This last weekend I attended the Foresight Vision Weekend 2007, which was in the innovative unconference format. Basically, an unconference means that people break into about seven groups for any given hour-long time slot, led by a person enterprising enough to write down a topic and tape it to a big paper grid on the wall. We did this in the afternoons. The mornings were more like a conventional conference, with a single star speaker and everyone in one room. Changing the Foresight Vision Weekend into the unconference format was a great idea by Brad Templeton.
This was an special Vision Weekend not just due to the unconference format. Unlike ones before it, this Vision Weekend was open to everyone for only $90, rather than being closed to just the Foresight Senior Associates. It was held at Yahoo headquarters, thanks to Chip Morningstar, a Foresight Associate and Yahoo employee. The venue was pretty cool. We could see a nice view of the empty marshlands which dominate the southern part of the San Francisco Bay.
It was very difficult to choose which sessions to attend. There were many ad hoc sessions on a diversity of topics, nanotechnology being in the minority rather than the majority. Basically, I would have considered it a futurist/transhumanist conference. I've never seen so many cryonics bracelets in one place in my life. Topics included AI, cryonics, the metaverse, rationality, space travel, biotech, science in general, and many more. The demographic was the usual mix between the hip young people, the Silicon Valley programming veterans, the nerdy scientists, and the occasional suit here and there.
Because the groups were relatively small (10-20 people per session), there was more interesting conversation in the audience, in some cases dominating the whole thing. This was both a blessing and a curse: in one session, a know-it-all essentially highjacked the session from the organizer and segued into a ten-minute summary of what "open source" means for the one gal in the group that wasn't familiar with the term. This reminds me of what sometimes happens at normal conferences, when smart alecks use the Q&A session not to ask a question, but to soliloquize at length about their pet topic, boring most everyone to tears in the process. But I only saw this happen once here, and the intimacy gained from the unconference format was, on the whole, a good thing.
At the conference, I was thinking about the contrast between the Singularity Summit I recently went to (900 people, 12 speakers) and the CRN conference (30 people, 12 speakers). I thought that the Singularity Summit was good from a getting-the-attention-of-the-public point of view, and also giving newbies a taste of the ideas, but I got a lot more out of the CRN conference, already being a "veteran" of futurist conferences already.
For the Foresight Unconference, I was pleased that I had so many choices for sessions to attend, and indeed, only 2-3 out of the 7 sessions per time slot grabbed my interest. One session I tried to attend, "the Extremely Extreme Future of Nanotech in Architecture", flopped entirely because no one showed up! Out of the 2-3 sessions I was interested in, usually one or two were already being filmed, so I decided to pass on them, knowing I'd see the footage later. Some of the presentations were repeats of Singularity Summit or CRN talks, so I passed on those also. Eric Drexler was conspicuously absent from this conference.
As for standout presentations, Melanie Swan brought a group up to speed on the latest "stuff that matters" in SecondLife, including a huge project to educate the public about (non-Drexlerian) nanotechnology, emerging stock markets, and efforts to link objects in SecondLife with database info from "the outside". A live model of the weather was mentioned.
Eric Boyd led a discussion about the "sustainable transhumanist lifestyle", which had some really stellar people participating. The general gist of the discussion was, "how should we plan our lives if we can potentially live forever?". I also asked "ignoring our aspirations to extend our lifespans, what other lifestyle choices characterize transhumanists?" Self-modification through technology in the here and now was discussed.
A disappointing session on "when will MNT become reality?" included an audience participant that seriously saw Terence McKenna's 2012 Timewave Zero theory as evidence for the likelihood that the first assembler will be built in 2012. This is idiotic. The facilitator of the discussion said "that's a valid point", which knocked my socks off. We were asked to raise our hands if we thought that the Feymann Grand Prize would not be won by 2012, and I was one of the only people in the room who did. I couldn't believe that either. I really doubt the prize will be won in five years, sorry. At the Lifeboat Foundation, our general consensus is that MNT is likely to be developed between 2015 and 2025, which makes sense to me. I would actually lean towards the mid-to-late portion of that range.
At the last time slot on Sunday, I gave a talk on Technological Armageddon. I was totally unprepared, but it ended up okay. I pointed out that I don't think that there are any technologies powerful enough to threaten the entirety of mankind today, but they are coming soon. I said that if humans are the only intelligent species in our corner of space, the difference between a Milky Way full of happy people and a dead Milky Way could depend on the decisions we make in the next few decades. I talked about a hierarchy of risks, from bio to nano to AI/robotics, and how discussing risks from the latter categories is progressively more difficult to discuss openly because they are predicated on more futuristic-sounding versions of these technologies. I did a quick survey and found, out of the 10 people who voted, that 6 are most concerned with bio risks, two with nano-risks, and two with AI-risks. The talk was filmed so I'm sure we'll see that online in the not-too-distant future.
For a humorous look at the Foresight unconference, see the Lifeboat Foundation blog. And if you feel so inclined, don't forget to donate! Thanks to everyone who donated to support our Navy meeting which is taking place tomorrow. The call for donations made it to Instapundit and one of the blogs on Wired. We raised enough money to fly in everyone who could make it, thanks to you!