Category Archives: science fiction

February 1, 2024 talk about ‘CULTUS’: a scifi, queer art installation at the University of British Columbia’s Belkin Gallery in Vancouver, Canada

Spanning religiosity, science fiction, contemporary perspectives on artificial intelligence, and the techno-industrial complex, artist Zach Blas and writer/editor Jayne Wilkinson will be discussing CULTUS, an art installation currently being shown as part of the Belkin Gallery’s January 12 – April 14, 2024 exhibition, Aporia (Notes to a Medium),

Zach Blas, CULTUS , 2023, from the 2024 exhibition at Arebyte Gallery, London, UK. Courtesy of the artist. Photo: Max Colson

Here’s what the folks at the Belkin Art Gallery (Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery) had to say in their January 30, 2024 announcement (received via email),

Artist Talk with Zach Blas and Jayne Wilkinson

Thursday, February 1 at 5 pm 

Please join us for a lecture by interdisciplinary artist Zach Blas, with a dialogue to follow with writer/editor Jayne Wilkinson. Blas will discuss his most recent work, CULTUS, the second in a trilogy of queer science-fiction installations addressing the beliefs, fantasies and histories that are influential to the contemporary tech industry. CULTUS (the Latin word for “worship”) considers the God-like status often afforded to artificial intelligence (AI) and examines how this religiosity is marshalled to serve beliefs about judgement and transcendence, extraction and immortality, pleasure and punishment, individual freedom and cult devotion. The conversation to follow will address some of the pressing intersecting political and ethical questions raised by both using and critiquing contemporary image technologies like AI.

This conversation will be audio-recorded; email us at belkin.gallery@ubc.ca if you are interested in listening to the recording following the event.

This talk is presented in conjunction with the Belkin’s exhibition Aporia (Notes to a Medium) and Critical Image Forum, a collaboration between the Belkin and the Department of Art History, Visual Art and Theory at UBC.

For anyone (like me) who’s never heard of either Blas or Wilkinson, there’s more on the Belkin’s event page,

Zach Blas is an artist, filmmaker and writer whose practice draws out the philosophies and imaginaries residing in computational technologies and their industries. Working across moving image, computation, installation, theory and performance, Blas has exhibited, lectured and held screenings at venues including the 12th Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art, Whitney Museum of American Art, Tate Modern, 12th Gwangju Biennale and e-flux. His 2021 artist monograph Unknown Ideals is published by Sternberg Press. Blas is currently Assistant Professor of Visual Studies at the University of Toronto.

Jayne Wilkinson is a Toronto-based art writer and editor.

Should you be interested in attending the talk and/or the exhibition, here are some directions, from the Belkin Gallery’s Visit webpage,

Directions

The Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery is located at the University of British Columbia Vancouver campus, 1825 Main Mall, Vancouver BC, V6T 1Z2

Open in Maps

By Public Transit

TransLink offers many routes to UBC, including several express services (44, 84, R4, 99). The UBC Bus Loop is the last stop for each of these buses, and is located in the central area of campus near the AMS Nest. To get to the gallery, walk west on University Boulevard. (about 1 block) until you reach Main Mall. Turn right onto Main Mall and continue for about 3 blocks until you reach Crescent Road. We are located on your left at the corner of Main Mall and Crescent Road, near the Flagpole Plaza.

By Car

From downtown Vancouver, proceed west on West 4th Avenue, which becomes Chancellor Blvd and then merges with NW Marine Drive. Continue west on NW Marine Drive, to the Rose Garden Parkade (on your left).

From the airport, proceed to SW Marine Drive. Stay on SW Marine Drive, which eventually merges with NW Marine Drive. Continue just past the Museum of Anthropology (on your left) to the Rose Garden Parkade (on your right).

Accessibility

Entrance

The Belkin is wheelchair accessible. The main entrance is located on the east side of the building next to Main Mall. For people requiring wheelchair or easier accessibility, use the ramp from Crescent Road to access the main gallery doors.  This entrance is level and accessible and has both a revolving door and a powered wheelchair-accessible door.

Washrooms

Washrooms are all-gender and include two multi-stall washrooms with wheelchair-accessible stalls and one stand-alone washroom that is wheelchair accessible.

Seating

Portable gallery stools are available for use.

Large Print Materials

Large print materials are available.

ASL Interpretation

ASL interpreters are available upon request for Belkin programs and events. To request interpretation for an event or tour, please contact us in advance.

Service Animals

Service dogs are welcome to accompany visitors.

Scent

The Belkin’s office is scent free. Occasionally, there are works or projects that are scent-focused.

Please ask our staff if you require any assistance or have any questions.

Admission to the gallery is free.

A dearth of science fiction books for children

Unusually, I’m going to start with the author’s bio, from Emily Midkiff’s profile page on The Conversation,

Before getting degrees in children’s literature and literacy education, Dr. Emily Midkiff spent 9 years working in children’s theater, and now does research on books with attention to what children have to say. Her most recent publication is Equipping Space Cadets: Primary Science Fiction for Young Children, a book-length study of science fiction for children.

Her November 30, 2022 essay for The Conversation (h/t Dec. 1, 2022 news item on phys.org) explains the motivation for her research, Note: Links have been removed,

While visiting an elementary school library in 2016 to count the fantasy books for a graduate class on fantasy literature, I noticed there were hardly any science fiction books for readers under 12. This discovery prompted me to spend the next five years researching the shortage of science fiction books for children in this age group.

I reached two big conclusions. First, I found that adults often think that kids can’t understand science fiction – but they can. Second, I found that authors and illustrators are not depicting characters from diverse backgrounds in children’s stories about the future. As a researcher who specializes in children’s literature, these findings make me wonder if the reason there is so little diversity in children’s science fiction is because authors don’t believe that their readers will be children from diverse backgrounds.

Out of the 357 science fiction children’s books that I read for my research, I found that only a quarter of them featured diverse characters. Less than half – 37% – featured a girl in a major role. While children’s science fiction books have lacked diversity historically, I found that those written in the 21st century are more diverse than children’s books overall.

In recent years, some vocal fans have reacted negatively when major television and film series like “Star Trek,” “Star Wars” and other science fiction and fantasy television shows cast actors of color to play main characters.

When fans refuse to accept non-white fantasy and science fiction characters, they demonstrate what children’s literature expert and professor Ebony Elizabeth Thomas calls the “imagination gap.” Thomas explains that the imagination gap begins in childhood. Children who rarely see diversity represented in their fantasy and science fiction books grow up to be adults who see diversity as out of place in their favorite stories.

Midkiff goes on to describe some of her findings,

The earliest example from my sample to include diversity was a collection of “Buck Rogers” comic strips from 1929. It contained at least a few characters with different skin tones and some independent female characters. This is more than can be said for the other stories I read from the same era, like the “Flash Gordon” comics from 1934 and the “Brick Bradford on the Isles Beyond the Ice” comics from 1935. The women in the stories prior to the 1960s were often trying but failing to be independent. “Connie: Master of the Jovian Moons” from 1939 stood out for having an active and successful female protagonist and an elderly female scientist.

Only five books out of the 357 that I read had detailed non-white or non-European cultural content. The 2014 graphic novel “Lowriders in Space” by Cathy Camper and Raúl The Third, for instance, features Mexican American lowrider culture and rasquachismo, which is a uniquely Chicano aesthetic that values survival and uses discarded and recycled materials in art in defiance of the perceived value of those materials. The illustrations in “Lowriders in Space” were drawn with ballpoint pens that Raúl The Third picked up from sidewalks.

The books that I read did not show any queer characters, but I found that recent children’s television has ventured into this type of representation. The cartoon “Steven Universe” uses the unlimited possibilities of the science fiction genre to think about gender and queerness creatively. For example, the aliens in “Steven Universe” can transform their bodies at will, and yet identify as female and have queer relationships.

It seems we need more children in our imagined futures and more range in who they are in terms of colour, ability, sexual identity, and more.

The physics of the multiverse of madness

The Dr. Strange movie (Dr. Strange in the Multiverse of Madness released May 6, 2022) has inspired an essay on physics. From a May 9, 2022 news item on phys.org

If you’re a fan of science fiction films, you’ll likely be familiar with the idea of alternate universes—hypothetical planes of existence with different versions of ourselves. As far from reality as it sounds, it is a question that scientists have contemplated. So just how well does the fiction stack up with the science?

The many-worlds interpretation is one idea in physics that supports the concept of multiple universes existing. It stems from the way we comprehend quantum mechanics, which defy the rules of our regular world. While it’s impossible to test and is considered an interpretation rather than a scientific theory, many physicists think it could be possible.

“When you look at the regular world, things are measurable and predictable—if you drop a ball off a roof, it will fall to the ground. But when you look on a very small scale in quantum mechanics, the rules stop applying. Instead of being predictable, it becomes about probabilities,” says Sarah Martell, Associate Professor at the School of Physics, UNSW Science.

A May 9, 2022 University of New South Wales (UNSW; Australia) press release originated the news item,

The fundamental quantum equation – called a wave function – shows a particle inhabiting many possible positions, with different probabilities assigned to each. If you were to attempt to observe the particle to determine its position – known in physics as ‘collapsing’ the wave function – you’ll find it in just one place. But the particle actually inhabits all the positions allowed by the wave function.

This interpretation of quantum mechanics is important, as it helps explain some of the quantum paradoxes that logic can’t answer, like why a particle can be in two places at once. While it might seem impossible to us, since we experience time and space as fixed, mathematically it adds up.

“When you make a measurement in quantum physics, you’re only measuring one of the possibilities. We can work with that mathematically, but it’s philosophically uncomfortable that the world stops being predictable,” A/Prof. Martell says.

“If you don’t get hung up on the philosophy, you simply move on with your physics. But what if the other possibility were true? That’s where this idea of the multiverse comes in.”

The quantum multiverse

Like it is depicted in many science fiction films, the many-worlds interpretation suggests our reality is just one of many. The universe supposedly splits or branches into other universes any time we take action – whether it’s a molecule moving, what you decide to eat or your choice of career. 

In physics, this is best explained through the thought experiment of Schrodinger’s cat. In the many-worlds interpretation, when the box is opened, the observer and the possibly alive cat split into an observer looking at a box with a deceased cat and one looking at a box with a live cat.

“A version of you measures one result, and a version of you measures the other result. That way, you don’t have to explain why a particular probability resulted. It’s just everything that could happen, does happen, somewhere,” A/Prof. Martell says.

“This is the logic often depicted in science fiction, like Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, where five different Spider-Man exist in different universes based on the idea there was a different event that set up each one’s progress and timeline.”

This interpretation suggests that our decisions in this universe have implications for other versions of ourselves living in parallel worlds. But what about the possibility of interacting with these hypothetical alternate universes?

According to the many-worlds interpretation, humans wouldn’t be able to interact with parallel universes as they do in films – although science fiction has creative licence to do so.

“It’s a device used all the time in comic books, but it’s not something that physics would have anything to say about,” A/Prof. Martell says. “But I love science fiction for the creativity and the way that little science facts can become the motivation for a character or the essential crisis in a story with characters like Doctor Strange.”

“If for nothing else, science fiction can help make science more accessible, and the more we get people talking about science, the better,” A/Prof. Martell says.

“I think we do ourselves a lot of good by putting hooks out there that people can grab. So, if we can get people interested in science through popular culture, they’ll be more interested in the science we do.” 

The university also offers a course as this October 6, 2020 UNSW press release reveals,

From the morality plays in Star Trek, to the grim futures in Black Mirror, fiction can help explore our hopes – and fears – of the role science might play in our futures.

But sci-fi can be more than just a source of entertainment. When fiction gets the science right (or right enough), sci-fi can also be used to make science accessible to broader audiences. 

“Sci-fi can help relate science and technology to the lived human experience,” says Dr Maria Cunningham, a radio astronomer and senior lecturer in UNSW Science’s School of Physics. 

“Storytelling can make complex theories easier to visualise, understand and remember.”

Dr Cunningham – a sci-fi fan herself – convenes ‘Brave New World’: a course on science fact and fiction aimed at students from a non-scientific background. The course explores the relationship between literature, science, and society, using case studies like Futurama and MacGyver.

She says her own interest in sci-fi long predates her career in science.

“Fiction can help get people interested in science – sometimes without them even knowing it,” says Dr Cunningham.

“Sci-fi has the potential to increase the science literacy of the general population.”

Here, Dr Cunningham shares three tricky physics concepts best explained through science fiction (spoilers ahead).

Cunningham goes on to discuss the Universal Speed Limit, Time Dilation, and, yes, the Many Worlds Interpretation.

The course, “Brave New World: Science Fiction, Science Fact and the Future – GENS4015” is still offered but do check the link to make sure it takes you to the latest version (I found 2023). One more thing, it is offered wholly on the internet.

Wound healing without sutures

Whoever wrote this Technion-Israel Institute of Technology November 28, 2021 press release (also on EurekAlert) they seem to have had a lot of fun doing it,

“Sutures? That’s practically medieval!”

It is a staple of science fiction to mock sutures as outdated. The technique has, after all, been in use for at least 5,000 years. Surely medicine should have advanced since ancient Egypt. Professor Hossam Haick from the Wolfson Department of Chemical Engineering at the Technion has finally turned science fiction into reality. His lab succeeded in creating a smart sutureless dressing that binds the wound together, wards off infection, and reports on the wound’s condition directly to the doctors’ computers. Their study was published in Advanced Materials.

Current surgical procedures entail the surgeon cutting the human body, doing what needs to be done, and sewing the wound shut – an invasive procedure that damages surrounding healthy tissue. Some sutures degrade by themselves – or should degrade – as the wound heals. Others need to be manually removed. Dressing is then applied over the wound and medical personnel monitor the wound by removing the dressing to allow observation for signs of infection like swelling, redness, and heat. This procedure is painful to the patient, and disruptive to healing, but it is unavoidable. Working with these methods also mean that infection is often discovered late, since it takes time for visible signs to appear, and more time for the inspection to come round and see them. In developed countries, with good sanitation available, about 20% of patients develop infections post-surgery, necessitating additional treatment and extending the time to recovery. The figure and consequences are much worse in developing countries.

How will it work with Prof. Haick’s new dressing?

Prior to beginning a procedure, the dressing – which is very much like a smart band-aid – developed by Prof. Haick’s lab will be applied to the site of the planned incision. The incision will then be made through it. Following the surgery, the two ends of the wound will be brought together, and within three seconds the dressing will bind itself together, holding the wound closed, similarly to sutures. From then, the dressing will be continuously monitoring the wound, tracking the healing process, checking for signs of infection like changes in temperature, pH, and glucose levels, and report to the medical personnel’s smartphones or other devices. The dressing will also itself release antibiotics onto the wound area, preventing infection.

“I was watching a movie on futuristic robotics with my kids late one night,” said Prof. Haick, “and I thought, what if we could really make self-repairing sensors?”

Most people discard their late-night cinema-inspired ideas. Not Prof. Haick, who, the very next day after his Eureka moment, was researching and making plans. The first publication about a self-healing sensor came in 2015 (read more about it on the Technion website here). At that time, the sensor needed almost 24 hours to repair itself. By 2020, sensors were healing in under a minute (read about the study by Muhammad Khatib, a student in Prof. Haick’s lab here), but while it had multiple applications, it was not yet biocompatible, that is, not usable in contact with skin and blood. Creating a polymer that would be both biocompatible and self-healing was the next step, and one that was achieved by postdoctoral fellow Dr. Ning Tang.

The new polymer is structured like a molecular zipper, made from sulfur and nitrogen: the surgeon’s scalpel opens it; then pressed together, it closes and holds fast. Integrated carbon nanotubes provide electric conductivity and the integration of the sensor array. In experiments, wounds closed with the smart dressing healed as fast as those closed with sutures and showed reduced rates of infection.

“It’s a new approach to wound treatment,” said Prof. Haick. “We introduce the advances of the fourth industrial revolution – smart interconnected devices, into the day-to-day treatment of patients.”

Prof. Haick is the head of the Laboratory for Nanomaterial-based Devices (LNBD) and the Dean of Undergraduate Studies at the Technion. Dr. Ning Tang was a postdoctoral fellow in Prof. Haick’s laboratory and conducted this study as part of his fellowship. He has now been appointed an associate professor in Shanghai Jiao Tong University.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Highly Efficient Self-Healing Multifunctional Dressing with Antibacterial Activity for Sutureless Wound Closure and Infected Wound Monitoring by Ning Tang, Rongjun Zhang, Youbin Zheng, Jing Wang, Muhammad Khatib, Xue Jiang, Cheng Zhou, Rawan Omar, Walaa Saliba, Weiwei Wu, Miaomiao Yuan, Daxiang Cui, Hossam Haick. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1002/adma.202106842 First published: 05 November 2021

This paper is behind a paywall.

I usually like to have three links to a news/press release and in my searches for a third source for this press release, I stumbled onto the technioncanada.org website. They seemed to have scooped everyone including Technion as they have a November 25, 2021posting of the press release.

East/West collaboration on scholarship and imagination about humanity’s long-term future— six new fellows at Berggruen Research Center at Peking University

According to a January 4, 2022 Berggruen Institute (also received via email), they have appointed a new crop of fellows for their research center at Peking University,

The Berggruen Institute has announced six scientists and philosophers to serve as Fellows at the Berggruen Research Center at Peking University in Beijing, China. These eminent scholars will work together across disciplines to explore how the great transformations of our time may shift human experience and self-understanding in the decades and centuries to come.

The new Fellows are Chenjian Li, University Chair Professor at Peking University; Xianglong Zhang, professor of philosophy at Peking University; Xiaoli Liu, professor of philosophy at Renmin University of China; Jianqiao Ge, lecturer at the Academy for Advanced Interdisciplinary Studies (AAIS) at Peking University; Xiaoping Chen, Director of the Robotics Laboratory at the University of Science and Technology of China; and Haidan Chen, associate professor of medical ethics and law at the School of Health Humanities at Peking University.

“Amid the pandemic, climate change, and the rest of the severe challenges of today, our Fellows are surmounting linguistic and cultural barriers to imagine positive futures for all people,” said Bing Song, Director of the China Center and Vice President of the Berggruen Institute. “Dialogue and shared understanding are crucial if we are to understand what today’s breakthroughs in science and technology really mean for the human community and the planet we all share.”

The Fellows will investigate deep questions raised by new understandings and capabilities in science and technology, exploring their implications for philosophy and other areas of study.  Chenjian Li is considering the philosophical and ethical considerations of gene editing technology. Meanwhile, Haidan Chen is exploring the social implications of brain/computer interface technologies in China, while Xiaoli Liu is studying philosophical issues arising from the intersections among psychology, neuroscience, artificial intelligence, and art.

Jianqiao Ge’s project considers the impact of artificial intelligence on the human brain, given the relative recency of its evolution into current form. Xianglong Zhang’s work explores the interplay between literary culture and the development of technology. Finally, Xiaoping Chen is developing a new concept for describing innovation that draws from Daoist, Confucianist, and ancient Greek philosophical traditions.

Fellows at the China Center meet monthly with the Institute’s Los Angeles-based Fellows. These fora provide an opportunity for all Fellows to share and discuss their work. Through this cross-cultural dialogue, the Institute is helping to ensure continued high-level of ideas among China, the United States, and the rest of the world about some of the deepest and most fundamental questions humanity faces today.

“Changes in our capability and understanding of the physical world affect all of humanity, and questions about their implications must be pondered at a cross-cultural level,” said Bing. “Through multidisciplinary dialogue that crosses the gulf between East and West, our Fellows are pioneering new thought about what it means to be human.”

Haidan Chen is associate professor of medical ethics and law at the School of Health Humanities at Peking University. She was a visiting postgraduate researcher at the Institute for the Study of Science Technology and Innovation (ISSTI), the University of Edinburgh; a visiting scholar at the Brocher Foundation, Switzerland; and a Fulbright visiting scholar at the Center for Biomedical Ethics, Stanford University. Her research interests embrace the ethical, legal, and social implications (ELSI) of genetics and genomics, and the governance of emerging technologies, in particular stem cells, biobanks, precision medicine, and brain science. Her publications appear at Social Science & MedicineBioethics and other journals.

Xiaoping Chen is the director of the Robotics Laboratory at University of Science and Technology of China. He also currently serves as the director of the Robot Technical Standard Innovation Base, an executive member of the Global AI Council, Chair of the Chinese RoboCup Committee, and a member of the International RoboCup Federation’s Board of Trustees. He has received the USTC’s Distinguished Research Presidential Award and won Best Paper at IEEE ROBIO 2016. His projects have won the IJCAI’s Best Autonomous Robot and Best General-Purpose Robot awards as well as twelve world champions at RoboCup. He proposed an intelligent technology pathway for robots based on Open Knowledge and the Rong-Cha principle, which have been implemented and tested in the long-term research on KeJia and JiaJia intelligent robot systems.

Jianqiao Ge is a lecturer at the Academy for Advanced Interdisciplinary Studies (AAIS) at Peking University. Before, she was a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Chicago and the Principal Investigator / Co-Investigator of more than 10 research grants supported by the Ministry of Science and Technology of China, the National Natural Science Foundation of China, and Beijing Municipal Science & Technology Commission. She has published more than 20 peer-reviewed articles on leading academic journals such as PNAS, the Journal of Neuroscience, and has been awarded two national patents. In 2008, by scanning the human brain with functional MRI, Ge and her collaborator were among the first to confirm that the human brain engages distinct neurocognitive strategies to comprehend human intelligence and artificial intelligence. Ge received her Ph.D. in psychology, B.S in physics, a double B.S in mathematics and applied mathematics, and a double B.S in economics from Peking University.

Chenjian Li is the University Chair Professor of Peking University. He also serves on the China Advisory Board of Eli Lilly and Company, the China Advisory Board of Cornell University, and the Rhodes Scholar Selection Committee. He is an alumnus of Peking University’s Biology Department, Peking Union Medical College, and Purdue University. He was the former Vice Provost of Peking University, Executive Dean of Yuanpei College, and Associate Dean of the School of Life Sciences at Peking University. Prior to his return to China, he was an associate professor at Weill Medical College of Cornell University and the Aidekman Endowed Chair of Neurology at Mount Sinai School of Medicine. Dr. Li’s academic research focuses on the molecular and cellular mechanisms of neurological diseases, cancer drug development, and gene-editing and its philosophical and ethical considerations. Li also writes as a public intellectual on science and humanity, and his Chinese translation of Richard Feynman’s book What Do You Care What Other People Think? received the 2001 National Publisher’s Book Award.

Xiaoli Liu is professor of philosophy at Renmin University. She is also Director of the Chinese Society of Philosophy of Science Leader. Her primary research interests are philosophy of mathematics, philosophy of science and philosophy of cognitive science. Her main works are “Life of Reason: A Study of Gödel’s Thought,” “Challenges of Cognitive Science to Contemporary Philosophy,” “Philosophical Issues in the Frontiers of Cognitive Science.” She edited “Symphony of Mind and Machine” and series of books “Mind and Cognition.” In 2003, she co-founded the “Mind and Machine workshop” with interdisciplinary scholars, which has held 18 consecutive annual meetings. Liu received her Ph.D. from Peking University and was a senior visiting scholar in Harvard University.

Xianglong Zhang is a professor of philosophy at Peking University. His research areas include Confucian philosophy, phenomenology, Western and Eastern comparative philosophy. His major works (in Chinese except where noted) include: Heidegger’s Thought and Chinese Tao of HeavenBiography of HeideggerFrom Phenomenology to ConfuciusThe Exposition and Comments of Contemporary Western Philosophy; The Exposition and Comments of Classic Western PhilosophyThinking to Take Refuge: The Chinese Ancient Philosophies in the GlobalizationLectures on the History of Confucian Philosophy (four volumes); German Philosophy, German Culture and Chinese Philosophical ThinkingHome and Filial Piety: From the View between the Chinese and the Western.

About the Berggruen China Center
Breakthroughs in artificial intelligence and life science have led to the fourth scientific and technological revolution. The Berggruen China Center is a hub for East-West research and dialogue dedicated to the cross-cultural and interdisciplinary study of the transformations affecting humanity. Intellectual themes for research programs are focused on frontier sciences, technologies, and philosophy, as well as issues involving digital governance and globalization.

About the Berggruen Institute:
The Berggruen Institute’s mission is to develop foundational ideas and shape political, economic, and social institutions for the 21st century. Providing critical analysis using an outwardly expansive and purposeful network, we bring together some of the best minds and most authoritative voices from across cultural and political boundaries to explore fundamental questions of our time. Our objective is enduring impact on the progress and direction of societies around the world. To date, projects inaugurated at the Berggruen Institute have helped develop a youth jobs plan for Europe, fostered a more open and constructive dialogue between Chinese leadership and the West, strengthened the ballot initiative process in California, and launched Noema, a new publication that brings thought leaders from around the world together to share ideas. In addition, the Berggruen Prize, a $1 million award, is conferred annually by an independent jury to a thinker whose ideas are shaping human self-understanding to advance humankind.

You can find out more about the Berggruen China Center here and you can access a list along with biographies of all the Berggruen Institute fellows here.

Getting ready

I look forward to hearing about the projects from these thinkers.

Gene editing and ethics

I may have to reread some books in anticipation of Chenjian Li’s philosophical work and ethical considerations of gene editing technology. I wonder if there’ll be any reference to the He Jiankui affair.

(Briefly for those who may not be familiar with the situation, He claimed to be the first to gene edit babies. In November 2018, news about the twins, Lulu and Nana, was a sensation and He was roundly criticized for his work. I have not seen any information about how many babies were gene edited for He’s research; there could be as many as six. My July 28, 2020 posting provided an update. I haven’t stumbled across anything substantive since then.)

There are two books I recommend should you be interested in gene editing, as told through the lens of the He Jiankui affair. If you can, read both as that will give you a more complete picture.

In no particular order: This book provides an extensive and accessible look at the science, the politics of scientific research, and some of the pressures on scientists of all countries. Kevin Davies’ 2020 book, “Editing Humanity; the CRISPR Revolution and the New Era of Genome Editing” provides an excellent introduction from an insider. Here’s more from Davies’ biographical sketch,

Kevin Davies is the executive editor of The CRISPR Journal and the founding editor of Nature Genetics . He holds an MA in biochemistry from the University of Oxford and a PhD in molecular genetics from the University of London. He is the author of Cracking the Genome, The $1,000 Genome, and co-authored a new edition of DNA: The Story of the Genetic Revolution with Nobel Laureate James D. Watson and Andrew Berry. …

The other book is “The Mutant Project; Inside the Global Race to Genetically Modify Humans” (2020) by Eben Kirksey, an anthropologist who has an undergraduate degree in one of the sciences. He too provides scientific underpinning but his focus is on the cultural and personal underpinnings of the He Jiankui affair, on the culture of science research, irrespective of where it’s practiced, and the culture associated with the DIY (do-it-yourself) Biology community. Here’s more from Kirksey’s biographical sketch,

EBEN KIRKSEY is an American anthropologist and Member of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. He has been published in Wired, The Atlantic, The Guardian and The Sunday Times . He is sought out as an expert on science in society by the Associated Press, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Democracy Now, Time and the BBC, among other media outlets. He speaks widely at the world’s leading academic institutions including Oxford, Yale, Columbia, UCLA, and the International Summit of Human Genome Editing, plus music festivals, art exhibits, and community events. Professor Kirksey holds a long-term position at Deakin University in Melbourne, Australia.

Brain/computer interfaces (BCI)

I’m happy to see that Haidan Chen will be exploring the social implications of brain/computer interface technologies in China. I haven’t seen much being done here in Canada but my December 23, 2021 posting, Your cyborg future (brain-computer interface) is closer than you think, highlights work being done at the Imperial College London (ICL),

“For some of these patients, these devices become such an integrated part of themselves that they refuse to have them removed at the end of the clinical trial,” said Rylie Green, one of the authors. “It has become increasingly evident that neurotechnologies have the potential to profoundly shape our own human experience and sense of self.”

You might also find my September 17, 2020 posting has some useful information. Check under the “Brain-computer interfaces, symbiosis, and ethical issues” subhead for another story about attachment to one’s brain implant and also the “Finally” subhead for more reading suggestions.

Artificial intelligence (AI), art, and the brain

I’ve lumped together three of the thinkers, Xiaoli Liu, Jianqiao Ge and Xianglong Zhang, as there is some overlap (in my mind, if nowhere else),

  • Liu’s work on philosophical issues as seen in the intersections of psychology, neuroscience, artificial intelligence, and art
  • Ge’s work on the evolution of the brain and the impact that artificial intelligence may have on it
  • Zhang’s work on the relationship between literary culture and the development of technology

A December 3, 2021 posting, True love with AI (artificial intelligence): The Nature of Things explores emotional and creative AI (long read), is both a review of a recent episode of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s (CBC) science television series,The Nature of Things, and a dive into a number of issues as can be seen under subheads such as “AI and Creativity,” “Kazuo Ishiguro?” and “Evolution.”

You may also want to check out my December 27, 2021 posting, Ai-Da (robot artist) writes and performs poem honouring Dante’s 700th anniversary, for an eye opening experience. If nothing else, just watch the embedded video.

This suggestion relates most closely to Ge’s and Zhang’s work. If you haven’t already come across it, there’s Walter J. Ong’s 1982 book, “Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word.” From the introductory page of the 2002 edition (PDF),

This classic work explores the vast differences between oral and
literate cultures and offers a brilliantly lucid account of the
intellectual, literary and social effects of writing, print and
electronic technology. In the course of his study, Walter J.Ong
offers fascinating insights into oral genres across the globe and
through time and examines the rise of abstract philosophical and
scientific thinking. He considers the impact of orality-literacy
studies not only on literary criticism and theory but on our very
understanding of what it is to be a human being, conscious of self
and other.

In 2013, a 30th anniversary edition of the book was released and is still in print.

Philosophical traditions

I’m very excited to learn more about Xiaoping Chen’s work describing innovation that draws from Daoist, Confucianist, and ancient Greek philosophical traditions.

Should any of my readers have suggestions for introductory readings on these philosophical traditions, please do use the Comments option for this blog. In fact, if you have suggestions for other readings on these topics, I would be very happy to learn of them.

Congratulations to the six Fellows at the Berggruen Research Center at Peking University in Beijing, China. I look forward to reading articles about your work in the Berggruen Institute’s Noema magazine and, possibly, attending your online events.

A Science Fiction/Real Policy Book Club on June 9, 2021

The link between science fiction and science innovation and technology has been documented and argued over elsewhere online and in print. However, the link between policy and science fiction is new to me.

First, here’s the upcoming event which caught my eye (from the Science Fiction/Real Policy Book Club event page),

[ONLINE] – Science Fiction/Real Policy Book Club: Autonomous by Annalee Newitz

Science fiction can have real science policy impacts, and comes rife with real-life commentary. And with such a rich cache of science fiction to choose from, we think a book club is in order.

Join us [emphasis mine] for the first installment of our Science Fiction/Real Policy book club, a partnership with Issues in Science and Technology. Our first read will be Autonomous by Annalee Newitz. Autonomous follows the story of a female pharmaceutical pirate named Jack, an anti-patent scientist who has set out to bring cheap drugs to the poor. Without giving away too many spoilers, Newitz’s tale also includes a military agent-robot love story, a quest for justice, and the danger late capitalist modernity poses to personhood.

Join us for a jam-packed evening where we’ll discuss Autonomous and the questions it raises about labor and power, robot ethics, gender, patent law, the pharmaceutical industry, geopolitics, and much more.

Featured discussants

Joey Eschrich
Editor and Manager, Center for Science and the Imagination at Arizona State University [ASU]

Tahir Amin
Co-Founder and Co-Executive Director, I-MAK

When

Jun. 9, 2021 [Wednesday]
6:00 pm – 7:00 pm

Where

Online Only Webcast link

RSVP here

Follow the conversation online using #FTBookClub and by following @FutureTenseNow.

Who is ‘us’?

The hosting organization is New America (newamerica.org). If you click on their About tab/button, you’ll find this,

We are dedicated to renewing the promise of America by continuing the quest to realize our nation’s highest ideals, honestly confronting the challenges caused by rapid technological and social change, and seizing the opportunities those changes create.

Amongst other programs, New America is participating in Future Tense,

Future Tense is a partnership between New America, Arizona State University, and Slate magazine to explore emerging technologies and their transformative effects on society and public policy. Central to the partnership is a series of events that take in-depth, provocative looks at issues that, while little-understood today, will dramatically reshape the policy debates of the coming decade.

It took me a while but I finally realized that the book club is a Future Tense initiative.

As for I-MAK, it’s an organization devoted to improving access to medicines globally and amongst other activities, solving the drug patent problem.

Telling stories about artificial intelligence (AI) and Chinese science fiction; a Nov. 17, 2020 virtual event

[downloaded from https://www.berggruen.org/events/ai-narratives-in-contemporary-chinese-science-fiction/]

Exciting news: Chris Eldred of the Berggruen Institute sent this notice (from his Nov. 13, 2020 email)

Renowned science fiction novelists Hao Jingfang, Chen Qiufan, and Wang Yao (Xia Jia) will be featured in a virtual event next Tuesday, and I thought their discussion may be of interest to you and your readers. The event will explore how AI is used in contemporary Chinese science fiction, and the writers’ roundtable will address questions such as: How does Chinese sci-fi literature since the Reform and Opening-Up compare to sci-fi writing in the West? How does the Wandering Earth narrative and Chinese perspectives on home influence ideas about the impact of AI on the future?

Berggruen Fellow Hao Jingfang is an economist by training and an award-winning author (Hugo Award for Best Novelette). This event will be co-hosted with the University of Cambridge Leverhulme Centre for the Future of Intelligence. 

This event will be live streamed on Zoom (agenda and registration link here) on Tuesday, November 17th, from 8:30-11:50 AM GMT / 4:30-7:50 PM CST. Simultaneous English translation will be provided. 

The Berggruen Institute is offering a conversation with authors and researchers about how Chinese science fiction grapples with artificial intelligence (from the Berggruen Institute’s AI Narratives in Contemporary Chinese Science Fiction event page),

AI Narratives in Contemporary Chinese Science Fiction

November 17, 2020

Platform & Language:

Zoom (Chinese and English, with simultaneous translation)

Click here to register.

Discussion points:

1. How does Chinese sci-fi literature since the Reform and Opening-Up compare to sci-fi writing in the West?

2. How does the Wandering Earth narrative and Chinese perspectives on home influence ideas about the impact of AI on the future

About the Speakers:

WU Yan is a professor and PhD supervisor at the Humanities Center of Southern University of Science and Technology. He is a science fiction writer, vice chairman of the China Science Writers Association, recipient of the Thomas D Clareson Award of the American Science Fiction Research Association, and co-founder of the Xingyun (Nebula) Awards for Global Chinese Science Fiction. He is the author of science fictions such as Adventure of the Soul and The Sixth Day of Life and Death, academic works such as Outline of Science Fiction Literature, and textbooks such as Science and Fantasy – Training Course for Youth Imagination and Scientific Innovation.

Sanfeng is a science fiction researcher, visiting researcher of the Humanities Center of Southern University of Science and Technology, chief researcher of Shenzhen Science & Fantasy Growth Foundation, honorary assistant professor of the University of Hong Kong, Secretary-General of the World Chinese Science Fiction Association, and editor-in-chief of Nebula Science Fiction Review. His research covers the history of Chinese science fiction, development of science fiction industry, science fiction and urban development, science fiction and technological innovation, etc.

About the Event

Keynote 1 “Chinese AI Science Fiction in the Early Period of Reform and Opening-Up (1978-1983)”

(改革开放早期(1978-1983)的中国AI科幻小说)

Abstract: Science fiction on the themes of computers and robots emerged early but in a scattered manner in China. In the stories, the protagonists are largely humanlike assistants chiefly collecting data or doing daily manual labor, and this does not fall in the category of today’s artificial intelligence. Major changes took place after the reform and opening-up in 1978 in this regard. In 1979, the number of robot-themed works ballooned. By 1980, the quality of works also saw a quantum leap, and stories on the nature of artificial intelligence began to appear. At this stage, the AI works such as Spy Case Outside the Pitch, Dulles and Alice, Professor Shalom’s Misconception, and Riot on the Ziwei Island That Shocked the World describe how intelligent robots respond to activities such as adversarial ball games (note that these are not chess games), fully integrate into the daily life of humans, and launch collective riots beyond legal norms under special circumstances. The ideas that the growth of artificial intelligence requires a suitable environment, stable family relationship, social adaptation, etc. are still of important value.

Keynote 2 “Algorithm of the Soul: Narrative of AI in Recent Chinese Science Fiction”

(灵魂的算法:近期中国科幻小说中的AI叙事)

Abstract: As artificial intelligence has been applied to the fields of technology and daily life in the past decade, the AI narrative in Chinese science fiction has also seen seismic changes. On the one hand, young authors are aware that the “soul” of AI comes, to a large extent, from machine learning algorithms. As a result, their works often highlight the existence and implementation of algorithms, bringing maneuverability and credibility to the AI. On the other hand, the authors prefer to focus on the conflicts and contradictions in emotions, ethics, and morality caused by AI that penetrate into human life. If the previous AI-themed science fiction is like a distant robot fable, the recent AI narrative assumes contemporary and practical significance. This report focuses on exploring the AI-themed science fiction by several young authors (including Hao Jingfang’s [emphasis mine] The Problem of Love and Where Are You, Chen Qiufan’s Image Maker and Algorithm for Life, and Xia Jia’s Let’s Have a Talk and Shejiang, Baoshu’s Little Girl and Shuangchimu’s The Cock Prince, etc.) to delve into the breakthroughs and achievements in AI narratives.

Hao Jingfang, one of the authors mentioned in the abstract, is currently a fellow at the Berggruen Institute and she is scheduled to be a guest according to the co-host’s the University of Cambridge’s Leverhulme Centre for the Future of Intelligence (CFI) page: Workshop: AI Narratives in Contemporary Chinese Science Fiction programme description (I’ll try not to include too much repetitive information),

Workshop 2 – November 17, 2020

AI Narratives in Contemporary Chinese Science Fiction

Programme

16:30-16:40 CST (8:30-8:40 GMT)  Introductions

SONG Bing, Vice President, Co-Director, Berggruen Research Center, Peking University

Kanta Dihal, Postdoctoral Researcher, Project Lead on Global Narratives, Leverhulme Centre for the Future of Intelligence, University of Cambridge  

16:40-17:10 CST (8:40-9:10 GMT)  Talk 1 [Chinese AI SciFi and the early period]

17:10-17:40 CST (9:10-9:40 GMT)  Talk 2  [Algorithm of the soul]

17:40-18:10 CST (9:40-10:10 GMT)  Q&A

18:10-18:20 CST (10:10-10:20 GMT) Break

18:20-19:50 CST (10:20-11:50 GMT)  Roundtable Discussion

Host:

HAO Jingfang(郝景芳), author, researcher & Berggruen Fellow

Guests:

Baoshu (宝树), sci-fi and fantasy writer

CHEN Qiufan(陈楸帆), sci-fi writer, screenwriter & translator

Feidao(飞氘), sci-fi writer, Associate Professor in the Department of Chinese Language and Literature at Tsinghua University

WANG Yao(王瑶,pen name “Xia Jia”), sci-fi writer, Associate Professor of Chinese Literature at Xi’an Jiaotong University

Suggested Readings

ABOUT CHINESE [Science] FICTION

“What Makes Chinese Fiction Chinese?”, by Xia Jia and Ken Liu,

The Worst of All Possible Universes and the Best of All Possible Earths: Three Body and Chinese Science Fiction”, Cixin Liu, translated by Ken Liu

Science Fiction in China: 2016 in Review

SHORT NOVELS ABOUT ROBOTS/AI/ALGORITHM:

The Robot Who Liked to Tell Tall Tales”, by Feidao, translated by Ken Liu

Goodnight, Melancholy”, by Xia Jia, translated by Ken Liu

The Reunion”, by Chen Qiufan, translated by Emily Jin and Ken Liu, MIT Technology Review, December 16, 2018

Folding Beijing”, by Hao Jingfang, translated by Ken Liu

Let’s have a talk”, by Xia Jia

For those of us on the West Coast of North America the event times are: Tuesday, November 17, 2020, 1430 – 1750 or 2:30 – 5:50 pm. *Added On Nov.16.20 at 11:55 am PT: For anyone who can’t attend the live event, a full recording will be posted to YouTube.*

Kudos to all involved in organizing and participating in this event. It’s important to get as many viewpoints as possible on AI and its potential impacts.

Finally and for the curious, there’s another posting about Chinese science fiction here (May 31, 2019).

Science fiction, interconnectedness (globality), and pandemics

Mayurika Chakravorty at Carleton University (Department of English) in Ottawa, (Ontario, Canada) points out that the latest pandemic (COVID-19) is an example of how everything is connected (interconnectedness or globality) by way of science fiction in her July 19, 2020 essay on The Conversation (h/t July 20, 2020 item on phys.org), Note: Links have been removed,

In the early days of the coronavirus outbreak, a theory widely shared on social media suggested that a science fiction text, Dean Koontz’s 1981 science fiction novel, The Eyes of Darkness, had predicted the coronavirus pandemic with uncanny precision. COVID-19 has held the entire world hostage, producing a resemblance to the post-apocalyptic world depicted in many science fiction texts. Canadian author Margaret Atwood’s classic 2003 novel Oryx and Crake refers to a time when “there was a lot of dismay out there, and not enough ambulances” — a prediction of our current predicament.

However, the connection between science fiction and pandemics runs deeper. They are linked by a perception of globality, what sociologist Roland Robertson defines as “the consciousness of the world as a whole.”

Chakravorty goes on to make a compelling case (from her July 19, 2020 essay Note: Links have been removed),

In his 1992 survey of the history of telecommunications, How the World Was One, Arthur C. Clarke alludes to the famed historian Alfred Toynbee’s lecture entitled “The Unification of the World.” Delivered at the University of London in 1947, Toynbee envisions a “single planetary society” and notes how “despite all the linguistic, religious and cultural barriers that still sunder nations and divide them into yet smaller tribes, the unification of the world has passed the point of no return.”

Science fiction writers have, indeed, always embraced globality. In interplanetary texts, humans of all nations, races and genders have to come together as one people in the face of alien invasions. Facing an interplanetary encounter, bellicose nations have to reluctantly eschew political rivalries and collaborate on a global scale, as in Denis Villeneuve’s 2018 film, Arrival.

Globality is central to science fiction. To be identified as an Earthling, one has to transcend the local and the national, and sometimes, even the global, by embracing a larger planetary consciousness.

In The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin conceptualizes the Ekumen, which comprises 83 habitable planets. The idea of the Ekumen was borrowed from Le Guin’s father, the noted cultural anthropologist Arthur L. Kroeber. Kroeber had, in a 1945 paper, introduced the concept (from Greek oikoumene) to represent a “historic culture aggregate.” Originally, Kroeber used oikoumene to refer to the “entire inhabited world,” as he traced back human culture to one single people. Le Guin then adopted this idea of a common origin of shared humanity in her novel.

..,

Regarding Canada’s response to the crisis [COVID-19], researchers have noted both the immorality and futility of a nationalistic “Canada First” approach.

If you have time, I recommend reading Chakravorty’s July 19, 2020 essay in its entirety.