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#432671 Stuff 3.0: The Era of Programmable ...

It’s the end of a long day in your apartment in the early 2040s. You decide your work is done for the day, stand up from your desk, and yawn. “Time for a film!” you say. The house responds to your cues. The desk splits into hundreds of tiny pieces, which flow behind you and take on shape again as a couch. The computer screen you were working on flows up the wall and expands into a flat projection screen. You relax into the couch and, after a few seconds, a remote control surfaces from one of its arms.

In a few seconds flat, you’ve gone from a neatly-equipped office to a home cinema…all within the same four walls. Who needs more than one room?

This is the dream of those who work on “programmable matter.”

In his recent book about AI, Max Tegmark makes a distinction between three different levels of computational sophistication for organisms. Life 1.0 is single-celled organisms like bacteria; here, hardware is indistinguishable from software. The behavior of the bacteria is encoded into its DNA; it cannot learn new things.

Life 2.0 is where humans live on the spectrum. We are more or less stuck with our hardware, but we can change our software by choosing to learn different things, say, Spanish instead of Italian. Much like managing space on your smartphone, your brain’s hardware will allow you to download only a certain number of packages, but, at least theoretically, you can learn new behaviors without changing your underlying genetic code.

Life 3.0 marks a step-change from this: creatures that can change both their hardware and software in something like a feedback loop. This is what Tegmark views as a true artificial intelligence—one that can learn to change its own base code, leading to an explosion in intelligence. Perhaps, with CRISPR and other gene-editing techniques, we could be using our “software” to doctor our “hardware” before too long.

Programmable matter extends this analogy to the things in our world: what if your sofa could “learn” how to become a writing desk? What if, instead of a Swiss Army knife with dozens of tool attachments, you just had a single tool that “knew” how to become any other tool you could require, on command? In the crowded cities of the future, could houses be replaced by single, OmniRoom apartments? It would save space, and perhaps resources too.

Such are the dreams, anyway.

But when engineering and manufacturing individual gadgets is such a complex process, you can imagine that making stuff that can turn into many different items can be extremely complicated. Professor Skylar Tibbits at MIT referred to it as 4D printing in a TED Talk, and the website for his research group, the Self-Assembly Lab, excitedly claims, “We have also identified the key ingredients for self-assembly as a simple set of responsive building blocks, energy and interactions that can be designed within nearly every material and machining process available. Self-assembly promises to enable breakthroughs across many disciplines, from biology to material science, software, robotics, manufacturing, transportation, infrastructure, construction, the arts, and even space exploration.”

Naturally, their projects are still in the early stages, but the Self-Assembly Lab and others are genuinely exploring just the kind of science fiction applications we mooted.

For example, there’s the cell-phone self-assembly project, which brings to mind eerie, 24/7 factories where mobile phones assemble themselves from 3D printed kits without human or robotic intervention. Okay, so the phones they’re making are hardly going to fly off the shelves as fashion items, but if all you want is something that works, it could cut manufacturing costs substantially and automate even more of the process.

One of the major hurdles to overcome in making programmable matter a reality is choosing the right fundamental building blocks. There’s a very important balance to strike. To create fine details, you need to have things that aren’t too big, so as to keep your rearranged matter from being too lumpy. This might make the building blocks useless for certain applications—for example, if you wanted to make tools for fine manipulation. With big pieces, it might be difficult to simulate a range of textures. On the other hand, if the pieces are too small, different problems can arise.

Imagine a setup where each piece is a small robot. You have to contain the robot’s power source and its brain, or at least some kind of signal-generator and signal-processor, all in the same compact unit. Perhaps you can imagine that one might be able to simulate a range of textures and strengths by changing the strength of the “bond” between individual units—your desk might need to be a little bit more firm than your bed, which might be nicer with a little more give.

Early steps toward creating this kind of matter have been taken by those who are developing modular robots. There are plenty of different groups working on this, including MIT, Lausanne, and the University of Brussels.

In the latter configuration, one individual robot acts as a centralized decision-maker, referred to as the brain unit, but additional robots can autonomously join the brain unit as and when needed to change the shape and structure of the overall system. Although the system is only ten units at present, it’s a proof-of-concept that control can be orchestrated over a modular system of robots; perhaps in the future, smaller versions of the same thing could be the components of Stuff 3.0.

You can imagine that with machine learning algorithms, such swarms of robots might be able to negotiate obstacles and respond to a changing environment more easily than an individual robot (those of you with techno-fear may read “respond to a changing environment” and imagine a robot seamlessly rearranging itself to allow a bullet to pass straight through without harm).

Speaking of robotics, the form of an ideal robot has been a subject of much debate. In fact, one of the major recent robotics competitions—DARPA’s Robotics Challenge—was won by a robot that could adapt, beating Boston Dynamics’ infamous ATLAS humanoid with the simple addition of a wheel that allowed it to drive as well as walk.

Rather than building robots into a humanoid shape (only sometimes useful), allowing them to evolve and discover the ideal form for performing whatever you’ve tasked them to do could prove far more useful. This is particularly true in disaster response, where expensive robots can still be more valuable than humans, but conditions can be very unpredictable and adaptability is key.

Further afield, many futurists imagine “foglets” as the tiny nanobots that will be capable of constructing anything from raw materials, somewhat like the “Santa Claus machine.” But you don’t necessarily need anything quite so indistinguishable from magic to be useful. Programmable matter that can respond and adapt to its surroundings could be used in all kinds of industrial applications. How about a pipe that can strengthen or weaken at will, or divert its direction on command?

We’re some way off from being able to order our beds to turn into bicycles. As with many tech ideas, it may turn out that the traditional low-tech solution is far more practical and cost-effective, even as we can imagine alternatives. But as the march to put a chip in every conceivable object goes on, it seems certain that inanimate objects are about to get a lot more animated.

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Posted in Human Robots

#432487 Can We Make a Musical Turing Test?

As artificial intelligence advances, we’re encountering the same old questions. How much of what we consider to be fundamentally human can be reduced to an algorithm? Can we create something sufficiently advanced that people can no longer distinguish between the two? This, after all, is the idea behind the Turing Test, which has yet to be passed.

At first glance, you might think music is beyond the realm of algorithms. Birds can sing, and people can compose symphonies. Music is evocative; it makes us feel. Very often, our intense personal and emotional attachments to music are because it reminds us of our shared humanity. We are told that creative jobs are the least likely to be automated. Creativity seems fundamentally human.

But I think above all, we view it as reductionist sacrilege: to dissect beautiful things. “If you try to strangle a skylark / to cut it up, see how it works / you will stop its heart from beating / you will stop its mouth from singing.” A human musician wrote that; a machine might be able to string words together that are happy or sad; it might even be able to conjure up a decent metaphor from the depths of some neural network—but could it understand humanity enough to produce art that speaks to humans?

Then, of course, there’s the other side of the debate. Music, after all, has a deeply mathematical structure; you can train a machine to produce harmonics. “In the teachings of Pythagoras and his followers, music was inseparable from numbers, which were thought to be the key to the whole spiritual and physical universe,” according to Grout in A History of Western Music. You might argue that the process of musical composition cannot be reduced to a simple algorithm, yet musicians have often done so. Mozart, with his “Dice Music,” used the roll of a dice to decide how to order musical fragments; creativity through an 18th-century random number generator. Algorithmic music goes back a very long way, with the first papers on the subject from the 1960s.

Then there’s the techno-enthusiast side of the argument. iTunes has 26 million songs, easily more than a century of music. A human could never listen to and learn from them all, but a machine could. It could also memorize every note of Beethoven. Music can be converted into MIDI files, a nice chewable data format that allows even a character-by-character neural net you can run on your computer to generate music. (Seriously, even I could get this thing working.)

Indeed, generating music in the style of Bach has long been a test for AI, and you can see neural networks gradually learn to imitate classical composers while trying to avoid overfitting. When an algorithm overfits, it essentially starts copying the existing music, rather than being inspired by it but creating something similar: a tightrope the best human artists learn to walk. Creativity doesn’t spring from nowhere; even maverick musical geniuses have their influences.

Does a machine have to be truly ‘creative’ to produce something that someone would find valuable? To what extent would listeners’ attitudes change if they thought they were hearing a human vs. an AI composition? This all suggests a musical Turing Test. Of course, it already exists. In fact, it’s run out of Dartmouth, the school that hosted that first, seminal AI summer conference. This year, the contest is bigger than ever: alongside the PoetiX, LimeriX and LyriX competitions for poetry and lyrics, there’s a DigiKidLit competition for children’s literature (although you may have reservations about exposing your children to neural-net generated content… it can get a bit surreal).

There’s also a pair of musical competitions, including one for original compositions in different genres. Key genres and styles are represented by Charlie Parker for Jazz and the Bach chorales for classical music. There’s also a free composition, and a contest where a human and an AI try to improvise together—the AI must respond to a human spontaneously, in real time, and in a musically pleasing way. Quite a challenge! In all cases, if any of the generated work is indistinguishable from human performers, the neural net has passed the Turing Test.

Did they? Here’s part of 2017’s winning sonnet from Charese Smiley and Hiroko Bretz:

The large cabin was in total darkness.
Come marching up the eastern hill afar.
When is the clock on the stairs dangerous?
Everything seemed so near and yet so far.
Behind the wall silence alone replied.
Was, then, even the staircase occupied?
Generating the rhymes is easy enough, the sentence structure a little trickier, but what’s impressive about this sonnet is that it sticks to a single topic and appears to be a more coherent whole. I’d guess they used associated “lexical fields” of similar words to help generate something coherent. In a similar way, most of the more famous examples of AI-generated music still involve some amount of human control, even if it’s editorial; a human will build a song around an AI-generated riff, or select the most convincing Bach chorale from amidst many different samples.

We are seeing strides forward in the ability of AI to generate human voices and human likenesses. As the latter example shows, in the fake news era people have focused on the dangers of this tech– but might it also be possible to create a virtual performer, trained on a dataset of their original music? Did you ever want to hear another Beatles album, or jam with Miles Davis? Of course, these things are impossible—but could we create a similar experience that people would genuinely value? Even, to the untrained eye, something indistinguishable from the real thing?

And if it did measure up to the real thing, what would this mean? Jaron Lanier is a fascinating technology writer, a critic of strong AI, and a believer in the power of virtual reality to change the world and provide truly meaningful experiences. He’s also a composer and a musical aficionado. He pointed out in a recent interview that translation algorithms, by reducing the amount of work translators are commissioned to do, have, in some sense, profited from stolen expertise. They were trained on huge datasets purloined from human linguists and translators. If you can train an AI on someone’s creative output and it produces new music, who “owns” it?

Although companies that offer AI music tools are starting to proliferate, and some groups will argue that the musical Turing test has been passed already, AI-generated music is hardly racing to the top of the pop charts just yet. Even as the line between human-composed and AI-generated music starts to blur, there’s still a gulf between the average human and musical genius. In the next few years, we’ll see how far the current techniques can take us. It may be the case that there’s something in the skylark’s song that can’t be generated by machines. But maybe not, and then this song might need an extra verse.

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Posted in Human Robots

#432021 Unleashing Some of the Most Ambitious ...

At Singularity University, we are unleashing a generation of women who are smashing through barriers and starting some of the most ambitious technology companies on the planet.

Singularity University was founded in 2008 to empower leaders to use exponential technologies to solve our world’s biggest challenges. Our flagship program, the Global Solutions Program, has historically brought 80 entrepreneurs from around the world to Silicon Valley for 10 weeks to learn about exponential technologies and create moonshot startups that improve the lives of a billion people within a decade.

After nearly 10 years of running this program, we can say that about 70 percent of our successful startups have been founded or co-founded by female entrepreneurs (see below for inspiring examples of their work). This is in sharp contrast to the typical 10–20 percent of venture-backed tech companies that have a female founder, as reported by TechCrunch.

How are we so dramatically changing the game? While 100 percent of the credit goes to these courageous women, as both an alumna of the Global Solutions Program and our current vice chair of Global Grand Challenges, I want to share my reflections on what has worked.

At the most basic level, it is essential to deeply believe in the inherent worth, intellectual genius, and profound entrepreneurial caliber of women. While this may seem obvious, this is not the way our world currently thinks—we live in a world that sees women’s ideas, contributions, work, and existence as inherently less valuable than men’s.

For example, a 2017 Harvard Business Review article noted that even when women engage in the same behaviors and work as men, their work is considered less valuable simply because a woman did the job. An additional 2017 Harvard Business Review article showed that venture capitalists are significantly less likely to invest in female entrepreneurs and are more likely to ask men questions about the potential success of their companies while grilling women about the potential downfalls of their companies.

This doubt and lack of recognition of the genius and caliber of women is also why women are still paid less than men for completing identical work. Further, it’s why women’s work often gets buried in “number two” support roles of men in leadership roles and why women are expected to take on second shifts at home managing tedious household chores in addition to their careers. I would also argue these views as well as the rampant sexual harassment, assault, and violence against women that exists today stems from stubborn, historical, patriarchal views of women as living for the benefit of men, rather than for their own sovereignty and inherent value.

As with any other business, Singularity University has not been immune to these biases but is resolutely focused on helping women achieve intellectual genius and global entrepreneurial caliber by harnessing powerful exponential technologies.

We create an environment where women can physically and intellectually thrive free of harassment to reach their full potential, and we are building a broader ecosystem of alumni and partners around the world who not only support our female entrepreneurs throughout their entrepreneurial journeys, but who are also sparking and leading systemic change in their own countries and communities.

Respecting the Intellectual Genius and Entrepreneurial Caliber of Women
The entrepreneurial legends of our time—Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, Larry Page, Sergey Brin—are men who have all built their empires using exponential technologies. Exponential technologies helped these men succeed faster and with greater impact due to Moore’s Law and the Law of Accelerating Returns which states that any digital technology (such as computing, software, artificial intelligence, robotics, quantum computing, biotechnology, nanotechnology, etc.) will become more sophisticated while dramatically falling in price, enabling rapid scaling.

Knowing this, an entrepreneur can plot her way to an ambitious global solution over time, releasing new applications just as the technology and market are ready. Furthermore, these rapidly advancing technologies often converge to create new tools and opportunities for innovators to come up with novel solutions to challenges that were previously impossible to solve in the past.

For various reasons, women have not pursued exponential technologies as aggressively as men (or were prevented or discouraged from doing so).

While more women are founding firms at a higher rate than ever in wealthy countries like the United States, the majority are small businesses in linear industries that have been around for hundreds of years, such as social assistance, health, education, administrative, or consulting services. In lower-income countries, international aid agencies and nonprofits often encourage women to pursue careers in traditional handicrafts, micro-enterprise, and micro-finance. While these jobs have historically helped women escape poverty and gain financial independence, they have done little to help women realize the enormous power, influence, wealth, and ability to transform the world for the better that comes from building companies, nonprofits, and solutions grounded in exponential technologies.

We need women to be working with exponential technologies today in order to be powerful leaders in the future.

Participants who enroll in our Global Solutions Program spend the first few weeks of the program learning about exponential technologies from the world’s experts and the final weeks launching new companies or nonprofits in their area of interest. We require that women (as well as men) utilize exponential technologies as a condition of the program.

In this sense, at Singularity University women start their endeavors with all of us believing and behaving in a way that assumes they can achieve global impact at the level of our world’s most legendary entrepreneurs.

Creating an Environment Where Woman Can Thrive
While challenging women to embrace exponential technologies is essential, it is also important to create an environment where women can thrive. In particular, this means ensuring women feel at home on our campus by ensuring gender diversity, aggressively addressing sexual harassment, and flipping the traditional culture from one that penalizes women, to one that values and supports them.

While women were initially only a small minority of our Global Solutions Program, in 2014, we achieved around 50% female attendance—a statistic that has since held over the years.

This is not due to a quota—every year we turn away extremely qualified women from our program (and are working on reformulating the program to allow more people to participate in the future.) While part of our recruiting success is due to the efforts of our marketing team, we also benefited from the efforts of some of our early female founders, staff, faculty, and alumnae including Susan Fonseca, Emeline Paat-Dahlstrom, Kathryn Myronuk, Lajuanda Asemota, Chiara Giovenzana, and Barbara Silva Tronseca.

As early champions of Singularity University these women not only launched diversity initiatives and personally reached out to women, but were crucial role models holding leadership roles in our community. In addition, Fonseca and Silva also both created multiple organizations and initiatives outside of (or in conjunction with) the university that produced additional pipelines of female candidates. In particular, Fonseca founded Women@TheFrontier as well as other organizations focusing on women, technology and innovation, and Silva founded BestInnovation (a woman’s accelerator in Latin America), as well as led Singularity University’s Chilean Chapter and founded the first SingularityU Summit in Latin America.

These women’s efforts in globally scaling Singularity University have been critical in ensuring woman around the world now see Singularity University as a place where they can lead and shape the future.

Also, thanks to Google (Alphabet) and many of our alumni and partners, we were able to provide full scholarships to any woman (or man) to attend our program regardless of their economic status. Google committed significant funding for full scholarships while our partners around the world also hosted numerous Global Impact Competitions, where entrepreneurs pitched their solutions to their local communities with the winners earning a full scholarship funded by our partners to attend the Global Solution Program as their prize.

Google and our partners’ support helped individuals attend our program and created a wider buzz around exponential technology and social change around the world in local communities. It led to the founding of 110 SU chapters in 55 countries.

Another vital aspect of our work in supporting women has been trying to create a harassment-free environment. Throughout the Silicon Valley, more than 60% of women convey that while they are trying to build their companies or get their work done, they are also dealing with physical and sexual harassment while being demeaned and excluded in other ways in the workplace. We have taken actions to educate and train our staff on how to deal with situations should they occur. All staff receives training on harassment when they join Singularity University, and all Global Solutions Program participants attend mandatory trainings on sexual harassment when they first arrive on campus. We also have male and female wellness counselors available that can offer support to both individuals and teams of entrepreneurs throughout the entire program.

While at a minimum our campus must be physically safe for women, we also strive to create a culture that values women and supports them in the additional challenges and expectations they face. For example, one of our 2016 female participants, Van Duesterberg, was pregnant during the program and said that instead of having people doubt her commitment to her startup or make her prove she could handle having a child and running a start-up at the same time, people went out of their way to help her.

“I was the epitome of a person not supposed to be doing a startup,” she said. “I was pregnant and would need to take care of my child. But Singularity University was supportive and encouraging. They made me feel super-included and that it was possible to do both. I continue to come back to campus even though the program is over because the network welcomes me and supports me rather than shuts me out because of my physical limitations. Rather than making me feel I had to prove myself, everyone just understood me and supported me, whether it was bringing me healthy food or recommending funders.”

Another strength that we have in supporting women is that after the Global Solutions Program, entrepreneurs have access to a much larger ecosystem.

Many entrepreneurs partake in SU Ventures, which can provide further support to startups as they develop, and we now have a larger community of over 200,000 people in almost every country. These members have often attended other Singularity University programs, events and are committed to our vision of the future. These women and men consist of business executives, Fortune 500 companies, investors, nonprofit and government leaders, technologists, members of the media, and other movers and shakers in the world. They have made introductions for our founders, collaborated with them on business ventures, invested in them and showcased their work at high profile events around the world.

Building for the Future
While our Global Solutions Program is making great strides in supporting female entrepreneurs, there is always more work to do. We are now focused on achieving the same degree of female participation across all of our programs and actively working to recruit and feature more female faculty and speakers on stage. As our community grows and scales around the world, we are also intent at how to best uphold our values and policies around sexual harassment across diverse locations and cultures. And like all businesses everywhere, we are focused on recruiting more women to serve at senior leadership levels within SU. As we make our way forward, we hope that you will join us in boldly leading this change and recognizing the genius and power of female entrepreneurs.

Meet Some of Our Female Moonshots
While we have many remarkable female entrepreneurs in the Singularity University community, the list below features a few of the women who have founded or co-founded companies at the Global Solutions Program that have launched new industries and are on their way to changing the way our world works for millions if not billions of people.

Jessica Scorpio co-founded Getaround in 2009. Getaround was one of the first car-sharing service platforms allowing anyone to rent out their car using a smartphone app. GetAround was a revolutionary idea in 2009, not only because smartphones and apps were still in their infancy, but because it was unthinkable that a technology startup could disrupt the major entrenched car, transport, and logistics companies. Scorpio’s early insights and pioneering entrepreneurial work brought to life new ways that humans relate to car sharing and the future self-driving car industry. Scorpio and Getaround have won numerous awards, and Getaround now serves over 200,000 members.

Paola Santana co-founded Matternet in 2011, which pioneered the commercial drone transport industry. In 2011, only military, hobbyists or the film industry used drones. Matternet demonstrated that drones could be used for commercial transport in short point-to-point deliveries for high-value goods laying the groundwork for drone transport around the world as well as some of the early thinking behind the future flying car industry. Santana was also instrumental in shaping regulations for the use of commercial drones around the world, making the industry possible.

Sara Naseri co-founded Qurasense in 2014, a life sciences start-up that analyzes women’s health through menstrual blood allowing women to track their health every month. Naseri is shifting our understanding of women’s menstrual blood as a waste product and something “not to be talked about,” to a rich, non-invasive, abundant source of information about women’s health.

Abi Ramanan co-founded ImpactVision in 2015, a software company that rapidly analyzes the quality and characteristics of food through hyperspectral images. Her long-term vision is to digitize food supply chains to reduce waste and fraud, given that one-third of all food is currently wasted before it reaches our plates. Ramanan is also helping the world understand that hyperspectral technology can be used in many industries to help us “see the unseen” and augment our ability to sense and understand what is happening around us in a much more sophisticated way.

Anita Schjøll Brede and Maria Ritola co-founded Iris AI in 2015, an artificial intelligence company that is building an AI research assistant that drastically improves the efficiency of R&D research and breaks down silos between different industries. Their long-term vision is for Iris AI to become smart enough that she will become a scientist herself. Fast Company named Iris AI one of the 10 most innovative artificial intelligence companies for 2017.

Hla Hla Win co-founded 360ed in 2016, a startup that conducts teacher training and student education through virtual reality and augmented reality in Myanmar. They have already connected teachers from 128 private schools in Myanmar with schools teaching 21st-century skills in Silicon Valley and around the world. Their moonshot is to build a platform where any teacher in the world can share best practices in teachers’ training. As they succeed, millions of children in some of the poorest parts of the world will have access to a 21st-century education.

Min FitzGerald and Van Duesterberg cofounded Nutrigene in 2017, a startup that ships freshly formulated, tailor-made supplement elixirs directly to consumers. Their long-term vision is to help people optimize their health using actionable data insights, so people can take a guided, tailored approaching to thriving into longevity.

Anna Skaya co-founded Basepaws in 2016, which created the first genetic test for cats and is building a community of citizen scientist pet owners. They are creating personalized pet products such as supplements, therapeutics, treats, and toys while also developing a database of genetic data for future research that will help both humans and pets over the long term.

Olivia Ramos co-founded Deep Blocks in 2016, a startup using artificial intelligence to integrate and streamline the processes of architecture, pre-construction, and real estate. As digital technologies, artificial intelligence, and robotics advance, it no longer makes sense for these industries to exist separately. Ramos recognized the tremendous value and efficiency that it is now possible to unlock with exponential technologies and creating an integrated industry in the future.

Please also visit our website to learn more about other female entrepreneurs, staff and faculty who are pioneering the future through exponential technologies. Continue reading

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#431147 We’re at IROS 2017 to Bring You ...

We'll try to attend over a hundred talks plus poster sessions and competitions and keynotes and plenaries and forums and the expo Continue reading

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#430734 Why XPRIZE Is Asking Writers to Take Us ...

In a world of accelerating change, educating the public about the implications of technological advancements is extremely important. We can continue to write informative articles and speculate about the kind of future that lies ahead. Or instead, we can take readers on an immersive journey by using science fiction to paint vivid images of the future for society.
The XPRIZE Foundation recently announced a science fiction storytelling competition. In recent years, the organization has backed and launched a range of competitions to propel innovation in science and technology. These have been aimed at a variety of challenges, such as transforming the lives of low-literacy adults, tackling climate change, and creating water from thin air.
Their sci-fi writing competition asks participants to envision a groundbreaking future for humanity. The initiative, in partnership with Japanese airline ANA, features 22 sci-fi stories from noteworthy authors that are now live on the website. Each of these stories is from the perspective of a different passenger on a plane that travels 20 years into the future through a wormhole. Contestants will compete to tell the story of the passenger in Seat 14C.
In addition to the competition, XPRIZE has brought together a science fiction advisory council to work with the organization and imagine what the future will look like. According to Peter Diamandis, founder and executive chairman, “As the future becomes harder and harder to predict, we look forward to engaging some of the world’s most visionary storytellers to help us imagine what’s just beyond the horizon and chart a path toward a future of abundance.”
The Importance of Science Fiction
Why is an organization like XPRIZE placing just as much importance on fiction as it does on reality? As Isaac Asimov has pointed out, “Modern science fiction is the only form of literature that consistently considers the nature of the changes that face us.” While the rest of the world reports on a new invention, sci-fi authors examine how these advancements affect the human condition.
True science fiction is distinguished from pure fantasy in that everything that happens is within the bounds of the physical laws of the universe. We’ve already seen how sci-fi can inspire generations and shape the future. 3D printers, wearable technology, and smartphones were first seen in Star Trek. Targeted advertising and air touch technology was first seen in Philip K. Dick’s 1958 story “The Minority Report.” Tanning beds, robot vacuums, and flatscreen TVs were seen in The Jetsons. The internet and a world of global instant communication was predicted by Arthur C. Clarke in his work long before it became reality.
Sci-fi shows like Black Mirror or Star Trek aren’t just entertainment. They allow us to imagine and explore the influence of technology on humanity. For instance, how will artificial intelligence impact human relationships? How will social media affect privacy? What if we encounter alien life? Good sci-fi stories take us on journeys that force us to think critically about the societal impacts of technological advancements.
As sci-fi author Yaasha Moriah points out, the genre is universal because “it tackles hard questions about human nature, morality, and the evolution of society, all through the narrative of speculation about the future. If we continue to do A, will it necessarily lead to problems B and C? What implicit lessons are being taught when we insist on a particular policy? When we elevate the importance of one thing over another—say, security over privacy—what could be the potential benefits and dangers of that mentality? That’s why science fiction has such an enduring appeal. We want to explore deep questions, without being preached at. We want to see the principles in action, and observe their results.”
An Extension of STEAM Education
At its core, this genre is a harmonious symbiosis between two distinct disciplines: science and literature. It is an extension of STEAM education, an educational approach that combines science, technology, engineering, the arts, and mathematics. Story-telling with science fiction allows us to use the arts in order to educate and engage the public about scientific advancements and its implications.
According to the National Science Foundation, research on art-based learning of STEM, including the use of narrative writing, works “beyond expectation.” It has been shown to have a powerful impact on creative thinking, collaborative behavior and application skills.
What does it feel like to travel through a wormhole? What are some ethical challenges of AI? How could we terraform Mars? For decades, science fiction writers and producers have answered these questions through the art of storytelling.
What better way to engage more people with science and technology than through sparking their imaginations? The method makes academic subject areas many traditionally perceived as boring or dry far more inspiring and engaging.
A Form of Time Travel
XPRIZE’s competition theme of traveling 20 years into the future through a wormhole is an appropriate beacon for the genre. In many ways, sci-fi is a precautionary form of time travel. Before we put a certain technology, scientific invention, or policy to use, we can envision and explore what our world would be like if we were to do so.
Sci-fi lets us explore different scenarios for the future of humanity before deciding which ones are more desirable. Some of these scenarios may be radically beyond our comfort zone. Yet when we’re faced with the seemingly impossible, we must remind ourselves that if something is within the domain of the physical laws of the universe, then it’s absolutely possible.
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