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Hitachi Research Institute

President Column

Commentary by our General Manager, Keiichi Shimada

President Column #6: Science Fiction, Futurology, and Think Tanks

In 1970, more than 40 years ago, the first international science fiction (sci-fi) symposium was held in Japan, and renowned sci-fi writers from the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, and the former Soviet Union were invited. Among the first comments made by some of these writers from various countries upon their arrival were: “I was advised to take a gas mask with me, but it’s alright. I can breathe without it,” (Judith Merril, Canada) and “I was told that I would not be able to see the sky because of the smog, but I can even spot Venus!” (Brian W. Aldiss, UK). Even in present-day China, with serious concentrations of PM2.5, it is unlikely that people would express such concern, but in an era when far fewer people traveled, this is probably the image many people around the world had of Tokyo.

Attending this SF symposium were not only well-known Japanese sci-fi writers at the time, such as Sakyo Komatsu, Shinichi Hoshi, and Masami Fukushima, but also many people from different walks of life including manga artists such as Osamu Tezuka and Shotaro Ishimori and the illustrator Hiroshi Manabe. As the symposium moved to different venues in Tokyo, Nagoya, and Otsu, the discussion of the attendants on various themes such as “sci-fi and civilization” and “what sci-fi should be” unfolded and expanded. Sci-fi is a form of fiction that depicts a visional world based on imaginative scientific hypotheses and, therefore, does not necessarily make predictions about the future. If we look back at past events in history, we may find that at times sci-fi and scientific progress did at times coincide but I have a feeling that writers of science fiction, from the perspective of their own free imagination, see their mission not only as contemplating scientific progress but also visualizing a better image of society beyond that. In discussions during the symposium, the American writer Frederik Pohl discussed his own views of science fiction, saying that it not only predicts the development of science and civilization but also plays a role in fulfilling those predictions. Indeed, he asserts, there are many actual cases of scientists gleaning ideas and inspiration from the world of science fiction. He also believes the role of science fiction applies to social problems where depicting all kinds of predictable scenarios of the future enables humans to choose a direction that will lead to a better society.

On the third day when the venue shifted from Tokyo to Nagoya, a symposium was held on the theme “fantastical transportation of the future,” where attendants shared a flurry of free and bold ideas: a train system passing through the earth’s core using gravitation, antigravity devices that transport people anywhere like a magic flying carpet, and a nuclear-powered supersonic train system linking London, Paris, Moscow, New York, and Buenos Aires in five days, involving the damming of the Bering Strait. The most fantastic concept of all, however, was a tempura car that could be eaten after it was no longer serviceable. It was even suggested that Toyota should take up the development of this car! Winding up this series of discussions, Professor Hidetoshi Kato, a sociologist from Kyoto University and special guest at the symposium, gave a somewhat rousing, unrestrained presentation. “Human beings,” he said, “tend to entertain the illusion that speed is a human value. However, speed is merely a value of the business world. Perhaps we need to reconsider the true value of speed. The fact is that we humans are all being transported to the future at this very moment on a vehicle called Earth, which is traversing space. It is our duty to take good care of this vehicle and make it more comfortable for travel.” I think we can agree that this message remains relevant today.

There is an academic field called “futurology,” the objective of which is to contemplate the future. The aims of futurology are to avert risks, discover new opportunities, and consider how to respond to these by forecasting the future in terms of long-term trends. In this field, various methods are used including brainstorming, the Delphi technique, and scenario planning. The most difficult aspect of forecasting is considering the possibilities of the occurrence of “a major disconnected change,” which cannot be envisioned through simple extrapolation into the future of trends from the past to the present. This is because the occurrence of such change will have a widespread impact over a long period of time. While forecasting itself is important, it is more important is to consider a wide range of possibilities in the future including a “major disconnected change” to consider how we should address such possibilities. In this respect, the work carried out by think tanks overlaps with futurology in many areas.

Since the future is always accompanied by uncertainty, the further into the chronological future our target for forecasting is, the higher the ratio of error will be in predicting. However, there seem to be many people who expect predictions even in science fiction to come true, much in the same way they view the weather forecast for the next day. Both 1984, written from 1946 to 1948 by George Orwell in the United Kingdom, and 2001: A Space Odyssey, written by the great science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke and later made into a box-office hit movie in 1968 by Stanley Kubrick, were never conceived as “predictions” by their authors, although they were meant to be warnings for the future. Nevertheless, as the years of these novels became closer to the “predicted time,” vigorous discussions arose as to whether the predictions would actually eventuate or not. The challenge for both think tanks and business managers lies not only in the task of predicting the future but also in framing a vision that will prepare for that future, as well as initiatives for creating their own particular future. The only aspect about the future that can be predicted with ease, however, is the certainty that the difficulty and importance in achieving such a challenge will increase more and more as time passes.

SF Magazine, 2014 July Issue (Hayakawa Publishing, 2014)
Hamada, K., Introduction to Intellectual Futurology (Shinchosha, 1994)
Nemoto, M., Futurology (WAVE Publishers, 2008)

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