James Bridle and Nolan Gertz at BRAVE NEW WORLD Conference in Leiden

What is hybrid intelligence? Can bots learn empathy and is technology the new religion? These and similar questions were all up for discussion at the Brave New World Conference in Leiden yesterday. Now in its fourth year, this is an Art and Science conference concerned with how future technology will impact human life. To this end, a variety of artists, scientists, writers and philosophers came together in the appropriately chosen, Naturalis Biodiversity Centre, to share their research and ideas on a topic that is redefining life as we know it. We heard journalist and author of ‘New Dark Age’ (2018), James Bridle and philosopher, Nolan Gertz, author of ‘Nihilism and Technology’(2018) speak about man’s relationship with technology. There were also a number of interactive exhibitions that allowed one to step into the sort of world one usually only reads about in science fiction novels.

Not far from a collection of million year old dinosaur skeletons, visitors could find the Reproductopia exhibition. Created by the Next Nature Network as part of the Beyond Human Festival, this is a mobile clinic that enables one to design one’s own reproductive future. The Reproductopia Clinic presents the thought-provoking visions of artists and designers in the light of  radical developments in reproductive technology. Other interactive exhibitions included a sophisticated algorithm designed to assess one’s suitability for a job and a game called Black Box Bellagio, designed by artist Roos Groothuizen, who is concerned about digital rights. As a visitor one could sit down at this small, unusual casino and gamble, not with money, but with your freedom and private data instead. As the disclaimer said: the house always seems to win. For those interested in cyborgs and the increasingly blurry boundaries between the human and the non-human, we were treated to a viewing of award winning animated adaption of short story, Zima Blue by Alastair Reynolds. Now part of a Netflix series called Love, Death and Robots.

Zima Blue explores the notion of transhumanism through the central character, Zima. A  universally acclaimed artist, who lives a reclusive life in a far flung galaxy, in search of meaning. Transhumanism is a philosophical movement that advocates for a transformation of the human condition via recourse to advanced technologies. Emerging technologies are seen as a way to overcome fundamental human limitations so that a posthuman future may be imagined. Philosopher, Nolan Gertz, argues that transhumanists thus see nature as essentially flawed and technology as a new God-like entity. He quotes author of New York Times best-seller, Superintelligence, Professor Nick Bostrom, as saying, ‘If Mother Nature had been a real parent, she should have been in jail.’ Does such a position posit technology as God and transhumanists as the priests of today, asks Gertz? And what are the implications of such a perspective?

James Bridle takes up a related argument when he asks, what form of intelligence are we creating via things like AI? And why is the development of AI consistently predicated on the notions of domination? He encourages us instead to look once more at the natural world, about which we still have so much learn, in order to gain a less complete but more diverse understanding of intelligences. Or what he calls, other intelligences. By this he means that of the fauna and the flora with which we have shared the earth for thousands of years. But  which we are only recently beginning to appreciate and better understand better in all its  complexity. ‘The more we learn about nature, the more we realise how blind we’ve been’ he says. Bridle gives us the example of Pando, a single male quaking aspen tree found in Utah, US that covers 43 hectares. Known as the trembling giant, this incredible organism is estimated to have an 80 000 year old root system. James Bridle points out that Pando’s status as the world’s most massive organism was only recognised in 1992. The journalist goes on to provide other examples of different kinds of intelligences that are being successfully used in politics. Citing Ireland as an example, he explains how issues of great sensitivity and complexity like abortion have been successfully resolved by bringing together a large number of randomly selected individuals whose diversity of age, opinion, education and background has in fact aided them in coming to a consensus on issues that many politicians have avoided.

A truly fascinating event, the Brave New World conference offers an eye-watering amount of information on a vast array of issues. As we head into this complex, at times overwhelming, brave new world, we might, as Gertz suggests, do well to remember the Nietzschean sentiments of Huxley’s classic novel of the same name. As the Savage says,

‘But I like the inconveniences. I don’t want comfort. I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin. … I claim them all,’ said the Savage at last.

Mustapha Mond shrugged his shoulders. “You’re welcome,” he said.    Souwie Buis 6th November 2019