Imagining unintended consequences

Imagining unintended consequences

40 fictional stories about ethics, technology, and the future of humanity

In an interview with the New York Times, Mark Zuckerberg said he could have never imagined a future in which the software he developed would be used to interfere with elections. But many have warned about the potential for misuse, and it’s not a stretch to think that Cambridge Analytica is just the tip of the iceberg. Just last week, Facebook announced a new dating service, extending its reach further into our personal lives and our personal data. How will people use — or abuse — this tool, and what will the consequences be?

Tech ethics may seem like an abstract concept best left to philosophers and lawyers, but you don’t need to pass the bar or get a Ph.D. to predict unintended consequences — you may just need to read books and watch movies. Through fictional stories, creative thinkers of the past and present can help technologists anticipate challenges and opportunities created by technology. If you want to understand how technologies like artificial intelligence may shape the future of health, romance, law, and government, you could do worse than to ask a sci-fi writer.

Twitter post by Cory Doctorow

In late March — as Facebook and Uber dominated headlines — the fiction enthusiasts at Luminary Labs generated a list of books, movies, and television shows that should be on every technologist’s radar. We came up with nearly 100 suggestions in less than an hour and whittled the list down to 40 works of fiction; consider this a small sampling of the stories you can explore.

The following list may include spoilers, and links point to Wikipedia sources that summarize plotlines in further detail.

  1. 1984, in which “Big Brother” and the “Thought Police” use surveillance and manipulation to maintain power.
  2. 2001: A Space Odyssey, in which a trusted computer malfunctions in a malicious way.
  3. A.I. Artificial Intelligence, in which post-climate change humans create advanced robots capable of thoughts and emotion.
  4. Altered Carbon, in which human consciousness can be downloaded and installed in other bodies.
  5. Back to the Future, in which altering seemingly insignificant moments of the past results in big changes to the future.
  6. Battlestar Galactica, in which humans are struggling to survive after a battling robots in space.
  7. Bicentennial Man, in which a domestic servant robot becomes sentient.
  8. Big Hero 6, in which an “inflatable healthcare robot” is programmed to anticipate unethical human behavior.
  9. Black Mirror, in which unintended consequences of current technology play out in the near future.
  10. Brave New World, in which human life is engineered in artificial wombs and drugs enable a “pain-free society.”
  11. Chappie, in which an AI law enforcement robot is captured by gangsters.
  12. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, in which androids become indistinguishable from “real” humans and animals, and the defining characteristics of humanity are tested.
  13. Dune, in which consuming a rare spice allows humans to assume brainpower beyond advanced computers, at the expense of a planet’s natural resources.
  14. Ender’s Game, in which complex games turn children into real-life killers.
  15. Foundation series, in which psychohistory — a combination of history, sociology, and mathematics — is used to predict the future.
  16. Frankenstein, in which a scientist’s bioengineering experiment goes awry, and humans become more monstrous than actual monsters.
  17. Gattaca, in which genetics and reproductive technologies are used to determine employment opportunities.
  18. Her, in which a lonely human develops a romantic relationship with an AI operating system.
  19. I, Robot, in which Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics are put to the test.
  20. iBoy, in which human and device merge.
  21. Metropolis, in which a high-tech city depends on the labor of underground workers.
  22. Minority Report, in which mutant humans predict violent crime and law enforcement uses eye-scanning technology as surveillance.
  23. Oryx and Crake, in which a wonder drug induces a global pandemic and the dangers of a post-apocalyptic world include genetically engineered hybrid animals.
  24. Paris in the Twentieth Century, in which “society places value only on business and technology.”
  25. Planet of the Apes, in which human intelligence atrophies due to overreliance on technology.
  26. Player Piano, in which widespread automation causes socio-economic conflict.
  27. Ready Player One, in which humans use virtual reality software to escape the dystopia of the real world.
  28. REAMDE, in which hackers unwittingly start a global war when they release a virus into a popular online role-playing game.
  29. Ripples in the Dirac Sea, in which transformational technology can’t solve the most human of problems.
  30. Short Circuit, in which “an experimental military robot … is struck by lightning and gains a more human-like intelligence.”
  31. Star Trek, in which a crew of humans and aliens “have altruistic values, and must apply these ideals to difficult dilemmas” as they explore space.
  32. The Circle, in which a young employee’s job at a tech company isn’t quite what she expected.
  33. The Incredibles, in which humans lose control of a “learning robot.”
  34. The Jetsons, in which cars fly and robots do most of the work, leaving humans to live a life of comfort (and comedy).
  35. The Matrix, in which humans are enslaved by sentient machines and experience life as a simulated reality.
  36. The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, in which humans escape the pain of climate change through illegal drugs, wearable technology, simulations, and space colonies.
  37. Tron, in which a tech exec is blackmailed by his own virtual intelligence software.
  38. WALL-E, in which pollution destroys the earth and humans retreat to space, where they become obese and weak “due to microgravity and reliance on an automated lifestyle.”
  39. WarGames, in which a computer simulation attempts to start a nuclear war.
  40. Westworld, in which humans live out their wildest fantasies in a theme park staffed by enslaved androids.

Sci-fi and speculative fiction isn’t purely for entertainment. Lowe’s Innovation Labs and ASU’s Center for Science and the Imagination are already employing science-fiction writers to better understand the future of technology and humans. The Design Futures Initiative hosts conferences and meetups on “speculative design” that bring scientists, researchers, designers, writers, and filmmakers together to envision the future.

While many popular books and movies lean toward the dystopian, the future is unwritten. Awareness of possible consequences can help us make better choices; the key is to be able to foresee as many different outcomes as possible. Every technologist needs an education in ethics, and that education should include fictional stories that expand the imagination.

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Jessica Hibbard
Head of Content & Community