Science Fiction in a Reality Check

May to July 2016
With the format »Science Fiction in a Reality Check« we invited scientists to pick up aspects of their research that are relevant in pop culture and to discuss them with the audience. We therefore combined movie showings with talks and discussions between scientists and the public.

How much science is there in science fiction films? Neurotechnology, Robotics and Artificial Intelligence: we invited high school and university students to watch movies and series on these topics and to discuss them with scientists. Five researchers of the Cluster of Excellence BrainLinks-BrainTools of the University of Freiburg rose to the challenge. In BrainLinks-BrainTools, scientists work on technical devices communicating with the brain in order to treat neurological diseases. To aim this goal, they also work on robots and learning algorithms. The research on neurotechnologies raises hopes and anxieties at the same time. These concerns and dreams are openly addressed in the science fiction genre.

Cooperation Partners
Kommunales Kino Freiburg, aka-Filmclub e.V., Bernstein Center Freiburg
Target Group
Students and pupils older than 16, general public

A film series
about neurotechnology,
Robotics and
Artificial Intelligence

A robot with consciousness, manipulated memories or avatars remote-controlled by the brain: these ideas from science fiction films appear within reach of today's technological progress. But what do researchers working on robots, neurotechnologies and artificial intelligence think about it? Which developments are in store for us, which are completely unlikely and which ones are desired at all? Science fiction films often contain technologies that make use of scientific visions. Whether Jules Verne, Isaac Asimov or Georges Lucas – all of them use today's science as a source for their visions of the technology of the future. This is how stories about atomic submarines, swarm robots or prosthetic bodies came about.

These films shed light on the limits of what is ethically justifiable and often reveal possible negative consequences of technology visions. However, they also raise excessive hopes of what will be possible in the future. But how do scientists who develop technologies like robots or prostheses feel about these visions? Five scientists from the BrainLinks-BrainTools Cluster of Excellence at the University of Freiburg answered these questions and those of the audience. At five events in May, June and July 2016, spectators were able to watch four films and an episode from a series and discuss them with experts. Subsequently, discussion groups aimed especially at older pupils made it possible to deepen individual topics. The screenings took place in the municipal cinema and within the framework of the aka-Filmclub Freiburg. The format was picked up again at the Science+Fiction Festival in Basel in 2017, where Prof. Dr. Wolfram Burgard from BrainLinks-BrainTools presented his ideas on the film »Robot and Frank«, in which the main character persuades a care robot to plan a robbery with him.

Transcendence with Prof. Dr. Oliver Müller (Philosophy)
Movie and discussion
USA, 2014, OmU, Director: Wally Pfister, 119 min
Kommunales Kino Freiburg
In this film from 2015, a scientist develops an advanced quantum computer that undergoes a form of singularity or »transcendence«. When he is mortally wounded during a terrorist attack, he manages to upload his mind to his computer just in the nick of time. The all powerful quantum computer quickly becomes a threat to his wife. We discussed with Prof. Dr. Oliver Müller the ramifications and current relevance of these notions. How realistic is this transhumanist dream of immortality through technology and how can it be incorporated into society?
Ex Machina with Prof. Dr. Wolfram Burgard (Robotics and Artificial Intelligence)
Movie and discussion
UK, 2014, OmU, Director: Alex Garland, 108 min
Aka-Filmclub Freiburg
In this 2015 Academy Award winning, sci-fi chamber play, a software developer tests an alluring female robot for its human likeness and finds himself positioned between the robot and its inventor. Prof. Dr. Wolfram Burgard will explain the likelihood of an android of those characteristics being developed. He explained the current state of the art in robotics and the problems with the popular notion of artificial intelligence.
The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind with Dr. Philipp Kellmeyer (Neurology)
Movie and discussion
USA, 2004, OmU, Director: Michel Gondry, 104 min
Kommunales Kino
What is a memory? How valuable is it, and can it be deliberately altered? Within a grippingly convoluted love story, this 2004 film plays with the possibility of mental contents being manipulated through neurotechnology. With Dr. Philipp Kellmeyer we discussed whether memories could be altered today or in the future.
Surrogates with Prof. Dr. Ulrich Hofmann (Neurotechnology)
Movie and discussion
USA, 2009, OmU, Director: Jonathan Mostow, 88 min Kommunales Kino Freiburg
Bruce Willis stays at home and lets a thought-controlled robot take care of the »action«. With an unlikely plot, this 2009 film portrays a future where humans only continue to walk the streets as »surrogates« for safety purposes. This obviously turns out badly and Bruce Willis saves the world. In the age of remote-controlled drones, this technology follows a familiar premise. We discussed with Prof. Dr. Ulrich Hofmann whether virtual reality technology, and mainly Brain Machine Interfacing, could bring us to this world: where does immersion start and how far does it go? Where are the limits set for us by this technology, and can we circumvent them? Is it worth it to conduct research with this purpose? Finally, we will all address the question: do we want such a world?
Black Mirror: White Christmas with Prof. Dr. Stefan Rotter (Computational Neuroscience)
Series highlight episode with discussion
UK, 2014, OmU, Director: Carl Tibbets
in cooperation with Bernstein Center Freiburg,
In social networks, unpleasant comments can be removed relatively quickly from your own newsfeed. But what if in this way we could specifically banish people from our own perception? The British series Black Mirror exaggerates the everyday life of our computer use, moves it into the future and thus holds the viewer in front of the proverbial mirror. In the episode »White Christmas« it is possible to share one's own perception with others via neuroimplants. Unwanted persons are quickly blocked. Access to other parts of the brain makes it possible to make software copies of a person according to the same principle. But how far is the series' vision of the future from reality? Together with Prof. Dr. Stefan Rotter from the Bernstein Center Freiburg, we investigated this question during this event.

In our DIY section we have summarized, how you can design your own Science Fiction in a Reality Check event.

Cooperation Partners
04   Experiment