Latest great article by Andi Jarvis, one of our top regular contributors. He interviewed Professor Robert Winston at the recent Norther Ireland Science Festival.

When Professor Robert Winston speaks, it’s usually worth listening to. He’s Professor of Science and Society and Emeritus Professor of Fertility Studies at Imperial College London. He also runs a research programme at the Institute of Reproductive and Developmental Biology at Imperial College, has over 300 publications, is Chairman of the Genesis Research Trust, Chairman of the governing body of the Royal College of Music, started the Reach Out Lab, is Chancellor of Sheffield Hallam University and on the board of trustees for the UK Stem Cell Foundation and The Royal Institution.

Oh, and he’s actually Lord Winston, having been made a life peer – Baron Winston of Hammersmith in 1995. That’s some CV. And as a pioneer of IVF in the 1970s, he’s no stranger to controversial science which makes his views on machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) worth listening to.

“Artificial intelligence, generally, is one of the scientific promises and one of the scientific threats. We have to work out how we can use it wisely so it doesn’t damage our society. But at the moment I think it’s too early to predict where we will be with artificial intelligence but I think that the idea that we supplant some of the human nature with artificial intelligence is really very worrying.”

The move towards AI is one of the big trends in the tech, with a diverse range of companies exploring the opportunities on offer. It’s easy to see why – the promise that machines can monitor and predict human behaviour has huge potential for business, where the move to greater automation can reduce costs and, it is hoped, increase profit.

From the Luddites onwards, people have always claimed certain jobs can never be replaced by machines and, ultimately been proved wrong. But can algorithms replace people? Prof Winston is clear: “The brain is much more complicated than that.”

Bad Ideas

However, the main issue for Prof Winston isn’t AI replacing people, it’s the ethical considerations of the rapid development of AI. In the book Bad Ideas, he explores the unintended consequences of scientific developments, where inventions that were a force for good ended up being used in a way that didn’t benefit society.

“Bad Ideas touched on some really important issues of public engagement. One of which is the notion that every scientific endeavour will have a dark side, a down side, which we don’t always predict beforehand and, therefore, the need to engage society much more actively beforehand with those technologies– and that would certainly include artificial intelligence.”

With much of the work in AI being done by business with a profit motive, there is a commercial imperative to keep their research, methods and results private, which means there will be limited opportunities for the public to be engaged in any debate about the use of AI.

With a tension between public benefit and private gain, there is a greater onus on politicians to ensure that complex ethical considerations are heard and debated. However, from his vantage point in the Lords, Prof Winston has doubts about the skills of the politicians to deal with these complexities, at least in the UK.

“In general I think it’s a big problem. Understandably, politics is not very attractive to people who are likely to be successful in other fields. If you’re likely to be successful, you’ll go into a job that’s either better paid or better valued or a bit more interesting. I think they’re trying to do a very hard job as well as they can and I think the job they do is extremely hard but that doesn’t mean to say their qualifications are ideal.” So do politicians have the skills to deal with these complex issues? “No. In a very short answer – I don’t think they do.”

Children And Happiness

Professor Winston was in Belfast as part of Northern Ireland Science Festival to speak about what makes us happy. While the answer to the complex question of happiness is far from obvious, it is apparent that children play a key role for in Prof Winston’s happiness: “I would argue that children are our source of greatest happiness”

In addition to his many academic publications and mainstream books, Prof Winston has written around 15 books for children and is, in his own words, “very proud” of the fact that he’s the only person to have won the Royal Society’s Young Person’s Book of the Year award three times.

And when the judges say things like this about your book, it’s easy to see why he’s so happy:

  • Destiny, 10: This book is full of very cool facts and popups.
  • Adam, 11: Creative, imaginative, fact-filled and fun.
  • Mariusz, 12: It wants me to go and do science! And the pop-ups are great too.


“Well that’s from children. What they do is send the books out to 800 children, read them through and vote for them.”

Happy Humans

Childhood is a key developmental stage and that we “need to value childhood, children and education”. Returning to his Bad Ideas concept, there has been huge changes in how children play and are taught in schools, thanks to technological advances, such as computers and tablets.

“For example, who knows what effect that [gestures to a child playing on an iPad] will have in 10, 15, 20 years’ time in education? It may be a very good thing. There are some scientists who think that keyboard learning and screen learning are a bad thing. I don’t share that view, I think on the whole, used wisely, it’s positive. But to test it out is going to be one of the most intriguing problems that we will have to try and solve.”

Fundamentally, however, people still learn in the same way as they always have: metaphor, reiteration, experience, imagination, visualisation and imitation. iPad’s don’t change that, but the long term implications need to be explored, especially as children’s brains “are more plastic, so it’s making connections more rapidly”.

Learning to be Happy

Learning and happiness are two of the essential traits that make us human. But can we learn to be happy? “Some people can be genetically predisposed to happiness. But nurture is more important.” In other words, our situation and experience forms part of our happiness. And it’s our imagination that really sets us apart from the chimps; “that part of the frontal cortex is responsible for our happiness, so you can be in very bad circumstances, but adjust to that and you can be happy.”

Prof Winston points to a 15th century writer, Michel de Montaigne, who had a bladder stone which caused him atrocious pain and suffering. He took the view that he was lucky to have to go through such pain to fully understand what happiness was. Hopefully we don’t all have to go through bladder stones to truly understand happiness.

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