Sunday 23 June 2024

Nuanced Global Education

I'm at Beijing Normal University's Zhuhai campus. It's incredibly hot and humid, and I'm preparing for classes which I will give over the next 5 days. It's an opportunity to try things out, particularly with a large group of students whose interests are fundamentally in education. The course is about interdisciplinarity and AI, and very closely related to the course I set up at the Far Eastern Federal University in Vladivostok a few years ago.

The real change AI could bring to education is a massive increase in the ability to handle the variety of individual differences and interests. Variety, or the inability to handle it, is the principal reason why education is not very good a lot of the time. Institutions are basically heavy attenuators of variety. AI could change that. But will we let it?

I have a number of tools to help me explore this. The first is an "expert generator" - choose a topic and it will introduce you to an "expert" with whom you can explore that topic. So what topics really interest you? Bitcoin mining? Dog grooming? Drug rehabilitation? Stress? The challenge will be to get students to open up about what they're really interested in.

I've got other tools for exploring how working practices will change. Things becoming more compressed - workflows collapsing. And there is the whole business of science and expertise and learning. If I can get a transcript of a YouTube video of an eminent scientist presenting their work, and I can load the transcript into an AI, and then ask the AI to explain it to me, do we need teachers? I had a fascinating discussion with AI about this question today, particularly discussing whether AI could do what Yves Chevallard calls "didactic transposition" (i.e. turning scientific discourse into teachable knowledge). AI can do this, but (the AI pointed out), its explanation may miss the "nuance of understanding". True. But then when do we teach teachers to reveal their nuanced understanding?? We have taught them to "deliver" - how many teachers even in universities have a nuanced understanding of what they teach?

We will finish the session by getting the students to act out a drama (generated by AI) around a future education scenario. I did this with 200 students last year. It was great fun. Drama is a very powerful tool - we should use it more across the curriculum. How could you do a drama in physics? (Remember Mr Tompkins, anyone?). What about chemistry? Or maths?

Nuanced understanding is lived experience, and in many ways it is "dramatic". My music professor Ian Kemp had it. He once explained why Bartok wrote one of his quartets. "This is why!" he said as he put up an acetate of a photograph of a woman. "The first thing to say is..." - there was a pause - "what remarkably good taste he had!". He knew what made the world go round, and that would get our attention. But it's not in any textbook. It's in the way we do things. I have to convey this kind of nuance this week. I have to convey that the underlying principle of the universe is love. It's the hardest thing to do. Especially if you're meant to be talking about AI!

Wednesday 19 June 2024


So I'm on my way. CX256 in fact. And it's a beautiful day. I had to pop in to the office this morning to pick up a couple of gadgets which I want to take with me. Even turning up early in Manchester means interesting people to talk to. So an early morning conversation about Goethe and Pierre Bourdieu with the person who has part-organised my trip, and a brief conversation with my wonderful office companion. I've just applied for a new job in a different faculty - but I really like where I am, even if I'm "hiding" as an academic. I'll also see my daughter briefly in London before I go to Heathrow. These things are important. It's all heart stuff really (even Goethe!)

When I'm in china, I will meet with old friends and colleagues from Bolton, as well as meet with a Manchester colleague in Guangzhou to play table tennis. That'll be fun! And maybe a trip to Dalian to see a Russian friend. 

The world is in so much trouble right now. I'll return to the UK to a new government that will face a lot of problems. But... the heart stuff! I'm tempted to say "think about the heart stuff"... But really we just need to feel it.

And talking of heart, here's the next stage of my journey. Pub lunch in Euston with Izzie..

Having a bit of a giggle about her destruction of a piano 16 years ago...

Tuesday 18 June 2024

Brain Stuff and Heart Stuff

Being cerebral is an academic affliction. Being in touch with emotions, speaking from the heart, is not something that comes easily to academics. This may be because brain-stuff resides in words which can be codified, and used (sometimes as weapons) in articulating and defending ideas. Heart-stuff has to be experienced, and sometimes it hurts. Nobody likes to be hurt, and so we tend to inoculate ourselves against heart-stuff in favour of brain-stuff, which is where the academic affliction begins. Freud would call it "sublimation". Even Freud's label is brain-stuff rather than heart-stuff.  

I'm about to travel to China, and I'm reminded of the last international trip I made to Morocco a couple of months ago. I came back emotionally hurt in a way that hasn't happened for a very long time. I wasn't alone in experiencing pain, which made it worse. I'm naturally apprehensive about this trip, although I'm sure it will be fine, and I like China. I'm returning to Beijing Normal University's Zhuhai campus to deliver a course on "Non-Linear Learning" (it's really about AI), and then to Manchester's academic centre in Hong Kong to deliver a masterclass on AI and Cybernetics. The masterclass is deeply related to my Morocco experience. I need to think of a way of making it "sing" - so I'm taking my Roli Seaboard as a pedagogical tool. 

One thing that I've reflected on in recent weeks is that heart-stuff may be very uncomfortable, but it is extremely important to experience and be reminded of the central importance of our emotions. It is in fact a privilege to experience it and I am "lucky" to feel the pain. It's all a bit like Orpheus's severed head floating down the river Hebrus, refusing to stop singing. It would be far worse to succumb to emotional inoculation and live merely cerebrally - then the singing stops. 

Academics don't sing enough. This is probably why they get into silly battles with each other about concepts that few understand. The "Cyprus experiment" in Brave New World is the classic example - the experiment by a utopian society to gather the most brilliant minds on the island of Cyprus to create an intellectual powerhouse. What happened? Civil war - they all killed each other.

Saturday 15 June 2024


Nature is asymmetrical. But its asymmetry is critical in its maintaining of life. Big animals eat small animals. But they never eat all of them. Only we are mad enough to even think of doing that. 

Communication is also asymmetrical. This blog is public.. (although what I say is often quite personal) Sometimes I get quite personal responses to it from friends. It is a kind of conversation - a public act, a private response. It occurred to me that the relationship is a bit like planets and the sun. The sun, for example, illuminates and heats everything. He's (any harm in gendering this?) pretty public. A planet like venus on the other hand internalises the sun's heat. The sun's heat is public. Venus's heat is private. 

But there are things which the internal heat of venus can say which the sun can't - partly because it is private. But there is a conversation. They can understand each other. All they need to do is to understand the context of the other. What venus says she knows will be understood by the sun. What the sun says he knows will be understood by venus. It is a story. A dialogue. More than this it is an ecology - an asymmetric relationship of mutual understanding. 

Now there is more to say about this communication and the story it unfolds. It is not about words. Of course, both the sun and venus (if we see them as people) choose words - the sun's public words, venus's private words. But if it was just words, the relationship wouldn't work. The words are really a vehicle for expressing the deep insides of each person (planet!) . Relationships work by revealing how we're made to each other. Sometimes we might think "God I didn't realise you were made like that!!" and the relationship will stop. But sometimes something magical happens in these asymmetric situations and the relationship nourishes each person and grows, despite all the barriers presented by the symmetrical imbalance. 

Words are not the thing. Maturana and Varela were right to say there is no such thing as "information" in the sense of messages or signals which are exchanged. What we conceive of as information is the result of the internal biological processes of organisms coordinating their development in an environment which they could not know objectively. But we can know each other by revealing how each of us is made. 

Nature's asymmetry works like this. The flower reveals how it is made to the bee and vice versa. Each know each other deep down because they are made of the same cell-stuff which has a common origin. I think that without that common origin, no relationship would be possible. 

But there's a refinement to Maturana which I think is important. It is common among constructivists to say that "information" and "knowledge" are constructed. But the construction process must arise somehow. It is the mechanism which selects actions, utterances, movements, etc, which is constructed, and a selection mechanism must be able to anticipate the likely consequences of its selection. It must, in other words, contain a model of itself and its environment. To not have this would render any selection impossible. To select a word is to be able to anticipate the likely effect of that word in a world which we only have a model of. What is such a model? I think it is a fractal recursion of everything in everything. 

But I began with planets, not plants. Planets are not made of cells. But the stuff of planets gives rise to plants and cells. So the asymmetry of nature must extend back to physics and chemistry, and from physics it becomes biology. Does the sun understand venus and venus understand the sun? Well, planets do not appear to have an internal selection mechanism: they obey what appear to us to be deterministic laws. Yet behind those deterministic laws lie the profound asymmetries of quantum mechanics. Conscious rocks? I'm not sure any more. But the relationship between the local and non-local in quantum mechanics would suggest that nothing that happens in a rock locally doesn't have some non-local correlate. That's the asymmetrical balance of everything. We humans are merely manifestations of it.

Thursday 13 June 2024

Beautiful things

I've got a longer post to write, but some things are just very beautiful. In the meantime here is a picture on the theme of "hot words"...

Sunday 9 June 2024

Breathing Poetry

This is a bit geeky, but I haven't played with my Roli Seaboard for some time - partly because it developed a fault which required some delicate soldering. Now it's back, and I am rediscovering it. Also the music technology to support it has got a lot better. Ableton Live now supports Multidimensional Polyphonic Expression (without the trouble of creating lots of independent tracks) and that is a bit of a game-changer for me.

When I first ran the Global Scientific Dialogue course in Russia in 2018, the Roli seaboard was a key tool that I used to illustrate the point about redundancy (which I have always seen as key to machine learning). Now I see it as a powerful demonstration of geometric algebra, which I think is the deeper structure within which redundancy fits. It is the geometric algebra of the Roli seaboard which makes it so expressive - and which makes all music making expressive. 

When I wrote this paper on music with Leydesdorff ( I was interested in the multidimensional data of expression produced by the instrument and did some simple analysis. Now I think I could do more to illustrate the point. The action of playing the instrument perfectly illustrates the distinction between scalars and vectors. Noise of the environment or feedback from the instrument informs the note selection, which is constrained in various ways, and which expands itself through interaction with itself and with others. And the really important thing is: it breathes. 

AI is driven by redundancy, but it doesn't breathe. And we tend not to breathe when we get excited about the technology. But not breathing is death.

Good poetry, music and art always breathes. AI can write clever poems, but they don't breathe like the work of great artists. In poetry, it is love poems which illustrate this most clearly. Consider this love sonnet by Pablo Neruda:

I don’t love you as if you were a rose of salt, topaz,   
or arrow of carnations that propagate fire:   
I love you as one loves certain obscure things,   
secretly, between the shadow and the soul.
I love you as the plant that doesn’t bloom but carries   
the light of those flowers, hidden, within itself,   
and thanks to your love the tight aroma that arose   
from the earth lives dimly in my body. 
I love you without knowing how, or when, or from where,   
I love you directly without problems or pride:
I love you like this because I don’t know any other way to love,
except in this form in which I am not nor are you,   
so close that your hand upon my chest is mine,   
so close that your eyes close with my dreams.

The breathing in this is powerful and visceral. How do words (mere words!) do this? I think it is because when we speak, and particularly when we talk about deep feelings, the words just illuminate how we are made inside. Poets reveal their inner physiology to others. That is also why we love the people we do. We don't love them for their turn of phrase! We love them for the way they're made.

AI can only do words. But all that is illuminated by its word selection is the ingenuity of its mechanism, and the breathless enthusiasm of its proponents. For proponents like me I must remember this. To have been blessed by love is to be reminded of what really matters.

Saturday 8 June 2024

Gathering Strangers

Every morning I walk through Whitworth Park on my way to work. At night it's quite an eerie place, the light from the art gallery shining like a beacon among the trees, and there is a sign above the gallery which says "Gathering of Strangers". Increasingly I feel that there are no strangers in the world. We are all connected. 

I had a weird and sad experience the other day because I had been watching the videos from the ANPA conference in 2020 (about which I wrote in the last blog). Why was I thinking about ANPA? Because I was thinking about astrology and physics and knew that Colin Rourke had presented on this. Why was I thinking about astrology? Because I'd had some powerful experiences for which astrological explanations are helpful and soothing. All of these things were necessary for me to start thinking particularly about how brilliant the contributions were from John Williamson - a remarkable physicist from Glasgow. I was first introduced to his work by my PhD supervisor Oleg Liber, who met John at the UK cybernetics society conference. John had been presenting on the fundamental importance of light in physics which formed the cornerstone of his work. I also knew John was ill. Very sadly, and almost at the same time as I was thinking about all this, he died. Far too young. 

He'd been doing remarkable work - particularly in chemistry. (That too is connected to my astrological interest). This is him talking at the 2021 ANPA conference about sub-quantum chemistry. Very noticeable how he sees quantum mechanics as music. We got on very well! The physics is not easy stuff though - but he had spent his life thinking about it, and he definitely knew what he was doing. He was also very interested in education, and wanted to work with me on developing a learning platform around his ideas. We never got around to it.  But now we have AI... and the transcripts from these talks can be easily processed, and re-explained by the technology. This may be important as we move away from traditional forms of academic communication towards more human and trust-oriented scientific practices.  

So I suppose this has put me in a mood which is both optimistic, and melancholic. There are people I am missing very deeply at the moment. And there is a lot going on which is stopping me getting too morbid. It will all work out ok. We are all connected after all. I even started something called "Gathering strangers". No strangers have gathered yet though... But maybe they will. 

But here is "Whitworth Park in the Dark" in the "Claire de lune"...