The Way Ahead

Transcript of lecture delivered by Stephen Fry on the 28th May  2017 • Hay Festival, Hay-on-Wye: “Peter Florence, the supremo of this great literary festival, asked me some months ago if I might, as part of Hay’s celebration of the five hundredth anniversary of Martin Luther’s kickstarting of the reformation, suggest a reform of the internet…

You will be relieved to know, that unlike Martin Luther, I do not have a full 95 theses to nail to the door, or in Hay’s case, to the tent flap. It might be worth reminding ourselves perhaps, however, of the great excitements of the early 16th century. I do not think it is a coincidence that Luther grew up as one of the very first generation to have access to printed books, much as some of you may have children who were the first to grow up with access to e-books, to iPads and to the internet….

The next big step for AI is the inevitable achievement of Artificial General Intelligence, or AGI, sometimes called ‘full artificial intelligence’ the point at which machines really do think like humans. In 2013, hundreds of experts were asked when they thought AGI may arise and the median prediction was they year 2040. After that the probability, most would say certain, is artificial super-intelligence and the possibility of reaching what is called the Technological Singularity – what computer pioneer John van Neumann described as the point “…beyond which humans affairs, as we know them, could not continue.” I don’t think I have to worry about that. Plenty of you in this tent have cause to, and your children beyond question will certainly know all about it. Unless of course the climate causes such havoc that we reach a Meteorological Singularity. Or the nuclear codes are penetrated by a self-teaching algorithm whose only purpose is to find a way to launch…

It’s clear that, while it is hard to calculate the cascade upon cascade of new developments and their positive effects, we already know the dire consequences and frightening scenarios that threaten to engulf us. We know them because science fiction writers and dystopians in all media have got there before us and laid the nightmare visions out. Their imaginations have seen it all coming. So whether you believe Ray Bradbury, George Orwell, Aldous Huxley, Isaac Asimov, Margaret Atwood, Ridley Scott, Anthony Burgess, H. G. Wells, Stanley Kubrick, Kazuo Ishiguro, Philip K. Dick, William Gibson, John Wyndham, James Cameron, the Wachowski’s or the scores and scores of other authors and film-makers who have painted scenarios of chaos and doom, you can certainly believe that a great transformation of human society is under way, greater than Gutenberg’s revolution – greater I would submit than the Industrial Revolution (though clearly dependent on it) – the greatest change to our ways of living since we moved from hunting and gathering to settling down in farms, villages and seaports and started to trade and form civilisations. Whether it will alter the behaviour, cognition and identity of the individual in the same way it is certain to alter the behaviour, cognition and identity of the group, well that is a hard question to answer.

But believe me when I say that it is happening. To be frank it has happened. The unimaginably colossal sums of money that have flowed to the first two generations of Silicon Valley pioneers have filled their coffers, their war chests, and they are all investing in autonomous cars, biotech, the IoT, robotics Artificial Intelligence and their convergence. None more so than the outlier, the front-runner Mr Elon Musk whose neural link system is well worth your reading about online on the great website. Its author Tim Urban is a paid consultant of Elon Musk’s so he has the advantage of knowing what he is writing about but the potential disadvantage of being parti pri and lacking in objectivity. Elon Musk made enough money from his part in the founding and running of PayPal to fund his manifold exploits. The Neuralink project joins his Tesla automobile company and subsidiary battery and solar power businesses, his Space X reusable spacecraft group, his OpenAI initiative and Hyperloop transport system. The 1950s and 60s Space Race was funded by sovereign governments, this race is funded by private equity, by the original investors in Google, Apple, Facebook and so on. Nation states and their agencies are not major players in this game, least of all poor old Britain. Even if our politicians were across this issue, and they absolutely are not, our votes would still be an irrelevance….

So one thesis I would have to nail up to the tent is to clamour for government to bring all this deeper into schools and colleges. The subject of the next technological wave, I mean, not pornography and prostitution. Get people working at the leading edge of AI and robotics to come into the classrooms. But more importantly listen to them – even if what they say is unpalatable, our masters must have the intellectual courage and honesty to say if they don’t understand and ask for repetition and clarification. This time, in other words, we mustn’t let the wave engulf us, we must ride its crest. It’s not quite too late to re-gear governmental and educational planning and thinking….

The witlessness of our leaders and of ourselves is indeed a problem. The real danger surely is not technology but technophobic Canute-ism, a belief that we can control, change or stem the technological tide instead of understanding that we need to learn how to harness it. Driving cars is dangerous, but we developed driving lesson requirements, traffic controls, seat-belts, maintenance protocols, proximity sensors, emission standards – all kinds of ways of mitigating the danger so as not to deny ourselves the life-changing benefits of motoring.

We understand why angry Ned Ludd destroyed the weaving machines that were threatening his occupation (Luddites were prophetic in their way, it was weaving machines that first used the punched cards on which computers relied right up to the 1970s). We understand too why French workers took their clogs, their sabots as they were called, and threw them into the machinery to jam it up, giving us the word sabotage. But we know that they were in the end, if you’ll pardon the phrase, pissing into the wind. No technology has ever been stopped.

So what is the thesis I am nailing up? Well, there is no authority for me to protest to, no equivalent of Pope Leo X for it to be delivered to, and I am certainly no Martin Luther. The only thesis I can think worth nailing up is absurdly simple. It is a cry as much from the heart as from the head and it is just one word – Prepare. We have an advantage over our hunter gatherer and farming ancestors, for whether it is Winter that is coming, or a new Spring, is entirely in our hands, so long as we prepare….(More)”.