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Why Today’s Inventors Need to Read More Science-Fiction

How will police use a gun that immobilizes its target but does not kill? What would people do with a device that could provide them with any mood they desire? What are the consequences of a massive, instant global communications network?

Such questions are relevant to many technologies on the market today, but their first iterations appeared not in lab prototypes but in the pages of science fiction.

This fall, MIT Media Lab researchers Dan Novy and Sophia Brueckner are teaching “Science Fiction to Science Fabrication,” aka “Pulp to Prototype,” a course that mines these “fantastic imaginings of the future” for analysis of our very real present. Over email, I asked Novy and Brueckner about the books they’ll be teaching, the inventions that found their antecedents in those pages, and why Novy and Brueckner believe it is so important for designers working in the very real world to study the imaginary. An edited transcript of our correspondence follows.

Read more. [Image: jonny2love/flickr]


Funerals for Fallen Robots

When Boomer was lost on the battlefield in Taji, Iraq, his brothers in arms gave him a funeral. The tribute involved a 21-gun salute, and the awarding of both a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star Medal. All in recognition, according to a soldier who has worked with Boomer’s comrades, of Boomer’s heroism and of the many lives he had saved on the battlefield. 

It was a funeral that was typical in every way but one: Boomer was a machine. He was a MARCbot, an inexpensive robot designed to seek out and disarm explosives. He — Boomer was, apparently, a he — saved soldiers’ lives as he tooled his way into dangerous zones, taking one for the team in the most selfless way possible. The tributes in Taji, be they figurative (the Bronze Star) or more literal (the firearmed salute), recognized all this. “Some people got upset about it,” the soldier recalls of Boomer’s improvised funeral, ”but those little bastards can develop a personality, and they save so many lives.”

The little bastards do save lives. Their personalities, however, aren’t so much developed as they’re imposed by their human minders. In the heat of battle, and in the chaos of war zones, soldiers, it seems, tend to humanize their robotic aides. They develop emotional attachments to the machines that put themselves in harm’s way so the humans don’t have to.

Read more. [Image: U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Bobby J. Segovia/Wikimedia Commons]


medical meme ☤ | porphyria and the vampire and werewolf legends

In 1963 the Proceedings of the Royal Society of Medicine had featured a paper entitled “On Porphyria and the Aetiology of Werewolves.” Dolphin described porphyria victims’ sensitivity to sunlight, and the possibility that receding gums can give the appearance of fangs.  He also suggested that garlic contains a chemical that makes the condition worse, and that while porphyria now is treated by injection of blood products such as hematin that interfere with porphyrin synthesis, at one time victims may have attempted self-treatment by drinking blood.  It all amounted to interesting, somewhat whimsical, speculation.  But the press ignored the “ifs”, “buts” and “maybes”, and concluded that not only vampire, but also werewolf legends, were based on the afflictions of porphyria. [x]

Painting: Adolphe Bouguereau | Dante And Virgil In Hell (1850)

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