A Guide to This Exciting, Funny, Scary, Real-Life Sci-Fi Moment
How an article about genomic sequencing led to an afternoon playing around with AI branding tools
Dumbfounded, flabbergast, gobsmacked, mind-boggled: I’m betting you will be too if you read this New York Times Magazine story about the amazing new power and falling prices of genetic sequencing technology — how it enabled the creation of effective COVID vaccines in months instead of years, and how it’s probably about to revolutionize medicine. Yet another instance of sci-fi — in this case non-dystopian sci-fi! so far! — becoming indistinguishable from real life.
As a fiction writer, I was especially struck by the science-fictionesque nomenclature of the biotechnology companies in the Times piece and of their products: Illumina and Oxford Nanopore and (my favorite) GRAIL are selling genomic sequencers called NovaSeq 6000 and PromethION.
In fact, I realized, the names of these real firms are much more self-consciously sci-fi than their make-believe counterparts. I think of Vonnegut’s General Forge and Foundry, Robert Heinlein’s Andes Development Company, Arthur C. Clarke’s Aurum Industries, Isaac Asimov’s U.S. Robotics, and in the 1980s of Omni Consumer Products in Robocop and the Tyrell Corporation in Blade Runner.
It’s really only in science fiction with a comic edge that such names always emphatically signify sci-fi. This became the default in the early 1960s: Spacely Space Sprockets on The Jetsons (1962), the Inter-Galaxy Corporation on My Favorite Martian (1963) — and, iconically as well as ironically, in Thomas Pynchon’s novels V (1963) and The Crying of Lot 49 (1966), the aerospace company Yoyodyne. The name was Pynchon’s takeoff on the new, real-life tech startup Teledyne, founded in 1960 in the fantasy-industrial epicenter of Beverly Hills.
A generation later, an homage to Pynchon begat Yoyodyne Propulsion Systems in Adventures of Buckaroo Bonzai, which in turn had a momentary crossover appearance on Star Trek: The Next Generation — and then in the 1990s returned from fiction to reality (or “reality”) with an online marketing company named Yoyodyne, co-founded by my Buckaroo-loving friend Seth Godin and soon acquired by the might-as-well-have-been-fictionally-named Yahoo!.
Thinking about company names and technology and science fiction led me to an internet realm I’d never visited: name generators, ostensibly for fiction writers to use. These baffled and depressed me, because if you’re writing fiction, why would you sub-contract the easy and fun part of the job to a piece of software? Especially primitive software on sites devoted to generating lame names (Warlokosoft Co-operative? Iran-Mo Technology Multinational?) for, yes, fictional corporations in sci-fi.
But from there I made my way to the real thing: actual online AI tools for creating names and logos for actual companies. These first appeared in 2016, and now there are a bunch, including the two I spent a lot of time playing with, Namelix and its sibling Brandmark.
I decided to see how close Namelix would get to Pynchon’s Yoyodyne, so for length I chose 6–12 letters, for style “compound word,” and the key words I provided were large aerospace military secretive California.
A few seconds later it generated numberless alternatives. At least three contained the syllable dyn, which made me feel like patting the AI on the head.
And even though I didn’t ask it to be funny, several of the suggested names for a large, secretive California military contractor were extremely comic-novelistic. Including:
And my absolute favorite:
By the way, when I said “numberless alternatives,” I didn’t mean it figuratively: I actually don’t know how many names Namelix generated or would eventually generate because I stopped scrolling at around 1,400. It’s possible that somewhere down there I’d come across Yoyodyne.
I then asked Brandmark to generate (I hesitate to use design) possible logos for Yoyodyne and its brilliant “real” corporate slogan from Buckaroo Banzai. Again: instantly, hundreds to choose from. This c. 1980-looking one seems kind of perfect.
This one, for me, is too on-the-nose.
None of the AI’s designs are as good or as actually intelligent as a talented graphic designer could create. So the ultimate John Henry moment hasn’t arrived. Yet. But there are a lot of meh professional designers out there for whom Brandmark and its ilk must be serious competitors.
If I wanted to use these AI-generated names or logos for real-life companies, it would only cost $65 apiece, for which I’d get formatted letterhead, business cards, social media assets and a “brand style guide.” For $1,750 I could get all of that as well as “up to 10 fully original concepts created by our design team.” They don’t specify if their team consists of human beings.
So I end where I began: another place where real life is indistinguishable from science fiction. And although I’m not planning to use digital tools to invent the names of characters or companies for my next novel, I do have a character in mind who uses them. He’s a grifter.