Conversations on the Future

Use technology to reconnect, not separate: Chinese writer Chen Qiufan

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WASHINGTON - The tech world needs more diverse perspectives, from psychologists, sociologists, writers and artists who deal with real human nature and understand the dynamics of human interaction, says award-winning Chinese science fiction writer Stanley Chen Qiufan.

If technical innovation comes only from the perspective of tech innovators, it is "kind of stupid", he says.

Mr Chen, who is normally based in China but is currently Futurist-in-Residence at SCI-Arc in Los Angeles - an independent architecture school and centre for innovation - spoke to The Straits Times for Conversations on the Future, a video series featuring prominent global thinkers.

The 41-year-old tries to envision the role of technology in our future in the book AI 2041: Ten Visions for Our Future, co-authored with artificial intelligence (AI) guru Lee Kai-Fu.

"We tried to imagine a better world with… AI and robots also sharing… empathy as human beings," said Mr Chen in the interview in Los Angeles. "In order to achieve that, we need more diverse perspectives."

Part of today's reality is that people have less agency, he added. "They're giving away their agency, their autonomy, to algorithms and interfaces like social media."

Calling that "laid-back and irresponsible", Mr Chen said: "I think in the future, we should create something smarter… (to) proactively engage with people to help them to build up agency."

Currently, content on the Internet and on social media is altered and manipulated by platforms and riddled with agendas, he noted. In the future, the challenge will be to return power to people to allow them to decide what kind of life they really want to live, and what kind of future they want to create.

Humans confront the challenge of losing autonomy, and also getting ahead of themselves, he said.

"But I also think there's (a) possibility (that) we can start to think about how we can rebuild this kind of narrative - to think beyond all the binaries, beyond cultural geopolitics, ideology.. (and) belief systems."

The genre of science fiction is able to bridge the gap, Mr Chen said, because science fiction is "always imagining something else".

"We're dealing with something else, we're living in other worldly environments, and we're dealing with very extreme scenarios, " he said.

"That kind of thought experiment... gives people the kind of cognitive flexibility and mobility to think beyond."

The writer, who adopted his English name Stanley from American film director Stanley Kubrick, is not impressed by dreams of establishing a human base on Mars.

"I think the right way… is to try to figure out what's happening now, here and now, on Earth - not to try to build up… escapism fantasies," he said.

"To me, the right attitude is to think positively, and to create… consensus (on) how human beings should… work together, should reconnect.

"And we should come up with some new solutions because we co-exist with other species, like for example, viruses," he said.

"That's something we should work on, not… super fancy space expectations."

  • The Conversations on the Future series focuses not on current news but on broader, and larger, long-term issues and trends. Among the interviewees are Harvard professor Graham Allison, historian Wang Gungwu, Yale law professor and author Amy Chua, Singapore’s Ambassador-at-Large Tommy Koh and retired diplomat Bilahari Kausikan.

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