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Great minds don't think alike: Festival of Dangerous Ideas lights the fuse

Stephen Fry at Festival of Dangerous Ideas

What will happen in the next sexual revolution? When will machines become smarter than humans? The Festival of Dangerous Ideas, presented this year for the first time by  UNSW Centre for Ideas, in partnership with The Ethics Centre, asked some fascinating questions.

Over two days, thousands of curious minds travelled by ferry to Sydney Harbour’s Cockatoo Island to feast on ideas informing our future. Thirty-one sessions interspersed with art installations created space for critical thinking and constructive disagreement on issues facing humanity.

Ann Mossop, Director of the Centre for Ideas and co-curator of the Festival of Dangerous Ideas, says the Festival is all about bringing ideas to public audiences in a fresh and engaging way. 

“The Festival values freedom of expression, independent thought and open debate, which are core values for the Centre for Ideas and UNSW Sydney.”

To help spark that debate, the Festival invited leading thinkers from around the world, including Romanian-American New York Times correspondent Rukmini Callimachi, who delves deeply into ISIS and is well known for her podcast Caliphate; Chuck Klosterman, American author and essayist who focuses on pop culture; and Germaine Greer, who has been expounding dangerous ideas for some decades.

One speaker – Stephen Fry – made a whirlwind trip to Sydney of less than 48 hours to deliver his keynote 'The Hitch', an homage to his friend Christopher Hitchens who delivered the opening address at the first Festival of Dangerous Ideas in Sydney in 2009.

Stephen Fry

Local leading thinkers, drawn from the UNSW community, had the opportunity to share their dangerous ideas for our future. 

Toby Walsh, Scientia Professor of Artificial Intelligence, for example, predicted 2062 as the date when AI will match human intelligence, and raised the accompanying issues of data manipulation and the ethics of killer robots.

Scientia Professor Rob Brooks, from the School of Biology, Earth and Environmental Sciences and Director of the Evolution & Ecology Centre, suggested sexbots could be the next sexual revolution, making us more relaxed about sex. 

This is the first year the Festival has been held on Cockatoo Island, and Ms Mossop says it makes it into a different kind of event. 

“Rather than dipping into the Festival, most people came for an extended session and enjoyed different speakers, as well as the art installations and just being on the island. It made it more lively, because they saw speakers they didn’t already know and immersed themselves in the Festival experience.

Betty Grumble

“The program of cabaret, art, talks, ethics workshops and unique environment made for very rich experiences. Stephen Fry was amazing at the Town Hall, and our speakers on the island really delivered. (Social media activist and former Westboro Baptist Church member) Megan Phelps-Roper made a huge impression on audiences, (British historian) Niall Ferguson is a truly extraordinary speaker and Toby Walsh unleashed a drone.  What more can you ask for?”

Don’t despair if you missed the Festival, a number of the sessions were audio and video recorded and will be available on this website in the coming weeks.


Photos by Jodie Barker and Yaya Stempler

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