the reality
of sci-fi

How science fiction is providing real-world lessons and teaching opportunities for students and professors at UBC Okanagan.

HUMANS HAVE LONG IMAGINED WHAT THE DISTANT FUTURE MIGHT LOOK LIKE. Staring up into an inky black sky dotted with far-off stars, planets and seemingly endless solar systems, our thoughts inevitably stray to life beyond this singular, planetary experience.

Creators of science fiction take that inherent curiosity and expand it into complex story worlds that draw us into alternate realities rife with futuristic technologies and alien cultures. By imagining the future, science fiction has often, directly and indirectly, influenced the here and now. Its predictive quality has always distinguished the genre and inspired intensely loyal fans.

Whether it’s ray guns, starships, aliens or imaginary planets set in the cinematic worlds of dystopian post-apocalypse scenarios, science fiction offers an extraterrestrial smorgasbord for professors and students alike to explore far deeper social, moral and ethical issues. From future engineers to anthropologists, these glimpses into possible futures are inspiring a new generation of inventors and providing a profoundly relevant way for students to explore intercultural collaboration and culture.

Drawing of a woman at a window looking out to space, with a star flashing in the sky

Signalling Hope Across the Universe

The once-fantastic ideas of algorithmic modeling, autonomous machines and artificial intelligence (AI) are becoming embedded in our day-to-day reality. Smartphones, agile humanoid robots, AI assistants, self-driving cars, robot vacuums, wired homes, virtual reality, cyber security and universal surveillance were once only imagined possibilities in the realm of science fiction. Unlike science fiction of the 1950s however, it feels like our current reality is beginning to catch up with science and speculative fiction at an unsettling speed.

Bryce Traister, dean of the Faculty of Creative and Critical Studies at UBC Okanagan and self-professed “paid-up member-in-good-standing of the nerd club” teaches courses in early American literature and culture. One of his courses, Popular Literature Science Fiction, surveys a number of science fiction texts and looks at themes of futurism, dystopia, colonialism, post-Earth and artificial intelligence. The course description makes it clear the focus is sci-fi and not fantasy, with a simple declaration that there are “many robots. No elves.”

Next year, Traister will explore an episode of Black Mirror, a British science fiction show that revolves around a group of people’s personal lives and how technology manipulates their behaviour. The episode in question — which Traister describes as one of the show’s “scariest episodes” — revolves around a murderous robot dog apocalypse.

“The episode is centred on a constructed robotic dog, powered by an artificial intelligence that goes haywire and basically, destroys humanity,” Traister explains. “It puts a spotlight on the whole concept of robots serving humanity, and really comes down to the fact that your dog, Fido, is trying to kill you,” he adds matter-of-factly.

For Traister, the science fiction genre not only provides “ripe text” for classroom discussion, but is also a means to imagine conversations that explore multidisciplinary collaborations. These kinds of collaborations can be seen in nearly every episode of Star Trek, where disparate perspectives are thrown together and characters must collaborate to solve urgent — albeit usually alien — problems.

“One of the projects we’re actually talking about on campus right now is to create an incubator for a humanist or creative to work with a scientist on the same question or problem. So, if you take the science fiction example, it would be an opportunity to take someone like me and put them in a room with a robotics engineer and talk about the problem of the murderous robot dogs, right?”

Bryce Traister

Bryce Traister, professor and dean in the Faculty of Creative and Critical Studies.

Traister believes that taking a similar interdisciplinary approach to problem solving is “fundamental to how we can be a truly high-impact university in terms of offering solutions in the short- and long-term.”

There’s no getting away from dystopian worlds in science fiction. From 2001: A Space Odyssey and Blade Runner to the quintessential cyberpunk novel Neuromancer (which Traister also teaches), civilization inevitably “appears to have been undone by a combination of human arrogance and wily computer intelligence,” explains Traister.

The science fiction genre isn’t known for its hopeful images for the future of our species; many of the most well-known stories have “some kind of human extinction, or civilization extinction or fundamentally altering event baked into the plot,” he adds.

Whether it’s an alien/zombie/cyborg invasion, environmental collapse or an asteroid crashing into Earth, “there’s always a kind of downer about it.” But the sci-fi literature he loves best and tries to get his students to appreciate is fundamentally hopeful. These texts portray a world where “humans become self-aware, so the self-aware computer will not destroy us. If we become more mindful about our stewardship of the planet, then the planet will not destroy us.”

In other words, it’s about “reclaiming the human place in a technologically-mediated disaster and restoring a kind of 3-D human in a kind of 2-D dimensionality.”

Consider the zombie apocalypse, urges Traister enthusiastically. “At the heart of the zombie apocalypse are the stories of epidemiology and infectious disease, right?” The story focuses on how the infectious disease spreads and reproduces itself, “but ultimately, those stories always depend on how the humans survive and, crucially, have a life worth surviving.”

“If we fail to fully grasp the intelligence, cultural specificity and sensitivities of the alien other, we fail to recognize the other.” Exploring alien worlds, says Traister, opens up a broader conversation about “people from different cultures, ethnicities, language groups, sexualities, religions or nations and how they interact with each other and the problems that come as a consequence of not being ready to have that kind of mature conversation.”

When asked if science fiction can offer a better blueprint for the future, Traister doesn’t hesitate: “Absolutely. I would agree 100 per cent.”

Connecting to the Other — on Earth and Beyond

The framed picture of delicately wrought shapes, angles and circles has an honoured place on Associate Professor Christine Schreyer’s desk. Written in Kryptonian, the language featured in the Superman story, it reads: ‘I thank you very much.’

It’s a gift from a grateful student who enthusiastically took up the challenge to help create new Kryptonian words in Schreyer’s course, Language Emergence: From Contact to Constructed Languages. In her Introduction to Linguistic Anthropology course, she challenges her students to develop a language over the term as they gradually learn about the concepts of linguistics. Her approach is to let the students play with sounds as they learn about the “sound of language” and — unlike traditional linguists who are more focused on the language itself — as an anthropologist she is keenly interested in “how language and cultural systems are connected.”

Schreyer has been working with alien languages for more than a decade. When the film Avatar hit the big screen in 2009, the language of the Na’vi (the tall, other-worldly blue people desperately protecting their rainforest Eden), Schreyer noticed it took off with fans of the movie. When Schreyer read that some 12,000 people in Australia alone were learning and conversing in the fictional language, she was stunned: “How is that even possible? And how is it gaining traction so quickly?”

In summer 2011 Schreyer did an online survey of Na’vi speakers. The response was immediate, global and telling — both literally and linguistically. The survey responses came from more than 60 countries, and it soon became clear that this community was connecting through this common — albeit alien — language. “They are so welcoming to new learners. They don’t care if you’ve never spoken a word of Na’vi. They’ll bring you in.”

After a UBC story about Schreyer’s Na’vi findings went viral, an on-site producer who was shooting the major motion picture Man of Steel in Vancouver asked Schreyer to co-create the alien language of Krypton. Schreyer started work on the film in 2011, creating 300 or so foundational words.

As part of the Superman franchise promotion, in early 2013 Schreyer was asked to create an online Kryptonian name generator which could translate some 3,000 human names into Kryptonese. Through her work, Schreyer has become the de-facto online Kryptonian expert — and fans aren’t shy about tagging her with their latest Kryptonian question on Twitter.

Kryptonian language on a computer screenWhat Schreyer has observed over the years, both in and out of the classroom, is a high level of acceptance in science fiction communities: whether you’re “blue or green, it doesn’t matter.” The inclusiveness of sci-fi fandom has a positive mental health component to it, argues Schreyer, and people who may be minorities in traditional society can find “a sense of community and acceptance” in these sci-fi fandoms.

In other words, dystopian and fantasy worlds can open up more than the imagination — they’re a gateway to acceptance and community.

“I feel like when an alien language is created for something, it makes the ‘other’ more real because they share this thing we have as humans.”

Of the many tangible ‘earthly’ benefits to studying alien languages, one of the most important could be the empathy it inspires. “In anthropology, we consider how language and world view are connected,” explains Schreyer. “These are the ways that our language shapes culture and thought.”

The Mechanics of Imagination

When UBCO graduate student Arunava Majumdar was growing up, he devoured shows like Dexter’s Laboratory and Inspector Gadget, which were soon followed by an obsession with robots and Transformers. However, the biggest draw was mecha suit, a genre in Japanese anime that focuses on mechanical innovation robots, cyborgs, and androids such as those in the Gundam SEED series. He cites this early inspiration as a catalyst that led to him to pursue mechatronics and artificial intelligence in his graduate studies.

Today, Majumdar and his colleagues’ in the Advanced Control and Intelligent Systems (ACIS) Laboratory research a range of topics, from artificial intelligence to mechatronic engineering — the multidisciplinary meld of electrical/mechanical/electronic/computer/control systems, on which all things robotic are based. The team explores areas that, not too long ago, were firmly relegated to the worlds of science fiction.

Majumdar’s prime interest is intelligent industrial automation. “Essentially it’s a way to add adaptability for automated systems on the production floor using artificial intelligence,” explains Majumdar. While the current state of automation excels at doing one thing and one thing only, if there is the slightest level of variation or complexity, it would require a human to intervene and complete the task. He points out that there’s a common, uninformed criticism that this type of automation will “steal human jobs,” but he prefers to focus on the positive aspects of this technology.

Unlike many of the robot antagonists that inspired him as a child, Majumdar argues that robotic automation can improve society. “Industrial automation can free humans from repetitious or dangerous tasks; it can assist the disabled and allow humans to concentrate on more productive, safer things. It allows us to do more with less, and with less sweat and mental or physical concerns.”

The ubiquitous Siri, Alexis, Hey Google and evermore predictive and perceptive AI assistants have replaced the eerily calm voice of the conflicted, logically murderous HAL 9000 computer of 2001: A Space Odyssey. For many, there’s an unsettling sense that this ‘intelligence’ will eventually take over and we’ll be living a real-life dystopia where the robots are in control.

Majumdar doesn’t put much stock in this likelihood but cautions that like parenting, if you’re a terrible or negligent person, then you’ll likely teach bad habits to your child. Similarly, in the wrong hands, an AI can be programmed poorly and have potentially disastrous results. But he believes the positive aspects of AI outweigh the negative. For example, he struggles with attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD) and suggests that having a personal assistant such as JARVIS, the fictional AI in the Iron Man movies, “would be a fantastic piece of technology which could help me better utilize my creative skills by managing the administrative components of my life that I often struggle with.”

Still, the future-shock is real for a lot of people when they see technologies once safely removed in sci-fi story worlds, coming to ‘life’ all around them. “AI is kind of disconcerting,” admits Majumdar, “but think of the benefits: If I was to go really sci-fi, one of the most interesting solutions that AI could maybe bring perhaps, is in the political space in terms of decision making.”

Imagine if, in the future, a political decision affecting millions of people were run through an AI stimulation instead of, say, a ‘gut’ decision made by a human. The AI would analyze the data in order to propose a series of solutions in terms of the probable benefit to society. In this future-case scenario, Majumdar points out that AI can be “a tool to ensure your choices are based on data versus emotions, thus reducing bias.”

Majumdar doesn’t buy into negative stereotypes that have, in part, been created by the science fiction genre about technologies like AI. Instead, he argues that the benefit of AI to the human species can be tremendous as long as it remains non-detrimental. While it’s still an active field of research, “all it takes is one person to come up with some crazy algorithm, idea or some new way to do something, and then it completely changes the direction we go.”

Perhaps inspired by a galaxy far, far away.