Science fiction makes surprises in the future less unexpected

Friday July 09 2021

What we can imagine with the technology that we have, we can make, and then it shapes society. And in this Age of Information, the rate at which this can happen is astounding. PHOTO | FILE | NMG


Last week I found a YouTube video about a man, by the name of Bob Reid, who explained why he was concerned about synthetic biology. He said manipulation of genetics is available to us in a way it hasn't been before.

Not that we haven't been doing this for a long time: we have. It’s just that current technology has made it easier, faster, and more potent.

I don't think that at the time he gave his presentation he was aware of the coming coronavirus pandemic. He was doing something else: using technology to speculate on what humans might use it for given the opportunity.

In his presentation, it was extremes of human behaviour that would likely lead to bad things happening but I would argue that evil is a bit more mundane than that: it doesn't seem to take us much to weaponise something.

Synthetic biology

Because it was done in 2019, Bob Reid's presentation on how we might misuse synthetic biology was a very relatable example of speculative fiction.


It doesn't even matter so much whether or not it got close to the truth. What that video was about was human nature, which is what most science fiction is really about. Answering the question — What If — and imagining the answer with the trends that we face as well as the technologies that are likely to shape our future.

Technically, “science” is rather difficult for so many of us. It involves mathematics which many of us are afraid of for good reasons.

There is something about the way it is taught that can also be very intimidating to many folks. And without mathematics, science becomes hard to understand.

To be fair, it’s not that sciences are impossible per se. I think that maybe they are difficult to teach, as in we do not teach them well. Which is a shame. In science, there is a wealth of creativity- that is why science fiction exists in the first place.

What we can imagine with the technology that we have, we can make, and then it shapes society. And in this Age of Information, the rate at which this can happen is astounding.

Future knowledge

Arguably, knowing your history in the past was decent enough to arm you with future knowledge and a way of answering the What If questions of life.

But what is in our past that could help us even think about coping with the 21st century? Personal computers, automation in manufacturing? Social distancing that has taken work to our homes?

Thanks to technology, we have overcome the majority of the limitations that humanity has faced for millennia and so of course we have gone and created a whole new set of challenges.

This isn't so different than what a lot of modern human history to be fair. It’s just that the ways in which we organise ourselves that is different, in ways that are just beyond belief.

Which is where sci-fi comes in. In a world where tomorrow has every chance of not looking like what had before, we need imagination.

We need philosophies for the world as we make it in the present and the world as it will be in five, 10 or even 50 years from now.

Years back I read some Russian guy, an Asimov, by mistake. Because I loved fairy tales and it seemed like a story the imagined world, there was no way to tell that it would influence how we design robots and Artificial Intelligence now with three laws.

Might need

As for arguments over the right to one's bodily freedom for women rage today? I wonder: how did Margaret Atwood know we might need her illumination to frame the discussions of 2021?

What we imagine, we can make real. I asked online what kinds of science fiction people read and it turns out that the classics are popular.

The foresight of what happens with our ways of being have a way of helping up think through what to do about the What Ifs of life as it presents now. I don't know.

That's why I am trying to sell sci-fi to you as a way of thinking. It makes the surprises less unforeseen. It is the future history of humanity.

SynthBio by the way is not intrinsically bad any more than anything else is. It just is. Like the atom, and splitting it right, good things can happen or bad things can happen.

This is why the focus of the presentation about what has been done and can be done with SynthBio is worth understanding. Because it was told in the form of a story.

And stories are about people, which is what makes them work. What made one video a very powerful statement was the fact that it was given to us in story form.

That was the gift that Bob Reid gave and the jump-off point for my plea for science fiction on schools. Because when you have the tools to imagine the future, we have a chance at it.

Elsie Eyakuze is a consultant and blogger for The Mikocheni Report: E-mail: [email protected]