“Science can bring about technological advances; technology can facilitate economic development; economic development pushes society forward. However, I believe the logic is wrong. Science is not equivalent to science and technology.” This is part of the keynote speech by Bai Lu, a renowned neuroscientist and professor of Tsinghua University, at the 2019 GMIC “Science Revival Festival”.
As the only neuroscientist working in China among “the world’s most influential scientists” nominated by Thomson Reuters, Bai Lu is not content with industry-wise achievements. He claimed that modern society has made science too utilitarian. Science does promote technological development, but science itself is a culture, and he desires to be committed to cultural transmission.
In 2015, Bai Lu co-founded the new media platform “The Intellectual” with Professor Yi Rao of Peking University and Professor Yu Xie of Princeton University, with the expectation of stimulating the revival of domestic scientific outlook.
Nowadays, as spoiled by technology, people are becoming lazier to question and ponder. Bai Lu believes that the progress of a society is never led by the masses. Based on the development of human history, more often than not, it’s a small number of spiritual pioneers who spread their philosophy in various ways, hence advancing the whole society.
In this issue of “iAsk Top Leaders”, iAsk Founder Gloria Ai spoke with Bai Lu. Let’s try to understand science.
Has science become utilitarian?
Gloria Ai: The theme of “Scientific Revival” of the Global Mobile Internet Conference (GMIC) this year was initiated by you and Chu Wen, Founder of the Great Wall Club (GWC). Why did you propose this concept?
Bai Lu: One of the triggers is the era, which has progressed thus far. The other reason is that with the endeavors of a group of people, a consensus has gradually been reached – Science is a way of life.
In addition to various physiological needs such as clothing and food, human beings have other pursuits, one of which is called curiosity. Human beings have extremely strong curiosity, with the eagerness to explore the unknown. This desire to explore is also part of life. We used to be too impoverished to care about it, but today it has become a very crucial part of life.
Gloria Ai: But is the exploration for the unknown driven by curiosity equivalent to science revival?
Bai Lu: It is a vital component of science. One of the simplest explanations about science is to explore the unknown. Since ancient Greece, human beings have been trying to understand nature and themselves. This is the utmost fundamental in science. In addition, as a human activity, science’s biggest driving force is also curiosity.
Gloria Ai: With regard to the detailed process of science revival, what do you expect people to learn or understand?
Bai Lu: When it comes to revival, people may think of the Renaissance. The Renaissance is the revival of ancient Greece’s pursuit of art, science, and philosophy, which triggered the Capitalist Revolution. I feel that the whole Chinese society needs to enhance its understanding of science gradually. The government should value science more. Scientists should be more devoted to interacting with society. This is a fundamental connotation of scientific revival, which in essence is science transmission.
Gloria Ai: Nowadays there is a common misunderstanding that scientific achievements equal promising technology, which further leads to great economy?
Bai Lu: It is a misunderstanding, which makes science too utilitarian. Science does bring about technological progress, but science itself is a culture that initiates a variety of practices, which we call the scientific spirit. For example, it is demonstrated as the spirit of criticism, curiosity, creativity, or the ability to analyze through discussions and debates. Scientific spirit cannot be applied in practice, but it is crucial to the advancement of social civilization. Therefore, when promoting science revival, we focus more on popularizing the scientific spirit. We hope that everyone can incorporate such spirit into their behaviors.
Perhaps it differs from the understanding of the general public, but the advancement of a society is never led by the masses. Based on the development of human history, more often than not, it’s a small number of spiritual pioneers who spread their philosophy in various ways, hence advancing the whole society. Therefore, the attempt I made was actually worthwhile, just like how we proposed the slogan on “The Intellectual”, i.e. “Influence the influential”.
What life rewards do scientists need every day?
Gloria Ai: What are the features of the scientist group?
Bai Lu: Scientists are those who are engaged in scientific research. They may be a college professor or a researcher at a research institute. There are several driving forces for people dedicated to scientific research. First of all, curiosity, which I mentioned earlier, is the most primitive driving force;
Secondly, being acknowledged by peers is very valuable to scientists. Only by publishing a paper in a scientific journal can you truly position yourself.
The third driving force is the satisfaction of defeating the strong. Plentiful scientists take pleasure in defeating the strongest rival.
Gloria Ai: What about yourself? Why did you establish “The Intellectual”?
Bai Lu: I hope that people can have a comprehensive understanding of science. It should be commonly acknowledged that firstly scientists are people and that many scientists are also interesting. I also mentioned at the establishment of “The Intellectual” that I classified life into four categories. The two common ones are material life and emotional life.
On top of that, there are two other types of life. One is smart life, where you think about, explore and pursue the unknown. This state of life is very common among scientists. A large number of scientists would take the initiative to experience such a life. They would think about or do certain creative things as part of their everyday life at least. Exploring some unsolved myths is a life reward for them, just like how people enjoy great food or alcohol.
The last type is spiritual life, which is less common. It happens when we suddenly experience a much broader horizon than the current life, such as recognizing beings in outer space.
Gloria Ai: What is the most frequently asked question as a neuroscientist?
Bai Lu: One of the most frequently asked questions is whether artificial intelligence will one day replace our human brain, and whether human beings will be ruled by artificial intelligence. Frankly, this is seriously an unnecessary concern.
From the perspective of brain science, the human brain basically serves five functions: firstly, the ability to interpret the outside world, namely sensory function; secondly, motor skills, meaning the ability to exert a certain force or effect on the outside world; thirdly, memory, i.e. the ability to process and store the information from the outside world; fourthly, cognitive function, which is the ability to think, analyze, judge and executive various intelligent activities; the fifth one is emotion.
In terms of sensory and motor functions, artificial intelligence will gradually outdo human beings. However, two capabilities will absolutely not be replaced by artificial intelligence. The first one is consciousness and self-awareness. Human beings are self-aware that they are alive and talking, which is a very advanced brain function unique to human beings. The second is creativity. The brain is able to develop. The more you use your brain, the more it develops. The development is the fundamental for human creativity and cannot be achieved by artificial intelligence.