Professor Alice Gast reflected on the need for judgement and empathy in times of tremendous change in her annual address to the Imperial community.
We will not stop promoting our values, celebrating our diversity and forging new connections around the world. Professor Alice Gast President
Speaking to an audience of staff, students, alumni and friends, Professor Gast said: “In this time where the quality of public discourse has eroded, and where facts are sometimes used selectively, I think it is important to reflect on honesty and candour. And, while we grow accustomed to talking to machines as well as people we should bring out other human values like empathy, respect and judgement.”
In times of change and uncertainty we must keep focus on our values, listen to others, learn from one another, be understanding, and be conscious of our humanity and our biases, Professor Gast said.
Machines changing our world
Professor Gast spoke about the potential for artificial intelligence and machine learning to improve our lives, but how this means that our human values take on ever greater importance: “Every week we read about new things machines can do. They aid us in analysing medical scans, optimising our farming, improving customer service. Clearly, AI has the potential to transform many sectors in ways we cannot yet see.”
“Computers may be able to amplify our insights by threshing through large amounts of information quickly and efficiently, yet they do not replace human understanding, emotion or empathy. Our human attributes and our core values are more important than ever.”
The role of educators
Reflecting on the role of educators, she said: “We need to educate our students about AI and machine learning. We need to ensure that they are able to thrive in a world where mastery of data science, and machine learning is an advantage.
“I think that, above all, we teach students to use good judgement.
“Judgement comes from combining knowledge with context and empathy. We strive for these things as humans and as educators. We wish to impart knowledge, we wish to do so in the right context for considered and sensible decision making, and we wish to have empathy for others.”
Human judgment can be flawed, Professor Gast acknowledged, and humans can hold biases, which must be dealt with. She explained: “Awareness of our inherent and unconscious biases is the first step to overcoming them. Perhaps this is the area where human-machine collaboration can help us the most. The highly analytical approach of a machine may be a good complement to our messy emotional ‘gut’ reactions.”
“Maybe we can benefit from combining the best of human judgement and empathy with the best of a computer’s speed and efficiency.”
Listening and understanding
One of Imperial’s greatest strengths is its international diversity, Professor Gast said: “We should do more to purposefully learn about one another and to celebrate our broad range of experiences and heritages. We must defend the privilege of welcoming a diverse community from around the world, and, we must listen to one another.
“The best way to understand and respect people is to listen to them. People everywhere want respect and they want to be understood. Only in discussion will we find out what is helpful to them and what is not.
Professor Gast referred to the College’s work in White City, including the Invention Rooms – a pioneering innovation and community space, which opened in October last year. Programmes such as “What the Tech?”, Maker Challenges, and the W12 Fesival are allowing Imperial to reach local people of all ages and engage them with the College’s work, she said.
Imperial’s School of Public Health will soon be moving to the College’s White City Campus. Professor Gast said: “We have an important opportunity, not only to coalesce our great academic talent in public health, but also to bring research discoveries and educational programmes to address the serious health challenges in this community right on our doorstep. Our focus on prevention, early intervention and mental and physical health should have a noticeable impact on wellbeing.”
She continued: “Empathy is something we can each practice every day. It is important in our busy lives to stay in tune with those around us and to try to put ourselves in their shoes, and to listen.”
Imperial remains a European university, and it will vigorously defend its international values, professor Gast said: “We are working continuously and steadfastly to represent our community’s concerns to the Government, and to propose solutions to protect the status of our valued staff, students and collaborations as Britain exits from the EU.
“We will not stop promoting our values, celebrating our diversity and forging new connections around the world.”
Professor Gast spoke about the ongoing dispute over proposed changes to the USS pension scheme. She said that Imperial is listening to the concerns of its community about the USS pension scheme.
“The College has begun a wide dialogue on overall staff pay and benefits, to ensure that is equitable, fair and appropriately reflects the College’s standing as a world-leading university,” she said. “It has also engaged with the USS and the Pensions Regulator and called for a new approach that provides full transparency on the assumptions, data and modelling that have been used by the USS. Imperial Professors Richard Craster, Damiano Brigo and Axel Gandy will help with this analysis and look longer term at alternative approaches to pensions”.
“We are proud of our dedicated and talented colleagues, and we are committed to working together to find an appropriate Imperial response to this complex and challenging national issue.”
Professor Gast used the occasion to celebrate members of Imperial’s community who received external honours this year, including seven members of staff who were honoured in the Queen’s Birthday and New Year’s Honours lists:
- Helen Sharman was made a Companion of the Order of St Michael and St George
- Professors Michele Dougherty and Christl Donnelly were both awarded CBEs.
- Professors Derek Bell, Michael Levin and Tom Welton received OBEs.
- Paul Brown was awarded an MBE
She also paid tribute to Imperial alumnus Sir Roger Bannister and honouree Professor Stephen Hawking, who recently passed away. Professor Gast said: ”Their brilliant lives and profound influence remind us of the greatness we are surrounded by. Our thoughts are with their families.”
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