Philosophy essay success for Perse pupil

James Roskilly (Year 11) considered whether artificial intelligence (AI) can have a mind of its own in his winning entry to the Sheffield University Philosophy Essay competition.

His submission was one of just 10 chosen by the judges at Sheffield – one of the country’s leading institutions for philosophy studies – for the top prize, which included an invitation to a virtual workshop and a £25 voucher.

James said he had been encouraged to enter by Perse Head of Philosophy, Ethics & Religion Amy Cockerill due to his interest in the subject.

“The motivation to look at AI was that it’s something everyone is talking about at the moment with ChatGPT and the concern of students using it for writing essays and it’s just an area I’m really interested in,” he said.

“As part of my research, I did actually put the question ‘could AI be sentient?’ into ChatGPT and it said ‘no’!”

James investigated how AI systems work and whether they could ever be understood, as well as considering the distinctions between thought and consciousness in terms of machine learning.

He looked at the question from the perspective of biological computationalism, which reflects on the relationship between physical processes in the brain and their correlation with thought and consciousness.

James also appraised AI and thought from the viewpoint of a belief in an external mind, using renowned US philosopher John Searle’s ‘Chinese room’ theory as an example.

He said: “The argument is that a person in a closed room who doesn’t understand Chinese would be able to converse with a fluent Chinese speaker outside by following a set of algorithms on how to produce written replies.

“I concluded that the only possible way that AI can ‘think’ is if you believe in the computation of the mind and that thought comes from biological, chemical and physical systems which can be recreated by AI using ‘noughts’ and ‘zeroes’.”

James was thrilled to have won the competition and found carrying out the investigation to be a fulfilling experience.

He said: “The research process was really rewarding. I looked at a number of perspectives that I wouldn’t normally do, especially from a biological standpoint, and I found it really interesting.

“I wasn’t expecting to win as the competition was also open to Sixth Form students who are already studying philosophy, so I’m really pleased that my work paid off.”


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