Centre Manager, BioFab3D, St Vincent’s Hospital Melbourne.
About the laboratory discussed in this post
(Video credit: Benjamin Sheen)
To the surprise of its inventors, the cochlear implant was greeted with protest by some in the Deaf community in the 1980s and early 1990s. This well-known story underlines how important it is for developers of new medical technologies to discuss the potential impacts from all possible angles, and in advance.
As a researcher, I am concerned by the public misconceptions around new technologies which might hamper meaningful conversation.
My field of research is biofabrication, where the goal is to build new tissues to treat or model disease and injury. I have written before about how media sensationalism has distorted the public’s perception of this technology, and how ultimately this may have negative effects on patient consent and other impacts.
Here, I want to focus on another kind of distortion of technology: science fiction.
Public lectures by experts in my field often open with videos cut from science fiction movies and TV shows: Luke Skywalker’s robotic hand, the extruded sinews of an artificial horse from Westworld, the 3D printed heroine from The Fifth Element.
These examples can be effective devices to engage with the public: they provide a familiar touchstone while also generating excitement about how technology is propelling us towards that exotic ‘Future’.
But science fiction can also cast a shadow across active research. It can define how an issue is first framed in the public consciousness and influence the public’s perception and expectation around new technologies. This is most obvious in how the monsters of the Terminator and the Matrix haunt almost every discussion about artificial intelligence.
Recognising the striking power of fiction to frame debate, we at the BioFab3D lab based at St Vincent’s Hospital Melbourne, have recently taken a ‘fight fire with fire’ approach: we have collaborated with artists to create science fiction which realistically portrays the issues around our research.
Last year, BioFab3D teamed up with a local playwright, Rohan Byrne, and theatre production company Playreactive to develop a new science-fiction play, RUR_2020, which explored potential dangers and ethical questions around biofabrication.
Byrne’s play is a reimagining of a sci-fi classic; Rossum’s Universal Robots (or R.U.R) by Karel Čapek. First performed a century ago, R.U.R is famous for being the origin of the word ‘robot’ in English. It might surprise you that Čapek’s robots were not mechanical; they were flesh and blood facsimiles of people. The play is largely set inside a factory where these ‘robots’ are fabricated.
Now with labs like ours being created specifically to build new body parts, actual science research is catching up to this classic sci-fi vision. This motivated us to update RUR for a modern context.
To conceive and write his adaptation, Byrne visited BioFab3D to be immersed in the science; he interviewed lab researchers about the current state-of-the-art and the future of the technology, and studied the bioethical literature on the subject. He also consulted with BioFab3D researchers as the play took shape. The resulting science fiction story was grounded in reality; it was born, in a sense, in a real lab.
And that’s also where it was performed. In August 2018, BioFab3D was transformed from a working laboratory by day into a theatre venue by night. Researchers were always on hand to answer audience questions after each show. The lab thus became a platform for introducing a burgeoning technology, and a forum for discussing the direction this new technology might take in the future.
By all accounts the play was a great success: well received and well attended, across eight sell-out shows (and by a diverse audience of artists and nerds alike; many had never visited a research lab before, some had never attended a live play). For us researchers, the play had a lasting impact in how it encouraged us to think about the bigger bioethical questions around our work.
Using dystopic fiction for the purpose of science outreach does carry risks, perhaps, of framing the technology in a poor light. We argue that it is critical to be transparent about the disruption that new medical technologies may cause.
In our case, the story was developed in consultation with real biofabrication researchers. The concerns discussed were thus genuine, the fiction itself a springboard for a needed conversation.
As is the nature of performance art, the play lived its moment and was no more. But the conversation lives on.
This post may be cited as:
O’Connell0, C. (31 October 2019) Fighting Fiction with Fiction: A novel approach to engaging the public in bioethics of medical research. Retrieved from: https://ahrecs.com/human-research-ethics/fighting-fiction-with-fiction-a-novel-approach-to-engaging-the-public-in-bioethics-of-medical-research
BioFab3D is Australia’s first hospital-based biofabrication lab dedicated to researching the artificial generation of living human tissues for implantation and medical research. It hosts collaborative efforts between researchers, clinicians, engineers, and industry partners to deliver therapeutic outcomes from cutting-edge science and technology. BioFab3D is a collaborative facility shared by St Vincent’s Hospital Melbourne, the University of Melbourne, RMIT, Swinburne University and the University of Wollongong. Read more about BioFab3D on their website, biofab3D.org