Science/Fiction: Double Feature

Photo of a human mannequin with cross sections of the chest and face taken through a window.

It’s easy to group the world into dichotomies; black and white, male and female, right and wrong. But it’s never that simple. The world is made up of gradients and phase-changes, and not even the seemingly decisive distinction between science and fiction escapes the complexities of the real world. In fact, much of what we know today to be true and possible started out as a figment of someone’s imagination. Here, I want to take you on a journey through time. We’ll explore some of the most famous science fiction ideas that ultimately drove scientific discovery and meet some of the scientists who found inspiration in the pages of Jules Verne, Isaac Asimov and the like. Along the way, we’ll examine some contemporary ideas in science fiction and the fascinating lab work that could make them a reality in the not so distant future.

Science fiction has long held a fascination with machines. History as far back as the 4th century BC is peppered with idealizations of robots. Many of these accounts are similar in concept to Rosie in The Jetsons or Star Wars’ C3PO-- human-like automats that do unpleasant chores so we don't have to. Aristotle envisioned a world where “every tool, when ordered, or even of its own accord, could do the work that befits it,” suggesting if this were the case that “there would be no need for.. slaves.” In fact, in 1920 when Czech writer Karel Čapek coined the word robota, it literally translated to “forced labor”, and was derived from the Greek rab, meaning “slave”. Ismail al-Jazari, a 12th century inventor who conceptualized mechanisms that are still in use, took this to heart by inventing a hand-washing automatron that functions a lot like today’s flush toilets. Rather than a utilitarian shape, however, his design featured the figure of a woman standing by to refill the basin.

But perhaps the most fascinating ideas of robots and machines crop up when the robots are envisioned to do things that humans can’t. Some of these designs are seemingly trivial, but fictional conceptualizations of machines that can survive (or aid human survival) on Mars or the moon (a’la 1950’s Destination Moon), under water (e.g. Jules Verne), inside the human body (like in Fantastic Voyage or that one episode of The Magic School Bus), or after environmental annihilation (think: WALL-E) certainly have modern technological implications. More amazingly, scientists have made these fictitious ideas into reality. We’ve all heard the stories of Neil Armstrong taking “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind”, and NASA has successfully put two robots on Mars. To boot, if Elon Musk has his way, there will be a self-sustaining human colony on Mars by 2050. Elon and company are currently identifying and solving the technical challenges that have intrigued the creative minds of fiction writing for over a century. And scientists are making technological advances in robotics at the microscopic level, too. The Gracias lab at Johns Hopkins has created microbots the size of dust particles that can collect biopsies from inside a patient’s colon without surgery. Even cooler, there’s evidence now that with a solid internet connection, robots controlled by skilled doctors might be able to perform surgery on patients remotely, meaning a surgeon in the USA could operate on a patient in Africa through the Internet of Things.

Science fiction has the most power to change the world when it gets into the brains of really smart people and rattles around until it becomes reality. Simon Lake, the inventor of the submarine, drew inspiration from Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, published in 1870, and was overwhelmed to receive a congratulatory telegram from Verne when his sub, the Argonaut, successfully operated in the open seas in 1894. Similarly, the inventor Igor Sikorsky pulled a page from Verne’s 1886 book Robur the Conquerer and developed the first successful helicopter in 1939. Robert H.Goddard, the namesake for NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, was inspired by the martians in H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds (1897) who fired cannon-powered capsules at Earth. Goddard took this idea, coupled it with degrees in physics from Worcester Polytechnic Institute and Clark University, and revolutionized the field of rocketry by refining liquid-fueled jet propulsion.

And then there’s Isaac Asimov, famed author and Columbia University PhD. Rather than inspiring a single notable invention, Asimov is known for naming and revolutionizing the field of robotics through his ‘hard science fiction’ stories. Although his professorship at Boston University was in biochemistry, Asimov wrote prolifically and is published in 9 out of 10 classifications in the Dewey Decimal System. His most famous contribution to science fiction--and ultimately to science--is the Three Laws of Robotics. These laws, which state that a robot must 1) do no harm nor allow harm to come to humans, 2) obey humans, except where it conflicts with the first law, and 3) protect its own existence, except where it conflicts with the first and second laws. While these laws were a theoretical thought experiment when published in Asimov’s 1942 short story Runaround, they have become the standard--for better or worse--by which ethical concerns in robotics and artificial intelligence are measured.

Contemporary issues in science fiction often seem ludicrously far-fetched on paper, but are actually inspiring some interesting ideas. One of the central themes in recent science fiction movies such as 28 Days Later and Mad Max is the environmental degradation of our planet and the extreme measures taken to combat the issues. I’m not saying it’s a good idea, but there are scientists like Dr. David Keith at Harvard who believe global-scale geoengineering could be a solution to the climate crisis we face. This would involve customizing jumbo jets to continuously spray aerosolized sulfuric acid into the atmosphere from 20 km above the tropics. On the medical front, researchers at MIT are emulating The Hunger Games and Inception by taking on the impressive feat of modifying memory by implanting false memories in mice with the potential to scale it up to humans who have been victims of abuse. Again, this research is certainly an area of ethical grey space, but the technological capacity and scientific acumen to even consider performing these works is amazing.

Technological advances and the overwhelming potential to change life on earth as we know it are not to be taken lightly. Asimov did a great service to the world by offering an ethical scaffold for the field of robotics through his fiction writing, and scientists across all fields have a responsibility to look to the worst-case scenarios imagined in the pages of fiction and examine the potential repercussions of their work. Likewise, science fiction writers have a great power to influence the trajectory of scientific development and shoulder a burden of thinking creatively and assisting in solving pressing human problems. In the immortal words of Ray Bradbury, “Science fiction is the most important literature in the history of the world, because it’s the history of ideas.” But ideas do not come to fruition alone. Advancement is the happy marriage of creative thought and ability to execute, and that union is made clear through the science fiction/science pages of history.