Category Archives: events

A day out with the robots

What do slipstream, near-future and climate-fiction authors have in common with the European Human Brain Project and the Bristol Robotics Laboratory?

In this case, creating stories to provoke debate between the scientific community and the public as part of the Bristol Lit Fest.

I’m a science-fiction writer – a near-future type rather than a distant planets type – and for some time I’ve been interested in the power of fiction, especially short fiction, to provoke debate. This often happens in the media when a popular science-fiction film portrays an apocalyptic future, but it’s less common to find a live event with real authors and real scientists.

As the Author in Residence for Virtual Futures, an organisation once described as “the Glastonbury of cyberculture”, I’ve been creating specially written five-minute stories for the past twelve months for their Salon events. These Salons bring together artists, philo-sophers, cultural theorists, technologists and fiction writers to consider the future of humanity and technology. They have introduced me to the new and exciting worlds of neurostimulation, prosthetic envy and bio-art – to name a few.

So, it was with a high level of excitement that I accepted an invitation from SilverWood Books to participate in their Bristol Lit Fest event, Science and Science Fiction: Versions of the Future.

And that’s why I found myself standing on the concourse of Paddington station one sunny Friday morning with two other authors, Allen Ashley and Jule Owen, and two social scientists from the Human Brain Project Foresight Lab. We were off to spend the day with the roboticists, taking a rare opportunity to look behind the scenes of cutting-edge tech, and ask whatever we wanted in the privacy of a closed meeting room.

We soon moved on from the inevitable pleasant introductions and small talk to meanderings about the future of politics, technology, the singularity and beyond. We became so enthusiastic that a nearby passenger joined us to bring his own perspective and generally join in the debate.

The day was shaping up very nicely!

When we arrived at the lab, Professor Alan Winfield gave us a whistle-stop tour and for the first time that day we all fell silent(ish).

I was fascinated, almost overwhelmed, by the robots he showed us, including robots that eat dead flies and excrete their waste, and an experimental swarm of them modelling how nanobots might enter your body and fix diseased cells. We also met Jules, the robot that mimics facial expressions – a particularly high point for fellow author Jule.

After the tour we moved on to the main event of the day: meeting the scientists to quiz them relentlessly about their work, and drawing every drop of inspiration possible in the process. They were very obliging and answered with enthusiasm and a wealth of information.

We heard all about different aspects of the lab’s work, ranging from medical, rehabilitation and emergency rescue robots through to morphological computation and bioenergy robots. We also ended up in a lively debate about robot ethics and the extent to which science fiction should be technology-optimistic. This is one of the perennial issues for this type of sci-fi writing and we decided to aim for something more in keeping with TV’s Black Mirror than a robot apocalypse.

Listening to the conversations on the train back, I’d say we achieved exactly what we set out to. My head was certainly buzzing with all sorts of ideas and the difficult part has been to settle on “the one”!

And now the stories are taking shape, getting ready for the festival. If we’ve done a good job these three five-minute stories will entertain the audience and provoke an informed debate with the scientists.

I’m sure the event will be as mind-stretching and inspiring as our visit to the robotics lab. If you live near Bristol, you should come along and join in!

The future of writing (and reading)

Have we unleashed an orgy of trivia? Will robots manipulate our souls? Where’s the experimental writing?

These were some of the questions asked during a superb evening of writers (fiction, non-fiction and marketeer) talking about the future of their craft and answering a broad range of questions from a lively audience.

We touched on the democratisation of publishing, the future of the eBook and whether the big publishers are dying. Finishing up with the speculation that the future is one of artificial intelligence scripting our lives via mass produced personalised messages.

You can read more about it in an article by SilverWood Books.

I want to say a huge thank you to the organisers of the Fitzrovia Festival (“the people live here festival”) for inviting me to host the evening. Thanks also to Etienne Gilfillan for the ‘band’ photo above (left to right: Hannah Kowszun, Helena Halme, Stephen Oram and Allen Ashley) and to the Sainsbury Wellcome Centre for providing the venue (and wine and nibbles).

Sadly, the camera ran out of space so we didn’t capture it all. However, you can watch most of it here… 

 

An evening of prosthetic reality

Prosthetic envy. That was the theme of the Virtual Futures Salon at the end of last month.

Three out of four panellists had prosthetic limbs and were keen to talk openly about what that meant for them. One of them was James A.H. Young who you may have seen on the BBC recently.

They told their stories, pondered and discussed what had led to them having prosthetics, how good their limbs actually are and what the general public’s reaction is like.

Surprisingly, they had stories of people exlaiming how ‘cool’ the prosthetics are and asking how they could get one. To which, of course, there’s a reply which includes, ‘you’ll have to cut a limb off first.’

Luke Robert Mason introduced the evening, referring to Limbo ’90, which is a book I read as part of my research for the evening’s story, Loans for Limbs. It’s a 1950 book by Bernard Wolfebilled as being the first book to “project the present-day concept known as ‘cybernetics’ to its logical and terrifying conclusion.” It’s well worth a read.

Here’s me reading Loans for Limbs for the first time in public.

Afterwards, some of the audience asked me how to get a written copy; if you join my mailing list before 17 June you’ll get it in the June email a few days later.


If you liked this you might also like the free near-future collection: S{t}imulation, Foodflix and Joined At The Chip.


photo credit: Roboarm via photopin (license)