The uncertain art of prediction
If you want to know the future…well, don’t ask a science fiction writer. Actually, nobody does. They go ask Stephen Hawking, who gravely informs them that we should be careful or artificial intelligence might rise against us. Steady on, Steve.
Recently, John Oliver asked Hawking the AI question. Oliver, like his HBO audience, understands the future from what he sees in Hollywood blockbusters. So Hawking gave him an answer tailored to that level of knowledge.
There’s a story, Hawking said, about the first intelligent machine. “Is there a god?” its human creators asked it. “There is now,” the machine replied, and caused a lightning bolt to fuse its on-switch so it could never be disconnected.
This is the plot of Fredric Brown’s classic SF short story “Answer,” first published in his Angels And Spaceships collection in 1954. Perhaps Hawking read it in Brian Aldiss’s phenomenal A Science Fiction Omnibus, published 2007. It’s certainly been anthologized enough.
But not enough, seemingly, for the usual Hawking sycophants not to think of it as more evidence of his genius.
Hawking has become our scientific expert on tap, the role that communicators like Arthur C. Clarke, Carl Sagan, and even Isaac Asimov once held. There’s nobody of their stature and charisma around today. Nobody beats a path to Richard Dawkins’s door to get a pithy media bite on the latest future shock. So they go ask Hawking.
A while back he suggested that aliens might be hostile. Aliens! Nasty ones! It made world headlines.
I call this the “Hawking Principle.” The Hawking Principle states that no prediction, no matter how obvious, no matter how common it has become in our cultural currency, has any meaning until it comes out of the mouth of a scientist.
To his benefit, Hawking has shown himself to be a canny manipulator of the Stephen Hawking Brand. He knows, for example, that there are speech synthesizers capable of entirely naturalistic speech. He still uses that monotonous robot grate because it’s part of his brand. It’s his equivalent of the Groucho Marx moustache. It’s immensely valuable.
And I’d certainly rather listen to Hawking’s predictions than to the sales pitches of “visionaries” like Steve Jobs, whose dream of the future was ever more technological Tupperware, or Richard Branson, who only this month tweeted (apparently without irony) that “One day cities will only be open to electric cars and traffic jams will be a thing of the past.” Oh boy.
Or, worse still, to the “experts” of SciFutures, who claim to turn SF dreams into reality without apparently caring that most of the movie clips they use to promote their visions are those of dystopias like Minority Report.
One of the defining features of science fiction is that there’s such an overwhelmingly huge amount of it. SF has an immense history, with a daunting roll-call of greats.
Many of those writers weren’t visionaries at all. They were simply lucky to be active at the dawn of the genre as a mass-market phenomenon.
It’s like the pharmaceutical industry. Chemists very quickly found drugs that were effective for the easiest medical conditions and surgical procedures, such as painkillers. Now they have to hunt for solutions to niche problems and intractable conditions like cancer, with no guarantee of success.
In the early days of science fiction, it was simple to write a story about cloning or time travel or spaceships or alien worlds. So much of that “golden age” now seems hopelessly primitive. These days it’s much harder to bring something original to the market.
Perhaps as a result, many writers recycle what’s gone before, dressing old stories in new clothes. Thomas M. Disch once remarked that “SF writers as a whole are surprisingly old-fashioned, stuck in the mud of their genre.” That’s still true for most of the players in this game.
As for their ability to predict the future, well, it’s all in the numbers. If each of the thousands of SF writers made just one prediction in each of their novels or short stories, that’s a vast number of futures to choose from. Most of them are sure to be wrong. But some of them are bound to come true.
You could go way back and read about virtual reality and the internet decades before they became reality. Pohl and Kornbluth’s Wolfbane, first published in 1959, arguably did both.
But then Wolfbane also predicted a lot of other things that were utterly off mark, like turning the moon into a second sun. You win some, you lose some. The winners tend to be remembered. Clarke and Asimov are seen as visionary SF writers because of the fraction of their predictions that came true, conveniently sweeping aside the bulk of what they predicted, which did not.
Writing winningly predictive SF is all about betting on a likely outcome. Right now, for example, it’s a pretty safe bet that wearable tech, virtual reality, brain-interfacing, nanotechnology, genetic engineering and cloning, among much else, are likely to shape our near future. Does it make me a visionary if I write about these things?
Of course not. I’m simply extrapolating forward things that are already in germination.
In my novel Biome, which is set 50 years in the future, I predicted that Africa will become the new cheap manufacturing powerhouse of the world. My lead character drives an African-made car called a “Soweto.”
Visionary? Hardly. It seems very likely to me that the world is going to need a cheap workforce once our current suppliers like China have priced themselves out of that market. Indeed, the cynic in me believes that the rest of the world might conspire to keep Africa poor just to have an eternal source of affordable junk.
Then what’s the point of science fiction?
Neal Stephenson suggested that SF is of value because it inspires young people to take careers in science. He was talking to a group of MIT students at the time, which may have influenced his answer.
I think he’s right. Realistic SF (as opposed to fantasy SF such as Star Wars, which I’m not talking about here) certainly can demonstrate how scientific breakthroughs might benefit our lives.
That doesn’t mean they’re achievable, or economically viable if they are. Robert A. Heinlein’s classic 1940 story “The Roads Must Roll” predicted a world of high speed moving sidewalks, an idea recycled by countless writers since. Is it good SF? Sure, it’s an interesting extrapolation of existing technology – moving walkways had been around since 1893 – which means it’s theoretically achievable. But it makes no economic sense.
SF can also show us the opposite: how scientific breakthroughs might adversely affect our lives. Is Greg Bear’s Blood Music inspiring to future nanotechnicians? I hope not.
Neither are SF warnings well heeded. Writers began exploring the horrors of nuclear war before Hiroshima made them a reality. It didn’t stop the world stockpiling those weapons. SF writers have ranted about environmental collapse for decades, and we’ve still done almost nothing about it. Despite numerous doomsayers, we’re still embarking on the great Monsanto gamble.
What, then? If nothing else, I think SF tells kids that there’s no limit to their dreams. That’s never a bad thing.
And more. Violent movies are said to desensitize people to violence. Maybe science fiction desensitizes people to science. In a world where scientific reason is rapidly going the same way as atheism – a lower form of pond scum, in the eyes of much of America, even than religious terrorists – we need all the desensitizing we can get.