Intelligence: artificial and otherwise

Posted on: 01 Nov 2023
Posted by: Jo Sharrock

As world leaders gather for an AI summit at Bletchley Park, Jo Sharrock, head of Putney High School GDST, discusses the impact of this technology and the importance of understanding how the human mind works.

Could you remember your best friend’s phone number or recite your favourite poem? I think these days, few of us could. Being proud owners of shiny pocket computers, needing to recall a simple phone number really isn’t a thing.

In today’s fast-paced world of time-saving tech, the old grey cells simply don’t need to work in the same way anymore. Our phones allow us to recall a vast range of information at the swipe of a finger (or Siri command); reminders pop up in our busy schedules and the weekly shop can be ordered and delivered in an instant. In fact, for Gen Z there is something rather passé about making phone calls at all. BeReal and Snapchat keep everyone right on the pulse and for the rest of us, an array of Web Chat, WhatsApp, Chat GPT and even the humble SMS mean needing to recall a phone number (or even write your own blog!) might be considered a largely wasted effort.

The efficiencies and time-saving opportunities presented by artificial intelligence are woven into the fabric of our lives and generally warmly welcomed (even the most digitally reluctant would acknowledge the convenience of predictive text, Google search or a Netflix algorithm). At Putney we embrace technology and innovation with a “modern scholarship” approach to learning that prepares students for the world they will enter, not the bygone era we might nostalgically recall.

Our Innovation Hub buzzes with ideas as students problem solve using computing, maths and physics (combined with some impressive entrepreneurial thinking!) and see brilliant designs spring magically to life. And while they explore these exciting innovations, they also pause to consider the pay-offs, with lively discussion on the ethics of non-human generated art, literature and decision-making, popular topics in the Debating Forum and PPE.

For those uneasy with the startling pace of change, the robots themselves are keen to reassure us. At the AI for Good Global Summit in Geneva this summer, AI-enabled humanoid robots stood alongside their human inventors to reassure an assembled public that they had no intention of replacing humans, programmed and controlled as they are by human brains. How long that will be the case is a subject for conjecture, and rightly one which world leaders will discuss this week at Bletchley Park. But what about the day-to-day impact on our brains of all these effort-saving innovations? Amid all the talk of machine learning have we lost sight of own human programming abilities— the workings of memory and the enormous potential of our own inbuilt computers?

At Putney, these questions are (quite literally!) at the forefront of our minds. Learning how to make better use of our powerful frontal lobes is the focus of a Science of Learning curriculum which is already having impressive outcomes in recall and results. We know that a grounding in neuroscience can benefit students in helping them to embed and retrieve learnt knowledge. Using proven techniques, we teach them how to free space in their working memories and when it comes to exam time, how to reactivate the neural patterns that will literally “bring to mind” the details they need.

Together with universities, other GDST schools and with educational experts around the world, we are informing the discussion of what the students of the 21st century need from their education to grow into happy, healthy and confident young adults. And amid so much talk of exam reform we are providing the tools and techniques to help them adapt and thrive, whatever the world throws at them.

AI is a revolution that is here to stay. We should embrace its opportunities while teaching our young people how to harness its power to enhance, rather than inhibit, the development of their own beautiful human minds.

So, although the jury might be out on whether the world is heading for a Pandora’s Box of its own making, I believe the future is looking exceedingly bright. Let’s focus our time and energy on our very human attributes and use our empathy, creativity and intelligence to their fullest potential, to properly understand the power not just in our pockets, but in the place where it all began – our very human heads.

About Jo Sharrock

Jo Sharrock is head of Putney High School GDST.