“Society will change because of three developments –
- open innovation – allows any one to participate and contribute to the generation of new insights, content and knowledge. It challenges those who have a vested interest in closed data and methods, restricted markets and knowledge;
- linked data – the next generation will have at their disposal a web of linked data. They will be able to find things much more easily, leading to the rapid emergence of new ideas, products and services, disrupting existing business models;
- collective intelligence – the web connects people, computers and data to produce systems much more powerful than the component parts. These systems will be essential to solve the challenges humanity faces, from climate change to public health, social inequality to crisis management. We need to understand how to conceive, design and maintain these systems.”
Nigel was born in 1956, and likes to say that he is the same age as the Space Age. He was brought up in Derbyshire, in the Peak District, in a small village, Ashford-in-the-Water. He was always passionate about science, reading endless books, a lot of them science fiction, which inspired him to think about, about all sorts of things from robots to aliens, and, he also had a passion for astronomy, so spent a lot of time looking at the stars. His parents hadn’t been to university themselves; his father was the local policeman, and his mother worked as a secretary in a local teaching college. Growing up Nigel always felt he had to be quite careful as the son of the local policeman as the surveillance society was already in place; in a small village, most people knew what you were up to.
Nigel went to a small local primary school, and then on to grammar school, via the Eleven Plus. He attended the Lady Manners School which had a proud tradition of being a mixed school. It had been originally in Bakewell and had moved during the Second World War to premises in an old isolation hospital. Nigel recalls there was a lot of camaraderie and that many of his friends came from villages and towns around that area as the school had quite a large catchment area. He was interested in lots of things and could never quite decide what to do, from science and, and the humanities, through to making music and, and playing sport.
At A Level Nigel studied the sciences and imagined at one stage that he would go into a profession but, actually ended up going in a very different direction. He had always had been interested how our minds work and the nature of consciousness, and had read science fiction books, and was captivated. Seeing 2001: A space Odyssey led him to think “well wouldn’t it be amazing to know enough to build a machine that can match the human being at playing chess, or, understanding language, or responding”. That led to the idea of going to study a subject that would get him to understand some of the conundrums and issues around how the mind works, and he ended up at Newcastle University studying philosophy and psychology.
In 1978 Nigel obtained a First Class Honours Degree from the University of Newcastle. He knew he wanted to do a PhD, but it always seemed to him that he wanted to kind of carry on doing the research. The questions were just too interesting. At the time it was a choice between the cognitive, the neuroscience basis of brains, and this new emerging area of artificial intelligence. On offer was a PhD in the only department of artificial intelligence in Europe at the time, which was at Edinburgh, and that’s where he decided to go. Rather than going and studying the actual neural basis of vision in living organisms, which was on offer at the University of Sussex.
Nigel feels he was very lucky with his PhD programme. He was in the School of Epistemics which was a collaboration, between different departments, artificial intelligence, linguistics, psychology and philosophy. He got taught in his first year the very different approaches to asking questions about how does the human mind work, whether you’re a psychologist, or whether you’re trying to write a program to understand language, or whether you’re a structural linguist, or whether you’re interested in the philosophy, how language works philosophically. In that first year, there were a lot of options, and a number of students, including Nigel, working on that programme settled on their final areas of study quite late. In the end he settled on language and language structure and understanding, and in particular how dialogue or conversation is organised. It was really a mix of the empirical studies and trying to see what actual people did when they were, particularly trying to engage in tasks that allowed them, required them to kind of share information of a particular sort, how they structured their conversation, and could you build essentially a model or a computer program to do the same?
As he was coming to the end of his PhD funding, there were lectureships being offered, and, one of them was at Newcastle University. It was in the Department of Psychology, and it was to advertise the cognitive science lectureship and they were interested in people who had a background in AI. Historically, AI has tended to thrive either in engineering or computer science departments, or else in psychology departments. And at that time in the Eighties, that’s what was happening at Nottingham.
Nigel moved to Nottingham without his PhD written and assured himself it was only going to be a few months before it would be finished. It was a year and a bit later that it finally got handed in. During his time at Nottingham he became a Reader in intelligent systems, which is between a lecturer and a professor, and sometimes called an associate professor nowadays, and then on to a full professorship. This at the relatively early stage of his career when he was about 36.
When he started at Nottingham AI was called knowledge engineering or expert systems and, the thought was that, to really build expert decision support systems, or expert systems, systems that were capable in an area of human expertise, you had to study the human experts. How would you structure the knowledge, how do you get the knowledge out of experts, how do you code it in programs, and, build appropriate interfaces to such systems? A large part of the work during that time was addressing those sorts of questions. And it was a core part of a lot of the funding in those days, to build these decision support systems, and, many of them were very successfully deployed. Having the company of psychologists was extremely valuable in his work and, they allowed him the capacity to set up an artificial group within the department that had a range of interests, many members of staff, and they were also teaching joint degrees in psychology and artificial intelligence, which was very exciting.
He feels he was fortunate, as the head of department at the time in Nottingham, Professor Ian Howarth, was a psychologist, who had always had an interest in artificial intelligence. The whole area of how you understand and how you can model intelligent behaviour and where you draw your inspiration from has had many ways of being referred to over the years, intelligent systems research, artificial intelligence, cognitive emulation, lots of different ways. The basic idea is, we are an existence proof of a system that knows how to solve problems. Can you build systems off those bases? And many of the systems that they did build were blends of inspiration from human problem solving, and exploiting the raw power of, of algorithms and engineering in a way that didn’t necessarily stick to how we know people solve problems.
Nigel is pleased with the fact that while he was at Nottingham they established courses in artificial intelligence and cognitive science. They tried to bridge the disciplinary divide between psychology and computing science and other subjects graduated students with degrees in these who have gone on to do interesting work. He’s also proud of the fact that, that they managed to do a lot of significant applied work. In that period, he worked a lot with industrial and consulting companies, one in the early days was Cambridge Consultants down on the Science Park in Cambridge. He is quite proud of the actual systems they built and deployed; some of these were in defence contexts, some were in financial contexts and one was even in brewing.
In 2000 an interesting opportunity arose of an appointment at Southampton that was going to be an appointment in a department of electronics and computer science. So, having spent many happy years in the company of psychologists Nigel felt that if he had a critical mass of engineers as well to interact with, that would be a very good next stage. They also had a very significant interest and experience in both Internet and Web technologies and in the Nineties, he was becoming experienced of this. He had PhD students working on trying to see what opportunities were available to put intelligence into the Web, or intelligent algorithms on the nodes in the Web architecture, what could that do? Southampton just seemed to offer that real capability.
At Southampton Nigel homed in on Semantic Web research. As the Web became viral, and massive, and everywhere, connecting hundreds of millions and then billions of individuals, with huge amounts of computing resource, he began to imagine that, what would happen if you could treat aspects of the data at each of the nodes in the Web graph as kind of a distributed database. Or what if you could treat users of the Web as assisted agents in doing various forms of intelligent problem-solving. The Semantic Web was trying to build technologies to support parts of that idea and is where Tim Berners-Lee and Nigel first began their work together.
In 2015 Nigel moved, at least workwise, to Oxford. He had been at Southampton since 2000, and, had also been observing the emergence of a very broad-based computer science and AI effort across the University of Oxford, not just in the Department of Computer Science but in Information Engineering, in the Oxford Internet Institute, in the Division of Medicine. Huge amounts of activity were taking place around topics that interested him, and he thought it would be wonderful he could go into Oxford with a role as a head of house. He took on the principalship of Jesus College, but also has an appointment in the Department of Computer Science as a Professorial Research Fellow there.
Nigel’s ambitions whilst at Oxford are, to help make extraordinary educational possibility available to anyone who’s got the talent, irrespective of means. He knows people worry about access to Oxford, but they’re working incredibly hard on that. Computer science provision is being expanded within the university. They have an exciting strategy wherein they will be developing a new part on the site containing a digital hub where the whole idea is to, to show how computational methods and thinking can, can spread across all disciplines from history to English to modern languages to sociology to, engineering and science, subjects where it’s, where it’s understood. He is excited about what’s happening in the Department of Computer Science. Excited about what’s happening in the whole area of, of AI and, and human centre computing in Oxford generally. For him, education is one of our critical national assets, and we must really think about putting it to its best use.
In 2009, then Prime Minister Gordon Brown appointed Nigel, along with Sir Tim Berners-Lee, as Information Adviser for the UK Government. Tim and Nigel had been working together on the AKT project. Nigel had been working also with a little-known, but interesting part of Government, called the Office of Public Sector Information and they were making the information that Government collects, more widely available. Not information about people, but information about public service issues, like, where the hospitals are, or, where the train stations are, or, all sorts of public data.
Different countries have very different rules about whether this data is a) available and b) whether you must pay for it, right down to whether your maps are available openly as open data. So, this work was commissioned by two civil servants who had heard of their work in AKT, and wondered if that method, would help link all this data that’s laying across, government, local government, arm’s length bodies, organisations like the National Health, or like the Ordnance Survey who manage our maps, and so on. Carol Tullo and John Sheridan, went to see Nigel and he then started to work with them on this project of using technologies like the Semantic Web to integrate public sector information, and publish it back. They had some great examples to show, and the work was published in a report to Parliament in about, 2007. Tim Berners-Lee was aware of this, and one day he was having lunch with Gordon Brown who had asked him “what can we do to make best use of the Web?” Tim said, ‘Put your data on it.’ And that very simple suggestion evinced the reply, ‘OK, let’s do it.’ Tim contacted Nigel and said, ‘We’re going to go to No. 10 and we’re going to be talking to them about this “making public data public” project. And, it was born from there. They had a clear set of ideas, and a fantastic mandate from the Prime Minister. They were assigned somebody from the Cabinet Office, a great civil servant, Andrew Stott, who, who absolutely understood what the possibilities were, and was also tech savvy. They had about 300 datasets at launch, and then it became 3,000, and now it’s 40,000. One thing that happened as a result of the published data was that an adviser whose friend had been killed in a bicycle accident in London, wondered whether there was a map of the blackspots for cycle accidents. And there was such a map, it was in a spreadsheet in the Department of Transport. That got published out. And within a few days, an app had been built to help you, navigate you around accident blackspots.
Under David Cameron, Nigel became a member of the UK Public Sector Transparency Board, and then in 2011 Chair of the UK Government’s Midata programme. The Midata programme was a brainchild of people in a part of Government who were saying, what if consumers had more control and power over their own information? A programme was set up to look at the possibility of commercial data about us as individuals being made available to ourselves for our own benefit. For example, this in a utility area like electricity or gas. If someone knew a large amount about their consumption patterns, and about what they are being charged for, and about what was available out there on the market, and it was easy to port this information around, it might make switching easier. That programme got off the ground, and Nigel thinks that’s very much unfinished business, work in progress.
In his November 2011 Autumn Statement, the Chancellor granted £10 million of funding, to Nigel and, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, to found the Open Data Institute. The argument was made that, open data was not just about improving public services, or about transparency; that if you made this information available, you generate economic activity and economic value. So, the proposition was that, if they could get some public funding, they could set up an organisation which would act as a catalyst for building this data ecosystem. The Open Data Institute, which is just on five years old, has been busy both promoting that, providing advice on policy, undertaking training, generating start-ups, talking to public and private sector organisations about how to publish their data. both Nigel and Tim are extraordinarily proud of what it’s achieved. It’s not of government, it’s a company limited by guarantee, so it sits independently, but, any value that it generates is ploughed back into the core mission, which is this whole idea of, of finding the value in data for everyone.
Nigel first got involved in BCS activities through the Expert Systems Special Interest Group back in the Eighties and had even helped to organise Expert System conferences in the Eighties and Nineties. Nigel’s links with the BCS centrally were encouraged by Wendy Hall. She was interested when he moved to Southampton and said he ought to get involved, and there was a need for people with his kind of background to help the BCS in what it was trying to achieve. And so, he found himself President in its fiftieth year, which was particularly exciting.
In 2006 Nigel, became a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering
In 2013 Nigel was knighted for his services to science and engineering. He was particularly proud of was the fact that it was for services to both of those aspects of his life. He feels it’s a huge honour but realises that he hugely benefited from the contributions and efforts of others, and couldn’t have done it without huge amounts of support from those around him. He thinks it’s great that people who work in these areas, in computer science, in the STEM subjects can be viewed as recipients, because it’s good for the subject more generally.
In 2017 Nigel was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society which he again feels is a huge honour as it is famously the oldest continuous scientific society in the world and kind of invented the concept of scientific publication. He says there is something spine-tingling about putting your name to the Charter Book where you write on a vellum page and apparently for most people who join, the biggest worry is, are they going to blot their name with ink. The Charter Book is full of an extraordinary cast of characters. Isaac Newton’s signature’s in there, and Robert Hooke’s signature is in there, and, Alan Turing’s, and gives a sense of this sweep of history and the ideas there. He thinks the Royal Society, and the Royal Academy, although they’re societies, are guardians of something hugely important. He has been thinking about where we find ourselves, both politically and geopolitically, in 2017, the assault on the notion of, of verifiable facts, alternative facts, talks of a post-fact world, no need for experts, all this arrant nonsense which, anybody in science and engineering knows one thing for sure, the world will find you out. And so, if you think that you can actually wish the facts were otherwise when you’re designing your aeroplane or your computer program, the world will find you out.
Geoff and Mary Midgley were a couple who influenced Nigel at Nottingham. Geoff Midgley, a wonderful logician who had worked and studied extensively on the area of the nature of language and could language be understood, and human abilities understood, in terms of programs essentially. He was a very early kind of thinker in this area in the late Seventies. But also, countervailing, there was Mary Midgley, and she was an ethicist, a very famous moral philosopher, who worried about the unbridled march of the scientific method without reflecting hard about what science was trying to do, and, and whether it was accounting sufficiently for a full range of human experience, and whether in some cases we needed strong moral and ethical codes for the science we were undertaking. He feels those questions are every bit as important now.
Also, one of his teachers, Chris Leach was actually involved in statistics and methodological design in psychology, but was also interested in AI and was an influence. He feels you are very influenced by the people you work with and at Edinburgh, that included Professor Gillian Brown, who was trying to understand how humans learnt to organise and, take part in, in dialogue.
AI is a subject where the underlying capability has improved by ten to the sixth a million-fold, new opportunities emerge, and even when you’re in the heart of these rates of change, you can be caught out, surprised, amazed, delighted, slightly made fearful by, by the rates of change. He thinks what’s going to happen is, notwithstanding some cataclysmic event, we’re going to be living in a world that is a mesh of virtual and physical, it will be pervaded with intelligent devices, ambient intelligence as it’s so called. And, the services that we choose to provide off the back of that, for good or ill, or for health or leisure, or for work and play, those are going to be remarkable new capabilities. And as a society we’ve got to think how we put them to the best use, whether it’s in elder care, whether it’s in education, and whether it’s in the defence of the realm, we must think about those issues now.
Nigel would like to see a much more diverse demographic going into computer science. He did a review for the Government on employability in 2016, and seeing what was happening to computer science graduates across the country, and the subject does well in terms of various forms of diversity, and people from different ethnic backgrounds do quite well compared to other science disciplines. The area we are poor at still is, is gender, and, the number of women coming into the subject is a cause of really serious concern. He feels you have got to work hard and go back a long way to understand where the roots of that problem are, and where systematically, systems are failing us in providing that capability. It’s not a matter of STEM; women pursue in large numbers careers in, for example, the life sciences, in biology. What needs to be done in computer science actively? He knows this is in the minds of many, but, in his college, they have a balance of gender in subjects. It has to be got to grips with in computer science.
Be prepared for huge amounts of change.
Entering the IT industry, you need a fundamental understanding of your subject, fundamental in the sense of, knowing some of the basic principles around how to build efficient and effective programs, how to build equitable and effective interfaces, how to deploy reliable and secure services. Nigel thinks, there is such a widespread dependence now on IT that people entering the profession should really think about, putting themselves through an extended and broad range of training and that constant revisiting of the skill set through their professional life is almost inevitable. However, the possibility of what can be achieved with the tools and methods we now have available is really very exciting. So, his advice is to go where the interesting problems are for you, from, what inspires you as an individual.
Interviewed by: Jonathan Sinfield on the 12th October 2017 at the WCIT Hall
Transcribed by: Susan Hutton
Abstracted by: Helen Carter