The Early Days of a Better Nation

Friday, October 03, 2003

Not a Con Report

Last weekend I was GoH at P-Con in Dublin. It was a small but successful con, with good accomodation and facilities in the Ashling Hotel (noted for its fine views across the Liffey of the back of the Guinness brewery). Many thanks to the committee, and particularly to the welcoming and hard-working Padraig and Deirdre. Irish fans - North and South - are an interested and interesting crowd, and the panels were stimulating and mostly well-attended. (Some of them started a little late. There was one alarming moment where the audience was not only smaller than the panel, it consisted entirely of people married to people on the panel. But the moment passed.)

As at all cons, some of the most memorable discussions were conversations in the bar. Late on Friday evening, Nicholas Whyte passed on a joke from ex-Soviet Georgia:

What did we use for lighting before we had candles?


Even later that evening in the bar, James P Hogan had Nicholas, myself, and several other people clutching our heads and googling our brains for FAQ answers as he explained the errors of Darwinism. The following morning, on the 'Marx v. Asimov' panel, he politely declined the right-libertarian role I'd thoughtlessly assigned him. There's more to life than buying and selling, he said. We need to build things, and identify with projects, bigger than ourselves. Look at how much people spent on the Gothic cathedrals, and look at how (proportionately) little we spend on space. On another panel, about AI, he gave a lucid and wide-ranging summary of the state of the art, drawn from his research and interviews for a popular book on the subject, Mind Matters. There have certainly been advances, but the deep problems - 'what's the algorithm for "interestingness"?' - and even something as superficially simple as understanding how we recognise objects, remain as intractable, and as slippery even to formulate, as ever.

As indeed do people, and their minds.


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