Will buildings grow on trees in 2070?

10 ECAL2013poster

My scientist thinks they will. I say my scientist, because all of us writers attending the artificial life conference in Sicily got one. Mine was Professor Susan Stepney, a computer scientist at the University of York, and she’s working on an incredible project to grow buildings from seed.

Yes, buildings (that we live and work in), grown from seed (like trees do). Pretty amazing, huh?
All of the science talked about at the conference was incredible, and yet, these were all very credible people. After a day of sharing stories about swarms of robots with group intelligence, computer-brain interfaces, downloadable experiences, and autonomous insect robot assassins, I felt like I’d been given a special sneak preview of the world 60 years from now. And we were given amazing cakes too.

The whole reason that I and the other writers: KJ Orr, Julian Gough, Robin Yassin-Kassab, Annie Kirby, Stuart Evers and Zoe Lambert, were invited to this truly mind-blowing conference was to write stories for a new Comma Press anthology.

This will be the latest in their series of science-inspired short story anthologies that includes When it ChangedLitmus and Biopunk. The project is a Comma Press and TRUCE (Training and Research in Unconventional Computing in Europe) partnership.

The commission began a few months back, when Ra Page, the anthology’s editor, sent us all a list of scientists willing to participate and a short description of their vision for the the year 2070, extrapolated from their current research in unconventional computing and artificial life. We each picked the scientist whose ideas most rocked our world – and this was a difficult task, as all of the scientists’ ideas had huge potential as kick-off points for stories.

The next step was for us all to speak with our scientists on Skype, to interrogate their ideas and try to wrap our heads around the science. As with the other Comma anthologies, the idea is to write a story firmly grounded in real science. No time travel. No faster-than-light warp drives.

Last weekend, we all went to Sicily to meet up with our scientists and attend a unique workshop, which TRUCE describes thusly:

In this unconventional workshop, we will create a vision for what the world might look like more than fifty years from now, when artificial life is embedded in our everyday existence. Our aim is to spark a wider debate about the applicability and relevance of unconventional computing techniques, and to imagine a long-term picture of how they may come to influence our lives.

The workshop was part of ECAL 2013 (the 12th European Conference on Artificial Life), attended by a couple of hundred scientists who are creating some of the far-out whizzy doodads we saw in science fiction movies as kids, as well as a whole bunch of stuff that’s never been imagined before.

And that’s one of the aims of this collaborative writer-scientist project. In Ra’s introduction to the workshop, he talked about (adapting a quote from The Prestige) how in the time of Jules Verne and HG Wells, man’s reach exceeded his grasp. We wanted to explore the new worlds we were discovering but lacked the technology to do so.

Then, in the Jurrassic Park era, the science fiction was about how man’s reach exceeded his nerve – the ‘just because we can, doesn’t mean we should’ era of cautionary tales.

But now, with the rate of technological development racing forwards so fast, we are entering an age where man’s reach exceeds his imagination. We’re on the cusp of being able to do things for which we don’t yet have a conceptual framework (ie it didn’t ever feature in Star Trek). So our task as writers is to imagine this future and how this new technology will affect people. What will happen to the human drama when collectively conscious nanobots and organically grown buildings are thrown into the mix?

Of course, our trip to Sicily wasn’t all work. We had an adventure up Mount Etna (read my post about it here), and ate and drank and talked late into the night. Here are a few photos (click on any of the thumbnails to see the full-size pic and gallery):

Right now, we’re all in the early stages of drafting our stories. The book is scheduled for publication in 2014. I’ll post news of the release date on here nearer the time. Thanks to Ra Page at Comma Press, and Martyn Amos and Daphne Lai at TRUCE for an unforgettable few days.

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