Francis Webb book cover

Last week I became Poet-in-Residence for Creative Innovation 2011, a conference presenting the ideas and advice of speakers who have extensive track records in driving, facilitating and/or theorising innovation. Not in the artistic sense but in areas of the cognitive sciences, industry, institutions, business, etc.

So this event became an increasingly strange experience for me: a poet more used to appearing as a writer/reader/speaker and lecturer… than as entertainment.

Being less inclined to copy the main line and more amused by what I see as the ironies, I read a few poems that looked at the oddities and paradoxes of innovation and learning. Especially Artificial Intelligence and its masters. I think some of the audience followed my poems, but I really can’t be sure. Audiences at poetry readings are hard enough to ‘read’ – unless they’re laughing at funny poems – but at least they make a range of noises, from said laughter to that almost audible silence, and the range of ah and mmm sounds as the poem ends…

The speakers were not only brilliant people in their own fields, they all spoke brilliantly. This is highly unusual. It was the only conference I’ve been at where I never once looked at the time in that vain attempt to pull the end closer.
Weeks later, it still feels odd to have been part of the frame. However, in years to come… it will be fascinating to see how the predictions of speakers such as Ray Kurzweil turn out. He is a man who seems to second-guess the future with alarming precision (and a swag of stats on rates of change and innovation as his guide). If there were Nobels in his fields of inquiry he’d have one. He is confident artificial intelligence will not only be with us but ahead of us, intellectually, within 20 years or so. That computer innovation will be astoundingly advanced. That we will have robotic T-cells circulating in our bloodstreams and spare-parts repair shops as standard practice. Practical immortality? As he says, it will come: so hang in there!