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Cambridge Festival of Ideas on the frontline of the technological revolution

Can machines think? Is an artificial friend a substitute for a real one? Are digital technologies making politics impossible? Can politics keep up with technology?

As machines continue to take over the most important aspect of our lives, the Cambridge Festival of Ideas, which launches next Monday 16 October and runs for two packed weeks, delves into some of the fundamental changes taking place in how we live, work, play and relate to one another.

It is a fact that artificial intelligence is here. Some machines even play chess better than humans and some are learning to drive cars. However, does that mean they are or will be self-conscious and can they really think? On 18 October, philosopher and cognitive scientist, Marta Halina, explores what is unique about the human mind and whether we can build machines that match or exceed our abilities during the event Can machines think?

Dr Halina believes it depends on what we mean by ‘thinking’. “Many people associate thinking with conscious awareness. Under this view, a thinking machine is one with an inner life or a subjective perspective from which it experiences the world. Can we build machines with an inner life? One way to answer this is to look at how an inner life is achieved in the natural world. Cognitive scientists have sketched accounts of this and although there is still much to learn, it seems that there is nothing in principle preventing us from building thinking machines.”  

If machines can think, could this lead to them becoming our friends? Are we lonely enough to consider relationships with machines? How do we deal with a rapidly ageing population and fewer resources to care for our loved ones? What is companionship and can a machine be a substitute for a human companion?

Second in a quadrilogy of short films exploring topical issues within the field of artificial intelligence, Friend in the Machine (27 October) presents fascinating insights from academia and industry about the world of companion robots and asks what it means to be human in an age of nearly human machines. Screening of this new short documentary film by Dr Beth Singler, Colin Ramsay and James Uren, is followed by a panel discussion featuring Dr Beth Singler, The Faraday Institute for Science and Religion, Dr Ruth Jackson, CRASSH, Kanta Dihal, Centre for the Future of Intelligence, and Noel Hurley, Arm.

Speaking about the film, Dr Singler said: “We made this film to open up the discussion on the subject of artificial companionship – artificial intelligent assistants and robotic companion are increasingly becoming a part of our society as our populations age and our generations pursue lives apart from each other. We brought together experts from the fields of technology and manufacturing, as well significant voices in the study of relationships and companionship in an age of accelerating technology. Our aim is to get the audience involved in the conversation on this topic and to do so in an accessible, and perhaps sometimes even amusing, way.”

Technology is having an impact on every aspect of our lives and this includes politics. False statistics can spread around the world in an instant. Politicians are open to manipulation by hostile government hacking. Masses of data on citizens is widely available and open to surveillance and misuse. How can politics and government keep up? On 21 October, Dr Beth Singler sits on another panel that includes Law Lecturer Nora Ni Loideain, author George Zarkadakis and Will Moy from Full Fact the factchecking charity to discuss Can politics keep up with technology?

Dr Singler will discuss how AI and automation could entrench existing problems and inequalities, including falsehoods and biases. She will also discuss the impact of AI on how we receive news, and on how democracy works (or doesn't!). Nora Ni Loideain will speak about the role of the internet in spreading conspiracies and how the problems of access to huge amounts of unfiltered information, often from dubious sources, can be tackled. Will Moy from the Full Fact agency will talk about his work, why the agency was set up, what it does and the challenges it faces.

Author George Zarkadakis believes that policymakers have not been able to keep up with the social issues thrown up by technology. He commented: “Policy-making and regulation are generally long and complex processes that must arrive at some kind of consensus at the end. Both those necessary characteristics (duration, consensus) of those processes are not fit for technologies that are advancing at a rapid pace, target our personal lives and psychological states, and tend to create ‘digital tribes’ in cyberspace with little or no communication between them.”

Are digital technologies making politics impossible? This is the question asked and explained by winner of the inaugural $100,000 Nine Dots Prize, Oxford doctoral candidate and former Google employee James Williams during Freedom and persuasion in the attention economy on 21 October.

James will focus on how digital technologies are distracting us from the important things in our lives, undermining our ability to reflect and to self-regulate. He said: “Right now, there’s a fierce battle raging for something you possess: your attention. Though you may not realise it, the goal of most digital technologies you use is to maximize the amount of time and attention you spend with them. This results in an endless barrage of ‘persuasive’ designs e.g. clickbait, auto-playing videos or notifications — that are intended to hook us and keep us tapping, clicking, watching and scrolling for as long as possible. In the short term, these effects can indeed distract us from doing the things we want to do. In the longer term, however, they can distract us from living the lives we want to live, or, even worse, undermine our capacities for reflection and self-regulation, making it harder, in the words of philosopher Harry Frankfurt, to “want what we want to want”. These deeper distractions pose enormous moral and political challenges that have, to date, gone largely unaddressed. Understanding their dynamics, and better aligning technology design with real human needs and interests, is therefore an urgent task.”

Has technology created greater inequality or can it close the gap? That is one of the questions asked during Technology and nationalism in India on 23 October. Jaideep Prabhu, Shailaja Fennell, Surabhi Ranganathan, Bhaskar Vira and Kavita Ramakrishnan explore the role of technology in India’s recent economic development, and it links to equality issues and the rise of nationalism. Chaired by Shinjini Das.

Jaideep Prabhu, University of Cambridge, will talk about how innovation, and in particular ‘frugal innovation’, has helped meet the previously unmet needs of vast millions in India in the areas of financial inclusion, energy, health, education, agriculture and livelihoods. He will also discuss ‘frugal innovation’ in government. Kavita Ramakrishnan, University of East Anglia, will focus on demonetisation and technology and its impact on the poor and 2) smart cities and their perhaps misplaced utopian ideals. Bhaskar Vira, University of Cambridge, will speak about how technology is enabling new forms of work in the Indian economy, especially around sharing platforms. Surabhi Ranganathan, University of Cambridge, will focus on some of the issues around free speech that are presented by the rise of social media that on the one hand represent a democratisation of speech, and on the other hand work both towards normalising offensive speech and obstructing previously acceptable forms of expression.

Further related events include:

  • in_collusion: arts & technology meetup – let’s talk about R&D 19 October. Collusion presents the outcome of a series of short R&D projects exploring key technologies, including virtual and augmented reality and artificial intelligence, involving collaboration between artists, technologists and academics.

  • Truth, freedom and authority in publishing 24 October. How might the law, market or technology evolve to preserve the accuracy, truth and impartiality of information, whilst maintaining people’s freedom to share thoughts and creations? Join Cambridge University Press and guests to debate whether we must choose between quality and control or quantity and freedom.