World Wide Web inventor backs big expansion in computer science at Oxford

26 February 2018

The cutting edge of computer science is artificial intelligence (AI) and we will see continued progress in that direction, the inventor of the World Wide Web, Professor Sir Tim Berners-Lee, said at an Industry Forum meeting hosted by IOP.

He was speaking with Oxford professors Roger Davies and Mike Wooldridge at a lively meeting on Realising the Full Potential of UK Computer Science on 21 February, about a new Christ Church-led initiative for a radical increase in intake at the Oxford computer science faculty. Sir Tim (pictured above) has recently added the Oxford Professorship to his existing MIT commitments and the aim of the meeting was to discuss the growth of computer science at Oxford, including opportunities for business involvement.

He said that while the need to develop further computing power and to write new computer programmes appears to have no boundaries, some of the early visions for what computers might be able to do seemed to have gone unfulfilled – although recent years had brought new advances, such as driverless cars.

Speaking about the Oxford expansion plans, to double and then triple the number of computer science undergraduates from the current 35, Professor Roger Davies, Phillip Wetton Professor of Astrophysics at the university, warned about the potential threats to the UK economy arising from a lack of graduates with computer science knowledge and an understanding of complex systems.

Professor Michael Wooldridge, head of Oxford’s Computer Science Department (pictured left, with Roger Davies, right), described the series of revolutions that had taken place in computing, from microprocessors, the widespread use of desktop computing, the invention of the internet and the World Wide Web, to the convergence of supercomputing and mobile technology. In another 10 years another revolution would be happening with AI and machine learning, he predicted – and he wanted Oxford to be a part of that for the UK.

A wide-ranging discussion followed, covering topics including how to interest more girls and women in computing, the view that developing successful computer programmes was an art as much as a science, and the need for a deep insight into algorithms and user interfaces.

Recent advances, such as computer analysis of MRI images, was thought to be just the "low-hanging fruit" in realising the potential of AI, and there had been dramatic breakthroughs from a scientific perspective in real-time translation of the spoken word – even though this needed considerable improvement to match human comprehension.

Some 50 business people and academics attended the meeting, organised by the Industry Forum and hosted by the Institute of Physics. It was chaired by IOP Fellow Rod Dowler, who also chairs the Industry Forum.

At the close of the meeting, Mark Coote, who heads the Christ Church development office, outlined a comprehensive programme for corporate involvement, covering recruitment and research collaboration as well as corporate sponsorship.