Intel Labs documentary looks back at Steampunk era to build future

Intel Labs knit together sci-fi, steampunk, and Silicon Valley as it seeks new ways to re-imagine the future and explore people's relationships with technology.
Written by Rachel King, Contributor

SAN FRANCISCO -- Just ahead of the kickoff of Intel Developer Forum this week, the chip maker hosted a panel discussion on Monday morning with filmmakers, Sci-Fi authors and analysts to explore the transformation of relationships between people and technology.

Specifically, panelists disucssed how these groups construct and design new ways of seeing the future.

"We're trying to explore some of those possible futures, and some of those are not so bright," said Intel futurist and panel moderator Brian David Johnson, on how Intel Labs is imagining the future and then building it.

Johnson pointed toward a "mapping of the future that we'd want to avoid," which is essentially a future where technology controls people at a tyrannical level.

Kathleen Maher, vice president and editor-in-chief of Jon Peddie Research, explained that we all worry a little too much about how "our heads are increasingly in our computers and not out in the real world" to the point where people always know what you're doing and what you're thinking.

Maher put forth two very different examples of the future of relationships between people and technology: either the computer continues to be a tool that helps advance society or we end up with a "government-controlled place where your very existence can be turned on and off."

But perhaps to build a better future, we need to be more conscious of the past first. Much of the discussion from the panel was also centered around a documentary, Vintage Tomorrows, produced by Intel Labs being debuted on Monday. Based on a book by the same name, the film follows a historian and a futurist as they journey through the Steampunk era of the Victorian Age and into the future of technology as well as chronicling the completion of the book.

Essentially, the film tries to look backwards before we can move forward by presenting the argument that through the eyes, beliefs and vision of the Steampunk movement in the 19th century, we can see now how our future could turn out.

Told another way, Intel describes the documentary as a "science fiction of the past that imagines a future that never happened."

Margie Morris, a clinical psychologist research scientist at Intel Labs, cited that one of the themes that came out in this documentary was the trajectory of the relationships between people and technology, comparing them to inter-personal relationships between human beings. Morris cited that we often hear more about the love of technology (even the lust for a shiny new smartphone or tablet), but we don't explore enough how those relationships evolve.

"It grows with you over time, and that relationship has ups and downs," Morris argued.

But Maher quipped to some laughter from the audience that we have enough problems with relationships between people that she might not want to have those problems with technology.

Intel fellow and director of Intel Labs Doug Carmean exclaimed that with this project, he was "very interested in reinventing notion of computing" -- most especially by breaking down any barriers between people and technology and building a two-way relationship between them.

"People think of having an interface between a human and a computer, and I really want to break that down," Carmean asserted, explaining that could mean building end-to-end systems that explore notions of free-form flexibility to the point where the notion of a user interface is just gone.

"Can we establish an emotional connection with technology, and can that technology love you back?" Carmean asked. "This work here has been inspiring by pushing and posing the questions that then make you realize those computer systems we can build."

But science fiction and fantasy author Karl Schroeder warned that "the darker implications that need to be talked" include the projection of ourselves and interfaces into the physical world to the point where "we no longer see the physical world."

Schroeder continued, "I think that's important because when you talk about things like global warming and problems with the environment, doesn't that have to do with the fact that we are insulating ourselves away from the fact of the physical world and see it more as stuff to be used?"

Schroeder also posed the question, "Can you actually create a version of this technology that actually amplifies your relationship or the presence of physical objects as they are, but not as things to be used?"

He followed up by remarking the future of technology has potential to reawaken our relationship with the physical world so long as we don't abuse it.

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