Lessons from a Galaxy Far, Far Away
Jordan Michael makes educational fact out of science fiction
After a distress signal was received by the USS Enterprise from their sister ship, the USS Constellation, Captain James T. Kirk, Spock and his crew arrived to find the Constellation floating in orbit, battered and torn into pieces. From the Enterprise, Spock beamed Captain aboard the Constellation to find only Commodore Decker alive. Decker warned Kirk that a Doomsday Machine was on its way, destroying any planet in its warpath with its antiproton beams! Kirk realised that the only way to stop the planet killer was to fly directly into it and detonate it from the inside. Kirk, facing the incoming wrath of the Doomsday Machine, set off the detonator with a thirty second delay. Guiding the last remains of the Constellation, with seconds to spare Kirk removes from his pocket a small rectangular flip top device. He holds it up near his voice and orders Spock “Beam me aboard!”
It was around this time in the early 1970s that Martin Cooper, an electrical engineer at a company called Motorola was battling it out with its competitor AT&T for the world’s first phone that could be fitted and functional in your car. But Cooper, one evening watching Star Trek: The Original Series thought to himself, well if you had Captain James T. Kirk’s communicator that worked across the galaxy then it should work in your car too, right? Eureka! Cooper, today known as ‘the father of the handheld cell phone’ credited none other than Captain Kirk for the invention that you now are either reading this on or sits no further than a few feet away.
The question begs… is there some value in integrating science fiction into our school classrooms and university lecture theatres?
The submarine, robots, self-driving cars, the cloud and virtual reality were all ideas first seeded in science fiction. And if we are ever crack the mystery code of the time machine, then we can thank H.G. Wells for that too. Even the late and great Stephen Hawking once wrote that science fiction “is not only good fun, but it also serves a serious purpose, that of expanding the human imagination… science fiction suggests ideas that scientists incorporate into their theories”. The question begs… is there some value in integrating science fiction into our school classrooms and university lecture theatres?
Well… in 1953, science fiction writer Sam Moskowitz designed the first science fiction night course at City College in New York. This unique course was so avant-garde at the time, had no trouble in scoring the likes of Robert Heinlein and Isaac Asimov for appearances as guest lecturers. Heinlein, you may know as the author of Stranger in a Strange Land – the story Valentine Michael Smith, a human raised by Martian who returns to his Earthly ancestral home to teach the Martian practices of grokking and water-sharing. In return, on Earth he learns love. Or perhaps you are more familiar with Heinlein’s the future militaristic novel Starship Troopers, which conveys lessons in civic virtues, the ethics of war and the future of ideology. It may be better known for its adaptation into an awful slapstick 1997 comedy which said more about American consumerism than it does about virtue ethics. For Asimov, perhaps you may be familiar with the classics Foundation or I, Robot, which was adapted into a lacklustre and arguably sacrilegious film starring Will Smith… there’s a trend here.
Not only were the writings of Asimov foundational to the evolution of artificial intelligence (AI) as we know it today, but he also conceived the three laws of robotics:
I. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
II. A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the first law.
III. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the first and second law.
With the escalating threat of increasingly sophisticated ‘robots’ on the horizon, these laws may mean the difference between a future of man in harmony with machine, as opposed to man versus machine
Today, these three laws still form the moral foundational framework we invoke in the development of AI technologies. With the escalating threat of increasingly sophisticated ‘robots’ on the horizon, these laws may mean the difference between a future of man in harmony with machine, as opposed to man versus machine. It really is no wonder that as early as the 1950s, science fiction’s value in education was realised.
As Asimov shows us, the value of science cannot be limited to the science alone. There is an important social, ethical and human aspect that needs to be considered. In response, a steadily growing number of universities are offering interdisciplinary courses which use science fiction as a focal point to promote values around the human side of science issues. From the film Gattaca we can extract ethical forewarnings of reproductive technologies which enables genetically engineered babies – a timely reminder at the advent of gene editing tools such as CRISPR. The Handmaid’s Tale alerts us to the dystopian reality of a world where reproduction is commodified. The film Her speculates on a new way we may express love one day. And Big Hero 6 shows how advances in medical technologies can benefit all of mankind, if only we are to tune our minds inward and toward what it truly means to be human – that is of course, to live long and prosper.
To me, the message is resoundingly clear. Science fiction undoubtedly has a place at our schools and universities. Whether it be to engage students with physics through constructing the USS Enterprise, or to imagine probable, possible and preferred futures, the potential for science fiction as an educational tool stretches light years.
Jordan Michael (not Michael Jordan) is a Masters of Secondary Teaching student at the University of Melbourne. He went to Japan for 4 months to live out the film ‘Lost in Translation’.
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