Dr. Kim Solez is on a mission. The renal pathologist and University of Alberta professor is currently working to make the lectures from his course “Technology and the Future of Medicine” available to the general public via online videos. He's “mainstreaming the technological singularity” and transhumanism, or, rather, helping those of us outside of research labs understand artificial intelligence and its current development.
This past weekend, at the Extreme Futurist Festival in Marina del Rey, Solez spoke about his recent work. During his talk, he expanded upon an idea previously put forth by researcher Ben Goertzel. Could a holiday — a “Future Day” — help bring the ideas bouncing around the scientific world to the masses?
Let's back up a bit. Technological singularity is the school of thought popularized by scientists like Raymond Kurzweil, which holds that artificial intelligence will go beyond human intelligence. Transhumanism, on the other hand, is the idea that people will be able to utilize technology to radically alter aging and other side effects of, well, being human. This is something that anyone with access to entertainment can imagine on a fictional level. We've seen bits and pieces of technological singularity and transhumanism on TV in shows like Futurama and Ghost in the Shell. We've caught glimpses of it in movies and we've read about in books found on the science fiction shelves.
On Saturday afternoon, Solez mentioned several recent pop culture events that have brought technological singularity and transhumanism closer to the mainstream eye. In early 2011, a Time cover story focused on Kurzweil, who has been at the forefront of technological singularity and transhumanism. At around the same time, a computer named Watson came out as a winner on Jeopardy. Then there's The Big Bang Theory, the popular sitcom about Cal Tech professors that's now in its fifth season.
“You will learn nothing,” says Solez of the actual science on the CBS show. But, the point is that the interest is there.
With this in mind, Solez asked the audience, how could Future Day become a reality?
I don't have an answer for him, but it seems like Extreme Futurist Festival is a start.
A two-day event held at the Courtyard Marriott hotel in Marina del Rey, Extreme Futurist Festival merges lectures based on the TED model — short, punchy presentations — with music performances and art installations.
“In fiction, you see a lot of blending together of the counterculture and futurist intellectual, but I just hadn't seen people in real life getting together on that premise,” says Anissimov, who organizes the science conference Singularity Summit that was mentioned in Time's article. “Taking it from fiction to non-fiction, from science fiction to science fact, is the key thing that inspired me to do this conference.”
TED, the annual gathering of big thinkers in Long Beach, is the obvious inspiration of Extreme Futurist Festival.
“I wanted to have a counterculture, affordable TED,” says Haywire. “There are so many brilliant people who will never have the chance to go to TED because their economic status.”
TED may be a model, but this gathering of the forward-minded is its own entity.
“We're even willing to deal with more technical topics than the TED audience might be comfortable with,” says Anissimov.
Some of the talks at Extreme Futurist Festival– like Dr. Randal Koene's session on “mind uploading” and “whole brain emulation” — were detail-specific. In the case of Koene, he's talented enough to explain the concepts to people whose knowledge of science is limited to courses English majors had to take, but the subject matter itself requires some background reading.
Extreme Futurist Festival isn't just about science. It was about looking towards the future through a mix of scientific, philosophical and artistic pursuits that reside on the cutting edge of culture. One influence on the event is a series of books released by Re/Search throughout the 1980s, notably the Industrial Culture Handbook, which discussed both the sound and the cultural influences of the early '80s industrial music scene. Haywire says that she considers Re/Search “artistic ancestors.” The books were available for purchase at the convention.
Extreme Futurist Festival tapped into a myriad of art forms during the course of the convention. Arizona-based comic book creator Zac Finger, who found out about the event via Reddit, showed up with stacks of books, including a new title, Singularity No. 0, which he produced specifically for the event.
“It relates a lot to the ideas that we're talking about, which is the automation of humanity, basically…and asking what is the value of humanity in such a world,” says Finger.
Attendees also had the chance to check out Code Hero, a video game that teaches users the basics of game creation, artwork from Black Iron Kisses and a live VJ performance from Circuit5. The evening programming was dedicated to music and brought a wide range of boundary-pushing artists, including Hanin Elias, former member of Atari Teenage Riot whose electronic punk music merges the futuristic with the contemporary.
Though small, Extreme Futurist Festival has a lot of potential to bring together intelligent discussion, art and performance in a venue that's accessible to a wide range of people. It's not necessarily mass culture, but it's a culture that's understood by many who read sci-fi, listen to electronic music and have a curiosity for what lays ahead for humankind. Is this the start of the Future Day that Dr. Solez mentioned? Maybe in a few years, we'll know for sure.