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Inspiration for an ambitious project came to Brian David Johnson while riding in the back of his father’s Cadillac Fleetwood Brougham on their annual expedition to watch spring training in Phoenix. Cruising across the desert in the car his father had dreamed about as a teenager on the way to enjoy America’s favorite pastime, Johnson asked himself, “What could be more American than this?” It seemed that his father had achieved the American Dream. But what for most would be a passing observation became for Johnson a puzzle to solve.
Different Americans might have widely divergent views of just what “the American Dream” is. As far as the version cherished by his father went, “we were practically spewing stars and stripes out of our exhaust pipes!” But that was just one version. Johnson wondered just how many versions there might be. More importantly, how might they change in the days ahead. These questions became the basis for an ongoing and continually growing project to uncover the Future of the American Dream.
The unsurprising answer seems to be that it depends on whom you ask, but Johnson’s research has revealed that the American dream not only exists in the minds of every American, but also that it is shaped by them. “The future involves everyone,” said Johnson. The task is not necessarily just thinking about the future, it’s also “thinking about thinking about the future. You have to approach the future with humility; understand that we’re all human and we’re all biased.”
So far, Johnson has held town hall meetings, some with hundreds in attendance and lasting several hours, in more than half of the 50 states. Responses have ranged from optimistic belief in the idea that the American dream – whatever it may be – is alive and well to decidedly less favorable outlooks. One thing is clear: “The American dream still has power,” Johnson said. “That thing that pulled people to our shores, that pushed them to strive, can still enrage and inspire.”
Johnson’s own inspirations have been wildly different from those of his Minnesota farm boy father. Johnson’s interest in emerging technologies and education were apparent at a very young age. “I’ve pretty much always taught,” said Johnson, reflecting on when he was a ten-year-old teaching economics students to use the new personal computers at the local community college back in 1982. “We joked that they called them personal computers because you could kind of lift one by yourself,” he recalls.
Johnson followed his passions through the University of Washington in the mid 2000’s and then at the California College of Arts in San Francisco’s MBA program. The pairing of arts with practical education in business fit perfectly with Johnson’s special brand of futurism. “If you look at the work that I do, one of the main themes has always been the intersection between imagination, science, and engineering,” he said. “Imagination is the number one underutilized tool in industry.”
That philosophy was a key factor in Johnson’s position as Intel’s Futurist from 2002 until 2016. “As an applied Futurist, my job would be, for instance, to imagine what the chip would need to be able to do ten years from now,” he said, touching on another reason his approach to the future is different. “If you look too far out it gets fuzzy,” he said, pointing out that some major, future-shaping initiatives might not survive past an election cycle or the introduction of a new CEO.
The focus on the near future fuels Johnson’s interest in teaching the young people that will shape it. His pragmatic approach to the future deeply aligned with the “fiercely interdisciplinary mix” of social and technical sciences exhibited by ASU, SFIS, and the Center for Science and the Imagination (CSI). “The values and mission of SFIS and CSI resonate with who I am as a futurist, a writer, and a public intellectual,” Johnson proclaimed. “As SFIS starts to grow, I am very excited to get to be a part of the process.” Johnson, now an SFIS Professor of Practice as well as the school’s Futurist in Residence, taught a class based on the project in spring semester—his first at ASU.
Johnson’s partnership with the school really coalesced in the course of working on 21st Century Robot, a CSI-sponsored program begun a decade ago. Johnson wanted to explore how humans would interact with robots ten years in the future. It is common to envision robots as fulfilling what Johnson calls “the Three D’s:” functions that are dirty, dull, or dangerous, but that is a vision he wants to avoid. “I’m talking about social robots designed to interact with people,” he said. “Ones with personality and feelings – that fall in love and have friendships.”
Robots can have significant behavior changing impact – for instance by encouraging healthy habits or reinforcing healthy conflict resolution strategies. They may even provide comic relief. Imagining robots as companions influenced Johnson’s opinion that the technology should be available to everyone. Figuring out how to adapt the learning curve and lower the price became a goal for the project. A few years ago, Johnson realized that the technology had caught up with his vision. A robot that once cost them $15,000 dollars now costs as little as an iphone, and is as easily programmable. Easy enough for kids, it turns out.
In 2014, Johnson adapted his research into a project he piloted at an underserved school in the Bronx, giving them the tools and the training to design, build, and program their own social robots. “These kids had never thought they would design a robot. Within two or three months they were experts at it.” The students’ bots took on characteristics. “When they tell us how they want their robot to look or act, they are really creating design and engineering specs.” Johnson added, “It is a great feeder into high school STEM programs.
Artistic creativity and pragmatic visioning are elegantly intertwined in Johnson’s holistic forecasting of the future. “Painting and writing science fiction are part of my process as a futurist,” he explained. “Science fiction allows me to use narrative to prototype these possible futures in a way that I can see the impact to humanity, society, and culture. Painting provides a great way to meditate on those changes.” Besides teaching classes for SFIS, Johnson balances responsibilities as a Fellow with Frost and Sullivan, a management consultant firm. He still finds the creative outlets he needs, though. His latest book, 21st Century Robot: the Doctor Simon Egerton Stories, is on sale now.