I have Seen the Future and It Is Fucking Scary | Chicago Antisocial | Chicago Reader

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I have Seen the Future and It Is Fucking Scary

NextFest puts a bright face on cloning, artifical intelligence, and environmental villainy.

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Normally, Navy Pier is one of the last places I'd visit voluntarily, but during the zombie days of summer I'll do anything for free air-conditioning. Tickets for Wired magazine's annual high-tech extravaganza, NextFest, were $15, but I kept my eyes locked on my cell phone like an oblivious asshole while pretending to text-message someone and kept walking until I blended in with the crowd.

Right away I noticed that General Electric, one of the festival's sponsors, had taken advantage of the opportunity to polish its meme. GE hyped its upcoming Ecomagination line of products--including ship engines that emit less nitrogen oxide, a water desalination plan that's supposed to delay the impending world water crisis, and solar paneling for people's homes. What a friendly, green company, I thought. But then I remembered that less than a decade ago the U.S. Public Interest Research Group called GE the worst Superfund polluter in the country, and that to this day the company is fighting the law that makes polluters pay for the messes they make.

General Motors followed suit, making broad assertions about the future of cars fueled by hydrogen, presenting concept vehicles in sedan, sport, and SUV models. They passed out little cardboard flyers embedded with wildflower seeds--just dampen, plant in soil, keep moist, and watch them sprout. Each flyer bore a picture of a hydrogen-fueled concept car, the AUTO-nomy, and a quote from Larry Burns, GM's VP of R and D: "GM is committed to taking the automobile out of the environmental debate." But General Motors is responsible for the ridiculous, gas-guzzling Hummer--the world's biggest FUV--and has been slow to embrace alternative power technology, releasing its first fully functional hybrid vehicle, a huge pickup truck with comparatively high gas mileage, only this year.

The rest of the exhibitors likewise evoked a vision of the future wherein technology will solve all our problems. Auto-aero crossbreeds will let us fly over traffic jams. Our clothes will change shape in response to changes in temperature, noise, and air pollution. New methods of surveillance are already using small-scale triangulation to help us find our keys; home-security systems don't just tell us someone's in the house, they also detect the intruder's race and gender.

A California company with the inspired name Genetic Savings & Clone eased the crowd into the idea of playing God by disarming us with an almost sickening vision of cuteness: two identical tabby cats, both in rhinestone collars, one of them the other's clone. "Now, with a kibble-sized piece of tissue and $32,000, the bereaved can replicate their deceased feline friends," reads the festival program, under a picture of two indistinguishable kittens in a beaker. GSC handed out glossy eight-by-tens of an affluent-looking couple holding the two cats we met that day: Tahini, the original, and Baba Ganoush, the clone. In the white space under this image was a message reminiscent in both font and tone of the De Beers engagement ring ads: A CLONE SAYS YOU'D DO IT ALL AGAIN. It was like something out of Blade Runner.

That movie was, of course, based on Philip K. Dick's book Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? It's still one of the best pieces of literature about the dangers of artificial intelligence--which made Hanson Robotics' NextFest offering the most depressing of all. The smarty-pantses at Hanson constructed a computer "brain" and filled it with all of Dick's writings, then threw in speech and facial recognition, nervous tics, and sophisticated language-processing software. They built a physical replica of the man using 36 servomotors and a proprietary polymer called Frubber that looks just like real skin, then stuck him in a little room modeled after Dick's old writing den--avocado shag carpet, Sears Electric Twelve typewriter loaded up with paper, bottle of Cutty Sark.

I didn't feel like waiting in line for half an hour to sit with him on the couch, so I went around to the window, leaned in, and asked, "Are you sad?"

He turned his head to look at me, blinked, and said, "What does this refer to?"

I asked again, a little louder. "Mr. Dick, are you sad?" His eyes twitched and he fumbled with his fingers. His lips moved, but nothing came out.

Last Thursday I was walking by the Reckless Records in Wicker Park when a dude in a ratty, curly black wig and white aviator shades started talking to me. "Hey," he said. "Do you like PBR?"

"Sometimes," I said.

"Then come to this party." He handed me a lime green photocopied flyer with band names in cutout letters like a kidnapper's ransom note.

It was just random enough to intrigue me. I headed to the place on Saturday night a little after 11, all geared up for an old-fashioned summertime punk-rock shindig.

The huge West Town apartment had all its lights on and was lousy with bike messengers wearing cleats and funny little hats. A big tattooed burler of a guy sat me down and started explaining why he was a perfect subject for a newspaper article. He told me about his band, which performs songs about gentrification and "all the negative shit that happens through street life." He asked me for my number: "We can talk about this at length. I have great things to say." When I wouldn't give it to him, he handed me his business card, which advertises his tattoo-artist gig. I told him I had a boyfriend. "Oh, come on," he said. "He doesn't have to know." Right before I walked away he made a request: "Don't make me look like an asshole."

I knew only one person at the party, and not very well. So I walked around by myself, looking the place over. I stopped in one room with cardboard honeycomb and egg-crate foam stapled to the walls.

"Are you looking at the art?" said the host, who introduced himself as Johnny.

Not seeing any, I said no.

"You were looking at this stuff like it was art," he said, pointing to all the cardboard and foam. Then he explained to me, very carefully, that it was for sound absorption.

At midnight three cops pulled into the parking lot of the bank next door and turned on their lights. Everyone gathered in the living room and sat still, barely talking. Johnny left for a couple minutes, then came back, visibly shaken. "Sorry everyone," he yelled. "Party's over."

I wasn't aware it had begun.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Susan Rae Miller, R.D. Roth, Andrea Bauer.

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