By Douglas Messier
Parabolic Arc Managing Editor
I had the opportunity to escape from the Mojave last weekend to attend the BIL Conference down in Long Beach. It was a nice break. I got to see some cool talks, meet some new friends, and sit barefoot on a beach beside a vast ocean which I had all but forgotten even existed.
Not bad for two days.
I just wish I could have stayed longer. Returning to the High Desert was like traveling back in time: it felt like spring in LA, but it was still winter in the Mojave. Cold and windy.
If you haven’t heard of it, BIL is the anti-TED. Which is to say, it covers a broad range of topics (technologies, society, space travel, future trends, culture, etc.) just like TED, but in a much less formal way. BIL is an un-conference where people who want to give a talk sign up on a first-come, first-served basis. Participants also listen to presentations about strap-on sex, play Twister in between talks, and bid on the opportunity to help film a pornographic movie in the Valley.
As I said, definitely not TED.
As for the name BIL, it really doesn’t mean anything. It’s actually a play on “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure.” The conference had some of the same sensibilities as the movie: Have fun and don’t take things too seriously. Unlike…well, you know.
The most interesting talk I heard was from Michael Laine, the founder of LiftPort. He closed the conference by recounting the more than a decade he has spent trying to develop space elevators, which have the potential of revolutionizing our access to the heavens by removing chemical rockets from the equation.
Laine had been working on technologies for a space elevator under a NASA grant when the space shuttle Columbia broke up over Texas in early 2003. The space agency was forced to re-arrange its priorities, resulting in the funding drying up.
He managed to keep the effort alive for several years using his own savings. However, the project eventually sputtered, spending about five years in hibernation until Laine gave a talk at last year’s BIL Conference.
The main problem is not funding but something more fundamental: the technology doesn’t exist to build a space elevator from Earth. However, Laine believes that we do have the technology to build space elevator on the moon. That is what he has focused on during the past year, buoyed by $110,000 he raised in a Kickstarter crowd-sourcing campaign.
It won’t be an easy task. The elevator would include a line as thick as dental floss that would be anchored to the moon and extend a quarter million kilometers out into space. Nobody has ever built anything remotely like it before.
“I’ll tell you the truth, we don’t have all the questions let alone all the answers….Building it is pretty difficult. But, there is a profound different between difficult, very very hard and impossible,” Laine told the audience.
A lunar elevator could transport three people to moon every 21 days at a cost of $50 million. “Three people every three weeks will change everything,” Laine said.
It would cost about $800 million to construct a robotic space elevator and an additional $200 million for a human-rated system, Laine estimated. Those are the types of number that don’t appeal to a traditional venture capitalist, particularly not for an infrastructure project.
Laine said that LiftPort has up to 25 potential patents with commercial spin-off value covering such areas as robotic technology, communications, and advanced alloys that can help to fund the lunar elevator.
“We refer to ourselves as an idea factory,” he said.
The company has sold nine rings made from an advanced alloy composed of silver and carbon nano-tubes. Laine said his team discovered the alloy by accident after getting a request from a couple that wanted an unique set of rings for their wedding ceremony.
If Laine’s inspiring presentation was the highlight of BIL, the trough was definitely the Saturday evening screening of the new documentary, “The Singularity.” At 76 minutes, it was the longest single event of the conference and, for me at least, the most interminable.
If you haven’t heard of it, the Singularity is a theoretical point in time when self-aware computers will be superior to human beings. The humans will also have been enhanced physically, mentally and genetically by merging with their technology. The pace of technological change will be so fast that we’ll have difficulty keeping up with it. And a bunch of other amazing things will have happened that will have transformed our world.
What that future might actually look like — and whether it will be a paradise, a dystopia or something in between — is the main topic of the film. Unfortunately, the fascinating subject matter is rendered all but inert by a deadening approach to film making.
Director Doug Wolens forgot – or, most likely, never learned – the one fundamental rule of this most visual of mediums: show, don’t tell. The film is 76 minutes of one talking head after another, interrupted periodically by some basic computer graphics and video stock footage illustrating whatever point is being made. The talking heads rarely stop talking, nor is there any narrator to give the film any real structure or larger overview.
There were so many talking heads, in fact, that the movie began to resemble episodes Futurama in which disembodies heads of past presidents and celebrities gave advice to the employees of Planetary Express from inside of liquid filled glass jars.
I began to imagine that if the Singularity does occur as projected around 2045, a film-maker could bring all these experts back to comment on the accuracy of their predictions. By that time, most of them will probably be disembodied heads, meaning the sequel really wouldn’t look at that much different.
Of such things, nightmares are made.
The other problem with the film is that the ideas the experts describe are hardly new. They will be familiar to just about anyone with even a passing knowledge of science fiction. Numerous movies and television shows have dealt with this possible future, bringing such characters as Commander Data, Cylons, Terminators and the HAL 900 computer to life to entertain and frighten us.
Despite the commonplace nature of these concepts, the film spends far too much time having its many experts explain them in great detail. The film gets lost in the details and arguments, refusing to step back and provide the proper perspective.
This led me to suspect that there is probably less substance to the Singularity than its supporters claim. All the talk seems designed to disguise the fact that someone has cleverly packaged a bunch of fairly common ideas (AI! enhanced humans! killer bots!), given them a collective name (The Singularity!), and set a date (2045!) by which they will all somehow converge in a wondrous (or cataclysmic!) turning point in human history. It is, if nothing else, a brilliant bit of marketing.
If any single person can claim primary credit for the achievement, it is inventor and futurist Ray Kuzweil, author of “The Singularity is Near” and the most prominent proponent of the concept. His very sunny views of the future are featured frequently throughout the documentary. Kurzweil doesn’t focus much on what could go wrong.
To the film-maker’s credit, there are prominent figures who disagreed with Kurzweil who also appear, giving the film some much needed balance. This resulted in my favorite lines in the entire movie, which related to how our future robot overlords will regard us.
“If we’re lucky, they will treat us as pets,” one expert opined. “If we’re unlucky, they will treat us as food.”
Priceless. And probably true.
When the documentary ended, the audience erupted in enthusiastic applause. Clearly, my fellow BILers (or at least those who sat through it) had a better opinion of the film than I did. C’est la vie!
As for me, I will eagerly await the day when someone figures out how to make a truly compelling documentary about the coming Singularity. Unfortunately, the film-makers will probably be a group of super-intelligent robots. And we humans will probable be the hors d’oeuvers at their film screenings. Roast leg of human strips, anyone? Mmmm….Delicious.
Can’t wait for the Singularity to arrive.
After the conference ended on Sunday, I made my way up to Santa Monica, where I sat on the beach beside the pier watching the waves come in. This is what I miss most by living in the desert. When I lived up in Sunnyvale, I used to drive over the mountain to Santa Cruz, and then north along the coast highway to a group of small coves. It was beautiful there, and watching the waves crashing ashore was relaxing. There is something about the beauty and vastness of the ocean that make all your problems seem small and insignificant.
The Santa Monica beach was a lot more crowded than those secluded coves up north. But that, too, was a nice change of pace. The Mojave is so sparsely populated that you rarely see very many people gathered together in one place. The beach — and the Third Street Promenade I visited later — were vibrant and full of life. Human life, not computers or robots programmed to approximate it.
After relaxing on the beach, I made my way up to the pier and and walked down to the end of it. The roller coaster and Ferris wheel were busy, while fishermen competed for fish with a seal that swam in the chilly water below.
At the end of the pier, people gathered to watch the sunset. It was a spectacular sight; there was no off-shore marine layer to block our view. The sun slowly disappeared below the sea until there was nothing left but an orange glow.
At that point, a group of people standing on the level above me began to clap and cheer. “OK, let’s all give it up for the Sun!” one of them shouted, provoking laughter and smiles all around.
In the Singularity, would our robot overlords have the same reaction to a sunset? Maybe. Or maybe not. Fortunately, it’s not something we have to really worry about. At least not for a while.
I returned to the desert that night revived and refreshed. It was a very nice break from everything.