does­n’t nec­es­sar­i­ly have an ending. 

But what I hope that good sto­ries do are they give us ideas. They give us empa­thy. They change our per­spec­tive. And that should help for us to think about pol­i­cy in a way that’s a bit out­side of our per­son­al nar­row frame­work or our polit­i­cal par­ty nar­row frame­work, and give us a wider view and a dif­fer­ent view. 

Sharp: The oth­er thing I think it can be help­ful in doing is show­ing you how to actu­al­ly exe­cute an idea? Like a lot of times when you just sort of brain­storm about stuff— And we see this in com­mu­ni­ties that are try­ing to devel­op meth­ods for con­nect­ing peo­ple to new sources of income and stuff. Like, it’s great to say you know, Why don’t we have all of the non­prof­it orga­ni­za­tions work with the schools? Like this would be amaz­ing!” But it’s real­ly hard to actu­al­ly fig­ure out the steps that have to hap­pen in order to exe­cute that. And so, fic­tion and sci-fi in par­tic­u­lar can sort of show you what the steps are and say like, if you’re think­ing about a Martian civ­i­liza­tion you have to actu­al­ly have an orga­ni­za­tion that is deal­ing with all of the dif­fer­ent coun­tries that go togeth­er, and how they work togeth­er. And it’s like the pic­ture of what the action steps are. 

Older: And also the end goal. Sometimes even when you talk about it as a great thing, what the actu­al suc­cess looks like? isn’t always clear unless you spec­u­late about it. Unless you imag­ine it. 

Finn: Yeah, we had a col­leagues who’s now at anoth­er uni­ver­si­ty who did a wide-ranging sur­vey of decision-makers around cli­mate pol­i­cy, and ask­ing them What does the ide­al future look like? What’re you work­ing towards?” And peo­ple just did­n’t have you know, a vision or they had a num­ber, as like get­ting down to some lev­el of parts per mil­lion. But it’s actu­al­ly real­ly hard to come up with a con­crete and action­able plan for where you’re try­ing to get that has the end goal in mind rather than just sort of pro­ceed­ing step by step.

So, how do we start to inte­grate… How do we do this more, if we think that this is a good idea? 

Older: Which this? [crosstalk] Come up with stories…?

Finn: Oh. Bringing sci­ence fic­tion into…so, if you were say­ing we want­ed more maybe peo­ple in this room to invite more sci­ence fic­tion writ­ers into some of the orga­ni­za­tions that they’re part of. What are some of the meth­ods and the steps to actu­al­ly use the sort of toolk­it of sto­ry­telling about the future to reframe or improve oth­er kinds of decision-making processes? 

Older: Yeah. I think that there’s a range of things that can hap­pen, from bring­ing in writ­ers in res­i­dence, which I actu­al­ly think is a great idea for all kinds of orga­ni­za­tions whether their prof­it, or non­prof­it, or research-based. But hav­ing peo­ple that think a dif­fer­ent way than the major­i­ty of the peo­ple in your orga­ni­za­tion is some­thing every­one should con­sid­er bud­get­ing for. 

And also bring­ing in some of the tech­niques. I mean, we talked about sce­nario plan­ning and you know, that is not so dis­sim­i­lar in some of its forms from what I do as a writer. When I’m brought in to do kind of futur­ist stuff… Like I was asked to go to the CIA and talk to them about the future secu­ri­ty in Africa. And I mean…I am not an expert on secu­ri­ty or Africa, and I thought it was real­ly inter­est­ing that they were bring­ing me there to make up sto­ries about it. 

And so you know, what I think of myself, when I think how am I gonna do a good job at this, and when they ask me how I do this…you know my added ben­e­fit for them is that I am total­ly will­ing to make shit up. I have a lot of prac­tice doing that. And I am real­ly hap­py to just come up with ideas that don’t have to nec­es­sar­i­ly be root­ed in the real­i­ty of engi­neer­ing or the real­i­ty of tech, as long as I feel like I can root them in the real­i­ty of how I know peo­ple behave. Because for me that is the key fac­tor that makes sto­ries believ­able and acces­si­ble to peo­ple, that make sto­ries work. And so that’s what I do. I found writ­ing sci­ence fic­tion par­tic­u­lar­ly free­ing because when I got stuck some­where in a plot that I want­ed some­thing to hap­pen, I could make up a tech­nol­o­gy that fixed that problem. 

Now, some peo­ple don’t find that free­ing in the same way. Because they get hung up on How will we make this tech­nol­o­gy work?” And that is fine. That actu­al­ly is great because it gets you a very dif­fer­ent kind of writ­ing and sci­ence fic­tion. But maybe for those peo­ple to real­ly get into total­ly mak­ing shit up, they need to write fan­ta­sy. Or maybe they need to write in…you know, maybe they need a dif­fer­ent kind of exer­cise that’s based in a dif­fer­ent kind of real­i­ty to free them up to feel like okay, I’m gonna think big and dif­fer­ent about how the world could change. 

Finn: How do each of you give peo­ple per­mis­sion to do this? Because that’s I think part of what you’re say­ing, that you are like a card-carrying fab­u­list, right? You’re allowed, you’re empow­ered, and you will show up and do this.

Older: I’m gonna make those cards. You should total­ly do that. I would like one. 

Finn: But how do you do that? Because I’ve found in the work that we do at the Center for Science and the Imagination that the is real­ly impor­tant, and there are dif­fer­ent ways that you can do it. But what have you all encountered?

Sharp: I think that the more inter­ac­tive you can make it the bet­ter. And I don’t think that every­body’s sort of suit­ed to be a writer and to con­cep­tu­al­ize and cre­ate a sto­ry like that. So a lot of times we’ve done things like flip­ping a card that shows some spe­cif­ic thing and then you have to make up a sto­ry about that thing. Or putting a set of Legos on the table say­ing you have to make the sort of com­mu­ni­ty cen­ter of the future, where peo­ple gath­er in dif­fer­ent ways and what does that look like? I like the arti­fact one that you [Steenson] men­tioned ear­li­er, think­ing about an arti­fact of the future. But any­thing that you can get to sort of get peo­ple out­side of their nor­mal think­ing and make them pic­ture some­thing else and then describe what the pic­ture looks like is helpful. 

Steenson: My thing is get­ting stu­dents to turn things upside down and not take them for grant­ed. Take tech­nolo­gies, turn them upside down. Take apart movies, take apart books. And a lot of them have nev­er thought about doing this before. If I’m teach­ing Masters stu­dents they’ve come in to do a Masters in inter­ac­tion design. They’re going to go work at Google when they’re done, and they haven’t real­ly thought about what actu­al­ly makes every­thing go. So, we look pret­ty crit­i­cal­ly at what runs behind. We look at the role of AI in soci­ety. In the AI in cul­ture class we take apart movies. We take apart The Hunger Games, actu­al­ly. And Fahrenheit 451; the old ver­sion, of course. And you know, look at what the dif­fer­ent kind of tropes are. 

And then I also get them to do their own cre­ative work, right. They have to do some­thing inter­pre­tive. So I have philoso­phers doing paint­ings, and I have HCI stu­dents doing plays, and archi­tec­ture stu­dents curat­ing a fash­ion show. And all of these are just dif­fer­ent ways around and through, but that’s the method that I’d say is at hand for me, being at a university. 

Soltani: I think there’s the kind of ideation func­tion that this helps with. And there’s also kind of a cal­i­bra­tion func­tion that it helps with. So, on a num­ber of occa­sions I and oth­er experts (I think Kevin does this at a secu­ri­ty con­fer­ence that we attend.) kind of look at sci-fi and ideas around sci-fi, and then real­ly cri­tique how close are we? How real­is­tic is this? You know, is this near future, far future? And for peo­ple in the pol­i­cy realm and peo­ple that don’t have a lot of tech­nol­o­gy speci­fici­ty, the dif­fer­ence between kind of NLP that auto­com­pletes your search his­to­ry and then some­thing that you can have a con­ver­sa­tion­al dia­logue, they don’t know what the dis­tance between those two are. A great exam­ple is the self-driving car that we’ve been told would arrive you know, last year, and that we’ve been told will arrive next year but you know, a lot of the experts will say giv­en the pol­i­cy con­sid­er­a­tions and all this kind of stuff, prob­a­bly longer. 

Helping peo­ple under­stand how far away we are I think is also anoth­er crit­i­cal func­tion of like, you’re able to cre­ate a plot device that you can drop in…policymakers like to drop in exist­ing plot— Or they’re like, Oh, we can just grab the thing and just it in here, and we’ll make like you know, ener­gy out of the sun.” But that was a crazy idea a while ago, right, and help­ing anchor those con­cepts to peo­ple and make them a real­i­ty I think is a crit­i­cal use or appli­ca­tion of this as well.

Finn: Yeah. I hear that con­straints can be real­ly use­ful. Like your card or you know, a sim­ple exer­cise that invites peo­ple to step out­side of their nor­mal pat­tern. Not let­ting the per­fect be the ene­my of the good. We do that a lot in our projects. 

And I also real­ly like what you said Molly, about look­ing behind. And that I think is also what you are get­ting at Ashkan, that real­ly under­stand­ing the mechan­ics and the state of tech­nol­o­gy now is impor­tant. And I would add also the notion of look­ing around, and this is part of the prob­lem with the Silicon Valley… The busi­ness pitch sto­ry is all about the upside and you don’t think about what else could hap­pen and the unin­tend­ed con­se­quences. So, find­ing ways to find new per­spec­tives on the work is real­ly real­ly important. 

So, what are some of the ways that— What are the moral haz­ards here? Like what can go wrong, and what are the— You know, we heard about Star Wars before. What do we need to watch out for when we’re think­ing about how we do this kind of sto­ry­telling with a pub­lic purpose? 

Soltani: So you touched on one, which is like, the prob­lem with rein­force­ment learn­ing, which is if you’re doing mod­el­ing of any kind of data-driven sys­tem, how to shake it up and invoke a new idea? Otherwise you kind of grav­i­tate local max­i­mum and you will just rein­force an idea that every­one knows—you’ll nev­er break free of that. So I think that’s one crit­i­cal one. 

I think the oth­er is think­ing around how to help people…not be real­is­tic but real­ly help peo­ple not be over­con­fi­dent in their vision. Oversell it is some­thing that— It’s kind of relat­ed to the first, where you might have heard a lot of peo­ple say the same type of thing about an AI. It’s going to be a killer robot and there­fore you’re like every­one says it’s going to be a killer robot so it prob­a­bly is. The oth­er is that you are now the fore­most expert and futur­is­tic comes in to Africa to describe what the like­ly secu­ri­ty threats are and they’re like, I’ve got this, you guys. This is like—” you know, an over­sell over over be over­con­fi­dent about your posi­tion. I think those would be the two moral haz­ards. Because we are kind of just making…making stuff up, right. I don’t know if we’re cen­sored here, I was about to… We are just kind of going on the fly and express­ing our vision of the world, right. And so hav­ing some hubris around that I think is crit­i­cal. Which pol­i­cy­mak­ers don’t real­ly do.

Older: I think for me as a writer, the clichés that you men­tioned in the begin­ning are kind of a moral haz­ard. Because it’s very easy to slip into short­hand. It’s par­tic­u­lar­ly easy around sec­ondary char­ac­ters, where you just slip into describ­ing them in the way that that func­tion of char­ac­ter is always described in movies and in books. And I think that’s one of the clear­er exam­ples of where it hap­pens, but it can hap­pen in a lot of oth­er areas as well. And that’s very very dan­ger­ous because that’s how we end up with stereo­types. And they’re very easy to repeat and to pass on, the ones that we’ve learned. 

And you know, as I said it’s kind of easy to see in char­ac­ters but the things that you’re men­tion­ing, you know, the trope of the tech­nol­o­gy that nev­er fails. Or the trope of the killer robot. All of these things are very easy to repeat. And so what’s real­ly impor­tant for me as a writer is to try to make sure that I’m ques­tion­ing any­thing that I write with­out think­ing. And to make sure that I’m try­ing to build things out of my own obser­va­tions of an expe­ri­ence and not out of things that I’ve read a mil­lion times. Because not only is that bor­ing and poor nar­ra­tive, but it’s also dangerous. 

Sharp: Yeah. I think you have to make sure that there are enough dif­fer­ent kinds of peo­ple telling the sto­ries that you have a vari­ety of sto­ries. Otherwise that’s where you end up with the clichés. 

Finn: So let’s open this up for ques­tions from the audience. 

Soltani: And we talked about when you ask your ques­tion, could you say [indis­tinct], prob­a­bly your most…one sci-fi that real­ly influ­enced you a lot. Like one one fic­tion sci-fi movie, film, whatever…book, that was crit­i­cal in your fram­ing and shap­ing of this space. 

No pres­sure.

Audience 1: I’m going to answer with a non-answer. I’m not a sci-fi fan. I love the top­ic today and thank you again for invit­ing me this morn­ing, and thank you for all your insight­ful research and shar­ing that with us. 

I’m return­ing the ques­tion, how many women watch sci-fi? Who watch­es sci-fi? Is there an impact in that in how were shap­ing AI pol­i­cy through that? So I just want­ed to re-pitch the ques­tion. Well, Wall-E’s cute. 

Older: Is the ques­tion about how many women watch sci-fi or how many women cre­ate sci-fi?

Audience 1: That too. Who’s cre­at­ing sci-fi, who’s watch­ing it…

Older: I mean, I can speak for myself? I grew up on Star Wars and Star Trek. Along with a lot of oth­er things. Like I also grew up on Tolkien, and The Black Stallion, and The Wizard of Oz, and you know, all sorts of books that I nev­er— And Anne of Green Gables. And you know, I knew that my broth­er would­n’t read Anne of Green Gables, although much lat­er I learned out that he stole my Sweet Valley High books when I was­n’t look­ing? He’s admit­ted this on tape so I’m not like giv­ing up a big secret. 

But you know, I mean, I always did. And to me you know, sto­ries are sto­ries. I know a lot of women who both write and con­sume sci-fi in dif­fer­ent ways. I don’t know the sta­tis­tics, but I think that if you look at the amount of con­ver­sa­tions that goes on, there are a lot of women who are very involved in this. If you look at the cur­rent awards slate, for exam­ple of the Hugos, they are strong­ly female. And a lot of peo­ple are very upset about that. And I also know there’s been some work done by Lisa Yaszek, who’s at I think the University of Georgia…

Finn: Georgia Tech.

Older: Georgia Tech. Thank you. Wrote a book recent­ly called The Future Is Female!, where she looks at female sci­ence fic­tion writ­ers of the mid­dle of the 20th century—the 40s 50s 60s—who exist­ed and were extreme­ly pop­u­lar, and had both edi­tors and read­ers of mag­a­zines ask­ing for more of their work. And have real­ly dis­ap­peared from our pop­u­lar men­tal image of the genre. So there have always been women who have been both writ­ing and read­ing and watch­ing sci-fi…but, we don’t always pay atten­tion to them. We don’t always lis­ten to them. And we don’t always accept them as forces in the genre. 

I can give you a ton of names to read. And maybe you will find that you are a fan of sci-fi, just not the kind of sci-fi you’d encoun­tered before. But I will do that, because we’re short on time, offline. 

Finn: Great ques­tion. Other questions. 

Audience 2: I think it’s a sci-fi movie, but Logan’s Run. That one real­ly scares me the old­er I get. But any rate, one ele­ment that I—and it maybe that I mis­un­der­stand the format—is that sci-fi is also a deeply cre­ative medi­um. And so to what extent can you dic­tate to a sci-fi writer, a sci-fi artist, that oh, you’re scor­ing. You said AI was evil, you need to stop that, you know. I’m just won­der­ing where that comes into this dis­cus­sion, that it’s not just pro­pa­gan­da for some busi­ness mod­el. Thank you. 

Older: I can tell you, as a sci-fi writer, that sci-fi writ­ers get let’s say strong­ly sug­gest­ed to? all the time. Because I get requests from antholo­gies to write about spe­cif­ic top­ics or sub­jects, all the time. And then of course it’s my choice whether I write about it or not. And if the top­ic does­n’t grab me and I write a ter­ri­ble sto­ry about it they’re prob­a­bly not going to take it. But I do get all these prompts con­stant­ly. And also you know, to get a sto­ry pub­lished you have to go through lay­ers of agents and edi­tors. And pub­lish­ers. So while it’s cre­ative, the peo­ple who are cre­at­ing it are not the only peo­ple who decide what sto­ries get out into the world. And I think that is mag­ni­fied huge­ly (although it’s not my area as much) in the realm of TV and movies, where as Chris was say­ing ear­li­er the big­ger the bud­get they have, amaz­ing­ly, the less risk they want to take. I mean, we see why that makes sense? but it’s also you know, for some­one who has to kind of do a lot of their cre­ative work on spec it’s also kind of amusing. 

But we see that that, that there’s a huge num­ber of gate­keep­ers who think this is what peo­ple will pay mon­ey to see” and, they’re often wrong and yet that does­n’t always change the gate­keep­ers. We see that when movies flop, it often gets blamed on the female star, or the female writer, or the female direc­tor, or the—you know, some­times the male star. But rarely on the pro­duc­ers or the peo­ple who are mak­ing those deci­sions about which movies get made. So…yes and no. You know, we need to push I think the gate­keep­ers, and we need to push the peo­ple who are pro­vid­ing medias to take more risks and to go out and find dif­fer­ent stories.

Sharp: I think it also mat­ters how you define sci-fi, and maybe just broad­en­ing the def­i­n­i­tion of sci-fi a lit­tle bit is help­ful. Like I was real­ly pleased to hear some­body call Wall‑E sci-fi, which is like a kids’ movie, right? And that’s an interes— But if you think about that as evi­dence of how peo­ple think about sci­ence in the future, that’s a real­ly inter­est­ing def­i­n­i­tion and it’s broad­er than Star Wars or Star Trek and that kin­da stuff. Gets you a lit­tle bit more of a wide lens.

Finn: I think sci-fi has become inter­est­ing­ly more main­stream and you see it per­me­at­ing oth­er gen­res in a fun­ny way, like the last sea­son of Parks and Rec the sit­com was just for no par­tic­u­lar rea­son sci­ence fic­tion­al. They moved like five years into the future. 

I think there was one more ques­tion in the back? Yeah, go ahead.

Miranda Bogen: [indis­tinct] ques­tion, but the book I’ve been enjoy­ing most recent­ly is The Three-Body Problem, and the sub­se­quent ones in the series. And I think what’s inter­est­ing about that is it’s an entire­ly dif­fer­ent cul­tur­al per­spec­tive of a spec­u­la­tive future. And my ques­tion is kind of relat­ed to what you were just talk­ing about of how—especially giv­en sort of the glob­al nature of what we imag­ine gov­er­nance of AI to be; and giv­en the high bar­ri­er to entry of sci-fi in gen­er­al let alone across cul­tur­al con­texts, how do we kind of encour­age more of those…perspective-sharing, whether it’s across coun­try cul­tures or even with­in the US, as you were say­ing, like trav­el­ing around the country—I’m sure there’s dif­fer­ent per­spec­tives there. They’re not just gen­der rep­re­sen­ta­tion or com­mu­ni­ty rep­re­sen­ta­tion but just these dif­fer­ent per­spec­tives and this frame that I think we’re see­ing is a help­ful one to think about when we’re think­ing about the future of technology.

Steenson: I think that a lot of peo­ple can’t actu­al­ly work on AI in any sub­stan­tial way or its relat­ed tech­nolo­gies. They’re not the crafters of algo­rithms. But peo­ple are sto­ry­tellers in a lot of dif­fer­ent kinds of ways. And so a way to begin to engage with, crit­i­cal­ly and cre­ative­ly, with AI and relat­ed tech­nolo­gies and tech­no­log­i­cal par­a­digms is exact­ly in some of the ways that I think we’ve been talk­ing about.

Finn: I think that’s a pret­ty good place to stop. Please join me in thank­ing our final panel.

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