What can sci-fi movies teach tech companies about innovating responsibly?

Published on November 13, 2018

Earlier this year, researchers from Google and Deep Mind  published details of an AI-enabled system that can lip-read far better than humans.

What could possibly go wrong?

The technology, researchers claimed, has enormous potential to improve the lives of people who have lost the ability to speak because of illness or surgery, but can still move their lips. Yet exciting as this technology is, it doesn’t take much to imagine how it could threaten the privacy and security of people when coupled with long-range high-definition surveillance cameras.

As an increasing number of companies are discovering, navigating the social benefits and risks of increasingly powerful technologies like this is becoming increasingly difficult. In recent years, Facebook, Uber, Tesla, and even Google, have suffered for not paying sufficient attention to the people their technologies potentially impact. And these are just the tip of the iceberg. Technology companies, it seems, are just beginning to wake up to the challenges of grappling with the social consequences of their products.

Surprisingly, help may be at hand from an unexpected quarter: science fiction movies.

Sci-fi movies are, of course, a rather unreliable source of expertise on science and technology. They often show a blatant disregard for scientific reality, and are inevitably limited in this respect by their creator’s desire to shock and thrill audiences.

And yet, because they are usually underpinned by the complex relationships between people and technology, they can be remarkably helpful in better-understanding factors that are relevant to getting innovation right in the real world. It’s this realization that’s at the heart of my new book Films from the Future: The Technology and Morality of Sci-Fi Movies.

Science fiction movies have long been used as a platform for social commentary. Back in the 1970’s it was almost de rigueur to produce over-earnest films that grappled with the social consequences of irresponsible science and technology, leading to movies like Silent Running and Soylent Green. Yet on their own, few of these movies offer practical insights into socially responsible innovation.

Things get interesting though when they’re combined with expertise in technology trends and socially responsible innovation. Here, even movies that weren’t a hit with the critics can lead to unusually pertinent insights into the potential social dangers of tech innovation right, and how to avoid them.

This is seen to perhaps-surprising effect in the movie Inferno—one of the twelve movies in Films from the Future. This is not a critically-acclaimed film, garnering a measly 22% on Rotten Tomatoes. Yet underneath its admittedly silly storyline, Inferno opens up conversations around genetically enhanced viruses, unaccountable science, and immoral uses of technology, that are deeply relevant to issues being faced in the real world.

Using films like Inferno to kick-start conversations around responsible and irresponsible innovation works because they provide a safe space for better-understanding the risk landscape around new technologies, and how it might be effectively navigated. In fact, it turns out that entertainment value and a smattering of interesting ideas is sometimes far more useful that high-quality film making when exploring socially responsible innovation through the lens of sci-fi movies. This is illustrated to good effect in another film in the book: Transcendence.

In the film, the mind of a genius AI researcher (played by Jonny Depp) is uploaded into a supercomputer, and the resulting superintelligent man-machine hybrid goes on to invent nanotechnology-enabled “nanobots” that can cure the blind, replicate themselves, and that threaten the very existence of humanity.

Transcendence is a technologically implausible fantasy that, nevertheless, draws on the work of real-world futurists like Eric Drexler and Ray Kurzweil. And for all its implausibility, it creates a powerful backdrop for considering how extreme speculation about the future in the real-world can lead to catastrophically bad decisions, whether through bad policies, misguided consumer rejection, or even acts of terror against scientists.

It’s not only critically dubious movies though that can provide powerful insights socially responsible innovation. The rather excellent 1995 Anime Ghost in the Shell (not to be confused with the 2017 ghost of a remake starring Scarlett Johansson) provides a quite remarkable reflection on human augmentation, and raises complex questions around ownership, autonomy, and the nature of being human as we become increasingly dependent on technology. And the profoundly moving 2010 film Never Let Me Go provides a searing indictment of the social normalization of immoral technologies that benefit some at the expense of others.

There are also movies that tackle the potential consequences (both good and bad) of advanced technologies head-on. Limitless and smart drugs for instance, or Ex Machina and artificial intelligence, and Minority Report and pre-emptive justice; just three of the movies explored in the book.

Here, great care is needed to counter the creative license in films like these with a clear understanding of plausible reality. Nevertheless, just reflecting on these three movies, we already live in a world where the opportunities and challenges of cognitive enhancing drugs are being actively explored, the potential dangers of AI are being widely debated, and the ramifications of trying to predict who might be a potential law-breaker are raising serious concerns.

With the right guide, these and other science fiction films can help reveal some of the less obvious societal challenges facing technology innovators. They’re not the only tool that innovators can and should be using to avoid costly errors to themselves and others. But as the book Films from the Future illustrates, they are a powerful one for revealing the complex and shifting risk landscape around new technologies, and how to successfully navigate it.



Dr. Andrew Maynard is author of the book Films from the Future: The Technology and Morality of Sci-Fi Movies, and a professor in the School for the Future of Innovation in Society at Arizona State University. He can be found on Twitter at @2020science.

Read more

More GD News