Isaac Asimov: Master of Future Scenarios

Joseph F. Engelberger--who in 1961 founded Unimation, America's first robotics company--credits Isaac Asimov's robot stories for his intellectual inspiration. Since childhood, artificial life pioneer J. Doyne Farmer has been tantalized by "The Last Question," an Asimov short story that offers a particularly novel hypothesis of how life in the universe begins. Danny Hillis, who has designed some of the fastest supercomputers in the world for Thinking Machines Corp., grew up devouring Asimov's fiction.

In ways that formal obituaries will never capture, the gregarious Asimov--who died this past week at age 72--was as influential an American writer as J. D. Salinger, the reclusive author of "Catcher in the Rye." Where Salinger so brilliantly re-created adolescent despair and angst, Asimov's stories--and there were hundreds of them--conjured up futures that his adolescent readers wanted to create for themselves. So, after growing up, many of them have.

In fact, Asimov's works--both fiction and nonfiction--have probably had as big an impact on the culture of American science and engineering (particularly in computers and robotics) as Paul Samuelson's classic "Economics" text has had on generations of postwar American economists. Asimov's science fiction painted scenarios so unusual and compelling that they became a part of how technologists saw themselves.

For example, Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics, a theoretical construct he dreamed up for a story nearly 50 years ago prescribing a robot code of conduct protecting humans--is still a topic of discussion among the computer elite.

Unfortunately, too many people believe that science fiction is the literature of science and technology, a genre in which machines matter more than people. It's not. At its best, science fiction is the genre where people and their societies struggle to cope with the challenges generated by innovation and change. Science fiction is about inventing the future--and speculating how that future might change what it means to be human.

Indeed, Asimov himself was fond of classifying science fiction into three types of stories: What if . . . If only . . . and If this goes on . . . . What if we could genetically engineer life forms? If only we had computers that could fit into our pockets. If current ecological trends continue, what will the planet look like? These are all questions and speculations that were intelligently raised in science-fiction stories long before they hit the public policy radar of Washington, the universities and the think tanks.

Of course, Asimov's three science-fiction criteria are exactly the sort of business diagnostics that organizations should be using to help manage an uncertain future. It's perverse that all those business people who cheerfully gobble up management self-help books encouraging them to be more creative and receptive to new ideas will ignore the genre written expressly to get people thinking about the future in new ways. And who better to extrapolate technological discontinuities and their social implications than a science-fiction writer? Read Asimov's "I, Robot" stories or his spectacular "Foundation" trilogy as superb exercises in speculative scenarios.

In fact, precisely because science-fiction writers are so good at spinning plausible scenarios of the future, some of the world's more enlightened companies like to call them in to consult, advise and provoke.

Arthur C. Clarke, an Asimov contemporary who is now the last living grandmaster of science fiction, used to visit Hughes Aircraft and leave them with more good ideas than they knew what to do with. Asea Brown Boveri, now regarded as one of the best-managed multinational companies in the world--IBM is studying them--has retained a science-fiction author as a scenario consultant.

Of course, Asimov himself gave numerous talks to companies and industry gatherings on what the future could--and should--look like as new technologies swept onstage. (However, he always insisted that people should go out and buy his books if they really wanted to know what was going on.)

If you look at the rise of industrial robotics, the birth of the artificial life movement, the emergence of massively parallel computer systems--and the entrepreneurial businesses that they've spawned--it's increasingly clear that, like it or not, science fiction has evolved into the literary genre of business innovation.

As science fiction's most prolific author--and one who decades ago grasped the potential impact of new technologies before they were even glimmers in the eyes of their creators--Asimov deserves more than a little credit for inspiring many of America's most creative technological entrepreneurs.

Michael Schrage is a writer, consultant and research associate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He writes this column independently for The Times.

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