Good evening.

My address this evening is about judgement and empathy.

These are important topics in these times of change and uncertainty. An acute issue we are facing today is the future of the USS pension scheme. Many of our colleagues are earnestly expressing their concern about this. Finding a way forward on this challenging issue will take honesty, empathy, listening, good judgement, collaboration and compromise. These are themes throughout my address and I will return to the topic of pensions later in this context.

It is a special joy to gather each year to recognise our students, staff and alumni who have received external accolades for their contributions to society. These include 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

We are also proud of our many alumni who received national honours.

We mourn the loss of two of our great alumni, mentors and honourees, Sir Roger Bannister and Professor Stephen Hawking. Their brilliant lives and profound influence remind us of the greatness we are surrounded by.  Our thoughts are with their families.

Imperial staff, students, and graduates are great contributors to society. You all inspire us.

Congratulations to everyone honoured.

The many changes during the past several years have given us much to applaud and much to worry about.

We are faced with both opportunities and challenges. We find inspiration in our colleague’s accolades and yet we are disappointed by external forces.  We may have muttered from time to time, “What is the world coming to?”.

I doubt that a single phrase can capture these times. But the use of one phrase has gotten my attention.

I am fascinated by the way phrases come into common usage and make their way around the world. Recently, I have noticed many people, including public figures, colleagues, friends, family, Americans and Brits, using the phrase: "to be honest".  It has even entered the text world as tbh.  Sometimes, when I hear someone say, "to be honest", I wonder what they intend to emphasise.  Were the earlier parts of what they said not honest?

In a world where the truth is sometimes in short supply, it is interesting to me that we pepper our dialogue with “to be honest”.

Perhaps we use transitional phrases like “to be honest” to prepare the person we are speaking to that the next thing we say may be more brutally frank, more candid or more personal.  Maybe it is an indicator of empathy from the speaker saying, “brace yourself”. If “to be honest” is a marker for candour, we should encourage it.

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.

Machines changing our world

Some of you have heard me talk animatedly about artificial intelligence, or AI and machine learning and data sciences. I have been enthralled with the idea that a computer, AlphaGo, could use reinforcement learning and neural networks to come up with creative moves not seen in the thousand-year history of the game of Go.  The moves were “creative” because they were unexpected. They were different from those of Go Masters who learn from other Masters. AlphaGo had no such guidance about what to do and what not to do.  It could do moves that just “weren’t done” by well-mentored champions.

This accomplishment has been followed by many others.  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.

Our Imperial colleagues are using AI in their research in many exciting ways:

Professor Nick Jennings is working with Rescue Global to make critical disaster response efforts as efficient as possible;

Professor Maja Pantic’s work is helping autistic children to interact with a robot which can respond to audio, visual and facial expressions to help them through lessons;

Our Institute of Global Health Innovation under Lord Darzi’s leadership is pursuing a revolution in clinical task management that will save time and money, improve outcomes and ultimately save lives.

Technology is aiding our teaching and altering the way people learn.  I am pleased that our Vice Provost (Education) Professor Simone Buitendijk is taking advantage of digital innovation in Imperial’s Learning and Teaching Strategy.

Our world-leading experts have teamed up with Coursera to create three online courses in Maths for Machine Learning, that have opened up the possibilities of this revolution to a broad global audience. Many will benefit from this exciting curriculum on the mathematics underpinning the rapid advances in AI. 

We are at the forefront of preparing students for a world where artificial intelligence and data sciences are used in ways we do not yet foresee. Our new MSc in computing focuses on artificial intelligence and computational and engineering models of complex cognitive and social behaviours.

We will through our research and our teaching, define the trajectory of this field.

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.

John Thornhill recently wrote in the Financial Times about an AI program that cracked the Enigma code in less than 13 minutes.  This, of course, contrasts with the huge efforts of brilliant mathematicians at Bletchley Park during the war.  Yet Thornhill points out that “it came as further proof of the early intuition of Alan Turing … that computers can exhibit competence without comprehension.”

As Thornhill said in his article, “Machine intelligence can provide the right answer even when it does not fully understand the question.”

Answers without understanding. Competence without comprehension.

In this age of rapid advance in machines, what is our role as educators?

If computers can more effectively master large amounts of information, what is it that humans bring to the table?  What should we be teaching in our universities?  What is our added value and what do our students gain from their time with us?

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.  Those who can use computers to their advantage will excel.

Clearly, our students learn far more than data, information and repetitive tasks.  They gain a tremendous amount by not learning like a machine. Computers may outperform us in some tasks but are they able to exercise good judgement? Computers are not very good at judging the limits of their knowledge. They give answers without understanding.

I think that, above all, we teach students to use good judgement.

Judgement is defined as “the ability to make considered decisions or come to sensible conclusions”.  Considered and sensible. These are two important words: Consider means to “think carefully about something”, typically before making a decision. And sensible is “done or chosen in accordance with wisdom or prudence; likely to be of benefit”. 

Clearly wisdom, prudence and benefit to society are elements of a consciousness that humans bring to every blink reaction as well as to every long-pondered decision. 

I think that 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.

Context and empathy arise from listening and trying to understand those we don’t understand.  This comes to me in my travels as well as closer to home.

Context: Listening to the world around us

 “Where you stand depends on where you sit” is a phrase I hear from time to time, especially when faced with a new reality that causes me to look at something differently than before.  It’s known as “Miles Law,” named after Rufus Miles who was a member of the US President Eisenhower’s administration. It is sometimes criticised as being an excuse for narrowness.  I view it as an opportunity to “sit in someone else’s seat” or “walk a mile in someone else’s shoes” and to learn context and empathy.  I have a few examples of things that I have learned.

On a drive to Samarkand when I was US Science Envoy to Uzbekistan, I was somewhat taken aback by the frequent security checks where we had to stop and show our credentials.  My driver said he liked the roadblocks, that they made him feel safer.  Of course, who was I to impose my perspective of freedom on people who lived in such a different place?

I was similarly surprised at the Global Competitiveness Forum in Riyadh. I was talking to a young Saudi woman entrepreneur who had graduated from Brown University. She said that she liked wearing the Abaya and being with other women. For her, it was good to be “under the radar” where she felt free to speak frankly, perhaps more frankly than westerners in mixed company. Later at the forum, another woman entrepreneur won the fastest growing enterprise award to great applause and acclaim from audience.

I learn a lot from our Chinese collaborators.  I respect their round tables which are emblematic of their collegial approach to a meal. Our Chinese colleagues also get up from their seats and toast one another. Sharing each sip with a compliment to someone else, no matter what their role, is a very good thing to learn.

One of Imperial’s great strengths is its international diversity.  We learn a tremendous amount from one another.  If we listen to each other carefully, we can, in our own community, gain perspective and understanding that would otherwise require years of travel.  We benefit from these interactions in many subtle and subliminal ways.  We learn how people from different backgrounds think in ways that complement our own approaches.

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.

Empathy: Trying to understand those who we do not understand

Much closer to home, the stories recounted in the recent books: Hillbilly Elegy by JD Vance and Poverty Safari by Darren McGarvey open our eyes to groups of people whose lives are very different from our own.  In fact, some reviewers have trouble setting aside their judgements about the authors to listen to their message. No matter whether we like them or not, they depict, at least for me, a world that is totally unknown to me.

It is a world where we need to find ways to bridge the gap, a chasm really, between our ivory tower and their dangerous staircases.

The first step to bridging this chasm is listening. 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. 

This is what our team is doing in White City. We have opened the Invention Rooms and augmented our community engagement to reach older citizens through “What the Tech”, school children through Maker Challenges, and our neighbours through the W12 Festival and events with QPR and others.

Stress is pervasive throughout society. It has many sources. It is suffered in a variety of ways, and in a variety of circumstances.  We all deal with stress and we need to help one another find ways to reduce stress.

Reading Poverty Safari brings a whole new depth to the word stress.  People in poverty face challenges each and every day that many of us cannot begin to imagine.  Stress is the way of life.  Fear of violence, worry about money, every day, worry about food, shelter, family. 

Constant worry, constant stress, physical discomfort.  

We know that stress is an important factor in poor health. The lifespan of a London man can vary as much as 8.5 years depending on the level of deprivation in his community. Children suffer from asthma, tooth extractions, obesity and other chronic and preventable diseases. As we prepare to move our School of Public Health to White City 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.

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.


Listening needs to begin at home.

We are listening to the concerns from our community about the USS pension scheme.  It is frustrating to be in a complex situation involving multiple parties, where we have limited control. We supported the compromise proposed by UUK and UCU this week and are disappointed with the UCU rejection of it.  We remain committed to doing the things that are in our power. 

  1. We have started a wide dialog on overall staff pay and benefits, and have begun sharing data to inform that conversation. We affirm our position that Imperial College is committed to offering staff a pay and benefits package that is equitable, fair and appropriately reflects the College’s standing as a world leading University.
  2. We have called for a new approach that provides full transparency on the assumptions, data and modelling that have been used by the USS. We have engaged with the USS and The Pensions Regulator and we are pleased to see that UCU, UUK and other universities have responded to our call. Our own experts, Professors Richard Craster, Damiano Brigo and Axel Gandy have agreed to help us 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.


We are also aware of the great deal of uncertainty and concern caused by the Brexit negotiations. While we do not have certainty about the future, 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 remain firm in our position that we are a European University and we will vigorously defend our international community and our international values.

Our advocacy matters. We have seen in recent government statements that preserving the UK’s participation in EU research and educational exchange programmes is a priority.

We will not stop promoting our values, celebrating our diversity and forging new connections around the world.

Any negotiation, around Brexit or pension funding, requires give and take, and it requires understanding of both sides of the matter.  Listening, understanding context, having empathy for the other side’s perspective are all essential to resolution.

Human judgement and cognitive biases

No matter how effective machine learning makes them, our human consciousness gives us incredible attributes over computers. We have human judgement.

We also know from Kahneman and Tversky and other behaviourists that our judgement is flawed.  We hold innate biases and these affect our judgement. 

Admitting that we have inherent biases should become easier when we realise that these are neither conscious nor discriminatory choices.  Any conscious or purposeful biases must be dealt with and eliminated.

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.

Machines are not very good at knowing what they don’t know. We must be careful that they don’t perpetuate biases.  Maybe we can benefit from combining the best of human judgement and empathy with the best of a computer’s speed and efficiency. 


To be honest, I think that we are heading into a times of tremendous change.

I believe that we will probably find ourselves working more and more with artificially intelligent computers. This will affect us as individuals, as a community and as a society. As this happens, we should ensure that our human values permeate our community.

I have five thoughts to leave you with as we look toward the future.  I believe that we must:


Keep our focus on what we value – our students, our research and our benefit to society.  A quote from the late former MIT President Chuck Vest sums it up for me:

“Universities are our primary vehicle for educating talented men and women and for producing new knowledge, insight, and techniques. In order to serve well, universities must balance continuity and change — continuity of their deeper values and guiding principles, and commitment to intellectual excellence and the life of the mind, are essential.”


Listen to others – we need to individually and collectively listen to one another and to those whom we don’t understand well.  We need to be open to new voices from our neighbourhood and from the broader society. Our approach in White City is a start in this direction.


Learn from one another - we learn from our multicultural and international community. We must support our international community and strive to increase our diversity.


Understand others – we empathise with the pressures, personal stresses, and external forces affecting our students, colleagues, neighbours and world community. We should let that understanding guide our relationships with one another.


Be conscious of our humanity and our biases - we can work together collaboratively and collectively, and, perhaps, with the help of computers, ensure that our biases are not harming our judgement.

Our values, our judgement, our empathy, our listening and our understanding make us human. 

And our humanity will be all the more important in the years to come.

Professor Alice P. Gast

14 March 2018