James Dyson on the futures – and the pasts – of AI (and us)

The last PICNIC festival was held the Amsterdam’s Eye Institute; it was bit shorter an event that usual, but as inspiring and provocative as always, if not more. I was missing a bit the practical and interactive parts, common for the ‘typical PICNIC’ (if there is such a thing), but but the presentations of the first day were all excellent and the speakers simply superb.

The opening speech was delivered – calmly, but very powerfully – by George Dyson, a historian of technology, writer (and a boat designer too). One wouldn’t expect a historian opening a future-focussed event, by Dyson is a historian of different kind: non only he writes about ‘technology’ (traditionally another important topic for PICNICers), but he also investigates evolution of ideas behind technologies. Specifically, he studied the emergence of the ‘smart things’ – what we would call ICT these day, what their creators thought about a potential impact of these technologies on us, people – both on societal and personal level.

All these issues are absolutely crucial today, when we increasingly finding ourselves living in a digital matrix, and when we are developing ever smarter systems and networks. I remember a chilling, uneasy feeling after reading one of Dyson’s earlier books, Darwin Among the Machines (I read it around 2002, when we’d been all fascinated with the Ambient Intelligence vision and anticipated a cornucopia of goodies it will bring to us. Dyson was instead writing about the ‘evolution of global intelligence’ that, in a survival of the fittest’ way might take the control from us, humans. He wasn’t dystopian in his thinking, but rather informative, and showed that many thinkers and creators of the ‘smart system’ in the past thought about these issues much more actively and deeper than the majority of us today (that’s why, for example, I wasn’t so much impressed by the latest Kevin Kelly’s What Technology Thinks – for me it’s much more lightweight compared to the deep and well-grounded stories of Dyson).

Dyson’s latest book, Turing’s Cathedral, appropriately written and published as a contribution to the 100th anniversary of Alan Turing we celebrate this year, is a fascinating story about one of the creators of the contemporary ‘digital world’.

I am still reading it now, and so far enjoying every page. Lot’s of reach stories, revealing much more human (and therefore, much more controversial, irrational even) origin of all these ‘things’. I guess, I will wrote separately on the book, but meanwhile – a bit boastfully – will show this:

We had a lovely, even of short, conversation about the future of Internet of Things – suddenly connected to the Pussy Riot trial in Russia and violent anti-American protest that exploded in a some Muslim countries; a hyper-connected world indeed.

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