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2016 Syllabus

Syllabus for the Fall 2016 Class, aka SciFab:2050

Published onOct 12, 2020
2016 Syllabus

Sci Fab 2050 ~ Envisioneering the Future of Humanity


Working Syllabus ~ Subject to Change & Modification


Instructors ~ Joost Bonsen and Dan Novy

Faculty Advisor ~ Joe Paradiso

Meeting Time ~ Tuesdays 7-9pm in E15-359

Fall 2016 ~ 12 Tuesdays, September 13, through Tuesday, December 13; No Final Exam

Class Description & Motivation ~ In previous years, Sci Fab class has been about building prototypes inspired by Science Fiction.  This year’s Sci Fab class is about imagining and forecasting and exploring what our futureworld -- humanity and planet Earth -- might be like in 2050, just thirty-four years from now.  This envisioneering is akin to the exercise all SF writers undertake when they imagine and project and spell out a compelling milieu for their characters and plot and story to play in.  Famous examples include Joe Haldeman’s Confederación, Isaac Asimov’s Galactic Empire, Robert Heinlein’s Future History and later Multiverse, as well as the visual scape and sensory vibes of SF films such as Blade Runner, Minority Report, Fifth Element, and Star Trek, or the epic SF graphic novels Valerian, Moebius, Metropolitan, and more. 

Method of Speculative Forecasting ~ We explore our futureworld theme by combining a handful of top Techniques including: 

  1. Retrospection ~ Reviewing, critiquing, and drawing inspiration from classic & modern science fiction (SF) texts & graphic novels, TV shows & films as well as past Futurists attempts to imagine the world in the future;

  2. Extrapolation ~ Making Moore’s Law-like projections over time in many more domains of technology and society, looking at the pace of technical progress and social change and discerning whether growth or decline or change over time is linear, exponential, or a more complicated pattern; 

  3. Simulation ~ Computer modeling, role-playing and agent-based gaming, and scenario-base speculation about potential human choices, emergent behaviors, and future possibilities;

  4. Imagination ~ Physical hardware fabrication-provoked and/or wetware or software code-enabled ideation partly drawing inspiration from the current and archival projects at the Media Lab, rest of MIT, and beyond;

  5. Integration ~ The holistic combination of multiple ideas across two or more of these Techniques together towards the ultimate Final Project, an internally- and logically-consistent probability picture of future humanity and Earth.

During the Fall 2016 semester, we explore these five Techniques in sequence over ten weeks, culminating from one to the next every two weeks and doing so across multiple Scales of human action and societal aggregation -- from the individual up through all of humanity, planet-wide (and perhaps beyond) -- and throughout the prime Domains of human endeavor.  

To make dealing with Scales of human action and geo-physical aggregation tractable, we bucketize into five tranches, each differentiated by one or more orders of magnitude in numbers of people:

  1. 1010+ ~ Earth & Humanity ~ The totality of everything and everyone on the planet;

  2. 108-9 ~ States & Conurbations ~ Emphasizing the political, cultural, and governmental;

  3. 104-7 ~ Cities & Neighborhoods ~ Humanity’s growing places of urban concentration;

  4. 102-3 ~ Offices, Homes, Bars ~ Emphasizing daily actions & places of direct experience;

  5. 100-1 ~ Personal & Familial ~ Focusing on the individual thru small groups;

To make dealing with Domains of human endeavor even somewhat manageable, we abstract massively and lump the vast complexity of humanity and life and reality into five buckets:

  1. Technological ~ The broad domains of design, invention, and technological action, drawing especially from the broad technological themes specified by both the MIT SOLVE and Better World campaigns (i.e. Healthy Humanity, Vital Planet, Material Progress, Creative Smarts, and Societal-Scale Solutions);

  2. GovMil-Political ~ The realms of governance, law, policy, and institutions of force (i.e.,

  3. Econo-Commercial ~ The domain of business, market exchange, trade, supply chains, economics, commerce, finance, and institutions of production (i.e.’s)

  4. Socio-Cultural ~ The arena of education, philanthropy, civic engagement, religion, philosophy, and institutions of the mind (i.e.’s,’s)

  5. Wildcard ~ Everything else which could go well or poorly, constructively or destructively, including so-called Acts of God (e.g. Asteroid strike, Megavolcano eruption, Supertsunami) and Acts of Man (e.g. Anthropogenic climate change, Clash of Civilizations, Nuclear war, Bioterrorist global pandemic, Economic great depression) many of which are rare but transformational Black Swan events.

Towards the Future Matrix ~ The combination of five Scales and five Domains creates a 5-by-5 array which we call the Future Matrix, where each cell in the array can be filled with text and links to imagery or visualizations, thus creating a graphically simple, intellectually tractable method of sharing various alternative understandings of -- and possibilities for -- our imagined future 2050.  Students will populate this Future Matrix in an incrementally additive and iterative fashion over the course of the Fall 2016 semester as we step through our five Techniques ending up with a holistic, well-researched, artfully prepared, internally- and logically-consistent Final Project.

Schedule of Homeworks and Specific Class Topics ~ The  timing of each week’s theme, and details assigned homework readings and viewings, and projects is in the full Calendar below.  Students have great flexibility to pick potential topics to explore in-depth but are expected to both spread this work over time as well as integrate it together into the cumulative Final Project

Potential Topics for Student In-depth Explorations Include – Future of energy, medicine, food, cities, brains, emerging nations, sex/gender, commerce, politics, transport, aging, entertainment, design, religion, and more. Digital fabrication, machine vision, mobility, learning, sociotech, smartwears, interface design, machine learning, neuroscience, and synthetic biology, plus, plus, plus... 

Class Expectations – We require students to commit to regular readings and/or viewings, actively participate in class discussions, have an open mind, work on both in- and beyond-class design and other exploratory exercises, develop & iterate project prototypes during the first and second month, and produce an integrative, cumulative final worldbuilding project.

Grading ~ There is no forced curve so everyone can do well.  But we expect serious commitment and substantive work from everyone, including each individual member of teams. We account as follows:

  • Attendance & Participation including on-time presence in class, thoughtful contributions to discussions, being attentive and engaged, joining in design exercises, offering constructive project critiques of classmates work. = 30%

  • Readings & Homeworks for each of the five Techniques (two weeks per Technique), and how successfully class projects incorporate concepts addressed in the readings, each week is a cumulative addition to the Future Matrix, including written prose, graphs & charts, and drawings, renderings, and/or other visuals = 10 x 3% each = 30%. 

  • Final Project integrating everything together (including documentation) = 40%

  • Each unexcused absence will result in losing one letter grade. Each failure to do the assigned readings or activity will result in a 5% loss of total points.

Projects may be done alone or in collaboration. Collaborations must document the full extent of each participant’s contribution and equal effort is expected per collaborator. The final project should build upon or in some way complement earlier class exercises or earlier prototypes.  

SciFab 2050 ~ Envisioneering the Future of Humanity


Fall 2016 Calendar

(Subject to change, modification, etc)

Overall Topic

Week # Date

Lecture or Home- work Subject


Crit / Discuss


Data or Charts of Behavior-over-Time (BOT)

“Pix” Artifact(s) from the Future (AFTF) (or Illustrations, Clips, Mockup Props)

Future Matrix (FM) 



Week 1 


Instructors Intros & Overview Class, Student intros & interests

Students share-list favorite SF & Futurist works, RPGames, etc

Share examples of historical & projection BOT charts

Illustrate with Wired AFTF and other example cases

Intro both Reference Materials & online Future Matrix Template


Watch Blade Runner (BR); Group showing @ ML time TBA; Scan over Technovelgy site

List what BR got right, wrong, and partially 

ID underlying tech implicit in BR future (e.g. synthbio, flying car) 

ID favorite BR artifact(s) Bonus Points:  Modify it and make it better via illustration

Survey Reference FM material, copy-make own FM from Class Template


Retro- spection ~ Part A

Week 2


Instructors Introduce SF & Futurism Critique, learning from past forecasts, i.e. “Retrospecting”

Reflect on BR (filmed 1982, set in 2019 LA)

Discuss What are key societal changes and/or technologies BR got or missed?  What’s trend for those?

Share What’s your favorite BR artifact(s)?  

Share What parts of BR world do you add to your FM?


Read Diamond Age

Skim Engines of Creation excerpts

List what DA got right, wrong, and partially

ID underlying tech implicit in DA future (e.g. molecular assembly, VR/AR, crypto)

ID favorite DA artifact(s) Bonus Points:  Modify it and make it better via illustration

Continue populating your FM


Retro- spection ~ Part B

Week 3


Brief Check-in

Reflect on DA (published in 1995, set in near-future Shanghai & US NWest)

Discuss What are key societal changes and/or technologies DA got or missed?  What’s trend for those?

Share What’s your favorite DA artifact(s)?  

Share What parts of DA world do you add to your FM?


Read The First Immortal;  Read Gordon Moore’s original; Watch Rosling’s TEDIndia Talk

List what TFI got right, wrong, and partially

ID underlying tech implicit in TFI future (e.g. molecular assembly, VR/AR, crypto)

ID favorite TFI artifact(s) Bonus Points:  Modify it and make it better via illustration

Continue populating your FM

(2) Extrapolation ~ Part A

Week 4


Instructors Introduce Moore’s Law-like extrapolation

Columbus Holiday

No Class 



Watch Minority Report; Read The Singularity Is Near excerpt

(2) Extrapolation ~ Part B

Week 5 


Start with Check-in, Guest Speaker Underkoffler or Borenstein??(TBC)

List what MR got right, wrong, and partially

ID underlying tech implicit in MR future (e.g. molecular assembly, VR/AR, crypto)

ID favorite MR artifact(s) Bonus Points:  Modify it and make it better via illustration

ML Event

No Class 



Meet with Instructors to discuss Finale options, Read history of SimCity, excerpt from Foundation

(3) Simulation ~ Part A

Week 6


Instructors Introduce Simulations, Guest Speaker  Candy, Role Playing Games & Scenario Analysis


Read Excerpt of Limits to Growth Revisited and background on C-ROADS -- 

(3) Simulation ~ Part B

Week 7




Watch the Tech of Trek, Read Time Enough for Love excerpt

(4) Imagination ~ Part A

Week 8


Instructors Introduce Zwicky Box & other creative Thinkertools 


Read The Truth Machine

(4) Imagination ~ Part B

Week 9


Brief Check-in


Read Influx

(5) Integration ~ Part A

Wk 10


Class emphasis shifts toward Finale Project


Final Instructor meeting to discuss plans, Watch Back to the Future

(5) Integration ~ Part B

Wk 11


Guest Speaker (TBA)


Finale Prep


Finale Presentation

Wk 12


Student Presentations

Statement of Fears and Hopes for Future

Folio of Original BOT Plots

Folio of Original AFTF & Visuals

Finale FM 

Overall Topic

Week # Date

Lecture or Home- work Subject

Crit / Prose / Discuss

Data Plot(s) or Charts of Behavior-over-Time (BOT)

Artifact(s) from the Future (AFTF) (or Illustrations, Clips, Mockup Props)

Future Matrix (FM) 

Sci Fab 2050 ~ Envisioneering the Future of Humanity


Appendix 1

Connecting Science Fiction, Fabrication-inspired SF, and Speculative Futures ~ Far more than escapist fantasy or Saturday morning ray gun serials, Science Fiction has become the ambient ideaspace of our time.  An author’s words or a director’s vision can inspire a generation of designers and engineers to work on the “Big Problems” of an age or to tread lightly as they wield the great power of science and discovery.  From Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to synthetic biology’s programmed life-forms, from Star Trek’s Communicator to the StarTAC Flip Phone, from William Gibson’s Cyberspace to the Internet of today, Science Fiction is a powerful medium for exploring ideas and prototyping futures.  

At the same time, the design and inventive work happening in the research lab today will most likely only lead to widespread technological adoption and societal change 5, 10, 20 or more years from now.  Examples of this from the MIT Media Lab alone include:

  • Andy Lippman’s 1978 Aspen Movie Map -- -- which we recognize today as Streetview;

  • Chris Schmandt’s 1984 Conversational Interfaces which is akin to Siri or Alexa;

  • Thad Starner et al’s 1990’s vintage Wearable Computers -- -- which prefigured Glass and various apps on smartphones;

  • Pascal Chenais’ 1995 Project Canard which exposed a dorm full of undergrads to mobile email and IM only seen by Blackberry and later smartphone users a decade later;

  • Finally John Underkoffler’s I/O Bulb & Luminous Room which imagined Smartbulbs in the mid-1990’s, devices which are only now becoming commercially available.

Underkoffler is particularly interesting in that he went on to advise the makers of the 2002 movie Minority Report based on Philip K Dick’s book --  The resulting movie set in a nominal 2054 includes gestural interfaces, tracking & personalization capabilities, and user experiences which Kinect-enabled videogames and Nielsen audience metrics are already deploying.

So actually figuring out what 2050 might be like is a bit of a moving target where speculating may indeed change the priorities and pace of change.


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