Issue No. 09 - September (2013 vol. 46)
DOI Bookmark: http://doi.ieeecomputersociety.org/10.1109/MC.2013.328
Brian David Johnson , Intel
I’ve been humbled by the amount of support and feedback I’ve received for this column. People have sent me their ideas, thoughts, visions, and even a few science fiction prototypes (thank you!!). But this issue’s column is a little bit different than the others I’ve done this year—this time, I’m going to engage in more of a thought experiment. After you’ve indulged me, send in your own “Copernican moment” so we can turn it into an entirely different science fiction prototype.
At a recent Intel conference in San Francisco, my fellow participants and I dove into two days of intense conversations and collaborations with global thought leaders from academia, industry, govern- ment, and the military. Intel’s research labs were exploring the ways in which people’s experiences with computing were changing.
On day one, my colleague Tony Salvador took the stage. I often joke with people that I’m not a social scientist, but I sit next to one—Tony is a trained psychologist, and my cube is right next to his at Intel’s research lab.
That morning, Tony was talking about how people’s relationship with their data has changed quite radically over the past 5 to 10 years. For some time, people have thought of data as disembodied, whizzing around the Internet and living in the ethereal “cloud.” But that’s not strictly true. Data is very real and has recently started to change how we see and interact with the physical world.
For example, websites and services such as Airbnb and Zipcar have changed how we think about that spare room in the house or owning a car. According to its website, “Airbnb is a trusted com-munity marketplace for people to list, discover, and book unique accommodations around the world.” Basically it’s a platform that lets you rent out your free space. Zipcar emerged in 2000 as an entirely new way to use and share a car without having to actually own one.
Tony went on to explain that people’s relationship to the real world is changing because our data now works for us. That data about your spare room is now out on the Internet and making you money—pretty cool! But the radical change isn’t in Web services—it isn’t even what we once valued and thought was permissible in our daily lives. What has changed is how we now think about data.
THE MODEL SHIFTS
To better explain this shift, Tony and another researcher in our lab, Brandon Barnett, used Copernicus as an illustrative example.
Mathematician and astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543) changed how humans understood the heavens. Before Copernicus, people believed that the Earth was at the center of the solar system and that the sun and the rest of the planets revolved around it. Incredibly smart people had tracked and charted planet movement, using precise measurements to meticulously work out how each body orbited the Earth.
Naturally, this resulted in some pretty amazing trajectories. The planets looped and danced around the Earth in wonderfully organic-looking flight plans. At first glance, Ptolemy’s 150 AD geocentric model of the solar system—as rendered in Figure 1—looks more like a flower than a map of the solar system. But this was what people believed and what highly intelligent people thought was proven, given the evidence before them. But, of course, it wasn’t true.
Copernicus’s heliocentric model of the solar system—as rendered in Figure 2—was published in On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres in 1543, just before his death, and showed a radically different view of the solar system. With a single shift in his model, Copernicus changed history. People’s understanding of the world around them was transformed from a fantastic model of the planets to one that was more precise and provided the next step in our future exploration of that world.
Tony and Brandon’s analogy worked well, and the audience got the magnitude of what they were saying. If we can change the mental model for how we imagine the world, the results can be massive.
I’m a big fan of the work that Tony and Brandon are doing with the rest of the data researchers at Intel. But I wondered what it felt like to be Copernicus at that moment when his heliocentric idea first flashed in his brain.
I thought about life in 1514, when the mathematician was just forming his ideas and writing them down in a book called Commentariolus (“little commentary”) that he refused to publish and only distributed to his friends. I envisioned that Copernican moment when the man himself grasped that the entire universe was not as he or the rest of the world had imagined. In that flash, everything changed, and yet for Copernicus, nothing happened to him physically. He still stood on the Earth. He still looked up at the sky, the same one he had looked into his entire life—the same sky all other astronomers and mathematicians had gazed into for centuries.
Copernican moments—when it all changes, but your immediate physical self remains the same. How do you come to grips with that change? How do you process the ramifications of a different universe? Maybe that’s why I’m drawn to science fiction prototypes; they’re vehicles that help us though those moments and give us a way to envision the possible impacts of the massive shift of humans, culture, laws, and ethics.
Did Copernicus imagine new worlds? He certainly understood the religious and cultural impacts of his discovery. He knew they would be so big that he was afraid to publish them beyond his close friends until he was near death. Imagine discovering something that you know to be so huge that you feel you have to wait until just before you die to share it with the world.
What happens if David Deutsch’s theories are correct, and we’re living in not just one universe but a collection of tightly parallel universes that make up a multiverse? What will it be like to walk down the street the day after the multiverse is revealed? You still have to get up, brush your teeth, and put on your shoes, but now you’re surrounded by a wonderfully more complex reality.
But there are still more moments to ponder: With materials advances, what happens when we develop true quantum computational power? What if we expand our understanding of synthetic biology and create self-replicating computational systems?
So my request in this installment is simple: What’s your Copernican moment? What will it feel like to live in that world? How would you use science fiction to explore the human and cultural implications of your breakthrough? What are the discoveries either great or small that will dramatically shift how we imagine and see our world? What will it feel like to wake up the next morning, nibble on your toast, and get ready for your day? For me, the juxtaposition is simply fascinating: gargantuan universe-changing mind shift, and yet you still need to take out the garbage.
I’m a bit of a physics nerd, and physicists don’t get any better than Brian Greene. Based at Columbia University, he’s been exploring and explaining our universe with great intelligence and approachable clarity. I think we can use the challenge at the end of his 2011 book The Hidden Reality as we search for our own Copernican moments: “It’s only through fearless engagement that we can learn our own limits. It’s only through the rational pursuit of theories, even those that whisk us into strange and unfamiliar domains, that we stand a chance of revealing the expanse of reality.”
Be fearless and imagine big!
Brian David Johnson, Science Fiction Prototyping column editor, is Intel’s first futurist. Johnson is charged with developing an actionable vision for computing 10 to 15 years in the future. His latest book, Vintage Tomorrows: A Historian and a Futurist Journey through Steampunk and into the Future of Technology (Make, 2013), is available on Amazon ( www.amazon.com/Vintage-Tomorrows-Historian-Steampunk-Technology/dp/1449337996). Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @IntelFuturist.