Kevin Bankston: So, I am the per­son who is kick­ing things off with a brief talk to answer the ini­tial ques­tion, why is sci­ence fic­tion so impor­tant that we’re spend­ing a half day at a think tank talk­ing about it? And at this point it would be good for my slides to come on. Great!

Well we’re here because the imag­i­nary futures of sci­ence fic­tion impact our real future much more than we prob­a­bly real­ize. There is a pow­er­ful feed­back loop between sci-fi and real-world tech­ni­cal and tech pol­i­cy inno­va­tion and if we don’t stop and pay atten­tion to it, we can’t har­ness it to help cre­ate bet­ter futures includ­ing bet­ter and more inclu­sive futures around AI

The par­a­dig­mat­ic exam­ple of the sci-fi feed­back loop is prob­a­bly space trav­el. When Jules Verne wrote From Earth to the Moon in 1865 and HG Wells wrote his 1901 nov­el The First Men in the Moon, they did­n’t quite know how we’d get peo­ple into space. One author shot his char­ac­ters off into space with a big space bul­let. The oth­er made up a fic­tion­al anti-gravity min­er­al. They did­n’t know exact­ly how we’d get to space but the adven­tures that they wrote direct­ly inspired a boy named Robert Goddard, who grew into the man who launched the first chem­i­cal rock­et in 1926

Just three years lat­er Hermann Oberth, who loved From Earth to the Moon as a boy so much that he mem­o­rized it word for word, test-fired his own rock­et with his assis­tant and fel­low sci­ence fic­tion buff Werner von Braun who would go on—after an igno­ble stint as a Nazi, it should be noted—to become direc­tor of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center and chief archi­tect of the Saturn V rock­et that final­ly did car­ry men to the moon 104 years after Verne’s book was published. 

Job ad for the Jet Propulsion Lab showing a man wearing a headset, captioned "When you were a kid, science fiction gave you a sense of wonder. Now you feel the same just buy going to work."

He did that with the help of a younger gen­er­a­tion that had been raised on Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers and the nov­els of peo­ple like Robert Heinlein. This is an actu­al recruit­ing ad for JPL—Jet Propulsion Laboratories at the time, bank­ing on nerds lik­ing sci­ence fiction. 

And what they did in turn inspired a whole new gen­er­a­tion of more real­is­tic sci­ence fic­tion about space trav­el like 2001: A Space Odyssey. In fact, direc­tor Stanley Kubrick hired two of NASA’s top sci­en­tists to spend two years design­ing his unprece­dent­ed­ly real­is­tic vision of the future. That team in turn con­sult­ed exten­sive­ly with over six­ty tech­nol­o­gy com­pa­nies and researchers and experts, with some even get­ting involved direct­ly in the design.

GE helped envi­sion the space sta­tion and the lunar base. Bell Telephone con­tributed to the design of this video phone booth, which was one of our first pop­u­lar visions of video chat. And IBM designed sev­er­al of the space­ship’s con­trol pan­els and this tablet com­put­er that pre­dat­ed the iPad by near­ly fifty years.

Perhaps more on top­ic for today, IBM also worked on the HAL 9000 com­put­er as did real AI expert, MIT’s Marvin Minsky. 

In part because it was so well-informed by real sci­ence and tech, 2001 had a unique impact in terms of influ­enc­ing our mod­ern con­cep­tions of space trav­el, and per­son­al com­put­ing, and AI. The feed­back loop in action, if you will. This is espe­cial­ly evi­dent when you look at the influ­ence of HAL 9000, whose capa­bil­i­ties basi­cal­ly set the research agen­da for AI researchers in the fol­low­ing decade, set­ting goal­posts on goals that at this point have most­ly been achieved. Just like HAL, AI today can play and beat us at games like chess, rec­og­nize our voic­es and faces, read lips, under­stand and repli­cate human speech, kill peo­ple, and so much more. 

Indeed, the fact of this feed­back loop of sci-fi inspir­ing real tech inspir­ing sci-fi inspir­ing real tech is so well-documented and estab­lished in the space and defense sec­tors that it’s essen­tial­ly been insti­tu­tion­al­ized, with the DoD and DHS and NASA and the like reg­u­lar­ly bring­ing in sci-fi writ­ers as strate­gic fore­sight con­sul­tants, hold­ing sci-fi sto­ry con­tests or com­mis­sion­ing new sto­ries from estab­lished writ­ers to solic­it fresh ideas about the future of con­flict. And even teach­ing some sci-fi in mil­i­tary acad­e­mies. This cot­tage indus­try of sci-fi as futur­ism has in the past decade or two actu­al­ly been spread­ing into the pri­vate sec­tor, with reg­u­lar com­pa­nies, nor­mal com­pa­nies, like Nike or Home Depot or Boeing work­ing with sci-fi writ­ers as consultants. 

Sometimes, the influ­ence of such writ­ers in the real world has been dra­mat­ic, and not nec­es­sar­i­ly for the best. For exam­ple in the ear­ly 80s, two of the era’s most pop­u­lar and con­ser­v­a­tive sci-fi writ­ers, Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, orga­nized the Citizens’ Advisory Council on National Space Policy that direct­ly prompt­ed Ronald Reagan, a sci­ence buff him­self to launch the ill-fated an enor­mous­ly expen­sive mis­sile shield prod­uct known as the Strategic Defense Initiative, also mock­ing­ly known as Star Wars. Here’s an edi­to­r­i­al car­toon from the time: 

Sci-fi also impact­ed our emerg­ing cyber­se­cu­ri­ty pol­i­cy. When War Games the sto­ry of a teenag­er who hacks into a wargam­ing AI at NORAD and almost starts World War III—and if you don’t think that’s sci­ence fic­tion come at me—totally freaked Reagan and Congress out, led to a major revamp of how DoD han­dled its com­put­er secu­ri­ty, and also prompt­ed Congress to pass our first anti-hacking law. They even showed clips from the movie in Judiciary Committee hear­ings, which was crazy. 

Of course, when talk­ing about sci-fi’s impact on pol­i­cy we also can’t skip issues of pri­va­cy and sur­veil­lance. One book in par­tic­u­lar has lit­er­al­ly defined the debate for over half a cen­tu­ry, although Minority Report has giv­en it a run for its mon­ey in recent years. 

These pri­va­cy dystopias are help­ful because they pro­vide us with what sci­ence fic­tion writer David Brin calls self-defeating prophe­cies. They serve as a warn­ing for what we want to avoid. However, just as often Silicon Valley has read such dark sci­ence fic­tion visions as a design spec for their next big thing. In par­tic­u­lar, the near-future infor­ma­tion technology-focused sci-fi genre of cyber­punk in the 80s and 90s, exem­pli­fied by the clas­sic hack­er noir Neuromancer, whose author William Gibson coined the term cyber­space,” has been deeply influential. 

One sci-fi writer who got his start around the same peri­od, this dap­per fel­low, pop­u­lar proto-cyberpunk author Neal Stephenson, has help­ful­ly described sci-fi’s influ­ence as less of a direct one-to-one inspi­ra­tion and more of an invis­i­ble mag­net­ic field that rough­ly ori­ents peo­ple’s imag­i­na­tions in the same tech­no­log­i­cal direc­tion, giv­ing them com­mon ideas and lan­guage for com­mu­ni­cat­ing about what they are imagining. 

So, you say you want to build some­thing like a com­mu­ni­ca­tor from Star Trek, or a tablet com­put­er like in Star Trek: The Next Generation, or even an orbital space sta­tion like in Star Trek: Deep Space 9, and every­one knows what you’re talk­ing about and can work togeth­er to move in that direction. 

Stevenson’s own books serve as a great exam­ple, hav­ing had a very strong mag­net­ic pull in Silicon Valley. The glob­al VR net­work of The Metaverse from his own cyber­space clas­sic, 1992’s Snow Crash, was a key inspi­ra­tion for real VR and AR tech, both then and now (he’s actu­al­ly still the Chief Futurist at VR start­up Magic Leap), and was a big inspi­ra­tion for a gen­er­a­tion of Internet tech folks gen­er­al­ly, espe­cial­ly includ­ing Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin. 

The more recent nov­el, and very bad movie, Ready Player One by Ernie Cline has played a sim­i­lar mag­net­ic role for VR today. Oculus founder Palmer Luckey actu­al­ly used to hand it out to new employ­ees, to align them with his prod­uct vision. 

Similarly, Stephen’s Cryptonomicon, a sto­ry about cryp­to cur­ren­cies and data havens was accord­ing to Peter Thiel required read­ing at the start­up PayPal. Stevenson even played a role in the found­ing of Jeff Bezos’s space launch start up Blue Origin. The com­pa­ny was born in part out of Bezos’s own life­long love of sci-fi, espe­cial­ly Star Trek, and his con­ver­sa­tions with his old Seattle bud­dy Neal Stephenson, who he hired as the com­pa­ny’s first employee. 

So, these are just a few of the tech bil­lion­aires who do what they do because of the tech­no­lib­er­tar­i­an fan­tasies they read and watched when they were 12. You lit­er­al­ly can’t throw a rock in Silicon Valley or Seattle with­out hit­ting one of these bil­lion­aires who is a fan of sci-fi, includ­ing this gen­tle­man who is Wozniak, cofounder of Apple. 

And we still haven’t talked about this guy, the bil­lion­aire ele­phant in the room Elon Musk, who direct­ly attrib­ut­es his entire life phi­los­o­phy and mis­sion to the sci-fi he read as a boy. Here’s a tweet refer­ring to Douglas Adams of Hitchhiker’s Guide fame and Isaac Asimov of The Foundation and I, Robot.

And it’s Musk in par­tic­u­lar who puts a fine point on I think both the good and the bad of sci-fi’s influ­ence on tech. Standing alone, I think it’s prob­a­bly a good thing that sci-fi inspired this guy to ded­i­cate his life and his bil­lions to get­ting us off of fos­sil fuels and off of the plan­et. But as you may have noticed there’s a cer­tain homo­gene­ity to the peo­ple I’ve men­tioned so far. This feed­back loop has been a some­what closed loop that reflects the lack of inclu­sion in both the fields of tech and sci-fi. A series of priv­i­leged white men inspir­ing… Sorry Siri. It…she does­n’t like what I’m say­ing and she’s try­ing to get in the way. A series of priv­i­leged white men influ­enc­ing priv­i­leged white men influ­enc­ing priv­i­leged white men, with grand wish-fulfillment nar­ra­tives of great men chang­ing the world through their inven­tions and their adventures. 

Too often miss­ing from this feed­back loop and relat­ed­ly, from the field of AI, has been a recog­ni­tion of and an inclu­sion of and a cen­ter­ing of the lives and per­spec­tives of people—and not just indi­vid­u­als but com­mu­ni­ties—who’re not middle-class cis­gen­dered white men most­ly from the American West Coast. Or put anoth­er way, sci­ence has too often held up peo­ple like this guy. Um, I’m a Picard fan myself. Which is why I was so heart­ened to see Nora Jemisin—NK Jemisin’s—historic vic­to­ry last year at sci-fi’s Oscars, the Hugo Awards. Not only the first black author to with the best nov­el Hugo, but now the first author ever to win it three years in a row, for her Broken Earth tril­o­gy. Sidenote: I was equal­ly heart­ened to see Malka Older who is with us here today nom­i­nat­ed for the best series Hugo this year for her amaz­ing Infomocracy series. 

Miss Jemisin has been a tire­less voice for inclu­sion in sci-fi lit­er­a­ture and sci-fi fan­dom, and it’s with a few inspi­ra­tional words from her speech that I’m going to close this talk with, words that could just as eas­i­ly apply to the field of AI

I look to sci­ence fic­tion and fan­ta­sy as the aspi­ra­tional dri­ve of the Zeitgeist: We cre­ators are the engi­neers of pos­si­bil­i­ty. And as this genre final­ly, how­ev­er grudg­ing­ly, acknowl­edges that the dreams of the mar­gin­al­ized mat­ter and that all of us have a future,” not just Elon Musk; that’s my addi­tion not hers, so too will go the world. Soon, I hope.”

So, thank you all for com­ing. We are going to start our first pan­el which I think is going to sound some of the same themes as my talk. And so I’d like to intro­duce our pan­elists now to talk about AI pol­i­cy in real­i­ty. So folks come on up.

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