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David Deutsch, Physicist; Martin Rees, Cosmologist; Matthew Taylor, Chief Executive; Timandra Harkness, Writer, broadcaster and presenter of BBC R4 ‘FutureProofing’; Nezahat Gultekin, Independent technology advisory; Karen O’Brien, Vice-Principal, King's College, London

There is a growing global sense that the possibility of progress - a future for Enlightenment- is up for grabs right now. An optimism/pessimism divide is becoming ever more apparent, and what's at stake is not feeling good or bad about the future, butthe role of knowledge in making the future.

The word “optimism” first appeared in English in the 18th century at the intersection of two questions: Is this the best of all possible worlds?  Is this world knowable? The answer Enlightenment provided - the answer that gave us modern science and modernity itself - was that the world was something that could and should be known because knowing could make it better.  

Today, however, this optimism about knowledge is being challenged by a new emphasis on risk - not on knowledge enabling progress, but on the dangers new knowledge poses.  Some of the world's leading scientists and entrepreneurs are raising concerns about AI, ETs, and other “threats” to human existence.

Against this backdrop, the RSA, the British Museum and King’s College London - three of London’s leading knowledge institutions, each with a common enlightenment heritage - are joining together to explore the theme of optimism as a force for 21st century progress.

Knowledge-based optimism was critical to the cultural, social and scientific advances made in the 18th century Enlightenment. Is it what we need now, above all, if we are to remain open, committed to progress and unafraid to innovate?


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