Saturday, June 16, 2018


Outside Jesus College, Cambridge, April 2018

As regular readers of this blog know, I was invited to attend the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk, (CSER) University of Cambridge, annual conference. The conference took place at Jesus College, 17 - 18 April, 2018. Around eighty people were invited to attend.

CSER is "dedicated to the study and mitigation of risks that could lead to human extinction or civilisation collapse." Even though a risk may have a low probability of occurring, if its outcome is cataclysmically irredeemable, then it is worth examining.

The conference, whilst focused on what some might call a morbid topic, was reassuring. Why? Because, the level of discussion, in presentations and workshops, about humanity's future was deep, analytical, open, inquisitive and creative. Importantly, CSER's aim to take an inter/multi-disciplinary approach to the "study and mitigation of risks that could lead to human extinction or civilisation collapse" was clearly evident. This approach demonstrates CSER's understanding that different disciplines can pose novel questions about issues relating to existential risks. This then assists identification of potential risks, plus possible ways to mitigate them. This is significant stuff!

Speakers included people involved in Mathematics, various kinds of Engineering, Artificial Intelligence, Geography, Public Policy, Disaster Studies, Philosophy, Communication, Law and International Law, Politics, Biology, Innovation Studies, International Relations, Economics and Demographics. Some examples of topics include Dr. Seth Baum's presentation based on a paper A Model for the Probability of Nuclear War co-authored by him, Dr. Tamsin Edwards presentation on Antarctic ice sheets, sea levels and climate change, Dr. Karin Kuhlemann's terrific presentation on sexy (eg: climate change) and non-sexy (egs: overpopulation, disappearance of insects) catastrophic risks, and Prof Andrew Maynard's talk focusing on creativity and imagination, the film Ex Machina and more. 

Those in attendance, including me, contributed another layer to the multi-disciplinary dynamic of the conference. We came from all over the world. Additionally, the researchers working in CSER were available for workshop facilitation, debate, conversation and feedback. Please check out the CSER TEAM. You will see that they also represent multiple disciplines. And, yes, the three Co-Founders of the Centre, Lord Martin Rees, Prof Huw Price and Yaan Tallinn attended the conference.

Delighted to say I briefly met Lord Martin Rees, whose book Our Final Century, which I read in 2010, launched my interest in existential risk posed by emerging technologies. He told me he has a new book coming out soon - something to look forward to! Also, delighted to say that I met Yaan Tallinn, who was a Co-Founder of Skype. He assists research into risks associated with emerging technologies; also into how research (eg: into safe artificial intelligence) can ensure beneficial outcomes for humanity. A very interesting man.

The conference theme was "Challenges of Existential Risk Research". This involved four sub-themes:
1. Challenges of Evaluation and Impact
2. Challenges of Evidence
3. Challenges of Scope and Focus
4. Challenges of Communication

Each afternoon, after a morning listening to invited speakers, conference attendees could choose one of two workshops. This allowed everyone to participate and have a say, contributing to the the four conference sub-themes. In the communication workshop I attended, I noted that although I am well informed about existential risk research, I am not an expert. But, I do know where to find experts! However, as a well informed visual artist who addresses ideas of existential risk in my work, I try to provoke questions that might make people more curious. Thus, my work is more catalytic than informational, hopefully triggering people to undertake their own research. I suggest that this is a valuable way to help communicate ideas relating to existential risk. While I did not say it at the conference, I have found that in the process of thinking about and creating a painting, new ideas about risk emerge. To be blunt, it offers another investigative methodology.

After the communication workshop I was approached by Prof Margaret Boden. She is one of CSER's scientific advisers, a highly regarded Professor of Cognitive Science from the University of Sussex. She has degrees in medical sciences, philosophy, and psychology, and integrates these disciplines with AI in her research. We had a great conversation that ranged across a variety of subjects. If you want to see her in action, she has just made the speech for the inaugural Margaret Boden lecture series, hosted by the Leverhulme Centre for the Future of Human Intelligence, University of Cambridge. You can watch you  on this YouTube link - I recommend that you do!

As you can tell I thoroughly enjoyed the CSER conference. And, I am not resting! My aim is to get people talking about existential risks. 

*Videos of some of the conference presentation will be uploaded onto CSER's website soon.

Out a window at Jesus College, Cambridge.

I first wrote about my interest in existential risk posed by emerging technologies in 2010, when I was reading Lord Martin Rees's book Our Final CenturyI have often written about my interest since then.

In fact, ideas of existential risk posed by emerging technologies interested me so much that when I was offered an opportunity to undertake post-graduate research at the University of Queensland, these ideas informed how I positioned my research topic. I chose to undertake a Master of Philosophy, and ultimately narrowed my topic to how two Australian artists, George Gittoes and Jon Cattapan, represent contemporary militarised technology in their paintings. My research involved art historical examinations of the two artists' practices, as well as investigations into the historical, social, political and ethical issues surrounding the development and use of contemporary militarised technology, particularly airborne drones and night vision technology. This research was scaffolded by technical research into airborne drone capabilities, persistent surveillance technologies and increasingly autonomous systems.

Anomaly Detection (Number 2) oil on linen 120 a 180 cm 2017

I deliberately chose a topic that would afford me the opportunity to undertake research that would feed back into my painting practice. And, indeed the research into militarised technology has fed back into my longer term concerns about how to portray existential risk posed by emerging technologies. Prior to my academic research I had already included painted binary code, often juxtaposing it with the tree-of-life, to indicate potential threats to life from accelerating developments in technology. Since starting my research the tree-of-life, binary code and the figure of the airborne drone [or indications of its presence] are variously positioned together in cosmic landscapes where the viewer can 'fly'. I completed my M. Phil degree in July 2017, and I am now thinking about a PhD. Rest assured ideas of existential risk posed by emerging technologies will inform any research topic I pursue.

Follow Me, Says The Tree oil on canvas 60 x 76 2017

No comments: