Introduction: Creative Robotix - Science Fiction Prototyping - TimEE

About: The Creative Science Foundation (CSf) is a nonprofit organization, dedicated to the exploration and promotion of creative methods for supporting science, engineering, business and sociopolitical innovation thr…

We think stories are fun, they’re fun to create, they're fun to tell and they're fun to listen too. Stories are good for conveying our ideas in ways which are memorable and can often make complex, or abstract ideas accessible to others. In this instructable we introduce you to the idea of Science Fiction Prototyping. Science Fiction Prototyping is an idea pioneered by Brian David Johnson who, at the time, was a futurist at Intel. Science Fiction Prototyping is a methodology for writing stories, science fiction stories in this case, to create and think about future technology and the implications that technology may have on the future.

Science Fiction Prototypes explore ideas for new technology as part of a story and enables them to be tested within a future setting of people and environments as a means to assess, inform, and influence their future development. In this way the stories serve as ‘prototypes’ to explore possible implications of future developments on people and society. We’ve put together a short video which elaborates on the idea further.

Brian David Johnson sets out the structure of a Science Fiction Prototype in his book, Science Fiction Prototyping (or SFP for short). An SFP has five main components,

1. Pick your science concept and build an imaginative world

2. The scientific inflection point

3. The consequences, for better, or worse, or both, of the science or technology on the people and your world

4. The human inflection point

5. Reflection, what did we learn?

A full SFP is 6-12 pages long, with a popular structure being; an introduction, background work, the fictional story (the bulk of the SFP), a short summary and a summary (reflection). Most often science fiction prototypes extrapolate current science forward and, therefore, include a set of references at the end. A good illustrative set of examples can be found in the book, 21st Century Robot, which explores ideas of robots with free-will.

We've extended the idea of an SFP into the concept of a micro-SFP where ideas need to be generated faster. Micro-SFP’s are word limited, typically to between 6 and 250 words, with shorter versions being more challenging and requiring more thought. You can also illustrate these prototypes to add visual impact. Micro-SFP's are created using the following three steps,

1. Identify the technology

2. Identify a character or characters

3. Create a plot (events that make up the story – should include an inflection point and a benefit)

To help stimulate your imagination, examples of micro-SFP’s can be found here. In the next steps we use the micro-SFP process to create a new robot skin for our Creative Robotix Platform.

We would like to thank the talented artists and illustrators from IVan Yee's games development team from KDU School of Computing and Creative Media for their hard-work and creativity in illustrating the concepts presented in this instructable.

Step 1: Create the Elements of the Micro-SFP

1. Identify the technology

Robots are on the rise. There are many possible futures for this technology from this point on, we've all seen what happens when robots go bad, think Terminators! But what of more positive futures? Ones where humans and robots are get along, side, by side? What would those futures look like? What would those relationships be like, what would the robots be doing for us, and what would we be doing for them? There's lots of potential to explore. Let's use our micro-SFP to explore possible ideas. There are many types of robot we could imagines, and many settings we could place with robot within. For this example, let's place our robot in a family home, and let's consider a world where the robot has become part of the family. We can raise questions around this setting to help us think about our story. For example, what is the robots role within the family? How might the robot help out? To what extent would the robot be considered as part of the family? How would the robot view the family? Would the robot have family favourites? Would the robot adapt its behaviour accordingly? Would it have multiple personalities to help it adapt and integrate into the family dynamic? What other questions can you think of? If you would like to contribute to the discussion through the forum below, we would be happy to hear your ideas too.

2. Identify a character

We subscribe to the social philosophy set out in the 21st Century Robot manifesto, where every robot has a name. It remains an open question how many names our future robot will have, but if they are viewed as cats are in Willian F. Nolan's futuristic book Logan's Run, then they may have three. The name given to them by their family, the name they give to each other, and one secret name, they keep to themselves which gives them their happy secretive purr. As those of us who have cats know, they are the boss and we are merely their loyal and loving slaves, they clearly have their own ideas around ownership. Extending this analogy to our robot technology, how might a smart Artificially Intelligent robot view itself? Would it have ideas of self-image? Individuality and free-will? Some useful ideas that we might choose to explore in our micro-SFP. So we need to name our robot, let's call our robot TimEE, and since we have mentioned cats, lets have another character at part of our story, a family cat, that the Human's have named Maxine.

3. Create a plot

What events do we want to make up our story? Let's set a scene where the family have left the house, leaving TimEE and Maxine home alone. Maxine is clearly feeling bored without the humans around. This micro-SFP will explore one aspect of how TimEE and Maxine might interact.

Step 2: Create the Micro-SFP

In this step we try to bring our futuristic setting, characters and plot to life with our micro-SFP story. This is probably the most challenging step and it can take many iterations to achieve a result you are happy with, discussing your drafts with friends, family, classmates and teachers will help you develop your ideas and add value to your story. In our experience the shorter the micro-SFP, the more challenging it becomes, but the effort spent here is often rewarded with stories which are more mysterious, more thought provoking, sparking more open debate around the chosen theme. You may find it helpful to draft a longer version of your story first, and then work on refining and reducing the word count.

Here is the first draft of our micro-SFP, we have titled it, Play with me,

"Play with me - Beep, beep, beep, Maxine the family cat ran to chase the ball of string. She pawed and played the ball back to the thrower until the ball sat beside its wheels. Beep, beep, beep, Maxine pounced on the ball and rolled over with joy. Off she chased again as TimEE the robot beeped twice more and threw the ball again. Maxine strutted back with the ball caught in her mouth, purring around as TimEE beeped to signal that the family were on their way back from the supermarket."

Reading this micro-SFP, we can tell the story is about TimEE the robot playing with the family cat, a total of 88 words. Could we shorten the story further? With some thought, we may choose to reduce the story to the following,

"Play with me - Beeps. Maxine chased the string. She played it back to the thrower. Beeps. Maxine pounced again. Off she chased. TimEE beeped again. Maxine strutted back, string in mouth, purring as TimEE signalled the families imminent return."

This iteration of the micro-SFP has reduced the word count to 35. It tells the same story, but creates and requires more thought to decode and understand the narrative. What are the beeps? Who is Maxine? Who is TimEE? Is he a Robot? Maxine maybe a cat, but what else might purr? How does TimEE know that the family is returning? Who is the family? And where have they gone? Is TimEE playing with Maxine? And Why?

An analysis of each version of the micro-SFPs would arrive at similar meanings, thoughts and reflections, but the second should produce a wider discussion and reflection. Perhaps you could attempt to reduce the number of words further while keeping the same story line.

We have raised a few questions above, but what reflections can we offer from the micro-SFP? What have we learned and how might our thoughts help shape the direction of robotic technology today?

The story tells of TimEE, our family robot, playing with Maxine, the family pet cat. This indicates that TimEE is aware of cats, that they like to play, and that Maxine was bored. This required sophisticated AI. Should we aim to build AI that knows about cats, how they play, and how they might feel? TimEE is also aware of the families movements. How? He is probably connected into the cloud with soft-sensors into the families activities, what other information does he have access to? How does this moderate his behaviour? What does this say for privacy? What if TimEE was hacked? How do we ensure security and secure boundaries with TimEE around? Who will have access to TimEE's sensors? And collected data? TimEE and Maxine seem to understand each other, we know that cats and other animals respond and learn to communicate with humans in all of our different languages, and here too, Maxine understands TimEE. Was this an unexpected outcome of the AI in TimEE? Do the designers know about this developed functionality? Does the family? What are the implications of this? Could TimEE act as translator between humans and cats, what a thought!

This story is set roughly 20 years into the future and explores one possible application, with possible unexpected consequences, of robots and the AI's they will someday carry. It raises up questions for us to think about today and as a result, we might decide to pursue our AI along certain lines of inquiry, and maybe, not others (if the possible consequences explored in the story seem a little to plausible and undesirable).

In this micro-SFP the technology applied serves a useful function, even if the humans are unaware of it. Functionality, such as self-awareness required for the AI, is still some years away, however, we may decide to think more about this functionality, and plan projects around exploring these ideas further.

One of the first steps in that process may be to consider what TimEE might look like, and set out to build him. This is what we tackle in the next steps.

Step 3: Illustrating the Micro-SFP

A picture speaks a thousand words, or so the saying goes. Illustrating scenes from your micro-SFP, or even capturing the entire micro-SFP in illustrative form, can add a powerful visual element to your story. It may also take you one step closer to bringing your prototype to life. There are many different ways of illustrating a story, perhaps the easiest form would be a drawing of some description, a simple pencil sketch, a painting, a computer aided design graphic. Alternatives might bring your ideas out of the page and screens and into the real-world, using Plasticine or clay, cardboard or paper, foam, or any other construction material you might find to hand. If you chose these methods, you could always take a picture of the result to include along with your micro-SFP.

By way of example, we have illustrated a scene from our story. Here you see TimEE holding some string and playing with Maxine.

Step 4: More Micro-SFP Illustrations

Our micro-SFP was created from the plot we devised in our earlier steps. However, given the technology we identified, there are many other characters and plot lines we could have devised. We have illustrated some of these potential plot lines here to demonstrate the idea of summarising a micro-SFP as a single illustration, we could refer to these as media-SFP's. As an exercise perhaps you would like to illustrate your own media-SFP's, around this theme, or construct micro-SFP's exploring these or other alternative plot lines. Or why not start fresh, and develop your own technology, characters and plot lines, to build your own future robots, or other technology. If you do, then please share them with us here. We are always excited to see what those creative juices conjure up as we explore potential futures.

Step 5: Let’s Bring TimEE to Life

The reflections and analysis resulting from our prototype can help influence the development of today's technology to create our prototype. By way of an example, we might be interested to explore the ideas of TimEE further and bring him to life on our Creative Robotix Educational Platform. This is another creative process which translates ideas from the stories into tangible products that can be researched and developed. We took inspiration from our illustrations and designed a 3D model of TimEE to apply to our Creative Robotix Educational Platform.

You may also like to transform your stories, illustrations and ideas for robots into models for our platform, and see them animated to life in a form that you can program and interact with. If you do, please be sure to share your results with your friends, family, class mates, teachers and us!

"Happy Imagining, Happy Creating & Happy Making!"