Bryan Appleyard Returns to Bolton School for Tillotson Lecture
Friday, 11 October 2013
Old Boy Bryan Appleyard, successful journalist and author, returned to his former school to speak at the prestigious Marcus Tillotson Lecture. His lecture, ‘The Rise of the Machines’ provided an opportunity for an audience of almost 300 pupils, parents, former parents and friends of the School to listen to and engage with a leading literary figure and one of the School’s most gifted alumni. The presentation focused on how, more and more, we are living our lives through machines and would be lost without them, noting that this was particularly the case with young people, many of whom live their lives through Facebook. He observed that machines suck information out of us and want to predict what we want to do next. He cited Netflix as an example and how they predict what film you want to watch, and also how Amazon will predict your next purchase – yet we have become accustomed to this and increasingly cannot function without our machines! He spoke of how when he left Cambridge University he was part of a counter-culture generation, yet youth today seems much more standardised and supine, saying: “We are in danger of losing the here and now – always obsessed with answering messages and texts!”
During his talk, Bryan criticised the boss of Google, Eric Schmidt, who said: “Google is more than a business. Google is a belief system”. However, Bryan’s view was: “don’t believe this nonsense! Google is only a business – a massive advertising agency in fact.”
Bryan took the audience through a fascinating whirlwind tour of life-changing machines, including Newcomen’s 1712 steam engine, Charles Babbage’s Difference Machine and Shannon’s Ultimate Machine; he also talked about how Brunel reshaped the world through technology, Oppenheimer and the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, and the work of Alan Turing who was highly influential in the development of Computer Science.
Looking to the future, he quoted Vernon Vinge (Professor of Maths and Science Fiction writer) who said: “Within thirty years, we will have the technological means to create superhuman intelligence. Shortly after, the human era will be ended." He also referenced the views of Ray Kurzweil on a future world which is post- human, and discussed how in the US, the ‘Rapture’ (from the Book of Revelations) is widely accepted, particularly by fundamental Christians, some of whom believe we are already in the ‘end of times’. He also referred to Jaron Lanier (American writer, computer scientist, and composer of classical music) and T Bone Burnett (musician and producer) who are both advocating how the internet has destroyed and is destroying the music industry. Bryan looked at quotes from CS Lewis and Wordsworth and how they foretold the dangers of machines.
At the end of the lecture the audience had the opportunity to take part in a Question and Answer session. When asked about the dangers of iPads at Bolton School, Bryan said that iPads are not the danger nor is technology when it is used merely as a tool, and it would be foolish to cut off pupils from the real world – but we, humans, must exercise caution and common sense, saying: “the best safety net against machines taking us over is common sense!”
Bryan is an internationally recognised speaker and writer on a wide range of topics and issues. After leaving Bolton School in 1969 he read English at Kings College, Cambridge. Subsequently, he has been a special feature writer for the Times and a number of other publications. He is currently a special feature writer at the Sunday Times and writes for the New Statesman and The Economist’s Intelligent Live Magazine. He is also the author of a number of books including ‘Understanding the Present’, an account of changes in the understanding of Science, and ‘The Brain is Wider than the Sky’ which is an account of our relationship with machines, specifically the move from machines that aim to improve the human condition to machines that aspire to change human nature.