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Robert J. Sawyer on Humanity 2.0

Robert J. Sawyer and Socrates

Robert J. Sawyer is one of my all-time favorite science fiction writers. Thus, when I heard that the Literary Review of Canada and TV Ontario’s Big Ideas are co-hosting a talk by Robert at the Gardiner Museum, I simply had to attend.

Robert J. Sawyer is one of those very rare people who truly know a lot about everything and — even rarer ones — who can communicate clearly and convincingly about what they know. Below you can watch the recording of Sawyer’s very engaging, eloquent and empassionate presentation touching up on a variety of issues such as cosmology, SETI, transhumanism, the singularity, longevity, mind uploading and other ways of upgrading humanity to version 2.0.

The event was held on November 21, 2011 in Toronto and it took a couple of months before it was eventually aired on TVO and posted online.

Program Synopsis: When Marshal McLuhan published Understanding Media, in 1964, the U of T English professor’s radical arguments about technology’s role in shaping human existence made him a unique media oracle. Now, 100 years after McLuhan’s birth, many simply take as given that our future will be shaped, not by ethical or cultural precepts, but by our fast-changing technological advances.

In fact, we’re approaching the moment —not too far off—at which computer intelligence will exceed that of humans. Today, some already dream of uploading their consciousnesses into artificial bodies or virtual worlds; others wish to radically prolong their lives or enhance their bodies through biotechnology. These changes are feared by some, embraced by others, and point to key questions: What will it mean to be human in the future? Can we look forward to a Utopian tomorrow? Might some of us simply become obsolete? What will it mean to be human in the future?

Robert J. Sawyer discusses how to approach our brave new future without (too much) fear and trembling and points out that uploading consciousness into virtual worlds and prolonging life through biotechnology are already being contemplated.

Who is Robert J. Sawyer?

Called “The Dean of Canadian Science Fiction” by The Ottawa Citizen and “just about the best science-fiction writer out there these days” by The Denver Rocky Mountain News, Sawyer is one of only eight writers in history (and the only Canadian) to win all three of the science-fiction field’s top honors for best novel of the year – the Hugo Award, the Nebula Award, and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award. He has taught writing at the University of Toronto, Ryerson University, Humber College, the National University of Ireland, and the Banff Centre. His keen insights into the human impact of technological change have led to consulting work for corporate clients such as Google, and Sawyer has also advised bodies from the Canadian Federal Department of Justice to the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

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  • “The least interesting thing to have a dialogue with is meat.” Yes, that’s reason 101 why I would opt to have an android body. To be more interesting. 🙂 Regarding the tricky (in my limited understanding) consciousness question, I’d still be uneasy about my consciousness- in essence, “me”- becoming a copy. In an abstract philosophical sense, it ultimately wouldn’t matter if “continuity of consciousness” was fundamental to a specific consciousness, just like being dead doesn’t matter to a dead person. My copied consciousness would- in its understanding- be convinced it was “me.” Similarly, I agree that a live, symphonic performance may be auditorily
    indistinguishable from a copy of that performance, but I would not say they are the same entity. If I could get 100% on board with the idea that consciousness is dead during sleep, I would feel more comfortable about being a copy of myself. But, like I said, it ultimately wouldn’t matter if it didn’t work anyway, because I wouldn’t be around to complain if it didn’t.

    Great point about the danger of living in a have / have not society. But I would point out that many terrorists aren’t operating from a “have not” mindset. They are operating from a religious mindset, and no amount of reason or riches will convince them to disobey their gods.

    Perhaps even more concerning, in my opinion, is the impending have / have not life-extension war. As precious as we think human life is today, it will become infinitely more precious as a human life spans potentially reach infinity. I don’t think a lottery system would work. People would find all kinds of reasons why they should get a shot at indefinite life extension instead of their neighbors. It would be the ultimate hard-wired “survival of the nastiest” in the ultimate environment of scarcity.

    I agree that the USA cutting SETI funding- especially in the face of the mind-blowing amount of money they use to feed the global war machine- is a tragic embarrassment. “The world would be a much better place if the brightest people on the planet wold stop making the things the stupidest people on the planet wanted them to make.” My favorite Sawyer quote from this terrific, thought-provoking lecture. 🙂

  • Further illustrating my previous comment, sci fi author Neal Stephenson addresses the priority war between the progressives and the regressives in this video of about 20 minutes: http://youtu.be/TE0n_5qPmRM

  • Hi Cynthia, I am happy you enjoyed this as much as I did!

  • Fantastic references! I love the videos! Thanks for posting.

  • You’re welcome, Nikola! Wouldn’t it be great to get Sawyer, Stephenson, and Young together to discuss these ideas? Perhaps after the Singularity, we’ll have the technology to make multiple copies of people, and a copy of Sawyer, Stephenson, and Young can get together in cyberspace and talk about all the funny ideas they had pre-Singularity.

  • Unless, of course, the copies have other ideas about what they’d want to do with their time 😉

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