SFWRITER.COM > Laurentian Convocation Address
Saturday, June 2, 2007
Robert J. Sawyer received an
(Doctor of Letters, honoris causa) at Laurentian University's
June 2, 2007, convocation; he also gave the convocation address to graduating Arts
students that day. The full text or Rob's address is below and was also published in SOL Rising: The Newsletter of the
Friends of the Merril Collection of Science Fiction, Speculation and
Fantasy, December 2007.
by Robert J. Sawyer
Copyright © 2007
by Robert J. Sawyer
All Rights Reserved
As a science-fiction writer, my job is thinking about the future.
But I want to start off by talking a bit about the past
the ancient past. Legend has it that the Emperor of China many
years ago was a huge fan of a brand-new game, a little something
called "chess." In fact, he liked chess so much, he summoned the
game's inventor to the imperial court, and told the man he could
have any reward he wished as a thank-you for creating chess.
Well, of course, the inventor of chess was a clever man, and he
was always thinking several moves ahead. But he also knew that the
emperor valued humility, and so he said to him, "Your excellency,
perhaps my reward might take the form of a special game of chess.
I will be content if we simply get a chess board, and have your
treasurer put one grain of rice on the first square. For each
turn, the treasurer will move the rice grain to the next square,
but double it as he does so. In the first move, I'll have one
grain; in the second, two; in the third, four; and so on till
we've moved through all sixty-four squares."
The emperor was delighted, and agreed at once. Soon, of course,
the inventor of chess was receiving spoonfuls of rice, then
bowlfuls, then bucketfuls. Still, the Emperor was busy with
other things, and paid little attention until they'd made their
way halfway through the board, on the thirty-second square. At that
point, the inventor owned two billion grains of rice, about as
much as one might find in a single field. But, of course, the
doubling wasn't done yet ...
The end of this story comes down to us in two different forms,
and I credit computer-scientist Ray Kurzweil for making me aware
of both versions. In one version, the wily inventor ended up
bankrupting the emperor, for by the time the sixty-fourth square
was reached, the inventor was owed nine million trillion grains of
In the other version the more likely one, it seems to me
the emperor made the ultimate checkmate move: he lopped
off the head of the inventor of chess.
Now, what's all this got to do with the future? Well, in 1965,
Gordon Moore, the founder of Intel the company that makes
the microprocessors inside many computers noted a
fascinating fact: going right back to the dawn of computing in
World War II, computing power has doubled about every eighteen
This came to be known as Moore's Law, and it means that in the
short time it took most of you to complete your degrees,
computers have become eight times more powerful. But, more than
that, it means that computers have become sixteen thousand
times more powerful in the twenty-odd years most of you have been alive,
because of the fifteen or so doublings that have occurred. And,
just like the chessboard at the time in which the single grain of
rice had grown to a full field, we're not done yet ...
My own favorite science-fiction writer is Arthur C. Clarke, who
lives in Sri Lanka. And like Gordon Moore, he has a law of his
own, coined, as it happens, about the same time as Moore's Law.
Clarke's Law says, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is
indistinguishable from magic." Now when Clarke first said that,
he meant that the technology of civilizations thousands, if not
millions, of years ahead of our own would seem magical. But if
you put Moore's Law together with Clarke's Law you find out what
the Chinese emperor learned all those centuries ago: it doesn't
take long with constant doubling to end up with gigantic numbers.
We tend to think of what happened in the past as a good guide for
what will happen in the future. That's the mistake the Chinese
emperor made when he checked in at the half-way point
after they were on the thirty-second square of the chess board and
saw that the inventor had earned a field's worth of rice; the
emperor went away thinking everything was going to stay at a
reasonably small scale.
Well, as it happens I'm about double the age of most of you
I just turned 47. And by the time you guys are my age,
computers will be another 16,000 times more powerful than
they are today.
In fact, long before then, computers will be more powerful than
our brains are. There's no firm measure of just how much
computing our brains actually do, so the date is a bit fuzzy, but
many scientists think we'll reach the point where computers are
as powerful as our brains around 2020 thirteen years from
now. And if we do indeed hit that by, say, New Year's Day 2020,
then by Canada Day 2021, we'll have computers twice as powerful
as us and I, for one, welcome our new robot masters!
Seriously, though, I don't think they'll enslave us or
that we'll enslave them; rather, we'll find a new synergy, a new
symbiosis and you will all be part of that. Of
course, not just computing technology but all technology is
galloping ahead. Arthur C. Clarke's era of advanced technology
being indistinguishable from magic will happen in your lifetimes;
as the old Paul Simon song has it, you'll soon be living in the
age of miracle and wonder: wonders of nanotechnology, miracles
of artificial intelligence, the power to modify and even create
life: anything that can be done anything that's possible
in this universe we'll be able to do.
And we'll do it all sooner than most people think. We'll do as
much in the first twenty years of this century as we did in all of
the last century. We'll make another full 20th-century's worth
of progress in the next fourteen years after that in the years
from 2020 to 2034. And we'll do another 20th-century's
worth of progress in the seven years after that, by 2041, before
most of you will be ready to retire.
Centuries of progress in mere decades! That means that in this
century, we will cure cancer and all other diseases ... including
even the one that, so far, has always ultimately gotten everyone:
old age. I'm confident that most of you, in your twenties now,
will live to see the 22nd century, and I'd bet even money that
many of you will live to see the 23rd, as well. Scientifically,
all of this is within our grasp.
Now, yes, I am an optimist about the future; I think most
science-fiction writers are. But the most successful
science-fiction writer in the world the one who sells the
most copies isn't. Michael Crichton is, by far, the
world's top selling science-fiction writer, and yet he's
fundamentally an anti-science guy. Think about it: When Michael
Crichton wrote about sending probes out into space to find life,
as he did in his first novel, The Andromeda Strain,
everything goes wrong, and people die.
When he wrote about artificial intelligence, as he did in the
first movie he ever wrote, Westworld, everything goes
wrong, and people die.
When he wrote about genetic engineering and cloning, as he did in
Jurassic Park, everything goes wrong, and people die.
When he wrote about nanotechnology the science of the very
small as he did in Prey, everything goes wrong, and
It's a wonder that someone with so little faith in technology can
function at all in today's world. I mean, every time Crichton
gets on an airplane, he's putting his fate in the hands of all
the scientists and engineers who make flight possible, and ...
Oh wait. He wrote about that, too, in his novel Airframe.
Everything goes wrong aboard a plane, and people die.
Now, as it happens, a few years ago the Montreal Gazette
called me "Canada's answer to Michael Crichton." And I thought,
hey, if that's true, how come I don't have as much money as
Michael Crichton? And so I called up my literary agent.
He happens to also be Stephen King's agent, so he's certainly
capable of pulling off Crichton-sized deals, and I said to him,
"Ralph, they say I'm Canada's answer to Michael Crichton
so how come you're not getting me the sort of money Crichton
And my agent said, "Rob, baby" that's how agents talk,
isn't it? "Rob, baby, I can get you Crichton-sized money,
but you have to be willing to spread the same message Crichton
does. There are a lot more people who want to hear that
technology is evil than want to hear that it's good. But if
you're willing to say what Crichton says, sure, I can get you
that kind of money."
"But I can't say that," I said. "It's not true."
"Well, then, Rob, baby, there's nothing I can do."
To which I said, as they do on Battlestar Galactica,
But a convocation address is supposed to be upbeat and positive,
and I am indeed optimistic about the future. But that doesn't
mean I have blinders on. Our world is a turbulent place, full of
war and hate, and we've poisoned our planet through environmental
Yes, the future can be rosy if we don't blow it all up.
And so, as you embark on your careers, I urge you to recognize
that not just your future, but the future of our species, and the
future of this planet, is literally in your hands.
But I know you're up to the task. You live in the greatest
country in the world, and you're graduating today from one of its
finest universities. Your personal future is indeed bright.
But we need to make sure that the future is bright for everyone
on this planet; after all, it's not the happy and prosperous who
lash out with acts of terrorism or try to take their neighbour's
No, those things are done by the forgotten, the disenfranchised,
and the envious. Throughout the careers you're about to embark
on, work as much as you can to help make the world a better place
for everyone. We don't need to just put an end to global
warming and pollution, but also to poverty and hate. We're going
to have miraculous powers in the decades to come, but it's up to
your generation to use them wisely, and for everyone's benefit.
And that's where you people, in particular, come in. This isn't
a convocation for technologists or scientists, after all.
Rather, it's the graduation of those receiving arts degrees
indeed, some of you are getting arts degrees in communication studies,
which is what I myself have.
And, well, Percy Shelley one said that poets are "the
unacknowledged legislators of the world." That is, through their
words, they serve as the conscience of the people, and set the
social agenda. But Shelley was biased he was a poet
himself. For "poets," I think we can substitute artists of all
types: the arts aren't just the signature of civilization; they
are the moral conscience of humanity.
Those of you who are studying languages English, French,
Spanish, Modern Languages: use your deep understanding of
literature to become the legislators of the 21st century, helping
us steer a path to a future that's got a place for everyone.
Those of you receiving baccalaureates in Theatre Arts: remember
that all the world truly is a stage and that we are actors
in a play that never ends. Don't just entertain go out into
the lights to inform and inspire.
Those of you graduating in Communications Studies: use your
special insights and abilities to get messages of peace and
progress, of inclusiveness and prosperity, out to the world; help
set an agenda of hope.
Those of you receiving a bachelor's in Music: remember that
there's nothing more joyous than song, nothing more universal
than music; use your art to uplift, and your passion to help us
all live in harmony.
And, finally, for those of you taking home a degree in Religious
Studies: you already know the power of faith; make sure that the
world continues to have faith in its future, that we all continue
to have faith in humanity.
The future is in all of your hands every single one of you
and I have faith that those are good hands. I know you'll
make this fragile planet into the best of all possible worlds; I
know you'll make the future so bright it positively glows. And I
look forward to hearing about all your successes at our
hundredth-anniversary reunion, in 2107. Thank you all very much
and see you all then!
Robert J. Sawyer's bio from the Laurentian University
2007 Convocation Program Book:
Called "the dean of Canadian science fiction" by
The Ottawa Citizen and "by any reckoning, one of
the most successful Canadian authors ever" by
Robert J. Sawyer is one of only seven
writers in history and the only Canadian to
have won all three of the science-fiction field's
top awards for best novel of the year. He's also
won the top science fiction awards in Canada (nine
times), Japan (three times), Spain (three times),
and France, as well as an Arthur Ellis Award from
the Crime Writers of Canada. He is the author of 17
bestselling novels, including Calculating God,
His Hugo Award-winning
and its two sequels,
are set in and around Sudbury, and feature the
Sudbury Neutrino Observatory and Laurentian University.
Robert often mentors new writers, and
has taught writing at Ryerson, the University of
Toronto, and the Banff Centre. He is also a
frequent science commentator for Discovery Channel
Canada, CBC Newsworld, and CBC Radio. Robert Sawyer
was born in Ottawa in 1960, and now lives in
Mississauga with his wife, poet Carolyn Clink.
More Good Reading
More about the 2007 Laurentian Convocation, and Rob's honorary doctorate,
in Rob's blog
A speech by Rob about artificial intelligence
A speech by Rob about science fiction
Booking Rob as a speaker
More nonfiction by Rob
A list of Rob's keynotes
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