Films from the Future




From chapter 1 of Films from the Future: The technology and Morality of Science Fiction Movies

I first saw Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey on a small black- and-white TV, tucked into a corner of my parents’ living room. It was January 1, 1982, and I was sixteen years old.

I wasn’t a great moviegoer as a teenager. In fact, at that point, I could probably count the number of times I’d been to the cinema on one hand. But I was an avid science fiction reader, and having read Arthur C. Clarke’s short story The Sentinel, I was desperate to see the movie Kubrick and Clarke had crafted from it—so much so, that every ounce of my teenage brattishness was on full display.

My parents had friends around for dinner that evening, and, as usual, the drill was that I was either polite or invisible. But there was a problem. The only TV in the house was in the living room, which was precisely where, at 7:35 that evening, everyone else would be.

I must have been especially awkward that day, because my parents agreed to let me put on my headphones and watch the TV while they entertained. And so, I snuggled into a corner of the sofa, pulled the black-and-white portable up, and became selfishly absorbed in Kubrick’s world of the future.

Goodness knows what our guests were thinking!

2001: A Space Odyssey is a movie that’s rich with metaphors that explore our relationship with technology. So much so that, if I could reach back and talk to my sixteen-year-old self, I’d say, “Take note—this is important.” I’d also add, “Don’t be such a jerk” for good measure. However, despite being awed by the opening sequence, with its primitive apes and inscrutable black monolith, enthralled  by the realistic space scenes, and shocked by the computer HAL’s instinct for self-preservation, it would be another thirty years before I began to realize how powerful the medium of film is, especially

when thinking about the future of science and technology in a complex human society.

Back in 1982, I was entranced by 2001: A Space Odyssey because it exposed me to new ideas and new ways of imagining the future. Like many fans, I suspect, I ended up with quotes from the movie branded into my brain, like, “Open the pod bay doors, HAL,” along with HAL’s response, “I’m sorry, Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that.” Without my realizing it, Kubrick’s movie made me think about a future where smart computers might decide that their self- preservation was more important than the humans who created them. Fast-forward to the present, and—as we grapple with living in an increasingly complex world—I’m more convinced than ever that, for all their flaws, science fiction movies are a powerful way of exploring the technological futures we face and how to navigate them. Of course, it can be irritating when scriptwriters and directors play fast and loose with scientific and engineering reality for the sake of telling a good story. But getting too wrapped up in the minutiae of how accurate a science fiction movie is misses the point—these are stories about our relationship with the future, and, like all good storytelling, they sometimes play around with reality to reveal deeper truths. As it turns out, this creative freedom can be surprisingly powerful when it comes to thinking about the social benefits and consequences of new technologies and how we can steer technology innovation toward more beneficial and equitable outcomes.

It’s this human dimension of science fiction movies that I’m particularly interested in. What these movies do rather well is provide us with a glimpse around the corner of our collective near future, to help us see what might be coming down the pike and start thinking how we might respond to it. And they manage to do this because their scriptwriters and directors aren’t encumbered by the need to stick to today’s reality. Viewed in the right way—and with a good dose of critical thinking—science fiction movies can help us think about and prepare for the social consequences of technologies we don’t yet have, but that are coming faster than we imagine.

This is precisely what this book sets out to do. Using the twelve movies it’s built around, the book provides glimpses into the technological capabilities we’re building now, and how we might start to think about their beneficial and responsible development and use. Naturally, it only scratches the surface of the vast array of technologies that are beginning to emerge, and the opportunities and challenges they present. But through the lens of these movies, the book sets out on a journey to explore what can go wrong with new technologies, and how we can all help nudge them toward

a future that looks better than the present we’re currently in. And it continues that personal journey I started in 1982 with that first, barely conscious glimpse into how science fiction movies can reveal hidden connections between who we are, the society we live in, and the technologies we create.


Welcome to the Future

Google “top science fiction movies,” and you’ll probably be overwhelmed by a deluge of “top 100” lists, “best ever” compilations, and page upon page of the last word (supposedly) on must-watch movies. People are passionate about their science fiction movies, and they have strong opinions about what should be on everyone’s watch list, and what should not. Some of the movies in this book appear regularly on these lists, Jurassic Park (chapter two) and Minority Report (chapter four), for instance. Some are hidden gems that only the most dedicated fans cherish, including films like The Man in the White Suit (chapter ten), and the anime movie Ghost in the Shell (chapter seven). Others are likely to raise eyebrows, and I suspect there’ll be a few movie buffs wondering why the collection includes films like Transcendence (chapter nine) and Inferno (chapter eleven).

This is a fair question. After all, why write a book about science fiction movies that aren’t listed as being amongst the best there are? The answer is that this is not a book about great science fiction movies, but a book about how science fiction movies can inspire us to see the world around us and in front of us differently. Each of the movies here has been selected because it provides a jumping-off point for exploring new and intriguing technological capabilities, and the challenges and opportunities these raise. Some of the resulting stories are life-affirming and heart-warming, while others are deeply disturbing. Individually, they provide fascinating accounts of the sometimes-weird and complex landscape around emerging technologies. Together, though, they paint a much broader picture of how our technological world is changing, and what this might mean to us and the generations that come after us.

The movies themselves were selected after many hours of watching and soul-searching. There are some quite wonderful science fiction movies that didn’t make the cut because they didn’t fit the overarching narrative (Blade Runner and its sequel Blade Runner 2049, for instance, and the first of the Matrix trilogy). There are also movies that bombed with the critics, but were included because they ably fill a gap in the bigger story around emerging and converging technologies. Ultimately, the movies that made the cut were chosen because, together, they create an overarching narrative around emerging trends in biotechnologies, cybertechnologies, 

In pulling these movies together and writing the book, I wanted to explore the often complex relationship we have with emerging technologies. But I also wanted to highlight some of the amazing advances we see beginning to emerge in science and technology. We truly do live in incredible times. Scientists are learning how to write and rewrite genetic code with increasing precision and efficiency. Nanotechnologists are designing and engineering materials that far exceed the properties of anything that occurs in nature. We are already creating artificial intelligence systems that can operate faster and smarter than any human. There are self-driving cars on our roads, with autonomous people-carrying drones just around the corner. Researchers are working on brain-computer interfaces and mapping the human brain down to its individual neurons. And we may well see people walking on the surface of Mars within the next decade. Until recently, these and many more scientific and technological marvels were the stuff of science fiction, yet the frenetic pace of innovation is rapidly catching up with some of our wildest imaginings.

This is heady stuff to the physicist in me—at heart, I must confess, I’m still a technology geek. And yet this stupendous technological power comes with a growing obligation to learn how to handle it responsibly. Despite the speed with which we’re hurtling toward our technological future, we are still grappling with how to do this in ways that don’t end up causing more harm than good.

This isn’t because scientists and engineers don’t care about who gets hurt—most of them care deeply—but because we’re charging headlong into a future that’s so complex, it’s becoming increasingly challenging to work out what could go wrong and how to avoid it.

Navigating this future is going to require every ounce of insight we can squeeze out of our collective brains. And because the consequences of how we use new and emerging technologies will end up affecting us all, we all have a role to play here, including individuals who are all too easily overlooked by scientists and engineers—in fact, especially these individuals.

Faced with this task, science fiction movies simultaneously remove barriers to people talking together about the future, and reveal possibilities that might otherwise remain hidden. Every one of the movies here can be appreciated as much by someone who flunked high school as by a Nobel Prize winner. Because of this, they are tremendously powerful for getting people from very different backgrounds and perspectives thinking and talking together. But more than this, they have a way of slipping past our preconceived ideas of the world and revealing things to us that we could so easily miss.

It’s these unexpected insights that I’ve tried to draw out from each of the movies, building on my own work and experiences, as well as those of others. In doing so, I’ve been amazed at how powerful they are at revealing connections and ideas that aren’t always obvious. I’ve been surprised and delighted at how these reflections have taken unexpected and serendipitous turns, opening up new ideas around how to approach beneficial and responsible technology innovation. But I’ve also been taken aback at times by the very real harm we could cause if we get things wrong—not just to humanity as a whole, but to communities that all too easily slip between the cracks. And as I immersed myself in these movies, I’ve become more certain than ever that, fascinating as the minutiae of individual technologies can be, it’s when they begin to converge that the really interesting stuff begins to happen.

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Published by Mango Publishing
ISBN: 978-1633539075