Originally published January 17, 2019
Here is an excerpt:
It’s true that any prediction made a century out will almost certainly be wrong. But thinking carefully and creatively about the distant future can sharpen our thinking about the present, even if what we imagine never comes to pass. And if this feels like we’re getting into the realms of (behavioral) science fiction, then that’s a feeling we should lean into. Whether we like it or not, futuristic visions often become shorthand for talking about technical concepts. Public discussions about A.I. safety, or automation in general, rarely manage to avoid at least a passing reference to the Terminator films (to the dismay of leading A.I. researchers). In the behavioral science sphere, plodding Orwell comparisons are now de rigueur whenever “government” and “psychology” appear in the same sentence. If we want to enrich the debate beyond an argument about whether any given intervention is or isn’t like something out of 1984, expanding our repertoire of sci-fi touch points can help.
As the Industrial Revolution picked up steam, accelerating technological progress raised the possibility that even the near future might look very different to the present. In the nineteenth century, writers such as Jules Verne, Mary Shelley, and H. G. Wells started to write about the new worlds that might result. Their books were not dry lists of predictions. Instead, they explored the knock-on effects of new technologies, and how ordinary people might react. Invariably, the most interesting bits of these stories were not the technologies themselves but the social and dramatic possibilities they opened up. In Shelley’s Frankenstein, there is the horror of creating something you do not understand and cannot control; in Wells’s War of the Worlds, peripeteia as humans get dislodged from the top of the civilizational food chain.
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