Interview with Dr. Ed Finn of the Center for Science and the Imagination
This is a continuation of a multi-part series of interviews with artists and scientists involved in transhumanism and posthumanism. To read the first installment, and interview with Russ Foxx, click here.
Art gives birth to scientific innovation – Second Installment
In an effort to learn more about the historical origins of transhumanism and posthumanism, R. Nicholas Starr began a journey to look at the many topics popular within those communities and retraced them back to art. To continue the research he began to reach out to the artists and scientists at the forefront of exploring this relationship. While he continues to prepare his work for publication, he has decided to release the transcripts from these interviews in hopes to spark conversation and gather even more insight into how the creative mind has shaped our scientific world as we move past the limits of the human body.
R. Nicholas Starr is a multimedia artist, biohacker, researcher, and theorist. With an education in signals intelligence from the United States Air Force, and 20 years of experience creating art and performing music in the US and abroad he has become a unique voice for the US Transhumanist Movement and American policy.
The second in this series is an interview with Dr. Ed Finn from Arizona State University’s Center for Science and the Imagination.
R. Nicholas Starr: As a former intel analyst (ELINT) I must say I’m intrigued by your cooperation with the NGA. Can you describe your relationship with them?
Dr. Ed Finn: CSI was a small part of a large research project at ASU titled the Foresight Initiative. Our role was to think about the future of geospatial narratives and communicating crucial information in complex and rapidly changing environments.
RNS: In what ways do you see art and literature driving policy and development within government organizations?
Dr. Ed Finn: The very positive reception of Hieroglyph (hieroglyph.asu.edu) is one example of how effective storytelling can be in shaping policy discussions. When we launched the Hieroglyph anthology in 2014, we had some very rewarding conversations with policy-makers in Washington DC, and that effort attracted the attention of policy leaders like former White House OSTP leader Tom Kalil as early as 2012 (this link is not exactly a primary source, but I imagine you could find these remarks elsewhere too: https://prizesandchallenges.wo
RNS: What do you consider as the motivation for humans to drive science fiction to become science fact?
Dr. Ed Finn: Curiosity is one core driver, of course, but science fiction and other creative expressions become a conduit for curiosity, highlighting questions and challenges for curious minds to work on. Science fiction also embodies our inherent hopefulness about the future because any good story about the future already posits that a human future will take place, and then poses implicit questions about what kind of future it will be, and whether it’s one we might want to inhabit or not. There is a natural progression from the limitless laboratory of the imagination to real laboratories, and science fiction serves as a very useful tool for pushing the boundaries of the known.
RNS: Do you think that’s why transhumanism, as a social and political movement, has come to life?
Dr. Ed Finn: I suppose it depends on your definition of transhumanism, but I’d argue the core concerns of transhumanism have been with us as long as the concept of mortality. Science fiction has created a new mechanism, a new avenue, for grappling with our mortality and the related question of consciousness. Science fiction and that limitless laboratory allow us to explore many different possible futures where we reinvent or sidestep mortality, grounding that once-spiritual discussion in a new substrate of science and technology.
RNS: When you get a new batch of students, how do you open their eyes to the relationship between art and science?
Dr. Ed Finn: One lens I like to use is that of the editor, the critic, the curator. I try to get my students to see the world around them in a new light be focusing on what is hidden. In terms of digital interfaces, what choices are left off the menu? In terms of social representation, art, and scientific discourse, what has been abstracted away in order to present a neat and tidy story about the world? On a deeper level, how do we as individuals assemble such stories about ourselves and our lives, and what do we need to discard to make that possible?
RNS: Do you come across cultural barriers that previously prevented them from seeing it?
Dr. Ed Finn: The most serious cultural boundaries I encounter are precisely these issues of the invisible, the unknowable–for example, the easily forgotten truth that there are many answers, many truths, that Google does not know. Even thoughtful and articulate students are often blindly dependent on digital tools that end up being filters as well as channels for learning.
RNS: Contrary to popular trends, CSI prefers exploring techno-optimistic worlds. Why do you prefer this approach and what conversations result?
Dr. Ed Finn: There are many people creating compelling dystopias already, but not so many creating thoughtful and interesting visions of better futures. It’s easier and less risky to be a critic than it is to be constructive, and so we think this niche of “thoughtful optimism” is an important one to occupy. Our goal I to expand the possibility space of potential futures that we are collectively aware of, not to predict the future but to give ourselves the chance to make better decisions about the world we want to live in. In many ways , what we’re trying to do is break out of clichés and rehashed myths about the future (that have a tendency to suggest futility and inevitability, exactly what we don’t need right now).
RNS: By giving your audience “ready made” utopias, are you concerned that this approach might make people complacent and discourage critical thinking? (“Someone already thought of it, they must have it all planned out, I won’t invest my time in it.”)
Dr. Ed Finn: Quite the opposite. Our utopias are usually not very utopian, because we always try to tell good stories. That involves conflict, challenges, flawed people making the best of a flawed world. So I don’t think our stories will inspire much complacency in that regard. And in terms of thinking of it first (which is pretty rare, anyway) I’d say that our stories might light the way towards real innovation, rather than foreclosing it. In that sense we’re trying to gain energy from the strong feedback loop already flowing between science and science fiction, as I talk about above.
RNS: Artificial intelligence is a concept that has its roots in literature and mythology. What are your thoughts on new AI technology creating art and what can be gained from this “full circle” reality we are approaching?
Dr. Ed Finn: As I argue at the close of my new book, What Algorithms Want, I think it’s vital that we find ways to be collaborators with machine intelligences, rather than their pets. There are some exciting open questions right now about whether AI art might offer us a glimpse of a genuinely new form of imagination, one emerging out of very different structures of thought and consciousness from our own.
RNS: How do you think AI created art will change how we view the creative thought process?
Dr. Ed Finn: I think that AI art will reveal both the simplicity of the methods and the profundity of the process of creative thought. Great artists are not superheroes and they don’t have magic tricks–most of their greatness stems from showing up, day after day, and learning continuously. Machines are getting better and better at that…so I think it will be quite interesting to see what algorithms for creativity will teach us about imagination and creativity as practices as well as states of mind, or forms of genius.