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Humanity in the age of Artificial Intelligence

Italy’s first Futurological Congress took place in the Alpine city of Bozen-Bolzano - an infotainment event organised by the Center for Advanced Studies in collaboration with Transart Festival.


Outstanding keynote speakers, extraordinary artistic performances and discussions, installations and exhibitions: from 21st to 26th September, the first Futurological Congress in Italy, an interdisciplinary infotainment festival that questioned the future of humanity in the age of artificial intelligence, was hosted at NOI Techpark in Bozen-Bolzano, Autonomous Province of South Tyrol and via live web streaming.


Tiberio Sorvillo

"Technological developments as they are happening at the moment will radically change our society, politics and economic systems. But technology for its own sake will not get us any further. Ultimately, it must be about improving people's lives," explains Harald Pechlaner. He is head of the Center for Advanced Studies at Eurac Research and initiator of the ambitious project, which aims to show different perspectives, but most of all to point out the possible effects of technological progress.

Artificial intelligence, robotics and algorithms accompany our everyday lives more than any other 21st century development. These technologies wage wars, handle money flows, make diagnoses, decide on the granting of loans and even shape our mobility. AI software blurs the line between man and machine. But can artificial intelligence create art? Is it merely a tool, like a painter's brush, or can AI develop its own aesthetics? What other differences exist between man and machine? And how defining is the inevitable transience of humans, compared to AI’s quasi-immortal existence? Addressing all these issues, the Futurological Congress has been a colourful series of partly physical and partly live streamed scientific keynotes, discussions and art performances set against the backdrop of NOI Techpark. For this purpose, the Center for Advanced Studies has teamed up with the Transart Festival and integrated the congress into the 20th anniversary of the Festival of Contemporary Culture.

"Futurological Congress" is originally the title of a black-humorous science fiction novel by the Polish author Stanisław Lem from 1971. Ingolstadt City Theatre was inspired to use this novel as the basis for a special event under the same name as early as 2018. In conversation with the artistic director Knut Weber, the idea was finally born to bring the Futurological Congress to Bolzano as well. After the welcoming words by Roland Psenner, President of Eurac Research, Weber brought a special greeting from Ingolstadt to Bolzano: a video performance by the artists Mira Fajfer and Stefano Di Buduo.

The opening of the conference was entrusted to the philosopher Riccardo Manzotti with a speech about being conscious without being alive: AI, mind, and life, directly from the arctic. Or was it just out of the terraXcube? In Bolzano, the two completely opposite spiritual currents of transhumanism and humanism met. Zoltan Istvan, United States founder of the Transhumanist Party and former presidential candidate, discussed the movement's ambitious goal of achieving immortality. German philosopher and former minister of culture Julian Nida-Rümelin, tried to contrast these technical-optimistic fantasies with the dangers of human/machine fusion and defend ethical humanism.  

Cognitive scientist and philosopher Susan Schneider, who has conducted research for NASA on the possible existence of consciousness in aliens, explained how these tests can also be used to ascertain  the likelihood of consciousness in AI, the topic of focus of her lecture "AI, alien life and the future of the mind". Matthias Röder, managing director of the Karajan Institute, gave insight into an extremely exciting project: the completion of Beethoven's unfinished 10th symphony. X company engineer Grace C. Young develops technologies to explore and preserve the oceans. As a keen navigator, diver and National Geographic Explorer, the young engineer uses underwater robots to create 3D maps of marine habitats to better measure climate change. During her conference "Living & working in the ocean" she further examined this theme and told her own story, which had led her from dance to robotics.

Day two explored the relationship between AI and creativity: Holger Volland, Vice-President of the Frankfurt Book Fair, political scientist Roland Benedikter, multimedia artists Hexorcismos and Robin Meier and Dmitry Morozov, musician Peter Kirn and art curator Natalia Fuchs participated in the discussion whether machines can create art or not. The conclusion? To create art, the human being is still the pivotal point, even if we are already listening to music or looking at paintings created by AI. This was also the line taken by Ahmed Elgammal, who spoke about AI as an art collaborator.

Neuroscientist and researcher from the Future of Humanity Institute in Oxford Anders Sandberg illuminated the multiple global risks, while also demonstrating the creative and positive solutions available for countering potential apocalyptic scenarios. Rob van Kranenburg gave a lecture on cyber physical systems and called for a governance providing radical transparency without surveillance, tracking and proactive profiling.

Jason Silva, futurist and presenter of the National Geographic documentary series "Brain Games", gave an optimistic view in his presentation “The future of everything" which concluded the congress, leaving us with the message  - “it is in wonder and enthusiasm for life that our greatest potential lies.”

Dealing with future issues requires all disciplines, therefore the duo of organisers: Eurac Research's Center for Advanced Studies, which since its foundation has been dealing with questions of the future across disciplinary boundaries, and Transart, the festival of contemporary culture, couldn’t be more fitting.

The video recordings of the Futurological Congress will soon be available on the website www.futurologicalcongress.it.

Photo: Tiberio Sorvillo

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