Linking chips, circuits and wild imaginations

 

Extreme Computing is proud to promote itself as a summer festival for those of whose idea of a good time is sitting indoors hunched over a PC. Karlin Lillington reports

The entrance to the Extreme Computing festival turned out to be rather obscure - tucked away down a side street, behind scaffolding, in the general vicinity of King's Cross railway station in London.

But it couldn't have been easier to find. All you had to do was follow the geeks.

Long-haired or short-haired, bespectacled or not, in a tell-tale geek T-shirt or plain old casual wear, female or (mostly) male, some 2,000 of them were gradually streaming into Camden Town Hall.

This was one of those weirdly wonderful computer-world happenings that have absolutely nothing to do with commercial interests or marketing departments and everything to do with utter devotion to the things you can do when you link up a few microchips, a couple of circuit boards, some wild imagination and lots of very smart people.

Organisers described it as "a medieval version of eBay" and "a summer festival for those of us whose idea of a good time is sitting indoors hunched over a PC with the curtains drawn".

But with speakers like famed British physicist Freeman Dyson, singing robotic birds, techno DJs, a bring-and-buy market of ancient computer parts, Morrocan tea with free baklava and an Indian food cafe, London's Extreme Computing (http://www.xcom2002. com/) weekend was more like Woodstock for the geek generation.

Billed as the "Festival of Inappropriate Technologies", the one day extravaganza wasn't put together for any reason except to have fun and to enable people who might have met online to meet face-to-face.

Therefore, instead of name badges, people wrote the domain name of their e-mail address (the bit that comes after the @) on the badge - and we were supposed to try and guess names.

The irreverence was to be expected, given the event sponsors: online newsletter NTKnow, (http://www.ntk.net) "the weekly high-tech sarcastic update for the UK", and techno-art magazine Mute (http://www.metamute.com/).

"We had twice as many people and it was 10 times weirder than we expected," said clearly-pleased NTK co-editor Mr Danny O'Brien (who is also now an Irish Times columnist).

"It was like a big gathering of tribes - you had all these geek tribes that would never normally meet."

Among the sometimes rather unlikely mix of exhibitors and attendants were fans of the old BBC microcomputer as well as its 1980s-era PC rival the Commodore 64; various digital rights campaign groups; artists' enclaves; makers of 1980s-style arcade game consoles; lots of "bloggers" (people who keep online journals called weblogs); and miscellaneous hackers, tinkerers, robot-makers and - inevitably - sellers of geek T-shirts.

While summer rain soaked the London streets outside, speakers on the main stage of the hall struggled to be heard by an attentive audience, surrounded by milling crowds browsing the exhibit tables.

Meanwhile, across the road at the Dolphin Pub, a fringe conference of more serious talks called "Take It Outside" tackled the subjects of online communities ("The Real World, Only Worse?"), blogging and online writing, and (ro)bots.

For most visitors, the highlight of the conference was a roundtable discussion with Prof Dyson, of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, whose children include daughter Esther, web entrepreneur and former head of internet administration organisation ICANN (www.icann.org), and son George, a writer.

George, who also joined the panel, has just published a book about his father's involvement with Project Orion, a scuppered, secretive US plan to send a large manned spaceship powered by small nuclear bombs to Saturn or Jupiter by 1970.

Prof Dyson said that another legendary physicist, Richard Feynman, also knew about Project Orion, which was being planned in the 1950s and 1960s by NASA, the US government, and other agencies.

"Feynman knew about this and was quite excited but wasn't really interested" in getting involved himself, said Prof Dyson.

Mr George Dyson said there was little chance of Project Orion being revived, but added that it might be considered as a part of an international plan to defend the earth from incoming asteroids.

"There might be an Orion ship under international control that could wait out in deep space and be called upon," he said.

"It could very quickly go out somewhere and give something a little nudge."

Asked what he is thinking about these days, Prof Dyson said, "A good deal about biotechnology. If we're seriously thinking about going into space, that's what we should be thinking about."

Biotechnology offers the hope of providing food for humans on alien planets, he said.

By contrast, other cutting edge sciences such as nanotechnology weren't "doing anything revolutionary.

A lot of the things nanotechnology was supposed to be able to do are being done much better by biotechnology", he said.

In the future, however, "computing and biotechnology are going to converge into an art form", said Prof Dyson.

He believes basic science will establish the foundation of this converged area but that "it will be an art and not a science to advance these technologies".

The Dysons were joined on the panel by author and Economist journalist Mr Tom Standage, who has written a new book about an 18th century mechanical chess playing automaton known as The Turk.

Mr Standage described automatons as the real ancestors of computers - "father of computing" Charles Babbage once played against The Turk and it inspired him to think about creating his own thinking machine, a forerunner of the modern computer.

"This whole AI [artificial intelligence\] debate that started in the 1950s actually started in the 1770s," said Mr Standage.

Another popular main-stage session discussed blogging or, as the organisers preferred entitled it, "In Defence of Weblogs - grassroots content management systems of the future, or just a load of self-obsessed Secret Diaries of Adrian Mole?"

In contrast to widely-publicised friction between print journalists and webloggers in the US, two different panels of bloggers and blogging journalists poked fun at the vapid content of many blogs, while defending them as unique forms of online communication and sources of information.

Mr Tom Coates, whose plasticbag.org won him the Best European Weblog 2002 award, said the best blogs were about "people presenting their opinions and actively talking about the world that surrounds them".

Mr O'Brien said the organisers would definitely do Extreme Computing again - perhaps a version in the US.

"The question is when," he said. "It's not about money or anything, but about the right people getting together with the right people.

"There's a real feeling that it's not just about technology, but also music and arts - they all have an approach to this thing that's really self-sufficient."