Notes and video from the keynote that science writer and paleontologist Richard Fortey gave at the Age of Wonder festival in Eindhoven a few weeks ago.

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Richard Fortey at the Age of Wonder Festival. Photo by Sas Schilten

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The Age of Wonder Festival. Photo by Sas Schilten

The paleontologist's talk was titled Four billion years of life on earth: what should it teach mankind? It was my favourite moment in a festival that impressed me with the way it mixed disciplines, old technologies and innovation, science fiction and pure science, reflections about the ecological-humans” and artistic experiments. Like most people who had a chance to be there, i do hope we'll get to live more "ages of wonder." But i digress. Fortey talked about Darwin and how his theories have been misinterpreted and misapplied to justify the practices of some capitalist business models. It started with his unconventional (that was his word) ideas about the history of life on earth and ended with comments on the soft drink industry.

But here is the official blurb:

Fortey believes that the natural progress of evolution is always towards greater richness, and that this is the way our planet is meant to be when Darwinian evolution is allowed to play out naturally. Mistaken ideas about Darwinism have contributed to a view of human life that diminishes rather than enhances richness, particularly in the Weltanschauung of market capitalism.

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Trilobite fossil. Photo by James L. Amos

The video of his talk is below but since i had already typed my notes from Fortey's presentation before the video was uploaded, i thought i'd just leave them on this page in case you're interested in checking out some links. Besides, my pictures of dinosaurs are way nicer than his.

Age of Wonder - Keynote Richard Fortey from Baltan Laboratories on Vimeo.

For most of his working life Richard Fortey was employed in the Natural History Museum in London. His research has long focused on trilobites, a fossil group of extinct arthropods (joint legged animals) that were around for at least 250 million years. These marine creatures present the first really well preserved eyes in the fossil record . They evolved into all sorts of ecological niches and are a paradigm in miniature for evolution as a whole. (cf his book Trilobite! Eyewitness to Evolution)

Charles Darwin's seminal work on evolutionary biology served as a backdrop of Fortey's presentation.

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On The Origin of Species (Flickr/apsmuseum, via rnw)

The full title of Darwin's book was On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life but its meaning and essence has often been replaced in popular imagination by the punchier formula "the survival of the fittest". That wasn't Darwin's phrase. It was introduced in a text book about biology by Herbert Spencer 5 years after the publication of the Origin of Species but it was adopted as an instant description of how evolution works. In some ways this simplification has had some unfortunate consequences. For example, it leads to the idea of progression, with each stage being an advance on and eliminating the previous one.

Referring to the previous evening's talk about Super Intelligence, Fortey said that if we followed this Survival of the Fittest eationale then the supercomputers, which will soon equal then surpass and eventually make obsolete human intelligence, are the next step in this logical progression.

The first part of his talk took us on a whirlwind tour of the history of life to illustrate progression.

If you want to see a living image of what the pre-Cambrian world looked like towards beginning of the origin of life, you have to go to Shark Bay, Western Australia where stromatolites still live. They look like rocks but are actually living communities of blue green bacteria. They are preserved in this area of Australia thanks to some very peculiar ecological conditions (the place is very hot and not pleasant) which have kept away all the animals that have evolved after the pre-Cambrian.

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Stromatolites in Shark Bay, Australia. Photo via all that is interesting

The Stromatolite photos is a snapshot of life 2.5 billion years ago.

Life existed before that. We know that at least by 3.5 billion years ago, living cells were already reproducing. We can find them as fossils but they are very rare and the ones we find from 2.5 billion years ago look very much like these stromatolites. Some of the fossils look like living blue green algae. It's very hard to tell the differences in some cases between the fossils and the ones still living.

Stromatolites are very simple organisms but they have one important property for the history of the planet: they photosynthesise, they exhale oxygen, making life on earth possible for us. When life first appeared on Earth, the planet was very unwelcoming to life. Its atmosphere had lots of carbon dioxide and probably also poisonous gases and nitrogen. It had very little oxygen, if any. It's the activity over billions of years of these algae, these blue green bacteria that transformed the atmosphere into something that animals could subsequently breathe. Some of the very early organisms that existed before that and would this die in the presence of oxygen are still with us, living in crevices around the world. They never went away but the oxygen-loving organisms took over.

We can fast-forward to when organisms with organized nuclei appeared. And then to about 1.3 billion years ago when the first sexually differentiated organisms are found in the fossil record. Once you differentiate the sexes, you get more possibilities of cross-breeding and more possibilities of variations and inherited variations which obviously ups the whole evolutionary stakes. So far, we've been talking about progression, even in quite a simple way.

About 540 million years ago we arrive at the base of the Cambrian period and that's when trilobites appear in the fossil record. Trilobites are far more complicated organisms that anything we've seen before. Trilobites themselves are no more, they died out about 250 000 million years ago. These were animals with hard parts, they had the first toughened exoskeletons. We found trilobites with bite marks on them which brings us to another step in this history of the evolution of complexity as these marks show there were predators around of the time. Most of the earlier organisms were minutes. Trilobites can fit comfortably into the palm of a man's hand. Which means that at the base of the Cambrian animals got large, they are distinctly animals and some of them got hard parts, skeletons.

Alongside the trilobites were other fossils. For example the Burgess shale in Canada which didn't have hard parts but was soft-bodied. Soft bodied organisms are harder to preserve. Aysheaia, for example, was one of these soft bodied Cambrian organisms and it is clearly related to the still living velvet worm.

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Aysheaia pedunculata (image: Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History

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Velvet Worm. Image Natural History Museum

In fact, most of the living of the largest groups of the animals that we know today had their first representatives in the Cambrian period. Around 542 million years ago, took place the so-called Cambrian explosion which saw evolution work very fast and produce designs which are still with us today.

Life so far was fully marine but it eventually found its way onto land. Of course, each of these evolutions made for a new ecology and that's progression two.

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A thallose liverwort, Lunularia cruciata

The ancestors of nowadays' Liverworts left water and crawled over the surface of wet mud. Their green pads were photosynthesizing and releasing more oxygen into the atmosphere and as that happened it made it more suitable for animals to follow them onto the land. Now when you go onto land, you open up other possibilities for evolution, which gives way to a new eco-system.

The next stage were organisms moving upwards (to get more light and thus take over your neighbours.)

These animals and plants are not just fossils, they are still with us so the first qualification to the idea of progression is that when organisms evolve to the next stage, they don't die out, they are still with us, they have a niche that enables them to survive. The simple idea of progression of organism giving rise to another which outcompetes and eventually replaces it and so on is not an adequate description of what is happening in the world. Live moves on but the history is retained.

Fortey further explored this idea in his book Survivors: The Animals and Plants that Time has Left Behind.

The next stage is to support that photosynthesizing column and carry it upwards to make a tree.

The animals shortly followed the plants. The first ones were tiny insect relatives and then creatures that eat insects and ultimately our first distant ancestors, the first quadrupeds who came from their fishy relatives and set foot onto land. One of these fishy relatives is still living today: it's the Australian lungfish.

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Australian lungfish, Basle Zoo. Photo via zoochat

This lungfish is recognized by both zoologist and DNA studies as a close relative to our other relative that came out from the sea onto land. Some time during the Devonian period more than 400 million years ago, it came out onto land. Until recently, paleontologists were looking for a 'missing link', for the fossil of a fishy type of creature with a fin that looked like a hand.

They eventually found this missing link. It's the Tiktaalik, a creature with a complex series of bones bones in the feet, half way between a fin and a hand. The early creatures that came to land actually had 6 or 7 digits, not 5.

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Tiktaalik Roseae (image guardian liberty voice)

We now have an ecological structure that you might recognize today: prey, predators, low and tall plants, etc. So far, it all sounds rather linear.

Fast forward to the age of the dinosaurs, the terrestrial animals continue to evolve and get larger. The botanical situation at the time was similar to today's except that there were no flowering plants. Some of those dinosaurs were covered in small feathers, even tyranosaurus rex had fuzzy feathers. One group of these dinosaurs went on to give rise to the birds which evolved together with and from the dinosaurs but didn't die out with them. After the extinction of the dinosaurs, small insect-eating mammals gave life to large herbivorous & carnivorous mammals that preyed on them. e.g. bison, a survivor from the last Ice Age.

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Feathered dinosaurs. Image credit: Chinese Academy of Sciences/Dr Brian Choo (via Wired)

The final step is an animal that is a mammal that has consciousness and high intelligence. And so we have a rather linear progression that goes from the first cell to the intelligent human being. Could the next stage be the supercomputer that takes the brain element further into its next stage? Maybe... but that wouldn't be an adequate description of what evolution really does.

However, it not simply an upward story. The history of life has been punctuated by mass extinctions when hundreds, sometimes millions of species became extinct within a short period of time.

The so-called K-T event, for example, brought about the demise of the dinosaurs and many other organisms. But there were other mass extinctions. One of them at least took place at the end of the Permian period, and it was even more extreme.

Survival then might have been lottery or maybe the surviving species had some quality that you didn't now you possessed but came useful when crisis arose and got you through. There was an element of serendipity in the organism that passed through.

The K-T event took out dinosaurs and other organisms in the sea. It reset life and gave the mammals a chance to evolve into the forms we have today.

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Planet Dinosaur. Image BBC

Throughout the history of life, brain power did increase in general. Metabolic rate also increased between the reptiles and the mammals. There is thus a progressive aspect in spite of these interruptions. The biggest interruption was the end of the Permian period (about 250 million years ago) when all the continents were united and the ocean went seriously anoxic. There was a violent eruption of volcanic gas in what is now Siberia. It produced the biggest extinction the world has seen. 90% of species probably disappeared. e.g. the ammonites.

These extinction events reset the clock and give survivors the chance to re-evolve, to regenerate ecologies. Every time a mass extinction has intervened, evolution has filled up the gap afterwards, often with a very rapid period of evolution where the ecology reasserts itself. It is a very neglected fact about the history of life. A couple of examples: the coral reef which is often taken as a paradigm for biologically varied communities. The reef habitat goes back past 4 mass extinctions. At each stage, the reefs died out completely, but shortly afterwards they re-evolved which means that evolution rapidly fills all the niches.

Another example is the woodland found in the south of England (and elsewhere in the world) with trees, plants and ferns. This particular structure has evolved from the coal forests of the Carboniferous period more than 300 million years ago that ultimately produced coal deposits. The structure of those forest is not so different from the ones we have today and it is extremely species-rich but not as species rich as today's tropical forest, the richest habitat on earth.

You could replicate his argument with most of the major habitats on earth: they are very rich in species and after an extinction event, they 'restock' and become rich in species again. Now how does that not seem to fit in the account of the survival of the fittest? if one species is particularly good, it outcompetes the other so you would expect much more of a one species takes all situation but when natural evolution is allowed to play out, it goes for extremely species rich environment.

Each of these extinction events allows life to replay itself in a sense and it replays itself always towards biodiversity and large numbers of species, not the dominance of one or two. The end product of evolution as it really works is thus a huge, incomparable diversity of organisms on the planet.

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Richard Fortey at the Age of Wonder Festival. Photo by Sas Schilten

Scientists tend to avoid imputing human or moral values to their work. Fortey, however, added moral value to his ideas by saying that biodiversity is the way the world is supposed to be and not the dominance of one or two species.

Some people say that we are now in a period when we are decimating the biodiversity of the planet, we are putting species extinct very fast or at least reducing their numbers to almost zoological garden proportions. Fortey's feeling as a biologist is that this is morally wrong. Extinction does happen naturally but if we can say as a precept that the state of nature as it should be is one that maximizes its richness, then you have a moral ground for saying what we are doing to the planet is wrong. The right state of the world is a rich one and we are going against it.

Geerat J. Vermeij, in his book Evolution and Escalation. An Ecological History of Life pointed out that much of this richness is generated by antagonism between prey species and the predators. The prey evolves by developing new techniques to defend itself.

Summary of richness and its implications. What does richness mean?
- it's the end result of natural selection operating through geological time
- it's a combination of biodiversity, ecological specialization and geological sensitivity
- it's the state to which evolution leads if left to play under natural circumstances
- it's the way the natural world is and should be
- it's nothing like the human world produced by unfettered capitalism or by the controlled 'command economy' of communism regimes.

We humans are just another species and perhaps our human society should also regard richness as a desirable end.

The misapplication of Darwinism or when the 'survival of the fittest' is misapplied in the wrong situation (the 'winner takes all' justification):

The Market is just another example of Darwinism in action. These days in the UK we keep hearing statements describing the Market as if it were a Darwinistic phenomenon. Margaret Thatcher talking about market forces said 'there is no alternative.' Even the corporate business model for the market uses the language of natural selection. Trawling through the newspapers, Fortey found example of this: we must adapt or die, we mustn't be dinosaurs, competition is threatening our market niche, it's a jungle out there, there will be a Starbucks on ever street corner, etc.

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The County Butchers in Cornwall has added wild grey squirrel onto its list of game. Photo: Adam Gerrar/ SWNS via The Guardian

How did it get there? The model in the business man's mind is something like what has happened to our squirrel population. The South of England used to be inhabited by a population of red squirrels. Then came 'the American invader', the grey squirrel. It is clever, more aggressive, and brings with it a nasty disease. It is a much more successful animal. This kind of model is "the model takes all" model which lies behind this interpretation of the Darwinian process as applied to a lot of human activity.

For Fortey, this is a violation of the principle of richness. The good state is one of proliferation of many product and places to make life as rich as possible.

The end of product of the capitalism is nearly always very similar to the case of the grey squirrel: you get a reduction in richness. In capitalism, however, you often end up with a duopoly of two companies with very similar products that have eaten up other companies and then have to sell one another on superficial differences.

Coca-cola bottles from around the world present subtle differences that reflect the local brands that the Coca-cola corporation has replaced over the years. If you look at the whole Pepsi vs Coca Cola line of products, you will find that these mega soft drink companies offer some one to one correspondences. For example, sprite and seven up are virtually identical. The main difference is the amount they spend in advertising.

The wine industry is the opposite. It's the coral reef of the supermarket. There are infinite varieties of wines to choose from. Many were produced by small business. These are species actively evolving, which adds to richness.

Fortey's idea wasn't about anti-capitalism but about how capitalism could also result in creativeness, innovation, variety.

Does this have any use?
It is wrong for human beings to make species extinct. The world will become a less rich place if we carry on as we do.

7 billion people on Earth, that's too many and if we need to feed them with shrinking resources, then how are we going to build super computers to take us to the stars?

Is it too Utopian? Almost certainly yes.

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The Age of Wonder Festival. Photo by Sas Schilten

Previous posts about the festival: "Volta", the oversized voltaic pile, Age of Wonder: Superintelligence and existential risks, Tree Antenna: using trees for radio transmission.

There are more images on flickr and videos on Vimeo.
Image on the homepage via Earth Times.

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A visit of the exhibition Mind Maps: Stories from Psychology yesterday made me realize, once again, that i should be grateful to live here and now and not at a time when melancholia was treated with a 'healthy' dose of electric shocks and nerves were supplied with a 'vital energy' by wearing an electrical belt previously soaked in vinegar. This ancient cure looked like jolly good fun though.

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Model of a human brain, sectioned, French, first half 19th century. Image courtesy Science Museum

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Susan Aldworth, Transition series, 2010

Mind Maps explores how mental health conditions have been diagnosed and treated over the past 250 years. Divided into four episodes between 1780 and 2014, this exhibition looks at key breakthroughs in scientists' understanding of the mind and the tools and methods of treatment that have been developed, from Mesmerism to Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT) and Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) bringing visitors up to date with the latest cutting edge research and its applications.

The small show is everything but dull and scholarly: controversial treatments such as electroconvulsive therapy and poisonous nerve 'tonics' are followed by pendulum measuring the speed of thoughts, Pavlov's experiments on conditional reflexes and by Freud and his couch.

Every single object in the exhibition comes with a fascinating and at times chilling story. The only criticism i'm ready to make about Mind Maps is that ongoing journey into the mysteries of the brain and the nervous system would benefit from a less dim and confined exhibition space.

Highlights from the exhibition:

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Frog Pistol, invented 1860s. Image courtesy Science Museum

The artefact i found most puzzling was the 'frog pistol' developed by German scientist Emil du Bois-Reymond to demontrate 'animal electricity' to his students.

A fresh frog leg was placed on the glass plate inside the tube, with the nerve ends connected to the keys on the top of the pistol grip. When these keys were depressed, a contact was made and the leg kicked back as it if had been electrified.

The small pistol instrument was of course inspired by the work of Luigi Galvani. In the 1780s, the Italian doctor discovered that sparks of electricity caused dead frogs' legs to twitch, leading him to propose that electrical energy was intrinsic to biological matter. Some of the instruments used by Galvani in his pioneering studies of nerve activity are presented in the exhibition, they haven't been displayed in public for more than a century.

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Amuletic dried frog in a silk bag from early 20th century south Devon. Photo Science Museum blog

The nerve/frog connection doesn't stop here. A dried frog inside a silk pouch is a testimony to the resilience of folk medicine in the 20th century, the essicated amphibian was carried around the neck 'to prevent fits and seizures.'

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Detail of an anatomical table displaying human nerves, dissected at the University of Padua in the 17th century (image Fresh eye on London)

Let's keep on the macabre mood with this 17th century dissection table from Padua with all the nerves of (presumably) an executed criminal laid out on it to form a map of the nervous system on a varnished wooden panel.

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Cavallo-style electrical generator, made by George Adams, London, 1780-84. Object no. 1889-29 © Science Museum

Tiberius Cavallo, a leading European authority on medical electricity, designed this compact electrical generator and its accessories, including the 'medical bottle' that regulated the shocks it administered. Turning the glass cylinder built up a static electric charge in the metal collector on the side of the machine.

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D'Arsonval cage from Riviere's clinic, Paris. Image courtesy Science Museum

The patient stood inside the D'Arsonval cage while harmless high-frequency alternating current from the tesla coil on a desk pulsed around the metal framework, generating powerful electromagnetic fields inside the body. The treatment was claimed to stimulate metabolism, reduce obesity and eczema, and temporarily relieve nervous pains.

The cage was only one of the many devices that Dr J-A Rivière, "electrotherapist and pacifist", used in the 1890s. His Paris clinic specialized in 'physical' treatments involving water, air, heat, light, electricity and after 1895, the newly discovered X-rays. Patients were seated in electric chairs, flooded with electric light or plunged into electrified bathtubs.

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Bottle of "Ner-Vigor", with instructions, in original carton, by the Anglo-American Pharmaceutical Co. Ltd. Image courtesy Science Museum

Huxley's 'Ner-Vigor' was used between 1892-1943 for "strengthening the nerves." Like some other medical products of the period, it contains a very small measure of the strychnine poison.

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Nervone nerve nutrient, 1924-49. Object no. 1988-317/165 © Science Museum

The Nervone 'nerve nutrient' was launched in the 1920s as an alternative to harmful nerve tonics and was still being sold in the 1960s when it was replaced by new anti-anxiety and depression drugs such as Valium.

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Sherrington's cat model, c. 1920-30. Object No: 1999-917 © Science Museum

Nerve scientist and Nobel Prize winner Charles Sherrington was fascinated by the way cats kept their balance while negotiating obstacles at speed. This model was used to illustrate how the cat's eyes, whiskers, neck, legs and tail continued to work together even when the 'highest' portion of its brain had been removed.

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Electroconvulsive therapy machine made in the 1940s for the Burden Neurological Institute

The period that followed the Second World War saw the rise of several controversial treatments, including electro-convulsive therapy (where electricity is used to induce a brain seizure) and lobotomy.

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Equipment for conducting an electronic lobotomy, 1962

The machine was designed to deliver just enough current to a gold electrode to make a peppercorn sized hole in the brain. This technique, also known as leucotomy, was a more precise form of lobotomy. It was used from the early 1960s to treat patients with uncontrollable anxiety.

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EEG hairnet. Image courtesy Science Museum

Electroencephalography (EEG) remains an essential element of the psychology laboratory. It is frequently used in conjunction with brain scanning.

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Lecuir's battery, 1880-1920. Photo courtesy Science Museum, London

Batteries to stimulate nervous energy sometimes also featured religious symbols, because mental health needs all the help it can get, right?

Mind Maps: Stories from Psychology is free and runs at the Science Museum in London until 10 June.

I spent the weekend in Eindhoven for Age of Wonder, a festival which turned up to be even more exciting and engaging than its name promised. I'll get back with images and posts later but right now i felt like blogging my notes from Nick Bostrom's keynote about Superintelligence. Bostrom is a Professor in the Faculty of Philosophy at Oxford University and the director of The Future of Humanity Institute. He talked about the ultra fast pace of innovation, hazardous future technologies, artificial intelligence that will one day surpass the one of human beings and might even take over our future.

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HAL 9000 vs Dave in Stanley Kubrick's film 2001: A Space Odyssey

Bostrom is worried about the way humanity is rushing forward. The time between having an idea and developing it is getting increasingly shorter. This gives less space to reflect on the safety of innovation. Bostrom believes that humans cannot see the existential danger this entails. If the future is a place where we really want to live, then we will have to think in different and better-targeted ways about ourselves and about technological developments.

Bostrom's talk started on a high and slightly worrying note with a few words on existential risk. An existential risk is one that endangers the survival of intelligent life on Earth or that threatens to severely destroy our potential for development. So far, humanity has survived the worst natural or man-caused catastrophes (genocide, tsunami, nuclear explosion, etc.) but an existential catastrophe would be so lethal that it would ruin all future for all mankind. An analogy on an individual scale would be if you find yourself facing a life sentence in prison or in a coma you don't wake up from.

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Slide from Nick Bostrom's presentation: Negligible to existential catastrophes (bigger image)

So far we've survived all natural catastrophes but we need to beware of anthropogenic risks. New technologies haven't yet managed to spread doom. Nuclear weapons, for example, are very destructive but they are also very difficult to make. Now imagine if a destructive technology was easy to make in your garage, It could end in the hands of a lunatic who plots the end of human civilization.

Potentially hazardous future technologies such as machine intelligence, synthetic biology, molecular technology, totalitarism-enabling technologies, geoengineering, human modification, etc. had not been invented 100 years ago. Imagine what might emerge within the next 100 years.

So if you care about the future of human civilization and if your goal is to do some good, you need to look at how to reduce existential risk. You would need to influence when and by whom technologies can be developed. You would need to speed up the development of 'good' technologies and retard the development of others such as designer pathogens for example.

How does this play out with a rise of machine intelligence which could result in Super Intelligence?

Machine intelligence will radically surpass biological intelligence (even if it is enhanced through genetic selection for example) one day. Experts find it difficult to agree on when exactly machines will reach the level of human intelligence. They estimate that there is 90% probability that human level artificial intelligence might arise around 2075. Once machine intelligence roughly matches human's in general intelligence, a machine intelligence takeoff could take place extremely fast.

But how can you control a Super Intelligent machine? What will happen when we develop something that radically surpass our intelligence and might have the capability to shape our future? Any plan we might have to control the super intelligence will probably be easily thwarted by it. Is it possible to have any gatekeeper that/who will make sure that the artificial intelligence will not do anything detrimental to us? The Super Intelligence would probably be capable of figuring out how to escape any confinement we might impose upon it. It might even kill us to prevent us from interfering with its own plans. We should also think about any ultimate goal that a Super Intelligence might have. What if its own goal is to dedicate all the resources of the universe to producing as many paper clips as possible?

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Slide from Nick Bostrom's presentation: what Super Intelligence can do and how it can achieve its objectives (bigger image)

How can we build an artificial Super Intelligence with human-friendly values? How can we control it and avoid some existential risks that might arise down the road?

The forms of artificial intelligence we are familiar with can solve one problem: speech recognition, face recognition, route-finding software, spam filters, search engines, etc. A general artificial intelligence will be able to carry out a variety of challenges and goals. How can we male sure that it learns humanly meaningful values?

Nick Bostrom's new book Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies will be published by Oxford University in June 2014 (You can pre-order it on Amazon USA and UK.)

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M1NE#1

It would be convenient but unfair to reduce the work of Frederik de Wilde to its award-winning ultra dark, nano-engineered black painting. Just like Yves Klein collaborated with chemists to create the now iconic International Klein Blue, de Wilde worked with scientists in both Europe and the U.S.A. to nano engineer a material so dark that it absorbs all visible light as well as some invisible like infrared light. Quite aptly, the artwork is called Hostage.

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Nano Painting. Hostage

De Wilde further expanded his research into spectral behaviour and innovation at the atomic level with M1NE #1, a 3D sculpture so dark that it appears as if it were devoid of any volume. The artwork translates classified data gathered from Belgian coal mines into a structure that hides political dossiers and possibly commercial interests into abstract forms.

Frederik de Wilde in collaboration with Frederik Vanhoutte, SoN01R 1.0

In fact, de Wilde's investigations don't stop at nanotechnology, he also explores biotechnology, data networks, or any other scientific fields of research in order to uncover new frontiers of the intangible, inaudible, invisible. I was particularly intrigued by SoN01R for example. The work is a real-time visualization of true random numbers generated from a quantum mechanical system.

All of the above might sound abstract and highly conceptual but as the interview with the artist will demonstrate research into elusive energy measurements and other barely perceptible phenomena quickly gives rise to reflections about politics, art history, economic emergency, universe hacking and very practical innovations in 'clean' energy.


Nano Painting, Rice University Nano Lab, 2010

Hi Frederik! What makes nanotechnology a valuable field of experimentation for an artist?

Let's debunk some myths first. Nanotechnology is not new on itself. The Mayans used nano particles in their pottery, the Romans in glass, and so on. A great example is the Lycurgus cup made from translucent glass containing colloidal gold and silver particles dispersed in the glass matrix in certain proportions so that the glass has the property of displaying a particular transmitted colour and a completely different reflected colour, as certain wavelengths of light either pass through or are reflected. This is called surface plasmon resonance where photons interact with electrons. It's like a dance on subatomic level. It connects colour theorists like Da Vinci with Isaac Newton, Cézanne, Kandinsky, ...

In my case i most interested in creating a black body, an idealised body that absorbs all incident electromagnetic radiation, regardless of frequency or angle of incidence. The first artistic result was the artwork entitled "Hostage p.t.1" which won the Ars Electronica Next Idea Grant in 2010.

What changed dramatically is the level of control in the nano tech praxis. It's unprecedented and still evolving rapidly. Let's take a step back into time to make things more clear.

One of the seminal events in the history of nanotechnology is -ever jittery- physicist Richard Feynman's lecture entitled "There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom" at Caltech on December 29, 1959. Feynman considered the possibility of direct manipulation of individual atoms as a more powerful form of synthetic chemistry than those used at the time. Let's not forget John Von Neumann, one of the founding figures in computer science, concept of the universal constructor in his theoretical and mathematical frameworks of self-replication. This clearly inspired Feynman to suggest the possibility of self-replication from atomic level onwards.

The concept led also to dystopian projections and hypothetical end-of-the-world scenarios, out-of-control self-replication (nano-)robots consuming all matter on Earth leaving nothing but a ''gray goo'', a term coined by nanotechnology pioneer Eric Drexler in his book Engines of Creation (1986).

As an artist i am not only interested in the history of science -or connecting it to an art historical perspective, a source of inspiration, a practical tool, the technological innovation potential, and so on ..., but also, and this has been less exposed until now, from a societal point-of-view. We are in a time of fundamental transition(-s), great turbulence, ... our contemporary society (read also 'old' world) is crumbling, it's fundaments are shaking profoundly.

Nanotechnology offers me a context to reflect upon the idea of building up a society anew from scratch -or 'personalise' it by the level of individual control-, atom by atom sort of speaking ((I am well aware that we've heard this story before (e.g. Futurist Manifesto ;), but where governments currently overload us with rules, regulations and restrictions we should bend it to possibilities, personalisation, et al. If not anticipated in the future we'll be confronted with a higher frequency of massive upheavals, strikes, civil unrest and revolts. This time from the proletarians AND the middle class. That's the 99%.

Multinationals and corporations have the leverage to make governments change their agenda, but they won't as long as there is no economic urgency and clear business model. This model will need to grow from inside and from the bottom of the pyramid. This will take time but one can see this slowly happening.

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Nano Painting, Nano Black Material

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Nano Painting, Scanning Electron Microscope Image _ Nano Black Material

But what's in it for the scientists you collaborated with (i read you worked with NASA, the University of Hasselt and Rice University)? What made your research into ultra black valuable for them?

It's layered. Most valuable is bringing together a group of passionate inter- and transdisciplinary individuals. As an artist you are a free electron. I don't have to align myself so easily with rules and regulations, institutes, ... i can be 'wild' and that's a quality that is generally accepted and respected. This stimulates and facilitates cross linking, confrontations with different ways of seeing, other ways of experimentation, getting out of the comfort zone.

In the case of the Nano Black research it depends. Currently i am challenging my collaborators at NASA to grow CNT's on a three dimensional matrix, which is not easy to accomplish. The concrete result of this first experiment in this direction is M1NE#1. The sculpture is made by direct laser sintering of micro particles titanium. The artwork is based on highly sensitive (political and economic) data of the coal mines in Belgium, seven mines in total. After a half a year of lobbying, and signing documents, i finally achieved to get a hold of the data. The main restriction was not to represent the actual data but only 'subjective' data, whether it's a sculpture, painting didn't matter.

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M1NE#1

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M1NE#2

This said; it's all about challenging, maintaining and accelerating dynamics, growing connections: stimulating growth. Maybe i am also used as an excuse for failure, haha :).

Whereas the scientific world is still too much compartmented, an artist can add a more personal, holistic, ... approach. I am interested in models, whether it's mathematics, art, society, ... it doesn't really matter. That's the bigger picture i am interested in and scientists are very eager to discuss these matters but preferably in a well defined -and controlled- context. I think that's a pity, and also scientist should participate more in societal issues. It's one of my ambition to create more space for this issue by the means of setting up art, science and technology projects. This is a gradual process. Most of the time it ends up with a demonstrator but that's not enough for me. The next step is deduct or grow a model from it with a deeper impact on more societal levels and give it a shape.

I also read about potential industrial applications: photovoltaic systems, invisible airplanes (oh, please no!), telescopes coating, etc. Do you want to give more details about it?

When you have a material that absorbs all visible light, and even some spectra of the invisible light like infrared and UV light, it's logical to think about photovoltaic cells. If one can improve the efficiency of a solar panel then that's a real good thing. Participating in the clean energy discourse makes me feel good, having potential solutions imbedded in an artistic and crossover project is even better. Making objects 'invisible' or three dimensional objects appear flat like a cutout, augmenting a canvas or substrate, a three dimensional matrix or sculpture with an enhanced topography or nano coating that can act as a photovoltaic cell is certainly interesting from artistic, scientific and industrial applications point-of-view. Innovation thrives not only on single innovations but also combining and recombining ideas, techniques and technologies.

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Frederik de Wilde, NASABlck-Crcl #1, 2013

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Frederik de Wilde, NASABlck-Crcl #1, 2013

The artwork entitled ''NASABlck-Crcl #1'' makes clear reference to Duchamp's readymades.

It's the most complete black body to date only applied in one telescope in space. This allows for less stray light which results in a sharper image. Yes, it would make a very good camera obscura.

The projects Quantum Objects, Quantum Foam and SoN01R explore true random numbers. Can you briefly explain what these true random numbers are? And what drew you to randomness?

Generating true random numbers is rather exceptional. Most random number generators are based on computer algorithms. Once the input conditions are known, one can reverse-engineer such algorithms which suggests a reproducible outcome. To be able to generate truly random numbers one would need a routine that can break the causality law, an observation of a source that acts without any or any knowable cause.

I've always been interested in the concept and notions of 'noise', again from different points-of-view (astrophysics, music, art, mathematics, societal, ...). The installation αTown #Lead Angels 1.0 is a fine example. Here i use uranium glass aka vaseline glass or Great Depression glass as a source for generation true random numbers. In the case of Quantum Objects, Quantum Foam and SoN01R i use quantum vacuum noise to generate true random numbers. It's hacking, or tuning into, the substrate of the universe.


αTown #Lead Angels 1.0

Reliable and unbiased random numbers are needed for a range of applications spanning from numerical modelling to cryptographic communications. It use will become more and more important in our contemporary society. For instance equations used at stock markets like the Black-Scholes equation should incorporate more noise, more randomness. That's why i developed the idea of social algorithms. Currently i am collaborating with Post-doctoral researcher Vincenzo De Florio to develop an art and science project that will demonstrate the application of such an algorithm. For the record; i am not a scientist or mathematician, but i do my best in trying to understand the big picture and specificities related to a certain research topic.

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Quantum Foam #2 [sphere] - Red Edition

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Quantum Foam #2 [sphere] - White Edition

How did you go from exploring the super small to investigating the vacuum? Was it something logical for you?

I guess by getting lost, and connecting the pieces step-by-step. It's intuitive as much as logical.

One of my main sources of inspiration is the 'Powers of Ten' (1977), a cinematic scientific film essay by Charles and Ray Eames. In short; a set of pictures of two picnickers in a park, with the area of each frame one-tenth the size of the one before. Starting from a view of the entire known universe, the camera gradually zooms in until we are viewing the subatomic particles on a man's hand. I am trying to insert a less materialistic point-of-view in science by the means of art. It's not that i have a perfect marriage with science :)


Powers of Ten, 1977

You've collaborated with various research departments in universities across Europe and the United States. Which form did the collaboration take? Was this you bringing the ideas, explaining scientists exactly what you wanted them to achieve for you and then they worked in their lab behind closed door? Or do you, in some way, take a more active role in the lab processes?

Collaboration is a format, a template but at finer resolution it can take many shapes. I see also similarities but also differences in approach depending on the country etc. Sometimes it's a question, an idea or an image that pops up in my mind when confronted with scientific research that i resonate with. The next step is to get in contact with the scientist and pose your question, communicate your idea. Generally I include some reference projects so the scientist has a better idea of your approach, potential outcomes, ...but most of all that you are able to bridge the gap between art and science. This is crucial. You have to do your research and do your hours :)

In the best case i am invited for a residency, this enables me to stay for a longer time, get to know the people, daily routines but most of all getting hands on experiences and go deeper into the subject. You have to be in an ecology to understand it, get a feel of it. Blowing things up is a part of that too ;). This reminds me of Jean-Jacques Cousteau whom was asked in an interview why he blew up a part of coral reef when he was young. He answered that it was the only way to understand how a coral reef regenerates. Anyway, i wanted to produce the blackest artwork in the universe and i knew that Rice was and is the heimat of nanotechnology. In the case of developing the ''Hostage p.t.1" i went to Rice University in Texas Houston several times and collaborated with Prof. Pulickel, Robert and Daniel in the chemistry lab. They were already researching CNT's so that was a perfect match. Sometimes you have to be lucky too. The next step was to grow the array of vertical aligned CNT's uniformly and on a large enough substrate. The latter is very difficult as the ion sputtering rooms and chemical vapour depositing don't allow large samples. So for that time being we focused on creating a mosaic and going as black as we could. It's obvious that initially i was not allowed to be in the lab alone, hence i was accompanied by Daniel, a very promising scientist and entrepreneur, to help me out.

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UNPAINTED art fair 2014 booth view

Ultimately i'm amazed at how brave you are to tackle such complex scientific fields. Science today seems to get increasingly compartmentalized with researchers specializing in various sub-disciplines. How can an artist approach these intimidating scientific fields? Is there a steep learning curve?

Forget being an artist, or pretend to be one. Be a person that is very interested in what the scientists do, be curious, make semantic connections, share you thoughts, ideas and feelings.

The more open you are the more chance you have to find like-minded people, they will help and guide you through topics that are hard to wrap your brain around. Sometimes making a sketch or drawing of the topic helps a lot. Knowing your limits is very important too.

I'm quite familiar with art and science initiatives, commissions, programmes and funding organizations in the UK but i know very little of what is at the disposal of an artist living in other European countries and wanting to work with scientists. What exists in Belgium where you live for example? Is this common for an artist to find funding and opportunities to work with research institutes?

Unfortunately our ministry of culture doesn't support yet artistic crossover with research and development. Which is a real pity. As the financial envelope for the arts becomes smaller and smaller i notice some conservative tendencies. That is very corrosive for the arts, which thrives on the niche, and is maybe a niche on itself. Stigmatising it is like stigmatising art itself. To come back to your questions; generally I am invited by a University, sometimes I co-invest myself to make the project and collaboration possible. With the University of Hasselt (UH) i have a long term commitment, this is often due to long term friendships like with Prof. Jean Manca from the UH. Currently i am also involved in some EU funded projects, most of them have a crossover DNA. Funny enough the initiative for crossover projects isn't an arts initiative but an initiative from the ministry of innovation, science and technology and Flanders DC. It's called CiCi and supports crossover projects.

More info here: http://www.flandersdc.be/en/cici-call

Also iMINDS offers an ART&D call.

More info here: http://www.iminds.be/en/research/start-a-project/artd-program

Thanks Frederik!

The new episode of #A.I.L - artists in laboratories, the weekly radio programme about art and science i present on ResonanceFM, London's favourite radio art station, is aired tomorrow Wednesday afternoon at 4pm.

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WE COLONISED THE MOON, Enter At Own Risk, presented by The Arts Catalyst in Republic of the Moon, FACT Liverpool 2011

My guest in the studio tomorrow will be Nicola Triscott, the founder and Director of The Arts Catalyst, a UK arts organisation that sets up events, curates exhibitions, releases publications and commissions ambitious artworks that  engage with science. The Arts Catalyst, believe or not, is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year so we'll be talking about the art&science scene of the early 1990s and also about the embassy for The Republic of the Moon which the Arts Catalyst has opened a few days ago at the Bargehouse, on the Southbank.

I've been inviting artists working with the arts catalyst to the resonanceFM studio ever since i started this program so i thought that it would only be fair to invite its founder and director in the studios of resonanceFM.

The radio show will be aired this Wednesday 15 January at 16:00, London time. Early risers can catch the repeat next Tuesday at 6.30 am. If you don't live in London, you can listen to the online stream or wait till we upload the episodes on soundcloud one day.

Photo on the homepage: Leonid Tishkov, Private Moon in Formosa, presented by The Arts Catalyst in Republic of the Moon, London 2014.

Republic of the Moon is on view until 2 February 2014 at the temporary residence of The Arts Catalyst: Bargehouse, Oxo Tower Wharf on London's South Bank.

The new episode of #A.I.L - artists in laboratories, the weekly radio programme about art and science i present on ResonanceFM, London's favourite radio art station, is aired this Wednesday afternoon at 4pm.

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X &Y. Image Benjamin Ealovega for the Science Museum

Today's guests are not the usual suspects as they are scientists using art to explore and communicate mathematics. Marcus du Sautoy is the Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science and Professor of Mathematics at the University of Oxford. Victoria Gould is a mathematician and actress.

Marcus and Victoria have just spent several days and evenings at the Science Museum in London to perform X &Y, a theater show that use mathematics, humour and theatre to navigate the known and unknown reaches of our world and ultimately to approach some of the biggest philosophical and scientific questions we might encounter: where did the universe come from, does time have an end, is there something on the other side?

I saw one of the last London performances fearing everything would fly high above my head (math classes are far far away from my mind now) but the whole show is incredibly accessible, whether you're a child or a retired professor of physics. I'm neither of those and i found X&Y surprisingly entertaining. I even enjoyed the language of equations and laughed. About mathematics! In the process, i learnt that zero is a relatively new number and that there are many sorts of infinity.

If you've missed the shows, you might want to head to the Science Festival in Manchester. I know i might. The programme is very tempting: an exhibition about contemporary architecture in Antarctica, retro computing events, a talk about the application of quantum physics on communication technology, a presentation about controlling brains from the outside, etc. And a series of X&Y performances from October 30th to November 3rd.

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X &Y. Image Benjamin Ealovega for the Science Museum

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X &Y. Image Benjamin Ealovega for the Science Museum

The radio show will be aired this Wednesday 23rd of October at 16:00, London time. Early risers can catch the repeat next Tuesday at 6.30 am. If you don't live in London, you can listen to the online stream or wait till we upload the episodes on soundcloud.
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