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Men of Vision

At Cyberposium last weekend I had the pleasure of speaking with two very different men who both have very distinctive visions of the future. Ray Kurzweil is a futurist, inventor, entrepreneur and author who successfully predicted many of the trends of the last thirty years and has calculated that there is a good chance man will achieve immortality within our lifetime. Philip Rosedale is the founder and CEO of Second Life, an online world which he believes has the potential to be just like real life, but ‘warmer and kinder’.

Intense and carefully spoken, slowing down and even dictating punctuation to me as I typed during the interview, I got the impression that everything Ray Kurzweil does is extremely well thought through. His talk is meticulously researched and thoroughly documented, and he sat in on many of the other events and lunch with the same quiet, focused concentration, usually flanked by his family. He signed a stack of Cyberposium booklets with tidy efficiency, and I could well believe that the tiny suitcase he wheeled out after him held everything he could possibly need for a month, such is the impression of organization and detailed preparation that he exudes.

Philip Rosedale, on the other hand, is tall, boyish-looking and ceaselessly energetic. I followed him around for three hours as he made a keynote speech, took part in a panel, was photographed, hugged, shaken hands with and handed out piles and piles of business cards. I ended up interviewing him as he walked from building to building, ate a sandwich, and said hi to absolutely everyone who smiled at him. Despite this social ADD, he has the rare ability to make whoever he is speaking to feel as though they are receiving 100% of his attention: there is an approachability to this guy that belies his success, and his enthusiasm is infectious.

Hoping to start with the easiest question I asked both men which two or three websites that they visited every day without fail, expecting answers along the lines of Google, Facebook and the BBC news headlines (my personal top 3). Perhaps unsurprisingly Ray Kurzweil cited kurzweilai.net, where his team aggregate interesting news, articles and other content. When asking Philip Rosedale I took the precaution of warning him that Second Life was not an acceptable answer, and found out that he used to be a regular visitor to news.com and Slashdot.org, but these days finds himself too busy. He does at least have a Facebook page (as Philip Linden) unlike Ray Kurzweil who looked faintly amused at the suggestion. Clearly once you are important enough to speak at Cyberposium you don’t have time for idle websurfing.

My next question was about favourite gadgets: Ray Kurzweil has a Nokia N95, and is extremely appreciative of the number of high-quality features it is possible to get on cellphones these days, such as digital photography, internet access and GPS. Philip Rosedale has a BlackBerry Pearl that he’ just loves’, but his favourite new toy is his iTouch, and he’s very interested in the potential of touch-control format going forward. Given that one of the main barriers to the suspension of disbelief in virtual worlds is the jarring disconnect of having to manipulate objects within them using a 2-D mouse, I can see many directions that such an interest could lead us.

The next question, trying to keep things casual, was favorite TV show: Philip doesn’t watch TV, but his favourite movie is Bladerunner, which he told me with a self-deprecating grin that acknowledged the predictability of that choice. Ray’s favourite show is, surprisingly, Desperate Housewives (I genuinely didn’t see that one coming). He went on to explain to me that the appeal of the show is it’s blend of drama and tongue in check humor, a style he is attempting to recreate in the screenplay he is currently working on (The Singularity is near: A true story about the Future) in which Pauley Perette will be playing Ramona, his female avatar. To contrast, Philip Rosedale’s online avatar is Philip Linden, complete with 70’s biker mustache, reversed Chinese symbol tattoos and an extremely odd pair of chaps-style pants that I refrained from asking him about.

One big theme that both men spoke about in some depth was that of the way technology has opened up the innate creativity of human beings. Ray Kurzweil talked about democratising the tools of creativity, taking down the barriers to creating art in all forms by putting the means to create high-quality music and film within reach of ordinary people. Philip Rosedale enthused about how much people can and will create if the means of production are free and unlimited, as they are in Second Life. Having spent a small amount of time in world recently, I would also suggest that the anonymity of Second Life goes a long way to fuelling some of the stranger directions of people’s creativity, but Philip believes strongly that soon our online and real world personas will merge as we strive to maximise our social capital across all real and virtual worlds.

My last question was: What do you think is the biggest drawback of our world becoming increasingly hi-tech? Ray Kurzweil responded by pointing out that ever since man discovered fire, innovation can be turned to good or to harm, and that he believed a key current threat was the spectre of bioterrorism hijacking scientific advances meant as cures and using them to make more communicable or deadly viruses. He believes that the answer is to continue to advance the response systems to such a threat, such as our ability to create effective medication within days, based on interfering with RNA to turn off new viruses within days. Unsurprisingly, he is working on such a program at the moment.
Somewhat disturbed by such a specific and well-thought-out doomsday scenario, I decided not to ask Philip this question: partly because time was short, but also because he is so relentlessly enthusiastic and optimistic about the potential of technology in general and virtual worlds in particular, it would have felt like stealing a ball from a playful puppy. Instead I leave you with his answer to a question from the audience: if no-one is in-world on Second Life at any particular time, do the trees still move in the wind? His answer was a confident yes, leaving me with the feeling that perhaps the virtual world is a little more certain than the real one, philosophically speaking.

November 19, 2007
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