Can machines tell stories? I’ll be discussing AI’s movie-making ambitions with Dara O’Briain this Friday at 2.45pm. It’s a panel event, part of New Scientist Live, which runs from 22 to 25 September at ExCel.
Can machines tell stories? I’ll be discussing AI’s movie-making ambitions with Dara O’Briain this Friday at 2.45pm. It’s a panel event, part of New Scientist Live, which runs from 22 to 25 September at ExCel.
On Sunday 25 September at 1:00pm I’ll be speaking to writer Marcel Theroux about Stalin and the Scientists, and explaining how a handful of impoverished and underemployed graduates, professors and entrepreneurs, collectors and charlatans, bound themselves to a failing government to create a world superpower.
With a keynote by multi-award winning science-fiction writer ALASTAIR REYNOLDS, this packed afternoon of short films and discussions explores how science fiction is guiding us towards an uncertain tomorrow.
Saturday May 30
Blue Room, mezzanine level
BFI Southbank, Belvedere Road
London SE1 8XT
A free drop-in event
(Help us keep track of numbers by registering at Eventbrite)
Building and testing a Paul-III drawing robot
Patrick Tresset, 2014 (1’ 30)
Patrick Tresset is a French artist who uses robotics to create cybernetic representations of the artist. His robots incorporate research findings from computer vision, artificial intelligence and cognitive computing. @patricktresset
The Willful Marionette
Lilla LoCurto & Bill Outcault, 2014 (2’ 46)
Created during a residency with the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, the marionette is 3D-printed from the scanned image of a human figure and responds in real time to spontaneous human gestures. Their intention was not to create a perfectly functioning robot, but to imbue an obviously mechanical marionette with the ability to solicit a physical and emotional dialogue.
Theo Jansen, 2014 (3’ 55)
In 1990 the Dutch artist Theo Jansen began building large self-actuating mechanisms out of PVC. He strives to equip his creations with their own artificial intelligence so they can avoid obstacles, such as the sea itself, by changing course. @StrandBeests
Cristina De Middel, 2013 (4’ 30)
In 1964, still living the dream of their recently gained independence, Zambia started a space program that would put the first African on the moon. The project was founded and led by Edward Makuka, a school teacher. The United Nations declined their support. Photojournalist Cristina De Middel assembled surviving documents from the project and integrated them with her own imagery. @lademiddel
The Moon (Luna, excerpt)
Pavel Klushantsev, 1965 (2’ 00)
Concluding scenes from a visionary documentary describing how the moon will be developed, from the first lunar mission to the construction of lunar cities and laboratories.
John St., 2014 (0’ 56)
John Street is a Canadian creative agency. @thetweetsofjohn
13:10 Keynote: “On the Steel Breeze”
Marrying human concerns to monstrously scaled backdrops, Alastair Reynolds is one of our finest writers of science fiction. He spent twelve years within the European Space Agency, designing and building the S-Cam, the world’s most advanced optical camera, before returning to his native Wales in 2008. His most recent novel, appearing in September 2013, is On the Steel Breeze, a sequel to Blue Remembered Earth.
The Centrifuge Brain Project
Till Nowak, 2012 (6’ 35) Many thanks to ShortFilmAgency Hamburg,
A portrait of the science behind seven experimental fun park rides. Humans are constantly looking for bigger, better, faster solutions to satisfy their desires, but they never arrive at a limit – it’s an endless search. @TillNowak
SEFT–1 Abandoned Railways Exploration Probe
Ivan Puig and Andrés Padilla Domene, 2014 (3’ 05)
Puig and Domene (Los Ferronautas) built their striking silver road-rail vehicle to explore the abandoned passenger railways of Mexico and Ecuador, an iconic infrastructure now lying in ruins, much of it abandoned due to the privatisation of the railway system in 1995, when many passenger trains were withdrawn, lines cut off and communities isolated. The artists’ journeys, captured in videos, photographs and collected objects, establish a notion of modern ruins.
Daisy Ginsberg & Sacha Pohflepp, 2009 (3’ 33)
A collection, illustrated by Sion Ap Tomos, of seven plants that have been genetically engineered to grow objects. Once assembled, parts from the seven plants form a herbicide sprayer – an essential commodity used to protect these delicate, engineered horticultural machines from an older, more established nature. @alexandradaisy | @plugimi
Juriaan Booij, 2014 (4’ 28)
A contemporary take on the ancient Silk Road. As the world’s population continues to increase, human hair has been re-imagined as an abundant and renewable material, with China its biggest exporter. Studio Swine explores how the booming production of hair extensions can be expanded beyond the beauty industry to make desirable, Shanghai-deco style products. @StudioSwine
Semiconductor, 2007 (4’ 47)
Artists Ruth Jarman & Joe Gerhardt (Semiconductor) reveal the secret lives of magnetic fields around NASA’s Space Sciences Laboratories, UC Berkeley, to recordings of space scientists describing their discoveries. Are we observing a series of scientific experiments, or a documentary of a fictional world? @Semiconducting
14:00 Panel: “Unreliable evidence”
Museums and galleries are using mocked-up objects, films and documents to entertain, baffle and provoke us — but what happens when we can no longer tell the difference between them and the real thing?
A curator, producer and artists’ agent, Robert Devcic uses objects to challenge, inform and deepen our ideas of the real world. Through his gallery GV Art, he pioneers work that erases the boundary between art and science, fact and fiction.
Cher Potter is a senior editor at the fashion forecasting company WGSN. She analyses social, political and cultural trends and their potential impact on the fashion industry. She is part of the curatorial team for a forthcoming exhibition at the V&A Museum titled The Future: A History.
Deputy keeper of technologies and engineering at the Science Museum, Doug Millard has just completed work on a major exhibition of Russian space exploration to be staged at the Science Museum in September 2015.
Lost in Fathoms
Anaïs Tondeur & Jean-Marc Chomaz, 2014 (3′ 27)
Big Dog Overview
Boston Dynamics, 2010 (3’ 24)
BigDog is a rough-terrain robot that walks, runs, climbs and carries heavy loads. BigDog’s four legs are articulated like an animal’s, with compliant elements to absorb shock and recycle energy from one step to the next. @BostonDynamics
Joshua Allen Harris, 2008 (2’ 17)
US street artist Joshua Allen Harris uses ordinary black garbage and shopping bags to make his pieces, tying them down to subway grates with tape in the hope the strong gusts from the trains will be strong enough to inflate his characters and animate them. @tweetsbyjosh
Shrink (performance at Brucknerhaus, Linz, Austria)
Lawrence Malstaf, 2009 (4’ 25)
Belgian artist Lawrence Malstaf develops installation and performance art dealing with space and orientation. His projects frequently involve advanced technology and the participation of visitors.
Big Dog Beta: – early Big Dog quadruped robot testing (excerpt)
Seedwell, 2011 (0’ 48)
The somewhat flawed predecessor to Boston Dynamics’ Big Dog robot. Camera by Dana Kruse. @seedwell
First on the Moon (excerpt)
Aleksei Fedorchenko, 2005 (1’ 30)
Soviet scientists and military authorities managed to launch the first spacecraft 23 years prior to Yuri Gagarin’s flight. Fedorchenko’s first feature tells about everyday life, heroic deeds and tragedy of the first group of the Soviet cosmonauts.
15:00 Panel: “We’re making this up as we go along”
Can we ever ready ourselves for the unexpected? And might the games we play now lead us into making the wrong choices in the future?
Funny and uneasy by turns, Pat Kane’s annual FutureFest festival for the innovation charity NESTA reflected his belief in the importance of play. A musician, writer and political activist, Kane (appearing via Skype) was also one of the founding editors of the Sunday Herald newspaper.
Rob Morgan develops VR titles, including shooters, thrillers and action/comedies, for major game studios, charities, publishers and indies. He was a contributor to the award-winning browser game Samsara and the ARG Unreal City, collaborated with J K Rowling on Pottermore, and has just finished writing the script for the upcoming The Assembly for Morpheus & Oculus Rift.
Andy Franzkowiak has flooded Edinburgh with zombies, sent Siemens’ urban museum The Crystal to 2050, and built the solar system in Deptford. He has previously worked with Punchdrunk, the Southbank Centre and the BBC. Mary Jane Edwards, who develops projects focused on cultural regeneration, social policy and social finance, is his new partner in crime in attempts to blur the distinction between art, education and science.
Afrogalactica: a short history of the future
Kapwani Kiwanga, 2011 (4′ 50)
Corner Convenience: “Hoodie”
Near Future Laboratory, 2012, (1’ 40)
Near Future Laboratory’s design-fiction workshop used print and film to explore the future as a place we will, inevitably, take for granted. Its ruling assumption was that the trajectory of all great innovations is to trend towards the counter of your corner convenience store, grocer, 7–11 or petrol station. @nearfuturelab
John St., 2014 (3’ 12)
Tobias Revell, 2012 (9’ 17)
During the Indian Civil War the Dharavi slums of Mumbai were flooded with refugees. Sometime later a cache of biological samples appeared through the criminal networks of Mumbai. Revell explains how a refugee community managed to turn these genetically-engineered narcotics into a new type of infrastructure. @tobias_revell
Tender – it’s how people meat
Marcello Gómez Maureira, 2015 (0’ 52)
Tender is the easy way to connect with new and interesting meat around you. @dandymaro
Aurora, the Aura City (excerpt)
Urban IxD, 2013 (3’ 25)
A design fiction created during the Urban IxD summer school in Split, Croatia during August 2013, and led by Tobias Revell and Sara Bozanic. It is 2113. Cities have undergone profound change. A sharing economy holds sway, but the desire for efficiency and optimization has led to the development of highly sophisticated sharing systems that preclude social interaction. The streets have emptied… @tobias_revell | @me_transmedia
Corner Convenience: “Drunk”
Near Future Laboratory, 2012, (1’ 50)
Rachel Armstrong creates new materials that possess some of the properties of living systems, and can be manipulated to “grow” architecture. Through extensive collaboration, she builds and develops prototypes of sustainable and self-sustaining metabolic buildings.
Lydia Nicholas, is a researcher in collective intelligence at Nesta and founding member of the Future Anthropologies Network. She speaks at conferences about bodies and biology and numbers and making in various combinations. Her favourite bacteria is Paenibacillus vortex.
16:15 panel: “This is not a drill”
Rachel Armstrong and Lydia Nicholas join Georgina Voss, Paul Graham Raven and Regina Peldszus to explore how mock-ups, simulations and rehearsals are shaping the real world.
Georgina Voss co-wrote the “Better Made Up” report from NESTA examining the co-influence of science fiction and innovation, and is currently is a resident at Lighthouse Arts, using 3D print technology to promote women’s health in remote regions.
Paul Graham Raven is a postgraduate researcher in infrastructure futures and theory at the University of Sheffield. He is also a science fiction writer, literary critic and essayist.
Via Skype, Regina Peldszus explores how humans and technology interact. She was an Internal Research Fellow with the European Space Agency in Darmstadt, Germany. She is now at Leuphana University of Lüneburg, researching the ethics of simulation.
Sacha Pohflepp, 2010 (4′ 24)
Fugitive Futurist: A Q-riosity by “Q”
Gaston Quiribet, 1924 (12’ 00; silent)
An on-the-run inventor claims to have invented a camera which looks into the future, and reveals a grim destiny for London landmarks like Tower Bridge and Trafalgar Square.
Hubert Blanz, 2010 (1’ 25)
Excerpt from an audio/video installation. Over the last few years the importance of virtual social networks has greatly increased and has significantly changed the way we communicate.
Semiconductor, 2006 (5’ 50)
After sifting through hundreds of thousands of computer files, made accessible via open access-archives, Semiconductor bring together some of the sun’s finest unseen moments. These images have been kept in their most raw form, revealing the activities of energetic particles. The soundtrack highlights the hidden forces at play upon the solar surface, by directly translating areas of intensity within the image brightness into layers of audio manipulation. @Semiconducting
Singular Occurrence of a Fall
Anaïs Tondeur & Jean-Marc Chomaz, 2014 (1’ 13)
Produced with PhD students during an art and science workshop at Cambridge University, this is one of a series of video pieces that reconstruct in the laboratory the effects of an earthquake on the lost island of Nuuk.
There’s an official webpage coming, but in the meantime, here’s a bit of mischief I’m planning with New Scientist and SCI FI LONDON in a corner of the British Film Institute on the afternoon of Saturday 30 May.
We’ll Eventbrite all this to get an idea of numbers but it’s free — drop in, heckle, throw peanuts, and above all buy me beer afterwards..
The wildest and most outlandish stories are slipping through the screens, cabinets and wall-spaces of our most treasured institutions and into the streets and squares of the real world.
Kicked off with a keynote by multi-award winning science fiction writer Alastair Reynolds, this packed afternoon of short films and discussions explores how stories, games and falsehoods are guiding us towards an uncertain tomorrow.
Curators Robert Devcic and Doug Millard lead us through a bizarre world of unreal exhibits — objects and films and documents that purport to be from future times and unreal places. These mock-ups are meant to entertain, baffle and provoke us — but what happens when we can no longer tell the difference between them and the real thing?
In the company of Pat Kane, Meg Jayanth and Shrinking Space we explore the fun and games to be had in making up and playing the future. Can we ever ready ourselves for the unexpected? And might the games we play now lead us into making the wrong choices in the future?
Interspersed with short films, video art and live readings, New Scientist‘s afternoon at Sci Fi London will take science fiction off the screen and jam it under your skin.
So here I am at Utopia, Tel Aviv’s festival of fantastic film. the other day I gave a talk and today, when I could be swimming or sunbathing, I’m sitting in the cinemateque’s green room – a perfectly white and windowless box – typing this. It started as a bloggable version of what I had to say about utopias and dystopias but it quickly got out of hand and became what I can only call a sermon.
This blog’s mostly a shop window – and a personality-free zone – but what the hell: if you’ve a moment to spare, let’s see what you think of this:
In 1979, Dan White was brought to trial for murder of two San Francisco government officials: George Moscone and Harvey Milk. White’s defence attorney hoped to convince the jury that his client was not responsible for his actions. White had a history of severe depression, and it had come to light that his diet – consisting almost entirely of junk food – regularly pushed him into a hypoglycaemic state. When this happened, White’s palpable misery bloomed into something else: something positively homicidal.
Medically, the argument was not without merit, but it quickly became notorious. Dubbed the “Twinkie defense”, it angered many who felt White was no longer having to answer for his own actions. “The snacks made me do it” is a pretty thin defence for a killing.
At the back of the outrage around this case was a deeper unease. Any act, sufficiently anatomised, will tend to evaporate into imponderables. Stare at the trees long enough, and you lose all sense of the wood. An act is an act is an act. Hedge it around with circumstances, however, and it becomes a story, a narrative – and stories can be spun in any number of ways, Crafty attorneys know this. Happily, so do judges. (So do scriptwriters: think of all those scenes where the judge instructs the attorney not to badger or haze the witness.)
Why should the circumstances of an act matter? Why is a killing not a murder in every instance? Our willingness to entertain *some* measure of narrative explanation is partly to do with our experience of the world, but just as much (if not more) to do with our unshakeable conviction that we are in ourselves, more or less, good people. At least, we don’t set out to do wrong. And if we did wrong, well, we were led to those wrong-doings by a concatenation of regrettable circumstances. Forget vaudeville villiany: brought to book, even serial killers do not cackle. They offer up their excuses, and seem as puzzled as the rest of us at their inadequacy. No-one in the history of the world, however deranged, embraced wrong-doing in the belief that it *was* wrongdoing. The closest we ever get is a sense of compulsion: “She drove me to it, officer.”
Were we to gather up every circumstance surrounding a crime, and explore every contingency – if , in short, we knew all – would we forgive all? If we’re so convinced of our own essential goodness (all be it that circumstances trip us into wrong-doing for this or that reason), does this mean that everyone is good; that everyone is, at their existential core, a righteous person?
For some radicals, the answer is unabashedly Yes. In the first heady days of Russia’s October Revolution, courts rewrote their deliberations so as to avoid perjorative notions of “crime” and “wrongdoing”. Punishments were things of the past: criminals were simply people in need of education and treatment.
The idea foundered since, in 1921, relatively little work had been done on the most effective correctional programmes for offenders. Today, we know of many effective strategies. Why then do so many of us resist their use? Why do so many of us advocate prison sentences (which patently don’t work) over other schemes (which patently do work)? Why can we not bring ourselves to extend our sense of our own righteousness to everyone?
I think this has to do with time. However diminished Dan White’s responsibility, by his hand two innocent men lay dead. You can excuse and explain and mitigate Dan White at your leisure. You cannot excuse, explain, and mitigate a corpse. A corpse just lies there. It begins, quite quickly, to stink.
To understand all is to forgive all, but only if you’ve the luck, the temperament, the time, and the patience. Forgiveness is not restorative. Forgiveness is hard work, Understanding is merely the first step on an arduous personal journey.
Forgiveness is such hard work, we usually resort to a quicker, easier, more reassuring alternative: justice. The scales of justice are more than a metaphor for objectivity, a weighing of evidence. They also represent an effort to restore the balance of things. An eye for an eye, if you like; more usually, fifty quid for inconsiderate parking.
In a world in which not everything *can* be known, justice is more effective than (and not incompatible with) forgiveness. The more we know, the more just our justice becomes: that, anyway, is the hope, and it’s borne out reasonably well by the historical evidence. The more ordered and well-observed a society, the less frequent its recourse to draconian punishments.
Justice is not altogether a human invention. Social species have their rituals of correction and punishment. I’ll mention one decidedly odd example.
European cuckoos are brood parasites. A female will lay an egg in the nest of an unwitting host. Though relieved of the drudgery of child care, cuckoos still have an investment in their young. Males and females both will sometimes observe the host’s nest to make sure their hatchling is secure. If the host gets wise to the cuckoo’s deception, it will evict the egg from its nest.
Then something very peculiar happens. The cuckoo’s egg is done for. From a purely adaptationist standpoint, it’s game over for the cuckoo; it may as well write off its losses and withdraw. Quite often, however, this isn’t what happens. Instead, the cuckoo attacks the host’s interests, evicting all the eggs in its nest. What’s the survival advantage in this behaviour? If anyone can spot it, please tell me, because the alternative is weird indeed: the cuckoo must have a sense of justice. A wildly one-sided one, it’s true: but a sense of justice all the same. Maddened by the implacable, unidirectional nature of time, the impossibility of restitution, it exacts punishment on the host: eggs for an egg.
Utopia is where we locate our dreams of a life well lived. In utopia, right prevails. So we must presuppose one of two qualities for our utopia. Either it is timeless, and all acts may be reversed, all wrongs righted by a simple, agreed return to initial conditions. (Discussions of precrime belong somewhere here.)
Or, while remaining embedded in time, everything that happens in Utopia is known, and therefore forgiven.
This is the promise of the Singularity, of course. Once we have combined in acquiring a seamlessly distributed moment-by-moment grasp of the entire world, the innate righteousness of everyone will be manifestly apparent to all. Except, of course, for the bodies. And there’s the rub: the bodies will still stink.
Afforded perfect knowledge, it is entirely plausible that punishment might become obsolescent, replaced by a culture of forgiveness, bolstered and secured by our prefered varieties of tough love and loving correction. And for all that, innocent government officials will still lie bleeding and the cuckoo’s egg will still lie smashed. For that reason, the idea of *justice* will persist. It will lack any useful outlet, of course, since the only thing we will be unable to forgive – the thing we will *blame*, and much good may it do us – is the stubbornly unidirectional nature of time itself
Our sense of justice then will reveal itself to be, at bottom, nothing more than this: enraged regret that what has happened, *has* happened.
Time, it turns out, is the villain, brought to book by our peculiar ability to model sequences of events that have not happened and cannot happen. We tell ourselves stories of what might have been (had Milk lived, had the cuckoo grown and flown) – grammarians might want to dub this our *subjunctive* capability – and when we judge the world against this ephemeral criterion, we find it wanting. Our pursuit of the Singularity is nothing more or less than this: a royal hunt for the rewind button.
Good lives are like trees: they branch exponentially, to explore the possibilities available to them. They switch and reverse, pulse and repulse. Lives aspire to the condition of narratives. Lives want to be rewritten.
The other day I went along to London’s Design Museum to catch the opening of United Micro Kingdoms (UMK): A Design Fiction. The exhibition, conceived and curated by design studio Dunne & Raby, uses elements of industrial design, architecture, politics and science to explore the future of design. Anthony Dunne talked to me about his four fictional kingdoms, his love of science fiction, and the value of dystopic thinking.
United Micro Kingdoms runs until 26 August 2013 at the Design Museum, Shad Thames, London SE1 2YD.
Last Saturday the ReConstitutional Convention – a global experiment in political system design – brought together diverse groups of social inventors all over the world to imagine and prototype original and alternative architectures for governing.
By pure coincidence, this was also the week I started researching for the 70th anniversary of the discovery of LSD.
Here’s my bit. (There are lots of others)
Around 6’20” I start channeling Timothy Leary; watch Lydia Nicholas‘s face as it begins to dawn on her that this to-camera is going up on YouTube FOR EVER…
I’d like to thank Tobias Revell and Justin Pickard for inviting me along to this creative, playful, exasperating and very rewarding day.
The revolution begins here. (Maybe.)
That’s what it says here. I’m never going to live this one down.
From 19 – 24 August 2013 I’ll be at Totleigh Barton, “a thatched, pre-Domesday manor house, nestled in the rolling hills of one of the most peaceful and beautiful parts of Devon,” teaching for the Arvon Foundation alongside Tania Hershman, one of the country’s more energetic champions of the short story. We’ll be guiding new, uncertain, confused and increasingly anxious writers through the interzone between fiction and science writing in a course imaginatively titled Science and Writing.
It says here that “we will be giving you different ways to sprinkle science into your writing, encouraging you to play!”
Ha. Expect intense intellectual rigour, cut with grotesque displays of temper, as we attempt to fuse the two cultures in the magnetic bottle of us getting paid for once.
Heidi Williamson, who was was poet-in-residence at the Science Museum’s Dana Centre, is our guest reader.
The course costs between £620 and £680 and grants are available for those on low income – click here for more information.
I’m off to north Wales on St David’s Day to take part in this year’s Scifiweekender. It’s being held at the Hafan y Mor Holiday Park near Pwllheli and will probably look something like this
though given the weather it could end up looking like this
and will add a chilly authenticity to Simon’s exploration of Soviet cinema, space exploration, and all things Klushantsev.
Saturday’s RAILWAY TO THE STARS is, a celebration of Russia’s spirit of exploration through Russian film. I’ll also bring along some off-prints of Arc to give people a flavour of what we’re up to.
The 2013 Scifiweekender runs from 1 to 3 March. Call the ticket hotline on 08700 110034.
On the afternoon of Sunday 24 February, Arc visits the Netherlands to explore the dark universe as guests of Sonic Acts, a long-running Dutch festival exploring the interzone between art, music and science.
The invitation a very happy coincidence for us as Arc‘s first edition of 2013, out soon, focuses on the fact that most of our universe is missing.
Come see us if you can: Alastair Reynolds will be riffing mischievously off Fermi’s paradox, science writer Frank Swain will map where the wild things are, I’ll explain why a theory of vision that ignored light completely served us well for over 800 years, and Tim Maughan will offer us a first glimpse of his experimental AR entertainment Watching Paint Die.
(I’m especially looking forward to that as I’ve just received Tim’s latest story for Arc – a cracking sequel to Paintwork called Ghost Hardware.)
Sonic Acts 2013 runs from Thursday 21 to Sunday 24 February. (Here’s the programme.) Arc’s bit of it runs from 1.30 to 3.30 on Sunday afternoon, in a former gaol called De Balie. They say it’s a chic theatre cafe-restaurant now, but I’m beginning to wonder if there isn’t a pattern developing here.
Follow the event on Twitter: