ASU program changes future visions with science fiction technology

What do science fiction novelists, engineers, policymakers and ASU students have in common? They all have visions of the future that are tied together through Project Hieroglyph.

Edward Finn, assistant professor and director of the Center for Science and the Imagination, joined the project in late 2011 during its early stages.

He said the project came to ASU when science fiction writer and Project Hieroglyph founder Neal Stephenson and University President Michael Crow met as panelists at Future Tense together in Washington, D.C., where Stephenson argued about his idea of Innovation Starvation.



Innovation Starvation is a concept where people today have changed their way of thinking and no longer try to improve the world in the long run.

“We went from these grand ambitious projects to a very different relationship with the future where we aren’t thinking in the long-term, (and) we aren’t thinking big anymore,” Finn said. “We seem to be thinking about really small incremental improvements and no longer even really engaging with the big, world-changing ideas.”

Crow asked Finn to help make a solution to that problem by incorporating it at a university, which led him to the idea of a Center for Science and the Imagination.

One of the pilot ideas Stephenson envisioned for Project Hieroglyph is the Tall Tower that he and Keith Hjelmstad, a structural engineering professor at ASU, developed.

According tothe project's website, the Tall Tower is an idea about just how tall we can create something using materials that are available today. It challenges people to define their idea of tall by comparing things such as the Statue of Liberty to the stratosphere.

Finn said that when Hjelmstad was asked how tall the tallest building could be, he responded by saying that structural engineers do not approach problems that way and that it was an interesting question to get people thinking about.

"If you think about building something that's 15 or 20 kilometers tall, you need to know a lot about the jet stream and how the winds work in the atmosphere at different altitudes," he said. "You need to know about geography, seismology and where you'd want to put this thing in a relatively stable place."

Other factors being considered include sustainability, environmental impact and how to get enough steel to build the Tall Tower, Finn said.

Joseph Eschrich, research and operations coordinator at theCenter for Science and the Imagination, said he believes this change in the way people view the future is because technology was originally seen as an improvement to the future, but after the atomic bomb, people started to change their minds.

One of the other projects that Eschrich said he is excited about is working with science fiction writer Cory Doctorow to have 3-D printers on the moon, also known as Remote Stereolunagraphy.

The printer would be able to use moon dust, or lunar regolith, to build bricks and plates for future structures on the moon, he said.

While the idea does not originate from Project Hieroglyph, it is an ongoing conversation around the world and is being pursued by NASA.

Project Hieroglyph serves people who see the 3-D printer project and want to be a part of it by allowing people to create a network of interested people on their website.

“The first step is going on there and seeing what kind of conversations are happening,” Eschrich said.

For example, the 3-D printer forum has different topics posted from people, including the premise of the project and the materials and engineering behind it, as well as a post from someone who had already constructed a prototype, according to the website.

Finn said the website forum is a place for people to propose ideas and talk them through.

Even though Project Hieroglyph derives many of its ideas from science fiction writers, it specifically focuses on technology that is possible. Eschrich said sometimes science fiction is focused on time travel and other ideas that are not yet possible, so they focus on projects that can be created with technology that is presently available.

The timeline that the project gives writers varies per project, but the projects are mandated to be possible within one human lifetime, Finn said.

Along with Project Hieroglyph, the Center for Science and the Imagination is also changing dystopian views derived from science fiction novels by working with ASU schools.

Paul Hirt, a history associate professor at ASU, is creating a graduate-level class for next year’s spring semester with Eschrich.

The goal of the class is to change the direction that society is going and imagine several different futures instead of one idea of a dystopian future, Hirt said.

“People become apathetic if they think our problems are too big to solve,” he said.

The class hopes to tackle this belief by collaborating between graduate students and creative people such as novelists or scientists to imagine a future society that would have enough food and water as well as other resources by the years 2030, 2050 and even 2070, Eschrich said.

The class will present their projects to policymakers like city managers.

Hirt said the first step is to pilot the class to graduate students and then offer a broader class at the undergraduate level the following year.

Eschrich also talked about the possibility of having a History of the Future class where students would look at past literature written about the future and analyzing what worked and what did not to develop ideas to plan for our future.

"We're using it as an experiment, as a trial run," he said. "It'll be intense and self-directed."

Reach the reporter at or follow her on Twitter @chelseyballarte

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