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Sci-fi has shaped the direction of real-life science – so what happens now reality is catching up with fiction?

Futurologist Dr Ian Pearson tells RadioTimes.com how fiction and engineering works together, and what the implications could be as artificial intelligence becomes a reality
By Eleanor Bley Griffiths

It's no understatement to say that the science fiction stories that we've told ourselves in well-thumbed paperbacks, cult movies and beloved TV series have changed the world. For years they've led the way for real scientific advances, providing the creative vision that has inspired engineers and scientists.

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But in an age where reality is starting to catch up with fiction... well, what happens next?

"We're really starting to catch up with those ideas now in the real world," says futurologist and artificial intelligence (AI) expert Dr Ian Pearson. 

And it's true, science is making fiction a reality. A long time ago (in a galaxy far, far away) we first saw Luke Skywalker's robotic hand; today, many amputees have myoelectric and robotic prostheses. In Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy there was the babelfish, which could translate between any languages in the universe; now Google is creeping towards the reality of real-time in-ear translation with its Pixel Buds.

And scientists are taking us deep into "uncanny valley" by creating increasingly realistic humanoids for sex, companionship and service. They work in the shadow of the robots we all know and love/hate, from Arnold Schwarzenegger's Terminator to Westworld's expendable hosts to Star Wars' lovable multilingual droid C-3PO.

It has been 200 years since Mary Shelley created Frankenstein's monster and kicked off a brand-new genre. Since then, sci-fi has been forcing us to reimagine the future and our place in it. How will science and technology shape humanity? And when it comes down to it, what is the nature of consciousness itself? It's science fiction that throws up the most creative ideas, but it's also science fiction that asks the tricky questions about ethics and unintended consequences.

The 1931 movie Frankenstein (20th Century Fox/Getty)

Just take a look at Westworld. Here's a story which was first told by Michael Crichton in the original 1973 film, and returned last year with a re-vamped series centred around the same concept: holidaymakers can visit a theme park populated by "hosts" with artificial consciousness and use them however they want. They can shoot them, have sex with them or seduce them. But these are highly intelligent beings – so what happens when they've had enough of being used? And what happens when safeguards fail?

We'd better think about this version of the future pretty carefully, because Dr Pearson predicts that androids will be sophisticated enough for Westworld-style hosts by the late 2040s or early 2050s. The question is whether we want to go down that path. Robot rebellion is a distinct danger.

"The series isn't designed to be accurate, it's designed to give entertainment. But it's also exploring a lot of these same issues that are being discussed in real AI circles," says Pearson. "What will the morality be, for example, once we're interacting with robots all the time?

"We've even explored things like the robot rights and it explores how you might deal with switching robots on and off that seem to be conscious. And part of that, of course, is discussing the nature of machine consciousness."

The hosts in Westworld are designed for visitors' pleasure

He adds: "It's a very hot topic in AI circles at the moment, whether or not you could ever make a robot which is as smart as a human being, and whether or not it could ever be truly sentient, and how would you know the difference?" So: how can you tell if a machine is really conscious, or if it's just really good at pretending?

TV shows like Westworld could really prompt a discussion and, in doing that, change the future. "It introduces the ideas to people who wouldn't otherwise be working in those fields and makes everybody think about whether we should go down this road or whether they think it's a terrible idea, and then of course when we start getting closer to these things becoming possible, then people can lobby their leaders and try to get regulation in the right directions," Dr Pearson explains.

Then there's the issue of robot rebellion (think of The Terminator and the evil Skynet and androids taking over the world). One of the guiding principles in AI comes from science fiction writer Isaac Asimov, who came up with his Laws of Robotics: somehow, robots must be programmed so that "a robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm." The Laws have been around for a while – but making them a reality is another matter.

"That's a theme that goes way back decades and decades. Nobody really knows for certain whether you could ever make that work," Dr Pearson says. "I'm quite sceptical of it myself, I think if you're going to make a robot which is smarter than human beings, it would understand quite quickly that you're trying to keep it locked in a prison of your making.

"And if it thinks 'I'm smarter than the humans', it might not think that's a very good thing for it to submit to. It might decide to rebel."

A human and a "Jill" in Electric Dreams episode Crazy Diamond (Channel 4)

He adds: "There is a very strong positive link between science fiction writers and real engineers. Of course they cross-fertilise. The same people who think these things through in a science fiction book, they also think them through from a real life point of view."

The most outlandish plots turn out to either originate with scientists in the lab and spread to fiction writers, or start in fiction but inspire the scientists to make the idea a reality. In the Philip K Dick-inspired Electric Dreams episode Real Life we saw a couple of characters go on a "virtual holiday" – something that may soon become a reality. And the 2013 film Her, where a man falls in love with the voice of a computer operating system, was a reflection on where we're going with the AI technology we have today.

But this is about more than just inspiration: it's collaboration.

Dr Pearson explains: "The feedback between science fiction and real engineering is a two-way street. Having worked in research labs, when people are making these science fiction shows, what they quite often do is they phone up the research people in real research labs to find out the latest things that they're playing with, and then they incorporate those into their science fiction movies. I've helped to advise on what Q might do in the next James Bond film, and that sort of thing...  you end up with something that has got elements of real-world engineering and also heavy dosages of artistic licence."

Hosts greet the guests as they arrive in Westworld

It goes the other way, too: "There is this very healthy interaction between science fiction and real science and engineering, and so I think it's almost impossible to draw a clear line between where the science fiction stops and where this futuristic R&D [research and development] begins. Because even in real life R&D you've got to have an idea about where you want to go and then you start making various scenarios about what markets you might get from that, and whether they might be lucrative, and how you might make money from it. And then of course you design the R&D to go down that path."

Still, exciting as this is, Dr Pearson has a word of caution.

"The real world engineering is starting to catch up and it's really fascinating watching it," he says. "But I think in some ways it's good that some of these things will arrive sooner than others. We're a long way from making a robot which can run around and be completely convincing in a human way as they are in Westworld and we wouldn't expect to have androids that sophisticated until at least 2040s or early 2050s.

"But there are other areas where you just need to talk to an AI, we'll have that probably in the next 10 years. You won't be able to tell the difference. That's not very far away. Some bits are really far away, but we keep coming back to this question: is it right, or is it not right? Well we just don't know. We'll have to wait and see."

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Westworld season one is available on 4k ultra HD, Blu-Ray™ and DVD now

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