[Robert J. Sawyer] Science Fiction Writer
Hugo and Nebula Winner

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Convocation Address

[Laurentian logo]

Sudbury, Ontario
Saturday, June 2, 2007

Robert J. Sawyer received an honorary doctorate (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

[Honorary Doctorate] 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 rice.

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 months.

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. [Robert J. Sawyer giving convocation address]

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 people die.

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 gets?"

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, "Frak."

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 neglect.

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 land.

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 Maclean's, 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, FlashForward, and Rollback.

His Hugo Award-winning Hominids and its two sequels, Humans and Hybrids, 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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