Director of Microsoft Research, Cambridge, gets his revenge

At Leeds on Friday (see yesterday’s entry for more background) the main keynote speech was delivered by Dr Andrew Herbert, Director of Microsoft Research, Cambridge, who was a student at Leeds in the early 1970s. His talk was entitled, “Why everything I learned at Leeds in 1972 is no longer true” and he declared it to be, in part, an opportunity to have his revenge on his lecturers of thirty years ago. Continuing this blog’s interest in all things lunch oriented, Andrew noted that revenge is a dish best eaten cold, and that in this case, given the thirty-five year wait, it was “glacial”.

His main point was that there have been enormous technological changes and much of what was being taught in the ’70s was focused on “overcoming the limitation of the machine” e.g. speed of processor, size of memory, poor quality displays, use of punch cards etc. Some of Dr Herbert’s points were more obvious, for example: the day of the stand-alone computer is over, we live in the age of the networked computer. Secondly, software is much more complex than it used to be: testing code by simple ‘desk’ review (people who work in publishing can equate this to being a bit like proofreading) is no longer sufficient. Also, we need new ways of organising and visualising the large amounts of information on our systems – hierarchical file systems have had their day.

Other things were more complex. For example, the questions affecting Artificial Intelligence research have changed – the issue now is how far are we prepared to put our faith in computer algorithms that demonstrate ‘intelligence’. What if computers can’t explain WHY they’ve made a decision?

He also made the point that we are still in the process of defining the subject of computer science and there is a need to make it clear to people today that there is a definite discipline of computing and it is not just a group of techies playing around with gadgets. He said: “we have some way to go in persuading other disciplines that we have a theoretical underpinning”. This was very interesting to me as I feel quite strongly that we need to keep the ‘science’ in computer science. And when I say that, I mean we need to keep hold of the importance of ideas and the spirit of exploration and investigation, rather than turning into a purely vocational course of study.

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