Titles and abstracts will be added here as they become available. The list is alphabetical by presenter last name; scroll down to the speaker's name.

Penelope J. Boston

"Can Exoplanet Studies Inform Astrobiology and SETI?"
The explosion in detection of planets around other stars and early attempts at characterizing these bodies has prompted some to suggest that this is opening a new era both in astrobiology at large and in increasing our ability to conduct SETI. "Astrobiology" in this context can be defined as the natural biological system that arises on a planet. Penelope Boston examines in detail these claims and attempts to map out where these studies overlap to produce new arenas of consideration. The intersection of exoplanet characterization with astrobiology can produce a broader understanding and appreciation of the habitability potential of various types of planets. A consideration of exoplanet properties in the context of whether there are likely to be planetary types that somehow are more conducive to intelligence than others could be termed the planetary foundation of intelligence. Lastly, any intelligent species is ultimately a product of its planetary ecology at the time of its inception, thus the interplay of astrobiology with SETI could be called an intelligence ecology. Penny's complete abstract with illustration is here: BostonC16abs.pdf

William J. Clancey

"Designing for the Methanians on Arcturus IV: The Creative Engineering Approach of John E. Arnold"
This is the story of the initiative of John E. Arnold, a Mechanical Engineering professor at MIT in the 1950s, to promote innovative thinking by having students design for beings on an imaginary planet, to whom the Massachusetts Intergalactic Traders, Inc. (M.I.T.) would sell their wares. Arnold later formed the Stanford ME Design Division, whose perspectives eventually led to the highly influential Center for Design Research, IDEO design firm, and Stanford's d.School. While emphasizing threads very much alive today in systems engineering and what is called "design thinking," this talk also brings out later developments in design (e.g., "participatory design") and teaching (e.g., "cultures of the imagination") that have gone beyond the psychology of the 1950s. Of special interest to CONTACT are Isaac Asimov's attendance at multiple MIT Science Fiction Society meetings when the Arcturus IV case study was discussed and Arnold's article about it in Astounding Science Fiction (May 1953).

Bruce Damer

"The SHEPHERD concept for sustainable spaceflight & Mars exploration"
Bruce Damer returns for his fifteenth year at CONTACT with a new model for the origin of life developed at UC Santa Cruz with Prof. David Deamer. He then takes on the future of life and civilization in space with a radical new spacecraft design called SHEPHERD, developed with the SETI Institute. Both projects pay homage to their origins in past CONTACT conferences.

Chris Ford

"The Photorealistic Revolution Continues"
Since 2013 a revolution in photorealistic rendering has transformed the way VFX and animated visual content is produced. Through physically based ray-tracing, extreme realism is becoming ever easier to achieve. In this talk, Chris Ford provides an update on recent cinematic projects emphasizing space and science fictional themes that have used these methods, and how the cloud will increasingly democratize access to this technology for everyone.

Gus Frederick

"The Golden Age of Free Thought"
During the latter half of the 19th Century, technological and scientific progress was growing by leaps and bounds. Thousands of years of orthodox religious ideas, based upon dogma, faith and blind obedience were re-examined as new ideas, based upon science, observation and facts started to take hold.

Known as the "Golden Age of Free Thought," this time saw the rise of many different publications and personalities and the decreasing influence of religion on society as a whole. Names like Thaddeus Burr Wakeman, DeRobigne Mortimer Bennett, and Robert Green Ingersoll became household words. The Theist pushback was fierce, and continues to this day. However, much of the history of free thought during this era has been lost, ignored or in some cases, deliberately suppressed. This talk addresses those times as a mirror of our own, including how the concepts of "Freethinker" and "True Believer" were often woven together as well, and the key players are addressed, plus a glimpse of the current state of Free Thought in modern society.

Jim Funaro

"The Evolution of Star Trek as an American Mythos"
An anthropologist's perspective on how Star Trek has reflected, chronicled and universalized social change in American culture over the last half century. The themes of leadership, sexism, racism, imperialism and the machine interface have been mirrored and presented back to us during the years of the development of the television series, which has thus become a metaphor and mythology for our way of life.

Joel Hagen

"3-D Printing: A Personal Journey through Art, Science and Education"
3D printing is becoming more sophisticated and more accessible. Joel Hagen shares a variety of his prints and shows how he uses this technology in his own work. As an artist and sculptor, working digitally introduces new opportunities and flexibility. Joel demonstrates this and discusses the artistic aspects of finishing the surface of printed work. He also shows his 3D visualizations of the surface of Mars, printed from digital elevation models derived from MOLA data and from the MER Microscopic Imagers. Joel also discusses how he is bringing 3D printing technology to students at Modesto Junior College in a collaboration between his Computer Graphic department and the Anthropology department. Students from both fields are combining skills to visualize and study the recent Homo Naledi discovery from Rising Star cave in South Africa.

Jeroen Lapré

"Maelstrom Revisited"
Jeroen Lapre will share work-in-progress on his indie production of Arthur C. Clarke's Maelstrom II: He will also show some of his work from the California Academy of Sciences latest planetarium show: Incoming!

Steve McDaniel

"Self-Sterilizing Coatings and Planetary Protection"
Planetary protection is necessary for exploration of extra-terrestrial targets to preserve the possibility that rare and difficult-to-find life forms may be detected. Short of "no contact" or "remote surveillance only," any exploration must consider impact of the human microbiome on pristine targets. Every surface manufactured by humans is coated at some point in manufacturing. Recent advances in coatings will be discussed that produce spacecraft/lander surfaces capable of continually self-sterilizing. Steve McDaniel examines this technology as it relates to self-sterilizing planetary-penetrators capable of detecting, amplifying and sequencing nucleic acids. Such probes may answer not only the question of "Are We Alone?" but possibly answer "Are They Our Cousins?"

Chris McKay

"Mars! Science and Science Fiction on the Red Planet"
Chris McKay leads a special Mars session, featuring three well-known SF writers who have authored Mars novels (Larry Niven, Kim Stanley Robinson and Andy Weir) and two space scientists who have been instrumental in NASA's Mars missions (Michael Sims and Chris McKay). Each in turn will share his own perspective on Mars, followed by a 30-minute panel discussion on the future of Mars colonization.

David Miller

"Some Non-threatening Forms of Human-Robot Interaction: Assistive Robotics"
Robots are commonly pictured as competitors to humans (e.g., AI movie, and I Robot book), direct threats (e.g., Terminator movies), or annoying, invasive appliances (hobbyist drones). Along with educational (e.g. Botball) and household appliance applications (e.g., iRobot Roomba), assistive robotics is an area that is both growing commercially, technically and socially. Assistive robots as implants, prosthetics and orthotics are used to magnify what an unaided human might be capable of doing. Though currently being used primarily by those who have a disability or injury, what is one person's assistant my be another's augmentation, and it is likely that physically assistive robots will eventually occupy a similar popularity to that currently enjoyed by the communication assistive devices we currently call "smart phones." In many ways, physically assistive robots do not have to be as smart; they do not have to be so connected, or vulnerable to hacking or other security issues as do smart phones. They are even more personal, help one to function independently, rather than dependently, and may even provide useful camouflage during the coming robot revolution. Assistive robots have no function on their own. They are just here to help. This talk presents some of the current work on assistive robotics.

Jim Moore

"We Are Not Alone, But There's Probably Nobody To Talk With"
The Fermi Paradox is based on the argument that because human-level intelligence (HLI) evolved on Earth, it is likely to have evolved elsewhere where life exists. There are then numerous explanations for the failure to detect ETI, e.g., HLI carries the seeds of its own destruction, broadbeam radio is a relatively primitive technology, etc. Jim takes issue with an implicit assumption of the argument: that HLI evolved here via natural selection favoring intelligence. If HLI was not naturally selected here, the argument that it would have been elsewhere is substantially weakened.

David D. Morrison

"Life in our Neighborhood?"
David Morrison presents a discussion of the progress in the continuing search for life within our solar system - Mars, Europa, and Enceladus.

Larry Niven

"The Legacy Of Heorot"
Larry Niven discusses the creation and dynamics of the world Steven Barnes, Jerry Pournelle, and he began with THE LEGACY OF HEOROT. Dr. Jack Cohen, their consultant on these three novels and a novella, is a top researcher on fertility of all life forms, a rabid science fiction writer, and a frequent paid consultant for science fiction writers. He pointed out an African frog with nasty habits, decades ago, and they ran with that. THE LEGACY OF HEOROT began as a horror story, featuring the speed-driven Grendels, and evolved. Avalon has since grown a world's worth of details.

For THE DRAGONS OF HEOROT (title in England) Jack brought them a variety of stuff including the Avalon crab, which has motor fins and skids. From that they evolved the Scribes or Harvesters, bigger than the biggest dinosaurs, and the speedy bees. For "The Secret of Black Ship Island" they generated the Cthulhus: squidlike intelligences. For this fourth work, currently called THE CTHULHU'S WAR, they've described the Cthulhus' evolution and background. And they've brought in another ship.

Gerald D. Nordley

"Anticipation and the Limits of Nature"
Since Francis Bacon's time, some science fiction writers and scientists have been exploring the ultimate capabilities of intelligent life. Some of these anticipations fit within the laws of nature and some do not. When we consider space-faring, communicating aliens, the odds are astronomical that we would be dealing with civilizations or beings older than we are by geologically significant periods of time, and who would thus have had time to approach the limits of natural law on any possible technology, though some of them may have rejected pursuing some of those. What they may have done, we may also do (or not) in the fullness of time. By thinking in terms of the long-term constraints imposed by the laws of nature, we may also gain some insight into what are reasonable critiques of far future technology (ours or theirs), and what are not. But to do this, we need to have some idea of what the laws of nature are, and we may also need to be humble before the universe and say, in some cases, that we just don't know enough to say "impossible" or not.

Jim Pass

"The Human Dimension of Space Exploration"
Jim Pass discusses the human dimension of space exploration; his talk is partly a tribute to Al Harrison and his contributions to the space community, astrosociology, and the Astrosociology Research Institute.

Douglass Raybeck

"Literacy Lost Redux"
It seems several of the predictions Douglas Raybeck made 15 or more years ago are coming to fruition. There is also fresh research that speaks to the importance of literacy for intellectual development.

Kim Stanley Robinson

"Science and Science Fiction, an Eccentric Orbit"
Kim Stanley Robinson relates some stories of the science/science fiction feedback loop, from history and from his own experiences, and tries to draw some conclusions on how the dynamic helps guide the course of civilization.

Don Scott

"Halcyon: On a Lost California Enlightenment, and Mars"
Our modern world is a gift from the Scottish Enlightenment, an explosion of knowledge that came from a backwater described by author Arthur Herman as Europe's poorest independent country, small, underpopulated, and culturally backward. Herman's fellow writer, David McCullough, once asked a question about that Enlightenment: Why there? Clues to the answer may come from another enlightenment, largely forgotten, that happened on California's Central Coast. In the early twentieth century the spiritualist community of Halcyon and a neighboring community of Dunites, in the dunes of Oceano, got together to let off some STEAM: science, technology, engineering art, and math. Results included a tool used in Mars exploration, and art which helped teach explorers to think about places like Mars from an ecological point of view. It's a great story and the answers it suggests for McCullough's question are as interesting as that Mars tool and the ecological art.

Seth Shostak

"SETI Searches For Intelligence That's Not Alive"

Ben Sibelman

"Biospheric Communionism: A Utopian Vision of Contact"
We all hope for amicable relations with any sapient alien race we may encounter. But as our ecological consciousness grows, new questions about contact arise. It seems highly likely that any starship will carry living ecosystems to enable long-term life support, or at least an array of seeds, spores, and embryos that could be used to recreate such ecosystems on arrival at its destination. How then can we establish good relations between our respective biospheres, avoiding at least some of the problems that usually come along with "invasive species" entering a new ecosystem? To what extent are we morally obligated to solve these problems and create the best possible world shared by two independently evolved trees of life? And how would this apply to the case of a starship filled with Earthlife traveling to another living world with no sapient inhabitants? Ben will lay out the origins of this area of thought, which, to his knowledge, has mainly been developed by his friend Eric Saumur, and he'll discuss some speculative ideas for how Biospheric Communionism could work and what it would ask of us.

Michael Sims

"The Great Earth Uplifting Event"
In previous talks Michael Sims has argued that what makes Humans so special and so different from any other species on Earth is our ability to collaborate across time and across space. We can use Newton's equations to solve problems even though they were written 350 years ago and an ocean away. This transition to "Human 2.0," and our collaborative sharing began with the invention of written language and is currently accelerating rapidly with the advent of electronic technologies. This model of 'what makes us human,' implies that it is generally not that important how smart the individual animal is but rather it is important how our species shares information to grow in collective capability. On Earth it is possible that there are other species with individual members that are smarter than individual humans. But even if that's not true, it is still possible that one sentient species might collectively be capable of creating a fellow technological civilization IF we assisted them by giving them the initial tools to begin their road of similar collaboration across time and space. This leading of fellow species to technological advancement is David Brin's idea of "uplifting" a fellow species. Michael argues that it is plausible that we might succeed at uplifting some of the other species on Earth - for example, maybe elephants, some of the great apes or some of the sea mammal species. This talk is about beginning that inquiry as to the first steps in uplifting one or more of our fellow Earth species. In addition to our history of inventing technologies, the rapid advances we have made in Artificial Intelligence and robotics will be tools we will undoubtedly use as part of this uplifting event.

Rick Sternbach

"Alien Civilizations - What Lies Beyond Our Imaginations?"
Rick Sternbach's keynote talk will cover some aspects of the Star Trek franchise and his 15 years in it, along with a mix of other fictional space travel and encounters with other intelligent beings. For more information about Rick, please see the Keynote page:

Melanie Swan

"The Future of Brain-Machine Interfaces: How to Feel Comfortable Joining a Cloudmind Collaboration"
This talk provides a speculative contemplation of philosophical topics that might arise with brain-machine interface technology and explores the new ways that individuals and society might self-enact as a result. Brain-machine interfaces that could be pervasive, continuous, and widely adopted suggest interesting new possibilities for our future selves. From a philosophical perspective, these possibilities concern the definition of what it is to be human, our current existence and interaction with reality, and how all of this could be dramatically different in a scenario of digitally-linked cloudmind collaborations. This talk looks at some of the foundational ontological questions of how the progression of the existence of the classic human might evolve. Perhaps the most pressing question that currently-minded potential adopters have is how to avoid getting irreparably pulled into a groupmind. To protect against this, there could be an expansion and letting go of the term and concepts of personal identity, and humans as a unit of organization, in favor of instead self-relying on a decentralized permissioning structure like blockchain technology for managing empowered and resilient crowdmind participations.

Allen G. Taylor

"Mixed Reality: A New Way to Make Contact"
Early humans could make contact with other humans if they happened to be at the same place at the same time. The contact was up close and personal, which was great, but limited to people that were in the same place you were, at the same time. Writing enabled people to contact people who were distant, but the communication was much more restricted and serialized. You couldn't read the other person's body language or hear the tone of their voice. Printing, a la Herr Gutenberg, enabled transmission of large amounts of information, but was largely a one-way affair. Telephones brought back some of the immediacy as well as tone of voice. Skype brought an image of the person you were communicating with as well as tone of voice. What's next? Microsoft's HoloLens mixed reality technology points the way. Using footage taken by the Curiosity rover on Mars, HoloLens can put you at the base of Mount Sharp with a 360-degree panorama. What's more, it can put a colleague located on the other side of the country there with you as an avatar. This is only the beginning. Developers are currently building applications that Microsoft never dreamed of. HoloLens is a platform, upon which what you can build is limited only by your imagination.

Andy Weir

"What Will Commercial Spaceflight Cost in the Future?"
Andy Weir presents an economic projection of what the space industry could be like if it were as in-demand as the commercial airline industry. He maps everything over and compares the economics while assuming the space industry would have the same overhead and operating costs. From this he is able to estimate what the cost per kg to LEO would become if there were a full-blown space industry. It's very low.

Zac Zimmer

"First Contact: Rewriting The Conquest Of The Americas"
The question of the other has been a guiding theme of human reflection across the historical record. Yet one historical encounter, from its very inception, has been portrayed as a world-historical event: the sixteenth-century Conquest of the Americas. Is the New World discovered? What, then, of the Amerindian inhabitants? Is there reciprocity in discovery? FIRST CONTACT's goal is to read the original narratives of the conquest and the philosophical debates it engendered, with and against recent aesthetic attempts to reimagine that historical moment in marginal genres, especially alternative history and first contact science fiction. By pairing colonial documents (representing European, Amerindian, and mestizo perspectives) with contemporary creative attempts to restage and interpret them, Zac Zimmer recuperates a series of overlooked yet important genre artworks and, more importantly, creates a point of contact between the modern world and the hemispheric American colonial encounter.