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From Human-Computer Interaction via Robot Sex to Cormac McCarthy

VF Salon Nov 2016

The last academic year began early, with the organizing of the British Human-Computer Interaction conference at the University of Lincoln in July. 250 people from 20 different counties and a live discussion between attendees and Julian Assange chaired by Chris Csikszentmihalyi. The aim was to investigate how interactive technologies fundamentally affect our privacy, rights, and relationships with authority, government and commerce. There wasn’t much public desire to have conversations about these topics at the time, and indeed there was hostility towards such discussion. That these topics are now on the public agenda is no small testament to the patient determination of the principal chairs, Shaun Lawson and Patrick Dickinson.

September and October involved a flurry of public talks, on VR at Dialogue in London; on biology as technology at the University of Arts London; and on the future human at Warwick University’s festival to celebrate its 50th Anniversary.

In early November I spoke about libidinal parasites, the role of art, and broken machines at a special Virtual Futures salon in Soho, London, on ‘Fucking Machines’ – a panel about sex and robots.

Then back to Warwick University for an astonishing conference on Cormac McCarthy organized by Katja Laug, focusing on very close reading of one of the truly great American novels of the 20th century, Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West. The whole event was filmed: my talk principally about the character of Judge Holden is here; the long and hugely productive roundtable discussion is here.

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The Thinking Girl’s Guide to the Robot Apocalypse

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Not many academics can say that they’ve had their research poached by novelists and turned into a seriously successful young adult novel. At the time of writing it’s not far short of a million reads.

I’m A Cyborg’s Pet is a shocking sci-fi BDSM robo-dystopia, inspired by a couple of papers I wrote with Ben Kirman, Conor Linehan, Shaun Lawson, and Laura Buttrick. I do suggest you read it because, whatever version of the future you’re expecting, it’s probably wrong. And nowhere near as funny.

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IBM Watson, Futurism NYC

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This summer I spoke about Artificial Intelligence at IBM Watson’s new headquarters at 51 Astor Place in Manhattan, as part of a panel with Douglas Rushkoff, Martine Rothblatt, Steve Fuller, and Michael Krasnicki. It was apparently the first time any ‘outsiders’ – other than corporate clients and press – have been permitted to enter the inner sanctum of the new IBM building.

Trying to explain to the makers of a real Artificial Intelligence what the concept of ‘intelligence’ means turned out to be not so easy, especially when the audience at the small, crazily-high-security event turned out to be more expert than the panel. NYC A-List Hari Kunzru, Lee Child, Kevin Slavin, Carla Gannis, the faculties from NYU, NYTU, Pratt, CUNY – not to mention the IBM insiders… If I’d known in advance who’d be in the audience I might have quailed.

The evening before, I gave a talk about the history of AI at Futurism NYC on Wall Street. A couple of the participants there persuaded me to shave my head so that I could have my cranium scanned, and I’m now apparently 20% of the Megadome, which is the template for the Ultracortex. No, I can’t explain. But the Open Brain-Computer Interface founders at @OpenBCI can.

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NESTA Hot Topics – Futurefest – London Tech Week

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…and back in London, finally, I spoke at the NESTA/Futurefest event Ready Player Two. It was about the future of Virtual Reality, but I tended more towards the past, talking about Ancient Egyptian belief systems that simulated an AI-like surveillance system and, to the mild consternation of the audience, what Immanuel Kant has to say about VR.

The panel consisted of Jess Bland moderating, Luciana Haill, Rob Morgan, and Zillah Watson – a really adventurous combination of journalistic, artistic, and gaming narrative competence. More panels should be this varied.

NESTA did a great job on this one, though the attendees made the day: when the audience realized that the event wasn’t being livestreamed, they simply self-organized themselves into a team using Periscope to stream it themselves! A Storify is here, and photos are on NESTA’s FB page.

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Brain Bar Budapest

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Last week I was in Budapest to talk about the history of AI at the astonishing Brain Bar Budapest. It’s only their first year, but @BrainBarBP already looks like a world-class festival. Alongside my NCH colleague Niall Ferguson (as a hologram!), Sugata Mitra, Benjamin Bratton, Philip Zimbardo, Pia Mancini, and Steve Fuller, among others, we debated the many possible futures of humanity.