Jon Oberlander, Professor of Epistemics in the School of Informatics, is the winner of this year's Tam Dalyell Prize for Excellence in Engaging the Public with Science, the University award for public engagement.
Why do you think it's important for scientists to engage with the wider public?
I love research, and I am privileged to get to pursue knowledge for a living. But we can’t take that privilege for granted: those of us who get to do research have a responsibility to communicate clearly with our publics – the ultimate funders of the pursuit of knowledge – in a dialogue about the risks, costs and benefits to society.
Please can you give us a glimpse of what the audience at your talk can expect to hear?
I’m going to zero in on some of the potential consequences of recent developments in artificial intelligence. Up to now, intelligence and intelligent things have been in short supply. What happens when we have a super-abundance of intelligent things? I’ll talk about how the value we attach to knowledge may be changing – and not in a good way – and also about how having lots of artificial agents around us may make it harder to know what to do when things go wrong. But the good news is that we can turn things around, and that good design is the key.
Your research focuses on enabling machines to communicate with individual people. What potential do you think this has for society?
It’s already making a huge difference: there’s a great buzz around personal assistants like Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa. Machine translation has made enormous strides, and is helping break down communication barriers. But we’re still only at the beginning of the changes these systems will bring, and one thing I’ll talk about is the fact that just because we can make things that talk, doesn’t mean we should make every single thing talk. And if we know the kind of future we really want, we can design our way towards it.
Can you highlight one or two challenging areas within your research that you hope will eventually bring benefits for the public?
Designing better interactions between people and data is crucial. Right now, we are surrounded by systems which make it hard for people to know what data is being captured about them, what is being done with it, and who has access to it. My colleagues, especially those in the Centre for Design Informatics, are doing inspiring work on this.
How do you think people's relationships with computerised devices will evolve in coming decades?
One of the key things is that in the past, computing might all have happened in one place on one material device: a computer with suitable peripherals. Now, we often neither know nor care where the computing takes place. That’s why our relationships will likely be with our data, not our devices. On that view, the most important parts of the iPhone were the apps, and now it’s going to be Siri. So in a few decades, Siri’s descendents will still be around, even if shiny toys like the iPhone aren’t so visible.
What do you get out of taking part in the Science Festival?
Spending time with brilliant people!
The Tam Dalyell Prize Lecture will take place at 6pm on Sunday 16 April in the Playfair Library, Old College. Tickets are free but ticketed.