We recently had the chance to speak with Professor Robin Zebrowski, an Associate Professor of Cognitive Science at Beloit College who recently facilitated a Books@Work session with a group of engineers. Among other things, she studies artificial intelligence and embodiment.
You’ve taught science fiction in Books@Work programs. Can you tell me about some of the books or stories that you’ve taught?
I chose to use Greg Egan’s anthology, Axiomatic. It’s one of my favorite collections, mostly because every individual story stands alone as a piece of philosophical fiction. Through the stories, Egan asks what it means to be human and what it means to be human in a world of rapid change, where we’re still discovering deep truths about the nature of the world. These are the kinds of questions I ask every day, both professionally and personally, and so using this anthology gives me a way to bring others into this conversation in a way that feels both daring and safe at once.
What in particular does science fiction bring to discussions in the workplace?
People who don’t generally read science fiction tend to approach it as that: as science fiction. They think it’s about technology and science, and they tend to not notice that it’s about them and their place in the world. Reading texts like these in the workplace is, first of all, a bonding experience: everyone is a bit lost and they’re all trying to figure out what on earth is going on in the story beyond the surface level. But as they start to figure that out, they suddenly find connections to their own lives and their own experiences.
How did the Books@Work participants respond to these stories? What kinds of conversations did they inspire?
We made connections between the story and our own lives – ways that a fantastically far-out story might have something to do with us. One story, “Learning To Be Me,” is about the nature of consciousness. We used the story to ask questions about the nature of what it means to be human. Of course, the range of responses is enormous – religious and philosophical beliefs all played a role in how people read the story, and there’s really no way to start a conversation meant to get people to share something of themselves quite like a deep philosophical discussion about what makes you you! The technological aspects followed, and we talked about the ways technology is (or is not, or could, or could not be) replacing people in various ways.
While talking about the ways technologies are replacing human workers, we discussed an algorithm that writes books, and stories and articles. We had a lot of discussion about that, with some people in disbelief that a computer could write, since stories in particular seem to be such a product of humanity. The following week, one of the participants shared that a neighbor’s pet had gone missing. She was shocked to discover that after filling out a form on a website, it auto-generated a narrative about the pet – where it was missing – for her to share around in helping with the recovery. Hearing about this technology and encountering it the same week kind of blew her mind and opened her up to the possibility that there was a lot happening in the world she hadn’t explored yet.
Science fiction is often quite fantastic or futuristic. How do we find the relevance to our lives today?
Science fiction shows us one possible future we may want to aim for or avoid, and in doing so, it gives us a new way to view our present. If we want to avoid some possible outcome that science fiction has shown to be undesirable, the lesson works backwards and demands action in our present. In this way, science fiction is very much a genre about now; about our choices, our actions, and the means to build a future we can live with.
And as for reading and discussing books at work – we want people to feel comfortable enough with one another in the workplace to speak up for safety, to feel good about treating one another well and with full recognition of everyone’s humanity. If this isn’t exactly what science fiction is trying to do for us, I don’t know what is! Science fiction has almost never been about the distant stars, or the far-future of Earth. It’s a special lens on what we want our lives to look like, right now, at home, in our world and at work.
William Heath using the pseudonym Paul Pry, A futuristic vision, 1829, [Public Domain] via Wikimedia Commons