Concept 2: Science Fiction Science
To anticipate the impact of future technologies on humans, we combine our imagination of possible futures, with a scientific approach to studying behavior.
Science fiction allows us to imagine alternative future worlds shaped by scientific and technological breakthroughs, and to explore how they might change human behavior. But science fiction literature focuses on one narrative at a time. The fields of Futures Studies and Design Fiction anticipate future technological change more systematically, through codified design practices, or qualitative and quantitative forecasting methods. It remains difficult, however, to anticipate the impact of these futures on human behavior.
Science Fiction Science (SFS) attempts to simulate future worlds, then test hypotheses about human behavior in those futures. It does so by combining the imaginative power of science fiction with the methods of behavioral science. For example, before fully autonomous vehicles (AVs) become a reality, one could use computer simulation of vehicle behavior, and an understanding of human mobility, to forecast how AVs might alter transportation behavior or greenhouse emissions. Similarly, one can systematically generate scenarios in which future AVs might face ethical dilemmas on the road, as in the Moral Machine Experiment, to empirically study people’s judgment of such behaviors, before such technology exists. This anticipatory approach allows us to test hypotheses about human reaction to future technologies, and to track those reactions over time.
In addition to simulating future scenarios, pursuing an SFS approach may require the invention of novel technologies in a proactive manner, or pushing existing technologies to new limits. For example, in the early days of social media, in order to understand whether this new medium was capable of achieving large-scale cooperation, an unprecedented feat of time-critical social mobilization had to be attempted, demonstrated, then studied. As Nobel Prize winner and inventor of holography Dennis Gabor once wrote: “The future cannot be predicted, but futures can be invented.”
- Awad, E., Dsouza, S., Kim, R., Schulz, J., Henrich, J., Shariff, A., Bonnefon, J.-F., & Rahwan, I. (2018). The Moral Machine experiment. Nature, 563(7729), 59–64. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-018-0637-6
- Pickard, G., Pan, W., Rahwan, I., Cebrian, M., Crane, R., Madan, A., & Pentland, A. (2011). Time-Critical Social Mobilization. Science, 334(6055), 509–512. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1205869