West Lafayette, Indiana - Will superintelligent computers hundreds of times smarter than humans help us solve difficult problems such as the causes of cancer or climate change, or will they decide we're all just raw materials they need to consume in order to expand?

Will industrial robots free us from mundane and poor-paying factory jobs, or will they displace workers and trigger a world-wide depression?

Will computer processors in everyday products bring new, unimagined levels of convenience, or will they inform governments and corporations of our every move and decision? Or both?

These are the types of questions to be discussed at an upcoming technology summit at Purdue University, "Dawn or Doom: the New Technology Explosion."

The event will explore whether technology is advancing faster than our ability to understand, regulate, or control it, and what can be done about this situation.

"Dawn or Doom: the New Technology Explosion," will be held Sept. 18 on the Purdue campus. The summit is free and open to the public.

The day-long event will feature speakers who will examine the societal effects of the technology explosion from the perspective of various disciplines, including artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, genetic engineering, and computer security and privacy.

Purdue President Mitch Daniels says the university is holding the conference because there often isn't enough said about the potential benefits and risks of the rapid growth of technology.

"The arrival of super intelligent machines is only a matter of time, and many experts believe it won't be long. The range of possible outcomes runs from thrilling to terrifying," Daniels says. "The questions raised are not merely technical, but social, political, economic, and philosophical. It's an ideal topic to engage a broad spectrum of our faculty, students, and those outstanding thinkers who will be joining us from around the world."

The summit will feature lectures by recognized leaders in science and technology, as well as a concurrent movie festival that will look at how science fiction and popular culture have examined similar issues.

The event is co-sponsored by Information Technology at Purdue and Purdue Convocations.

Gerry McCartney, Purdue's CIO, vice president for information technology, and Oesterle Professor of Information Technology, says advances and growth in technology may soon progress at a much faster rate, and perhaps a rate than is faster than our ability to deal with it.  

"For the past 200 years we assumed improvements and growth of technology was a linear progression," McCartney says. "But if you look at a graph of exponential growth, you'll notice that for a long time the line is flat and virtually indistinguishable from linear growth. Then, suddenly it seems, the growth line begins curving sharply upward.

"What if what we thought was linear technological progress is actually exponential? What does that mean for society? Will it advance too fast for us to recognize or mitigate the dangers? Can legislators hope to write effective laws regarding the technology? Do we know enough about the science that these technologies are based on to answer such questions?

"These are the questions we'll begin to explore at the summit."

Among the issues that will be discussed at the event:

  • "Man versus machine and the future of work: Will there be anything left for humans to do?" Presented by David Hummels, professor of economics.
  • "Will machines ever be worthy of moral concerns?" Presented by Mark Bernstein, Purdue's Joyce & Edward E. Brewer Chair in Applied Ethics.
  • "Synthetic life: Could we, would we, should we?" Presented by Jenna Rickus, associate professor of agricultural and biological engineering, and biomedical engineering.
  • "Will computational modeling and robotic emulation deepen our understanding of cognitive function?" Presented by Zygmunt Pizlo, professor of mathematical and computational cognitive science.
  • "How do technological changes drive social change?" Presented by Rayvon Fouché, associate professor of history and director of Purdue's American Studies program.
  • "What are the dangers and consequences of deploying computer processors everywhere without regard to security and privacy?" Presented by Eugene Spafford, professor of computer science and executive director of the Center for Education and Research in Information Assurance and Security (CERIAS).
  • "Can humans share the planet with superintelligent machines and survive?" Presented by James Barrat, documentary filmmaker and author of "Our Final Invention."

"We hope these large questions and the surrounding discussions will be important to a variety of people, including business leaders who are planning their strategies for the next decade, legislators who are already wrestling with many of these issues, to clergy and  church leaders who may be speaking on the moral implications of these technologies, and to anyone with an interest in the future and shape of our society," McCartney says. "It promises to be a fascinating day."

Additional information about the Dawn or Doom Summit can be found at the event's website, www.purdue.edu/dawnordoom, on the event's Facebook page, or by following the Twitter account @DawnOrDoom