Science Fiction Prototyping

Recently I've started writing little science fiction stories as a method not only to explore the future, but also as a great way to try and convey the excitement of what might be possible to others. This approach is known as science fiction prototyping--writing science fiction stories that are based on science fact as a way to prototype and test out ideas for the future.

I first got the idea from my friend and former collaborator, the great Brian David Johnson. Brian has even written a book on the topic, which I recommend.

Science fiction prototyping can be a helpful tool no matter what medium you use to model the future: prose, video, or even comic strips. In fact, a couple of years ago I interviewed then editor of Dark Horse Comics, Chris Warner, about how comics can be a great medium to use for science fiction prototyping. His advice: getting started is easy and cheap, and comics force you to think about the future in a way that simply writing prose does not. 

OK, enough on Science Fiction Prototyping, let's get on with sharing one of the prototypes so you can see what one looks like. Sorry, this is going to make for a rather lengthy blog post, but here goes.

The story explores the coming era of individual empowerment and entrepreneurialism that I expect will be enabled by such advances as 3D printing, integrated design and manufacturing tool chains, GUI-based software design, expanded crowd-sourcing, and new types of cloud services. We are already seeing the idea of the cloud expanded beyond the world of computing to now include a financing cloud (Kickstarter and IndieGogo), a distribution cloud (Amazon), and design & testing cloud services are likely not that far away now.

The story also weaves in a little machine vision and some natural interfaces just for good measure. My hope is that you, the reader, can enjoy the story for what it is, without getting sucked into the technology itself. Oh, and all the "brand" names in the story are 100% fictitious and not intended to make any trademark claim.

I'd love to hear what you think in the comments.

The Mega-Corporation of One

a short story by Steve Brown

Today Alice would push one button and ship several million units of a new product to children all over the world. It had all started just three weeks ago with an idea she had had in the shower.

The concept that became the MoJo Bear had come to Alice while she was soaping her hair and thinking about her young nephew, Peter. She was really struggling on what to get him for his third birthday. Nothing she’d seen in the stores seemed quite right so she’d decided to make him something herself. And now she had the perfect idea.

Alice bounded out of the shower and almost lost her balance slipping on the tile floor as she rushed to grab her device. She wanted to get her idea down and share it with her favorite ideas community. At this stage she wasn’t quite sure yet how to make her idea a reality, but she could easily get help with that by collaborating with a few helpful strangers.

Wrapped in her towel she sat at her computer and used simple gesture and speech prompts to create the design for her talking teddy bear. She chose materials, modified an existing open source bear design to give it a more generous tummy (just like her brother’s!) and selected an Intel Edison III board as the component she’d use to add the reading function.

Alice’s new idea clearly had merit; an hour after she had posted it online she had offers of help from a fabric expert, a pediatrician, and a programmer.

Her initial idea for the product name, “BookBear”, didn’t test well with the crowd and so she ended up going with the favorite crowd suggestion, “MoJo.” She’d learned with her previous projects to listen to the masses when it came to shaping and marketing your product.

At the time, Alice really had no idea just how popular MoJo was going to be, but on a whim she decided to see if anyone else would be interested. Maybe five or ten people would also have an interest in her idea and would help share some of the production cost, she thought. She published her design to FundStarter, a popular venture site, and waited.

The next morning Alice checked FundStarter as she ate her breakfast. She almost spit out her cornflakes. Alice was astonished to find that over forty thousand people had said they would want a MoJo bear if she built it, and most had pledged more than her minimum asking price of $90.

“Wow”, thought Alice, “I really am in business!”

Alice clicked a few keys and within five minutes had set up, registered, and been approved as CEO of her new company, “FutureBears, LLC.”

In return for 0.1% of the proceeds of her sales, Alice had retained the services of her volunteer fabric expert, Mica. Mica had recommended six different options based on Alice’s requirements for durability, softness, and moderate cost. Mica lived in Brazil but had arranged for samples of the furry cloth to be delivered to Alice’s home from a local distributor right there in Amherst. Alerted by the buzz of the delivery drone, Alice wandered outside to collect the samples and chose the three she liked most. She would offer all three as color options to her customers. Perhaps she could charge a little more for bears made from the nicer fabric.

For a similar cut of profits, Chin Yi, a pediatrician living in Malaysia, helped Alice with recommendations on a voice tone for the bear that would be appealing to young children. Chin Yi had worked in several different children’s care facilities in Europe and so offered insight into a range of different voices most appropriate for European and Asian markets.

Finally, Alice held a quick Holo-con with Roger, an Australian programmer based in Adelaide. For Roger it was a breeze to stitch together the open source OCR code, the natural language engine, and the voice simulator software he liked. He missed the old days of programming in C++ but had to admit the new drag and drop GUI interfaces, APIs, and cloud services made it a breeze to knock out pretty decent code these days.

It had been Roger’s idea to include a translation function so that MoJo would be able to read a book written in any language, but speak it in any other language. He also suggested that Alice customize the chip she had chosen as the brains of her bear to include hardware accelerators optimized for optical recognition (OCR) and natural language processing (NLP). That way, he said, the bear would run longer on a single battery and would perform better in low light conditions. Roger pulled the OCR and NLP blocks from Intel’s designer site and uploaded them to Alice’s design file in the cloud. The SoC compiler would now include those functions and print them as part of the custom chip when it was made. The operating system Roger had selected would also auto compile to work flawlessly with the custom Intel Edison III chip. Technology was so much easier to build these days.

Roger’s final idea was pure genius. A single language reading service would be included in the cost of the product, but for multi-language reading (which would cost them nothing to implement) he suggested that Alice could charge a monthly service fee of $4 a month.

For his efforts, and for the translator idea, Alice rewarded Roger with a full 1% of profits, a figure that seemed to make Roger very happy. Little did he know just how wealthy that arrangement would make him in the coming months.

Alice would never meet Roger, or Mica, or Chin Yi for that matter. She didn’t need to. In fact, she would likely never talk with them again. And while they would automatically be paid a portion of profits for their contributions, they would never be her employees. How odd that word seemed these days.

Things were starting to come together. Peter’s birthday was now just two weeks away but Alice still had plenty of time to get everything done. With luck she should be able to get into production later that week.

Alice had all the details of her MoJo bear stored in her favorite design tool, UcanMake. She loved it. It was so easy to use, and best of all it was connected to a huge network of suppliers and manufacturers all over the world.

Alice could fully test her design right there inside the tool. She laughed out loud as she watched MoJo being subjected to all manner of physical stress testing on her screen. After all, MoJo had to be able to stand up to the rigors of life in the world of a two year old! Most of all she enjoyed watching the fire retardant and water submersion tests, all conducted digitally inside the computer before even a single MoJo prototype had been built.

Everything seemed to be going so smoothly and then Alice was hit with a flashing red alert on her screen. MoJo had failed an important quality standard in Germany. If she wanted to ship MoJo there she would need to use a different material for the bear’s cute button nose. UcanMake recommended she use a different plastic and estimated the cost adder at 3 cents. Helpfully, it also reminded Alice that 2,438 of her bidders were located in Germany. That made the decision easy. She would later realize that this seemingly simple little decision had an eventual actual cost of almost a hundred grand.

“I think I can handle that”, thought Alice. “OK, do it”, she said to the tool.

Once she was satisfied that MoJo was going to be safe and durable, and UcanMake had auto-issued the necessary UL, CSA, TUV and other approvals needed for her to sell her product in all the countries her customers were located in, she selected her manufacturing partner.

The UcanMake tool made it such a breeze to use the manufacturing cloud. Alice simply swiped the “Bid” button on her holo-screen and within less than a second the tool had negotiated with 37 different manufacturers around the world based on Alice’s design specifications and projected volume.

“Gold star only”, Alice said to her computer.

UcanMake filtered the list and removed any vendors that hadn’t achieved a gold rating for work practices, environmental standards, and sustainability. The cheapest bid from the remaining 18 manufacturers was from a Cambodian company quoting $32.25 per unit. They were highly rated by other UcanMake users and were noted as providing health care services to their workers so Alice decided she would use them.

“That price does seem rather cheap”, thought Alice. She had expected the cost to be almost double that. She wondered if her new supplier was perhaps cutting corners.

When Alice checked the quantity in her order book she couldn’t quite believe it. Over three million people had now signed up to own a MoJo bear. Her mouth hung open. No wonder the bid price was so low with that kind of volume behind it! Alice didn’t have any idea that an influential toy blogger had spotted MoJo on FundStarter and mentioned it in a post. Within two days MoJo had gone viral and captured the imagination of millions of people eager to have a bear that could help their children learn new languages.

Alice had to steady herself with a cup of hot tea. The magnitude of the moment hadn’t escaped her. With the punch of a single button she was about to submit her design for manufacture in a factory in Cambodia, a place she had never visited. From there, the global distributor she had selected from the distribution cloud would ship it to over three million homes in 143 different countries. As a result she would not only be delivering a product that would delight millions of children and make her $150 million richer. MoJo would also provide a revenue stream to hundreds of people that were part of the customer support cloud she had engaged to handle queries, returns, and repairs on any defective MoJos. The ongoing revenue stream for those ordering translation capabilities would probably bring her another million dollars a week and it was looking like three million MoJos was just the beginning.

Not bad for a few days of effort. Alice sipped her Earl Grey and hit “Print”.