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Federico Pistono talks fact and science fiction

Tuesday, 29 January, 2013

Federico Pistono Federico Pistono is a young Renaissance Man whose formal education has taken him from studying science and technology in the ancient Italian city of Verona to an immersion in Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning at the ultra-modern Singularity University in California. A thinker, a social entrepreneur and an aspiring filmmaker, he is also the author of Robots Will Steal Your Job, But That’s OK. Although that title sounds like fiction, it is fact. But fiction is in the pipeline as Federico tells us in this interview with Rainy Day.

Eamonn Fitzgerald: Thomas Dolby once sang that “Video Killed the Radio Star”. What killed the science fiction genre? Of do you feel that I’m being too pessimistic about its state of health?

Federico Pistono: Yes, I think you might be overly pessimistic. There’s plenty of great science fiction, but you have to look for it. 2013 is the year of the revival of great science fiction, particularly in the indie scene. Just looking at cinema, here’s a list of films that either came out just now or will come out soon: Cloud Atlas (a masterpiece directed by no less than by Tom Tykwer and the Wachowskis), Elysium (Neill Blomkamp, director of District 9), After Earth, The World’s End (Edgar Wright’s third and final film in his Cornetto Trilogy, completing the trio of genre comedies he began with Shaun Of The Dead and Hot Fuzz), Ender’s Game (an adaptation of Orson Scott Card’s 1985 sci-fi novel), Oblivion, The Prototype, Robot & Frank, Gravity (Alfonso Cuarón, director of Children of Men), and Singularity.

As for books, I just finished reading the seven parts of the Foundation series by Isaac Asimov, to compare with the recent suggestions I had from friends: Altered Carbon, a hardboiled cyberpunk science fiction novel by Richard K. Morgan; Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell; and Accelerando by Charles Stross, a book set around the time of the Technological Singularity.

It’s all really exciting, particularly because of the new wave of great self-published works that are coming out.

Eamonn Fitzgerald: For me, Philip K. Dick is the writer who most satisfyingly combines excellent writing about the future with plausible potential technological-societal scenarios. How do you rate him? Who is your favourite writer in the sci-fi field?

Federico Pistono: Dick is certainly one of my favourites. I love almost all of his works, particularly A Scanner Darkly. He’s an author that has influenced popular culture and Hollywood like nobody else. I don’t know if I would rate him my all-time favourite, but he certainly ranks among the top five or so.

Eamonn Fitzgerald: The best sci-fi novel that I read in recent years was Old Man’s War by John Scalzi. It’s about colonists from Earth fighting aliens for scarce planetary resources. The thing is: the humans, thanks to DNA manipulation, have been “enhanced” in ways that give them the strength and speed to combat more advanced life forms. Have you read it? Or what have you read that you’d recommend for readers of this blog interested in sci-fi?

Federico Pistono: I haven’t read it yet, but I’m familiar with Scalzi. As for the suggestions, I heard great things about The Wool seven-book series by Hugh Howey, which I just bought on my Kindle and I’m going to read soon. Also, I like Cory Doctorow (Little Brother, Pirate Cinema), and he said in a recent interview that his favourite book is Pacific Edge by Kim Stanley Robinson. When I heard it, I immediately bought a paper copy (I couldn’t find the Kindle version), and it just came in via mail.

Eamonn Fitzgerald: Given the acclaim that’s greeted Robots Will Steal Your Job, But That’s OK, I can imagine that robots might play a role in any science fiction that you might right. Right? Or has I, Robot filled that market niche already?

Robots Will Steal Your Job Federico Pistono: Robots is non-fiction, so my hope is that will inspire people to raise the issue in public discourse, and — why not? — in sci-fi books and popular culture in general. I think the niche is in no way filled, and the best is yet to come.

One of the difficulties in writing good sci-fi is, I think, the fact that we have very limited brains which will soon become obsolete. What I mean by that is that human enhancement and super-intelligent machines are coming, one way or another and whether we like it or not. And they’re coming within the next 30-50 years, not 300, not 3,000. That means that if we wish to describe events that take place in 2160 — or worse, 3160 — we should have a level of intelligence comparable to that of an entity living in that period, and that’s quite simply impossible. Also, even if we could do that, we wouldn’t be able to create a compelling story, because we wouldn’t relate easily with the characters. They would be as far from us as we are from chimpanzees, or cows, or ants. Not very much in common.

What happens is that most sci-fi writers either ignore this, and create what I think are quite silly scenarios, or they set the stage in a very narrow slit of time that we can understand and relate to. It’s a big limitation, but that’s the price we pay for being only human.

Eamonn Fitzgerald: Really successful sci-fi, I feel, taps into people’s anxieties about the future. Right now, “Big Data” is increasingly being talked about in a way that is worrying to many. The very term “Big Data” sounds ominous. Might it provide inspiration for a sci-fi story?

Federico Pistono: Definitely. In fact, I just published an article for the Institute for Ethics and EMerging Technologies titled “Forget 1984 and Conspiracy Stories, This is the Real Thing“. The scenario described resembles very much that of my latest work (more on this later), and I’m sure many authors will catch the ball and write some intriguing stories on this topic.

Eamonn Fitzgerald: Final question: What can you tell us at this point about what you are planning to write?

A Tale of Two Futures Federico Pistono: I’m finishing a sci-fi novelette called A Tale of Two Futures, which tells the story of an average day in the life in two very different futures, one where things have gone terribly wrong, and the other where things have gone amazingly right. It’s a way of answering the question that I get asked the most by people who have watched my TEDxTalk or have read my book Robots Will Steal Your Job, But That’s OK — how will the future you describe look like? And the answer is, it depends. The future will either be beautiful beyond imagination; or dismayingly horrifying, much worse than sci-fi dystopias have prepared us for. The difference between the two futures lies in the choices we make. Most people think that the world is too big, too immense for any individual to have an impact, because anything we do is merely a drop in the ocean. But what is an ocean, if not a multitude of drops?

Eamonn Fitzgerald: Indeed. Thank you, Federico. We look forward to reading and reviewing A Tale of Two Futures.

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