Saturday, 23 May 2009

Hay Festival - Saturday

Martin Rees, the Asronomer Royal, kicked off my Hay festival this morning with a talk about The World in 2050.

He covered much of the usual climate change pessimism that probably all of us here share. What are the solutions? Professor Rees has his own favourite, a global grid centered around massive solar power stations based in and around the Sahara. But he warned that these were long-term projects which, like fusion power would come too late. The immediate priorities should be focussed on carbon capture, because we don’t have too many years before the climate tipping point is reached. He also spoke of the threats of population growth and other mass extinction dynamics. He was concerned about the way biotech and cybertech were having an empowering effect on the lunatic fringe of society, and that “the global village will always have its village idiots”.

“There have been five great extinction events in the Earth’s history,” he said, “and humans are now causing the sixth.”

Other matters, and on to space. Only twelve years elapsed between Sputnik and Neil Armstrong, but it has now been over 35 years since man set foot on the moon. There is progress in space, but it will largely be confined to small robotic devices. He’s probably right. It is shame, because where is the passion in sending a pocket calculator to the stars.

Prof. Rees also spoke about the prospect of intelligent computers by 2050 – an indirect reference to the Technological Singularity. He didn’t really commit to a viewpoint, but hinted that he had his doubts, and anyway, how would we know what intelligence really was?

I took issue with one point, his description of Science Fiction writers as “flaky American futurologists.” This is so wrong. Some of us are British (or Manx).

Prof. Rees summed his talk up with a view that the next 40 years will see an ever widening of the gulf between what doors we can open and what doors we should keep closed.

 Other thoughts on Hay so far: well it’s hot! I’m sitting on the grass in the main square and I am concerned because a) we haven’t brought sunblock and b)its hard to see the screen of my laptop. I’m not complaining. Long may it continue.

Next up is Brenda Maddox, the biographer, talking about her study of Geoge Eliot.

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