What did Dhaka Lit Fest offer to someone more interested in science than literature?

Did sessions on quantum computing and artificial intelligence make the event enjoyable for a broader audience?

Raiyaan Tabassum Imita
Published : 14 Jan 2023, 12:00 PM
Updated : 14 Jan 2023, 12:00 PM

I was feeling a bit nervous when I left home for the Dhaka Lit Fest. It would be my first time covering such an event, especially one that focused so heavily on literature and the arts, which have never been my forte.

I have attended many seminars and lectures in my life, but all of them have focused on the sciences. But, among the many discussions organised at Lit Fest, there were several on scientific topics that piqued my curiosity and I wanted to see if they would keep my interest. 

It was also the first time I was going to such a large event without my father. I was instead accompanied by my younger brother, who rarely rides the bus, and who I would be looking after throughout the day.

In a way, I suppose it was something of an experiment.

The soft warmth of the winter sun and a vivacious crowd were waiting to welcome us at the Bangla Academy.

The first thing we did was to check out a book stall. Unfortunately, literary fiction was the focus of most of the displays. Understandable, given the crowd that usually attends these kind of events. I was probably the only one there who wasn’t a big fan. We took a quick look at the other stalls. The only one that caught my attention was one set up by the Sajida Foundation offering a free 15-minute counselling session, which I thought was a praiseworthy initiative.

As we left the stall, the clouds had overtaken the sun and a chilly breeze was sweeping through the area. I remembered that the first session I was eager to check out was about to start.

My brother and I entered the Poet Shamsur Rahman Seminar Room. The lights were ultramarine and reminded me a bit of the movie Color Rush. My eyes are a bit sensitive to such light, but the room was at a mellow temperature, especially compared to the cold outside. We made ourselves cozy and waited for the session on ‘Quantum Computing’ to start.

When the speaker for the event first stood on the podium, I was honestly surprised to see a man in his 70s. He was Dr Belal Ehsan Baaquie, a quantum physicist and a professor at The International Centre for Education in Islamic Finance. He was an excellent speaker, and the most astounding element of his speech was how he to managed to discuss such a complicated manner in such simple terms. Dr Baaquie touched on the oddly paradoxical nature of the game-changing new phenomenon and its many complications, but the entire thing was oddly comforting. I can honestly say the session was among the most quiet and pleasant I have ever attended on an academic topic.

Near the end of the session, the speakers did a little gentle ribbing of science fiction, poking a bit of fun at how they came up with different scenarios showcasing the end of the world, while a quantum physicist’s work is based on spaces that don’t quite belong in this world. Ironically, the other session I attended during my Lit Fest visit was on ‘Sci-fi, VFX, AI and Robots’.

But, before we went into the Cosmic Tent for the session, my brother and I got a brownie and a cup of coffee to warm us up. I asked my brother to save me a spot at the session and took a chance to survey the crowd. Unlike the previous event, which had mostly drawn an older audience, there were quite a few young people streaming into this discussion. A Swedish friend of mine had once told me that I had the brain of an old woman, but the mind of a teenager, and I found it quite funny that my choice of sessions seemed to reflect this.

I returned to my seat just as three young men nearly leapt onto the stage with all the vigour of youth. They were Amit Ashraf, science fiction movie director and animator, Shams Jaber, educator and technologist, and Zubayer Kaolin, astrophotographer.

Jaber began the session by discussing how his school, The Tech Academy, works with children to ignite their eagerness to learn programming, game development, and graphics design.

“If you go to watch your favorite film, you don't think about the exam,” he said. “You don't think about what you are going to learn from the film, all the questions you're going to answer at the end, right? You just watch it. And subliminally, unconsciously, you learn everything from the movie. That's what the future of education should be like. Learning should be full of flow, and you shouldn't have to think about it.”

Zubayer Kaolin spoke about the strategies he used to learn everything he wanted and challenge the education system with his skills. He especially focused on the possibilities for self-development opened up by the internet.

“What I want to emphasise is you can learn anything now. Knowledge is so accessible. You can learn anything online and apply it in your life.”

I was struck by the informal way Amit Ashraf spoke. My attention zeroed in on him and I sat up straight when he started to explain his ideas about technology and science fiction, along with the complications that are emerging from artificial intelligence.

“Now we get to see how [science fiction] talks about tech. [Right now] the technology's there for fun. [But science fiction] really talks about ethical and philosophical dilemmas. And that's the beauty of sci-fi. It’s kind of a simulation for us. It's a cautionary tale. It's a way for us to test, you know. You guys can test scientific theories, technical theories, just like that. But sci-fi is a way to test moral things. And it really is a compass for a lot of ways that scientists are approaching things.”

This aspect resonated with me. I have always believed that no matter how brilliant and useful artificial intelligence can be, it will never be a true alternative to human creativity. As I listened to the discussion I resolved to prepare and adapt myself to meet the challenges that are to come in the near future from these kinds of technology.

By the time the session ended, it was already getting late. The chill in the air reminded me a bit of my university and I wanted to take a short rest there and maybe see if there was anyone else like me in attendance. Someone who had more of an affinity for science, but had come to this literature festival to see what they could discover. But I also had to think of my brother, who I had dragged to and fro the entire day to cover the event.

So I ended my experiment and we headed home. All in all, I think it was quite wonderful to step outside my usual comfort zone. Though I chose more scientific topics to investigate, it gave me a perspective on how an event that caters to a more literary crowd looked at such ideas and how the event hopes to attract a wider audience.

However, it remains to be seen whether such an experiment will be repeated in the future.

This article was written for Stripe, bdnews24.com's special publication with a focus on culture and society from a youth perspective.