Written by Dr. Pippa Malmgren, manufacturer of AI-led aerial robotics at her firm H Robotics and former Presidential Advisor and Jessica Fox, Artist-in-residence at the UK Centre for Synthetic Mammalian Biology and former Storyteller at NASA.

Pippa Malmgren speaking at the Huxley SummitDr. Pippa Malmgren speaking at the 2017 Huxley Summit

Science and technology take us into new, undiscovered places and help shape our experience of the world. But, all this technology is advancing faster than the ability of most people to comprehend it. Even those who actively try to stay informed, cannot keep up – AI, robotics, quantum computing, gene splicing, new materials, neural networks, brain prosthetics, blockchain, holographic worlds…the list goes on. The problem is that a lot of scientists can’t, or won’t, explain what they are doing in plain English and the public can’t or won’t learn the complicated science. The result is an impasse that holds both technology and humanity back. But we think there is a way to break this impasse – storytelling. 

There are real examples around us everywhere. For example, the world will comprehend more about virtual reality (VR) from watching Steven Spielberg’s upcoming film, Ready Player One, than from any actual VR product that is on the market so far. With this film, Spielberg is telling us that it is now safe to enter that world, that we have already entered it, and that what happens to us there is in many ways as old as the Arthurian tales and as exciting as getting the golden ticket to Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory.

The mythologist Joseph Campbell said a functional mythology should put us in harmony with the scientific knowledge of our times. Science and arts are symbiotic and should work together. Stories at best, help us communicate the world as it is. As it was. And as it could be. But, just as nature abhors a vacuum, humans cannot live in a story-less reality. If there isn’t a ‘story’, people will make one up. This is how Hollywood has emerged as the current ‘chief storyteller’ of our science-led, high-tech future.

While Spielberg movies remain optimistic in their portrayal of the power of science, there are many more Hollywood stories offering a much bleaker vision. In the future, it rains permanently, the economy is dead, robots are always trying to harm you and the only love around is supplied by a software program. This seems entirely at odds with the fourth industrial revolution which is solving serious problems in every quarter at an extraordinary pace. How do we tackle this image of the future that science will create? The solution is to appoint more storytellers who are both technically literate and expressively savvy.

 Director Steven Spielberg (far left) and Ernest Cline with the cast of Ready Player One at San Diego Comic-ConThe 'Ready Player One' cast speaking at 2017 San Diego Comic Con International. Image credit: Gage Skidmore from Peoria, AZ, USA via Wikimedia Commons

Every company, and perhaps even every country, needs a ‘chief storyteller’ who can guide us into the future. Tech and science experts may meet this idea with disdain, or worse, they may not be able to deliver a story at all. This is because of a long-standing problem that we now need to address. C.P. Snow explained it beautifully in his 1959 Rede Lecture, The Two Cultures. He said we have two communities that cannot speak to each other. One group can explain the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics but can’t quote Shakespeare or see why that might be useful. The other group can quote Shakespeare but has no idea about the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics, nor do they see why that might be useful. Sometime during The Great Enlightenment, the arts and sciences stopped speaking to each other, and society is paying a high price for this. Snow was especially well-placed to make the case because he was both a scientist and a novelist.

However, when we think of stories we often assume the audience are children, right? Wrong. Bruno Bettelheim, the eminent child psychologist in Uses of Enchantment explains that from a young age we intuitively understand that while a story may not be real, it is not untrue. That relationship with stories and processing the knowledge and wisdom they communicate is something we continue all the way into adulthood, as Even Aristotle, master of pure reason, said: “The friend of wisdom is also a friend of myth.”

One of the earliest mythological traditions known is the Epic of Gilgamesh. Its punchline and the ending of Gilgamesh’s heroic journey (spoiler alert) is both deeply profound and ironic. After his best friend dies, Gilgamesh launches an epic search for immortality, something that many hope today’s AI-led science can finally conquer. Unable to find the key to eternal life, his journey ends. But, his story is written into a tree and then told for generations, thus gaining him everlasting life not in body but in literature. In essence, one of the earliest known narratives tells us a truth so obvious we often forget it, especially in this modern age of paradigm shifting science, exploration and technology: Stories. Are. Everything. 

Gilgamesh - Layard ReliefOne of the earliest mythological traditions known is the Epic of Gilgamesh

Stories by their very nature are not an evolving medium but a revolving one. They are repeated, recycled and upcycled throughout time, while science is another beast entirely. It does evolve and is evolving fast. The best scientists are always storytellers and in turn, many of our greatest storytellers focus on science, from H.G. Wells to William Gibson and Mary Shelley. Arthur C. Clarke partnered with Gentry Lee, head of NASA’s head of planetary missions, for many of his books. Science and the arts were not always this disparate.

What made the great physicist Richard Feynman so compelling? Of course, he was an extraordinary scientist. But it was his ability to explain science to an ordinary person in an exciting and compelling way that made him a historic figure. Remember his O rings in ice and his Ode to the Flower? The stories he told in the classroom were so compelling, his students begged him to put them into a book, leading to the publication of Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman - an instant classic.

Einstein’s genius was that he could do the science and explain the theory behind it, no matter how complex. He used language which a regular person could comprehend: think of his “spooky action at a distance.” He too tried to nudge scientists toward better explanations: “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” Massachusetts Institute of Technology knows this all too well and is one of the first universities to create a Master’s degree programme solely dedicated to science writing and communication. We need more of this.

Thankfully, the public desperately want to hear the storytellers. Carl Sagan, Jakob Bronowski and Jacques Cousteau are still vividly remembered. Look at the massive success of today’s scientific storytellers like Sir David Attenborough, Michio KakuNeil deGrasse Tyson. However, we’d like to see some more women added to the list. There have been many. Hedy Lamar brought glamour to the screen, telling stories through acting but was also inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame for her discovery of the technology that now underpins Bluetooth and frequency-hopping.  Look at the explosion of interest in sci-fi writing. People are downloading podcasts, online courses and YouTube videos on science in greater volumes than ever.

All this is why NASA decided to send Christa McAuliffe into space. NASA knew the best way to capture public imagination was to get a teacher, a good communicator, to join and translate the mission. Perhaps because that particular story ended so badly, there has been a shying away from storytelling? But, NASA still has a story to tell. That’s why they commissioned Jay O’Callahan, an oral storyteller, to create the first ever spoken story for a government organisation. Jay’s story Forged in the Stars travelled across the US and is available both on YouTube and the radio. NASA understands they are beneficiaries of taxpayer funds and therefore must explain and justify what they are doing. There is no better way to do this than by crafting good solid narratives that people can easily comprehend. Christa McAuliffe’s legacy lives on.

 Christa McAuliffeChrista McAuliffe was the first American civilian to into space. Image credit: NASA

But, these generalists are not enough. Today, private firms are at the forefront of innovation. They are trying to offer new products and ideas to consumers that arise from new science. So, they need someone internally who can not only explain the benefits that the new technology offers but also craft the narrative. Having an artist within an organisation – as the Centre for Synthetic Mammalian Biology in Edinburgh University found – not only increases the capacity for in-departmental communication and public engagement but allows an organisation to stay on course and retain its identity through massive changes.

This is not something a firm’s PR agency can do. They can help position a story. But firms must figure out for themselves what the story is. That’s what the famed management guru Peter Drucker always said. It is not enough to be profitable. That’s required. If you are not profitable, you are dead. Beyond that, the real question, he said, is “what social purpose does the firm serve?" In other words, “what’s your story?” Without that, Drucker said, no brand can be sustained. Customer loyalty cannot be sustained. The only way to convey social purpose is to explain with stories. He went even further and counselled leaders to always remember that “The most important thing in communication is hearing what isn’t said.” Subtlety is part of both a storyteller’s and a listener’s skills.

We live in a world where we prize rational, level-headed, quantitative-based scientific analysis. So, arguing for the soft, qualitative, touchy-feely business of storytelling won’t sit well with the hard-nosed, hard-headed crowd. But, those same folks are losing the argument as the public react against science fearing a dystopian future. Fears are being fuelled by Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking who keep saying that scientific advancements will literally kill us. But, AI is also going to save us by potentially solving the cancer problem and by making everything vastly more efficient. Both stories have truth in them but which will capture the public imagination? It will be the story that is better told.

It is deeply ironic that we lost our storytelling skills because of a technological advancement. In his book, The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962), Marshall McLuhan said the advent of the Gutenberg printing press killed off our oral traditions, thus eroding our storytelling skills. He argued that the medium is the message – the very linear process of reading identically printed typeface caused humans to become ever more linear in their thought process. This linear, more binary thinking ultimately led to the “Great Enlightenment” where we became rational and scientific. While that gave rise to truly great advancements, it also further dimmed our interest in stories. The emphasis on a linear and entirely visual delivery also caused all our other senses to atrophy, except for vision. We became worse listeners too. That is why, he said, we like icons so much now. An icon is a visual compression of information. Today’s business leaders entirely embrace this visual approach, relying on brand logos to tell the story and create the emotional reaction that engenders trust. But a logo alone cannot explain the complexity of today’s technological changes.

How we tell stories is fast changing too. We used to use static advertisements in newspapers, still photos in magazines, graphs on PowerPoints and brand logos to explain our businesses. Today more is needed to capture the public imagination like holographic images on mixed reality platforms, short moving films, social media hashtags, moving graphs and advertisements that are responsive to the person who happens to be watching; and in a handful of years those methods will all be outdated. Storytelling itself continues to be transformed by new technology.

Man filming storyFrom holographs to dynamic content & video: the way we tell stories is continually evolving

Storytelling’s most important function is to give voice to the imagination. Unless we can imagine the future, we cannot participate in it very easily. As William Gibson put it, “the future is already here but for some more than for others.”

Why does imagination matter? Without it we are no longer the creators of the future. People keep being surprised by events, by technology, by the fast pace at which the future is pulling us all forward. Surprises cause people to resist and become reactionary. Rather they face change, they’ll try to avoid it or to return to a past they were more comfortable in. They’ll want to make it rain in the future, as Hollywood shows us. They’ll want to go back to the past and “Make America great again” instead of making it great “in the future.” Ingenuity and innovation are impossible without imagination. We would do well to follow the advice the Queen of Hearts gives Alice in Wonderland. She says, “try to imagine at least six impossible things before breakfast every day.” Perhaps the impossible has happened often enough in recent years that we should consider this advice more seriously?

Stories are our mental yoga. They keep our minds flexible, our imagination well sparked, and our ability to think outside the box well practised. Stories also are the optimum carrier for all kinds of information. They capture and spur the imagination in ways that dry academic scientific papers can never hope to do. If science wants to attract the greatest minds, more resources and support, the scientists will need to welcome storytellers into their world. They’ll need to teach scientists to explain in ways others can understand. They’ll need to welcome all the childlike questions that their stories will inevitably bring.

Books"Stories are our mental yoga. They keep our minds flexible & our imagination well sparked"

This raises a profound issue which science is not addressing soundly enough. Is science a body of facts? Or, is science a way of asking ever- better questions? The former approach demands hallowed respect and intensive rote learning but does not make it easy to achieve or explain dramatic breakthroughs. The latter makes science something everyone can participate in. It leaves the subject as a whole open to anyone who asks good questions. As Feynman put it, “I would rather have questions that can't be answered than answers that can't be questioned.” This more inclusive approach stands a better chance of smashing through technological barriers and carrying the public into the future.

The only solution is for firms to be better at telling the never-ending story of who you are and what values you represent. To support their knowledge management activities, NASA created the post of ‘chief storyteller’ despite a squeezed budget. With technology changes and priorities dependent on fluctuating political administrations agendas, NASA saw the need for preserving their identity, mission and knowledge through storytellers. Start-ups today are paving the way with new positions like CNO, ‘Chief Narrative Officer.’ Nike started the trend back in the 1990s. SAP started the role in 2013. Larger organisations are finding ways to allow their audience to tell their own stories and hiring brand ambassadors.

Nations also have stories to tell in this new era of technology. The US is the land of innovation. But, President Putin says the new space race is for mastery of AI and quantum computing. The Chinese agree and are building a quantum computing facility that will soon have one million times the total computational capacity of the entire planet today. Now that’s a hell of a story. It’s one which the US, so far, cannot better.

Today, some may think that storytelling and science don’t belong in the same sentence. Instead, it’s like two lovers who no longer speak. However, classically they were entwined, like a graph and its derivative. The story would be the shape, the information the slope, and the words would carry the truth to the ear.  Stories and science are intrinsically connected, both are creative pursuits that aim to observe, react to and explain our world. Both would be better off, and society would be richer by any measure if the sciences and the arts embraced again.

This article arose from a presentation at British Science Association’s Huxley Summit held at the Royal Institution in November 2017 and a panel discussion on AI at the Milken Summit in London called Pardon the Disruption: Weighing the Impact of A.I.