Sarah Bernhardt plays Hamlet, London 1899
“What’s Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba,
That he should weep for her?”
The close of Act II Scene ii, and Hamlet questions how the performers in a play about the siege of Troy are able to convey such emotion – feel such empathy – for the stranger queen of an ancient city.
The construct here is complex. A play within a play, sparking a key moment of introspection, and ultimately self doubt. It is no coincidence that in this same work we find perhaps the earliest use of the term “my mind’s eye,” heralding a shift in theatrical focus from traditions of enacted disputes, lovers passions, and farce, to more a more nuanced kind of drama that issues from psychological turmoil.
Hamlet is generally considered to be a work of creative genius. For many laboring in the creative arts, works like this and those in its broader category serve as aspirational benchmarks. Indelible reminders of the brilliant outlands of human creativity.
Now, for the first time in our history, humans have a rival in deliberate acts of aesthetic creation. In the midst of the avalanche of artificial intelligence hype comes a new promise – creative AI; here to relieve us of burdensome tasks including musical, literary, and artistic composition.
Last month, Oscar Schwartz wrote a byline for OneZero with a familiarly provocative headline: “What If an Algorithm Could Predict Your Unborn Child’s Intelligence?”. The piece described the work of Genomic Prediction, a US company using machine learning to pick through the genetic data of embryos to establish the risk of health conditions. Given the title of the article, the upshot won’t surprise you. Prospective parents can now use this technology to expand their domain over the “design” of new offspring – and “cognitive ability” is among the features up for selection.
Setting aside the contention over whether intelligence is even inheritable, the ethical debate around this sort of pre-screening is hardly new. Gender selection has been a live issue for years now. Way back in 2001, Oxford University bioethicist Julian Savulescu caused controversy by proposing a principle of “Procreative Beneficence” stating that “couples (or single reproducers) should select the child, of the possible children they could have, who is expected to have the best life, or at least as good a life as the others, based on the relevant, available information.” (Opponents to procreative beneficence vociferously pointed out that – regrettably – Savulescu’s principle would likely lead to populations dominated by tall, pale males…).
“One child, one teacher, one book, one pen can change the world.”
These are the inspirational words of activist Malala Yousafzai, best known as “the girl who was shot by the Taliban” for championing female education in her home country of Pakistan. This modest, pared-down idea of schooling is cherished by many. There is something noble about it, perhaps because harkens back to the very roots of intellectual enquiry. No tools and no distractions; just ideas and conversation.
Traditionalists may be reminded of the largely bygone “chalk and talk” methods of teaching, rooted in the belief that students need little more than firm, directed pedagogical instruction to prepare them for the world. Many still reminisce about these relatively uncomplicated teaching techniques, but we should be careful not to misread Yousafzai’s words as prescribing simplicity as the optimal conditions for education.
On the contrary, her comments describe a baseline.