Tech: dreams of dust and drugs

Tech: At the Burning Man festival, Silicon Valley’s elite tune in, drop out and think crazy thoughts about AI

Dreams of dust and drugs

YOU KNOW how it gets round Christmas, when everyone accepts that little work is going to get done? That’s how it is on the West Coast in the last week of August. That, you see, is when Burning Man happens. The annual festival attracts tens of thousands of people to a patch of Nevada desert for a week-long orgy of dirt, drugs, fancy dress and, well, orgies.

It started as a hippie experiment in “radical self-reliance”. Now Silicon Valley has gone and ruined it. It has become one of the most important dates in the calendar for any self-respecting tech tycoon: Larry Page and Sergey Brin, the Google guys, chose their chief executive, Eric Schmidt, after spending a consciousness-altering week with him in the desert.

I bring this up because tickets are on sale and I am frequently asked if I am going. I’m not. Not that I have anything against it. Loads of mates have gone over the years and raved about it. But I find it faintly ridiculous that the new masters of the universe approach the whole affair in such aching earnest. As if doing drugs in a dust storm will bring a vision for the next dog-walking app.

The other reason I bring it up is that this year’s theme is artificial intelligence. The goal, apparently, is to “focus on the many forms of artificial intelligence that permeate our lives; from the humble algorithm and its subroutines that sift us, sort us and surveil us, to automated forms of labour that supplant us. Are we entering a golden age that frees us all from mindless labour?”

Who knows? I am sure the latex-clad “burners”, off their heads on pills, will find the answer for us and report back.

One person likely to be there is Anthony Levandowski, the self-driving-car dynamo who was in the middle of a lawsuit between Uber and Google over allegedly purloined trade secrets. He has launched a religion called Way of the Future to “promote the realisation of a godhead based on artificial intelligence”.

It beggars belief, I know. But if Burning Man brings us better autocorrect, I’ll call that a win.