Dean's Speech: Address by Professor Gabriel Leung at the Speech Day of Tsuen Wan Public Ho Chuen Yiu Memorial College

08 December 2018

Supervisor Chan [Yuk Kwong 陳玉光], Principal Tse [Yun Ming 謝潤明], honoured guests, teachers, parents, friends, and most of all graduands, ladies and gentlemen,

We come together today to celebrate your hard work and achievements at this fine school. When your school was founded in 1977, I was also graduating – from kindergarten. It was called Happy Kindergarten and I indeed have very happy memories of my time there. I hope you will also leave with happy memories.

At 41 years, yours is one of the younger Band One schools. Historically, it has been the case that the oldest schools are usually the best regarded.  These are the schools that have had many years to establish themselves and cement a solid reputation for excellence.  This is what’s known as ‘incumbency advantage’ or ‘first-mover advantage’ and it’s just as applicable to schools as it is to business.  I’m pleased to share that I have good news on this front – while the distance between the incumbent and upstarts used to be insurmountable, that gap is now closing thanks in part to technology.

As you will no doubt have witnessed, technology has enabled massive leaps in development across the world.  Look at Africa, which succeeded in leapfrogging almost a century of telephony development and infrastructure with its rapid adoption of mobile phones.  Mobile technology has had a significant impact on the whole of African society, but it’s the people at the bottom of the ladder who have stood to gain the most from increased access to information.  They are farmers, small business owners and regular folks of all walks whose lives have been transformed by the mobile economy.

And looking closer to home, technology is a very hot topic.  In Hong Kong, money is being pumped into innovation and technology, which is seen as the driver to develop our city’s high-end manufacturing in the SAR’s quest towards reindustrialisation. And looking at the bigger picture, Hong Kong is a key part of the ‘Greater Bay Area’ project, which is set to rival San Francisco and Tokyo as a powerhouse of innovation and economic growth.

In my own field of Medicine, technology is also causing massive creative disruption. Consider this statistic – in 1950, researchers estimated it would take about 50 years for all available medical knowledge to double.  But in 2020, it is predicted it will take just 73 days to see a doubling in medical knowledge.  When you think about the massive volumes of new information about health treatments and medical technology being produced every week, you quickly realise that it’s not humanly possible for medical professionals to keep up.

And this is where artificial intelligence (AI) comes in – take the British AI company DeepMind which was founded in 2010 to support the UK health care system, the NHS.  The company was acquired by Google in 2014.  Researchers at DeepMind have succeeded in using AI to mimic the complex way our brains navigate spaces.  Last year the programme achieved another breakthrough – it was able to beat one of the world’s best players at the ancient board game of Go without learning any move from human.  Advances in the technology are continually progressing and researchers have their eyes set on another new target to use the algorithms to understand how proteins unfold – an essential tool for drug discovery.  This is a fast-moving field.

Double-edged Sword

But before we get swept away with the wonders of technology, let’s remember that things that seem too good to be true often are.  And technology is indeed a double-edged sword – yes, it offers us exciting new innovations, but at the same time it is also threatening to wipe out certain specialties or at least upend the way these specialties operate.

Consider for a moment machine learning which is able to easily integrate with the sections of the health care industry that have large data sets.  The software is able to learn patterns to help detect tumours and recommend a diagnosis.  It can even predict how long a patient will need to stay in hospital.  Let’s think about that for a moment – the machine isn’t just finding and diagnosing a patient’s tumour, it’s gauging how many days or weeks that patient will spend in hospital.  It will do it far more quickly and quite possibly more accurately than a doctor.

My students are preparing for a future where AI and machine learning will have a significant impact on their careers.  I’m very pleased that in the last few years we’ve received a number of students from this school.  The twin brothers Kelvin Yip Man-kwan (葉泯君) and Oasis Yip Man-yin (葉泯言) as well as Lam Hei Tung (林曦彤) all joined in 2014; Lau Kwan Ho (婁軍昊) and Yeung Sun Ching (楊崇正) began in 2016 and last year Gu Kwan Yin (顧君彥) joined our faculty.  Kevin and Oasis are particularly hardworking and brilliant, they were both awarded our Springboard Scholarship, Dean’s Scholarship and the HKU Foundation Scholarship for Outstanding Students.  And, of course, we also remember your alumnus Billy Fung (馮敬恩), who was President of HKU Students’ Union from 2015 to 2016.

I sincerely hope that some of you here today will join me at HKU in the future.  And if you do and you go on to be a specialist in a particular field of medicine, you would be well advised to choose your specialty with care.  Pattern recognition is no longer a viable field to specialise in because a machine can do it better.  That represents a very real potential threat.

But enough of the risks of technology, let’s get back to the good news story.  And there is a very real upside here because of the potential offered by technology for leapfrogging.  Keeping with that same example of pattern recognition – yes, a machine can do it better than a human, but that then frees up the medical professional to do something else, something more.  Their brain no longer needs to be trained to recognise regularities.

This sort of evolution is nothing new.  When I was in high school we had very simple calculators.  When we learned trigonometry, we referred to a four-figure table – of course, no one does that any more. In the generation before mine, they were still using slide rules. In the past, having a good memory and a sharp recall gave you a distinct advantage in your studies.  These days you can have very poor memorisation and regurgitation skills, but still be excellent at school because the requirements are different.

It’s developments such as these which are shrinking the distance between people – and this is something that you should be hopeful about.  The ability to leapfrog is increasingly turning the tables on the incumbents.  If you are a young school, if you are new to a market, you now stand a much better chance of success than you might have done in the past.  This is something to celebrate.

Driven by technology, the rapid pace of change is transforming the work landscape. By the time you graduate, your ideal type of work may have gone, and you may need to think carefully about how you plan the rest of your career and how you want to live.  So, let’s assume that in your future career you are able to use AI for the mechanical or computational aspects of your job.  How will you develop the other parts of your brain?

I’m not thinking of cyborgs at this point, although that’s certainly a future possibility.   I can quite easily imagine a time when instead of having to pull out your phone there will be wireless connectivity between your mobile and your brain.  The renowned physicist Stephen Hawking, who passed away earlier this year, was deeply concerned about the risks posed by advanced AI and genetically-enhanced ‘superhumans’.  In a book published after his death – Brief Answers to the Big Questions – he said he feared the consequences of creating something that could match or surpass humans.  He stressed the need for serious research to explore the impact AI will have on humanity.

What sets us apart from Machines?

Stephen Hawking paints a compelling and frightening picture of the future.  So, if we want to ensure that his fears aren’t realised, then we need to redirect our energies and stay one step ahead.  How might you redirect your brain mass to something that AI can’t yet do?   Think about that for a moment.  What is it about us that sets us apart from machines?  What makes us different from them?  It is that deep well of human ingenuity, it is the non-computational or analogue part of us – it is our soul.  This is what makes us human.  No matter how computationally strong you are, your soul cannot be programmed.  This is something that will always be central to the definition of what it means to be human.  And that’s why it is the part that needs to be developed.  Let the computers crunch the numbers and analyse the data, we can develop that part of us that AI can’t reach, our soul.

There is a strong connection between your soul and creativity.  In allowing yourself the time and space to be creative, you are able to develop a deeper understanding of yourself.  And when you are able to express yourself, then you are able to become who you truly are.  And when you are the truest expression of yourself, you allow yourself to be seen and you increase your genuine connections with others.  Machines can’t do this – a machine doesn’t have a soul.  A computer can’t really create an original symphony. It can’t do Rock ‘n’ Roll, R&B, K-Pop or Cantopop that would bring tears to our eyes or make us laugh. It might be able to mimic it, but it can’t have that deep feeling you can get with music because that is innate, that is what makes us human.

Discover and Rediscover

We humans are frail.  We will all experience fear, anxiety and worry.  At some point, we will all struggle with weakness.  And we will all face challenges that will leave us shaken.   But rather than fear our frailties, we should celebrate them, just as we should celebrate our failures, because it is another thing that sets us apart from computers.  Computers generally don’t fail, humans do.  It is by struggling through our low points and coming to understand our frailties that we are able to develop our resilience, enabling us to bounce back from adversity.  Unlike computers, we don’t need to be reprogrammed.  What we can do is look inside ourselves and discover and rediscover.  This is a cycle that you can repeat – and go on repeating – throughout your life. I assure you that the moment you truly start down the path of self-discovery you will never turn back.

For many of you, university life will be the first time you discover what love feels like. It will also likely be the first time you experience heartbreak and probably the first time you face real stress. All these experiences offer opportunities to learn and grow – to discover and rediscover yourself. When you’re looking for support, turn to literature, art or music – whichever form appeals to you – because the creative arts have always explored the nature of what it is to be human.

Fired by technology, the world is advancing rapidly.  Whichever field you choose to study, your textbooks will be wrong in five to 10 years’ time.  Of course, it’s important to study your textbooks and learn in order to pass your exams, but just be aware that you are doing it in order to get a piece of paper that says you have the cognitive ability to do a certain job.  The qualification will be important throughout your life, but the knowledge you learned in order to get that piece of paper will be outdated in less than a decade.  What will never go out of date, what will never fail you, are the lessons learned and the understanding you gain from discovering and rediscovering what it means to be human.  To truly know yourself is the most important skill you can ever possess.  Once you know yourself you will be more confident, you will understand your purpose and you will be able to make a bigger impact in the world.

You may come from a young school, you may not yet have begun your adult lives, but you have more opportunities to succeed than ever before. The gap is closing on the incumbents.  Technology is creating a new future and a more level playing field.  Make the most of your opportunities, take advantage of technology, and never forget to take the time to nurture your soul. It’s what makes you human and if you treat it with love and respect, if you learn who you truly are, then no machine, however advanced, will ever be a match for you.