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Humanity+ @Melbourne May 5-6 2012

Ben Goertzel interviews Adam Ford about  the upcoming Humanity+ @Melbourne (May 5-6 2012), which will feature Aubrey de Grey, Natasha Vita-More, Stelarc and many more inspiring speakers.

Ben: Adam, you’ve done a bunch of futurist conferences in Melbourne in the last couple years — one of which I presented at.  Can you give our readers a run-down of what you’ve done in this vein?

Adam: Sure….  In chronological order:
Sept 7th, 11th and 12th 2010: Singularity Summit Australia –  just after the Aussiecon in Melbourne.   This was the first Singularity Summit to be held external to the main Singularity Summit.  Speakers included Gregory Benford, Hugo de Garis, and Stelarc.

June 25-26th 2011: The first Humanity+ Conference in the Southern Hemisphere. Speakers included Sean McMullen, Jon Oxer, Meredith Doig and Hugo de Garis etc…

August 20-21st 2011:  Singularity Summit Australia – This was part of National Science Week.  This included a pre-conference premiere of ‘Transcendent Man’ in Australia.  Speakers included Ben Goertzel, Steve Omohundro, David Chalmers, Lawrence Krauss etc…
March 1st 2012: There was a mini-conf for Future Day. Speakers included Sean McMullen, Alan Moulette and via skype John Smart, Ben Goertzel and Natasha Vita-More.

The up and coming Humanity+ @Melbourne Summit will be in May 5-6th 2012, and there is another Singularity Summit in August 18-19th 2012 as well.

Ben: What motivated you to start running these conferences?

Adam: Partly my motivation was that I felt that it was appropriate to get something along these lines going locally to Australia, since so many of us were enjoying futurist conferences and discussion groups online.  But the main reason was and still is public advocacy.  It is useful to keep the local conversation ticking around rejuvenation research, Transhumanism, AGI and the related social and political issues – this will help reach a currently mostly disengaged local audience.  There is resistance to some of these emerging technologies, I believe because of unfamiliarity; though I think the tides are turning as people become more acquainted and comfortable with technological change.  From my experience, people in Melbourne Australia seem to be gravitating in a more techno-progressive direction, and are taking the prospects of a radical future seriously – thinking rationally about long term futures, though social change around these ideas could be moving faster.  One way to help this process along is through education and interaction, and that is the main purpose of these conferences.

Besides I think that Australia being almost the antipodes of Silicon Valley is a great place for these types of conferences.  And Melbourne (where the conferences are held) just so happens to be the biotech capital of the southern hemisphere, so there are plenty of scientifically minded people here who tune in.

Few predicted just how fast and dramatic the social, economic and political impacts of computer technology have been in our lifetimes.  Issues like those around human level AI, Transhumanism and the environmental impacts of advanced technology deserve a voice in the public square in all parts of the world.

Ben: And what has been the reaction to your conferences, to far?

Adam: The reaction to the conferences has been great!  News about the conferences has reached the newspapers, the front page of some of them, and also various podcasts.  People travel from interstate to come to the conferences, and we have even had passers by from overseas.  We average at about  80 to 150 people in attendance so far – which isn’t too bad based on the population density.

What kinds of people do you find attend, generally?
Humanity+ @Melbourne Australia
I keep on getting told that it is only the IT geeks come to these types of conferences.  But though we have had our share in nerds, we tend to get a kaleidoscope of people including scientists, rationalists, hippies, philosophers, musicians, humanists, skeptics, atheists, spiritualists, economists, environmentalists and the list goes on and on, and the ages have varied from pre teens to octogenarians.

Ben: What do you think are the attitudes in Australia toward radical futurist topics?  Have you seen these attitudes shift over the last 5 or 10 years?

Adam: Australia historically a digging nation, extracting wealth from under the ground, sucking gold out of the earth, those who bet their lives on using divining rods to scry for subterranean riches disappeared.  Australian practicality seems to gel well with progress with science and technology – as long as there is a dollar to be made.  I don’t think there is a large population of radical futurists in Australia yet, and the attendance of the conferences in Australia has not been growing exponentially.

Attitude shifts in Australia have roughly paralleled  other western countries — though I do think the percentage of people who like science and techy stuff in Australia is quite high. Progress in science and technology has eroded away at magical thinking, and so there has been a general shift away from it. People seem to be trusting science a lot more; because of scientific and technological advances (i.e. the Human Genome Project and the Large Hadron Collider, portable computing, the internet etc) the cultural stockpile have been overflowing with technology.

We have been co-evolving with technology for 100’s of thousands of years – though only recently has the technology been able to help us stare into the galaxy to see what really lies in the heavens, and also to peer inside ourselves and wonder at what we are made of and where we came from.  There has been so much technological output that works, we have generally become accustomed to trust technology.  As a result, people seem more comfortable focusing on technological solutions to solve large scale problems and to harvest opportunities.  The internet has had a massive impact on the accessibility of information to the individual, and the advance of Moore’s Law has allowed people to carry around ridiculously powerful devices in their pockets that only a decade or two decades ago existed mostly in the minds of sci-fi writers and fans.  Can we blame people for wanting to peel the banality of the status quo off their faces, wipe the shrouds of mystery from their eyes and contemplate radical future possibilities?

Ben:  Well put… hear, hear!   About Australia in particular though — I’m wondering, are there any specific sorts of contributions you think Australia is especially suited to make, in terms of the advent of radically transformative technologies?

I’m finding it hard to put my finger on anything specific.  Obviously Australia does not have the critical mass of population that some other countries have, though there is a large and growing cluster of biotechnology research centres in Melbourne.  Though the environment is different here than to the USA.
In Australia often people have to achieve results on projects with tight budget constraints – this type how of environment that breeds a different type of approach to solving problems (sometimes people have to try to punch above their weight) than to ones with large scale funding.  If a problem can’t be cracked by brute forcing it open with loads of cash, approximations and other avenues to a solution have to be found.

There are a lot of ‘free thinkers’ in Australia, and there are regular events on science, technology and the like (i.e. National Science Week).  Lest we forget California has had a steady supply of scientists from Australia.

We have various centres and institutions devoted to furthering science.  There is ARMI (Australian Regenerative Medicine Institute) at Monash University which supports the critical infrastructure required to deliver the next generation of discoveries in regenerative medicine.  The Australian Synchrotron seeks to reveal the innermost, sub-microscopic secrets of materials under investigation, from human tissue to plants to metals and more.  The Melbourne Center for Nano Fabrication is multi-user research facility, operating the largest purpose-built cleanroom complex in the Southern Hemisphere.  And these are just a few around Melbourne.

And not to forget, there are plenty of neat places to travel in Australia, so there are plenty of things to do if you stay for a while after the conference.

Ben: Absolutely — Australia’s an amazing country, as I found out when I lived in Perth for 1996 and 1997, and your conferences are fantastic.  I hope this interview will motivate some of our readers to check out Humanity+ Melbourne in a few weeks, and your other Australian futurist conferences in future….


Humanity+ @Melbourne

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