Dame Wendy Hall is a British computer scientist and Regius Professor of Computer Science at the University of Southampton, and an Executive Director of the Web Science Institute. She was Dean of the Faculty of Physical Science and Engineering at the University of Southampton from 2010 to 2014. Between 2002 and 2007 she was Head of the School of Electronics and Computer Science, where she was founding Head of the Intelligence, Agents, and Multimedia Research Group. In 2000 she was awarded a CBE and became a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering. She is also a distinguished Fellow of the BCS, a Fellow of the IET, and of the City and Guilds of London Institute, and holds a number of honorary degrees. She became a Dame Commander of the British Empire in the 2009 UK New Year’s Honours list, and was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in the same year.
Dame Wendy was born in Ealing, West London in 1952, a classic baby boomer. Her father was an accountant and her mother a clerk until she had children, after which she worked part time. Both had been heavily involved in the war, her father as a pilot then a POW. Her parents got engaged in 1939 but were apart until 1945 when they married. She had a younger brother and home life was happy, although living conditions were basic and they were short of money
Her parents were keen on education and determined to help their children succeed. Wendy attended a new primary school and excelled at maths from an early age, so a science route was a natural choice. She went on to Ealing County Grammar School for Girls, an all-girls school with excellent teaching in maths and sciences. She did a full range of O levels, enjoyed humanities and languages as well as science and delighted in the whole learning process. She feels strongly that single sex education at secondary level is important in fostering maths and science among women, because there is no scope for gender bias or peer pressure in subject choice.
She wanted to be a doctor, but her headmistress insisted that she followed maths, on the basis that medicine was not a career for women. Although she resented this bitterly for a long time, on reflection it was probably the right decision. She did rebel, however, by refusing to go to Cambridge following a two-day induction: she hated it and felt she didn’t belong among wealthy, privileged people. She got excellent A levels and chose Southampton, based on its proximity to London and its excellent maths department.
Dame Wendy thoroughly enjoyed her undergraduate years at Southampton where she read pure maths and obtained a first. She was planning to become a teacher, but a doctorate was suggested, so she stayed on and did her PhD in algebraic topology. She loved the abstract world and had an excellent supervisor. She did some teaching, had a wonderful social life and met her future husband, a PhD physicist, playing darts. She also met her first computer, a huge mainframe. She had learned FORTRAN as part of undergraduate maths but hated it, especially the punch cards.
Dame Wendy got her PhD in 1977 and started applying for maths lecturing posts in universities, but only got one interview, at Durham, where despite being the best candidate, she was not given the job because she was a woman. Although she had been the only British female maths PhD student at Southampton this was the first time that she became aware of barriers to women in science and maths careers. Shortly afterward she successfully applied for a year’s post at Oxford Polytechnic and subsequently moved back to Southampton to be near her future husband, where she taught at a teacher training college (LSU – La Sainte Union). Although not quite what she was looking for, it proved to be very good training and she met her first personal computer, a Commodore PET. The head of department, Jack Thomas, asked her to programme it in BASIC, so they could teach it the following year. Wendy taught herself BASIC, but does not consider herself a programmer. Her strength is in abstract thinking, especially how computers can solve problems for society.
Dame Wendy saw huge educational potential in the BBC Micro which emerged at the time, and used it for simulations of engineering scenarios such as controlling power supplies and national grid. This led her to do a master’s degree, an MSc in Computing at City University, one day a week for two years, supported by her college.
Back to Academia
At this time, government policy was changing and postgraduate teaching qualifications were needed for teacher training, so she applied to Southampton University, starting in the maths department as computer science lecturer in 1984. She spent the next five years teaching undergraduates programming and theoretical computer science. She became interested in Prolog as a precursor to AI, and in videodiscs. She saw the potential of videodiscs for education and designed videodisc based teaching for the university’s anatomy department. This proved very significant: her subsequent career has been based on the use of computers in an educational context, across multiple disciplines.
At this time, she became very interested in hypermedia after visiting MIT where she met inspirational researchers like Seymour Papert, Ted Nelson and Doug Engelbart who became good friends. When she wanted to develop these ideas in the UK there was resistance, but her head of department, David Barron, supported her and she had a six-month sabbatical at the University of Michigan while her husband worked at a nearby company. The people she met during this period proved hugely influential and she subsequently wove her hypertext and hypermedia research into her teaching. This was also the time of the “mother of all demos” where Doug Engelbart demonstrated his two-handed mouse, which was revolutionary in changing the way we interact with computers.
Dame Wendy was promoted to Senior Lecturer and continued her pioneering research, building a hypermedia system called Microcosm that enabled people to find information on demand, in a multimedia information system. She started designing it before her sabbatical, continued to work on it on her return (assisted by her PhD students), and did a demo in 1989, the same year that Tim Berners-Lee wrote his manifesto for the Web. She managed to continue this research strand alongside her teaching and management obligations and in 1994 was offered the Chair in Engineering. She was Southampton’s first female professor of engineering.
The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (ESPRC)
Shortly after that the Vice-Chancellor, Howard Newby, awarded her one of the research fellowships that was within his gift. This was a turning point because it gave her the time to write a successful proposal for an EPSRC Senior Fellowship. This in turn funded five years of pure research to develop Microcosm into an intelligence system. They took on Nick Jennings and Nigel Shadbolt and created the Intelligence, Agents, Multimedia Research Group. They also developed a web version.
At that point EPSRC invited her to site on the EPSRC Council, which was an enormous privilege. It was also a very significant step because she was responsible for determining the direction of EPSRC research. This was the starting point for all her subsequent policy work.
2000: CBE and RAE
In the year 2000 Dame Wendy was awarded a CBE and received it from the Queen at Buckingham Palace. The award was the result of the work she did on the EPSRDC Council, but the letter came as a wonderful surprise at the time. During the same year she was made Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering, another really significant achievement. This was attributable to her work on Microscosm, a hypermedia system similar to the Web but more sophisticated and proprietary. This was a particularly special award because it signified recognition from her peers. At the time there were only about 16 women in the Academy, out of 120.
BCS Presidency and changes at Southampton University
In 2003 she became President of the BCS, a role she had worked up to through other voluntary posts, starting with Chair of the Publications Board. In 2001 she had progressed to become Head of the Department of Electronic and Computer Science at Southampton University so the BCS post looked timely. But just then things were restructured, and the Department changed into a School of Electronics and Computer Science with different governance rules and structures. This was rather challenging, but she got on with both jobs and thoroughly enjoyed her year as BCS President. The challenges did not stop there: she enjoyed being Head of Electronics and Computer Science but was not sure about doing a management job permanently. Then a serious fire destroyed two buildings whilst she was abroad so much of her last two years were spent dealing with disaster recovery issues whilst continuing to manage the school. She reflects that it was an interesting leadership learning experience.
Web Science Research Initiative
In 2006 she was delighted to be recognised by peers in the US when she was won the Anita Borg award for leadership. In the same year she became a founding director of the Web Science Research Initiative. This has since been a major part of her career and emerged from a 2004 discussion between Tim Berners Lee at MIT, herself and Nigel Shadbolt about building a Semantic Web in Europe. The evolution of the web was not just about technology – it had to involve and accommodate social and economic structures – from law to behaviour. So they wanted to develop and foster interdisciplinary study of the web, which they called Web Science (a term she dislikes) but really is about building knowledge through a connective network. The Web Science Research Initiative was developed jointly between MIT and Southampton University, a not for profit trust to encourage an interdisciplinary approach to the Web, which includes developments like AI. She runs the Southampton Institute.
Guest Professorships and Internationalising the ACM
In 2008 Dame Wendy was made a guest Professor at Tsinghua University in Beijing, a graduate school in Shenzhen in China that had been seeking collaboration with universities with common interests. She had joined their advisory board and there were reciprocal visits several times a year. She was also the first non-North American to be elected President of the Association of Computing Machinery, the ACM, a US body. Again, an unexpected telephone call preceded a rewarding collaboration. She joined their Publications Board, had a seat on their Council and became Vice President and then President. She helped to internationalise the ACM and set up regional councils in Europe, India and China.
From Windsor Castle to the Library of Congress, via FRS and BCS
In 2009 and 2010 she was promoted to Dame Commander of the British Empire; she went with her family to Windsor Castle to receive it, again from the Queen but in a more intimate setting than the grandeur of Buckingham Palace. The following year she was made a Fellow of the Royal Society. She describes the fellowship as a real pinnacle in terms of peer recognition, especially for a computer scientist among more traditional disciplines. She is on the Council and is Chair of the Publications Board.
Other public recognition for Dame Wendy in subsequent years includes being listed as one of the 100 most powerful women by Women’s Hour and awarded the Kluge Chair in Technology and Society at the Library of Congress in the US. She thinks they make interesting comparisons: she has mixed feelings about awards for women: while she would rather be recognised for what she does she accepts that there is a need to raise the profile of women. Although she was particularly pleased to be the first woman to have been made Distinguished Fellow of the BCS, along with Martha Lane Fox, she wants it to be clear that this is because she is a computer scientist, not a woman. The Kluge Chair was a wonderful and unexpected opportunity to spend three months of 2016 in the Library of congress in Washington, where she worked with them to create a digital library out of their archives. She is still advising them on their digital strategy.
AI and Alan Turing
In 2017 Dame Wendy was asked to co-chair a UK government review on Artificial Intelligence with Jérôme Pesenti. This had probably been catalysed by Schwab’s book on the Fourth Industrial Revolution, and they started work in March 2017 to a very tight deadline, delivering the report on October of the same year. The result was that AI was included in the Industrial Strategy as a Sector Deal, with funding provided in the 2017 budget and an announcement in 2018. There would soon be an AI Council where she would remain engaged with an AI skills brief.
The concept of an AI sector perfectly complemented the work that the Alan Turing Institute was doing to stimulate the design and development of the algorithms that would make use of big data and enable AI. She observes that the funding of the Alan Turing Institute, like that of the Crick Institute, is a mixture of government and university. She views this as the ideal home of AI activity: from a data science perspective it makes no sense to create a separate body, and the funding will strengthen the Alan Turing Institute, which will be able to supervise and fund AI PhDs in universities.
In 2005 Dame Wendy received the UK Fawcett Campaign Prize for equality, which recognised her work to encourage more women into computing – something she has worked on continuously as long as she can remember, writing her first paper in 1988. Women had been involved in computing in the fifties, but the era of personal computing changed the science culture to a geek culture, something that is still a problem today.
When asked about women, Dame Wendy feels there is need for balance: computing needs to involve everybody. Getting women interested in coding is hard but there are cultural differences – a computer course in India more than 50% will be female, while Silicon Valley is a toxic environment for women. Getting women onto computer science sources, into the workforce and into interdisciplinary teams is a priority. An industry that defines the future will provide the highest paying jobs, and will become the best place to be.
When asked to reflect on her proudest achievements, the royal Society just pips Windsor Castle, because it is peer recognition in a hugely competitive field. In terms of what she might have done differently, she has few regrets. When she has undertaken things, she has always committed herself fully, and she has enjoyed her time both at Southampton and in her many voluntary roles. Although she has set up companies, she is not an entrepreneur – she likes her non-executive directorships but would not want to spend her life running a company. She relishes the policy and advisory role she currently has.
Looking ahead, Dame Wendy thinks that the next five years will only be the start of AI, and that it won’t be mainstream for two or three decades. She feels that people must learn to manage the balance between digital devices and real life, and that the big issues relate to how technology and society work together. Her experiences in China have taught her that more centralised approaches to internet can make things safer but can be culturally problematic for us. She takes the view that we must address these differences: the Chinese are going to be dominant in AI and we need to work with them.
In the longer term, AI presents enormous opportunities to deal with mundane jobs, but social contracts have to be renegotiated and jobs that need people must be adequately valued. While we don’t know exactly how AI will develop, we can’t ignore it and we can’t pretend it won’t happen.
Interviewed by: Elisabetta Mori on teh 30th November 2018 at BCS London offices
Transcribed by: Susan Hutton
Abstracted by: Emma Fryer