Tuesday, 25 November 2014

The science of blogging

Debashish Munshi & Priya Kurian

Scientists are usually ahead of the curve in new ways of thinking and doing. Yet they don’t often ride the wave of communication technologies to engage the lay public with their ideas. This is where science blogs are beginning to fill the breach. Run by people interested in science, these blogs are a platform for keeping pace with, understanding, and communicatively bonding with the world of science and its rapid and futuristic developments as well as its hopes, anxieties, joys, and controversies.

With the growing ubiquitousness of the internet and the global embrace of social media, science blogs have a potential to take science to the people. Bloggers can cut though the iron walls of jargon and verbosity of research papers, complex equations, caveats and variables, and sheer mystery, to get the core ideas across with brevity, simplicity, and pictorial as well as audio-visual props. 

There are several exciting and informative blogs out there in cyberspace. ScienceBlogs, for example, is a wonderful repository of a very wide range of blogs across domains such as the Life Sciences, the Physical Sciences, the Environment, Medicine, Technology, and many more. Within each of these domains are scores of blogs with a variety of styles, content, and focal points.

However, as Mathieu Ranger and Karen Bultitude point out, despite their accessibility and ease of use, science blogs “constitute only a tiny proportion of science information sources”. In an article forthcoming in PUS, they make the case that “there is still significant room for development before science blogging becomes a truly ‘pluralistic, participatory and social’ element” in science communication. Ranger and Bultitude’s study on the motivations and characteristics of popular science blogs, including an analysis of interviews with seven prominent bloggers as well as blog posts, shows that science blogging is still a “niche” area and most bloggers take to blogging because of their own passion for science rather than to foster public engagement. Science blogs, the authors add, also don’t make as much use of design elements as general blogs and tend to be updated less frequently than popular general blogs.

For those of us following science blogs, there are trends that suggest engagement with science is on the way up. There are several blogs that have caught the fancy of those with a thirst for the wonders (and despairs) of science. The Real Clear Science website recently listed Ethan Siegel’s Starts with a bang; Carl Zimmer’s The Loom; and Deborah Blum’s Elemental as their top three science blogs. While Siegel translates complex topics for curious minds, Zimmer uses his writing skills to attract and retain the attention of readers interested in the life sciences. Blum is an expert on toxic substances.

Although there aren’t that many scientists writing blogs themselves, people in the scientific community are surely and steadily taking to social media platforms. A recent article in Nature, Richard van Noorden suggests that academic social networks are burgeoning with scientists increasingly joining social networking sites such as ResearchGate to share ideas and papers, and foster collaborations. The next step would be to seek out wider audiences and blogs are one such avenue.


A few years ago, scientist-turned-film maker Randy Olsen had come up with four main “admonitions” for scientists looking to communicate with the lay public: “Don’t be so cerebral; don’t be so literal minded; don’t be such a poor story teller; don’t be so unlikeable”.  Taking to writing blogs will take care of these perceptual barriers. 

Monday, 29 September 2014

Science, scientists, and pandemics

The deadly Ebola virus is spreading relentlessly in West Africa even as scientists work around the clock to find an effective way to contain it. In the midst of the race against time to find a solution to contain the pandemic, several frontline science and health workers are paying with their lives.

As many as five co-authors of a study entitled ‘Genomic surveillance elucidates Ebola virus origin and transmission during the 2014 outbreak’ published recently in the journal Science have died after being infected with Ebola during the course of their work. Biographies of the Sierra Leone-based doctor, Sheik Humarr Khan, an expert on Ebola and a medical director of a programme run by Sierra Leone’s Ministry of Health and Sanitation, and his four colleagues are sketched in a recent article in Science Insider.

Ebola is a real threat to humankind. The world outside Africa, complacent as it is about the reach of this disease, is largely unaware of the risks the scientific and medical community at the grassroots are dealing with while they work selflessly to not only treat those affected by the disease but also to isolate and neutralise the virus. With over 2,900 people already dead from the Ebola virus, the World Health Organization (WHO) has warned that the epidemic is spreading rapidly across Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea and called for urgent assistance from world governments. The range of responses include the widely welcomed offer of Cuba to send over 400 doctors and nurses to the affected countries, financial aid from the World Bank and a promise by the United States to deploy 3000 military troops in Liberia. The step-up in terms of a global response comes even as the UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon called for a global corps of medical professionals, “backed by the expertise of WHO and the logistical capacity of the United Nations. Just as our troops in blue helmets help keep people safe, a corps in white coats could help keep people healthy.”

If the threat is not yet tangible for many, the world of fiction has a cautionary tale or two. One of us just watched Brad Pitt’s World War Z, a visually dramatic movie about the spread of a zombie pandemic. The story (see trailer) is that of a vicious virus with rabies-like symptoms that turns people into zombies. These zombies then reach out to healthy people and infect them in droves. While city after city is overtaken by armies of zombies, it is up to a former United Nations investigator and a team of WHO scientists to take on the marauding forces. Observing that the zombies don’t touch the sick or the infirm, the team figures out that the only way to stop the zombies was to vaccinate people with strains of a curable disease. These diseases served as a ‘mask’ to protect the people from the advances of the zombies.


Science and fiction, of course, have an ongoing relationship as we have shown in many of our earlier blog posts. An article forthcoming in PUS also talks about this relationship. The article by Van Gorp, Rommes, and Emons outlines the representation of scientists in “fiction and non-fiction media aimed at Dutch children and teenagers”. The authors identify seven prototypes of the scientists depicted – “the genius, the nerd, the puzzler, the adventurer, the mad scientist, the wizard, and the misunderstood genius”. They also raise the possibility of what they call a “rare prototype” of “the doubter”, representing “scientific progress as more capricious and challenging”. 

Sunday, 31 August 2014

Science and humour

So why did the chicken cross the road? Going by an exhaustive compilation of humorous responses, the scientific possibilities are endless. Ask an evolutionary biologist and he would say: “It was the logical next step after coming down from the trees”. A physicist on the other hand would begin by trying to find out if the chicken crossed the road or if the road moved beneath the chicken.

Humour is increasingly being used to communicate the complexities of science to lay people. Indeed, as Paige Brown Jarreau says in her recent blog "Making people laugh about science: It's a good thing" in SciLogs, "science comedy is a hot thing". Brown especially highlights the role of humour in engaging the attention of children to science in the classroom by decreasing their "anxiety over 'hard' complex topics". 

In her blog, Brown also interviews DeanBurnett, scientist, comedian and the writer of the hugely popular BrainFlapping blog on the Guardian web site. As Burnett says, “if people can laugh with/about science, then they won't be as intimidated by it, and will perceive that science is a very human endeavour, not some monolithic process hiding behind the walls of academia and curated by emotionless intellectuals.”

Brown’s blog also cites the work of Bruno Pinto, David Marcal, and Sofia Vaz in Public Understanding of Science who found in a Portugal-based study that “stand up-comedy has potential for science communication because of its ability to get people talking about issues they don’t usually comprehend easily.

This potential, however, comes with a caveat. In an article published online last week in PUS, Hauke Riesch says that “humour in public portrayals of science can have effects on the science–public relationship that may not always be benign or helpful to the cause of public engagement.” The article “Why did the proton cross the road? Humour and science communication” cautions that the use of humour can sometimes perpetuate discourses of superiority, draw lines between insiders and outsiders, and ridicule scientific ways of theorising and writing.


Ultimately, however, humour needs to be used in balance. After all, the chicken needs to look left and right, front and back, and cross the road carefully. The crossing is as much a voyage of discovery as the excitement of encountering a new world on the other side. 

Thursday, 31 July 2014

Reflections on science and the public

Sue Howard


In balmy, beautiful, complicated Salvador, the 13th conference of the Public Communication of Science and Technology Network got underway recently with speakers from Nigeria, Brazil, Columbia and South Africa (along with jazz trumpet to lift the soul).

Luisa Massarani introduced the conference noting the relationship between science communication and development, and it seemed to me that here in Salvador, Brazil, there was a sense of optimism about the relationship between science and the public(s).

From the get go, the theme of social inclusion was paramount, with questions raised about changing the 'white male face of science'. Efforts along these lines continued throughout. I saw Luz Lazos Ramirez and colleagues from the Universidad Autonoma de la Ciudad de Mexico present their work on sharing tailored technology with the indigenous peoples of Mexico – the 'recipients' of knowledge and technology have become the designers of technology to suit their own needs and desires.

Andrea Berardi (Open University, UK) and colleagues also take a 'from the ground up' approach to explore communities' own adaptations to climate change, using visual modes to communicate with indigenous peoples in the Guiana Shield. The audience acknowledged that here he was, pale and male, introducing this research, but appreciated the effort to honour the knowledge, resourcefulness and responsibilities of a local Guianan community.

There were several presentations looking at the fractious relationships between science, policy and the media. I found interesting the efforts of Jenny Bjorkman (Riksbankens Jubileumsfond, Sweden) and Melanie Smallman (UCL, UK) to get policy makers to pay attention to social scientists – it seems they need an interpreter, their languages and cultures are so different. This explains a lot about governance not using the information available to them, even when they themselves commission the research.

The subject of science and the media seems to bring up the old concerns about one blaming the other for an uneasy relationship. Looking at this relationship, Sharon Dunwoody (University of Wisconsin-Madison, US) pointed to the incredible slowness of cultural change, while Simon Lock's (UCL, UK) neuro engagement research demonstrated the same.

Meanwhile, science journalists continue to suffer censorship, directly from governments or indirectly via scientists self censoring because of fear of repercussions. Science journalists Mohammed Yahia and Ochien Ogodo were able to tell us about the Egyptian and Kenyan contexts. The gravity of this topic is utmost: the highest stakes are potential loss of life, as discussed by a representative of Article 19.

In the conference culture, that the deficit model is to be avoided, was almost a given, at least it seemed so to me. Thus, Steve Miller and Susanna Priest, at a plenary, provoking the question about whether it's not so bad to acknowledge different levels of informedness, and to concern ourselves with levelling the playing field, met with a rather frosty response. All these considerations and more prompted Martin Bauer, Editor in Chief of Public Understanding of Science, to create an essay competition for the journal, asking contributors to answer "In Science Communication, why does the idea of a public deficit always return?"

And finally, science communication blogs are a good thing. Are they? Sometimes social media efforts offered by organisations seem like big old adverts, or not so far from the much disparaged deficit model efforts of old, disseminating information with the hope of fostering positive attitudes; maybe that's not such a great use of social media.

Plus, Massimiano Bucchi asked the plenary panel of Dominique Brossard and Mohammed Yahia to comment on a highly charged issue: for all of the effort of blogging, tweeting, engaging and good science communication citizenship on the net, done with good will, for free, are we quietly contributing to the vast incomes of underlying structures? Are these 'big society' efforts unwittingly giving faceless money making machines 'big profits'? 

Thursday, 26 June 2014

A bad case of measles

Priya Kurian & Debashish Munshi

There’s been a major outbreak of measles in the city we live in. Scores of children are in hospital; hundreds are in quarantine; at least two large high schools have been closed for brief periods; and several school sports teams have been asked to stay away from playing fields.

The rapid spread of the infectious disease that attacks the respiratory and immune systems has predictably re-ignited the debate on immunization of children. Nearly all the children affected are those who were not immunized at all and some who had only a single dose of the required two doses of the triple vaccine to prevent measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR). That the Waikato region of New Zealand has been affected is no surprise either as this region has the lowest immunization rates in the entire country, according to the Ministry of Health.

Resistance to immunization in some pockets of the population is fairly common in various parts of the world and has to do with differing public understandings of the science of immunization. The media often has a major role to play in how public understanding is shaped and framed.

An article in a recent issue of PUS looks at the media coverage of measles vaccination in the UK and China and shows how the approaches in the two countries are so different. The study by Jie Ren of the University of Science and Technology of China and Hans Peters, Joachim Allgaier, and Yin-Yueh Lo of the Research Center Julich of Germany shows that “the government-supported ‘mainstream position’ dominates the Chinese coverage while the British media frequently refer to criticism and controversy.”

As the authors point out, there is a dilemma “between the media functions of informing the media audience about relational risk behaviour, and providing an arena for public deliberation about risk”. The challenge is to balance two important needs – one to ensure the health outcomes for the community and the other to provide the space for people to make an informed choice about the options they have.

And yet, as Stacy Mintzer Herlihy comments in her blog, the problem with thinking about vaccinations as a matter of personal choice is that “that people are not just making a choice for themselves when they choose whether or not to vaccinate They are also choosing for other people as well. A significant subset of the population cannot get many vaccines. This includes small babies who do not produce an adequate immune response as well as those undergoing treatment for diseases such as cancer that may compromise their immune systems.”


Measles vaccinations became controversial after the publication of a research paper co-authored by Andrew Wakefield in a reputed medical journal in 1998 that suggested a link between the MMR vaccine and colitis and autism spectrum disorders. Although the mass media gave wide coverage to the findings of this paper, subsequent studies have refuted and discredited the claims of the paper, with Wakefield being struck off as a doctor in 2010. The paper itself was withdrawn by the journal a few years ago but the controversy lingers on. 

Saturday, 31 May 2014

Science and paradox

Debashish Munshi & Priya Kurian

Science is about testable knowledge, a way of explaining, through observation and experimentation, the ways in which physical matter and natural beings exist and function. A primary function of the processes of public engagement with science, therefore, is to explain things that might seem miraculous to an untrained eye. Inevitably, most school children figure out that earthquakes, lightning, and volcanic eruptions are not the work of wizards and witches.

Yet, some mysteries of life around us continue to mesmerise people, especially because they seem paradoxical and commonsense reasoning does not help decipher these mysteries. But, as physicist and scholar of public engagement of science Jim Al-Khalili says, systematic science education can show that what looks like a paradox is not one at all.

Al-Khalili was a star speaker at the Auckland Writers festival and we went along to hear him speak on ‘Science and the Big Questions’. His talk was largely based around his new book Paradox: The Nine Greatest Enigmas in Physics and he went on to show how some of the simplest solutions to paradoxical issues can actually be counter-intuitive.

In a relaxed and entertaining style, he went through some simple mathematical steps to show how the Monty Hall problem and the conundrum of the probability of choosing the prize behind one of three doors in a game show is not a paradox at all. Among the other paradoxes, Al-Khalili sets out to de-mystify in his book are those of Schr̦dinger's cat which appears to be dead and alive at the same time and the Grandfather Paradox which exercises the brain with the twisted conundrum of time travel Рyou could travel back in time and kill your grandfather but then you would not have been born and would not therefore have killed your grandfather.

Al-Khalili is a humanist and does not see the place of religion in a world of scientific inquiry. Indeed, he begins his interview with Radio New Zealand on his role as the president of the British Humanist society.

Interestingly, however, science and religion shared the spotlight at the Auckland Writers Festival. Another major draw at the festival was Reza Aslan, author of Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth and No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam, which focus on the historical figures of Jesus of Nazareth and Prophet Mohammed. Speaking about Zealot, Aslan said that he had to differentiate between theological truth and historical fact in his writing—a concern not dissimilar from the focus of science on establishing a truth based on empirical facts.

Wednesday, 30 April 2014

It's a matter of faith!

Priya Kurian & Debashish Munshi

Faith has often been seen as a point of divide between religion and science. While those with religious affiliations or affinities are guided by their faith in a spiritual being or beings to resolve social, cultural, economic, and even political issues, those on the side of science insist on proofs rather than mere conviction.

What then about faith in science and technology to solve every conceivable problem? Dubbed ‘the arrogance of humanism’ by Rutgers University professor of ecology David Ehrenfeld in an influential book by that title, such a humanistic faith in science, technology and reason is seen to underpin the ecological crisis the planet faces today. Humanism, according to Ehrenfeld, is “our irrational faith in the limitless power of human reason – its ability to confront and solve the many problems that humans face, its ability to rearrange both the world of Nature and the affairs of men and women so that human life will prosper.”

Transhumanism takes that faith to a new level. Indeed, it is the extreme faith in technological solutions and the ability of science to lead the planet to eternal bliss that defines transhumanism. Inspired no doubt by science fiction, transhumanists have long espoused the need to technologically deal with the challenges of life such as death, decay, and disease. They stand steadfastly in their faith in biotechnology, nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, or any new technology capable of facilitating human enhancement.

Yet, the faith transhumanists subscribe to is not the only kind of faith in science. In a forthcoming article in PublicUnderstanding of Science, John H. Evans of the University of California, San Diego, identifies at least three kinds of faith in science that people hold and goes on to discuss the implications of these types of faith on transhumanism. The data for Evans’ research comes from public opinion surveys conducted in 12 countries.

The three levels of faith Evans talks about are the faith in science to “provide meaning for society”; to “effectively solve any problem”; and “to solve problems in the physical world with technology”. These levels of faith differ across a number of variables such as age, education, financial status, education, and religious affiliation.

The exploration of the complex relationship between religion and transhumanism is an interesting feature of this article. At one level, religious people and transhumanists can be seen as living at two ends of a pole. But what unifies them somewhat is their faith. What Evans’ research shows is that religious people are least likely to adopt transhumanist beliefs but that “is primarily true if [transhumanism] is based upon a faith in science producing meaning”. 

However, if transhumanism were to become “a concrete solution to a consensual physical problem like human health”, its beliefs could attract the support of the religious.

A lot of the debate on the religion-science debate hinges on whether the belief system they represent are defined “doctrinally or empirically”, says James Hughes in his Metanexus blog. Hughes argues that transhumanism can be “compatible” with most world religions, and in fact, “the religious landscape of the future will range from the current prevailing bioconservative resistance to an enthusiastic embrace of transhuman possibilities.” 

A religious transhumanism then although seemingly a contradiction in terms is perhaps not surprising bringing together as it does a human capacity for faith—in religion, science or both. 

Sunday, 30 March 2014

My word!

Priya Kurian & Debashish Munshi

“Communication lies at the heart of public understanding of science,” we said in our last blog. But sometimes this communication manifests itself in the form of buzzwords that attempt to capture the public’s imagination on new and emerging technologies.

The politics of buzzwords, as indeed the economics of buzzwords, are the focus of a thought-provoking article by Bernadette Bensaude Vincent in the latest issue of Public Understanding ofScience. What purpose do “fashionable stereotyped phrases such as ‘public engagement in science’, ‘responsible innovation’, ‘green technology’, or ‘personalised medicine’” serve in discussions on science and technology, Vincent asks.

Buzzwords, according to Vincent, go beyond the merely scientific issues around a technology; they create a linguistic laboratory where an alchemic understanding is created that almost magically blends science with politics, business and economics.  In the process, they serve to smoothen out controversies, contradictions and challenges, acting as “pacifiers” that subvert the possibilities for change by overcoming dissent and avoiding “clashes of values.” Such words don’t have philological roots nor do they convey any depth of meaning. But they serve a pragmatic purpose in creating what Vincent calls a “‘trading zone’ that allows different stakeholders to communicate.”

Pragmatic is an operative word here. Words are not neutral units of language. They are political domains that are contested. Let’s take the example of the term ‘genetic engineering’ which has evoked polarised reactions from those who are for it and those that are against. Given the massive protests against genetic engineering of food in different parts of the world, this term has slowly gone behind the shadows although research and practice of this technology continues as ever before. Instead, we hear more of the term ‘synthetic biology’ which is not as politically loaded as ‘genetic engineering’ is.

But is ‘synthetic biology’ much different from ‘genetic engineering’? In linguistic terms, they are pretty close but the connotations are nowhere near as similar. People don’t know as much about synthetic biology and, as a result, research in the field is much less controversial.

Talking of synthetic biology, the BBCreported this week the “creation of the first synthetic chromosome for yeast in a landmark for biological engineering.” The BBC quoted the research team leader, Dr Jef Boeke of the Langone Medical Centre at New York University, as describing the achievement as "moving the needle in synthetic biology from theory to reality."
This, according to an article in the Independent, is a “milestone development in synthetic biology, which promises to revolutionise medical and industrial biotechnology in the coming century.” 

Note the bracketing of medical and industrial – science, medicine, business, and industry are no longer separate domains. Buzzwords work in making this nexus easier.

Thursday, 20 February 2014

Cross-fertilization of ideas


Debashish Munshi & Priya Kurian

Have you noticed what happens when a physicist sits at the same table with a psychologist; a biologist with an artist; a technocrat with an environmental activist; a bureaucrat with a bioethicist; a nanotechnologist with a social scientist; a West-trained theorist with an indigenous scholar; or a policy practitioner with an academic? The language of communication changes as each person moves away from the loaded jargon of one field to reach out to the other. 

Communication lies at the heart of public understanding of science. The two of us saw communication blossoming when we brought together natural and physical scientists, social scientists, indigenous scholars, artists, poets, activists, and policy practitioners at an international symposium on transforming public engagement on controversial science and technology at the University of Waikato this week.

All the participants had something to say on new and emerging technologies ranging from nanotechnology, synthetic biology, and genetic engineering to gene mapping and assisted reproductive technologies. But, confronted as they were with a wide variety of other points of view, they had an opportunity to reflect on their own positions and engage in unique forms of deliberation. They each made an attempt to listen to and understand the other and re-formulate their own articulations.

One of the keynote speakers at the symposium, Professor Shaun Hendy, an award-winning scientist and science communicator, emphasised that the “value of scientific knowledge depends on the context – the better scientists are at providing the context, the better public understanding of science will be.” A more detailed account of Professor Hendy’s talk can be found in Peter Griffin’s Science Media Centre blog while a summary of the policy engagement session on science communication is available in Dr Alison Campbell’s BioBlog

Indeed, the highlight of the symposium were the six policy engagement sessions which followed panel presentations on the themes of ‘citizenship and deliberative democracy’; ‘science communication’; ‘new technologies and ethics’; ‘indigenous science’; ‘science-society interface’; and ‘designing public engagement’. It is at these engagement sessions that people from a variety of disciplines and backgrounds with a shared interest in potentially controversial new technologies deliberated and worked on establishing a common ground among what initially seemed like polarised views.

The tone of the symposium was set by Professor John Dryzek of the Australian National University who made the point that “deliberative democracy rests on the idea that democratic legitimacy depends on the right, opportunity, and capacity of those subject to a collective decision to participate in consequential deliberation about its content”. 

In another keynote address, indigenous scholar Associate Professor Kim TallBear of the University of Texas at Austin presented a powerful critique of the “unethical technoscientific research done on indigenous people by scientists whose assumptions and goals are shaped by a colonial mindset”. This keynote was followed by a stimulating session on “critical indigenous views on biocolonialism and the impact of new technologies” led by Associate Professor Leonie Pihama of the Te Kotahi Research Institute. The symposium had a strong Maori participation. In thought-provoking engagement sessions led by Sandy Morrison and Maui Hudson of the University of Waikato, participants suggested that the very process of decision making on scientific funding should be flipped so as to be driven by community needs and social justice commitments rather than narrowly defined economic gain. The symposium also featured a kapa haka performance by students of the Tai Wananga, a school dedicated to the teaching of science and innovation with a strong Maori perspective. The performance was coached and choreographed by their teacher, Talei Morrison, who herself recently completed Masters research on ‘Maori perspectives on new and emerging technologies’. 

The final keynote was by Professor Lyn Kathlene of the Spark Policy Institute, USA, who talked about the need for “contextual creativity” to shape public engagement. “Flexibility, out-of-the-box thinking, and a willingness to venture into unknown territory are necessary ingredients to designing a process that works for both policy planners and citizens”, she said. 

Indeed, nurturing contextual creativity was the goal of the symposium. If the cross-disciplinary conversations are an indication, participants would have made several steps towards this goal.

Thursday, 13 February 2014

A rose by any other name?


Debashish Munshi & Priya Kurian

It’s Valentine’s Day and quite a bit of the discussion around the most romantic day of the Western calendar in recent times has been on the future of Love in a technological age.  Can human love survive when more and more people seem to be so infatuated with their technological gadgets that they have little time to think about the finer points of long-term relationships?

The Sunday magazine of New Zealand’s Sunday Star-Times, in its most recent issue, features the views of a neuroethicist, a futurist, and a philosopher on what it might be to be ‘in love’ in the years ahead. In piecing together their views in an article called “The Love Equation”, Rose Hoare talks about a wide range of possibilities ranging from chemical sprays to keep wavering couples monogamous to “nano-neural interfacing” that allows people “to share thoughts and memories”.

While traditional characteristics of what it is to be human are rapidly disappearing amidst the onslaught of technology, new characteristics are emerging that are blurring the lines between human and artificial intelligence. Regardless of where we are headed, love will still have a place in some form or the other. Hoare cites the French philosopher Alan Badiou as describing love as something that allows an individual to see beyond oneself. And self-fulfilment comes only when one can see oneself reflected in another being. A ‘selfie’ on a flash new smartphone can never be a substitute.

Yet, the question raised by the new Hollywood science fiction movie Her is whether self-fulfilment can be achieved through a relationship with another being that is not necessarily biologically human but a computer operating system much like the Siri of iphones. The male character of the movie is emotionally and psychologically drawn to the voice of ‘Her’ – she not only keeps pace with the man’s emotions but in many ways gallops ahead of him. Can that be love?

At the dawn of the 21st century, another science fiction movie, AI, had a memorable scene where a woman asks a professor: “It occurs to me with all this animus existing against Mechas [robots] today it isn't just a question of creating a robot that can love. Isn't the real conundrum, can you get a human to love them back?” Her suggests that humans can indeed “love” software-generated beings back but can the human-machine love continue to be based on 20th century notions of love based on integrity, respect, even monogamy? 

Science fiction of our times can sometimes be a crystal ball one can gaze into and prepare for the future. With limited avenues for the public to engage with decision-making on new technologies, science fiction is, for better or for worse, a resource to stimulate thinking about science and the future of society.