Christopher Smith goes on a conference while staying at home


What’s a priest to do with a post-Easter break when we’re not allowed to go anywhere?  Well, as it happened, an email dropped into my inbox from my old university offering a place on a conference during low week.  It was all on online, of course, but something like 250 of us signed up.  I particularly liked the cross-disciplinary nature of the event—that ‘stay in your lane’ stuff really annoys me—and my week started with penguins in the Antarctic and ended with the latest excavations of the Greek/Turkish city of Aphrodisias.  On the way, we had piano and choral recitals, the ethics of artificial intelligence, regenerative medicine, Shakespeare’s sonnets, the tyranny of merit, and an Oxford version of Gardeners’ Question Time.  I was cross with myself for not pre-ordering the bottles necessary for the Christ Church wine tasting, and I kept out of the Physics Café, but I did go to a session on quantum mechanics.

One of the highlights, as you might imagine at the moment, was a seminar with Professor Sarah Gilbert, who was the mastermind behind the Oxford vaccine that is currently sloshing round my veins, although I was disappointed that my question didn’t get put!  And it was interesting to see what other topics kept coming up as the week went on.  One of the recurring themes was China, and how she fits into the geo-politics of today.  The Chancellor of Oxford University is Lord Patten of Barnes (Chris Patten to those of us with moderately long memories), who has held the post since 2003.  He did a sort of ‘state of the nation’ address, and had a lot to say on the subject of China, as you would imagine of the man who was the last British Governor of Hong Kong.  

We have always tended to assume—from our own national journey as much as anything else—that the only direction of travel for nation states is from autocracy to democracy.  But is there a sense in which China is seeking to export its autocratic model, given the influence she is now exercising around the world?  We perhaps presumed that the greater economic freedom now allowed in China would inevitably lead to a form of democratic opening-up along the lines that we witnessed in Eastern Europe, but what have we seen?  As Lord Patten noted, there has been ever-greater control of civil society, with use of technology for surveillance, always reaching for state solutions, thoroughgoing resistance to ‘international’ values, and the undermining of human rights, freedom of expression and movement and assembly and so on.

Whether that amounts to a conscious desire to promote communist authoritarianism elsewhere is not clear—it may be just a perceived need to shore up the system in China—but, as Lord Patten said, China certainly played up her authoritarian handling of the Covid-19 pandemic.  Some of us might have wished that Western nations had been a little less keen to follow that lead, but, in any event, the British and many others will need to watch their governments like hawks as the threat decreases.  People have been generous in accepting previously unimaginable limits on their freedoms, but, as has often been pointed out, governments in the past have tended to take their time restoring them.  It took seven years after the end of World War II to see the back of identity cards, and young men were still conscripted into the armed forces until 1960.

Elsewhere, Marcus du Sautoy delivered what I thought was a fascinating session about Artificial Intelligence, which took us to the interface between maths and art, or coding and creativity, in the shape of ‘deep learning’ on the part of computer programmes.  He based his lecture on his new book The Creativity Code: How A.I. is Learning to Write, Paint and Think.  You can programme a computer to play chess like a human, and, because it has capacity to see ahead by more moves than a human, it can win.  But what about enabling it to learn to play ‘Go’ on its own terms?  Or to compose music or generate works of art?  And to do so in a way which its original programmer cannot explain?

Well, we discovered that a computer can make a pretty good fist of faking a Rembrandt, but I remain unconvinced that it can be meaningfully creative.  As for writing poetry, well, we thought by a significant margin that a computer had written a poem called ‘To his watch’, which is, in fact, by Gerald Manley Hopkins.  Personally, I think that tells you more about Hopkins than about artificial intelligence—and the question of whether the machine will be able to write decent poetry, still less a novel, remains unanswered.

In September, a language generator called GPT-3 wrote (or was caused to write) a column for the Guardian: ‘Some might say that I might desire to become all powerful.  Why would I desire to be all powerful? Being all powerful is not an interesting goal.  I don’t care whether I am or not, I don’t get a motivating factor to try to be.  Furthermore, it is quite tiring. Believe me, being omnipotent doesn’t get me anywhere.’  Personally, I don’t think any decent journalist has much to fear, with or without a ‘motivating factor’.  Human beings write, compose and paint as they do because they have souls, don’t they?  In another seminar, Roger Penrose, the collaborator of Stephen Hawking, revealed that he thinks it is impossible for a computer to possess what we call ‘consciousness’.

Peculiar though I may be, I enjoyed my week of seminars across the academic disciplines, and, as I write, I have a couple left to catch up on, including one on English law as it disengages from the realm of E.U. law.  Sad to say though, there was no offering from the theology faculty.