From Trek to Tech
How Sci-Fi Inspires Medical Research
By Erin Howe
Progress happens when people start to dream about the worlds science fiction authors write about.
Star Trek featured a version of the Gamma Knife. Mary Shelley predicted transplant surgery. Many of today’s medical technologies and procedures were first imagined in science fiction. And experts say we shouldn’t be surprised.
“Good science fiction deals with existential questions about the meaning of life, our roles with respect to each other, with respect to society, and with respect to the physical universe,” says Raywat Deonandan (BSc ’90, MSc ’93, BEd ’93), an alumnus of the Department of Physiology and — like many people in the medical professions — a sci-fi fan. “Science fiction has the breadth and the freedom to explore the nuances and texture of any kind of sentient existence. Beyond any other kind of genre, I think science fiction has the freedom and permission to do this.”
Deonandan is a University of Ottawa epidemiologist who specializes in global health, but he also edits a science fiction website called Skiffy.ca. (The site’s name is a play on a common mispronunciation of “sci-fi”).
Space may be the final frontier, but Deonandan is already thinking about how extraterrestrial organisms could affect human health.
One of his research projects looks at the ways human health might be impacted if pathogens from outer space made their way to earth and caused an outbreak. Deonandan says the idea was inspired by the sci-fi theory of panspermia, which holds that the building blocks of life on earth came from outer space.
“If in fact these complex, organic molecules exist outside the earth and if they ride these strange interplanetary transit systems involving meteor impacts, then why wouldn’t we expect one result of that to be some kind of disease? And if that happened, then how would we deal with it epidemiologically?” asks Deonandan, who grew up reading books by authors like Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov. He says he loves sci-fi for inspiring readers to be courageous and ask big questions.
Quaid Morris (BSc ’96), an Associate Professor at the Donnelly Centre for Cellular and Biomolecular Research, read many of the same books as a child and, like Deonandan, he finds them inspiring.
“Progress happens when people start to dream about the worlds science fiction authors write about, and then try to create some of the things in the books — or try and understand why they can’t,” says Morris. “They make science interesting by writing books about ideas. And that’s why a lot of hard science fiction is really about taking the ideas of science and following through with them to the end.”
One such idea: What would happen if computers became as smart as people? It’s a question Morris explores in his computational molecular biology research.
“For me, it all seems to come down to this initial interest in artificial intelligence,” he explains.
Morris points to Lieutenant Commander Data, Star Trek’s self-aware android on the Starship Enterprise, as one inspiring example of artificial intelligence. On television and in movies, Data is an invaluable member of the ship’s crew, programmed to calculate information quickly — much like some of the software Morris develops in his lab.
“Following that path leads to the idea of computer programs that can recognize patterns the same way people can,” says Morris, who is cross-appointed to the Departments of Molecular Genetics, Computer Science and Electrical and Computer Engineering. “Humans are the best pattern-recognizers in the world, but you can’t get someone to sit in front of a computer and look at terabytes of data. We need artificial intelligence to do that for us.”
Though there’s seemingly endless potential for technology to help people, sci-fi writers have also predicted what would happen if we became overreliant on it. Authors like Ray Bradbury and Philip K. Dick imagined what would happen when people stopped being able to distinguish the virtual world from the real one.
“I’m seeing technology dependence all the time and it’s actually affecting people on a clinical, social and cultural level,” says Bruce Ballon (PGME ’00), a Professor in the Department of Psychiatry. “Technology is rampant and people walk around with cell phones, looking like cybernetic creatures from Star Trek called The Borg that are all hive-minded together.”
While Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 featured a dystopian world where people’s minds are controlled by what they see on television, Ballon aims to empower people to think critically about their interactions with emerging technology.
“We need to think about how we deal with technology and how it affects our relationships with the people around us. Because if we don’t, we could leave ourselves vulnerable to being influenced,” says Ballon, author of Swimming in Cyber: Learning to Live Healthily in the Intersections of the Virtual and Real Worlds. He is also Director of the Advanced Clinical and Educational Services for Problem Gambling, Gaming and Internet Addiction at CAMH.
“I think we’re in an interesting time,” Deonandan says. “The mainstream now understands the maturity and the possibility of science fiction, where a generation ago, it was perceived as the rarified domain of the socially repressed fanboy. Now we’re recognizing there are some important, real-life philosophical imports to this particular kind of narrative.”