It is traditional at the start of the year to speculate on what will happen in the new year. However, as Niels Bohr is reputed to have said ‘Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future’. Some people have suggested that our brains are constantly predicting the future. We weigh up the options for what might happen next before choosing a course of action. Our ancestors might have watched a fish swimming near a river bank and predicted where it would be a moment later when their spear entered the water. Or on a longer timescale, they predicted that seeds planted at a particular time of year would yield a crop some months later. Our predictions are not always correct but our life depends on enough of them being reliable that we have evolved to be good predictors of the immediate future. In Chinese thought, a distinction is made between predicting the near and distant future because the former is possible and latter is impossible, at least with any degree of confidence (Simandon, 2018). Wisdom can be considered to be understanding the futility of trying to predict the distant future while being able to sense the near future through an acute awareness and immersion in one’s surroundings. This implies that a wise person can go beyond the everyday predictions of the immediate future, made largely unconsciously by our brains, and anticipate events on a slightly longer timescale, the near future. In engineering terms, events in the near future are short-term behaviour dominated by the current status of the system whereas events in the distant future are largely determined by external interactions with the system. This seems entirely consistent with the Chinese concept of wisdom arising from ‘vanishing into things’ which means to become immersed in a situation and hence to be able sense the current status of the system and reliably anticipate the near future. Some engineers might call it intuition which has been defined as ‘judgments that arise through rapid, non-conscious and holistic associations’ (Dane & Pratt, 2007). So, in 2021 I hope to continue to exercise my intuition and remain immersed in a number of issues but I am not going to attempt to predict any distant events.
About four years ago I wrote about living in bubbles and rarely coming into contact with people outside of our bubble [see ‘You’re all weird‘ on February 8th, 2017]. This was in the context of our experience of the media and our surprise when electorates make apparently irrational decisions. Since early this year we have been encouraged to live in more literal bubbles in order to slow down the spread of COVID-19; so, for example, we have created bubbles of researchers using our research labs in shifts to avoid a total shutdown of research when someone tests positive for coronavirus. For many people, the pandemic has isolated them in a bubble of one that has created concerns about the well-being and happiness of individuals living and working alone. When asked about the place he is happiest, the artist Ai Weiwei responded ‘Every place is equal for me. Even in detention I could still find joyful moments’. He finds ways to connect to other people and their emotions by reflecting on who he is, which leads to moments of joy. He believes that success in life is about finding yourself in way that ‘doesn’t need ambition or talent. It just needs a functioning mind, emotion and simple judgment.’ During lockdowns induced by the COVID-19 pandemic, I believe that it has become more important to maintain the life of mind through reading and discovering new ideas. As Jarvis Cocker said in a recent interview: ‘I don’t want to spend the rest of my life thinking the same thoughts and feeling the same things, rechewing the same thing. I find that really boring.’ I hope that these posts have brought you new ideas and ways of thinking during 2020; writing them has certainly kept my mind active and stimulated. So, I plan to continue in 2021 and hope that you will continue to read them. Best wishes for a happy New Year!
I have written in the past about my research on the development and use of digital twins. A digital twin is a functional representation in a virtual world of a real world entity that is continually updated with data from the real world [see ‘Fourth industrial revolution’ on July 4th, 2018 and also a short video at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iVS-AuSjpOQ]. I am working with others on developing an integrated digital nuclear environment from which digital twins of individual power stations could be spawned in parallel with the manufacture of their physical counterparts [see ‘Enabling or disruptive technology for nuclear engineering’ on January 1st, 2015 and ‘Digitally-enabled regulatory environment for fusion power-plants’ on March 20th, 2019]. A couple of months ago, I wrote about the difficulty of capturing tacit knowledge in digital twins, which is knowledge that is generally not expressed but is retained in the minds of experts and is often essential to developing and operating complex engineering systems [see ‘Tacit hurdle to digital twins’ on August 26th, 2020]. The concept of tapping into someone’s mind to extract tacit knowledge brings us close to thinking about human digital twins which so far have been restricted to computational models of various parts of human anatomy and physiology. The idea of a digital twin of someone’s mind raises a myriad of philosophical and ethical issues. Whilst the purpose of a digital twin of the mind of an operator of a complex system might be to better predict and understand human-machine interactions, the opportunity to use the digital twin to advance techniques of personalisation will likely be too tempting to ignore. Personalisation is the tailoring of the digital world to respond to our personal needs, for instance using predictive algorithms to recommend what book you should read next or to suggest purchases to you. At the moment, personalisation is driven by data derived from the tracks you make in the digital world as you surf the internet, watch videos and make purchases. However, in the future, those predictive algorithms could be based on reading your mind, or at least its digital twin. We worry about loss of privacy at the moment, by which we probably mean the collation of vast amounts of data about our lives by unaccountable organisations, and it worries us because of the potential for manipulation of our lives without us being aware it is happening. Our free will is endangered by such manipulation but it might be lost entirely to a digital twin of our mind. To quote the philosopher Michael Lynch, you would be handing over ‘privileged access to your mental states’ and to some extent you would no longer be a unique being. We are long way from possessing the technology to realise a digital twin of human mind but the possibility is on the horizon.
If you looked closely at our holiday bookshelf in my post on August 12th 2020, you might have spotted ‘The Living Mountain‘ by Nan Shepherd [1893-1981] which a review in the Guardian newspaper described as ‘The finest book ever written on nature and landscape in Britain’. It is an account of the author’s journeys in the Cairngorm mountains of Scotland. Although it is short, only 108 pages, I have to admit that it did not resonate with me and I did not finish it. However, I did enjoy the Introduction by Robert MacFarlane and the Afterword by Jeanette Winterson, which together make up about a third of the book. MacFarlane draws parallels between Shepherd’s writing and one of her contemporaries, the French philosopher, Maurice Merleau-Ponty [1908-1961] who was a leading proponent of existentialism and phenomenology. Existentialists believe that the nature of our existence is based on our experiences, not just what we think but what we do and feel; while phenomenology is about the connections between experience and consciousness. Echoing Shepherd and in the spirit of Merleau-Ponty, MacFarlane wrote in 2011 in his introduction that ‘we have come increasingly to forget that our minds are shaped by the bodily experience of being in the world’. It made me think that as the COVID-19 pandemic pushes most university teaching on-line we need to remember that sitting at a computer screen day after day in the same room will shape the mind rather differently to the diverse experiences of the university education of previous generations. I find it hard to imagine how we can develop the minds of the next generation of engineers and scientists without providing them with real, as opposed to virtual, experiences in the field, design studio, workshop and laboratory.