CULTURE & ARTS

If George Orwell Were A Twitter Bot

With crowd-sourced future predictions, dystopian scenarios become more realistic.

According to novelist Adam Johnson’s visions of the near future, we’ll soon spend most of our time socializing with robots that are fed dialogue and mannerisms meant to match the people we admire: Kurt Cobain, the president of the United States, lost loved ones.

It’s a plausible enough scenario, a technological remedy for loneliness. But just because Johnson recently won a big literary prize for his visions of the future, doesn’t mean his predictions are more likely to come true that anyone else’s. As a novelist, coming up with accurate scenarios for how our tech developments -- AI-focused and otherwise -- will play out isn’t Johnson’s job. His job is to use fictional scenarios, rooted in real life or thriving on airy imaginative scenes, to describe human nature, and hopefully entertain us along the way.

Still, we seem to rank the quality of a dystopian writer based on his knack for accuracy. How many of Asimov’s insights into potential advancements came true? More than that lousy Ursula K. Le Guin’s! (It bears mentioning that probably the winningest dystopian writer, by these standards, would be Edward Bellamy, who predicted credit cards in his unbearably boring and practically plotless Looking Backward, published in 1888.)

Perhaps it’s time we alleviate fiction writers of the duty of accurate future prediction, so they can focus instead on compelling stories that use the future to highlight contemporary problems and their solutions. One useful tool that could bear the burden: a bot developed for Vice’s Terraform project, meant to cull through Twitter to find foresight both wise and amusing.

Brian Merchant, senior editor at Motherboard and co-creator of @TheseFutures, said the aim of the bot is to crowd source speculations, uncovering insights that are shared repeatedly, as well as those that are more personal and quixotic.

“Professional futurists are often well-paid for consulting and writing gigs, on the premise that they're best acquainted with the future,” Merchant told The Huffington Post. “I wonder if a crowd-sourced approach will do just as well (or better!) at sketching out a picture of what tomorrow will look and feel like.”

The professional futurists Merchant refers to aren’t all sci-fi writers à la Johnson and George Orwell, although many are. As we featured in a spotlight on so-called “techno optimists,” there’s a growing bevy of writers who supply their world-building tools to corporations such as Microsoft or Intel, unearthing potential research areas based on what the future looks like according to their own imaginations. If that sounds bunk to you, well, that’s what projects like @TheseFutures aim to rectify.

Here’s how it works: The bot, designed by Twitter project veteran Ranjit Bhatnagar, combs through Twitter statuses containing certain phrases, like “in the future,” and retweets them. It also plucks predictions from a database filled with quotes from David Byrne, Mary Shelley, Orwell and other notable speculators. After running the bot for a few months, Bhatnagar, Merchant and his colleague Claire Evans will take an unscientific look at which predictions are most likely to recur.

In the meantime, following the bot produces a delightful blend of genuine observations, snarky comments and personal longings.

“Personal hopes and musings are the basis for most of our best predictions, period,” Merchant said. “It's human to speculate, it's a coping mechanism and a navigational tool [...] I've already seen plenty of weird, funny, and touching speculations, as well as a few very sad and personal predictions. A surprising number have been very clever and on-target, while many others are dashed-off idle thoughts.”

More than anything, the team hopes the bot will highlight not just potential outcomes for the future, but the myriad ways we think about the future now, and what that reveals about the present.

“While I am really interested to see what the hive mind nails about the future,” Merchant said, “this is mostly about creating a fluid snapshot of our aspirations, guesses, projections and wild ideas right now.”

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