Category Archives: Computer science

Alan Turing: mathematician, computer pioneer and code breaker


Found Turing’s plaque today near King’s College, Cambridge (his alma mater).

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2013 ACM Turing Award: Lesley Lamport

Today, the 2013 ACM Turing Award has been awarded to Leslie Lamport, Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research:

For fundamental contributions to the theory and practice of distributed and concurrent systems, notably the invention of concepts such as causality and logical clocks, safety and liveness, replicated state machines, and sequential consistency.

Lamport has not only advanced the reliability and consistency of computing systems that work as intended (for example, temporal logic of actions (TLA) and Byzantine fault tolerance), but also created LaTeX!

Read the full award citation.


(also see: the 2012 recipients, as well as the full chronological listing of awards)

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2014 IET South Wales Annual Lecture

On Thursday 20th March I will be giving the 2014 IET South Wales Annual Lecture at Swansea University:

Computing: Enabling a Digital Wales

Digital technology (and thus computation) is an indispensable and crucial component of our lives, society and environment. In a world increasingly dominated by technology, we now need to be more than just digitally literate. Across science and engineering, computing has moved on from assisting researchers in doing science, to transforming both how science is done and what science is done. In the context of (Welsh and UK) Government science, technology and innovation policy, computer scientists (of all flavours) have a significant role to play. Tom will ground this hypothesis by describing his research interests at the hardware/software interface, his broader work in education and science policy, and then finishing by presenting a vision for a “Digital Wales” underpinned by science and technology innovation.

This talk is free, with registration online.

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Paper at AI-2013: “‘The First Day of Summer’: Parsing Temporal Expressions with Distributed Semantics”

In December, my PhD student Benjamin Blamey presented a joint paper entitled: ‘The First Day of Summer’: Parsing Temporal Expressions with Distributed Semantics at AI-2013, the 33rd SGAI International Conference on Artificial Intelligence in Cambridge.

If you do not have institutional access to SpringerLink, especially the Research and Development in Intelligent Systems series, you can download our pre-print. The abstract is as follows:

Detecting and understanding temporal expressions are key tasks in natural language processing (NLP), and are important for event detection and information retrieval. In the existing approaches, temporal semantics are typically represented as discrete ranges or specific dates, and the task is restricted to text that conforms to this representation. We propose an alternate paradigm: that of distributed temporal semantics –- where a probability density function models relative probabilities of the various interpretations. We extend SUTime, a state-of-the-art NLP system to incorporate our approach, and build definitions of new and existing temporal expressions. A worked example is used to demonstrate our approach: the estimation of the creation time of photos in online social networks (OSNs), with a brief discussion of how the proposed paradigm relates to the point- and interval-based systems of time. An interactive demonstration, along with source code and datasets, are available online.

(see Publications)

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2008 Royal Institution Christmas Lectures: Professor Chris Bishop

The Royal Institution Christmas Lectures, started by Michael Faraday in 1825, are one of the highlights of science communication specifically aimed at young people to be broadcast on national television. I distinctly remember watching the Christmas Lectures when I was young, in particular Richard Dawkins in 1991 and Frank Close in 1993. The 2013 Christmas Lectures — Life Fantastic — have Alison Woollard from the University of Oxford exploring the frontiers of developmental biology and uncovering the remarkable transformation of a single cell into a complex organism.

Unsurprisingly, I am always reminded of the single instance in 2008 of a computer scientist presenting the Christmas Lectures: Hi-tech Trek with Chris Bishop, a Distinguished Scientist at Microsoft Research Cambridge, where he leads the Machine Learning and Perception group:

Christopher Bishop

From the origin of the microprocessor to the development of the internet, the field of computer science has literally changed the way in which we live our lives.

But the world of computers is vast and complicated, ranging from the architecture of microchips to use of quantum mechanics for data encryption – it’s not always easy to know what exactly is going on inside the box. So how do computers work? How is so much information stored within a single hard-drive and how do computers communicate with each other over the internet?

Across five lectures, Professor Chris Bishop sheds light on some of these questions by tracing the evolution of the modern computer. Along the way he explores the many technologies which have developed as a result of the computer revolution; including the interconnected world of the internet, the use of software to control hardware and the challenges involved in creating artificial intelligence.

You can watch all five episodes of the 2008 Lectures on the excellent Ri Channel (as well as extra resources on the microsite):

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UK Forum for Computing Education

A new expert body on computing education was established today: the UK Forum for Computing Education (UKForCE), which will provide an independent and unified voice to advise UK government and other agencies on issues relating to computing education. UKForCE is led by the Royal Academy of Engineering and will provide advice on the curriculum, qualifications and assessment and the supply and training of computing teachers.

As per today’s press release, the expert body has been established in response to the 2012 Royal Society report “Shut down or restart: the way forward for computing in UK schools”, which had as a key recommendation the formation of a UK forum for the UK’s computing bodies. UKForCE brings together representatives from across the communities of education, computer science, digital media, IT, engineering and telecommunications. The body will be independent of government and awarding organisations and will work towards improving computing education across all education sectors of the UK.

UKForCE will consist of a smaller strategic group, along with a broader representative forum (invitations to be sent out shortly); the current members of the group are:

  • Chris Mairs FREng (Metaswitch Networks)
  • Andy Connell (Keele University)
  • Bob Harrison (Toshiba Information Systems, UK)
  • Simon Peyton Jones (Microsoft Research Cambridge)
  • Bill Mitchell (BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT)
  • Liz Bacon (University of Greenwich)
  • Theo Blackwell (Next Gen. Skills)
  • Mark Chambers (Naace)
  • Debbie Forster (Apps for Good)
  • Quintin Cutts (University of Glasgow)
  • Tom Crick (Cardiff Metropolitan University)
  • Sue Nieland (e-skills UK)
  • Rhys Morgan (Royal Academy of Engineering)

Chris Mairs, Chair of UKForCE and Chief Scientist at Metaswitch Networks, said:

The new computing curriculum, which comes into effect in September 2014, is a most welcome step change in computing education. There are many amazing initiatives springing up to build upon this bold move both inside and outside the classroom.

UKForCE will be the connective tissue between all these initiatives, central government and other relevant bodies. With a coherent voice and government commitment, our children will be the world’s most savvy digital citizens and a tremendous asset to the UK economy.

As well as providing a springboard for great software engineers and computing specialists, effective delivery of the new curriculum can literally improve the life chances of an entire generation. UKForCE will help make this happen.

The creation of UKForCE, to sit alongside similar organisations such as ACME, SCORE and E4E, is a significant opportunity to raise the profile of computing as a discipline, as well as support its delivery across all four nations of the UK. I look forward to working with the forum in 2014, in particular to continue to promote the reform of computing education in Wales (see the review of the ICT curriculum in Wales from October).

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2014 Software Sustainability Institute Fellowship


I’m delighted to have been named today as one of the sixteen Software Sustainability Institute Fellows for 2014.

The Software Sustainability Institute (SSI) is an EPSRC-funded project based at the universities of Edinburgh, Manchester, Oxford and Southampton, and draws on a team of experts with a breadth of experience in software development, project and programme management, research facilitation, publicity and community engagement. It’s a national facility for cultivating world-class research through software, whose goal is to make it easier to rely on software as a foundation of research; see their manifesto. The SSI works with researchers, developers, funders and infrastructure providers to identify the key issues and best practice surrounding scientific software.

During my fellowship, I’m particularly keen to work closely with Software Carpentry and Mozilla Science Lab to highlight the importance of software skills across the STEM disciplines. I’m also interested in a broader open science/open computation agenda; see the Recomputation Manifesto and the recently established project.

More to follow in 2014!

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BBC Four: The Joy of Logic

Catch The Joy of Logic by Dave Cliff on iPlayer before it disappears! Programme blurb:

A sharp, witty, mind-expanding and exuberant foray into the world of logic with computer scientist Professor Dave Cliff. Following in the footsteps of the award-winning ‘The Joy of Stats’ and its sequel, ‘Tails You Win — The Science of Chance’, this film takes viewers on a new rollercoaster ride through philosophy, maths, science and technology — all of which, under the bonnet, run on logic.

Wielding the same wit and wisdom, animation and gleeful nerdery as its predecessors, this film journeys from Aristotle to Alice in Wonderland, sci-fi to supercomputers to tell the fascinating story of the quest for certainty and the fundamentals of sound reasoning itself.

Dave Cliff, professor of computer science and engineering at Bristol University, is no abstract theoretician. 15 years ago he combined logic and a bit of maths to write one of the first computer programs to outperform humans at trading stocks and shares. Giving away the software for free, he says, was not his most logical move…

With the help of 25 seven-year-olds, Professor Cliff creates, for the first time ever, a computer made entirely of children, running on nothing but logic. We also meet the world’s brainiest whizz-kids, competing at the International Olympiad of Informatics in Brisbane, Australia.

‘The Joy of Logic’ also hails logic’s all-time heroes: George Boole who moved logic beyond philosophy to mathematics; Bertrand Russell, who took 360+ pages but heroically proved that 1 + 1 = 2; Kurt Godel, who brought logic to its knees by demonstrating that some truths are unprovable; and Alan Turing, who, with what Cliff calls an ‘almost exquisite paradox’, was inspired by this huge setback to logic to conceive the computer.

Ultimately, the film asks, can humans really stay ahead? Could today’s generation of logical computing machines be smarter than us? What does that tell us about our own brains, and just how ‘logical’ we really are…?

(you might also like this In Our Time programme on the history of logic from 2010 or this BBC Science Café programme on logic I was a guest on in 2011)

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Computing is…

Computing is not about computers anymore. It is about living.

Being Digital (1995)
Nicholas Negroponte

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“Are you familiar with public-key cryptography…?”

Whitfield Diffie took the stand in Texas on Friday in the courtroom face-off between Newegg and “patent-licensing giant” (a.k.a. patent troll) TQP Development, who has sued hundreds of companies saying it has patented the common Web encryption scheme of combining SSL with RC4.

Enjoy this exchange:

Lawyer: “We’ve heard a good bit in this courtroom about public-key encryption, are you familiar with that?
Diffie: “Yes, I am.
Lawyer: “And how is it that you’re familiar with public-key encryption?
Diffie: “I invented it.

See the full Ars Technica article.

UPDATE: Newegg lost!?

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