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Jim Al-Khalili: In the right hands science can save the world rather than destroy it

Jim Al-Khalili is a British scientist, author and broadcaster. He appears regularly on TV and radio, presenting and contributing to science programmes on the BBC, ITV and Channel 4, and is well known as the presenter of BBC Radio 4’s The Life Scientific. He is Professor of Theoretical Physics at the University of Surrey where he also holds a chair in the Public Engagement in Science.

Jim is also the author of several acclaimed popular science books aimed at increasing scientific understanding and answering common, if complex, questions, including Aliens: Science Asks: Is There Anyone Out There?, Life on the Edge: The Coming of Age of Quantum Biology and Quantum: A Guide for the Perplexed as well as many others. His debut science fiction novel, Sunfall, was published on 18 April 2019.

We spoke to Jim recently about the relationship between science and fiction and about the ways in which science is shaping our future.

Which scientific discoveries or technologies do you think will most change people’s lives in the next 10 years?

Without doubt I think it will be advances in AI: machine learning and deep neural nets. I am confident that AI will transform our world over the next decade or two to a greater extent even than the internet and the web have over the past two decades. We are already seeing the impact of AI on our daily lives and concern is understandably growing about the impact that it will have on jobs and privacy. But we cannot stop the rapid advances being made and we just have to ensure we are prepared for it in terms of regulations and transparency. With the right ethical regulations in place, AI could help us tackle many of the biggest challenges facing humanity in the 21st century, from climate change to health.

Scientific progress, as you know, is a road with lots of twists, bumps and small victories, rather than big eureka moments. Do you think people have a romanticised idea of scientific discovery? And does that make it hard to get people excited about these incremental, yet ingenious, developments?

I don’t think so. Telling inspiring and exciting stories about scientific discoveries and advances is a terrific way to engage wider society. I accept that this is not how science typically progresses and I know that it is just as important to inform the public about the process of science (the scientific method, the incremental advances, the reproducibility of results, the importance of doubt and being prepared to change one’s views in the light of new data, and so on), but I also see it as a positive if we can romanticise science and make it exciting and appealing, particular to the younger generation.

It’s not often that scientists are the heroes of a story. But in your new novel, Sunfall, it’s the scientists who save the day. Does this reflect your view that there’s an expectation on scientists to protect the future of our species and our planet?

I hope so. Often in science fiction, science and scientists are seen as the villains, putting the world at risk with their blind ambitions – think Michael Crichton and nanotech, or cloning. So to show that (a) scientists are just normal people with the same hopes, ambitions and flaws as anyone else is important, and that; (b) science is about increasing our understanding of the world – that enlightenment is always better than ignorance – is vital. My message is that in the right hands science can save the world rather than destroy it.

The technology and inventions we see in science fiction can seem fantastic or even ludicrous. But are there any fictitious inventions that have foreshadowed reality?

A number of science fiction authors have been remarkably prescient about what the future will hold. Writers like Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov, whose books I grew up reading in the 70s were brilliant at predicting technologies that would develop from new science. And that is what I have tried to do in Sunfall. But you asked about specific examples, so how about the Polish sci-fi author Stanislaw Lem who, in the mid-20th, predicted smartphones, e-books, tablets and even the internet.

The worlds represented in science fiction tend to be utopias or dystopias, where technology like AI exists either in complete harmony with humanity, or violently overthrows it. Do you think these binary representations are dangerous? How can we arrive at a more balanced view of the future?

It depends on what we see as the role of science fiction. Ideally, you are correct that the description of new scientific advances and the technologies that they lead to should be balanced and nuanced. But then science fiction, even intelligent science fiction, is about what might be – it’s about speculating and extrapolating what we know today to build an imaginary future. Sci-fi does not need to be accurate and there are all sorts of deeper ethical messages, ideological scenarios and moral dilemmas that it can explore instead. The one thing it does not have to be is constrained by fact. The clue is in the word ‘fiction’.

Jim will be exploring these ideas and more at our FutureFest Late on 8 May at The Vaults, hosted by Timandra Harkness, presenter of BBC Radio 4’s FutureProofing.

There will also be a selection of short films giving a sneak preview of the 19th annual festival of our partner, Sci Fi London. Although tickets are now sold out for the evening, keep an eye out for the audio that we will be releasing after the event.

About FutureFest Lates

Through a distinctive mix of installations, talks and debates, FutureFest Lates offer audiences an opportunity to imagine a different vision of the future.

FutureFest Lates is part of the FutureFest programme, a series of events that explore new ways of thinking about the future and solutions for some of this era's biggest challenges.

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Anna Baty

Anna Baty

Editorial Manager

Working with colleagues across the organisation, Anna helped to oversee the writing, editing and commissioning of a wide range of materials.

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