Artificial Intelligence, with Oxford's Michael Wooldridge


Fourth-grade students work on laptop computers at the Monarch School in San Diego, Calif., in 2013. (Mike Blake/Reuters)

Michael Wooldridge is a computer scientist, and a specialist in artificial intelligence. He is the chairman of the computer-science department at Oxford. He has written a book for all of us — the laymen of the world: A Brief History of Artificial Intelligence: What It Is, Where We Are, and Where We Are Going. I reviewed it, here. I have now done a Q&A podcast with Professor Wooldridge, here.

“What was it like to write a book for everyone?” I asked him. A good and challenging exercise, he said. If you can’t explain something to a general audience — maybe you don’t understand it well enough. I believe this sentiment, or this insight, applies to a great many fields.

Professor Wooldridge and I talked by Zoom. Everyone likes to complain about Zoom, but it is positively amazing, isn’t it? When I was a kid, there were TV shows and movies — futuristic — imagining something just like Zoom. Talking to someone, thousands of miles away, while looking at him on a screen. And here we are.

“Behind the scenes of Zoom,” says Professor Wooldridge, “there is phenomenally clever computer technology, and AI,” meaning artificial intelligence. The fact that it all works is no less than a “miracle,” he says.

Damn right.

Professor Wooldridge was born in August 1966. He grew up in Hereford, a small market town in (of course) Herefordshire, England. “I thought it was the most boring place on earth when I grew up there. Now, when I go back, I think it’s one of the most beautiful places on earth.”

When he was a small child, the Apollo program was in swing, and he loved it: loved rockets. Then, in April 1980, when he was 13, something remarkable — something great — happened.

A friend said that there was a new thing, a computer, at the local Radio Shack. Mike Wooldridge didn’t believe it. But there it was, in the window: a TRS-80 (Model I). The boys went into the store and asked if they could play with it. The guys in the store said sure. They gave the boys a book about programming. And the boys sat right there in the window of the store, playing with the TRS-80, and writing programs for it.

“I was hooked,” says Wooldridge, “and the rest is history.” Very quickly, “I knew I had found the thing that I wanted to do.”

The first computer he ever owned, personally, was a British product: a Sinclair ZX80. He wishes he had held on to it, because today you can fetch a lot for one on eBay.

What was the first computer you ever owned, or loved? If you have a story to tell me, please write to jnordlinger@nationalreview.com.

Nowadays, says Professor Wooldridge, we all have a “supercomputer” — no less than a supercomputer — in our pocket. Easy to take for granted.

In the main part of our podcast, of course, we talk about AI: the hopes, the fears; the future of work, the future of war — other mighty issues.

For many years, Michael Wooldridge has had a love affair with AI. Why? The only limits, he says, are the limits of your imagination. In the physical world, you run into limits all the time. You build something, using steel, concrete, and the rest, and you got limits — big-time. But AI, and computing in general, is a thought world.

And a single person can imagine something great and make it real. The World Wide Web came out of the head of an Englishman named Tim Berners-Lee. Poof, the world was changed. Berners-Lee is an Edison, if you will — the lights went on.

In AI, says Michael Wooldridge — in the thought world of computing — you got “open vistas.” A beautiful concept.

Again, to listen to our podcast, go here.





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