URSABLOG: Input/Output?

One afternoon this week I wandered over to my colleagues in the chartering department to ask for their advice on what certification was needed to clarify what dangerous cargoes a dry bulk carrier could carry. A couple of the guys were playing with the new ChatGTP platform and decided to put my question there. I was indeed surprised by the speed of the answer, and its relevance to the question, but it although it was long – as though it wanted to cover all angles – it didn’t directly answer my question. It suggested I took advice from a qualified ship manager  (which in fact I did), but it doing that it showed some basic but essential wisdom, i.e. it knew what it didn’t know.


What struck me after wandering back over to my desk was not only how quick an answer about a rather obscure and specialised corner of the shipping world was produced, but also how willing people were to automatically accept the results as the gospel truth. The fact that each of the accepted gospels are not entirely consistent with each other – leaving aside the many other apocrypha not included in the authorised version of the bible – led to reflect again on the words of Pontius Pilate (at least those recorded in John’s gospel): “What is truth?”


In reaching the truth, whatever that is, means being aware of the possibility of errors that may occur along the way. In my life, I can – and do – make many assumptions that may have proven correct in my experience but do not necessarily apply to the present; I have to consider fresh information, and have to satisfy myself that it is correct. This is easier in matters of fact, it is harder in matters of interpretation.


Even quantum computers – the most powerful computers that exist today – are subject to errors of processing. Normal computers are limited to binary switches, or bits, that can only be 0 or 1 at any one time have finite processing power before they grind to a halt. This power amazes me, but it has its limits, as anyone who has updated their older iPhone’s software too many times will know. You can make the processing (and the use of the power) more efficient, but this is ultimately restricted by the laws of physics, so the gains in efficiency become proportionally less as time goes on. Quantum computers are more advanced because instead of having bits have qubits, which (inspired by quantum physics) can be set to 0 and 1 at the same time, although because of this are unstable, which can lead to computing errors. One way to protect against such errors is to spread the information carried by one qubit elsewhere, and now in a breakthrough in quantum computing, a Google company has shown it can spread the information over many more qubits, the ultimate goal being to maintain indefinitely one qubit’s worth of information—a “logical” qubit—by encoding it on 1,000 physical ones.


I don’t wish to get lost in the labyrinths of computer science, but there seems to be a direct parallel here to how markets, and indeed societies work. “Scaling: an idea to be shared across a community of minds will smooth out the clunky bits, refine it and improve it. The most advanced computing system known to humankind is, er, a human being, specifically the human brain. The ability of a brain to process, store, share and compute information, ideas and concepts – as well as emotions and esoteric things like beauty, passion, horror and pity – and on top of that create stuff, is unparalleled. Our understanding of how it works is limited, and unravelling its complexities and functions is still at a very early stage. In the quest for AI, or machine learning (for want of a better phrase) we sometimes forget who created it and what it has to beat: us.


It was results week at the Institute of Chartered Shipbrokers, when students learned how they did in their examinations taken last November. The pass rate for our students in Greece was the best ever, and it made me very happy to have more members in the ICS Greek branch. Those that got distinctions – the most ever in one go in some subjects – should be proud of themselves, and they now have the recognition of their achievements. What I am most proud of – apart from the overall pass rate itself – is… well let me put it another way. Those students whom I am most proud of are those that despite failing exams previously, despite their frustrations and in some cases real despair, picked themselves up and tried again. Not only tried again but changed the way they approached the exam, modified their methods of study, self-corrected the way they wrote the essays so that finally they achieved what they had set out to do. This is real human learning.


I am truly in awe of those that achieve top marks and win prizes, especially those from countries where English is not their first language, and come from different education traditions and systems. But the most important thing for me is that all these people have received an education and now have the potential to change the shipping industry for the better, whether in Greece or elsewhere. In the process they have changed themselves and the people around them, and for the better. This is the community learning in ways that is not programmed.


The education they have received – a good one, an important one – is the result of a long history of knowledge and understanding being shared and disseminated, and in the process refined, developed, stored, corrected – and repeated, ad infinitum – so that the business of shipping and those who work in it becomes better. You will not need reminding that it was the business of shipping that kept the world working in these last few dark years, and continues to do so.


Quantum physics, the inspiration behind quantum computing, explains our world not in terms of power, or 0 and 1, or right or wrong, or truth or error, or even action versus reaction, but in terms of things in relation to each other, as well as how they interact and observe each other, and then shared over space and time. Quantum computing has a long way still to catch up with the human brain. With us.


Education – whether online or face to face – is best when it comes from the interaction and observation of human thought, which is then processed and acted on. There is a place for computers, as indeed there is for books (that most precious and fragile resource) as repositories of knowledge. There is even a place for our creations – computers, quantum or otherwise, and books of course – to disseminate that knowledge and understanding around the world. But truth – whatever that is – only takes wings when humans interact, confront, share, dispute, debate, refashion and then create new things, new beauty – new horrors – new concepts, new ways of doing things. The potential is truly infinite in ways that cannot be imagined, even by something as powerful as the human brain.


But the brain is a fragile, living organ – physically and psychologically – and can be easily damaged by physical and emotional forces beyond our control. There is so much to celebrate in those people who have achieved excellence, or who have succeeded after initially failing, and even in those that are currently processing failure that I cannot help but being joyful and optimistic about the potential of all of us to change ourselves and the world around us to be better. And the best way to do that? Not to just be a cold and inactive vessel to be filled by someone’s (or something’s) knowledge, not to view education, or life, as a process of input and output, but to engage with and observe all the world around us, and do the thing that we are blessed with above all other computers and indeed all other known lifeforms: observe, think and live.


Best regards,

Simon Ward