SXSW Interactive Festival

Intellectual Property, Résumé Building, Wearable Computers, and Other Tales From the …

'Beyond' Track: Futurists Say the Darnedest Things

You can't predict how technology will evolve. In 1968, Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey had people dreaming of (and fearing) a future where computers would be our thinking, feeling chums. So it's 2001 now -- where is HAL, anyway? In the opening presentation of SXSW Interactive's "Beyond" track, artificial intelligence pioneer Doug Lenat explained that the mistake has been in trying to reproduce human intelligence -- specifically, natural language, which is beset with what he calls "pesky translogical phenomena," i.e., ambiguity, random mistakes, individual fluxations in articulateness, creativity, and humor. You know, all the stuff that makes us humans quirky and lovable. Lenat's company, the Austin-based Cycorp, is developing a program called Cyc that would enhance, rather than replicate, human intelligence, a "knowledge base" that would eventually be able to infer its own facts rather than rely on human input (see austinchronicle.com/issues/dispatch/1999-12-24/screens_feature.html for more on Lenat and Cyc.)

Of course, there's still the concern of all this technology backfiring, of HAL flipping out and killing the astronauts. The "Nanobots" panel spent most of its time addressing these doomsday concerns, with the consensus that humans will stay in control as long as we can pull the plug on errant machines. The panelists, as articulate as they were, could hardly provide the background in biochemistry and engineering required for Nanotechnology 101, stalling the discussion in a frustrating feedback loop of handwringing over the social/environmental/spiritual consequences of technologies that have barely been dreamt up, much less implemented.

Vague, unsatisfying speculation was an even bigger problem in the panel called "Wearable Computers." I was hoping for, but not really expecting, a showcase of contraptions straight out of a James Bond film. But all panelist Katrina Barillova -- a former intelligence agent, no less -- brought to the discussion was a video of models catwalking her high tech gadgetry which, by all indications, is a form for which no function has been developed yet.

This Czech fashionista wants to fuse people's desires for cool clothes and up-to-the-minute technology into one package, and God help us all if she succeeds. She tried to give her pursuit an altruistic spin, claiming that these ultra-portable, wireless computers will hook up the disenfranchised citizens of Third-World countries otherwise lacking in electricity and communication infrastructure. It's a noble vision, but right now rings as hollow as claiming that Prada tube tops will someday keep homeless people warm and dry though the winter. Then again, as we know, technology evolves in unexpected ways.

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