What do science fiction and building a new applied science have in common?

Tuesday 6 August 2019

Across many cultures, fictions that explore the nexus of the socio-technical imagination influence the way societies build technologies and the values that these technologies embody.  

This means we can often trace the seeds of today’s burgeoning technologies back to fictions of centuries ago. For instance, we can perceive the robot’s lineage in the stories of Golem, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Capek’s Rossum’s Universal Robots.   

Importantly, creating fictions of the technological future is not only an exercise in projecting forwards, it is also a way of critiquing the decisions we make in the present that will impact on the future.  

Across science fictions we see a common trope: ‘the future is closer than we think’. It suggests that we struggle to separate the preoccupations of the present from our imaginings of the future. Oftentimes, this is the value of science fiction – to consider what foundations we are building for the future in the present and question whether we want this.  

The 3A Institute at the College of Engineering and Computer Science is playing with these different ways of thinking about the future, to examine what it means to influence how we design and build artificially intelligent machines.  

Director Genevieve Bell has for many years explored the role of science fiction in how we imagine the future. At Intel Corporation, she led a major project to encourage engineers to try to think beyond the parameters of the technical object they were building to consider the impact of these objects on society and culture.  

She invited science fiction writers to share their methods for imagining the future of technologies in creating a vision for how the world might change because of these technologies. This project helped engineers extend their thinking beyond the limitations of an object's capabilities to also consider its broader impact.  

The 3A Institute is now bringing this approach to the new Masters program at the Australian National University, the first graduate program in the world dedicated to the impact on humanity of artificial intelligence.   

Students were tasked to play with speculative fictions as part of their introduction to cyber-physical systems in context, in the second semester of this ground-breaking program.  

The team has even playfully used speculative fictions in their recruitment campaign for the 2020 Masters program. 

The tongue in cheek campaign has had huge engagement across social media channels, sparking debates and new ideas.   

Applications for the 2020 Masters have now opened (closing end August 2019): Apply Now

3Ai is seeking applicants from a range of backgrounds to contribute to building a new applied science. Places on the program are limited and will be filled through competitive application. Successful applicants will receive funding to support their involvement in the program. 


Updated:  10 August 2021/Responsible Officer:  Dean, CECS/Page Contact:  CECS Marketing