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When science fiction inspires real technology

Research in human-computer interaction is mentioning science fiction more than ever, a group of scientists has found.

Many researchers acknowledge the role that science fiction has played in triggering their interest in science and inspiring breakthroughs. Indeed, there are many examples of fictional technologies that have later emerged in the real world.

In 1945, long before the first satellite orbited Earth, Arthur C. Clarke famously described how radio signals could bounce off satellites for long-distance communication. Today, communications satellites are common.

The communicators in Star Trek and Dick Tracy’s video wristwatch have remarkable similarities to today’s smartphones and smart watches. Then there are the various disobedient robots from 2001: A Space Odyssey and Blade Runner, which humans are desperately hoping to avoid. And KITT, the driverless car from the TV series Knight Rider, is no longer science fiction.

But the impact of science fiction on science fact is hard to quantify. Indeed, technologists would love to better understand the way fiction influences the development of new technologies.

Today, that is beginning to look possible thanks to the work of Philipp Jordan at the University of Hawaii in the US and a few colleagues. These folks have studied the way researchers involved in human-computer interaction use science fiction in their work. And they find not only that science fiction plays a significant role, but that its impact is on the increase.

Their method is straightforward, based on papers given at one of the world’s top conferences in this area—the ACM Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. The team searched the papers published since 1982 for science-fiction-related terms and then categorized the results.  

They found that researchers use science fiction in a variety of different ways. One is for theoretical design research. Another is to refer to and explore new forms of human-computer interaction, which researchers increasingly think is shaped by science fiction books and films. Then there is the study of human body modification, which is perhaps best explored via the medium of fiction.

“Sci-fi movies, shows or stories do provide an inspiration for the foremost and upcoming human-computer interaction challenges of our time, for example through the discussion of shape-changing interfaces, implantables or digital afterlife ethics,” say Jordan and co.

But the team’s most significant finding is that the role of science fiction seems to be changing. Researchers clearly mention it more often today than at any time in the past. And this data is likely to be just the tip of the iceberg. “We speculate that the explicit referral of sci-fi in human-computer interaction research represents a fraction of the actual inspiration and impact it has had,” they say.

That’s a small step toward better understanding the complex relationship between the way humans imagine the impact of technology and the way it actually occurs in reality. Indeed, technology companies increasingly employ futurists who use science fiction as a medium for exploring potential new technologies and their social impact. They call this science fiction prototyping.

Jordan and co’s work could clearly help to make this activity more fruitful. Clarke and his fellow authors would surely approve.

Ref: arxiv.org/abs/1803.08395 : Exploring the Referral and Usage of Science-Fiction in HCI Literature  

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