To Anticipate Emerging Technologies, Read Science Fiction

This post is part of a series about Governing Emerging Technologies that I’m writing for a UCL course of the same name.

An overarching theme so far in the Governing Emerging Technologies course is the difficulty of anticipating the long-term consequences of new technologies. What we are interested in is not a piece of tech in isolation, but a holistic view: Its impact when it has become ubiquitous, its interplay with other technologies, social systems, nature, all those messy things. Prediction seems impossible. (Was Asimov serious when he conceived of Psychohistory?)

But are there tools of thought we can use that allow us, if not prediction, at least anticipation of a landscape of possible futures?

A science fact fiction story collection?

A science fact fiction story collection?

Earlier this year, I came across a book called “BioPunk: Stories From the Far Side Of Research”. BioPunk is a collection of science fiction short stories that explore potential futures of biotechnology and their ethical implications. But this anthology tries to differentiate itself a little bit from any old science fiction collection. Supported by the Wellcome Trust, editor Ra Page commissioned the short stories to be based on actual current science research. Authors were paired up with research scientists who were to fact check stories scientifically and presumably also acted as a source of inspiration. Scientists and ethicists furthermore contributed an afterword commentary to the stories, all adding to the impression that this book is somehow a more serious endeavour than “normal” science fiction. Indeed, the stated aim of BioPunk is “to predict some of the potential ethical side-effects of the groundbreaking biomedical research currently being developed.” Did you spot the p-word? Continue reading