Skip to main content

Ian Watson – Four Way Interview

Ian Watson is a professor of artificial intelligence at the University of Auckland New Zealand. His latest book is The Universal Machine: from the dawn of computing to digital consciousness, exploring the legacy of Alan Turing, the inventor of the computer. He is a keen blogger and is currently researching in Game AI.
Why science?
I’ve never felt it’s a matter of choosing science over something else. At school I specialised in Biology, Chemistry and English Literature for my university entrance exams. My school said, “You can’t do that! You’ve got to specialise in either the sciences or the arts.” I replied, “I can do that. The timetable permits it – I checked.” Going from a chemistry or biology lab to an English Lit. class or vice versa was constantly refreshing and stimulating.
Steve Jobs was often photographed in front of a mythical street intersection: Liberal Arts and Technology. He famously said “In my perspective … computer science is a liberal art.” I agree with him; to be inventive in computer science you have to imagine it first. It’s a creative act – computer scientists are not discoverers exploring reality and bringing back theories, we’re creative artists, imagining things and making them happen.
Why this book?
There are many books about difference parts of the history of computing from Charles Babbage to the present day. I’ve read many of them, but most are only for the real enthusiast: 600 plus pages on Steve Jobs or Facebook is not for everyone. I wanted to write one book that would cover all the basics from the 1830s to the present day and be accessible and easy to read. 2012 is also the centenary of Alan Turing’s birth and I felt that a book that put his legacy in its full context would be a great contribution to the Alan Turing Year celebrations.
What’s next?
I’ve now started work on a popular science history of artificial intelligence. AI is probably the aspect of computer science that most fascinates and even frightens people. I intend to look at the history of AI from the mythical creations of ancient history through mechanical automata to the birth of AI in the 1950s and to today. The book will then deal, in layperson terms, with the main techniques of AI and look at how AI has been applied in business and industry, health care, the arts and entertainment and the military. The final chapter will look over the horizon at what AI may have in store for us in the future.
What’s exciting you at the moment?
In computing it’s the power of the cloud to provide us with unlimited processing power and data storage where ever we are via our mobile devices. Soon we’ll no longer care how much processing power or memory our new gadget has – this will be utterly irrelevant. The advent of this will enable a completely new class of intelligent applications become feasible – I call it cloud intelligence, perhaps I should write a book about it.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Cosmology for the Curious - Delia Perlov and Alex Vilenkin ***

In the recently published The Little Book of Black Holes we saw what I thought was pretty much impossible - a good, next level, general audience science title, spanning the gap between a typical popular science book and an introductory textbook, but very much in the style of popular science. Cosmology for the Curious does something similar, but coming from the other direction. This is an introductory textbook, intended for first year physics students, with familiar textbook features like questions to answer at the end of each chapter. Yet by incorporating some history and context, plus taking a more relaxed style in the writing, it's certainly more approachable than a typical textbook.

The first main section, The Big Bang and the Observable Universe not only covers basic big bang cosmology but fills in the basics of special and general relativity, Hubble's law, dark matter, dark energy and more. We then move onto the more speculative (this is cosmology, after all) aspects, brin…

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry – Neil deGrasse Tyson *****

When I reviewed James Binney’s Astrophysics: A Very Short Introduction earlier this year, I observed that the very word ‘astrophysics’ in a book’s title is liable to deter many readers from buying it. As a former astrophysicist myself, I’ve never really understood why it’s considered such a scary word, but that’s the way it is. So I was pleasantly surprised to learn, from Wikipedia, that this new book by Neil deGrasse Tyson ‘topped The New York Times non-fiction bestseller list for four weeks in the middle of 2017’.

Like James Binney, Tyson is a professional astrophysicist with a string of research papers to his name – but he’s also one of America’s top science popularisers, and that’s the hat he’s wearing in this book. While Binney addresses an already-physics-literate audience, Tyson sets his sights on a much wider readership. It’s actually very brave – and honest – of him to give physics such prominent billing; the book could easily have been given a more reader-friendly title such …

Once upon and Algorithm - Martin Erwig ***

I've been itching to start reading this book for some time, as the premise was so intriguing - to inform the reader about computer science and algorithms using stories as analogies to understand the process.

This is exactly what Martin Erwig does, starting (as the cover suggests) with Hansel and Gretel, and then bringing in Sherlock Holmes (and particularly The Hound of the Baskervilles), Indiana Jones, the song 'Over the Rainbow' (more on that in a moment), Groundhog Day, Back to the Future and Harry Potter.

The idea is to show how some aspect of the story - in the case of Hansel and Gretel, laying a trail of stones/breadcrumbs, then attempting to follow them home - can be seen as a kind of algorithm or computation and gradually adding in computing standards, such as searching, queues and lists, loops, recursion and more.

This really would have been a brilliant book if Erwig had got himself a co-author who knew how to write for the public, but sadly the style is mostly heavy…