Science Fiction for Data Scientists

Paul Bricman
Apr 8, 2019 · 5 min read

Three novels with data-driven plots

Science Fiction writing in itself is an exercise of modeling the future based on present and past culture. Therefore, integrating predictive algorithms in literature works has been an intuitive choice.

The Foundation Series, by Isaac Asimov

Isaac Asimov was a prolific 20th century American writer and professor. He wrote or edited more than 500 books and is one of the most popular SF writers of all time.

The Foundation Series is one of his most notable and comprehensive works. Its premise is that mathematician Hari Seldon spent his life developing a branch of mathematics known as psychohistory, a concept of mathematical sociology. Using the laws of mass action, it can be used to predict the future, but only on a large scale. Seldon foresees the imminent fall of the Galactic Empire, which encompasses the entire Milky Way, and a dark age lasting 30,000 years before a second great empire arises.

Seldon’s calculations also show there is a way to limit the chaos between the fall of the first empire and the rise of the second to just one thousand years. To ensure the more favorable outcome and reduce human misery during the intervening period, Seldon creates the Foundation, a group of talented artisans and engineers positioned at the twinned extreme ends of the galaxy, to preserve and expand on humanity’s collective knowledge, and thus become the foundation for the accelerated resurgence of this new galactic empire.

Psychohistory depends on the idea that, while one cannot foresee the actions of a particular individual, the laws of statistics as applied to large groups of people could predict the general flow of future events. Asimov used the analogy of a gas: an observer has great difficulty in predicting the motion of a single molecule in a gas, but with kinetic theory can predict the mass action of the gas to a high level of accuracy. Asimov applied this concept to the population of his fictional Galactic Empire, which numbered one quintillion.

Over a dozen generations of men have pored over these equations, worked at them, taken them apart to the last decimal place, and put them together again. They’ve done more than that. They’ve watched nearly four hundred years pass and against the predictions and equations, they’ve checked reality, and they have learned.

The Minority Report, Philip K. Dick

Philip Kindred Dick was an American writer who explored philosophical, social and political themes, with stories dominated by corporations, alternative universes, authoritarian governments, and altered states of consciousness.

In a future society, three mutants foresee all crime before it occurs. Plugged into a great machine, these “precogs” allow the Precrime Division to arrest suspects prior to any infliction of public harm. When the head of Precrime, John A. Anderton, is accused of murdering Leopold Kaplan, a man whom he has never met, Anderton is convinced a great conspiracy is taking place. His new assistant, Ed Witwer, must have corrupted the system in an attempt to get him off the position. On the run and suspiciousness of even his wife, Anderton searches for the minority report to clear his name, as only two out of the three precogs predicted his guilt.

Through a series of betrayals and changing alliances, Anderton discovers that the three predictions are rather a progression of alternate realities. To maintain Precrime’s authority, Anderton consciously decides to kill Kaplan, thereby affirming the validity of the second majority report. Anderton is thus exiled with his wife to life on a frontier colony and replaced by Witwer as head of Precrime. The story ends with Anderton’s advice to his successor: “Better keep your eyes open. It might happen to you at any time.”

Mr. Marks, by mandate of the District of Columbia Precrime Division, I’m placing you under arrest for the future murder of Sarah Marks and Donald Dubin that was to take place today, April 22 at 0800 hours and four minutes.

The Three Body Problem, Cixin Liu

Cixin Liu is a nine-time winner of the Galaxy Award (China’s most prestigious literary SF award), winner of the 2015 Hugo Award, and others. His background as a hardware engineer brings a noticeable analytical approach to his work.

Chinese astrophysicists of 1970’ succeed in contacting an extraterrestrial civilization while learning that their solar system, Alpha Centauri, contains three suns. The development of Trisolaris has been strongly influenced by the movement of the three stars through climate, agriculture, energy etc., and therefore, Trisolarans have long tried to build predictive models in order to forecast the movement of the celestial bodies. Unfortunately, the three-body problem has been proved not to be solvable with finite computational resources. Because of this unpredictible and hostile environment, Trisolarans decide to venture to Earth in order to further develop their civilization.

The Earth-Trisolaris Organization, however, invests in its own efforts to solve the three-body problem, through methods which include genetic algorithms applied to movement equations. ETO also created a VR game through which it recruits new members, and it portrays a similar environment to Trisolaris, complete with three orbiting suns. In the game, players have to develop their civilizations as much as they can in the unpredictable world of Trisolaris. At one point, Professor Wang even creates an in-game computer based on millions of medieval soldiers which emulate transistors and other electrical components, and uses it to compute predictions of the suns for the king.

The three-billion-year history of life’s evolution from self-reproducing molecules to civilization contains twists and romances that cannot be matched by any myth or epic.

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