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#3 The Chicken-Egg Dilemma: does sci-fi predict or create the future?

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In this #3 post of the Symposium ‘Hitchhikers Guide to Law & Tech’, Yeliz Döker examines whether science fiction merely forecasts the future or is genuinely responsible for its creation. Because of the oxymoron character of science fiction (Chicken-Egg Dilemma), it manages to do two things at once: it presents a slice of the future to the reader while simultaneously cautioning them about the challenges that lie ahead. This characteristic feature can act as a guide for lawyers as well as those involved in the process of developing policies. Yeliz then explores how science fiction can evoke the law-making process to help us implicitly understand today’s socio-legal problems.

The “Chicken-egg dilemma” is an analogy to illustrate a situation in which two things appear to be necessary and have a causal effect on the other. Hence, it makes paradoxically impossible to say which came first. So, let us apply this analogy to a different scenario to have a speculative fiction scenario of law. Does science fiction predict the future, or does science fiction create the future?Moreover, how does this affect society and law? So, we will discover how sci-fi can evoke the law-making process to be helpful for us to realize the socio-legal problems of present times.

The past 20 years have been crucial for the development of technological life. In the 90s, the purpose of the internet was not well understood. It was highly criticized in terms of its benefits to society. Now, even accessing this article requires an internet connection. The internet and the ‘data’ provided by its users can be considered the initial core of the development of technological artifacts such as Artificial Intelligence. Newly created technological artifacts can be vague concepts. Although they may seem new, their roots can be traced back to ancient mythology and, more crucially, science fiction.

Ancient mythology and science fiction have inspired many of today’s most cutting-edge technological innovations. Even the idea of generating artificial life and robots began to express itself in ancient stories long before technological breakthroughs made it feasible for humankind to build self-moving gadgets. The Pandora myth, mentioned for the first time in Hesiod’s Theogony, is a true example of mythic artificial existence. Also, the idea of having intelligent computers can be found in the works of Heinlein, Adams, and Clarke (and in many other renowned sci-fi works) written long before real-world supercomputers such as Fugaku, Summit, and Sierra.

Sci-fi works somehow predicted supercomputers and many more. So, doesn’t it cause a paradoxical scenario regarding the connection between the future and sci-fi?

To answer this question, one shall dive into the relationship between sci-fi, present, and future. Interpreting what sci-fi literature can indicate about technological change and its impact on society is of primary importance for lawmakers. To prevent irreversible harm to society, lawmakers need to know what they are dealing with or what they will deal with. Nevertheless, predicting the exact impact of technology and its possible impacts on society is complicated. Technology’s connection with natural science makes it inherently complex for social scientists. Besides, there is a lot of noise surrounding technological change. Conspiracy theories are in high supply in the press, popular art, and technobabble.

So what is Sci-Fi?

Sci-fi draws on science and fiction. Science can be defined as any system of knowledge concerned with the physical world and its phenomena and entails unbiased observations and systematic experimentation. Science generally involves the pursuit of any knowledge covering general truths or the operations of fundamental laws. It, therefore, embodies not only facts but also theories that can be accepted as probable facts in the future. Fiction, in contrast, encompasses imaginary and creative works. Fiction does not need to be based on actual events or facts.

Science fiction is thus an oxymoron. Through the hybridization of science and fiction, sci-fi combines reality and imagination. The result is that sci-fi might give its readers the illusion of knowing the unknown. Yet, at the same time, sci-fi can provide a valuable medium to demonstrate facts through allegory.

Sci-fi offers a glimpse of the future and supplies possible scenarios about changes in technology and society. Since it draws its ideas from overcoming challenges in the real world, it may influence current technology. Although sci-fi serves as a source of inspiration for technological advancements, it also causes society to shun technological artifacts. Ergo, there is a very dense link between the fear of technological developments and sci-fi. Eventually, the fear of this innovation that has penetrated the veins of society dates back centuries.

From Greek myths such as Prometheus and Oedipus to the Bible, the Judeo-Christian tradition is replete with examples. However, it seems to have taken Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in the nineteenth century to inspire a thousand plotlines in literature and film. According to some, this novel was at the root of the ingrained fears about the dangers of creating artificial life. The novel centers on a deranged scientist disgusted by his own invention, which inspired many other examples, from rogue replicants in Blade Runner to domestic servants in ‘I, Robot’. All of them eventually take over human affairs. Rapid advances in AI and an ingrained fear of technology have driven these fears from classic works, television series, and feature films to policy-making processes.

In addition to forewarning society about what could happen in the future, science fiction often discusses socio-legal problems that society should dread, criticize, or avoid in the present. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood is a dystopian novel in which women live in a deeply oppressive patriarchal society. With that scenario in mind, and the constitutional right to an abortion being revoked in real life, the Handmaid’s Tale is a true example of the necessity to read sci-fi works more cautiously to avoid making similar mistakes.

Sci-fi allows the readers to criticize these real-life dilemmas and conflicts within an alternative framework where the impact of these debates would not harm writers and readers. This framework serves as a helpful metaphor and shields those in a society wherein criticizing modern civilization is prohibited. For example, within the safe confines of the sci-fi world, Russian science fiction literature was all about critiquing socio-legal issues. Under Socialist Realism, the only genre in which discussions of utopia or dystopia could be aired without restraint was none other than science fiction. Indeed, the famous Hard to be a God book by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky served as an allegory for the plight of the average Soviet citizen during the Cold War.

In general, one would suppose that free-floating imagination and logically self-consistent science are the most significant aspects of sci-fi. Realistic elements are seldom thought of as being part of sci-fi. However, as a literary genre, sci-fi essentially portrays social life. According to Chen Quifan, “… science fiction was a tool to criticize society, to bring up serious issues.” Thus, his debut book, Waste Tide, depicts the catastrophes brought on by our way of life (throw-away culture) in a lightly fictionalized version of Guiyu, the largest electronic waste disposal facility in the world.

Sci-fi also highlights the escalating problem of social stratification and class solidification in addition to illustrating the effects of unregulated technological product waste. The dystopian theme of class disparities is recurrent in Metropolis (1927), Sleeper (1973), Brazil (1985), In Time (2011), and Elysium (2013). Each has thoroughly examined the idea of social stratification in a civilization that is far advanced in the future. In addition, well-known science fiction books like Iron Council, Kindred, Midnight Robber, Ancillary Justice, and The Only Harmless Great Thing address issues of economic and social inequality and tell the tales of those who have been oppressed. These works achieve this by using a common technique in science fiction: focusing on a speculative subject that has both nothing and everything to do with today. We could therefore conclude that sometimes the purpose of creating science fiction could be to highlight reality.

In that vein, sci-fi can be seen as a place to discuss real-world problems in a sandboxed medium.

Now can sci-fi tell us how to regulate technological artifacts?

In the wealth of sci-fi studies, Isaac Asimov’s three laws of robotics often appear in discussions of AI policy. Still, they are not a solution to the problem of regulation. Isaac Asimov gave us valuable pointers to think about substantive regulation of technology. Even after encoding the most essential constitution-like provisions, there would still be lots of loopholes to fill by lawyers since the provisions can be inadequate. Instead, Asimov exemplifies one problem in regulating robots: even after encoding the rules, the role of the lawyers is still crucial for maintaining the efficiency of regulation.

Meanwhile, this example also shows how lawyers can draw inspiration from sci-fi works to identify problems that new technologies can bring. For instance, by figuring out the loopholes caused due to conflict of the three laws of robotics mentioned throughout Asimov’s robot stories, one could improve the written codes or even create a different remedy to fulfill the idle points. In this way, Sci-Fi can light the path of regulating technological artifacts. In a way, sci-fi can be seen as a medium that affects the ideas of how technology should be regulated. Suppose inexact and inefficient regulatory moves have been made in sci-fi work. In that case, they could be seen as lessons to be learned from fiction that should not be repeated in reality. This factor should not be evaluated only within regulating the technological artifacts.

All sci-fi works relate to the digitalization era and how society can drastically change with technology. For instance, the damage to autonomous systems in society, robotic rights, the liability of autonomous entities, and most dystopian works related to these technological issues serve as a hint to lawmakers for future regulatory problems. For this reason, the ideas of how to regulate technology can be shaped through sci-fi works in a discriminatory way. As a result, they may be biased by giving regulatory insights and instilling the idea that lawyers should somehow take cover against technology.

In other words, as we said at the beginning, if we see sci-fi as a medium that gives birth to technological change, it will lay the groundwork for us regarding how technology should or will be regulated. For this reason, the chicken-egg dilemma is critical when interpreting sci-fi works. Furthermore, sci-fi interpretation can vary from person to person, culture to culture, and even time to time, making it cultural and temporal. In this way, artifacts mentioned in sci-fi works can turn into reality, yet they can also remain works of pure fiction. Hence, not every sci-fi scenario should serve as a self-evident lesson for lawyers.

So, does sci-fi predict the future, or does sci-fi produce the future?

Although there is no clear answer to this question, perhaps it should be evaluated from another perspective. Sci-Fi is an important, influential medium for today’s technology, and its works can play a muse for developers, designers, and entrepreneurs. For this reason, when creating technology-related public policies, it should be seen as the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Regulation of Technology. It should be a guide and a warning to lawyers about upcoming technologies. Practical lessons should be learned and applied, and scenarios that create redundant fear should be ignored.

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Yeliz Figen Döker is a legal scholar at the European University Institute, under the
supervision of Professor Nicolas Petit and Giovanni Sartor. She is working on the ways
of teaching ethical constraints to Artificial Intelligence through Experiential Learning
Theory. She is also co-founder of The Digital Constitutionalist (DigiCon) and a member
of the Istanbul Bar Association. Apart from that, she is a PlayStation gamer and Sci-Fi
aficionado.
Live Long and Prosper.

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