At MIT, an Ethics Class for Inventors

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Friday, July 18, 2014

A screenshot from 'Case and Molly,' a computer game inspired by William Gibson's Neuromancer A screenshot from Case and Molly, a computer game inspired by William Gibson's Neuromancer (Greg Borenstein/Vimeo)

MIT’s Media Lab makes a strong claim to being the place where the future is designed.  A class called Science Fiction to Science Fabrication, taught by researchers Dan Novy and Sophia Brueckner, makes that connection direct by using science fiction as an inspiration for real-world inventions.

Sci-fi is full of imagined technologies, some plausible (killer robots), some far-out (time-traveling DeLoreans). Students in this class mine the work of authors like Philip K. Dick, Isaac Asimov, J. G. Ballard, Ray Bradbury, and William Gibson for ideas, such as an empathy testing machine like the one used to identify androids in Blade Runner.

But most science fiction writers aren’t advocating that we build their technologies; they’re asking how we would use, or misuse, them. That’s exactly why Brueckner and Novy decided to put science fiction in front of the students at the MIT Media Lab. “Reading science fiction is kind of like ethics class for inventors,” says Brueckner. Traditionally, technology schools ask ‘how do we build it?’ This class asks a different question: ‘should we?’

Novy adds, “With the ability of any technology or application to go viral over the planet in 24 hours, I think it is even more important to think about what you’re doing before you release it into the wild.” 

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Produced by:

Julia Lowrie Henderson

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