The human factor in science fiction

Hardcore science fictions readers may mourn the loss of science fiction writers whose keen insights led them to glimpses of the future. Jules Verne created novels in which characters sailed under oceans throughout the world and traveled to the moon. Ray Bradbury with his prescience about technology predicted wall size TVs in a kind of theater room and “clam shells” that a people stuck in their ears to replace the world’s noise with music in Fahrenheit 451.

However, the past writers were taking potshots when guessing about new technology. No one has traveled to the center of the earth, and considering the heat and pressure that exist there, no one probably ever will. Neither have we seen advancements to colonizing Mars or creating androids indistinguishable from humans as recorded in The Martian Chronicles.

We have yet to see humans on another planet or a computer with truly independent thought processes, even though Arthur C. Clarke wrote stories making these events seem plausible. Tales of space travel to distant solar systems (or even galaxies) are entertaining. However, the amount of time it takes for light from these places to grace our skies is mind boggling. If is doubtful humans will ever be able to span these distances. Therefore, travel in outer space is being usurped by journeys into inner space. The new frontiers in science-fiction literature are virtual reality and artificial intelligence.

The VR and AI that exist today are used in very prosaic ways, such as recalling steps while working as a mechanic or teaching your phone to recognize your voice. These are not exactly thrilling plot lines. Jaron Lanier, one of the founders of virtual reality, argues that computers will never become masters of matter and life. As humans we don’t have the intelligence to produce ones that run programs that are not cumbersome and error-prone, because we are error-prone. Science fiction authors are again taking potshots at predicting the future by creating virtual reality and artificial intelligence that is sophisticated far beyond human cunning.

The real threat, according to Jaron Lanier, is the belief that our collective wisdom can spawn ideas superior to that of a few individual humans. The “hive mind” relieves individuals of responsibility for actions. A pack of anonymous people online can turn into a vicious mob. So, if an author is looking for a new twist on the use of artificial intelligence in fiction, one only has to look as far as the errors made by masses of mislead people in the past. It may not be the dangerous self-perpetuation of artificial intelligence that drives the new science fiction plot towards the crises. AI only amplifies the biases that humans already have. Crowds using their new technology in recklessly irresponsible ways are likely to be the villains of the new breed of science fiction novels.

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