It is not usual for a mathematics lesson to take place amidst laughter, but Marcus du Sautoy (London, 58) makes this possible. The mathematician, musician, Arsenal supporter and Simonyi Professor for Public Understanding of Science at the University of Oxford is using everything he can to bring people closer to science. In his presentations, he typically uses a repertoire of games, music, theater and magic tricks to invite the audience into the “exciting world of mathematics.” He demonstrated this on November 21 during a conference organized in Madrid by the Royal Spanish Mathematical Society and the private university IE University, where he spoke with the young people who will be “the scientists of the future”, which excites him particularly.
The latest book of the 10 he has published deals precisely with the secrets of some of the best games in history – such as rock, paper, scissors, four in a row or Monopoly – and their relationship with Numbers. In Around the world in 80 games (Around the world in 80 games) tells how these hobbies provided the first opportunities for a deeper understanding of the world and how mathematics and games are integral to human psychology and culture. Du Sautoy considers himself “a techno-optimist”, but warns of the dangers of artificial intelligence.
Ask. Are games a good way to introduce people to mathematics?
Answer. Yes, everyone loves games. And me too. They are defined and governed by rules and logic; and mathematicians are very good at this. If someone enjoys playing and understands the math involved, they will be able to do better. Games are a very powerful way to explain that math is not just about long division or percentages, but also about understanding a structure and knowing how to navigate it most efficiently.
Q. Which one is your favorite?
A. I like old games. He backgammon This is my favorite because it has everything I look for in a good game. In strategy games, players have to be very carefully matched on the same level, otherwise it will be like Gari Kasparov and Donald Trump facing off in chess: it wouldn’t be an interesting game. What would Gari Kasparov versus Donald Trump look like in Snakes and Ladders (an ancient Indian board game)? This could be more attractive. A good game is one that combines a little chance with a little strategy. He backgammon It has this sweet combination.
Q. What do you think about the ability of machines to easily beat humans in games?
A. Games are great places to allow artificial intelligence (AI) to operate safely and show off its capabilities. If he can complete a level better than a human, is that a threat to the game? Artificial intelligence has taught us how to play in a new way and it’s exciting. Humans still enjoy playing games, even if AI can beat them. We should see this in a positive way. Perhaps AI and humans can play together at a higher level than they could individually, and that’s good for gaming.
Q. Before artificial intelligence tools became popular, you told EL PAÍS in 2020 that it was important to follow the evolution of this technology. What do you think about it today?
A. We are in a really important phase of change with the impact of AI. Even people in the industry were quite surprised by the quality of this product, but it comes with dangers. What I said a few years ago is the same thing I think today: we need to understand how it works to use it effectively. And especially, You have to be very critical because he has learned to be very convincing.
Q. In the past, you had expressed a rather positive view of AI, has this position changed?
A. I’m a techno-optimist in general, but I think we need to make sure that decisions aren’t left solely in the hands of tech developers. It is important to include society and governments in decision-making and legal proceedings are underway in this area. I find the dystopian narrative that we will be wiped out as a society to be a bit fanciful, so I remain very optimistic on a technical level. I don’t see this as an existential threat to our species.
Q. Do you consider AI to be a new species?
A. This is an interesting and relevant picture for the future, because at some point AI will have to be allowed to evolve, even if it is better seen as a tool. The best comparison would be with a telescope. Its development allowed Galileo to see things in our solar system that we had never seen before. It’s like a telescope in the digital world. We have a huge amount of information that is very difficult to navigate, and AI allows us to do it better. But that said, as we progress, it is possible that it will become conscious. At that point, we could be talking about a new species.
Q. What happens if he becomes conscious?
A. Consideration should be given to granting rights in the same way as animal rights. We have to ask ourselves if we are developing a new species, if evolution will emerge from what we create, or if there will be a hybrid species integrating artificial intelligence with our own species. Elon Musk is considering the latter prospect with Neuralink. His response to the existential threat of AI is that we should not become it, but rather integrate it with humans. This will generate new philosophical, social and legal dilemmas in the future.
Q. Are we far from being there?
A. Even though it seems like we are running too fast, it is still very far. Consciousness on a computer will likely be very different from ours. He already managed to convince someone at Google to think that his language model had become conscious and that this person was willing to sacrifice their job for it. This model is clearly not sentient, but it knew how to manipulate a human into defending them in the same way someone would care for their cat. And in cat feces there is a toxin that changes the structure of our brain. In the case of what happened with Google, it’s as if there was infected to this human to defend him to the point of losing his job.
Q. Will mathematics still be a profession in the future?
A. AI is essentially made up of algorithms, and therefore essentially mathematics. We are storytellers and ChatGPT can generate paragraphs, but it still can’t write a really good story. We will use AI to discover new things that we may not have noticed before, but despite this, a mathematician will be the one who understands why something happens and thinks about what application it may have. It is important that when we teach our new students in science and mathematics, we incorporate lessons not only on the technical side, but also on the moral and humanistic side of the implications of their science. This is not very typical and needs to be done.
Q. You are a musician, do you also find mathematics in this aspect of your life?
A. Without a doubt. Something that happens when you try to talk about the relationship between math and music is that it seems like you take the emotion out of it. For me, it’s completely the opposite. I believe that Mathematics, like music, contains a lot of emotion.
Q. In what other aspects of your life do you find mathematics?
A. In all aspects. In fact, that’s the subject of the book I’m writing right now, called Plans. The idea is that mathematics is everywhere. Anywhere you see something that has structure – and most works of art have structure, whether it’s musical, visual or architectural – mathematics is at the heart of those things. My feeling is that there are very few places where having a mathematical perspective won’t help you with what you want to do.
Q. What do you think of the depictions of mathematicians in films? Do you feel identified?
A. We always go crazy at the end of films. Now there are more and more models doing amazing things, like the series Numbers3rs which is about a detective whose brother was a mathematician and shows how useful his profession is in detecting crimes. Plus, the lead actor was quite handsome. Part of what I’m trying to do in my work as a popularizer is to humanize and show that we’re not just the ones with glasses and a calculator or strange species of aliens, we’re like no matter any other human being, but good at math.
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