Science Fiction Can Be a Tool for Creative Policy Thinking

This weekend, “Dune,” the highly acclaimed film adaptation of Frank Herbert’s science-fiction classic of the same name, capped off a successful box-office run by bagging an impressive six Oscars at the Academy Awards.

The movie, directed by French Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve, has received particular praise for its stunning cinematography and soundtrack, and for breaking from prior adaptation attempts by “sensibly” tackling only the first part of the 412-page novel. This is why, critics have argued, this version of Dune has been so well-received compared to previous versions.

But an alternative—or perhaps complementary—explanation could be that today, there is simply more demand for stories like “Dune,” which provide a lens through which to think about the future. At a time when humanity is facing existential threats, be it from climate change or nuclear annihilation, it makes sense that we would start to seek out science fiction to signal the path forward. After all, its writers have been imagining ways for humans to survive and thrive through cataclysmic change for much longer than politicians.

For instance, “Dune,” which was first published in 1956, is set in the year 10191, in a world where humans have colonized a vast number of planets. But it centers on the members of one noble family, the House Atreides. Thus, the novel is futuristic, with interstellar travel and laser guns, but also deeply human, rooted in age-old themes of romance, duty and religion, as well as political issues like resource extraction and racial and economic inequality. Both the book and the movie offer viewers an opportunity to think about how we, or at least our species, might act in a distant and unfamiliar future, helping us make an 8,000-year leap of the imagination.

Recognizing the power of science fiction to catalyze creative thinking, a number of thinkers have recently been using the medium as a tool to analyze the more immediate challenges humankind is likely to face in the next 20 to 100 years. Some have been quite explicit in their intentions. For example, in 2017, the Future of Life Institute came together with Stuart Russell, a leading artificial intelligence researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, to produce an arms-control advocacy video called “Slaughterbots,” in which tiny AI weapons wreak havoc on humanity.

The seven-minute video starts with a tech pitch introducing palm-sized, autonomous drones that use face recognition to seek out and eliminate targets. An executive boasts that a $25 million order of these “unstoppable” drones could wipe out half a city—“the bad half.” Then, as the video unfolds, news reporters reveal that the drones have been acquired by unknown parties and used to assassinate protesting students and sitting politicians. Closing with a warning from Russell that “allowing machines to kill humans will be devastating to our security and freedom,” this video has been praised for helping people better understand the complex and seemingly abstract dangers of uncontrolled, lethal autonomous weapons.

Other thinkers have been subtler in their use of science fiction to suggest potential courses of action for humanity. Take, for instance, Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2020 book, “The Ministry for the Future.” Set in the near future, this novel follows the story of the titular international body, whose mission is to advocate for the world’s future generations.

Confronting challenges like the future of work will require unconventional thinking, which can only emerge from cross-sector collaboration.

Over the course of the book, Mary Murphy—the head of the ministry, who seems to be based on diplomats Mary Robinson, Christiana Figueres and Laurence Tubiana—is forced to contend with horrific challenges, including the aftermath of a devastating but all-too -possible heatwave in India. She and her colleagues consider a number of options to deal with the climate crisis, some of which are being discussed today, like carbon pricing and solar radiation modification, and some far more drastic, like covertly assassinating the world’s highest polluting individuals.

The genius of Robinson’s setup is that it allows the author to communicate the pros and cons, as well as the urgency, of climate solutions in a way that is both compelling and tangible. Longer but much easier to digest than a report by the International Panel on Climate Change, this book has enabled millions of non-experts to grasp and grapple with some of the big questions being asked about climate change.

Finally, some examples of how science fiction can help us contend with real-life challenges have come from truly unexpected places. Case in point: “Horizon Zero Dawn,” a 2017 video game set in the 31st century on a newly terraformed planet Earth that has been re-civilized after climate change and rogue robots wiped out the original. Though seemingly far-fetched, Horizon encourages users to consider and make decisions about the future, and especially rewards pro-environmental and feminist choices. With more than 20 million copies sold, this video game has likely done more to mainstream thinking about the future than any academic paper could.

By emphasizing the power of science fiction, I am not just trying to spotlight certain movies, books or games—though you should absolutely watch, read and play all of these. Really, my goal is to highlight three important points.

First, the pandemic has offered a clear example of how rapidly misinformation can spread, causing chaos or even death. What the examples above reveal is that experts may have a better chance of cutting through all this chaos and getting the truth across if they embrace more creative and popular methods of communication.

Second, if science fiction can help the average person unlock and articulate opinions on global issues like climate change, imagine what it could do for the minds of world-leading experts. During his 2021 Reith Lectures series, Stuart Russell joked that if humanity is to have any hope of dealing with big questions—like “What happens when AI takes over all our jobs?”—then we should lock the world’s foremost economists up with a load of science-fiction writers. There is some truth to this: Confronting challenges like the future of work will require unconventional thinking, which can only emerge from cross-sector collaboration.

Finally, the examples above offer a reminder of the broader value of all art. At a time when the pace of change seems overwhelming, and the scale of the challenges we face unfathomable, art can help to enlighten, console and inspire us. Across the world, leaders are investing in educating a new generation of Stephen Hawkingses and Marie Curies. But we will need Frank Herberts and Mary Shelleys, too.

Aishwarya Machani is a UN Foundation Next Generation Fellow. She led a consultative process bringing together hundreds of young people from around the world to contribute to the UN secretary-general’s “Our Common Agenda” report. She also co-authored “Our Future Agenda,” an accompanying vision and plan for next and future generations. She recently graduated from the University of Cambridge. Her weekly WPR column appears every Tuesday.

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