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.
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.