If people had not heard of the Taylor Wessing prize before last week, there is at least a reasonable chance that they have now. It is a prize for photography at the National Portrait Gallery in London. On the front page of the Times last week was one of the photographs shortlisted for this prize, a photo taken by a man called Maija Tammi, of an almost unimaginably human like robot called Erica the android. The reason that this was a newsworthy item was that the rules of the competition state that “all photographs must have been taken by the entrant from life and with a living sitter”. Erica the android is certainly not alive, in our human sense of the word, but she is undoubtedly very human like to look at. She can also talk to people about various topics, such as what she likes to do in her free time (she apparently says she likes cinema) though admittedly her mouth and indeed the rest of her body doesn’t move in a realistic way. You can look her up on YouTube, if you have not already, though it would help if you speak Japanese. If you do look it up, bear in mind that its creator, Hiroshi Ishiguro, made her back in 2015. Technology is advancing extremely quickly and two years can be a long time; these robots are only likely to become more lifelike.
What followed in the Guardian this week is an essay on what it is to be human. Are we moving towards a position where robots and humans are virtually indistinguishable? Or is there something unique and impossible to replicate about being a human. This, too, is an interesting read, and I recommend it. Again, you can find it online.
However, for me the appearance of Erica the android provides yet another reminder, a demand even, that we assess carefully what a young person’s education must look like today in order to prepare that young person for world of tomorrow. As I mentioned briefly last term, our Governors spent a day in the summer thinking about what sort of skills and attributes young children – and we teach from the age of 7, of course – will need to be taught at school in order to best place them for employment in 20 years’ time. It is an exciting time to be young and full of great possibilities for you all. In my opinion there are two extreme versions of future employment and then a whole spectrum in between. At one extreme end is the thought that technology will take over completely and that we must be educating children today to a high technological specification so that you can compete in the outside world. At the other end is the thought that there is no point in competing with robots on things which can be done in a robotic way; but that instead we should seek to be as uniquely human as possible and play to our own strengths. I think as a school, we are extremely good at the human bit. We teach you to live life by your values (something, incidentally, which might be uniquely human); to be social and able to get along with others; to be presentable, helpful, empathetic. We aim, in short, to help you to grow into men of integrity, who will find a way to get along and be happy and successful in a human world. And I am pleased to be completely confident that there will ALWAYS be a place for this in your world. We are probably only emerging at the other end of the extreme. In other words, our technological education, good in many ways in comparison to lots of other schools, is not as advanced as it might be or might need to be. One of my aims during the course of this year is to look at how we can improve on that front. It also occurs to me that it is probably the only time in educational history where pupils often know more than their teachers. What a unique opportunity this presents! So I invite you therefore to join me for a few open doors this term and to let me know what you think you may need technologically post-Bedford which we do not already provide. What do you think the future of education should look like? Please watch out for notice of a seminar date – and come along and contribute to the future of education at Bedford School.