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Climate-caused migration will overwhelm the planet – sci-fi author

Sci-fi has always been about taking a peek into the future. But the fantasy scripts being conjured up today are more about nightmares than dreams. So, why do we paint such a dark future for ourselves? Or is the fear justified? We talked about this with bestselling science-fiction author Frank Schaetzing.

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Sophie Shevardnadze: Frank, it's really great to have you with us. So, when you write science fiction, it's basically based on reality and foreseeing the future. Do you feel like sci-fi is a tool to shape the future? Can it shape the future?

Frank Schaetzing: I think it always has been like that. If you look back to Isaac Asimov, who invented the laws of the robots, he did that in the end of the 60s, and this is exactly what we are now at the moment currently talking about when we talk about artificial intelligence and robotics. And we know that the idea of the touchscreen came first from 2001: a Space Odyssey. So technologically there is a lot science fiction authors bring in that later scientists develop for common use. From a philosophical point of view, I'm sceptical ‘cause neither have I found the dystopias we had in science fiction, for example, like Orwell did it, nor have I found the utopias. So I think reality is much more complex, and it always develops in another way than you would have thought.

SS: It does, doesn't it? Because when I was a kid growing up, I was so keen on space exploration. It was like the huge era of Soviet cosmonauts, American astronauts, and every science fiction writer was writing about how our future is gonna be interstellar, living on Mars, on the Moon. And to be quite honest, I'm a little pissed, because my future turned out to be in a screen of a phone.

FS: So am I. I mean, 2001, the year 2000 was meant to be a huge step into a marvellous future. So all the science fiction authors in the 70s, 60s, 80s even told us that we're living together with aliens, the Galactic Confederation, that there is global governance, which will rule us, and all these things. What happens? We got George W. Bush, Donald Trump and Kim Kardashian. So it gets worse than we could imagine. And nothing happened. We still have wars, we’re still living on a planet in national states. So this was a bit disappointing. I agree.

SS: But if you look at the science fiction ideas today, what science fiction ideas do you think will be relevant in the future reality of tomorrow?

FS: Well, I think at the moment, we are not talking about the real bad dystopian visions anymore. But we're talking a lot about artificial intelligence. And we started to talk about how extraterrestrial life really could look like. If you look at early science fiction, you find out that the aliens more or less always were humans. So they symbolised and characterised some of our best or most negative behaviours, but they never really were aliens. They were in the Cold War, when the Americans did science fiction movie the aliens mostly – sorry for that – were Russians because they were afraid of Russians so that was the source of the alien invasion movies. And later on with Steven Spielberg, they stood for sort of neo-religion. So they were kind of angels coming from the skies much wiser than we are and so on. So I think because we are dealing with artificial intelligence, which is so totally different from our way of thinking, and the opportunity that one day maybe machines get a consciousness, and at this point, they are  very different from us, it will be very difficult for us to deal with them. We start thinking about what comes on to us in films like Ex Machina, for instance — I’m sure you have seen it. Or Her — that was the one that is with Scarlett Johansson. It's just –

SS: Oh, Her? Yes.

FS: Her. I think you've seen that one. Or Arrival, have you seen Arrival? With the aliens, first, they are peaceful, second, they’re really completely different from us so that we do not understand them. And it's about communication.

SS: So you think that could be part of the real future?

FS: I think so.

SS: So if there are in some shape or form aliens, it will be something that is completely different from a human race and not necessarily evil, right?

FS: Yes, but now, at the moment, currently, scientists tend again that if there’d be a contact, physical contact with aliens, that in most cases, it wouldn't be peaceful. There’s an interesting trilogy at the moment from a Chinese author — I always forget his name, but it’s Cixin Liu, I think, he is, — of the three Suns. And he talks about how it is to live in an unknown universe together with millions, maybe billions of intelligent civilisations, and everyone is very, very afraid of the others. And so the both of us we can meet, we talk to each other, and very quickly, we find out that we can be friends. But if you talk about another civilisation, which lives maybe in another galaxy, it is very hard to communicate. So once that we really physically meet, I think there will be a lot of mystery in each other and everybody is protecting himself and maybe they think about striking first. So we should be maybe lucky not to meet them.

SS: We're going to get to the artificial intelligence and what that can bring humanity, but before that I want to talk a little bit about what you do exactly, which is writing great science fiction, but Swarm and The Tyranny of the Butterfly – those are books that depict a scary future. Not all sci-fi books are scary. So I was going ask you, so is it really for entertainment only? Is human fear a necessary condition for entertainment?

FS: Well, our nature is that we are fearsome and, on the same hand, that we are very afraid, we're always anxious. So in order, because of our fears, we try to be fearsome to scare the others. And I think our nature is that we run away. So we panic, panic is, for instance, something that helped us to survive. So we are afraid of a lot of things.

SS: So if you had to say, humans are more excited about the future, or more afraid of the future, which one would you choose?

FS: At the moment they are very afraid of the future. It always depends on the time we live in. Directly after the Second World War, there was still the threat of the Cold War, everybody was afraid of atom bombs. But at the same time, when we started to overcome it a bit, so after the Cuban crisis, and nothing happened, and then the Russians and the Americans started to talk to each other. And that was a time when we started to get very optimistic, that- what we've been talking about that in the beginning, that all of a sudden there were Star Wars, then E.T. [E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial], then the very positive visions of Steven Spielberg saying, ‘No, they will be peaceful’, and there is a glorious future waiting for us because now we are in the technology age.’ And so we were very optimistic about the future. In these days, now, my impression is that people are afraid of nearly everything. Wherever you are in the world, you have populism. You have these new leaders, who are giving very under-complex answers to people without education, people full of fears, who do not really understand how the world is developing, who do not understand the new technologies, like artificial intelligence, and are just afraid of losing their jobs. You have a climate crisis, which means that you have lots of migrants. First of all, we had migrants coming for political reasons. But now we see that in the near future probably you will get lots of migrants coming because of climate change. So there are a lot of things people get very afraid of and they wish back a past, never having existed, but being promised by the popular leaders. And I see it in these days, whenever I talk to people about hope and optimism, and about good technologies, it’s like a reflex, they say, ‘No, that's all bad.’ So we need to do something about it.

SS: Do you think a future can at any point be defined by anything else than economics? Because if you look at it, economic necessity is the driver for innovation. I mean, people knew that cars pollute, people knew that pumping oil isn't like a great thing. But they kept doing it to gain money.

FS: But they didn't know that it was dangerous to them or to anyone else.

SS: But that was still an economic driver. Now we're real about climate change, and we understand we need to go green. And so the money goes about being green, it's still an economic necessity. It's still like an economic driver. Do you think something else that economics can ever define the future? Or is economics always the primary source that defines the future?

FS: They can in a massive way. But you need the support of millions and millions of people, of course. Politicians and economical leaders alone can't do it because if they haven't got the support… And then again, you need to tell people that they have to change their way of thinking, maybe their life philosophy, because, of course, a lot of people will lose their jobs by changing things. But maybe isn't that an interesting vision that one day we will say, overcoming of work, as we know it today, is something very good because it gave us the opportunity to develop our empathy with other people...

SS: Empathy with yourself to start with.

FS: Be more humanistic! In a rich land, like we are here in Germany, we do not afford enough personnel for the old and for ill people. We have so much money, but these people are extremely underpaid, those who help ill people, old people. So why is it like that? Because everybody's busy. So maybe we should change our way of thinking. And you had another question, I didn't really answer it. I think that a global change will come anyway. Yes. And now, if you really act- And therefore, I'm so grateful, thankful that the young people at the moment are going to the street because we haven't had that for decades that young people went on protesting. Now they do. We should fight global warming, but I also think we should have a plan B if we don't make it. Because if the global warming comes and if the chain reaction comes–

SS: There is no plan B unless you want to colonise Mars.

FS: There is no plan B! Now imagine that in 20 years you have a situation like we don't have only two degrees, or maybe three degrees warmer than today. What does it mean? First of all, it means that the weather changes, yes, you’ll have more storms in our region. It means that the permafrost, not only the currents in the oceans, but the continental shelves and the permafrost regions if ice vanishes there, that means that a lot of methane gets into the air and then you get a climate shock. And that will mean that within 50 or 60 years, you might have a global warming of 15 degrees. And this is extinction. So we should have a plan B.

SS: I mean, we only have one planet, so there's no plan B, we stick to plan A where we don't have that climate change in 50-60 years, when there is extinction

FS: Science fiction authors have a plan B. But their plan B… So, in the beginning, you asked about how science fiction today is being defined and what we're talking about if we look at the future,  if you look at the movies, then you'll see a lot of movies which again, are about space travelling, like Interstellar, for instance, or Ad Astra with Brad Pitt. So again, we start to talk about building big spaceships for generations, maybe, and going to other planets.

SS: Frank, let's not go as far as living on other planets as a plan B. Let's stick to plan A where we save our planet and we stay on planet Earth. But let’s talk about what kind of humans we’re going to be here on Earth in 20, 30, 50 years’ time. I mean, look at the internet that is actually sort of taking everything in, with social media and with, you know, our habits that are completely different. Now, we don't hail taxis anymore. We don't shop anymore. It's even easier to date and to have sex over the internet than to actually do it in real life.

FS: I know some people who still do it in real life.

SS: Yes, but the more we go on- and it’s a scary thing to me. I mean, yes, I still come from a generation where the internet wasn't there when I was born, it came somewhere midway through. But then when I look at the younger generation, it is not as much of a necessity for them anymore. And you know, you have all these like dolls that they sell as partners in Japan, they're like 5000 euro, and there are queues to get them because people are sort of tired of crying in a pillow and being betrayed. So here you have like this partner that smells like you want, talks like you want, never betrays you. And people are lazy, especially men. Sorry to say that. So I feel like with the internet, it is changing completely and fundamentally who we are as humans. So I wanted to ask you because you're a sci-fi writer in a field like you predict the future in a way, what kind of humans are we going to be in 20, 30, 50 years’ time?

FS: It was always fluid. We've always been in a state of changing and we still will. So there is no final points to say, ‘Now we are perfect’ or ‘Now we've lost it’. I'm old enough. As you just said, you're also old enough that we remember time without the internet and mobile phones. So we can compare and we can say it was better then. But the kids who grew up today with the internet and with mobile phones do not know how it was without. So they don't miss these former times. And we, when we were children, we were used to automobiles. We can't compare to coaches with horses. So I'm sure in the beginning when the automotive came there were journalists who asked and people were asked what they think about these new things. And the journalists said in 1910, ‘I hate these automobiles and I'm pretty sure they will vanish very soon because they haven't had any chance.’ And he was asked why do you think that way? And he said, ‘Because a machine can never love me the way an animal does.’ So I guess he was referring to horses. And so far, I think we shouldn't be nostalgic. Never. So we should appreciate new technologies because due to technology we live in the best world ever. From a medical point of view, we live in the best world ever. Technologies have changed the world in a way that now there’s still poverty, of course, and injustice, but in the same way, you see that people are more than ever connected, which gives us the opportunity to help each other, to listen to each other wherever we are on the planet. So I am optimistic about technology. The problem I think with our species is that we are able to develop and build technologies for the time coming maybe in 50 years or 100 years, so all technologies fit perfectly well into the future, but we can't change our way of thinking in a way that we can visualise how we will think, and how we will feel, and how our needs will be in 50 years. So our own technological developments are always further on than our ability to feel.

SS: But I mean, that’s the key point. Because everything that has to do with technology and virtual reality… And the more time goes on more we go into it, and it's an inevitable fact, the more we lose the very basic human things like, you know, senses, tactile things...

FS: Do we really?

SS: I think so.

FS: I don't think so. I don't think so. I think it was always like that, that we had to take care with new technologies. You can develop a technology in a very wrong or a very right direction. And it's always, if you're at the edge, then both ways are possible. And mostly people go both ways. And we, we always have to take care, especially now with artificial intelligence, that we develop these things in the right direction. But we are still human beings, I mean, we sit here and talk to each other, and we do not meet on Skype. So we sit in a room together and talk about it. And you have some intelligent questions and I hope I have some intelligent answers. So we are not lost.

SS: Do you know what this great theory of future of journalism is? The most expensive thing in the future will be a personal human contact in terms of journalism –

FS: Exactly.

SS: – because everything else will be actually be done online and virtually. This is going to be very expensive in the future.

FS: You know, all this artificial intelligence is nothing else than evaluating mass data. So in the past or still today, you as a journalist, if you had to write about some certain things, maybe what is going on in Syria, or what is going on there or there, then you have to read a lot of stuff, to see patterns and to see what has happened in the past and to filter out the relevant information for you. And of course, this is very expensive. So artificial intelligence can help you with that. And it doesn't mean that AI is the better journalist, you still are the better journalist, but it simply helps you to concentrate on the most significant thing, that we both sit together and we have human contact, we’re talking to each other as human beings.

SS: But then again, because you're a sci-fi writer, in your novel, which is also a scary story about artificial intelligence, that is playing games with the humans who have created it. That's a scenario that not a lot, but – So humanity is divided into two parts. One half that says that artificial intelligence is just our collaborator, and it cannot bring us any harm. And then there are others who are saying, ‘Oh, wait till singularity comes along and then we're all done, that's when we cease to exist.’ So that story where you're writing artificial intelligence playing games with humans is actually a popular scenario of the future where AI takes over humanity because it just realizes that it doesn't need humans anymore and they're just smarter. They can develop their own thought and artificial intuition so they get rid of humans. Do you think something like that is remotely possible in the future?

FS: There are half a dozen serious scenarios about the development of artificial intelligence. The one I wrote down is only one which, I'm deeply convinced, can happen because there's one important thing about it. At the moment, there are more or less only specialised artificial intelligences, which means systems that can play chess or Go, or steer an autonomous car, or analyse medical data and help us, which is stunning, of course. But such an AI, which is very good in detecting cancer cells, better than any doctor could do, is not able to realise the difference between a car and a dog. So they're really not dangerous. We don't have to be afraid that such an artificial intelligence has the will to overtake mankind. So we are talking about the strong artificial intelligence, which has got a whole sensemaking picture of the universe and every digitalised data in the universe, and is able to put these data together in terms of giving complex answers to the world. As long as this artificial intelligence hasn't got a consciousness, it hasn't got any will. That doesn't mean that it can't destroy us because it got something wrong. But there is no bad will. There is also no good will. It hasn’t got an idea of its own existence. But when the point comes, the day comes, and I'm very convinced that this will happen, it has to happen, that a machine gets a consciousness, because when we're getting a consciousness, science says we need bodies with our sensual cells. So we need our sensual cells to be in contact with the outer world. And this exchange leads to that we are not only in the world but we are getting a picture of us being in the world. So we are looking on us. This is consciousness. And the machine will get consciousness and if it gets consciousness, then it has a character, then it has life, then it has a will. And then we should have early enough, soon enough make sure that it still will be our partner.

SS: Well, if it's going to be anything as irrational as a human that's debatable.

FS: It will be totally different from us, because it hasn't got our chemical, biological history, and it is far from having our needs. But it will have other needs.

SS: Frank, it's been such a pleasure speaking to you, seriously.

FS: Thank you. I give it back to you.

SS: Hopefully, we get to do this again.

FS: Yes, I think we will have the opportunity. I’d love to.

SS: Perfect and good luck with the music.

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