Scientific American interviews Brian David Johnson, Intel’s “future caster,” who combines science fiction with software and hardware design to predict what’s happening next:
How can science fiction influence real-world research and development?
There’s a great symbiotic history between science fiction and science fact—fiction informs fact. I go out and I do a lot of lectures on AI [artificial intelligence] and robotics, and I talk about inspiration and how we can use science fiction to play around with these ideas and every time people come to me, pull me aside and say, “You do know the reason why I got into robotics was C3PO, right?” I’ve become a confessor to some people. I just take their hand and say, “You are not alone. It’s okay.”
And it’s true, science fiction inspires people to what they could do. It captures their imagination, which is incredibly important for developing better technology. Such as, I’m going to write this story based on this research from these artificial intelligence and robotics guys so they have a better image of what they can do with that technology.
So you’re usually looking ahead nine or 10 years ahead?
About 10 years is the cadence I try to keep to. It varies. A lot of what I do also is called “backcasting.” I’ll work with the people who are designing ultrabooks [extremely thin, light laptops], and they’ll ask, “What should we do for 2015?” And I’ll say, I’ve got this body of data, let’s look at what the future of ultrabooks looks like by starting at 2020 and working back five years, instead of starting at 2011 and looking ahead a few years.
How do you ensure that the ideas you have for Intel’s future are compatible with the directions that hardware-makers (Apple, Dell, etcetera), who use Intel chips in their PCs and mobile devices, want to go with their products?
The first step in my process is social science. We have ethnographers and anthropologists studying people first and foremost. So all of the future casting work I do starts with a rich understanding of humans, who are going to use the technology after all. Then we get into the computer science. Then I do the statistical modeling. Then I start developing models about what the future is going to look like. Then I hit the road.
At the link, he goes into viral computers (they reproduce themselves) and how fear changes the way people use smartphones.