MIT Aims To Turn Sci-Fi Into Reality With New Course

By Nick Venable | Published

This article is more than 2 years old

empathy boxWithout a Starfleet Academy or Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters, we Earthlings only have normal military academies and universities to go to. But they’re always doing crazy things over there at MIT aren’t they? You can’t get that many smart people together and expect them to go all night without discovering a new kind of wave flow or inventing a sensor that lets you know your fridge light is burnt without having to open the door, right? MIT Media Lab researchers Dan Novy and Sophia Bueckner, however, are really upping the ante and have started a class that informs and inspires students to try and create almost anything the human mind can conceive, and it’s called “Science Fiction to Science Fabrication,” or “Pulp to Prototype” for all you shorthanders. This will basically be a sci-fi lover’s dream, where classic literature and films become coursework, and the assignments involve bringing their ideas to light. But don’t get your bio-engineered panties in a bunch, they’re not trying to build T-1000s. This is about expanding the mind and imagination.

“Science fiction is often derided as too fanciful or not rigorous in thought,” Novy recently told The Atlantic. “There is still a stigma against those who read it, and yet if you look at the great advances in science and technology during most of the 20th and 21st centuries, they are often preceded by descriptions in works of science fiction written decades before.” Of course, we as sci-fi fans already knew this, and part of the fun of the genre is in making connections between proposed devices and their real-life counterparts. There apparently aren’t as many sci-fi fans at the Media Lab as one might predict, but this course should make a huge difference.

Novy cites the novels of Philip K. Dick as a huge inspiration for the class, since Dick filled his stories with innovative technology that often went beyond just using one or two of our senses. Both the novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and its film adaptation Blade Runner have made the syllabus, and while I doubt we’ll see Empathy Boxes and Mood Organs hit department store shelves anytime soon, maybe we can at least get some real replicants out of the deal. But the good kind.

Each two-week class period contains a novel for the class to read, a set of short stories, a film, and a final project for students to complete, with some occasional nonfiction reading thrown in. You’ll see works by Ray Bradbury, Joe Haldeman, J.G. Ballard, Frederick Pohl, Ursula K. Le Guin, and even Warren Ellis, whose graphic novel Transmetropolitan made the list. On the film side, there’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, The Matrix, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and more. If they have to create baby aliens inside of eggs, then maybe this isn’t the class for me.

As Novy said, “[S]cience fiction and science-fiction prototyping also allow you to develop, explore and test new features and affordances while it’s still cheap to do so. The ‘napkin drawing’ phase is as inexpensive as the ink, paper and cocktail that came with the napkin.” This sounds like the perfect way to gain an education. What do you guys think?