UNSW staff shine as dangerous ideas light the fuse

14 Nov 2018
Toby Walsh

The Festival of Dangerous Ideas, co-presented for the first time by UNSW’s Centre for Ideas and the Ethics Centre, has been an overwhelming success.

Over two days, 16,500 curious minds travelled by ferry to Sydney Harbour’s Cockatoo Island to feast on ideas informing our future. At the Festival of Dangerous Ideas (FODI), 31 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 FODI, said the Festival was all about bringing ideas to public audiences in a fresh and engaging way. 

“This is very much the mission of the Centre for Ideas and goes to the heart of the University’s strategy of social engagement. The Festival also values freedom of expression, independent thought and open debate, which are core values for the University.”

To help spark that debate, the Festival invited leading thinkers from around the world, including Romanian-American New York Times correspondent Rukmini Callimachi, who is well known for her podcast Caliphate and delves deeply into ISIS; 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.

UNSW takes centre stage

A host of UNSW’s greatest minds were also assembled at Cockatoo Island and showcased their expert knowledge in a variety of debates, panel discussions and keynotes.

Fight the Fear, a UNSW Grand Challenges event hosted by Scientia Professor Rob Brooks and featuring a series of short talks by Dr Haris Aziz, Dr Khandis Blake, Dr Lee Rollins and Professor Martina Stenzel, was one of the clear highlights of the weekend. The speakers delved into some of our most dangerous ideas and technologies - artificial intelligence, nanoparticles, gene drives, and female sexualisation – to reconsider how we might avoid panic and leverage the opportunities that are presented to us.

Meanwhile, Toby Walsh, Scientia Professor of Artificial Intelligence, 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 during his keynote and discussion The End of the World (as we know it), chaired by Associate Professor Lyria Bennett Moses.

Chief Communications Officer Darren Goodsir reflected on his three decades in journalism, communications and public affairs to chair the panel discussion Cancer On Democracy, featuring Dr Rebecca Huntley, while Professor Susan Dodds chaired The Ethics of Vulnerability.

Professor Rosalind Dixon and Professor Richard Holden debated wealth, income and the price of progress in In Praise of Economic Inequality, Professor Jeremy Moss facilitated the workshop The Ethics of Climate Change, and in addition to hosting Fight the Fear, Rob Brooks was part of the expert panel in Sex Robots Have No Taboos.

New surroundings enrich the festival experience

This is the first year the Festival has been held on Cockatoo Island, and Ann reflected that it makes it into a different kind of event. 

“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?”

The Festival was at capacity, with tickets for the island events and Stephen Fry at the Sydney Town Hall sold out.

The extraordinary efforts by the Centre for Ideas team and UNSW Events to deliver such an incredible event were supported by 130 staff and student volunteers over the two days. The Social Media team extended the Festival reach – the event hashtag #fodi was trending in the top 5 on Twitter across Australia throughout the day. The extensive media coverage the festival received was enabled by the External Communications and Media & Content teams.

The Festival of Dangerous Ideas continued at UNSW Sydney with the ABC’s Q&A at the Roundhouse on Monday night. Panellists included UNSW’s AI “rock star” Professor Toby Walsh, sexologist Nikki Goldstein, sex clown and UNSW alumna Emma Maye Gibson aka Betty Grumble, Chuck Klosterman and writer and social commentator Van Badham.

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