Seren Jesus College Summer School: Guest blog from Dr Matt Williams

Applications for this year’s Seren Jesus College Summer School open on Tuesday 3rd March 2020. The Summer School is taking place 17th to 21st August and will be based on the theme ‘Intelligence: Real and Artificial’. We spoke to Dr Matt Williams, Access Fellow at Jesus College, who shares what’s on offer during the exclusive week-long programme and explores this year’s theme.

What can I expect from this year’s Summer School?

“This year will be our fourth Seren Jesus College Summer School. As ever, all expenses will be paid for 75 students and 11 teachers to come and stay with us for a week. You will live in our Oxford College rooms in the centre of the city, eat in our 17th Century dining hall, and learn something new that could help you get into leading universities like Oxford.

You will be offered Oxford’s world-class lectures, seminars and tutorials on the inter-disciplinary theme of “Intelligence: Real and Artificial”. To be eligible, you don’t need to be studying any particular subjects at A-level, and you don’t need to be planning on applying to Oxford. We’ll cover a range of subjects and methods, because our research has shown this melding of disciplines is of benefit to anyone thinking of applying to competitive universities and courses, regardless of their plans after school. We have, for example, worked with prospective medics, lawyers and physicists in the same summer school.
We will look, in particular, at:
• The promises and perils of artificial intelligence
• The neuroscience of intelligence
• A modern history of the secret intelligence services
• A history of genius in art and music
• Forms of intelligence in plants

What is the theme ‘Intelligence: Real and Artificial’?

What is intelligence? It’s a slippery concept, making it frustratingly (even ironically) tough to analyse.

Some essentials leap out. Intelligence is efficient and accurate problem solving, achieved by adapting memories. But embellishing further than this is tricky, to say the least.

Take professional footballers. I would consider them to be intellectually brilliant. The ferocious speed in which they compute environmental conditions to score goals puts slovenly types like me very much to shame.

Standardised testing (notably IQ) used to dominate our understanding of intelligence. It was a ready way to compare ourselves with other people, but it left much to be desired. Intelligence tests occupy shady past associations with eugenics and totalitarianism — from cranial measurements to patently unfair literacy tests. And, more recent research has shown how narrow and often inaccurate IQ can be.

Botanists have even effectively described intelligence in plants. Not only in their computational abilities (such as in phototropism), but even the capacity to create and store memories in species such as the Venus Fly Trap.

Intelligence has also been defined by some (myself very much included) so as to include emotional acuity — adding skills such as empathy and resilience to the roster of the intellectual.

Arguably this generation’s most important contribution to the concept has been a rapid development in artificial intelligence. “Artificial” intelligence confusingly implies that it is somehow different from “real” or “natural” intelligence, simply because its memories and computations are binary rather than fleshy.

There is clearly much we simply do not know about intelligence. But Oxford intends to be at cutting edge of 21st Century research. It will do so with its £150 million Schwarzman Centre to study the ethics of AI, and a new Parks College devoted, in particular, to AI and Machine Learning.

And you could be a part of this most exciting stage in humanity’s Information Age!”

Applications will open 3rd March 2020. For further information:

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