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Imagining the Future

Imagining the Future
UC San Diego professor Sheldon Brown leads the innovative Arthur C. Clarke Center for Human Imagination, a forward-thinking endeavor that seeks to explore future possibilities in science, technology, engineering and the arts. (UC San Diego Publications, Erik Jepsen)

Our human imagination is the gift we draw upon to address our present and future challenges. Understanding, developing and harnessing this intangible power is the purpose of UC San Diego's Arthur C. Clarke Center for Human Imagination, founded in 2012.

An acclaimed writer of science and science fiction, Arthur C. Clarke was a visionary best known for the sci-fi classic "2001: A Space Odyssey," with its "videophones" and the mutinous computer HAL. As far back as the 1940s, Clarke predicted such modern-day wonders as supercomputers and satellite communications. And though our computers haven't rebelled — yet — it's not hard to imagine near-future operating systems that mirror human intelligence, like in the recent romantic comedy "Her."

As our technology advances at breakneck speed, new challenges arise in almost every area of life, from the personal to the global — everything from health care to climate change. The center's approach to these issues reflects the essence of Clarke's genius — studying and catalyzing imagination across a multitude of disciplines, including the sciences, arts, humanities, engineering and medicine, initiating collaborations among institutions and individuals to be a global resource for innovative research and education.

When the Arthur C. Clarke Foundation, an organization dedicated to building on Clarke's legacy, decided to establish the center, universities nationwide vied to partner with them in the enterprise. UC San Diego beat out the competition because of its exceptional resources, facilities and academic excellence in collaborating across disciplines, and one other unique qualification: UC San Diego has graduated more notable science fiction writers than any other university in the world, among them David Brin, Kim Stanley Robinson, Vernor Vinge, Greg Benford and Greg Bear. 

Sheldon Brown, professor of visual arts and director of the center, sees science fiction as a powerful tool for solving today's problems and those that may lie ahead. "I looked at how science fiction had developed as a cultural form," Brown said. "It created an intellectual climate in which the developing issues of the time might be thought through." 

Robinson, for instance, has written about societies coping with the devastation of climate change in novels such as "Fifty Degrees Below" and "Forty Signs of Rain." Brin's work often concerns the "other," the alien, shedding light on the tensions and conflicts of our globalizing society. Both writers have helped launch projects at the center to explore each of these issues.


Also involved in the center are faculty from fields as diverse as psychology, physics, medicine and neuroscience.

"We happen to be on the cusp of really extraordinary developments in how we understand human behavior, cognition and the brain," said Brown. His own artwork includes the creation of virtual environments that are prototypes of the future. Working with experts in neuroscience, cognitive science and medicine they are using these environments to create positive feedback loops to engage and further people's imaginations.


Another issue the center recently examined: What would be the effects on society of building a starship — a project that might take 100 years to complete? To explore this question, the center held a symposium, titled "Starship Century," in which top scientists and science fiction writers, as well as representatives from NASA and the emerging commercial space industry probed the question from every angle, including the economic and sociological effects of such a long-term endeavor.

What does the future hold for the center? They may soon be teaming up with new international partners, and this spring they're working with Smithsonian magazine on a symposium called "The Future Is Here." Hopefully, that future will be more "Her" than "HAL."

—Maxine Nunes, Brand Publishing Writer