Microsoft’s ‘Future Visions’ sees sci-fi authors imagine future of Cortana, HoloLens, & more

In an on-foot pursuit of a fleeing suspect, a cop’s smart glasses are able to detect the assailant as she hides behind a rock.

Taking the stand in a mock trial, an artificial intelligence avatar representing an alien race answers questions about their far-away world’s decision to actively seek out other intelligent life forms in the universe.

No, these aren’t scenes from the next Star Wars movie set for release in December. They’re out of Future Visions: Original Science Fiction Stories Inspired by Microsoft. Set for released on Tuesday, the e-book is the result of Microsoft inviting some of the most prominent science-fiction authors today to visit its research labs and write short stories based on their experience.

The scenes described above are from a graphic novel by Blue Delliquanti and Michele Rosenthal, and a short story by Toronto-based author Robert J. Sawyer. Others contributing to the e-book are Elizabeth Bear, Greg Bear, David Brin, Nancy Kress, Ann Leckie, Jack McDevitt, and Seanan McGuire.

An excerpt from the short graphic novel in Future Visions – A Cop’s Eye. Click for larger size.

“When we first came up with this idea, the nervousness we had was ‘are science fiction writers going to want to do this?'” says Allison Linn, a storyteller at Microsoft Research and one of the leads on the project. “It turns out, they were really excited about it.”

In what could be described as a content marketing project that shot for the stars, Linn’s team reached out to its publisher to recommend a list of prominent science fiction authors that it could invite to contribute. In March, Microsoft reached out to the agents of the authors on its wishlist and “people just started saying yes immediately,” Linn says. While some had to decline because of scheduling issues, the overall response was positive.

Part of the lure was opportunity to visit with one of Microsoft’s research labs. Authors were allowed to choose what lab they’d spend a day visiting based on the technology they were most interested in. Greg Bear wanted to see the quantum computing lab, David Brin the predictive analytics team.

“We wanted to just let them come in and experience what they experience and let them run with it,” Linn says. “It’s what the writers wanted to write. We didn’t give them any sort of parameters.”

The wide-range of authors in Future Visions results in a collection of very different views of the future. The Delliquanti/Rosenthal graphic novel reads like a cop buddy movie starring a Cortana-esque virtual assistant that also combines with HoloLens-style glasses worn by a police officer investigating a missing person. Sawyer’s work examines a real philosophical debate held by those who run the Search for Extra-terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) program. Should we as a species announce our presence to the universe, or just quietly listen for others?

One common thread that Linn noticed in the works of the various authors is the high attention to detail that was paid in making the technology seem realistic. “They wanted to be grounded in accurate science and make sure what they were saying was true to the research,” she says.

Future Visions features illustrations by Joey Camacho.
Future Visions features illustrations by Joey Camacho.

With this free e-book, Linn wanted to continue Microsoft’s approach of non-traditional storytelling, she says, and hopes to engage people. Plus, it offered a way to highlight the work of Microsoft researchers that we don’t often talk about because it’s still so early in development. For example, quantum computing could one day fundamentally change the capabilities of computers, but researchers working on it now may never see that occur in their own lifetime.

While the range of stories in the e-book is diverse, it lacks a more dystopian view of where technology could take humanity in the future. There’s no sinister computer akin to HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Nor is there nanotechnology that threatens to consume the world as it does in Michael Crichton’s Prey. Instead, stories posit a more beneficial relationship between people and game-changing technologies such as AI, surveillance, and predictive analytics.

Microsoft didn’t dissuade any dystopian approach, Linn says. Instead, she suspects the optimism of Microsoft’s researchers had an effect on the authors.

“Researchers see their work as augmenting the human experience,” she says. “A lot of science fiction writers feel that way too.”

Microsoft’s Future Visions is free to download in full starting Tuesday.

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Brian Jackson
Brian Jackson
Former editorial director of IT World Canada. Current research director at Info-Tech

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