SF and the future of security: an interview with Ping Zheng

Defiant Today
‘Defiant Today’ Phil Jones

In late December 2017, a group of writers and scholars of SF, scientists and technologists, and defence analysts and policymakers, gathered at Dstl (UK government’s defence science and technology laboratory) in Salisbury to explore science fiction’s contribution to defence policy. Vector caught up with Dr Ping Zheng from Canterbury Christ Church University Business School, to ask her about her impressions of the day, and a few other things …

During the first breakout session, you were in the Human Behaviour in Smart Environments group. How did that go?

ping 1
Dr Ping Zheng

We had some inspiring discussions about how humans may react in smart environments. I think the group dynamics probably extended the scope of planned discussions, and allowed us to engage in more diversified discourse, ranging from individual perspectives, to emergent impacts at a societal level, and also to policy perspectives. For example, two prominent issues were debated: national and cultural differences, and ethical concerns such as privacy.

Perhaps the value of events like these is that you might discover that your original questions can be re-framed, or that your stakeholders are not precisely who you imagined them to be. Your other breakout session was ‘Defence (In)efficiency: What Does the Future Hold?’?

Yes. It was very well organised, and there were many interesting and useful suggestions made about how to improve the efficiency of defence. For example, I offered two ideas, one relating to the use of augmented human technologies to better equip soldiers, and the other concerning the application of virtual reality technology to enhance information sharing and communication. The final summary included both of these suggestions, together with Avatar‑style remote presence systems.

You also addressed a plenary session, delivering your Stimulus Brief. There you introduced the Diegetic Innovation Templating methodology (DiT), something you’ve cooked up with Vic Callaghan. Could you give our readers a brief introduction?

Diegetic Innovation Templating is a methodology to extract ideas directly from SF or fantasy literature as templates, the currency of innovation. It is also a model guiding how these templates of fictional concepts can either be explicitly transformed into product/service innovations, or implicitly used to shape the organisational process and future vision. Either of these can help to develop foresight innovation capabilities of organisations.

You suggested that a work of science fictional prototyping can be positioned on a matrix with two axes. This matrix essentially estimates the gap between fiction and reality, right? You didn’t put it this way, but it sounded to me like one axis was about production and supply (“How feasible is it, technologically and economically, to make this?”), and the other axis was about demand (“How feasible is it to sell this? Will people understand it? Do they need it? Will they want it?” etc.). Have I got that right? 

I think, from a company perspective, that is a very helpful way to understand the Diegetic Gap (DiG). But from an academic perspective, we also tend to think of it as being a conceptual gap which not only affects demand from the market and customers, but also measures the conceptual appreciation or comprehension inside the organisation.

Okay, I see. So how might it be helpful in that more internal context?

For instance, it raises questions for managers or capability leaders such as: what kind of conceptual capability is required to develop in the project? How far it is from the existing product portfolio? What is required to integrate the new concept into the product strategy in both short term and long run? What should be done to move the idea to full product concept and further to prototype stage?

Understanding these two axes (conceptually and technically) will help innovators or leaders to develop a mapping tool, which will allow them to precisely position the idea on the progress blueprint, showing how to manage potential milestone objectives in alignment with available and unavailable resources and capabilities. So it’s a very useful tool to help manage the complexity and difficulty of SF prototyping.

Okay. Such a model presumably has to strike a balance between being easy to understand and apply, and capturing enough detail. Just hypothetically, if you were to imagine a three-axes version of the DiG, what would those axes be?

This is an excellent question! Actually, Vic and I are currently writing the second paper concerning the application of DiT/DiG in the UK defence industry, in which we have added a third dimension: time. The time axis is auxiliary to conceptual and technical measures. On the one hand, it indicates the overall timing and feasibility for moving impossible to possible; on the other, it explains the planning timeframe for achieving different goals in line with conceptual and technical possibilities. The time axis can be divided into three timelines, existing, future and disruptive. Each timeline can be associated with different levels of conceptual capability and technological development. It helps organisations to manage their capability development within short-term and long-term strategies.

That’s interesting. It feels like there’s so much research that could be done in this area. I wonder: could we go meta, and use the DiT on the DiT itself? In other words, could we use SF prototyping to imagine even more sophisticated forms of SF prototyping? I’m thinking of generating narratives, extracting templates and visualising diegetic gaps using specialised game-like platforms, for instance. ‘Story prompt: write about how innovation might occur in 2050 …’

Yes, why not?! To a certain extent elements of the DiT process could be coupled with Science Fiction Prototyping to imagine a more sophisticated, future version of this innovation process itself. As we are the part of the growing group of people that are trying to ‘visualise the box to think outside of,’ I can imagine a future where a journalistic artificial intelligence program is interviewing another AI program to report on science fiction based science fiction to promulgate future science based reality theories!

Can you tell us a bit about your work with the Creative Science Foundation?

Vic was one of the three founders of the Foundation. The others were Simon Egerton from La Trobe University in Australia, and Brian Johnson from Arizona State University in the US. The Creative Science Foundation was founded with funding from Intel, who were experimenting with SF prototyping. Intel faced a very challenging innovation problem. Their integrated circuits, such a laptop and desktop processors, take seven to ten years to develop from conception to delivery. In that time, applications change, and the wider world changes – sometimes massively. So Intel needed a tool to visualise the future. When I saw the work that the Creative Science Foundation was doing, I realised this approach could also be applied more widely to business activities – I specialise in entrepreneurship – and so I joined the Foundation to head up that side of their operations.

The use of creative writing as a research tool has some interesting implications how we think about literary value. A story might have a shaky plot, hammy characterisation, a clunky prose style, and yet lead to three patents and X billion dollars for Intel, tempting us to call it a ‘great’ story. But if we think it’s great, is that despite those flaws, or might those ‘flaws’ actually be implicated in some ways in its success? What’s the best way for our readers to find out more about the Creative Science Foundation?

The Foundation is currently run by volunteers who are motivated by the power of storytelling, as an instrument for change. To date, the Foundation has mostly been concerned with organising workshops and conferences. There are more details at www.creative-science.org.

And what’s TIE’18?

That’s the second international conference on Technology, Innovation, Entrepreneurship and Education. The first TIE conference was held at Canterbury Christ Church University in September 2017, with me as General Chair and Vic as Technical Committee Chair. Vic and I originated this conference as a consequence of our cross-discipline collaboration. We were inspired to do something to promote cross-disciplinary research, to improve understanding of innovation in a more integrative and creative way.

TIE’18 will be hosted at Ravensbourne University in London on 10-11th September 2018. It’s sponsored by European Alliance for Innovation (EAI), the European partner that we’ve worked with to set TIE in an international context.

What kind of thing can we expect on the programme?

Well, the acronym TIE stands for Technology, Innovation, Entrepreneurship and Education, which is a good summary of what this conference is about. In each of these areas we’ll be addressing cutting-edge advances. This year the technology section is especially focused on mixed-reality and artificial intelligence. We also aim to advocate cutting-edge innovation methodologies such as Science Fiction Prototyping, Diegetic Innovation Templating and Threatcasting.

So SF plays a significant role?

Within the conference, there are specific tracks and workshops that address the use of SF. For instance, in the 2017 edition we had a workshop called Holonovels, that concerned writing fiction about the future. That was inspired by Star Trek technologies, and we also had Gene Dolgoff speaking, the man behind the Holodeck concept. The first TIE drew in all kinds of fascinating and diverse research around SF prototyping. We’re looking forward to the sequel in September. Ravensbourne University is specialised in technology innovation, so we don’t doubt that it will be an even more interesting event in 2018.

You mentioned ‘Threatcasting.’ Diegetic Innovation Templating is oriented toward transforming fiction into reality. But another kind of speculative fiction is the dystopia or cautionary tale. Do you think your approach could be adapted to another purpose – to thinking about how to prevent fiction from turning into unwanted reality?

Absolutely! The DiT process would allow detailed forward-facing assessments of risks and threats both regarding internal organisational factors and external forces. In addition, it could help the organisation develop more ethical decision-making processes by providing relevant conceptual understanding of the potential market responses and possible future consequences. From fiction to reality, the journey is manageable with appropriate mechanisms and approaches in place, and I believe that it can be controlled and positively utilised for economic and social benefits.

And this isn’t just my opinion. The US military are already deploying dystopian SF-based approaches to help develop their risk planning strategies, using a variation of SF Prototyping called Threatcasting. In our second paper on Diegetic Innovation Templating, which is aimed at the UK military, we have devised a variation of Diegetic Innovation Templates that we call ‘Threat Templates,’ drawn directly from dystopian fictions.

You’ve also recently been working on the idea of a technological singularity, right?

I have co-authored a chapter with Mohammed-Asif Akhmad, a principal scientist from BAE Systems, called ‘How Change Agencies Can Affect our Path Towards a Singularity.’ It’s about how to manage the path towards a technological singularity – roughly speaking, the moment when machines become as intelligent as people. We emphasized the interactions of different driving forces for change, and how such interactive effects can assist in the determination of future paths toward a singularity event, or possibly even an ‘anti-singularity event.’

Where can we read that? And tell us more about these ‘driving forces’ for technological change?

It’s a chapter in The Technological Singularity – Managing the Journey (2017), edited by Victor Callaghan, James Miller, Roman Yampolskiy, and Stuart Armstrong. Technology development is not simply about the technology itself. It’s about the decision-making for technology adoption and investment as it involves people, organisational and institutional factors at various levels in our society and marketplace. The driving forces include large international organisations, entrepreneurs, social networks and social capital, and national governments.

Under technology-driven capitalism, corporate strategic focus has been shifted from production to research. The policies and practices of large organisations have strong bearing on the reproduction of skills and knowledge for new technology development. Furthermore, through their creativity and deliberation around innovation, organisations can express real agency. A firm isn’t constrained to dutifully maximise value within given socio-economic structures: through innovation, it can actually disrupt those structures. We might think of Google’s robot dog, Apple’s intelligent Safari browser, Huawei’s FusionCloud computing solution, just to name a few: such innovations have the potential to transform the wider incentive structures throughout society.

And that’s just one factor. Similarly, many savvy entrepreneurs have emerged as a new class of plutocrats and business magnates, as can be witnessed in the rise of Alibaba and Xiaomi. Moreover, marketing communication over social networks is vital in the social construction processes that surround the diffusion of technological innovations. Social networks can also act as mediators, diluting organisational hierarchical control over technological innovation, and creating network mechanisms like participatory discussion and consensual decision-making. In this way, social networks can be agents of change, triggering new configurations of relationships among actors involved in innovation networks. Nation states also play a critical role in shaping technological development, through state-owned organisations such as cyber defence agencies, through subsidies and incentives, and through prescribing certain practices while circumscribing others. All major governments have some sort of cyber defence organisation. All of these organisations invest in the latest computing technology, and have extensive budgets to maintain and upgrade their capability to try to preserve an advantage.

Overall, the co-evolution of the human race and technology is an iterative process, and it gives us opportunities to implement structural and institutional control mechanisms which can minimise the risk of an unwanted singularity event. We need to develop diagnostic, preventative and mitigating measures, and we need to be proactive in developing them. ‘Threatcasting’ and ‘Futurecasting’ from SFP and DiT) would be a useful part of these processes.

I guess one problem here is ‘we’: what kinds of consensus are necessary? We may be able to identify who the main players are, but who are the real stakeholders? How do we – there’s that word again! – ensure that the right voices are being listened to?

When the private sector tries to think through these issues, it often comes down to Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). One issue with CSR has always been that it’s a compromise between some who see it as the firm’s fundamental obligation – ahead of maximising shareholder value – and some who only support CSR when there is a business case for it, so that it’s ultimately in service of shareholder value. I think what you’re saying suggests that DiT-type processes could usefully disrupt CSR, by helping firms to conceptualise potential market responses and wider social implications of their activity?

In general, as a SF enthusiast and researcher, I believe that the future is manageable by our own hands. One fascinating aspect of SF is how it offers us different aspects of possible futures through the creative minds of authors, so that it not only stimulates debate, controversy and foresight vision, but also – perhaps more importantly – it allows us to plan ahead for what we aim to achieve. That’s something we call ‘Futurecasting.’

In the decision-making and planning process, you inevitably tackle ethical dilemmas and CSR issues. In theory, Diegetic Innovation Templating is a diagnostic process which allows you, through the lens of fictional inspiration, to assess how different aspects of a possibility may lead to future product development or disruptive innovation outcomes. It would be useful to conduct a new empirical investigation from a CSR-focused perspective to offer more understanding of how DiT may help manage corporate realities with sustainable outcomes.

That would be really interesting. Let’s finish where we started: any last thoughts about the Dstl event in Salisbury?

It was a well-organised and inspiring event, and its success was evident in the enthusiastic participation and engagement of so many writers and scientists. From a personal perspective, it is encouraging to see our military showing such concern about behaving in an ethical way and avoiding dystopian futures, while at the same time protecting the society and the values we all hold so dear. To my mind this was a highly creative and very pioneering event, which could serve as a template for other organisations planning in an uncertain world, ranging from government to commercial companies. In fact, I am a little surprised – in a positive way! – that government organisations are so entrepreneurial and open-minded in embracing unconventional methodologies for innovation. In these respects, Dstl is unquestionably leading a new frontier of innovation. As I mentioned in my book chapter, the defence industry plays a very crucial role in technology development. Defence innovation is always likely to have wider impact on the direction of technology innovation for the future, so this Sci-Fi Symposium has important implications that may reach beyond the event itself. However, its impact remains to be seen, since to some extent that depends on the next steps of conceptual development, and what tangible outcomes Dstl adopt in developing their innovation capabilities. Hopefully this event will eventually lead to enhancing capability or rethinking policy.

And, of course, because so much of their work is secret or top secret, we may never know the full story.

Thank you so much Ping!

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