Science fiction has long painted heavy reliance on technology as the first step on the path to unmitigated disaster - think The Terminator, Blade Runner, and Battlestar Galactica, all tales in which machines engage in cataclysmic revolt against their inventors. But Will Wright, the godfather of immersive gaming, sees technology as key to the evolution of education and human intelligence.
Wright's Sim games broke through barriers in both design and sales, cementing his position as a luminary in electronic entertainment. Ignoring the message of such cautionary Hollywood tales, Wright's latest endeavor, The Stupid Fun Club, is in fact dedicated to developing even smarter versions of those ubiquitous sci-fi villains: artificially intelligent robots.
Insights from Wright are just one of the highlights of a gathering of visionaries being brought together by the Atlantic Media Company and UC San Diego Extension this fall. The October 17-19 "The Atlantic Meets the Pacific" event will feature three days of provocative conversations exploring new frontiers in science, medicine, art, technology and energy.
How important has technology become? A study by Cisco Systems in September 2011 reveals that one-third of young people today place the Internet firmly at the base of the hierarchy of human needs - right alongside food, water, shelter and air. And fully half of those surveyed said they could not live without network connectivity. While these results may seem shocking to a generation that remembers telephones with curly cords and electric typewriters, they come as no surprise to Wright.
"It's hard to separate humans from their technology, which is developing so rapidly. Intelligence is embedded in the tools we surround ourselves with," Wright told Scientific American in 2009. "Whether it's GPS (global positioning systems), cars or even automatic light dimmers in our homes, we're building a technological exoskeleton around us as a species and starting to off-load more and more autonomy into it. We're basically delegating more and more decisions to the technology around us."
Wright rose to prominence as a paradigm-smashing pioneer in videogame design. Unlike traditional games, with predetermined storylines and conventional structures that are constrained by a beginning, middle, and end, Wright created a series of wildly successful "software toys," like SimCity, The Sims, and Spore. In his games, players quite literally play God - populating worlds with creatures born of their own imaginations, guiding their actions, and sometimes, letting them interact with their surroundings without direction, simply to watch what happens when they exercise "free will."
Today, however, he's predicting a new mission for videogames. Wright believes they can do far more than entertain; he suggests they are fundamentally transforming the way generations of young people learn.
In 2008, Wright told the Sunday Times, "The problem with our education system is we've taken this kind of narrow, reductionist, Aristotelian approach to what learning is ... It's not really designed for failure, which is ... something games teach ...Trial and error, reverse-engineering stuff in your mind - all the ways that kids interact with games - that's the kind of thinking schools should be teaching. And I would argue that as the world becomes more complex, and as outcomes become less about success or failure, games are better at preparing you. The education system is going to realize this sooner or later."
Is Wright concerned that such innovation, including the intelligent robots he is working on today, may one day rise up and overthrow against humankind? Hardly.
Explaining intelligence - both human and artificial - he says that robots cannot begin to approach the discriminating, functional intelligence of the human brain.
"If you actually look at the amount of data coming in through all your senses, there's something like 100 million bits of information coming in every second through your visual system and another 10 million bits coming through your auditory system and another one million bits coming through your tactile system," said Wright to Scientific American. "We can manage this, because our conscious stream is only aware of a very tiny fraction of that sensory input, maybe a few hundred bits per second. Most of our intelligence is really a filtering process."
In addition to senior editor Alexis Madrigal interviewing Wright, The Atlantic editor James Bennet will interview Deepak Chopra and Caltech physicist and Leonard Mlodinow, a recent collaborator with Stephen Hawking.
For many years the Atlantic Media Company and The Atlantic, along with the Aspen Institute, have annually gathered the nation's intellectual leaders to discuss the ideas and trends shaping American's future as part of the Aspen Ideas Festival and the Washington Ideas Forum. The Atlantic Meets the Pacific expands upon that tradition.