This essay was written by Aparajitha Vadlamannati, Assistant Director of the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security’s Strategic Foresight Initiative at the Atlantic Council. She can be found on Twitter at @Aparajitha24.
When was the first time you thought about the future? Not just your future family or your job but a grander vision. Was it a Star Trek-inspired daydream? A notebook sketch inspired by an Isaac Asimov story? A glimpse of the stars that took you away from the challenges and limitations of life on this planet?
The arts have helped us imagine and shape our concept of the future for centuries. Whether it was a series written by a mathematician or a film that stretched the imagination of a physics genius, art can communicate complex scientific concepts through human experience and motivate us to delve into the depths of our own imaginations. Christopher Nolan’s film Interstellar is that kind of art.
Interstellar is the latest iteration of what science fiction has done for generations. It is an emotion-rich narrative that turns scientific facts and theories into one of humanity’s most exceptional innovations: a memorable story. This process is vital to encouraging innovation, envisioning a seemingly impossible future, and inspiring the uninitiated to get involved in science, technology, math, and engineering (STEM), especially the underrepresented intellect of women and minorities. After all, an innovation is only as valuable as the number of people it can impact.
In fact, the representation of smart female characters in Interstellar, or similar films like Robert Zemeckis’ Contact, is another way to show that all genders can work on these future issues of importance. The arts also sustain interest by visualizing difficult concepts, thereby making them easier to comprehend. Even Interstellar’s director had difficulty interpreting the theory of relativity for the film. Yet, his curiosity motivated him to do extensive research and engage in multiple discussions with renowned physicist Kip Thorne. He was able to intuit the context and concepts that substantiate the theory and portray them in the film.
More fundamentally, the arts are vital for strategic foresight. Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey forced audiences to ponder the grander possibilities of automation and artificial intelligence through a story that was informed by astute scientific advisers. James Cameron’s The Terminator remains a powerful reminder of what could go wrong with robots, connected networks, and artificial intelligence; yet the film came out in 1984 – the same year as the first commercial mobile phone in the United States went on sale. These movies give us a glimpse, albeit exaggerated, into what might be and help start a conversation that is no longer anchored in the conceptual.
The imagination must be active in order to successfully forecast and model. Providing a narrative around data makes complex facts easier to understand. Seemingly abstract trends, such as those in the US National Intelligence Council’s Global Trends 2030, come alive through stories and make it more likely for policymakers to know how to respond to them.
Similarly, technological innovation wouldn’t be possible without the arts. Some of our best and brightest engineers and researchers were inspired to solve problems or create and design the tools we cannot live without today after engaging those ideas first through art. Inventions such as cellphones and wearable health trackers wouldn’t exist as we know them if it weren’t for some old Star Trek episodes. Additionally, in parallel with these net positive technological innovations, the arts always remind us, through movies like Andrew Niccol’s Gattaca and Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report, to consider the dark side of our usually rosy views of technological advances.
Many times, the problems that engineers and designers solve are based on challenges seen every day and elegantly presented in the arts. In Interstellar, the Earth is plagued by a severe drought. The only solution: find a new life-sustaining planet. While things may not get that bad, it’s not farfetched to think a lack of climate security or resource depletion could lead to the need to consider off-world habitats or space-based mining. Some scientists are at work developing ways to mine asteroids while NASA’s Kepler mission has been searching for habitable planets for years. These grander visions to resolve terrestrial problems fuel innovation. We have even seen several benefits and spinoffs from broader NASA research into space exploration.
The arts and the sciences are natural allies and their confluence will shape our lives for decades to come. Supporting creativity as an avenue for pursuing a better future is a must for governments and citizens alike. Regardless of your opinion of Interstellar, the world needs more art like it, fueled by a cocktail of science and active imaginations.
Our future depends on it.