Archive for the ‘talks and events’ category

(Dis)embodied futures?

December 13, 2013

Haven’t posted here for a while, but this is kind of futures related, so I’ll put it here.

Below is the text of a talk a gave in Birmingham as part of this interesting event in the terrific new Library of Birmingham.

It involved various cunning artistic responses and representations to famous dead thinkers – I was responding to Mary Shelley and Frankenstein. None of us quite knew how it was going to go, I think. But the whole set of talks ran twice, and having heard them all, at the second round I realised that the question I was trying to ask, or answer, had crystallised more clearly: how close can we get through representations, especially new digital representations, to an actual person who is no longer around? That seemed to be the main theme of the day. My subsidiary question, as it were, was how our view of the answer to the big question is affected by whether we think it is essential for persons that they are embodied, or that some kind of encoded form of a person can be substrate independent.

That said, this was my slightly rambling response, more or less as given – (there were some pics but I’ve left those out here because copyright)


I’m here to tell you about life after death. I’m going to look at some varieties of immortality, taking my cue from Mary Shelley and trying to think through what might have been added to the discussion of how we cheat death since her time.

There are a range of options for maintaining some sort of presence in the world after your normal lifespan – lets take the biblical standard of three score years and ten as a starting point – as in fact we’ve just seen.

If you are one of a select few, and Mary is, you might achieve literary immortality, fascinating us with the works you left behind. You might do so, as she did, by writing a story which is itself about immortality, of another kind, involving body parts reassembled and reanimated. Or, as when we heard from Mary just now, you might be recreated digitally, another way of speaking to people who never met you in the flesh.

Let’s start with the story she created, long before digital technology was thought of. Frankenstein has a number of overlapping themes. That’s one reason it has endured for so long, in so many re-tellings. An important one, for me, is our ambivalence about the effort to eliminate the imperfections of humanity. That seems, at first blush, a highly desirable thing to do. But there’s a catch. (There’s always a catch). The effort to make us more perfect can only be made by humans as they are now, imperfect as we know them to be.

The rather large imperfection of mortality is, as it were, the major sub theme here. And the Frankenstein plot revolves around the first ideas about how to overcome this which were drawn  from science, as opposed to involving supernatural power. Delving into the secrets of the body, and of electricity, Dr Frankenstein achieves – well, not immortality, but reanimation or resurrection. That is a step beyond exhumation, the option highlighted in our title today, but which – strictly – has the drawback that simply being exhumed doesn’t stop you being dead.

Is this immortality, though?  The creature is not a continuation of some former person – the other subplot of failed parenting requires him to be, in effect, a newborn in monstrously enlarged adult form.

His limbs and organs are alive again, but he has no memory or personality. Indeed, he is patched together, one gathers, somewhat randomly from gathered parts, so is a composite in any case. His mind, apparently new, is formed by, among other things, reading many of Mary Shelley’s favourite books. So the good old technology of print is already, as we might now think of it, functioning to externalise memory. It can be used to furnish a mind with ideas which are themselves reanimated when they are active in a new brain.

The modern version of a Frankensteinian revival is perhaps resurrection after cryogenic preservation. The idea is that your body or –  if you have less cash or are indifferent to what happens below the neck – just your head is placed in cryogenic suspension. You become a corpsicle. If you have arranged to keep up the payments on the freezer, you will stay there until future technologists are clever enough to repair whatever killed you, along with the incidental cell damage caused by the freezing, and you will live again. Since technologies that can do that (nanobots that get inside the cells to fix them are the current favourite speculation) will be effective at preventing normal wear and tear, So you’ll probably be immortal this time around. 

This scenario is speculative, but the freezing part, at least is non-fictional. The scheme was first proposed by Robert Ettinger in the 1960s. He founded the Cryonics Institute in Michigan in the 1970s, had his mother and two wives put in storage, and when he died himself in 2011, aged 92, he was frozen, too. So, one day, maybe, he’ll come back to say, “I told you so!”.

On the face of it, this version of immortality is firmly focussed on the body. But there is, I think, a strong strain in the advocacy of cryonics that the body has a basic design flaw – it runs down – which needs fixing. The revived body, I suppose, would operate pretty much like it did before (perhaps with invisibly resident nanobots).

That might not be good enough, of course. Ettinger was preserved at 92 A lot of people over 80 have dementia, so this route to new life raises serious questions about when to go into suspension, or whether externalised memories, perhaps preserved digitally, would need to be on hand to restore a sense of self to the revived brain/mind.

Staying with bodies for now, the next set of routes to immortality are simpler, in one way – they involve not dying. There are people now who  believe this is a realistic scientific and technological prospect, not merely a perennial wish. The most often heard from is Aubrey de Grey, proponent of SENS (strategies for engineered negligible senescence). As this suggests, it would prevent ageing, so not guarantee immortality – violent deaths would still happen. But others would simply go on living as long as they wanted. An important aspect of this is that they would not, as many stories of longevity suggest, have to endure extended decrepitude. Rather, they would have an indefinitely prolonged middle age.

De Grey’s programme is basically to accelerate a bunch of lines of biological research which would allow us to prevent various kinds of cell damage and cell death. It is not that far from conventional medical research on diseases of the elderly. Western medicine, essentially, is oriented to preventing death.  a clear descendant of the Frankensteinian project.

Alternatively, and here we move closer to the digital world, there is another set of routes to prolonging life through technology. They share an attitude to the body apparent in the advocates of biological life extension – that it is a flawed piece of engineering, a collection of evolutionary kludges, splendid in its way and on its day, but in need of fixing for the long term.

The engineer’s approach here is to go down the road of prostheses and implants toward a full-blown cyborg. If missing or malfunctioning body parts can be replaced with non-biological components, perhaps in the end we merge completely with our technology. There are a range of endpoints here, depending on whether the brain ends up maintained in an artificial body, or is itself replaced by some kind of electronic substitute.

If you could do that, then you would have yet a further range of options, digitally speaking. That electronic substitute would have to be programmed, and furnished with memories. If these are somehow obtained from a living brain, and encoded in digital form for transfer to the new medium, then we’ve achieved a real version of the Cartesian separation of mind and brain. And mind, perhaps, can be given independence – analogous to software – from the hardware (presently wetware) in which it is operating.

Is this taking the computer metaphor for the brain too far? Time will tell. But there are those who believe in immortality achieved by a kind of resurrection through digitisation.

The best known is Ray Kurzweil, who argues it will be possible to record the contents of a brain, and then “upload” the mind it supports into a computer. This would be immortality sans body (though presumably simulating all the experiences which go with having one, if desired). Consciousness reborn in this form might go on for ever, or at least until the cosmos runs down which is quite a long time.

Kurzweil wants this, not for future beneficiaries, but for himself. Meantime, he is also at work building an avatar of his late (40 years dead) father, now using a pre-digital archive. He is compiling all the letters, documents and pictures he can, to use in programming a computer which will think and talk like his dad.

With much more extensive digital recording, it seems, once we have mind uploading technology, perhaps we can can also construct a simulacrum of a former mind, using whatever information we can gather about the contents of that mind.

And if the actual mind hasn’t been dissected and digitised, there might be enough on Facebook, twitter, Pinterest and Instagram to generate, well, something.

A provocative example: a robot made a few years ago which looked and spoke like the science fiction Author Philip K Dick. Dick left millions of words of text, which were uploaded into intelligent software and used to generate new conversations with people who spoke to his new avatar. Sometimes they made excellent sense, sometimes not – quite like the man himself.

The whole project is documented in David Dufty’s splendid book Losing the Head of Philip K Dick. That story ends when the head is indeed lost, in an airport. However, the creator has since made another, better version – so the digital resurrection of Dick has itself been resurrected!

That result: now you see him, now you don’t, here he is again – reminds one of a lot of science fiction where the mind uploading trope is now taken for granted. There are a host of stories where people routinely make backup copies of themselves, and hardly anyone ever dies – they are just rebooted. It is contemporary science fiction’s advance on cloning, which is a way of replacing yourself but of course requires all the Frankensteinian chores of education and training to furnish the clone’s mind with the same experiences as the original “authentic” person.

SF loves to play around with such notions – once the idea is articulated, then never mind the technical obstacles. Lets just leap forward to a world where it has been perfected and see what plots it helps create.

From our present day perspective, though, it is clear there will be many, many steps on the road to this kind of digital revival. So let me finish be mentioning one very interesting recent fiction which works with a partial, and seriously malfunctioning, version of digital re-creation.

 The young British novelist James Smythe’s The Machine features a traumatised war veteran who has his worst memories erased by the eponymous machine, and the gaps replaced with a narrative he ought to find it easier to live with.

Unfortunately, the machine erases his mind entirely, and the novel relates the efforts of his wife to rebuild it, with the aid of an illicitly acquired machine of her own. It is a pretty compelling story, as what she creates seems to take on a life of its own, and has some excellent twists I won’t spoil. The blurb describes it as “A Frankenstein tale for the 21st Century”. So it is. I think Mary Shelley would have loved it.

Thank you.

The whole day was immense fun and I enjoyed being able to revisit some ideas from a book on the Frankenstein myth I did in 1998 – it seems a long while ago now – with references to a novel that appeared in 2013. Thanks to Jason and Samara for having me.












Events: Manchester, Cardiff, Nottingham

July 9, 2013

A few talks coming up which touch on the future in various ways. Do say hello if you happen to hear any of them…

Tomorrow I’m the duller half (I think) of a duo of talks at Manchester Festival, preceding design futurist Melissa Sterry‘s take on future cities. We’re part of a mini-series helping launch Manchester (or Salford’s) Biospheric project – an urban farm in a reclaimed building. Apparently it is fully booked, so hope there’s time for some good discussion. Reinventing historic cities may be the most complex thing we need to think about over the next fifty years, which is why I’m mostly leaving it to other people. But I’m always intrigued to see what’s changed in this city since I was a carefree grad student there 30 – blimey, no nearer 35 – years ago.

At the end of the month I’m doing a free event for the new (secular) Sunday School series on Cardiff Bay, talking about science fiction, design and technology along the lines of last year’s paper for NESTA. It’s on July 28 at lunchtime. All welcome.

In between I’ll be at the Science in Public Conference in Nottingham – dipping into an academic conversation I used to be part of more regularly. There are panels on responsible innovation and science fiction where I’ll be making suitably futuristic contributions, possibly.

Then it all goes quiet again for a bit.

Are we safe? Maybe, sort of…

March 27, 2012

“Are we safe?”, I was asked last week. The question was a discussion starter for an enjoyable panel which closed the Oxford Literary Festival’s Saturday afternoon look at science and the future – an event which ranged from cosmology to climate change.

The event was a conversation (with the always apocalyptically cheerful Anders Sandberg and writer Sara Wheeler)– generally a  better way of doing these things than getting panellists to speak separately. But, in the way of conversation, it provoked some second thoughts. So here are a few of the things I said, or thought I might have said, in some sort of order.

Are we safe?

No, of course not. We are mortal. We live in a peculiarly fortunate culture where, for quite long spells, many of us can forget about this. But, in Larkinesque fashion, it is a truth which always comes back.

But what of existential risk – in the sense of threats to the whole of humanity? Individual responses to this tend, in my view, to be determined by a combination of temperament and circumstance.

How so? Well, we are talking about the probability of lots of inevitable individual deaths happening all at once, adding up to the death of a species (ours), or extinction.

We do have some information that bears on that, but not enough to give a very clear answer on how likely it is. So the way we feel about it tends to reflect our intuition about some related questions: is human life fragile or robust, the cosmos friendly or unfriendly, hospitable or inhospitable?

At the moment, we can find reasons for answering that question about equally convincingly either way.

Good things: the constants of the universe are tuned to just the right combination which allows life to exist. (The Goldilocks principle). We seem to live in a cosmos which is disposed to allow the emergence of  complexity – in ever more wondrous forms. In some sense, perhaps, we are meant to be here. In Stuart Kauffman’s phrase, we’re at home in the universe.

Notsogood: one of the main processes which allows that complexity to emerge – natural selection – is rather scary when you look at how it works. I don’t mean Nature red in tooth and claw: evolution has a place for co-operation as well as competition. However, although natural selection sounds neutral, or even benign, the agent of selection is death – of individuals and, on the larger scale, the death of species. Extinction is just what happens to species, in the end. Endurance beyond a few tens of millions of years is very much the exception, and those species that have lasted for a few hundred millions years are heroic survivors. (Afterthought to the afterthought – I wonder if that is true if you include the microbial world, where the concept of species is in any case pretty hard to apply…)

Of course, a species can leave descendents on the path to extinction, as we may do. But in its original form it has still quit the scene. At our current point, where culture – in the shape of technology – is a more powerful evolutionary force than natural selection, that seems an increasingly likely outcome. Whether you terribly much mind that idea depends on whether you think Homo sapiens in our present form are such an adornment to the cosmos we ought to be around for ever, or if it is OK we are just a stage on the way to something else. That something has a post-human form we cannot quite define. But we’ll know it when we see it.

Aside from how evolution actually works, other features of the cosmos suggest that a middle of the road position is justifiable. The universe is more or less hospitable, but risky.

It is interesting to contemplate the latest results on star systems with planets, for example. Amazingly, our observations now have such fine resolution that we can detect planets orbiting distant stars, and not just gas giants but even smaller, possibly Earth-like ones. It looks more and more as if there are an enormous number of solar systems out there, and a heck of a lot of Earth like planets. That surely makes it more likely that there is complex life spread, however thinly, through the galaxy, maybe all galaxies in the observable universe.

Then consider gamma ray bursts. We don’t understand them very well, but we do know by observation that, occasionally, there are absolutely enormous energy releases, with no warning that we know how to register, that rip through large regions of space.

So if life, even intelligent life, is ubiquitous, every now and again one of these gamma bursts takes out a civilization. (Oliver Morton wrote about this eloquently in Prospect a decade or so ago, when the search for extra-solar planets was less well on than it is now.) The universe, if you like, is welcoming to life, then takes random shots at it for sport.

Against that background, the risks we face on Earth at the moment seem relatively manageable. Bad things will happen. Perfectly terrible things may happen, in the future as in the past. A person who predicted that the sky would fall 65 million years ago, before an asteroid impact caused a mass extinction, would have been right. A person who predicted crop failure, pandemic and the death of between a third and a half of the population of Europe in the 14th century would have been right. Those who foresaw a a terrible conflict in Europe in the late 1930s (read Louis MacNiece’s Autumn journal for the atmosphere) were correct.

On the other hand, plenty of possible dire events did not come to pass. No nuclear holocaust (yet). No billions starving before 2000, pace Professor Ehrlich.

So, there will be good and bad. But, assuming gamma ray bursts are not coming our way, the end of humanity is not coming any time soon, probably…

(Thanks to Georgina Ferry for the invitation to Oxford.)

Science fiction, science future – London panel, March 1st

February 22, 2012

I’m kicking off a discussion in London next week on science, futures and all that.

Especially pleased to be doing this one as it arises from the university department I once headed (before I ran away to be an irresponsible freelance) selecting Rough Guide to the Future as their “one book” – which is assigned reading for all incoming students this session.

Guess that means that I will be in the unusual position of talking with people who have mostly read the book…   Should make for some hard questions. UCL have put together an interesting panel, too (one of whom edited a scholarly book on SF). And there is free wine for those who stay the course, courtesy of the rather wonderful Grant Museum. Which is nice.



Date: 1 March | Time: 6pm | Location: JZ Young Theatre, Anatomy Building, University College London, Gower Street, WC1E 6BT | Price: Free – there is no need to book | Age group: Adults |

Everyone worries about the future. What’s going to happen? What can we do about it? In his Rough Guide to the Future, Jon Turney explores past, present, and future approaches to the “what’s next?” His guide was short-listed for the 2011 Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books. Join us for an evening of conversation with the author and an expert panel of science historians and scientists who also study future-ology. Bring along your ideas about how we might best think about the future.
The panel consists of:
• Dr Jon Turney, author of The Rough Guide to the Future
• Dr James Kneale, UCL Department of Geography
• Mr Mat Paskins, UCL Department of Science and Technology Studies
• Dr Jon Agar, UCL Department of Science and Technology Studies, chair

Following the event join us for a free glass of wine in a private view of the Museum.

 020 3108 2052 |

p.s look out for Jon Agar’s positively heroic history of science in the twentieth century and beyond, published imminently.

A date for the Diary – Uncertain futures at Oxford Lit fest

January 13, 2012

Science and the Future – Uncertain Futures

2:00pm | Saturday 24 March

Tickets: Duration: Venue:
£47 Half Day Merton College: TS Eliot Theatre
 (looking forward to this – programme has just been confirmed. I’ll be pitching in for the last bit: are we safe? With Anders Sandberg and Rebecca Stott…)

Introduced by Dr Ian Goldin, director of the Oxford Martin School, University of Oxford

For the second year the festival is devoting a whole afternoon to a series of panel discussions around a common scientific theme. The umbrella title for these themed afternoons is Science and the Future. The theme for 2012 is Uncertain Futures.

We still have much to learn about the nature of the Universe. And we continually set ourselves new questions about the impact that technology and social change will make on ourselves and on our environment. Through three panel discussions, this seminar will explore the question of how we deal with uncertainty in science.

The afternoon is chaired by science writer and author Georgina Ferry and has been developed in partnership with the University of Oxford’s Oxford Martin School, which supports 30 interdisciplinary research teams tackling global challenges, and with Science Oxford Live.

The programme is designed to offer a more in-depth review of key issues and the opportunity to meet and talk with speakers both over tea and at an evening drinks reception.

2.10 – 3.10pm
Into the unknown

As our tools for studying the Universe get bigger and more expensive, the questions that still need answering become ever more intractable. Will the latest experiments find the answers? Or will there just be more questions? And does it matter?

Professor Frank Close, Department of Physics, University of Oxford, author ofThe Infinity Puzzle, the story of the search for the elusive Higgs particle; Joanna Dunkley, lecturer in astrophysics, University of Oxford, researching the nature of dark matter and dark energy – without which the Universe would collapse, but which have never been seen; and William Hartston, chess columnist and writer of the Daily Express ‘Beachcomber’ column, and author of The Things Nobody Knows: 501 Mysteries of Life, the Universe and Everything.

3.10 – 3.45pm Tea

3.45 – 4.45pm
Working with Uncertainty

Quantum physics and climate prediction are two areas of science particularly burdened with uncertainty. But can we use our understanding of that uncertainty for practical ends?

John Gribbin, science writer and author of In Search of Schrödinger’s Cat andErwin Schrödinger and the Quantum Revolution, a new biography of one of the fathers of quantum theory; and Tim Palmer, Royal Society Research Professor at the University of Oxford, and co-director of the programme on modelling and predicting climate at the Oxford Martin School. A further speaker is to be confirmed.

5– 6pm
Are we safe (and do we need to be)?

Technology is changing our world at a breathless pace. How important is it to assess its risks accurately? And is there a place for risk in both artistic and scientific creativity?

Anders Sandberg, research fellow in the Future of Humanity Institute at the Oxford Martin School, working on social and ethical issues surrounding new technology; Jon Turney, author of The Rough Guide to the Future, shortlisted for the 2011 Royal Society Science Books Prize; and Rebecca Stott, novelist and teacher of creative writing at the University of East Anglia, author ofGhostwalk and The Coral Thief.

6.00 – 6.30pm Drinks reception.

Science and the Future is presented in partnership with the Oxford Martin School of the University of Oxford and Science Oxford

Futures events May-June

April 21, 2011

A small cluster of futures-related events coming up which I’m looking forward to. I am variously chairing, “in conversation with” or empanelled with a strikingly interesting bunch of people in the next month and a bit. An enticing, if slightly daunting prospect.

First up is a three-way at the Arnolfini in Bristol, blurb as follows:

Creating a Future Without Destroying the Present

Diane Coyle, Mark Stevenson and Jon Turney

 Diane Coyle 20 May 2011, 19.30-21.00
Arnolfini, Bristol

Jon TurneyMark Stevenson

How do we continue to live well and not damage the future? Is economic growth the problem, not the solution? Who is planning for the future and what kind of future will this be? Enlightenment economist, writer and blogger Diane Coyle, author of The Economics of Enough: How to Run the Economy as if the Future Matters, shows how we can be happy and prosperous now without cheating the future. She looks at the fundamental questions about the way the economy is organised and about the links between the economy and the kind of society we want and need, so that we can provide our children with a decent future. Mark Stevenson, in An Optimist’s Tour of the Future, tours the world to make sense of what’s in store for us all. He looks at the amazing work of scientists, robots that think, re-engineering of humans, science that will solve the energy crisis and the ideas of great visionaries. They discuss their work with Jon Turney, author ofThe Rough Guide to the Future.

Price: £7.00 / £5.00. Contact Arnolfini, Bristol on: 0117 917 2300, book online, or visit in person.


Then come a couple of discussions at the British Library in London, opening a series linked to their fascinating science fiction exhibition, opening May 2oth.

The first, coincidentally, has some of the same people –

Who owns the Story of the Future? 

With permission of the Frank R Paul estate

Tue 24 May 2011, 18.30 – 20.00

Conference Centre, British Library

Price: £7.50 / £5 concessions

any Book now for 24 May 2011, 18.30 – 20.00

Will the future be better or worse? – and does the story we are telling ourselves help or hinder us? Can we make the right choices, and deal with the grand challenges ahead or will our ambitions and lack of political will get in the way.Jon Turney (The Rough Guide to the Future) chairs a panel including economist Diane Coyle (The Economics Of Enough), technology and SF writerCory Doctorow and Mark Stevenson (An Optimists Tour of the Future)  STOP PRESS:  Now with added William Gibson!

Diane Coyle runs Enlightenment Economics, a consulting firm specialising in technology and globalization, and is the author of a number of books on economics, including The Soulful ScienceSex, Drugs and Economics, and The Weightless World. Her most recent book is The Economics of Enough: How to Run the Economy as If the Future Matters. A BBC trustee and a visiting professor at the University of Manchester, she holds a PhD in economics from Harvard.

Cory Doctorow ( is a science fiction author, activist, journalist and blogger, the co-editor of Boing Boing ( and the author of the bestselling Tor Teens/HarperCollins UK novel Little Brother. His latest novel isFor The Win, a young adult novel; his latest short story collection is With A Little Help.

Mark Stevenson divides his time between running agencies for science communications and cultural learning and performing and writing comedy. He lives in Telegraph Hill, south London. His first book is An Optimist’s Tour of the Future.


The following night, we’re talking about revolution…

Compared to this, the Industrial Revolution was Nothing!

With permission of the Frank R Paul estate

Wed 25 May 2011, 18.30 – 20.00

Conference Centre, British Library

Price: £7.50 / £5 concessions

any Book now for 25 May 2011, 18.30 – 20.00

Is the ‘ultimate reboot’ is coming as the Genetics, Nanotechnology and Robotics/AI revolutions intertwine and pick up speed? Are we heading toward a radically different society where our notions of old age, scarcity and our institutions have to be radically rethought? Or have we heard it all before?

Trying to shed light on these intriguing questions will be our speakers who include Richard Jones, University of Sheffield and author of Soft Machines;: Nanotechnology and Life and Anders Sandberg of the Future of Humanity Institute.

Chair Jon Turney.


Finally, I’m joining a panel at the Cheltenham Science Festival on June 11

Human Extinction – will we survive beyond this century?

12noon – 1.30pm on Saturday 11 June at Cheltenham Town Hall

at Town Hall Unreserved
£8 (£7) Members – 10% off

Ecologists have suggested that the Earth is experiencing a mass extinction of species, but what about Homo sapiens? The survival of humankind has been challenged throughout history and, despite our ability to adapt to past changes, nothing is guaranteed. Zoologist Charles Godfray FRS, chemist Judith Howard FRS, palaeontologist Chris Stringer FRS, and author of The Rough Guide to the FutureJon Turney discuss past and present threats to humanity, the future challenges that we face, and whether we have the capacity to survive.

Cheerful, eh?

The last time I was at the science festival in Cheltenham (as opposed to the jazz festival), about ten years ago, I read poems from A Quark for Mister Mark in the Pillar room with Richard Dawkins and Lavinia Greenlaw, which was delightful. But the invitations prompted by the more recent book seem to be a little different…