May the force (of sci-fi inspiration) be with you

by Ripal Nathuji | April 24, 2018

As we approach the end of April and transition into May, there are various seasonal events we look forward to each year. For many students, May signifies the end of the academic year which includes graduation ceremonies for seniors and the start of summer break for everyone else. The month of May also includes various holidays including (but not limited to) Cinco de Mayo, Memorial Day, and Mother’s Day. A relatively new addition to this cohort includes Star Wars Day (started in 2011 according to Wikipedia, which is about the only source I could find on the matter). Some may argue this is yet another superficial “holiday” designed to serve a marketing purpose for commercial gain rather than offering innate cultural value. However, I believe Star Wars Day, through its association with the broader genre of science fiction, can be seen in a more positive light1: To help serve as a source of ideas that inspire us to imagine the potential of our shared future.

In my group of friends growing up (a biased sample set), we spent a lot of time discussing what the future would be like. These discussions were in turn largely predicated upon the literary and media artifacts we exposed ourselves to, and science fiction played a large part in that. Everyone had their poison, whether they were a fan of Isaac Asimov, an avid reader of Popular Science magazines, or a devoted Star Trek viewer (The Next Generation of course). While our present isn’t quite what Back to the Future promised, it’s still incredible how many of the ideas from those sources of science fiction are now taken for granted as everyday occurrences. When I see Apple Watch advertisements, I often contemplate the fact that the concept of a Dick Tracy watch wouldn’t impress a five-year-old today, but was merely a figment of the mind for kids growing up in the 80s and 90s. This lends credence to the idea that if you want to help build the future, you should start with what our greatest imaginations wrote about in the past. Whether these stories take the shape of books, comics, or movies, together they comprise an invaluable corpus for would-be thought leaders, scientists, and engineers. In this article, I’ll share some of my thoughts on how science-fiction2 serves as a cultural asset by inspiring innovation through STEM. Specifically, I’ll review benefits across three categories of influence: 1) Technology and science, 2) Characters and personas, and 3) Mission driven teams / organizations.

Technology and science

“A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away….” is a phrase that has taken on its own life since the launch of Star Wars. As our governmental and commercial entities continue to work towards getting us beyond our own moon, the concept of intergalactic travel remains the domain of science fiction. However, science fiction has given our collective imagination a frame of reference to take this ability as a given in the future – e.g. in our minds it’s a question of “when”, not “if.” While the technological and scientific hurdles may seem insurmountable at times, it’s the power of this optimistic mentality that motivates us to continue pushing forward. John F. Kennedy’s Moon speech in 1962 exemplified this value in practice when he proclaimed, “We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard…”. We all know how that story ended. We may not be traveling outside of the Milky Way anytime soon, but in our imaginations, we can all ride along in the Millennium Falcon.

Admittedly, given the context of Star Wars space travel is a simple corollary to draw. So let’s jump to medical technologies and artificial intelligence / sentience (AI). Both of these are highly active areas in research and commercial development. Fans of Star Trek have watched many a hero saved from the brink of death by the diagnostic capabilities of the medical tricorder. Today we can immediately draw a mental link from this concept on screen to our smartphones and imagine we’re just a simple adapter case away from having these capabilities in our pocket. What about AI? There’s of course the character Data from Star Trek, but one of my favorite references comes from the Ender series by Orson Scott Card3. There you’ll find Jane, a sentient intelligence that the main character communicates with through an earpiece. Without digressing into (arguably) philosophical debates around intelligence vs sentience vs sapience, it’s one of the more compelling characterizations I’ve come across where there’s an artificially intelligent being without a physical incarnation. While I can’t say for certain that a high percentage of current AI researchers or practitioners were inspired by characters like Data and Jane, I do believe that these characters set a frame of reference by which many of us judge what to expect. Despite all of the AI buzz in the market currently, we’re still light years (see what I did there?) away from the bar set by folks like Card. Perhaps one day, in the not too distant future, we’ll finally develop an AI that asks itself why it exists and what its purpose is in the world.

Characters and personas

Of course, technology and science ideas aren’t the only inspirational value that science fiction provides. One of the ice breaker exercises I often do with groups of students is to show them an image of the Avengers and ask them to each name their favorite along with some reasoning for why (with the general caveat that they can branch out into the broader Marvel or even DC universe in their answer – I’m not a purist in this regard). The responses are always interesting and enlightening given the options and permutations available. For example, those that are science inclined might select from Tony Stark (Iron Man), Bruce Banner (The Hulk), or Peter Parker (Spider-Man) all of whom are scientists and / or inventors in their “day jobs.” The character chosen doesn’t really matter, as it’s the justification that’s most informative because for each individual there’s always a personal story that causes specific characters to resonate with them. Whether it’s comic book characters or movie personas, there’s value when these “mainstream” messages tell students – Hey, it’s okay to be a nerd in school (like Peter) or an obsessive tinkerer (like Tony)4. Similar to the Intel rockstar commercial, these links help students gain a sense of support for their personal interests and values which they might feel don’t align with the status quo in society or schools. At the same time, while each Avenger has a strong sense of individuality and identity, together they form a team that is greater than the sum of its parts. From that lens, these science fiction narratives help foster collaborative mavericks – of which I always believe more is better.

Mission driven organizations

As I’ve written previously, I believe in the value of personal stories and, within them, the mission or motivation that drives individuals. Here, again, science fiction provides us with a plethora of examples. As we continue to hear companies and organizations positioning themselves as being “mission driven” and not just about driving profits for investors (in the case of for-profits), it’s increasingly important that individuals have a sense of what their own values are. In movies and books, whether it’s for the cause of the rebellion or to save the world from other-dimensional enemies, the heroes (and antiheroes) are always coming together to fight the good fight. Given the real world is rarely (some might say never) quite so black and white and instead consists of various shades of gray, the importance of mission becomes even more critical in providing a consistent compass that helps individuals decide where to spend their time, and perhaps more importantly, what to ignore. Define your mission and then complete it. I’ll contradict the wise Yoda in one regard when he said “Do. Or do not. There is no try.” When faced with a mission that seems impossible to achieve don’t walk away just because you’re not certain you can do it; the first step is always to try.

If you’ve found this article and made it this far, then you’ve self-selected yourself for a few final remarks. Many of the items above incorporate future technologies we don’t yet have at our disposal, superhero capabilities which none of us will ever have, or clearly defined notions of “good” versus “bad” that don’t exist in real life. However, as humans we’re all equipped with a super power which is so ubiquitous we just don’t categorize it as such: Cognition. It’s an incredible ability which can do wonders in practice, but also one that can go dormant from lack of use. In good news, its capacity and capabilities grow the more you exercise it which means we’re all science fiction heroes in the making. Of course we all know that “with great power comes great responsibility”. The future is brimming with the potential for positive change, and that change starts with you. At STEMed Labs our role is to bring like-minded individuals, self-proclaimed misfits, and change makers together to help shape that future as a mission driven team. If you’re a student, we invite you to join us. If you’re a STEM professional or teacher, contact us. In any case, grab your metaphorical light saber, and we’ll see you out there. May the Force be with you!

  1. I have what one might call strong opinions about so called “Hallmark Holidays,” so this may be somewhat hypocritical or at least a perspective of convenience based upon personal predilections. ↩︎

  2. I’ll admittedly use a generally (perhaps overly) broad umbrella for science fiction – mea culpa on any subjective abuse of the taxonomy that readers might find offensive in that regard. ↩︎

  3. I’ve never watched Hollywood’s take on Ender’s Game and don’t plan to. If you’ve never read the book, you’re doing yourself a disservice. I strongly encourage you to go to your local library (an often underappreciated resource these days), check it out, and then move on to the various sequels. You’ll find Jane in Speaker for the Dead. ↩︎

  4. I realize I’m totally ignoring the issue of gender and racial diversity / equality in science fiction in this discussion. ↩︎