Over the years I think I’ve made it pretty clear that I firmly believe science fiction is one of the most powerful influences on how people think about the future potential of technology.
We’ve seen wonderful examples where the creative license of a few enlightened people have led to the creation of incredible technologies that have fundamentally changed how we live. From the mobile phone to instant language translation to holograms, many of the technologies we increasingly rely on every day are the result of some inspiration that was imparted to a budding young engineer who was given a window into a different world, often once a week, 50 minutes at a time.
Of course, not all of it has been good. Some of the lasting images of our recent pop culture are actually severely detrimental to our progress in helping technology bring incredible benefit to society. Whenever I say “artificial intelligence” you think “I’m sorry, I can’t do that Dave” and whenever I say “robots” you think of Arnie and his titanium robot army. Neither of these are helpful or in fact, likely to come to pass.
Robots in particular, present a challenge. Although you could argue that automated, mechanical systems have existed for over a thousand years, it wasn’t until the 1920’s that science fiction gave the machines human form and with that our problems really started.
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The minute we started to infer human attributes to the machine, we locked ourselves into a dystopian narrative of humans vs the machines that if you believe most of the media, has become the overarching theme for our future relationship with technology.
But I wonder if amongst all of this we have started to miss the point.
Technology should be a force for good in our lives, something that extends human capability beyond that which is possible for us to achieve alone. This is the reality of the narrative that is actually playing out in our daily lives and yet we barely notice it. We walk around with access to everything humankind has ever known in our pockets, every fact, every opinion and increasingly, every thought (thanks social media).
We can connect to other humans almost regardless of their location on the planet and we have access to a world of information, education and entertainment that was unimaginable just a few decades ago and yet for the most part we take it for granted. Slowly we have developed a fundamentally symbiotic relationship with technology that makes our lives better and now is the time for us to both acknowledge that and to start to evolve it to the next generation of what this could mean to our human experience.
If we’re going to do that, we’re going to have to change the rhetoric, we’ve got to stop this apocryphal story of humans vs machines and instead start to show a much brighter, more constructive future. What we need more than ever is new narratives, stories that will inspire the next generation of engineers and humans to want a very different relationship with technology, fundamentally one of partnership rather than rivalry.
The truth is, such stories already exist and although they have become massively important to our cultural heritage I sense that we have yet to connect with the real lessons that these narratives offer about the bright, empowering future that technology could bring our society. Which is why, on this special day, my favourite day of the geek calendar, we should spend a moment to think about the incredible lessons that for almost 40 years, Star Wars has been trying to teach us.
George Lucas’ vision has consistently shown us a very different relationship with robots. While some of the robots succumbed to anthropomorphism where they were given human form and imitated emotions, the real heroes were the robots that exhibited function over form, communicated in a series of chirps and beeps but, like all others, were considered as a trusted and integral part of the human team.
As a seven year old kid, it wasn’t the swashbuckling of either Skywalker or Solo (or even the dark grace of Vader) that had me transfixed, it was the cute sass of R2-D2 that caught my attention and imagination as he deftly enabled the success of his human peers.
Forty years on, it’s wonderful to see the same thing happening again as BB-8 picks up the mantle and rolls into our lives. But this time it’s not about me, it’s about my son, who at 10 years old is being shown that robots and technology are not something to be feared, but are instead something to be embraced as an extension of who we are as humans.
It turns out after all, that these really are the droids we’re looking for, and now it’s down to us humans to make the most of the incredible opportunity they offer our future.