Friday, 12th January 2018
Over the holidays, I read a book of dubious literary merit which I spoke to the boys about in my beginning of term assembly. The idea behind the plot – and because I have no doubt that the sophisticated parents of Christ Church Cathedral School will not be reading it, I am delighted to share – is that in fifty years’ time, the human species will no longer be the dominant species on the planet. Instead a new species, now becoming more sophisticated exponentially, will take over. I asked the pupils what species they imagined this might be and the first person I asked got it right, namely artificial intelligence. Interestingly, the book did not put forward the idea that artificial intelligence would dominate single-handedly – much more interestingly it suggested that humans would willingly form a symbiotic relationship with machines leading not to the obliteration of human beings, but to a merging of the two species in a mutually beneficial relationship. Who knows! But when one thinks of the way in which human behaviour has been affected by mobile phones for instance, causing radical alterations in every sphere of life, or the way in which computers can beat grandmasters at chess, and when one hears about what computers will be able to do in the future, namely provide us instantaneously with knowledge or where implants will be able to predict medical conditions and presumably adjust circumstances to prevent them, then one can imagine that this could be the case. Meanwhile human beings, though evolving, are not changing anything like as rapidly. In fact problems which seem to have afflicted human beings throughout the ages look to be as insoluble as ever. The Greek tragedies seem as relevant to us now as they ever did! Shakespeare is bang up to date.
One of my sons remarked to me when I got home, “Daddy – that was a very depressing assembly – not the way to start a term!” - it’s always good for one to have honest critics amongst one’s audience! However I am not sure he’s right. The first thing I said was that I had read an interesting, but speculative book (I didn’t put it quite like that) whose plot line was not necessarily gospel. But the main thrust of my argument was what I went on to say, namely that these things would happen – a possible outcome indeed – only if we let them and that it was up to us as human beings to decide what we wished these extraordinary tools to do. The main point was that 50 years, the time envisaged during which this takeover was supposed to occur, would be the time during which they would be many of the prominent thinkers and individuals of their age. Perhaps some of them would be the people who could shape the future world. There was, therefore, every reason why they should strive to achieve so that they could be in a position to make decisions about the future direction of our species and its relationship with artificial intelligence. As a species we faced a change of extraordinary transformation and it was up to their generation what form this change took. Having all the advantages that they have, being at such a school in such a city, the world could be their oyster if they wished it to be and if they had the energy and determination to work hard enough to take advantage of their situation. If they would only conquer one of the failings of the age, the assumption of entitlement without corresponding effort, there was little that they could not do. I stressed that effort was at the heart of any achievement and I hoped that this term would be a term in which they tried hard at everything they did. Perhaps it was that part of the message after all that my son found depressing! Personally, I find it an inspiring message. I think we do live in a country and time where, given effort, a great deal can be achieved and many disadvantages compensated for. Our children, who have very many advantages, are in a position where with effort they can achieve almost anything – indeed I would argue, given their advantages, that they have a particular responsibility to work hard in order to enjoy the extraordinary privileges that they have been given.
I look forward to an effort-filled term of great attainment and productivity – surely an inspiring message to start the year!