The second half of our season kicks off with a timely look at how the rapid advance of Artificial Intelligence (AI) is shaping our conceptions of the future of humanity. Three sparkling thinkers – Professor Rachel Armstrong, Julian Gough, and Mark O’Connell – join us to reflect on the mutual influence of science fiction and scientific development. At a moment when light is being shined on a formerly hidden tradition of Irish Sci-Fi (see Jack Fennell’s anthology of Irish Sc-Fi, A Brilliant Void) we consider the recent work of our guests and the literary, technical and moral challenges that are posed by rapidly advancing technology and its potential to take control of, well, everything. At a time when technological warfare has taken new turns (Cambridge Analytica, drones, Huawei…) it is salutary to consider how the discipline of futurology emerged from science fiction and became a respectable part of university culture in the 60s and 70s. Futurists have since reacted to and engaged with military developments and corporations such as RAND and DARPA (responsible for stealth warplanes, the internet…). Major military forces commission projections of future dystopian scenarios and then fund solutions to those scenarios – our guests reflect in their books on that entanglement and on how AI is central to some bleak and very plausible dystopian projections. Elon Musk has warned of the incautious development of AI that we are “summoning the demon” and that it is our “greatest existential threat.”
A tour de force.Joseph O'Connor on Gough's Connect
Gough’s novel, Connect, is set in the near future and explores how human relationships and conceptions of mortality are changed as implants make fuzzy the line between human and AI. The story follows Colt, an autistic 16-year-old who spends most of his time in virtual reality and his biologist mother, Naomi, whose work is guarded jealously by the US military. Connect is a thrillingly smart novel of ideas that explores what connection – both human and otherwise – might be in a digital age. It is a story of mothers and sons, but also about you, your phone, and the future.
Extraordinary, utterly vital… A brilliant illumination of the techno-future, To Be a Machine is also, and more importantly, a joyful summation of what it is to be human.Paul Murray on O'Connell's To Be a Machine
Mark O’Connell’s To Be a Machine: Adventures Among Cyborgs, Utopians, Hackers, and the Futurists Solving the Modest Problem of Death reports on the growing movement to attempt to live indefinitely via technology. The aim of this ‘transhumanism’ movement is to use technology to fundamentally change the human condition, to improve our bodies and minds to the point where we become something other, and better, than the animals we are. It is a work full of astonishing encounters with the key players in this movement (Ray Kurzweil, the Oxford Future of Humanity Institute, Google, DARPA…), is an exposition of its philosophical and scientific roots and considers what it might mean for our possible futures.
Chair: Professor Rachel Armstrong is Professor of Experimental Architecture at the School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape, Newcastle University. She is Director and founder of the Experimental Architecture Group (EAG) whose work has been published widely as well as exhibited and performed. Rachel investigates a new approach to building materials called ‘living architecture,’ which suggests it is possible for our buildings to share some of the properties of living systems. Current titles include a sci-fi novel Origamy, (NewCon Press) and Soft Living Architecture: An Alternative View of Bio-informed Practice, (Bloomsbury Academic) She is the author of Vibrant Architecture: Matter as Co-Designer of Living Structures (DeGruyter Open), Star Ark: A Living Self-Sustaining Spaceship (Springer Praxis books), Soft Living Architecture: An Alternative View of Bio-design (Bloomsbury Academic, In Press), Liquid Life: On Non-linear Materiality (Punctum, In Press) She is co-author of Handbook of the Unknowable, with Rolf Hughes. Follow Rachel on twitter
Speaker: Julian Gough
Julian Gough is the author of three comic novels and was formerly the lead singer of the underground literary band Toasted Heretic. He was born in London, raised in Tipperary, and educated in Galway. He won the BBC National Short Story Award in 2007 and was shortlisted for the Everyman Bollinger Wodehouse Prize in 2008 and 2012. In 2011 he wrote the ending to Minecraft, Time magazine’s computer game of the year. His funniest, and oddest (and most prize-winning) novel is Jude in Ireland. It concerns a young Irish orphan’s search for true love. Neil Gaiman called Rabbit’s Bad Habits (2016), “a laugh-out-loud story”, and Eoin Colfer called “an instant modern classic”. He draws on his knowledge of computer games in his novel Connect. Follow Julian on twitter.
Speaker: Mark O’Connell
Mark O’Connell is a journalist, essayist and literary critic from Dublin. He is a books columnist for Slate, a staff writer at The Millions, and a regular contributor to the New Yorker’s Page-Turner blog and the Dublin Review; his work has been published in the New York Times Magazine, the New York Times Book Review and the Observer. He has a PhD in English Literature from Trinity College Dublin, and in 2013 his academic monograph on the work of the novelist John Banville, John Banville’s Narcissistic Fictions, was published by Palgrave Macmillan. He was an Irish Research Council Postdoctoral Fellow from 2011 to 2012 at Trinity College, where he taught contemporary literature. His book, To Be a Machine: Adventures Among Cyborgs, Utopians, Hackers, and the Futurists Solving the Modest Problem of Death, won the 2018 Wellcome book prize. Read Mark’s prescription for writing here. Follow Mark on twitter.