Anthropy23, part one: The future of AI, the future of Britain

Anthropy23 The Eden Project

The convergence of brilliant minds that is Anthropy returned to Cornwall’s Eden Project last week, bringing together experts from diverse fields to foster fresh thinking and spark innovation, ignite action, and inspire a better Britain.

Attending the first two days of three, pharmaphorum headed West to listen to conversations around technological, medical, and economic health in Britain, exploring how tangible change – not just words – can be put into effect. Indeed, Anthropy self-describes itself as an experience of ‘cultivated serendipity’, a convergence of leaders from all walks of life, delving into a different type of thinking, feeling, and action-taking. 

With Anthropy’s main foci being people, place, prosperity, and global perspective when it comes to Britain and its citizens, the event’s charter calls for embracing dynamic stewardship – you’ll remember, mankind was once tasked with stewarding the earth – of human kindness, meaningful collaboration, and unbound leadership. And, in 2023, there was certainly a sense of a step forward in this regard.

The state of our digital futures

Taking a closer look at the future boundaries of technology, including embracing Web3, robotics, and AI, it’s clear these have brought about new opportunities, but with those come valid concerns about how our futures will next be shaped by such technology. This panel – the opening conversation of Anthropy23, unfolding just as the first AI Safety Summit was elsewhere taking place at Bletchley Park, with PM Rishi Sunak in attendance – brought together: Jeremy Silver, CEO of Digital Catapult; William Sachiti, founder and CEO of the Academy of Robotics; Piers Linney, co-founder of Implement AI; Fru Hazlitt, founder and CEO of La Piazza Group; Professor Adam Beaumont, founder of aql; and was moderated by Samayeh Aghnia, co-founder and CEO of Geeks Ltd.

As the BBC reported, a global declaration on managing AI risks was announced at the Summit, due to worry over the ‘as-yet-unknown capabilities’ of AI, or ‘frontier AI’ to be more specific, including the displacement of people from jobs. The UK is certainly investing in AI risk management (£100 million into a task force set to become the Safety Institute), and the Bletchley Declaration has been signed by 28 countries and the EU, stating that AI should be kept “safe, in such a way as to be human-centric, trustworthy, and responsible”.

Turning to the panellists, Prof Beaumont was inspired not only by Orwell’s infamous “1984”, but also John Elkington’s “Sun Traps: The Renewable Energy Forecast”, his personal journey running through quantum mechanics lecturing into enabling technologies and ‘the engine in the chain’. He rightly noted that, while the Eden Project is about the climate and the planet, Anthropy is about people. And it is young people, our leaders of tomorrow, who Digital Catapult’s Silver is focused on.

Author of “Towards a Digital Renaissance: The evolution of creativity, values, and business from cyberspace to the metaverse”, Silver stated the question of a digital future is a grand question to commence a conference with. Nonetheless, it is young people, young ideas, young companies; it’s about helping them go faster, responsibly, and ensuring that British talent stays in Britain and doesn’t join the ‘USA exodus’. Commenting on the Bletchley Summit, Silver added that AI won’t kill humanity, but climate change very well might. Nonetheless, it’s important to root out ‘unconscious bias in algorithms’.

It was Sachiti, however, who brought the topic under consideration to – quite literal – life, attempting to live demo ‘Athena’, a helper bot. After a couple of dud starts and an accidental pressing of the pause button, he explained that there are safety and roam functions implemented, with lidar, radar, and camera capabilities. A helper bot like Athena is able to undertake multidimensional modelling of its environment and operates under a hierarchical framework.

Hazlitt brought a different approach to the discussion, with a background in legacy media and technologies (she was at Yahoo at its start, not its end). After a sojourn in Italy that extended from a planned six months to six years, she founded La Piazza Group, after realising the disconnect that Italian youth had with printed newspapers and televised news. So it is that the company provides technology and social media to create communities for young people to instead converse on key topics.

For Linney’s part, he is very much of the mindset of, “Don’t always pan for gold; sell shovels.” In other words, support and enable the change being brought by AI, as Implement AI does. In another, um, gold nugget of description, he explained: there’s a ship leaving the harbour; you can still make the leap from quay to the ship; don’t be left on the quayside. From Cloud to blockchain to AI, eventually everything will be augmented, he said, and, indeed, some things will be replaced.

At this juncture, moderator Aghnia centred the conversation on the UK’s place in the G7, touching upon smart cities, not leading in robotics, funding and scaling issues meaning we’re falling behind in terms of start-ups. In short, she commented that ‘digitalisation of government in the whole G7 sucks’.

Prof Beaumont – who comes from Leeds, one of the fastest growing digital cities – having explained his investment history, especially in Estonia, noted that there’s an opportunity cost to leaders remaining in the wrong positions for too long. Furthermore, a tax-efficient R&D space is yet needed in the UK.

Silver agreed, but brought up the fact that the UK is third in the world after the US and China in terms of publishing papers on AI. So, academic R&D is thriving, but it’s not translating into business. An industrial approach is needed, he said.

To this, Linney added that the focus should be on talent. The future of the workforce is a changing game – to the extent, he said, that he doesn’t know what to advise his children to go into in terms of a profession. And, indeed, they are already noting that AI will do most things. If so, he said, then we have to be more human.

A vision for Britain

The closing panel of Day One precisely focused on that notion of being more human. Moderated by journalist and presenter Mary Mandefield, panellists included: Emma Bridgewater, founder and creative director of Emma Bridgewater; Lord Deben, chairman of Sancroft International; Sir Anthony Seldon, head of Epsom College; and Implement AI’s Piers Linney again.

Looking ahead to Britain in 2050, a key theme of the discussions was investing in Britain by investing in ourselves. From national craftmanship and manufacturing to a climate change-minded community, with organic and regenerative farming, Sir Seldon was adamant that 2050 will depend on a person’s Self. It’s not about differences, he said, but about what we share in common. Currently running Epsom College and having just authored the contemplative “Walking the Western Front”, he maintains the cruciality of mindfulness and insisted that, if we are to survive, it is because good people can find stillness inside themselves and love others.

On the place of AI within the vision of Britain, Bridgewater is ‘horrified’ by the idea. She agreed with the importance of stillness, but also practical ‘making’ skills. It is strange to import so much, she said. There is a strength in local communities, in making and growing ourselves – there is, in fact, an excitement to the notion of British manufacturing. However, included in this island mentality is the valid belief that we should not be exporting our rubbish, either. Against the anxiety that so many hold for the future, Bridgewater insists on the power each of us have to offset that, too: one’s project joins to another’s project and multiple project link up, and so on.

It is a matter of acceleration – speed and time – Linney said. Reminding the audience that the Industrial Revolution took 200 years, the Internet revolution 50 years, and the phenomenon of TikTok two months – by the time 2050 comes around, cars will be thought of as ‘mobility platforms’, and AI will be better, safer, cheaper, and faster than humans. Indeed, as an example, he said that it will be deemed unethical to have a human-being on a building site. This transfers, of course, to surgery and healthcare (to be explored in focus in part two of this article). Eventually, Linney continued, AI will start to design AI, and that AI will develop robotics, mentioning in passing Moore’s Law for Everything.

Lord Deben reined in this accelerative talk, commenting that there is quite a period of time, yet, between now and 2050. Recently become a publican as well, he explained how he will be selling only beer brewed in the village and cider from the next village along; in other words, the importance of localism. His company, Sancroft International, advises on sustainability and it is clear that productivity increases when hybrid and flexible working conditions are provided. Yes, modern technology has made this possible, he said, but Zoom does not help everything. It is, rather, a question of facing the realities that we as people need to change: the human element.

A future Britain should nurture and value the different qualities of human beings, in addition to valuing nature alongside technology and thereby lead the world in tackling climate change. As regards changing the human element in this, it requires a mindset shift, a returning to value of experience, instead of material things. If AI can permit people to focus on experience, and move away from being ‘stuff-centric’, then all the better. But it starts with courage.

Following a call to action to press the government until it understands, a call to action that progresses beyond ‘policies and targets and talk’, Lord Deden described the next 10 to 15 years as being the ‘delivery years’ – delivering us into that better tomorrow. AI won’t replace humans, but we need to stop being automatons ourselves, he said. If we don’t reconnect with the reality of being human – including the connection of mind-body-spirit which pervaded the Anthropy conference – then we deserve to be taken over by AI, Lord Deden concluded.

Mandefield commented on the philosophical minds of her panel, before admitting that her (younger, Gen Z) peers’ outlook is clouded by social media and technology, and they have to be ‘on’ all the time. She asked how they might ‘move away from the noise’.

The question of talent being an important one in consideration of the future of Britain, Sir Seldon first turned the topic of conversation to education. Currently, education systems fail one-third of people, stating what children can’t do, labelling their failure, rather than their successes. And when what we believe about ourselves becomes our reality, this is clearly toxic. Commenting that Mandefield and her peers have a choice to turn off and away from social media, Bridgewater joined in and reminded her of her agency.

Linney joined that the especially positive thing to come from AI might be that it permits us to turn to experience, devote our time to what adds value. Although not especially spiritual, if AI can return us to our essentially animal humanity, then what will be most important in that return will be an overhaul in the education and economic systems.

From stillness to silence, Sir Seldon noted that people have become afraid of the latter. If we have a spare moment, we rush to fill it, he said. It is as if we have become fearful of being with ourselves, our Self. Educators must bring back in a slow silence, also, he said, but no Education Secretary he has ever spoken with has known precisely what ‘education’ means: it is from the Latin, educare, ‘to lead out’. It can only be hoped that Labour will have a different approach, he said, but agency lies at the heart of it and education must move from passivity to active agency.

In short, it is about individual narratives and action within microworlds in the first instance, in order to collaborate and effect change on the greater scale. Although these conversations here described have been focused on AI and technology, their applicability to the pharmaceutical industry and healthcare sector should, nonetheless, be clear also. To this end, be sure to read part two, where pharmaphorum reports on the specific discussions held around those fields.