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How cyborg do we want to be?

Future technologies will drastically influence our daily lives. To what extent will that benefit us? The Brave New World future congress on 2 and 3 November in Leiden will reveal a range of different scenarios, some optimistic and some worrying.

New technologies bring with them dazzling new possibilities as well as some concerns. At what point does a cyborg cease to be a human being? Do we have the responsibility to bring back extinct animal species if the technology is available to make that possible? Aren't we already being ruled by companies like Google that determine what we see online? And will artificial intelligence help us, or is it going to become our biggest enemy?

Artist Neil Harbisson is one of the speakers. He wants to live as a cyborg.

Improving ourselves

For the two days of the congress, national and international speakers from the fields of science, industry, journalism and culture will debate with the public such themes as transhumanism, living technology, the future of democracy and artificial intelligence.  The key question on 2 November will be how far we want to go in improving ourselves. Up to what point are we still humans, and when do we become machines? 

Technology for patients

Leiden neuropsychologist Femke Nijboer will be one of the panel members in the debate. She conducts research on people with locked-in syndrome: these people are almost completely paralysed and their only means of communication is by blinking their eyes. Nijboer asks these patients what kind of technology they need, and doctors and engineers then work to develop new communications equipment based on her findings. 


Patients are much more accepting of far-reaching technology than healthy people, Nijboer believes. 'Healthy people all too readily regard technological devices as cheating. I take a more liberal approach - why wouldn't we use technological options to improve things for ourselves? - but I do think we should retain control ourselves. We shouldn't get into a situation where employers expect us to use extreme devices or pills to improve ourselves.'

Time for an artificial evolution

The same question - about how far technology should be allowed to go - also applies to nature. Is it time for an artificial evolution, and can we create new and useful animals? And would recreating extinct species repair biodiversity? These are the kinds of quesions that Leiden scientists Menno Schilthuizen and Bas Haring will be discussing. Schilthuizen is Professor of Character Evolution and Biodiversity, and Haring is Professor of the Public Understanding of Science. Haring is less worried about species becoming extinct, so it promises to be a lively debate.   

Influencing elections

America expert Michiel Vos will raise the thorny issue of the influence of technology on politics and democracy. This is something we have already seen during the campaigns for the American presidential elections, when a huge number of bots - computer programmes that are able to put messages on internet independent of human intervention - ambushed the Facebook pages of both Clinton and Trump and were responsible for posting thousands of negative comments with the aim of influencing the voting. 

Peter Greenaway. Photo: Slawek

Peter Greenaway

A lot of attention at the congress will be paid to future technologies that have so far been introduced only minimally, or not at all, but that are already visible in art and culture. Well-known British director and screenwriter Peter Greenaway (known for his The cook, the thief, his wife & her lover, among other films) will talk about the influence of technology on the creation of stories. The visitors will also be able to turn their visions for the future into images by writing short film scripts in a workshop. The best scripts will be filmed within 48 hours and shown at the Leiden International Film Festival (27 October to 5 November). The Brave New World conference ticket also gives entry to the film festival.

The conference is an initiative of Alexander Mouret, PR officer at Luris, Leiden Univesity's Knowledge Exchange Office. Mouret is also director of the Leiden International Film Festival.

View the complete programme of Brave New World

Tickets for 1 or 2 days
Businesses €250 €400
Government and non-profit €185 €300
Students €45 €75

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