SSQ Silicon Valley Conference

Creativity, Spirituality and Computing Technologies
June 8, 2000
Hyatt Sainte Claire Hotel, San Jose, California

Conference Overview

Today we are in the midst of an unprecedented series of changes brought about by computer technologies. The technological changes of the last few years have altered the face of human existence in the world, giving rise to questions and speculation about the social and cultural transformation that will be brought about by continued advances in technology. Currently there is little sustained discussion within the computer and information technology industries of the larger cultural significance of these transformations. Perhaps more than ever, computer professionals and society at large now need to step back and reflect on these issues in the context of this extraordinary technological era. Those who know the technologies best, and those who run the companies that market them, are the best suited to speak of their significance and future impact. What assumptions are we making, and how will they affect human existence and humanity’s perception of itself? The conference "Creativity, Spirituality and Computing Technologies" was designed to explore these issues. Five keynote speakers, who have been engaged in this kind of reflection for a number of years, came together for one day to explore the relationship between theory and practice in computer science and information technologies in conjunction with various spiritual traditions.

Topics discussed included:

  • How do computing and artificial intelligence research inform our understanding of consciousness, cognition, and the human person?
  • How are the Internet and communication technologies reshaping human relationships and societies?
  • How can we connect technology development as a creative process and computing research as a scientific process?
  • How should our ethical and spiritual values guide the development and deployment of new technologies?
  • What are the spiritual consequences—and new possibilities—stemming from the ubiquitous effects of computer technologies?
  • What are the links, if any, between the creative process and the human spiritual quest?
  • Have we become more like the computers we use?
  • Do computers have the potential to become more and more like us? Will there be some point in the future where we will have to speak of computers as intelligent? conscious? personal?

Computing and information technologies have the potential to enhance human social and existential conditions, but also the potential to affect them adversely. How can we guide the future of advances in computing technologies so that they serve human needs rather than our becoming their servants? Or is there nothing we can do? Can science and engineering alone serve as our guides in these matters? Or must humans find other sources of ethical guidance in harnessing the technologies available to us? What role can the religious traditions, and the spiritual dimension of human life, play in this process? These questions must be concerns for society at large. Still, they are perhaps most pressing for professionals in the fields of computer science and informational technology. This conference was directed in particular to the needs and interests of professionals in the computing technology fields.

In recent years the calls have become increasingly vocal for a more future-oriented management approach in computing and information technology. Too much is at stake to be guided only by what is technologically feasible or profitable. The conference was motivated by the belief that the process of technological advance cannot be allowed to run on its own without any guidance. Also, some leading professionals in the field feel that the spiritual dimension of human existence—whether in the form of traditional religions or in some form separate from them—offers essential guidance and is relevant to these decisions. Their claims were presented, and debated, during the course of this one-day conference. Each of the five speakers, representing five distinct areas of specialization within the field, brought his or her unique expertise to the debate.

Held at the historic Hyatt Sainte Claire Hotel in downtown San Jose, the conference offered both fresh perspectives and enduring contexts for some of the most dramatic transformations of our time.

Keynote Speakers

The conference featured five distinguished speakers:

Char Davies, virtual reality artist
Anne Foerst, computer scientist and theologian, MIT Artificial Intelligence Lab
Donald Knuth, computer scientist, Stanford University
Mitch Marcus, artificial intelligence researcher, University of Pennsylvania
Mark Pesce, Web media pioneer

Char Davies
In her work, Char Davies explores the perceptual paradoxes of being embodied in virtual space. Her immersive virtual-reality environments are world renowned for their use of breath as navigational interface, their lyrical evocation of the natural environment, and their profound emotional effect on participants. To date, Osmose (1995) has been exhibited in Montreal, New York, the UK and Mexico. Ephemere (1998) premiered at the National Gallery of Canada. Formerly a painter and filmmaker, Char Davies began working with 3D digital media in the late '80s. She was a founding director of the software company Softimage, leaving two years ago to create Immersence, as a vehicle for pursuing artistic research. She is also a doctoral Research Fellow at CAiiA (Center for Advanced Inquiry into the Interactive Arts) at the University of Wales College, Newport, Wales. An extensive bibliography can be found at

Anne Foerst
Anne Foerst is a Research Scientist in the Artificial Intelligence (AI) Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a Research Associate at the Center for the Studies of Values in Public Life at Harvard Divinity School. As a participant in a project in which a robot is being built as an analogue to a human infant, Foerst is interested in demonstrating that dialogue between AI and contemporary theology is of tremendous significance. Additionally, she plans to analyze the extent to which AI and the Cognitive Sciences influence the values and self-understanding of Western Society.

Donald Knuth
Donald E. Knuth is Professor Emeritus of The Art of Computer Programming at Stanford University. He is the author of numerous books, including three volumes of The Art of Computer Programming, five volumes of Computers & Typesetting, and a non-technical book entitled 3:16 - Bible Texts Illuminated. His software systems TeX and MF are extensively used for book publishing throughout the world. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the National Academy of Sciences, and the National Academy of Engineering, and a foreign associate of the French, Norwegian, and Bavarian science academies. He received many awards, including the Turing Award from the Association for Computing Machinery; the National Medal of Science from President Carter (1979); the Steele Prize from the American Mathematical Society; the John von Neumann Medal from the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers; and the Kyoto Prize from the Inamori Foundation. He holds honorary doctorates from several institutions, including Oxford University, the University of Paris, the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, and fourteen colleges and universities in America.

Mitch Marcus
Mitch Marcus studied Linguistics at Harvard University as an undergraduate, and received his Ph.D. degree in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. A former member of technical staff at AT&T Bell Laboratories, he is currently RCA Professor of Artificial Intelligence at the University of Pennsylvania, and is Chair of the Computer and Information Science Department, as well as holding an appointment in Linguistics. He is a Fellow of the American Association for Artificial Intelligence and is a past-president of the Association for Computational Linguistics. He was the principal investigator of the Penn Treebank Project. Marcus's research interests include computational models of computer and human sentence processing, the development of large corpora of raw and annotated text, and the development of techniques for learning the second from the first.

Mark Pesce
Internationally recognized as the man who brought virtual reality into the World Wide Web, Mark Pesce has been exploring the frontiers of the future for nearly two decades. Pesce is the author of three books—including a classic text, Browsing and Building Cyberspace, which sold over 70,000 copies in six languages. Ballantine Books will publish his next book, The Playful World: Interactive Toys and the Future of the Imagination, in September 2000. Pesce has written for WIRED, Feed Magazine, Salon Magazine, and numerous Ziff-Davis periodicals, and he has been profiled by publications such as Forbes ASAP, TIME Digital, WIRED and The New York Times. Pesce is Chair of the Interactive Media Program at the University of Southern California’s world-renowned School of Cinema-Television, where he has created a program that not only encourages creative vision, but also seeks to produce a generation of entertainment professionals who will shape the media of the next century.

In Memoriam

This conference was held in the memory of Mark Weiser, a leading computer scientist and member of the "Science and the Spiritual Quest" project, who died tragically in 1998.