Thursday, February 25, 2010

Toward a Science of Consciousness

I'm giving a keynote at this upcoming conference, my great friends James Kerwin and Chase Masterson will be on hand to talk about their quantum-physics noir movie Yesterday was a Lie, and Chase will be singing songs from Star Trek on Wednesday night. Join us!

Toward a Science of Consciousness 2010

April 12-17, 2010

Tucson Convention Center and Hotel Arizona, Tucson, Arizona

Sponsored by the Center for Consciousness Studies, The University of Arizona

The program for the ninth biennial interdisciplinary conference ‘Toward a Science of Consciousness 2010’ is complete. Held in even-numbered years since 1994, the Tucson conferences are the major world gatherings on a broad spectrum of approaches to the fundamental question of how the brain produces conscious experience, a question which addresses who we are, the nature of reality and our place in the universe. An estimated 700 scientists, philosophers, psychologists, experientialists, artists and others from 43 countries on 6 continents will participate in 400 presentations included in 17 Pre-Conference Workshops, 12 Plenary or Keynote sessions, 21 Concurrent Talk sessions, 2 Poster Sessions, 3 Art-Tech interactive sessions and special evening performances. Abstracts for all presentations will be posted at

Plenary Program Overview

Highlights of the 2010 Plenary Program will include Keynote speaker Antonio Damasio, the esteemed neurologist and best-selling author on how the Self arises from layers of processes from brainstem to cortex. Other Keynotes include psychiatrist/neuroscientist Karl Deisseroth on new technologies revealing brain circuits of the conscious mind, and Robert J. Sawyer, award-winning science fiction writer whose works (FlashForward, Mindscan, Hominids, etc.) feature various science-based aspects of consciousness.

Twin Keynotes by two prominent neuroscientists will present opposing views of an essential question arising from functional brain imaging: how does brain activity measured in the absence of sensory inputs relate to consciousness? Marcus Raichle describes this brain Dark Energy (see his cover piece in the March 2010 Scientific American) as default networks mediating thinking and daydreaming, toggling back-and-forth with stimulus-related processing and tasks. Robert G. Shulman contends that the underlying activity is a foundational substrate for all conscious processes which require critical levels of brain energy. A related Plenary Session is Mindwandering, conscious activity independent of sensory stimuli (Jonathan Schooler, Malia Mason, Jonathan Smallwood).

In Bodily Consciousness, Henrik Ehrsson will discuss and extend his well-known work on inducing out-of-body experiences in normal subjects, while Frederique de Vignemont

will distinguish different forms of conscious body awareness. Multi-Modal Experience will include synesthate and author Patricia Lynne Duffy describing her personal experience with fused and cross-wired senses, as well as how synesthesia affects and enables artists, writers, performers and scientists. Other speakers (Barry Stein, Casey O’Callaghan, Michael Proulx) will address the neuroscience and philosophical analysis of synesthesia, and how clinically-induced cross-modal perception can help blindness and other sensory defects.

Consciousness and Transformation will review long-term changes induced by meditation (Cassie Vieten), and analyze claims of enlightenment, mystical and transcendental experience (Jeffrey Martin). The session concludes with Za Rinpoche, a Tibetan Lama recognized in 1984 by the Dalai Lama as the sixth reincarnation of Zachoeje Lama. Author of Backdoor to Enlightenment, Za Rinpoche will discuss Buddhist perspectives on consciousness, enlightenment and reincarnation.

Machine Consciousness will feature IBM researcher Dharmendra Modha on efforts to simulate the brain through neuron-by-neuron reconstruction, and philosopher David Chalmers discussing prospects for a technological Singularity, the idea that human-level artificial intelligence (AI) will rapidly spiral to superintelligence. AI researcher Ben Goertzel will describe mobile bubbles of executive function moving through computer architectures.

Theories of Consciousness features Sid Kouider summarizing and critiquing prevalent neurocognitive theories, and Marc Ebner with simulations of consciousness as a mobile zone of synchrony moving through the brain. Philosopher Galen Strawson will address philosophical theories of consciousness, focusing especially on panpsychism.

New Directions in Neural Correlates of Consciousness (NCC) Research is a panel of fresh ideas from young researchers. In the context of default networks, Michal Gruberger will discuss the use of deep trans-cranial magnetic stimulation inhibiting prefrontal cortex in human subjects, with alterations in measures related to the sense of self. Philosophers Adrienne Prettyman and Stephen Biggs will analyze the claim that default networks represent the baseline state of the brain. Moran Cerf will report on recordings from single neurons in conscious human subjects, showing how activity in medial temporal lobe can regulate sensory entry into conscious awareness. Finally, Anirban Bhandyophadyay will discuss molecular ‘nanobrains’, and new experimental results suggesting microtubules are the missing fourth circuit element.

The William James Centennial session will open the Plenary Program as a tribute to the father of American psychology and philosophy who died in 1910. Eugene Taylor will discuss James in the context of modern approaches, Bernard Baars will describe how James’ disillusionment led to behaviorism which banished consciousness from science for seven decades. Bruce Mangan concludes with what James termed the fringe, cognitive information just outside consciousness which, Mangan argues, illuminates insight and mystical experience.

For further information, see
Robert J. Sawyer online:

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Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Sawyer to present keynote at Julian Jaynes conference

Those of you who have read my novel Wake, about the World Wide Web gaining consciousness, know how prominently Julian Jaynes's famous book The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind figures in the book.

In fact, my main character, Caitlin Decter, even posts a review of the book (under her online name of Calculass) on, as part of the story:
18 of 22 people found the following review helpful:
***** A fascinating theory
By Calculass (Waterloo, ON Canada) - See all my reviews

Jaynes makes an intriguing case that our sense of self emerged only after the left and right sides of the brain became integrated into a single thinking machine. Me, I think being self-aware emerges when you realize that there's someone other than you. For most of us, that happens at birth (but for an exception, see The World I Live In by one H. Keller, also a five-star read). Anyway, Jaynes's theory is fascinating, but I can't think of a way to test it empirically, so I guess we'll never know if he was right ...
So, I am absolutely thrilled to announce that I will be giving the keynote address at the 2010 Julian Jaynes Conference on Consciousness.

The conference, held every two years by the Department of Psychology at the University of Prince Edward Island, attracts scholars of Jaynes and consciousness from all over the world. It will take place July 29-31, 2010, in Charlottetown.

More information about the conference

More about me as a keynote speaker

Visit The Robert J. Sawyer Web Site

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Friday, November 27, 2009

Toward a Science of Consciousness

When I'm asked what scientific topic fascinates me the most, I usually cite consciousness studies. Certainly, the nature of consciousness -- and the question of why we have internal lives, of why it is like something to be alive -- is at the heart of much of my fiction, perhaps most notably these days in my Aurora Award-winning FlashForward (basis for the ABC TV series), but also including my Nebula Award-winning The Terminal Experiment, my Hugo Award-winning Hominids and its sequels, my John W. Campbell Memorial Award-winning Mindscan, my Hugo Award-nominated Factoring Humanity, and, of course, my current WWW trilogy, beginning with Wake, about the World Wide Web gaining consciousness.

As regular readers of this blog know, I give lots of keynote addresses ... but, given the above, I am truly thrilled beyond measure to announce that I will be a keynote speaker at the ninth biennial conference Toward a Science of Consciousness, which will take place April 13-17, 2010, at the Tucson Convention Center in Tucson, Arizona.

My novels have often alluded to the work of Sir Roger Penrose and Dr. Stuart Hameroff in relation to the quantum-mechanical nature of consciousness. And although I did meet a bunch of super-cool TV stars when I was out in Los Angeles for two weeks earlier this month working on FlashForward, truly the highlight of the trip was the five-hour group dinner out with Stuart Hameroff (outdoors, at the wonderful Cat & Fiddle pub), arranged by my dear friends film director James Kerwin and actress/producer Chase Masterson.

Stuart and I had never met before, but we hit it off fabulously, and he and the rest of the programming committee have now invited me to give a keynote at the Tucson conference.

Independently, I've now got Stuart consulting on the FlashForward TV series. :)

Anyway, if you're looking for a fascinating way to spend some time in April, come to the conference!

Visit The Robert J. Sawyer Web Site

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Thursday, August 13, 2009

Speaking to the Hansard Association of Canada

My keynote address today for the Hansard Association of Canada, given on the floor of the Saskatchewan Legislative Assembly in Regina (pictured above), was very well received.

Indeed, I freely confess to being mightily inspired by getting to speak in the same place that giants like Tommy Douglas had spoken in (for my non-Canadian readers, and apropos of the current debate in the US, Douglas was the man named "the Greatest Canadian" of all time by a cross-country poll conducted by the CBC; he was the architect of our health-care system).

I was introduced in the coolest possible way: by the Executive Director of the Hansard Association of Canada reading to the assembly from Canada's Hansard record of the House of Commons in Ottawa, on the occasion of me winning the Hugo Award for Best Novel of the Year in 2003; Ottawa Member of Parliament Mauril Bélanger had risen in the House back then to make note of that fact.

My talk was wide-ranging, and everyone seemed to love it; I'm feeling very pumped as I wait here at the Regina airport for my flight home.

I had a lot of fun when some tourists were brought into the observation gallery, looking down on the chamber floor; of course, they had no idea who I was but I could conceivably have been an important government official, and so I interrupted my speech to say, "... and so I announce that Canada has gone to war with the United States." Brought the House down (so to speak). ;)

On a more serious note, I observed:
"The respective legislatures that you each work in are engines of change, the places where Canada has always embarked on new directions. You've been witnesses to that -- the official witnesses, in fact. It's what makes the House of Commons or the Senate or a provincial chamber such as this one so fascinating a place: the heady combination of history and tradition with incisive debate, bold policy-making, and the taking of giant leaps forward." -- Robert J. Sawyer, 13 August 2009

Information on me as a speaker is here.

Visit The Robert J. Sawyer Web Site


Friday, July 24, 2009

Updated keynote information

I've updated my page about my services as a keynote speaker; I give talks on all sorts of futurism topics. You can see the new page at:

A couple of upcoming Robert J. Sawyer keynotes:
  • Hansard Association of Canada
    Regina, Saskatchewan
    (on the floor of the Saskatchewan Legislature!)

  • Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists of Manitoba
    Winnipeg, Manitoba

Visit The Robert J. Sawyer Web Site


Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Nice note about my CSWA keynote

Lovely feedback from the Canadian Science Writers' Association on my closing keynote address at their annual meeting last month in Sudbury:
"In a conference already packed with treats and once-in-a-lifetime opportunities, Rob's talk on the craft of science writing from a science fiction writers' perspective stood out as a celebration of compelling science communication. His keynote at our meeting charged members with enthusiasm for new ways of showing-off science to the general public and his reading from his novel was perfectly tailored to our event."

— Peter McMahon
Canadian Science Writers' Association

You can listen to my talk as an MP3 here.

More about me as a speaker is here, and more quotes from groups I've spoken to are here.

Meanwhile, just booked a new keynote today: I'll be giving the opening talk at the annual meeting of the Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists of the Province of Manitoba, to be held in October 2009 in Winnipeg.
Visit The Robert J. Sawyer Web Site


Saturday, May 30, 2009

Sawyer talks about the web waking up at Google

On Wednesday, May 27, 2009, Hugo Award-winning science-fiction writer Robert J. Sawyer spoke at Google Waterloo, in a talk that was broadcast to Google facilities worldwide, about the science behind the World Wide Web gaining consciousness -- the theme of his new novel Wake. (Wake is set in Waterloo.)

You can listen to Rob's talk right here; he's introduced by Google's Alex Coman.

It was an amazing day. In addition to giving his talk, Rob, Hugo Award-nominated SF writer Paddy Forde, and science-fiction poet Carolyn Clink were given a great tour of new Google products, had one of those famous Google lunches, and participated in a fascinating roundtable discussion about the Web and sentience.

Rob has also been a guest at the Googleplex -- Google's worldwide headquarters -- twice: last month, when he was on book tour for Wake, and in August 2006, where he led a brainstorming session about the web gaining consciousness as part of the first-ever Science Foo Camp. That's Stewart Brand of the Long Now Foundation, Google co-founder Larry Page, and SF writer Greg Bear at that session below:

More about Wake
Visit The Robert J. Sawyer Web Site

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Sawyer addresses Canadian Science Writers' Association

On Monday, May 25, 2009, Robert J. Sawyer gave the closing keynote address at the annual meeting of the Canadian Science Writers' Association (Canada's professional organization of science journalists), which this year was held in Sudbury, Ontario.

Rob's 52-minute talk to the CSWA (including Q&A session) is now available right here. (Matthew Dalzell of the Canadian Light Source introduces Rob.)
An excerpt: "In fact, those of us who are writing science fiction are by and large enormously well-versed in science, enormously careful about science, and I think serve an enormously important societal role in the public discourse about science." -- Robert J. Sawyer

Visit The Robert J. Sawyer Web Site

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Saturday, May 9, 2009

Podcast: Sawyer neurosciences talk at Penn

On Wednesday, May 6, 2009, Hugo and Nebula Award-winning science-fiction writer Robert J. Sawyer gave an invited 90-minute talk at the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience [pictured] at the University of Pennsylvania ("Penn"). Sawyer was the first science-fiction writer ever invited to speak at the Center.

Sawyer's talk delved into the cognitive science, neuroscience, and other areas that informed the portrayal of a sentient World Wide Web in his 2009 novel Wake and the uploaded consciousnesses in his 2005 John W. Campbell Memorial Award-winning novel Mindscan.

SPOILER WARNING: His talk contains major spoilers for both books, giving away significant plot points; please do not listen to the talk until you've read these books. (However, he talks about them separately -- first Wake, then Mindscan.)

The talk is here as an MP3 file.

"Thank you again for making the trip to Penn! It was wonderful to finally meet you, after enjoying so many of your books. Your talk exceeded my fondest hopes -- it was so clear and interesting and provocative! -- and the group adored it."

-- Martha J. Farah, Ph.D.
Director, Center for Cognitive Neuroscience

"I enjoyed your talk immensely. It fit the bill perfectly in showing how excellent speculative hard science fiction can be informed by and inform those of us in the cognitive neurosciences."

-- Anjan Chatterjee, M.D.
Professor of Neurology

Information on booking Robert J. Sawyer as a speaker is here.

Visit The Robert J. Sawyer Web Site

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Thursday, January 29, 2009

The conference I'm speaking at in Istanbul

For those who are curious, there's now an English-language version of the brochure for the conference I'm attending next week in Istanbul, Turkey. You can download the PDF here.

(The brochure also gives some background on previous conferences in this series.)

My keynote address at this conference for business leaders is entitled "The Science-Fiction Mindset in Business," and will include discussions of understanding the accelerating rate of change and how to reasonably extrapolate what to expect in the next few decades.

The conference website is here, and more information about me as a keynote speaker is here.

The Robert J. Sawyer Web Site


Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Turkey, Here I Come! (Or: Hangin' with Erin Brockovich)

On February 2, 2009, I'll be one of five keynote speakers at a management conference in Istanbul, Turkey, entitled "Time to Exit the Labyrinth."

Also on the program: my buddy David Gerrold, who wrote the classic Star Trek episode "The Trouble with Tribbles," and -- and how cool is this? -- Erin Brockovich.

More on the conference (in Turkish) is here.

[Update: and even more is here.]

More on me as a speaker is here.

Oh, and here's the scoop on the book about Star Trek David and I co-edited a couple of years ago.


The Robert J. Sawyer Web Site


Tuesday, October 16, 2007 interviews Robert J. Sawyer -- the online site of the famed business magazine -- interviews Robert J. Sawyer in his capacity as futurist.

They only used a portion of the interview we did; here's the whole thing:

I'm both a science-fiction writer and a futurist -- which are related but distinct disciplines. A futurist's goal is usually to predict the future, but a science-fiction writer's goal is often to prevent the future, by depicting a plausible but undesirable scenario with enough credibility that society decides to make a course-correction to avoid that vision becoming reality.

No one would say that George Orwell's Nineteen Eight-Four was a failure as science fiction just because the real 1984 turned out to be so different from the predictions he'd made in 1948, when he was writing that book. Rather, he was wonderfully successful because in direct response to his thought experiment about where society might be headed we prevented, or at least staved off for a time, the kind of technological totalitarianism he foresaw.

I'm a huge advocate that science-fiction writers make the best futurists: A futurist on his or her own is good at extrapolating statistical trends and telling you what the population size might be in a given year, or how big the economy will be. But real science fiction -- not Star Wars escapism, but thoughtful works that reasonably extrapolate not just technological but also social trends -- does more than just project cold data forward. A science-fiction writer's job is to go further, placing all that in societal context: what will the changes coming down the pike actually mean to lives of ordinary people at work, at home, at play.

I like to think, regardless of which hat I'm wearing, that I've got a good track record of successful predictions. Most science-fiction writers totally missed the World Wide Web, but I predicted it in 1982, and even had the name almost right, calling it the TerraComp Web, "Terra" being Latin for "Earth."

And in 1998, in my Hugo Award-nominated novel Factoring Humanity, I wrote about the democratization of media, and the consequent loss of truly high-quality work: "A thousand channels to choose from, from all over the world, plus all the desktop-TV crap being produced out of people's homes coming in over the net." (The term "desktop TV," of course, was by analogy to the then-current revolution in "desktop publishing.")

Still, to date, the prediction I've gotten the most recognition for is suggesting in 1995, in my Nebula Award-winning The Terminal Experiment, that the Pope right now would be named Benedict XVI. That wasn't a wild guess, but rather what seemed reasonable extrapolation, given the fact that Popes usually take names to honor a predecessor they see as a role model.

But you asked a couple of specific questions. I'll note gently that your questions are loaded, in that they ask for two examples of failures, and none of successes. Your first question -- "What's one thing you were sure would happen, but didn't?" -- seeks a sin of commission, a prediction that turned out to be wrong. And your second question -- "What's something that happened and totally surprised you?" -- seeks a sin of omission.

But, anyway, for me the answer to both is the essentially the same: like so many science-fiction writers and futurists, I predicted a rational twenty-first century, a new millennium in which old superstitions and fundamentalist religion would have faded into the background -- and so I was shocked by the rise to the heights of power of the Religious Right in the United States (even though I did predict fraud using electronic voting machines in my first novel, 1990's Golden Fleece ...).

It's a mistake many futurists have made. We assume the rest of humanity is like us: forward-thinking, rational, and enamored of science. I mentioned Nineteen Eighty-Four before; the other famous work of prediction named after a year is Arthur C. Clarke's 2001: A Space Odyssey, and that had orbiting hotels and chatty artificial intelligences and suspended animation and cities on the moon by the turn of the century -- none of which we got.

But it wasn't that the things Clarke predicted where impossible; it's just that he assumed when writing that screenplay in 1966, that the world's enthusiasm for space, which he so keenly felt, couldn't possibly peter out. Hundreds of science fiction writers predicted the first man to walk on the moon would do so in the 1960s; not a single one predicted the last person would do so just three years later. When we fail in our prediction, as science-fiction writers and futurists, it's because, down deep, even if our visions are occasionally apocalyptic, we're really optimists: we love the future, and we want it to hurry up and get here.


As a science-fiction writer, Robert J. Sawyer is one of only seven writers in history to win all three of the world's top awards for best science-fiction novel of the year: the Hugo (which he won for Hominids), the Nebula (which he won for The Terminal Experiment) and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award (which he won for Mindscan). He's also the only writer ever to win the top SF awards in the United States, Canada, China, France, Japan, and Spain. His latest novel, Rollback (published by Tor), looks at the bioethics of life prolongation.

As a futurist, Sawyer has done consulting for CA (Computer Associates), Kodak, Motorola, NASA, and Canada's Federal Department of Justice. He's given dozens of futurism keynotes, including to the Federation of State Medical Boards, the Association of Biomedical Communications Directors, and the Canadian Public Relations Society, and he is a frequent futurism commentator for Discovery Channel Canada and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. His physical home is in Toronto; online, he's at

The Robert J. Sawyer Web Site