“Into the Periphery”: TEDxCambridge University’s 2nd Salon

Darren Wong 29 November 2019
Image Credit: TEDxCambridgeUniversity Facebook

“Should some things stay in the periphery? How should we go about seeing or finding out about the periphery, if we do not know what we are unaware of?”

Our very own Union Interviews Editor Darren Wong reports on the TEDxCambridgeUniversity event, “Into the Periphery”, which took place on 19th November 2019.

After a successful first Salon, TEDxCambridgeUniversity held our second in the past week with the theme of “Into the Periphery”. Salons are smaller, dinner-party style events that bring the community in Cambridge together to talk about new, significant and often little-heard ideas. “Into the Periphery” seeks to explore the hidden and the forgotten, encouraging us to reconsider things you already know and to see things in a new light. Each of our four speakers spoke on a range of seemingly esoteric topics, ranging from the philosophy of artificial intelligence to the declining populations of hedgehogs in Britain, but alas, they belie certain relevant and important issues of today that we have not actively considered.

Image Credit: TEDxCambridge University Facebook

 

Professors Nicola Clayton and Clive Wilkins kickstarted the salon with a series of exciting performances, weaving stunning magic tricks into the insights on the psychology of the mind that were discussed. Both are members of the Department of Psychology at the University of Cambridge: Nicky is a Professor of Comparative Cognition, specialising in experimental psychology, while Clive is the Artist in Residence and performs magic with the Magic Circle.

“It’s the magician who has done the effects. Magic is not held in the hands of the magician, but within the minds of the audience. Magic reveals the blindspots in our thinking — we all see it, but none of us actually see it.” Introducing concepts not foreign to most, such as confirmation bias and egocentric bias, Nicky and Clive argued that we choose to see the world the way we choose it to be because of predictions shaped by expectations and past experiences. “We don’t remember what happens. What you remember becomes what happens”, as Nicky cites the examples of false memories and how people going through the same event can retrieve different memories.

“We don’t remember what happens. What you remember becomes what happens…”

The only thing we really know about is the present as much of our understanding of the world occurs in retrospection. Clive calls the present a “hypnotising event” — Is there really there? How do I know it is? Can I quantify it? — but then reassured the audience, “let’s not worry too much about it, for there will be a new present.”

Image Credit: TEDxCambridgeUniversity Facebook

“Call me Barry first. Once you emphasise my name and not the label of being formerly homeless, you’d have recognised me for me and it lets me move on with my life…”

“Call me Barry first. Once you emphasise my name and not the label of being formerly homeless, you’d have recognised me for me and it lets me move on with my life.” Our next speaker, Barry Griffiths, is the Communications Officer at Jimmy’s Cambridge since 2013, working with the local community, volunteers and partner agencies to deliver emergency accommodation for the homeless in Cambridge.

Sharing with the audience his personal experiences of losing the safe comfort of his abode and having to live on the streets, he asserted that “there is no wrong decision at the time you made it, just consequences to live with.” Homelessness in Cambridge continues to be a pressing societal problem, and Barry pointed out that this group of people has been systematically ignored in society. “Having a sign that says ‘My dog is hungry.’ is more effective than a sign that says ‘I am hungry’, because people will empathise with a dog more than a homeless individual!” Being on the streets relegates homeless individuals to a perennially submissive position that makes them prone to dehumanisation. On the one hand, people who are homeless have to learn the skills they lost on the streets, and re-engage with society while pushing through prejudices and closed doors. At the same time, Barry urged the audience to be genuine in speaking to people around us, even if it is just a simple greeting. “Saying hello opens up these doors.”

Image Credit: TEDxCambridgeUniversity Facebook

Speaking on the philosophy of artificial intelligence, Dr Henry Shevlin, Research Associate at the Centre for the Future of Intelligence at the University of Cambridge, continued to excavate the periphery with interesting dilemmas that he is encountering in his Consciousness and Intelligence project.

Could an artificial system ever come to possess genuine moral status? How would we know? While human and animal suffering should take priority, the swift technological advancement of artificial intelligence mandates the development of a framework for identifying and avoiding harms to it before the technology catches up. This is an area that has only recently emerged with recognition that artificial intelligence has progressed beyond what humans can effectively imagine, and will continue surpassing expectations. However, Henry cautioned against “assuming we’ll accurately recognise AI suffering when we see it… and reading too much into the ‘feelings’ of artificial intelligence”, and that we cannot “rely on future AIs simply telling us”. But if we cannot identify artificial suffering, how would we know when to respond in an appropriate and timely manner? As an initial strategy, Henry suggested linking existing animal welfare laws to AI protection, although he acknowledges that for now, “current AIs are still lacking in intelligence generally and cannot venture beyond trained tasks”.

“Current AIs are still lacking in intelligence generally and cannot venture beyond trained tasks…”

Image Credit: TEDxCambridgeUniversity Facebook

 

The final speaker, Hugh Warwick, an author and ecologists, enthusiastically presented videos and images of hedgehogs — winner of the UK natural emblem poll!

Despite the declining populations of hedgehogs in Britain, Hugh criticised how “we get upset when megafauna like elephants see a decline”, but not the small, ignored and benign, like the hedgehog. “I can promise it’s much easier to share a garden with hedgehogs!” His appeal to save hedgehogs on petition site ‘change.org’ has racked up more than 600 thousand signatures as he continues to share the importance of saving our hedgehogs. He passionately argued that “a business-as-usual approach will lead to extermination; people have to realise that a healthy ecosystem is a requisite of healthy economies!” Here, he introduced a novel initiative he called the “Hedgehog Street”, where neighbours create a more inclusive neighbourhood for hedgehogs to roam by forming holes “the size of a CD” between their gardens, and underscored the potential of such an initiative to bring the community together. “We have charismatic megafauna to get us to fall in love nature, but if we are lucky, we will fall in love with the boy or girl next door [referring to the relatively ignored hedgehog, which already exists in the same ecosystem as humans do].”

Before the end of the Salon, I directed several quick questions at our speakers. In the last Salon (with the theme of “Beyond the Veil”), I wanted to find out about our speakers’ experiences and emotions when communicating new perspectives to people who are not aware or indifferent to these ideas. This time, I asked our speakers if we should always categorically seek to explore the periphery and the unknown. In short, should certain things perhaps stay in the periphery? Unsurprisingly, the speakers were unanimous in their support for uncovering the periphery with a vengeance. “Basic scientific facts, ecosystems, the natural — we don’t have to change them. People have done things, like introducing ecotourism in nature, but [these natural elements] are part of the planet”. Everything else, however, should be challenged, and Hugh echoed Barry’s sentiments. “I don’t think there is anything we should not look at at all. We should look into the darkest corners and the darkest recesses of everybody’s minds and psyches. It’s just whether we choose to do anything about it that is the issue.” He raises the role of the scientist as someone who spends his lifetime “trying to prove everything else you’ve done is wrong” and that “if it’s wrong, you would then change your point of view.” However, Hugh notes that you need motivation to keep looking into the periphery: “the worry is that you become terrified of taking the risk at finding something wrong, and that’s when progress stops. So keep looking!”

“We should look into the darkest corners and the darkest recesses of everybody’s minds and psyches. It’s just whether we choose to do anything about it that is the issue…”

How should we then go about seeing or finding out about the periphery, if we do not know what we are unaware of?

Most of us are not privileged with the knowledge of specific issues to know what to think about or where to look for it; even someone with an in-depth understanding of something hidden or forgotten would have had to start somewhere! Nicola and Clive draws on their use of magic as an example of creative new methods for seeing. “If you don’t know where to go next, devising ways to trick the mind into seeing alternative viewpoints is a valuable way forward in order to overcome impasse.” Challenge preludes creativity. Just like how magic tricks and illusions question our sense of reality and imagination, putting ourselves in curious, confusing situations can expose the periphery as we reflect on our attempt to rationalise the situation. “Not only do you have an experiment you are working on, you become the experiment.”

Want to read about what happened at the first TEDxCambridgeUniversity Salon? Click here!