Stories from a Life in Interesting Times
Abstract of the lecture
I have lived in interesting times. My stories will recount the twists of fate and circumstance that moulded my thinking and my career as an information scientist. My deep thanks for the award of the Kyoto Prize for the year 2000 will be best expressed if any of my listeners is warned by my mistakes or inspired by my success to contribute further to the goals of the founder of the prize-the betterment of mankind and society.
Born in Sri Lanka in 1934, I spent several years of the last world war in Zimbabwe and South Africa. In 1946, my father retired to England, and I made a late start on a traditional English education. I specialised in classical Greek and Latin, including the languages and the literature, and graduated in 1956 from Oxford University in these subjects, together with ancient history and philosophy, which was always my favourite. The Russian language I learnt during two years' national service in the Royal Navy. Then I returned to Oxford as a graduate student for the Certificate in Statistics-my only official scientific or professional qualification. I was attracted to the subject by its implications for the philosophical questions of human knowledge and uncertainty. My final year as a student I spent at Moscow State University, in Kolmogorov's school of probability. There I invented the quicksort algorithm, and investigated the state of the art in computer translation of natural languages. This was the topic of my first scientific article, written and published in Russian.
Back in England in 1960, I decided to stop studying and start working. I joined a small computer manufacturing Company as a programmer. Again, I was attracted to computing by its philosophical implications, though I thought (how wrongly!) that the period of major expansion of the subject was already over. I designed a translator for an artificial language, the international algorithmic language, ALGOL 60. Promoted beyond my capabilities, I then supervised the development of an operating system that never worked, and a machine architecture that was never built. The Company was absorbed into two larger Companies, and I returned to academic life as Professor of Computing Science at the Queen's University, Belfast, to teach the subject that I had learnt by eight years of hard experience in industry.
1968 was just the start of the intensive period of the civil disturbances in Northern Ireland that are only now subsiding. In spite of this, I was able to recruit a strong team to the computing department, to meet a rapidly expanding demand for education in the subject. My research had a practical goal: I wanted to understand the reasons for the success and the failure of my earlier projects in industry. In tackling the problems, I took a long-term, almost philosophical view. I planned a research agenda that would last throughout my academic life, because I knew its results would hardly be ripe for application in industry until after my retirement some thirty years ahead. In 1977, I moved to the chair of Computation at Oxford, where again, from smaller beginnings, I assembled the funds and recruited a team to introduce the subject of computing into the curricula of the University. I retired last year as senior Professor in the Faculty of Mathematics, to move back into industry.
I am now working as a senior researcher for Microsoft Research at Cambridge. Here I will pursue my early hope that the results of pure research, my own and that of others, may be applied by those engaged in the writing of large-scale computer software, for the benefit of the increasing numbers of those who use it. Perhaps in the years to come, that will be the whole of mankind.