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Wendy Hall: "The way our governments regulate artificial intelligence will determine our futures very much"

In her speech, Dame Hall looked back on her academic and professional career, as well as some of the challenges she has had to face. (Photo: UOC)

Andrea Romanos

UOC awards an honorary doctorate to Dame Wendy Hall, PhD in Mathematics and Regius Professor of Computer Science, in recognition of her academic career in the fields of Artificial Intelligence, the Semantic Web and Web Science

Dame Wendy Hall, PhD in Mathematics and Regius Professor of Computer Science, was awarded an honorary doctorate by the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC) on Thursday 2 March, in recognition of her academic career in the fields of Artificial Intelligence, the Semantic Web and Web Science, her inclusive vision of technology as a resource for people's well-being, and her leading role in the fight for gender equality and against horizontal segregation in the field of technology. UOC President Josep A. Planell presided over the ceremony which also involved the director of the Internet Interdisciplinary Institute (IN3), David Megías and the dean of the Faculty of Computer Science, Multimedia and Telecommunications, Daniel Riera. The ceremony took place in the auditorium on the UOC campus, and was streamed live on the internet.

In her speech, Dame Hall looked back on her academic and professional career, as well as some of the challenges she has had to face. The first, she said, was gender inequality: "I wanted to study Medicine, but my headmistress wouldn't let me. This was 1969, and she told me Medicine was not a career for women." That was how she started a career in Mathematics, which she refers to as "my natural skill", on the cusp of the computer revolution. "I hated computers at university," she laughingly confessed, admitting that she reluctantly studied programming. But, despite never having enjoyed programming, she explained how thanks to having studied a PhD in Pure Mathematics, she learned to think abstractly, and she later applied this skill to computing. "A lot of computer scientists get very deep in the detail of programming, and they don't look at the big picture. Part of my skill is that I understand enough to know what we can do today, but I abstract out of it to think about where this might lead us tomorrow."

When discussing her intuition that has made her able to foresee the paths technological innovation would follow, Dame Hall explained how as a result of her experience with educational videos for the programming language Pascal, and before the concept of multimedia existed, she realized that it could be possible to have text, images, video and sound on a computer screen and to interact with it. "In those days – the early 1990s – that was science fiction," she said. Using the hypermedia systems invented by Ted Nelson, with her team she started designing Microcosm, "a system that although it had two or three problems, was much better than the World Wide Web," she joked. But while Microcosm was being developed, Sir Timothy Berners-Lee, who was also awarded an honorary doctorate by the UOC in 2008, invented the World Wide Web, an open, universal and much simpler system that took off quickly. "We're now living with that decision, because its openness has also set the seeds for the problems we have today in how we manage it," she said.

Dame Hall also emphasized interdisciplinarity, one of the cornerstones of her work: "When you start something new, especially when you're an academic, there are no journals or conferences to publish in or go to, you have to create those as well. So that's why we get called pioneers," she explained, highlighting the risks involved. She also mentioned being told by the professors at the University of Southampton that she would have no future in computer science "if I didn't stop playing around with videos". "It's hard," she confessed.

In recent years, after receiving a telephone call from the British Government in 2017, she has worked on areas related to Artificial Intelligence. "I'm very excited about the new AI regulation paper that's coming out this month. We'll see how it relates to the European Union's Artificial Intelligence Act. They both have their strengths and weaknesses," she said. Dame Hall said she is still passionate about all of these issues, and concluded her speech by looking to the future. Marking the fiftieth anniversary of the internet in 2024, she pointed out that we need to think about the next fifty years. "The future of the internet and the future of the world with artificial intelligence are completely intertwined," she said, and pointed out that her thoughts on the geopolitics of the internet also hold true for AI. "The way our governments regulate AI will determine our futures very much, and it's going to very different in the US, Europe, China and other emerging nations." Finally, Hall stressed that "we desperately need diversity. We need interdisciplinary skills and expertise, and those are two of the things that I see flourishing here at the UOC."


Passion, knowledge and leadership

The dean of the Faculty of Computer Science, Multimedia and Telecommunications, Daniel Riera, gave the first laudatory speech in the ceremony, in which he outlined Dame Hall's career and achievements. He cited a study by the World Economic Forum, which calculates that the gap in technological vocations between women and men will have disappeared by 2133. According to the organization, it will take another 110 years to achieve equality, but to achieve more diversity in the world of computing, said Riera, "we need role models like Professor Wendy Hall". What is the recipe for becoming a reference in academia? "First of all, it needs motivation raised to the level of passion." Riera explained how Hall became passionate about computing when she realized its full potential, in the 1980s and before the internet was widely used. "The second ingredient is knowledge," he said, highlighting the degree in Mathematics and master's degree in Computing as the foundations of Professor Wendy Hall's career. "The third ingredient is leadership," he concluded, listing some of Dame Hall''s most important achievements: Regius Professor of Computer Science and Associate Vice-President for International Engagement at the University of Southampton, Executive Director of the Web Science Institute, and Managing Director of the Web Science Trust.

The ceremony continued with a second laudatory speech, given by the director of the Internet Interdisciplinary Institute (IN3), David Megías, which focused on highlighting some of Professor Hall's most significant contributions to science in general, and to computing in particular. Megías highlighted how "interdisciplinary research is essential in addressing the major challenges of our time," such as global health, energy and environmental issues. "These challenges are too complex and too urgent to be considered in the scope of a single discipline," he said, and he emphasized that Professor Hall's ability to work on an interdisciplinary basis is worthy of high praise, since it "forces new paths and takes advantage of diverse perspectives to achieve pioneering breakthroughs in research and innovation".

Continuing after the laudatory speeches, and following the focus on Dame Hall's career, UOC President Josep A. Planell used his speech concluding the ceremony to highlight three traits that in his opinion characterize good research, and will continue to do so in the future. "First, the assumption that networks, considered in terms of the relationships between nodes of creation, generation, dissemination and exchange of knowledge, have a multiplier effect on knowledge." Second, the president continued, "I would like to emphasize the need to learn: not for today's answers, but for tomorrow's questions," and he quoted the Scottish philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, who said that education should be projected into the future, and must be assessed based on its subsequent impact. The third and final characteristic, concluded Planell, is "incorporating a political perspective" which is committed to "a more democratic, secure and open digital world, in order to work towards progress, equity and empowerment".

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