Why the Robots Will Never Win

Curiosity, irreverence, imagination, sense of humour, a free and open mind, an acceptance of the relativity of values and of the uncertainty of life, all inevitably fuse into the kind of person whose greatest joy is creation. He conceives of creation as the very essence of the meaning of life. In his constant striving for the new, he finds that he cannot endure what is repetitive and unchanging. For him hell would be doing the same thing over and over again.

Saul Alinsky, Rules for Radicals 1971

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The robots are coming: they are coming to take our jobs, they are coming to take our place in the world and in some doomsday scenarios they may even be coming to take our lives.  The first have already arrived and they are making their mark – in our factories, in our homes and hospitals and schools, and in our armed forces. Time is running out…

Or so some of the more lurid headlines would have us believe.

The truth is that, while there have been some remarkable advances in AI and robotics in recent years with the promise of even faster development in the near future, it is surely self-evident that human beings, flawed as we may be, still hold the best hand in the game. Providing we choose to play it wisely. And that means playing to our strengths.

This is my fortieth year of working in education and it sometimes seems to me that throughout every one of those years the notion of 21st Century Skills has been bandied about interminably, an endless mantra tunelessly chanted by one educational guru after another. As if creativity, collaboration, communication, et al were somehow new to the classroom and their sudden arrival on the scene was going to change everything.

It is a long time since I was at university but recently I came across a reference to a controversial American writer and political thinker who – all those many years ago – was the source of much heated debate and discussion. I feel sure that Saul Alinsky was a man who would have had a great deal to say about the rise of the robots. In Rules for Radicals, written just a year before he died in 1972, Alinsky set out his list of the ideal elements of a community organiser, the term he used for what we might now call a political activist. With just a little poetic licence, I believe these key characteristics are what give us the edge over the machines that threaten to overthrow us.

The first is curiosity

For the organiser life is a search for a pattern, for similarities in seeming differences, for differences in seeming similarities, for an order in the chaos about us, for a meaning to the life around him and its relationship to his own life – and the search never ends…

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And the second is irreverence

Curiosity and irreverence go together. Curiosity cannot exist without the other. Curiosity asks, “Is this true?” “Just because this has always been the way, is this the best or right way of life, the best or right religion, political or economic value, morality?”

Now it may well be that we can develop an inquisitive robot and, indeed, we may already have done so. A year after a computer beat a human world champion in the ancient strategy game of Go, researchers claim they have now constructed an even more powerful version of the earlier program – one that can teach itself without the benefit of human knowledge. The program, known as AlphaGo Zero, became a Go master in just three days by playing 4.9 million games against itself in quick succession. In this way it managed to acquire all of the Go knowledge accumulated by humans over thousands of years of playing, sometimes actually choosing to go further, seeing patterns no human had discovered in all that time.

But curiosity and irreverence? A deliberately disruptive and anarchic robot? Outside the realms of science fiction that might prove to be more elusive, particularly if we accept the deep paradox at the heart of Alinsky’s questioning irreverent organiser:

He is challenging, insulting, agitating, discrediting. He stirs unrest. As with all life, this is a paradox, for his irreverence is rooted in a deep reverence for the enigma of life, and an incessant search for its meaning. It could be argued that reverence for others, for their freedom from injustice, poverty, ignorance, exploitation, discrimination, disease, war, hate, and fear, is not a necessary quality in a successful organiser. All I can say is that such reverence is a quality I would have to see in anyone I would undertake to teach.

The third and fourth attributes are imagination and a sense of humour

Alinsky understood that life is essentially tragedy teetering precariously on the edge of comedy:

One can change a few lines in any Greek tragedy and it becomes a comedy, and vice versa.

Knowing that contradictions, sometimes apparently absurd and unpredictable contradictions, can be signposts of progress, the organiser is always on the lookout for them – and a healthy sense of humour helps him to identify and make some sort of sense out of them. It is our sense of humour that enables us to maintain our perspective and to see ourselves for what we truly are while, conversely, an irrational unpredictable world offers uncomfortably hostile terrain for the marching machines!

Then there is what Alinsky calls a bit of a blurred vision of a better world

I like this. It goes without saying that an organiser must be good at organising and, of course, this generally suggests the ability to focus, an eye for detail and an understanding of priorities. All important, I know – but these are the forte of the machine, the realms where robots rule.

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That blurred vision of a better world is a distant ill-defined image of something bigger that is worth reaching for, that makes all the blood, sweat and tears worthwhile and gives life meaning. Many of the greatest advances in human history have come about because someone believed life could be different, because someone dreamt that the world could somehow become a better place.

Almost completing the list we have ego and a free and open mind

Ego is a difficult concept but I think that Alinsky uses it to describe self-belief, the confidence to overcome doubt in order to do what needs to be done. And, of course, it takes a lot of confidence to stand comfortably in the shoes of others. If you believe in yourself you can live with the knowledge that the world is an uncertain place, that values are relative and that, no matter how much you think you know, there is much that you still have to learn. You may even have the strength of mind to entertain the possibility that you might be wrong.

And finally, there is communication

One can lack any of the qualities of an organizer – with one exception – and still be effective and successful. That exception is the art of communication. It does not matter what you know about anything if you cannot communicate to your people. In that event you are not even a failure. You’re just not there.

Communication with others takes place when they understand what you’re trying to get across to them. If they don’t understand, then you are not communicating regardless of words, pictures, or anything else.

Almost half a century has passed since Saul Alinsky set out these ideas in Rules for Radicals and I freely admit that I may have taken just a few liberties in my interpretation of them here. Nevertheless, I think the central tenet of my argument still stands: if in our schools we can encourage the growth and development of the kind of person whose greatest joy is creation, the robots will never win.

Where’s the fun in that?

No Fun at All

I have a confession to make. A few years ago I banned fun in my school.

Let me give you a little context. I was speaking to all of our teachers, teaching assistants and support staff at the very start of the first INSET session of the new school year. My reasoning was straightforward: I wanted fun to be superseded by joy.

Please appreciate that, at least as far as the ban was concerned, my tongue was planted firmly in my cheek – I hope there will always be plenty of time set aside for fun in any school. I did want to make the point, though, that joy is something deeper and more meaningful.

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Like most of my best ideas this one was stolen: during the summer break I’d watched a fascinating interview between Sir Michael Barber and Sir Dave Brailsford. If you’re interested you can find it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XOLuMRya4OM

In the interview Sir Michael asks if, given the brutal training regime, the high stakes and the physical demands of racing, there could ever be any fun in competitive cycling. in reply Brailsford suggests that at the time of execution all endurance sports are painful but that there’s a feel-good factor in getting it right and that afterwards you can never quite re-live the pain. He then goes on to consider the difference between fun, which he sees as something fleeting and shallow, and joy – something much more lasting and profound, something earned and richly deserved.

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You don’t have to be an Olympic medallist or to have worn the maillot jaune to understand what Brailsford is getting at here. We have all found ourselves in situations where we have had to work hard to achieve a challenging goal. Think of the young pianist practising alone for all those hours before stepping out into the spotlight to perform a difficult piece in front of an audience, or the swimmer who completes length after painful length in early morning training before representing the school in a must-win race.

And the same applies in the classroom. The things that come easy to us tend not to be the things that give us the greatest pleasure or the greatest sense of achievement.

I said that this was a few years ago. At the start of this academic year one of my teachers introduced me to an intriguing twist to the concept. He is a keen climber and when he’s not teaching Chemistry he can usually be found hanging on by his finger-tips or dangling from the end of a rope on some impossible cliff-face. He is also an avid fan of those who have pushed the boundaries of his sport. During the holidays, probably in some mountainside bivouac, he had watched a short National Geographic film about the adventures of two extreme climbers in Antarctica, Mike Libecki and Cory Richards. Again, if you want to see the clip – and you really should – you can find it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EULc7RgnM4c

In the film Libecki and Richards describe their attempt to complete a ridiculously challenging climb in the most remote and inhospitable region on the planet. As you can imagine, just getting to the starting point is no easy feat and as for reaching the summit…

They come up with a great expression for all that effort and pain and fear – they call it pre-joy.

It’s an expression I’m going to use a lot this year, admittedly in much less trying circumstances. All that violin practice? Pre-joy. Fitness training every morning? Pre-joy. Hours of exam revision? Pre-joy.

I’m looking forward to all the joy to come here at school this year!

The Moriumius Project: Rekindling Happiness from Devastation

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I am always pleased when I can persuade one of our students to contribute to this blog, and I am delighted that Kyoka Hadano has taken up the challenge with this reflection on the Y12 trip to Ogatsu at the end of last term to work with the wonderful Moriumius Project…

The lunch table abuzz with anticipation, thirty-odd hungry seventeen-year-olds stare greedily at the plates that lie before them – fresh sea pineapples barely hours old, homemade sausages and bowls of rice they cooked themselves in hand-cut bamboo over a wood fire.

However, the elderly Japanese locals amidst them gently advise them to refrain from immediately tucking in. “We must thank nature for the ingredients of our meal,” they say. “We must thank the people who grow and harvest these vegetables, this fish, this rice. Our meals are made with love. And for that, we say itadakimasuwe humbly receive.” Everyone gently bows over their dish and repeats this Japanese grace.

“Now, let’s eat!” Laughter and lively chatter ensue.

This scene takes place by Kuwahama Elementary School, built almost a century ago using traditional Japanese construction techniques and local Ogatsu inkstone. It is difficult to believe that until just recently, this school had lain abandoned at the top of a hill for nearly a decade, having closed in 2002.

The school overlooks a valley largely dominated by a vast construction area, where the occasional piece of debris – a broken plate, a saucepan lid – is the only evidence that this had been populated in the past. Scarcely six years ago, this had been part of Ogatsu, a bustling coastal town where fishermen rose before dawn to bring catches of sea urchins and oysters, and children sat pencil in hand before blackboards in classrooms. Then one March afternoon, the town was obliterated in just a few hours by a 19 metre tall black wave that also dragged away livelihoods, homes and 236 lives. This region of coastal north-eastern Japan was one of the worst affected under the 2011 earthquake and tsunami.

Gentaro Yui, founder of the educational theme park KidZania in 2004, came upon Kuwahama Elementary School as a volunteer following the natural disasters, helping to deliver food and emergency supplies to those in need. Discovering how valuable the school had once been to the local community, he saw an opportunity to restore it to its former glory.

Two tough years of renovations ensued, involving the hard work and energy of up to five thousand volunteers from all over Japan. The restored facility, named the Moriumius Project, retains key aspects of its former identity as a rural primary school – with its original clock above the entrance and blackboards down the corridors. But looking closely, one observes subtle changes: the school canteen converted into a stylish dining area, with sliding glass panels opening onto a terrace; tastefully designed dormitories that had once been classrooms.

The Moriumius Project is designed to be sustainable and environmentally friendly. Drainage water is recycled and baths are heated by a traditional wood stove, with biodegradable soap and toothpaste. Ingredients for meals are sourced locally, with fresh seafood, rice grown in nearby paddy fields with livestock such as pigs, goats and chickens also situated in the facility.

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In late June, thirty one Year 12 students from the British School in Tokyo came to stay at the facility. Our mornings would start by a routine clean, with everyone picking up traditional dusters and brooms to tidy up yesterday’s mess. We collected eggs, walked the goats and cooked our own rice and miso soup in traditional iron kama pots over an outdoor stove. Every meal would begin with itadakimasu – a humble thanks to nature and the people who helped to get the food on our plates.

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It was a wonderful opportunity for us to help the local people of Ogatsu. We cleaned barnacles off buoys and nets, removed weeds and helped at the community rose garden, created to memorialise those who passed away in the 2011 tsunami. The kindness of the local people was heart-warming: seeing that we were sweaty, they would drop by to give us cold tea, ice cream and plates of amayaki cakes. Some of us also created an art piece alongside the guidance of Sky, the artist-in-residence at the time: a painting of the Ogatsu pier, made with our very own handmade recycled paper over traditional ink stone slates from the area.

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In the space of five days, we came to appreciate the importance of helping others, and how simply one can adopt a sustainable means of life. But most importantly, staying at Moriumius put into perspective the terrible disaster of 2011, and how we can all work to make a difference. In Japan there are many sad stories of nature and its power to destroy, but the story of Moriumius is a happy one.

Kyoka Hadano (Year 12)

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To learn more about the amazing work of Gentaro’s team and the Moriumius Project, please visit their website: http://moriumius.jp/en/ 

…or take a look at the Project’s YouTube channel: