Globally, it is clear that the pandemic is far from over. However, government restrictions on movement and meeting people imposed at the start of the year combined with a successful vaccination programme have allowed a gradual return to normality in the UK since late April. I have particularly appreciated this resumption of life over the past fortnight. While most meetings are still conducted online, I have managed to meet most of my research students in person in our lab, in pavement cafes or occasionally in my office with the window open and wearing masks. I have even been to the pub after work on two consecutive Tuesdays. On the first occasion, it was after a progress meeting on a research project when we enjoyed continuing our discussion of a new idea over a couple of beers; and, on the second occasion, t with our faculty management team to celebrate the first anniversary of one of the team joining us, who had only met half the team in person. On both occasions we had all tested negative using the lateral flow test and we sat outside in the sunshine. I have also been to three concerts at Liverpool Philharmonic Hall where we wore masks throughout the concert and both the audience and orchestra were socially-distanced. Last Thursday, I enjoyed Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin and Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 1 ‘Classical’ as well as the world premiere of Dani Howard’s Trombone Concerto. The second concert featured works by Astor Piazzola which were a revelation to me. I had never heard of him let alone his music and really enjoyed the concert. However, as I write this post, the number of cases in Liverpool is rising rapidly and we are being advised to be more cautious in our interactions with other people. Not enough people have been vaccinated and are taking regular tests to allow us to return to our previous state of social interactions. Nevertheless, I am optimistic that we can eventually take back control of our lives from the coronavirus. Our global society is a complex system, which like any other complex system, operates without central control but with simple operating rules generating self-organising and emergent behaviour [see ‘Destruction of society as a complex system?‘ on July 31st, 2019] that allows us to find new states to handle changed circumstances regardless of the efforts of politicians.
You might have wondered why I used ‘entropy’, and ‘psychological entropy’ in particular, as examples in my post on drowning in information a couple of weeks ago [‘We are drowning in information while starving for wisdom‘ on January 20th, 2021]. It was not random. I spent some of the Christmas break catching up on my reading pile of interesting looking scientific papers and one on psychological entropy stimulated my thinking. Psychological entropy is the concept that our brains are self-organising systems in a continual dialogue with the environment which leads to the emergence of a relatively small number of stable low-entropy states. These states could be considered to be assemblies of neurons or patterns of thoughts, perhaps a mindset. When we are presented with a new situation or problem to solve for which the current assembly or mindset is unsuitable then we start to generate new ideas by generating more and different assemblies of neurons in our brains. Our responses become unpredictable as the level of entropy in our minds increases until we identify a new approach that deals effectively with the new situation and we add it to our list of available low-entropy stable states. If the external environment is constantly changing then our brains are likely to be constantly churning through high entropy states which leads to anxiety and psychological stress. Effective leaders can help us cope with changing environments by providing us with a narrative that our brains can use as a blueprint for developing the appropriate low-entropy state. Raising psychological entropy by the right amount is conducive to creativity in the arts, science and leadership but too much leads to mental breakdown.
My posts at Christmas time in the past have often been pictures of snowy scenes or Christmas trees. This year I have gone for something different. The image above is an abstract painting by Zahrah Resh. I have used extracts from it as thumbnails in four posts over the last three months and so I thought it was about time to show you the whole painting. Zahrah Resh is a contemporary American abstract artist based in East Lansing, Michigan who has exhibited at the ArtPrize which takes place over 19 days in Grand Rapids, Michigan attracting around half a million visitors. ArtPrize started in 2009 and offered the world’s largest art prize of $250,000. We got to know Zahrah when we lived nearby in Okemos, Michigan and we brought a number of her paintings back to England when we moved to Liverpool nearly a decade ago. They remind me of the people we met and knew during our time in Michigan. Best wishes for happiness, joy and peace this holiday.
I suspect that artificial intelligence is somewhere near the top of the ‘Hype Curve’ [see ‘Hype cycle’ on September 23rd, 2015]. At the beginning of the year, I read Max Tegmark’s book, ‘Life 3.0 – being a human in the age of artificial intelligence’ in which he discusses the prospects for artificial general intelligence and its likely impact on life for humans. Artificial intelligence means non-biological intelligence and artificial general intelligence is the ability to accomplish any cognitive task at least as well as humans. Predictions vary about when we might develop artificial general intelligence but developments in machine learning and robotics have energised people in both science and the arts. Machine learning consists of algorithms that use training data to build a mathematical model and make predictions or decisions without being explicitly programmed for the task. Three of the books that I read while on vacation last month featured or discussed artificial intelligence which stimulated my opening remark about its position on the hype curve. Jeanette Winterson in her novel, ‘Frankissstein‘ foresees a world in which humanoid robots can be bought by mail order; while Ian McEwan in his novel, ‘Machines Like Me‘, goes back to the early 1980s and describes a world in which robots with a level of consciousness close to or equal to humans are just being introduced to the market the place. However, John Kay and Mervyn King in their recently published book, ‘Radical Uncertainty – decision-making beyond numbers‘, suggest that artificial intelligence will only ever enhance rather replace human intelligence because it will not be able to handle non-stationary ill-defined problems, i.e. problems for which there no objectively correct solution and that change with time. I think I am with Kay & King and that we will shortly slide down into the trough of the hype curve before we start to see the true potential of artificial general intelligence implemented in robots.