At the UW, our sci-fi future has arrived

Science fiction has come alive in our modern world—from robots in our homes to the search for life across the universe. Current projects at the UW show that some literary fantasies will soon be reality.

Late this summer a group of astronomers from around the country, including assistant professor Rory Barnes, discovered what could be Vulcan, Mr. Spock’s home planet.

It is right where “Star Trek” creator Gene Roddenberry said it could be—in a solar system surrounding 40 Eridani A, a star 16 light years across the final frontier. “I hadn’t even realized the planet might be Vulcan until someone brought it up after the paper about the planet ’s discovery was published,” says Barnes, who was part of a team working on the Dharma Planet Survey to detect potentially habitable super-Earth planets in other solar systems.

It’s findings like this, as well as the fast-changing and increasing role of technology in our contemporary lives—from smartphones to personal drones—that can make us feel like we’re living in a science fictional future.

A sci-fi world is no longer something we have to imagine—it’s as close as a stroll on a UW campus. In the Forestry Building, a scientist is trying to figure out how to grow broccoli on Mars. Just down the road, a team is storing massive amounts of data in molecules of DNA. And over in Mechanical Engineering, students on the UW Hyperloop team are building a pod that can travel several hundred miles per hour in a vacuum tube.

In the Paul G. Allen Center for Computer Science & Engineering, robotics professor Siddhartha Srinivasa and his lab are working on a Home Exploring Robot Butler (HERB). The service robot that can perform a range of chores has already been featured in National Geographic and Wired. Now HERB is bringing the worlds of science and sci-fi even closer with a recent appearance on an episode of “The X-Files.”

In a nearby classroom, Howard Chizeck, an electrical engineering professor whose research includes electronically stimulating the human brain to manage movement disorders, is driving the focus of a freshman class straight to the crossroads of fiction and science. Titled “Indistinguishable from Magic: New Technologies, Science Fiction, and Us,” the course covers writers like Isaac Asimov and Alice B. Sheldon as well as current technology and the potential cultural changes it may trigger. Chizeck sets the table for a feast of science that owes a debt to science fiction.

Lots and lots of scientists and engineers read science fiction and if they see it and like it, they try to do it.

Howard Chizeck, electrical engineering professor

“This is not a normal course,” Chizeck tells the room of new students, “This is an electrical engineering course, and I will offer some of that. But it is also a science fiction course.” He goes on to explain that most of us now use amazingly powerful electronic objects, yet we have little understanding of how they work or how they’ve changed us. How do science fiction, technology and society influence and impact one another, he asks the students. What are the profound ramifications of the technologies we’re embracing?

Having been in computer science since the beginning of computers, Chizeck has had a close-up view of how technology has evolved and how it has, in turn, changed society. He has also kept an eye on how fiction writers have responded, followed and sometimes led. “When writers are writing science fiction, they’re writing for the society they’re in,” he says. “At the same time, the science fiction they write has changed society.”

That first class touches on the birth of the internet as well as the invention of the first cellphone in 1973 and its evolution to a product for everyone by the 1990s. They also talk about Bisphenol A (BPA) plastics used in water bottles and food cans being linked to infertility. Chizeck then points to the prescient, futuristic focus of the 1985 book “The Handmaid’s Tale,” which is built around a fundamentalist government, fertility challenges, and women being treated as property of the state. He circles that point around to the current TV show based on the book and the handmaids’ costumes worn by protesters wanting to draw attention to the government’s neglect and abuse of women’s rights.

“Good science fiction has an understanding of the real,” he tells the class. It also helps us imagine the future so we can explore the benefits and the harm that our inventions and discoveries can bring. Fiction lives within our culture, he says. For example, writer Philip K. Dick (“Blade Runner” and “Total Recall”) imagined autonomous vehicles, virtual reality, and insects outfitted with sensors. “It was like he could see into the future,” says Chizeck.

“Lots and lots of scientists and engineers read science fiction and if they see it and like it, they try to do it,” he says. He points to the now-classic Motorola flip phone. “That’s based on the communicator straight out of ‘Star Trek.’”

A few weeks after that first class, Chizeck invites Hugo and Nebula award-winning sci-fi writer Nancy Kress to speak to the class. She is one of a group of stellar sci-fi writers including Octavia Butler, William Gibson, Ted Chiang, Cat Rambo and Ursula K. Le Guin, who made the Northwest their home. Perched on a table at the front of the room, Kress spells out a range of ideas from machine learning, genetic engineering, conversational AI and fire-resistant wallpaper with thermal-sensor nanowires that allow it to serve as a fire alarm.

“Any technology is a tool,” Kress tells the students. “It is going to have good outcomes and bad outcomes.” What are some of the downsides? The students are ready with answers: people are losing their jobs to machines, plastic guns that can now be made by anyone with plans and a 3D printer, and loss of privacy and hacking.

Kress is one of a group of sci-fi writers invited to Microsoft’s research labs to see the projects and then write science fiction stories featuring technology we may be using in the near future. Her story “Machine Learning” plays with a human working with holographic projections (think Princess Leia in “Star Wars”).

The talk with the class then turns to her short story “Nano Comes to Clifford Falls,” the tale of a small town and the arrival of nanomachines that make whatever anyone desires—food, clothes, even cars and homes. The story is told from the point of view of a skeptical single mother reluctant to bring the “made” products into her home. Because the tech brings them nearly everything, most of the townspeople stop working, the community stops functioning and ultimately, it collapses. “I wanted to focus on the human element,” Kress says. “What can go wrong, what can go right?”

The uses of technology might not be exactly what the designers and engineers were imagining. As William Gibson explains, “The street finds its own uses for things—uses the manufacturers never even imaged.” Facebook, for example, was not built for Russian bots, says Kress.

It’s an incredibly hard problem, but I’d like the robot to be able to pick up a zucchini as well as twirl spaghetti.

Siddhartha Srinivasa, robotics professor

While sci-fi writers are inspired by the possibilities that come with new scientific discoveries and technological inventions, inventors, scientists and engineers—including many at the UW—are inspired by those stories. “I grew up reading science fiction,” says Srinivasa, a nationally-known robotics expert who moved his entire lab from Carnegie Mellon University to the UW in 2017 and who just this fall joined Amazon as the company’s robotics director.

“When I was six years old, I spent the summer in my grandparents’ house. My granddad’s bookshelf had Ray Bradbury’s ‘The Martian Chronicles.’ While I struggled with a lot of the words, it was the most fascinating book that I had ever read. Every year I would go back and pull it out and read it again. I still read it.”

That 1950 book of short stories focuses on the efforts of humans to reach and colonize Mars, which is already home to another race of beings. Each time Srinivasa reads it, he finds more meaning, and new fodder for his imagination. “That’s a hallmark of great science fiction,” he says. “It envisions a future and challenges us into thinking how to achieve that. Everything that I have done has really stemmed from that day I discovered the book.

“I think science fiction has played a really integral part in robotics and computer science.” Different cultures have accepted robots and technology in different ways. “Japan for example—after the Second World War, Astro Boy was this superhuman robot boy. He came out and did great things. I think perception of robots and technology in Japan has been forever colored by that cartoon.”

By contrast, he notes, in the United States, many of us grew up watching “Terminator” (where a cyborg assassin comes from the future to kill.) “Here, the future is much more dystopian than pleasant,” Srinivasa says. “I think the truth of our future lies somewhere in between.”

Srinivasa has been building robots for 19 years. Early on he started thinking about how and where he would want his robots to work. If it’s on a factory floor, the robot can do its task in isolation. “In that setting it should just be efficient,” he says. “But if you want it to work around people, you can either treat people as obstacles that should be avoided or you can make it a collaborative approach.” The robots he’s building are to be programmed to respond to human behavior, predict their intentions and harmonize with their actions.

He offers the example of two people putting together a chair from Ikea. “It is a delicate social dance of deciding what goes where and who does what and what to pick up,” he says. “I want robots to participate in this dance, this discourse. Robots need to understand how humans work.”

He helps them understand through mathematics, the mathematics of humans as dynamical systems. Latent feelings leak through our actions and interactions, he explains. These are easy things for humans to read, but very challenging for a robot. He’s working on mathematical models that will help a robot understand “the things we understand about others so intuitively. And that’s not easy.”

His goal is to develop robots for assistive care. “I want to build robots that can actually help people,” he says. Wanting to assist people with limited mobility, he and his students are refining a robot that helps you eat. “It’s an incredibly hard problem, but I’d like the robot to be able to pick up a zucchini as well as twirl spaghetti,” he says.

So how long until we have robots in our homes? “I have a few answers to that,” Srinivasa says. “We seem to think it’s nothing, nothing, nothing and suddenly we have Rosie the Robot [the robot maid from 1960s animated sitcom “The Jetsons”] in our home. But really, we’ll have technologies along the way: the thermostat, the smart refrigerator, the vacuum cleaner. All these technologies are building the ecosystem for the robot. It will talk to your microwave. It will talk to your fridge. It’s not just one robot, but an ecosystem of robots.

“I think that oftentimes when we say we want to build Rosie the Robot, we forget why that robot was created. We focus on the technology and say it would be cool to have arms and eyes. But we should remember that robot was created for caregiving. We need to go back and think about why we create the technology. How can we build caregiving technology that actually gives people care?”

We venture down a few floors from his office to his lab, where dozens of computer screens stare out from tables that pack the room. At one end, a black-curtained area houses ADA (Assistive Dexterous Arm), a robotic arm designed to attach to a wheelchair and assist with tasks like eating. Nearby, a student reviews a video of ADA feeding celery to a person. The robot picks up the food item and holds it for the woman to eat. The woman laughs because ADA is holding the celery upright. In order to take a bite, she has to turn her head 45 degrees. It’s not ideal, but it’s helping ADA learn there might be a better way to hold the food.

HERB, another of Srinivasa’s robots, is not quite as tall as most human adults. He has two long multi-jointed arms with three-fingered hands and he rolls around on wheels. One day he could be unloading a dishwasher or cracking open an Oreo and another he may be performing in some sci-fi movie or TV show. In March, the robot butler made an appearance on the “The X-Files” as a worker at a sushi restaurant. The episode’s theme was technology turning on people. When Mulder decides not to leave a tip, the automated restaurant and the tech outside—smartphones, drones and even a home security system—retaliate.

Either we become aware that Earth is the only home for life in the universe or that there’s some galactic society out there and we probably want to be a part of it.

Rory Barnes, astronomy assistant professor

As a kid in Tucson, where he discovered a love for the night sky, Barnes watched “Star Trek.” He found the show more entertaining than inspiring. He admits that though he has spent his academic life steeped in science, he isn’t much one for science fiction. “My tastes tended toward real science,” he admits.

But he has so much in common with the show—which is all about exploring “strange, new words” and seeking out “new life.” Barnes’ specialty is exoplanets—planets in far away solar systems that might support life, long the subject of sci-fi writers like Edgar Rice Burroughs, whose Mars (also known as Barsoom) was home to a Martian race, and Frank Herbert (a Tacoma native who attended the UW for a time) whose “Dune” planet of Arrakis was covered in desert. Only for Barnes, life out there in the universe is now far more likely than those writers could have known.

Twenty-five years ago, we didn’t really know anything of planets outside our solar system, says Barnes. But then in 1995, the first exoplanet was discovered. It is now called a “hot Jupiter,” a gas giant with a short orbital period. “The planet, it turns out, was somewhat unusual. It was just that our technology finally allowed us to see it,” Barnes says. After that, the floodgates opened and thousands of potential exoplanets—including the one in orbit around 40 Eridani A—have been identified.

“We still don’t know if there are really any habitable worlds out there at all,” Barnes says. “But as Isaac Asimov said, either way, the answer to the question ‘Are we alone?’ is staggering,” he says. “Either we become aware that Earth is the only home for life in the universe or that there’s some galactic society out there and we probably want to be a part of it.”

Our interview over, I left the Physics and Astronomy Building and started down a long flight of stairs to 15th Avenue N.E. I chanced to look up at the view in front of me. There was the Space Needle. It was a trick of perspective, but it appeared to hover over the north end of Capitol Hill. I descended a few more steps, and it landed, disappearing into the neighborhood.