Next 20 years: The importance of time, science fiction and creating space for speculation

23rd July 2020
At Imperial College London, there has been a history in scientific imagination of the future from Wells anticipating the television and commercial air travel to Professor Murray Shanahan's advisory for the film Ex-Machina. Speculation is not only a helpful exercise; it is vital to create plurality in thinking, testing different hypotheses about the future and imagining alternative possibilities.

We wanted to create a series were 20 academics speculated about the next 20 years, to help us unpick technology and exploring their potential futures from living electrodes to decentralised autonomous organisations. Understanding what might be hype, what might become futures realities and where there might be future potential. 

According to research at Cambridge, this is something that humans are particularly good at, we can use tools to create mental time-travel.The capability allows us to go back time but also foresee, plan and shape future events. Similar to complex theatre design. 

Predictions are never perfect as they are based on current situations. In the science fiction of spacecraft, often we still saw women in the homes. It shows that we can never create perfect speculations, but we can start exploring the boundaries of the present-day perspectives and imagine other possibilities. Ursula Le Gin, a well-known science fiction writer, stated that: “The most powerful tool is imagination – the ability and willingness to imagine alternatives to realities as we know it, which is the first step towards making new realities possible.”

More than ever, ethical thinking about the future is vital. At the 2040 conference, Prof Celia Moore spoke about how: “We have physiological and neurological responses to stories that indicate that we simulate and embody those beliefs and emotions, providing the opportunity to understand others from within their shoes.” By creating future stories or narratives, we can start imagining and empathising with our future potential and those that inhabit these futures. Perhaps, even expanding our moral circle of regard to include more than just our closest humans and the Earth, connecting to eco-system and biodiversity. 

Time is also important. Considering the impact across generations might allow us to open up to new thinking and perspectives. Most recently books by authors have explored the concept of deep time, from ‘how to be a good ancestor’ to understanding geological time. Projects are increasingly embracing the concept of timefulness and expanded perspective of time. 

We want this series to be about the next 20 years and its potential new realities. These first pieces are just interviews, but we think it is important to start speculating, challenging and creating mental models of the future of technology, society and humanity at large. Where do we want to time-travel? And what do we want to stay away from?