Panel Encourages Film, TV Writers to Tell Tales of Engineering

Writers learn about new technology to spice up their story lines

19 August 2011

How much do science fiction movies and TV shows influence budding engineers? How can engineers inspire writers and directors to weave technology into their story lines? Such questions were discussed and answered at IEEE-USA’s Engineering Our Future panel, held in June at the Directors Guild of America complex in Los Angeles. About 50 entertainment professionals attended the panel, which featured three engineers discussing their latest technical work. recently posted a video of the event.

On the panel were IEEE Fellow Maja Mataric, a professor of computer science, neuroscience, and pediatrics at the University of Southern California, in Los Angeles; Frances Arnold, a bioengineering professor at Caltech; and Randii Wessen, a jet systems engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in Pasadena, Calif. Jon Spaihts, screenwriter for the upcoming alien invasion movie The Darkest Hour and the Alien prequel Prometheus, moderated the discussion.

The event was cosponsored by the U.S. National Academy of Engineering and the National Academy of Science.


Mataric spoke about her socially assistive robots, which help people with a variety of disorders. For example, the robots can coach a patient through repetitive exercises that otherwise would require the presence of a physical therapist. The robot moves its limbs and speaks to the patient to motivate him and to demonstrate the exercises, and the patient follows along. It also uses its sensors to track the movement of the patient’s limbs to make sure the patient is doing the exercises properly.

Children with autism are sometimes more comfortable interacting with robots than with other children, because robots, Mataric says, are more predictable. So a robot can help children with autism build social skills and make them feel more at ease when interacting with humans.

"Socially assistive robots are well suited for rehabilitating those with Autism or Alzheimer's, or those recovering from a recent stroke, because robots are tireless." Mataric said. "Personalized human-robot interaction is not in some far-off distant future, but right here and now."

Wessen discussed his JPL work, which included helping with the design and operation of the NASA Deep Space Network, an antenna network that enabled communication between the laboratory and spacecraft, including the Mars Global Surveyor, the 2001 Mars Odyssey, and the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. He also helped build a spacecraft used in NASA’s Cassini program, which studies Saturn and its moons. The craft has been orbiting Saturn and sending images and data about its surface, atmosphere, and moons back to Earth since 2004.

Arnold, the bioengineering professor, told the audience that she started out studying astronomy, “but I found that I didn’t need to look to the stars for wonder or magnificent complexity—it was all around me in the cellular world.” She and her research group at Caltech have developed a process called directed evolution in which biological systems they create in a lab have their evolutionary process sped up to create new organisms and enzymes that could be used in medicine and biofuels.

Arnold pointed out that genetics and life sciences are also growing and evolving at a rapid pace. “We only discovered DNA 50 years ago, genetic engineering 30 years ago and, in the last 10 years, how to synthesize DNA,” she said, asking, “What lies just around the corner?”


Movies that include new technologies can inspire more than just prospective engineers but also working ones, Wessen said. “Everyone I work with at JPL is a Star Wars or Star Trek fan,” he said. “That kind of science fiction entertainment can fire up the imagination.”

“All the talks were really powerful,” Mataric said after the event. “The audience was very enthusiastic, and they had some excellent questions. After the Q&A, about a dozen people stayed around and spoke with me in greater detail—which was very rewarding.”

Many of the entertainment professionals left with the engineers’ contact information so they could continue discussing their work after the event, perhaps, it’s hoped, while working on a script starring some new technology.

Building relationships between engineers and entertainment professionals can benefit both parties, Spaihts said. “The more that filmmakers like myself learn from engineers, the more stories we find,” he said. And engineers, in turn, gain a better reputation thanks to the exposure of technology in movies and television. “There is no louder voice in culture than entertainment,” Spaihts added.

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