Insights from the 2021 Brave New World Conference

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Thoughts from Day 1 of the amazing, inspirational and thought-provoking conference in the small dutch town of Leiden: Brave new World which brings the worlds of culture, philosophy, science and technology together to facilitate a glimpse of the future.

The first day was under the motto of ‘Trust in Reality’ with a fantastic array of speakers (as always). The first session, with Sarah Durston, Bernardo Kastrup and Jurriën Hamer was about reality and consciousness.  

I loved Sarah’s likening the scanning of a brain to understand consciousness to opening up a radio to understand where the music is coming from …  and was intrigued that our brain does not capture reality but creates a picture of what we expect to see, then compares the prediction with what ever signals are coming in via our five main senses (a bit of what AI does!). (She mentioned a video of Anil Seth about the concept of the brain prediction which I am sure to watch!)  She also pointed out that each of our five main senses can pick up only on a limited range of information – our eyes can see anything 380 to 700 nanometers, our ears can hear between20 to 20,000 Hz.

Continuing on the subject of consciousness Bernardo continued, expanding on why we cannot perceive the world as it is: it would melt our brains –  information overload!

His analogy was a pilot flying an aeroplane: there is the instrument dashboard, and there’s the rear windscreen. What we humans have is the dashboard, but not the clear window, not the actual reality but just a representation of it.  Fascinating! Of course we know that if five people report the same situation, each is likely to recount it differently ….  we focus on what is meaningful, relevant and important to us, and filter out the rest …

Sarah had already mentioned the use of psychedelics to improve on our experience of reality; Bernardo built on that by sharing that what psychedelics actually do is shut of parts of our brain, not enhance our brain activity!  So our brain seems to be a mediator for a reality that is too much for us humans to cope with. He also mentioned that the brains of mediums in trance show a radically decreases brain activity.  

I was not quite so sure about Jurriën Hamer’s presentation who suggested that there is no such thing as free will and that all our actions are determined by our past and experience – at least that’s what I heard. His case in point was a perfectly lovely and nice teacher who developed unsavoury predatory advances on girls – that disappeared once a brain tumour was detected and removed. I felt i did not really get an answer on my questions about perverts without a brain tumour and whether the development of consciousness and awareness might not perhaps help us to moderate some of the decisions we would otherwise make. 

Bottom line of the first session: reality does exist, but we are only able to perceive an approximation of it as the full volume of reality would melt our brains. And using psychedelics to expand our brains capacity is only advisable under medical or otherwise qualified guidance. 

The second session then was about ‘What is fake?’ with contributions from Peter van der Putten, Jeroen van der Most, Lydia Pyne and Joost van de Loo.

Peter started us off with an exploration into religious robots – the earliest example is the mechanical monk, built in the 1560s, which is still functional today.  It was commissioned by the Spanish King Don Carlos after his son Philip was cured from a deep illness. His (unanswered) question was, is it acceptable for robots perform religious rituals?

The story Jeroen relayed was an amazing one about a fake painting that somewhat became real – but this is a story he asked not to be shared (yet), and although I am not entirely sure whether it was an implicit invitation to share that story or truly the ask not to do so, I will refrain from relaying it here.

I guess the message I have taken away from the presentation of Lydia Pyne, was that, in the end, authenticity of an object matters less than the story that is being told around it. though I have to say, the idea that there is a’ continuum of authenticity’ seems a contradiction in terms … 

Quite intriguing also the story by Joost van de Loo who set out to find Tom Bombadil, a fictional character from the Lord of the Rings, and made the search into a documentary. 

The workshop on Deepfake by Thijs Pepping was fascinating and alarming in equal terms. I have been saying for a while that a key challenge we humans are facing is that we are no longer able to discern what is fake and what is real. Fake or computer generated faces, voices, even videos have become so real, that it is possible for anyone who is not a specialist to differentiate one from the other.  And it is only getting worse as technologies are becoming cheaper and available to everyone … the dark side of innovation looming large …

The final session, with Nina Schick, Giorgio Patron and Roshan Nejal, was under the umbrella ‘what can we trust’ and the short answer seems to be, not much!  And of course, as was pointed out, we humans have always manipulated reality, and used technology to do so. Anything can be faked, the virtual world can be made look more real than the real world, so it is increasingly difficult, perhaps even impossible, to know what to trust. The spiral of developing technology to create fakes, then develop technology to detect fakes seems endless, with a very uncertain outcome on who will come out on top – not least as those aiming to identify fakes seem to constantly play catch-up with those who create the fakes … 

And I am not sure what to make to enabling grieving people to have last conversation with their – fake – loved ones …

Thoughts from Day 2 of the amazing, inspirational and thought-provoking conference in the small dutch town of Leiden: Brave New World, which brings the worlds of culture, philosophy, science and technology together to facilitate a glimpse of the future.

The second day was under the motto of ‘Artificial Earth ’ with another fantastic array of speakers.

It started off brilliantly with a talk by Dr Daphina Misiedjan, titled, ‘Does nature have rights?’ This goes back to the 1970s and Christopher Stone’s book Should trees have a standing?  I myself had been following with great interest the news about New Zealand granting personhood to the river: In March 2017 the New Zealand government acknowledged the Maori’s claim that the Te Awa Tupua, also known as the Whanganui River, is a living being, and even put this into law. You can read more in this National Geographic article:. Daphina emphasised that it can be a little tricky establishing nature’s rights within existing legal frameworks – a system that very much reflects the prevailing world view than man is the pinnacle of creation (I have deliberately chosen ‘man’ rather then ‘humanity’…). 

Another example is  Ecuador which wrote rights-based protection of nature into its constitution back in 2008. This means any citizen can go to court on behalf of nature. You may want to check out this article on ‘rights of nature’. 

These were just a few examples, and different countries have been taking different approaches to ensure that nature, or elements of it, can be legally protected talked about different approaches via which nature can get a seat at the table.  Interestingly, and perhaps not at all surprising, much for the push for legal rights and protection of nature comes from indigenous peoples. An article by the WWF  points out that “Although they comprise less than 5% of the world population, Indigenous peoples protect 80% of the Earth’s biodiversity in the forests, deserts, grasslands, and marine environments in which they have lived for centuries.”

Below a map that shows examples of rights of nature laws from around the world which Daphina shared.

You may also want to check out the EU program, Harmony With Nature,  to which she brings her expertise.

Perhaps one last point, from what I understand, most ancient cultures had a deep respect for nature and saw themselves as part of it. This changed about 2000 years ago, and the development and evolution of technology has only reinforced humanity’s belief that we are in control, that we can control nature – despite nature occasionally putting us humans in place with floods, storms, wildfires and earthquakes… 

But I better stop otherwise I do not get around to any of the other contributions! 

Next came Daniel Christian Wahl, author of Designing Regenerative Cultures. For me the key takeaway from his talk was that we need to stop seeing ourselves as separate from nature, which also needs to be reflected in the language we use when talking about our relationship with nature. I very much agree with his statement that “Through complexity theory we have arrival at indigenous knowledge, through the lenses of science”; though I could not quite agree with his statements that we humans are regenerate by nature …

Frederik de Wilde completed his session with his presentation on Hyperextraction, an amazing art installation that, “explores the hyper extraction of natural and economically valuable resources using advanced mining acceleration technologies by the means of Hyperspectral Imaging, Artificial Intelligence and data-driven decision making.” While all of this is presented as ‘minimally invasive’ it still does huge damage to the earth, as it identifies raw and rare materials deeper and deeper under ground.

Maarten Lamers shared how he and his team created some amazing digital landscapes through the integration of biological entities micro-organisms and fungi; the allowed fungi and microbes to grow in a petri dish (see image below left) then used the degree of light to create the hight profile of the landscape (see image below right). While the original indention was to use these landscapes for in games, they somewhat never got around to that. 

A suggestion of Maarten in the panel discussion made me smile. Pointing  out that we have tortured nature for centuries, and should not get away easily. Thus he suggested that nature should have a chance to get back at us humans, for example, by training mice to gnaw through electrical cables, whereby they would don’t get any food until they have been through the cable of the main server. Well, not quite sure whether ‘sweet revenge’ is what we need…

The presentation that perhaps inspired me most was the one by Ermi van Oers.  Having been invited a little earlier to share some thoughts on the conference, I had used my analogy of possible future visions – Avatar vs Matrix, whereby ‘Matrix’ stands for a future where we humans are subservient to technology, and ‘Avatar’ stands for living with and through nature (a hashtag I have started to use…) – you can read more about my thoughts on this here. I had declared that I am convinced that we have long since passed the point of no return and are firmly en rout towards Matrix. And then Ermi came with her presentation and has sown some doubt!  What she and her highly diverse team have done is to use plants as a source of energy – the schematic below illustrates how it works.  

Had I not seen it with my own eyes I would have been highly sceptical and wondered whether we might be revisiting the topic of ‘fake’ from the first day.  But it is real, Ermi and her ream are creating these beautiful lights, and have also created a very beautiful path in a park in Rotterdam where electricity generating lights light up in the presences of people, and, literally, light the way. 

Theun Karelse followed with a presentation on his work on ‘Machine Wilderness’, “…a field based programme exploring new relations between humans our technologies and the natural world.” The example that stuck in my mind is a machine with look-alike squirt tails that wriggle in the presence of a predator, thus alerting the real thing to the danger and allowing it to escape. Theun also invited us to think about our impact on AI, ie the biases we introduce via the programming and information we make available, and not only the other way around. 

Sam Earle talked to us about ‘social imaginary’. How I understood it, we live by certain narratives, and these narratives are what has led to our relationship with nature, and our senseless destruction of it. If we were able to create a different narrative, a different social imaginary, we might learn yet to live in harmony with nature and create a mutually beneficial system. But perhaps it is best to let her speak in her own words: “I believe that unless we recognise that there is a “imaginary” realm of meanings that binds society together, then we cannot recognise that the ‘system’ we have now is not how things have to be.  When we understand that society is the product of how we collectively choose to imagine the world, we can see that transforming society is a matter of imagining differently.”

Erle Ellis – the nature in the anthropocene To quote from one of his papers, “It is time to redesign the human world to empower the natural world once again. To do so we must first discard outdated sociocultural conceptions of nature as being somewhere else by welcoming the nonhuman world into ours. Efforts to create enough space for nonhuman nature to continue its evolution beyond ours must become part of everything we do.”

Nadina Galle introduced the concept of the ‘Internet of Nature’. We hear a lot about smart cities, but these generally ignore the natural environment, nature, completely. What Nadina proposes is to integrate sensors that tell us, for example, when a tree needs water, into a city’s smart grid. Makes complete sense to me!  She also pointed out that such information could be available to all citizens, so that anyone could take care of nature around them in an educated and appropriate way. To quote from an interview with her, “Over the past decade, there has been a lot of talk, research, and pilot projects around the concept of “smart cities”, with promises of how new forms of integration between technology, ourselves, and how our cities operate will improve modern living.  For the most part, nature, the very foundation on which cities are built, has been left out of these discussions. Yet we know from hundreds of studies that having access to nature makes us happier, less stressed, more content and perhaps even more generous.”

The second day was closed off with a narration by Liam Young, and a showing of his short film ‘Planet City’, an imaginary city where 10 billion people on this planet life, giving the rest of the planet back to nature and wilderness.

What wonderful two days!  Thank you Alexander Mouret and team for a wonderful ensemble of speakers, and Jim Stolze for his wonderful moderation.  Already looking forward to September next year, and anew glimpse of the future via fresh perspectives from culture, philosophy, science and technology.

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