When sci-fi be­comes re­al­ity

Imag­ine a com­pany that can tell the fu­ture – stop­ping crim­i­nals be­fore they com­mit their mis­deeds. Well, it ap­pears that such an en­tity al­ready ex­ists.

Finweek English Edition - - On The Money - By Lloyd Gedye ed­i­to­rial@fin­week.co.za

afew months ago, while cel­e­brat­ing a mu­tual buddy’s birth­day at a Chi­nese restau­rant, a friend and I were talk­ing books. I was rav­ing about a sci­ence-fic­tion novel by Wil­liam Gib­son that I was read­ing and Robyn was telling me about what she had been read­ing re­cently.

As the con­ver­sa­tion con­tin­ued, Robyn ven­tured that the world re­ally doesn’t pay at­ten­tion to sci­ence-fic­tion writ­ers in the way that it should. I agreed.

Then, last week, I read a fas­ci­nat­ing piece called Bet­ter Busi­ness Through Sci-Fi, and writ­ten by Nick Romeo, on

The New Yorker’s web­site. It told the story of SciFu­tures, a com­pany set up by Ari Pop­per.

Five years ago, when he was work­ing in mar­ket re­search, Pop­per en­rolled in a course on sci­ence-fic­tion writ­ing at the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia in Los An­ge­les. Once he com­pleted the course, he made the bold de­ci­sion to found his own com­pany.

The ven­ture was based on the premise that since busi­nesses spend money try­ing to pre­dict how the world will change, a space where spec­u­la­tive fic­tion al­ready treads, fic­tion could be used to ser­vice big busi­ness. Pop­per calls it “cor­po­rate vi­sion­ing”.

Ac­cord­ing to The New Yorker ar­ti­cle, Pop­per’s com­pany, SciFu­tures, has a network of more than 100 au­thors who write cus­tomised sto­ries for the likes of Visa, Ford, Pepsi and Sam­sung. The sto­ries range from a few hun­dred to sev­eral thou­sand words in length.

The same day, I read an ar­ti­cle on The Guardian’s web­site about Palan­tir, the CIA-backed start-up that was launched in 2004 by PayPal co-founder and Face­book in­vestor Peter Theil, along­side Nathan Get­tings, Joe Lonsdale, Stephen Co­hen and Alex Karp.

The ar­ti­cle was an ex­cerpt from a new book ti­tled Done: The Se­cret Deals that are Chang­ing our World, which was writ­ten by UK in­ves­tiga­tive jour­nal­ist Jac­ques Peretti.

Ac­cord­ing to him, Palan­tir uses big data to watch ev­ery­thing peo­ple are do­ing and pre­dicts what they will do next. The idea is to stop crimes be­fore they hap­pen. How­ever, Palan­tir ser­vices the pri­vate sec­tor too. Via Palan­tir Me­trop­o­lis it pro­vides the an­a­lyt­i­cal tools for hedge funds, banks and fi­nan­cial ser­vices firms.

Peretti writes that Palan­tir tracks ev­ery­one from po­ten­tial ter­ror­ist sus­pects to cor­po­rate fraud­sters. He states that Bernie Mad­off was im­pris­oned with the help of Palan­tir and it was used in the US/ Iraq war to track pat­terns in road­side bomb­ings.

The author quotes Sa­muel Read­ing – a for­mer marine who worked in Afghanistan for a US mil­i­tary con­trac­tor. “It’s the com­bi­na­tion of ev­ery an­a­lyt­i­cal tool you could ever dream of,” he said. “You will know ev­ery sin­gle bad guy in your area.”

Palan­tir has done work for the CIA, the FBI, the US Marine Corps, the US Air Force and the IRS. Its use by Los An­ge­les and Chicago po­lice has been con­tro­ver­sially re­ceived. Crit­ics ar­gue that the data from Palan­tir has be­come a new way of re­in­forc­ing old prej­u­dices. Peretti writes that Palan­tir is “im­mensely se­cre­tive”.

“It wields as much real-world power as Google, Face­book, Ama­zon, Mi­crosoft and Ap­ple,” he writes. “But un­like them, Palan­tir op­er­ates so far un­der the radar, it is spe­cial ops.”

Sci­ence-fic­tion read­ers who have en­coun­tered Philip K. Dick’s 1956 short story ti­tled Mi­nor­ity Re­port are prob­a­bly think­ing that this sounds all too fa­mil­iar. Dick’s story, which was adapted into a film star­ring Tom Cruise by Steven Spiel­berg in 2002, in­volved a ma­chine that could pre­dict crime be­fore it hap­pened.

It may have taken just less than 50 years but Palan­tir makes it sound like Dick’s vi­sion has been re­alised. How­ever, read­ing the ex­cerpt on Palan­tir, I was re­minded of a 1996 Wil­liam Gib­son novel named Idoru, which I feel is an­other pre­cur­sor to a world where it ex­ists. In Idoru, the main char­ac­ter, Colin Laney, has a tal­ent of sift­ing through vast amounts of mun­dane data to find “nodal points” of par­tic­u­lar rel­e­vance.

In the novel, Laney worked for a com­pany called Sl­itS­can, which thrived on de­stroy­ing me­dia per­son­al­i­ties by ex­pos­ing their se­crets. Laney was the data wran­gler who could see the pat­terns in big data.

What Gib­son was writ­ing about in 1996 was es­sen­tially the kind of data wran­gling we see around the world today, con­ducted by cor­po­rates, the mil­i­tary and in­tel­li­gence agen­cies.

It seems that Palan­tir is the re­al­i­sa­tion of these vi­sions of Dick and Gib­son. The fact that there is a push to keep it as se­cret as pos­si­ble should make us all very sus­pi­cious.

If big busi­ness, the mil­i­tary, in­tel­li­gence ser­vices and the po­lice are start­ing to pay at­ten­tion to the sci­ence-fic­tion writ­ers, then per­haps it’s time we all started to do the same. ■

The world re­ally doesn’t pay at­ten­tion to sci­ence-fic­tion writ­ers in the way that it should.

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