Last month our Department of Computer Science celebrated their 50th anniversary, and to mark the milestone they have staged a special exhibition in our Exhibition Space that explores the 200 year history of digital systems. We recently caught up with Adrian to find out more about the exhibition, what visitors can expect to take away from it, and what he thinks the most interesting change in technology has been over the past 50 years.
1. Could you tell us a bit more about yourself and your role within the Department of Computer Science?
I’ve been at Royal Holloway for 40 years, starting as a Physics undergraduate in October 1978. Each time I think I should move on, the College gives me another great opportunity, so I stay… I’ve been Dean of the Science Faculty, Head of Department and until recently Director of Research and REF lead (a responsibility I am very pleased to be handing on).
Recently somebody described me as a pillar of the department, which I think just means that I am tall and thin, standing around doing nothing apart from holding everything up.
2. The Department of Computer Science has recently celebrated its 50th anniversary. To mark this, our latest exhibition in our Exhibition Space explores the 200 year history of digital systems. Can you tell us a bit more about the exhibition?
There are five themes: our history; mechanical computing; women in computing; the miniaturisation of computers; and digital media.
We have material on the founding of Bedford College in 1849 and of the Royal Holloway Computer Science Department in the late 1960’s. There are surprising links between Bedford College and early 19th century computing: Lady Byron was a financial backer of Bedford and her daughter Ada Lovelace worked with Charles Babbage, whose work forms our second theme on Mechanical Computing. We have a steam driven Difference Engine constructed as part of our Leverhulme Trust funded project on Babbage, a mechanical noughts-and-crosses automaton and a modern 3D printer.
We focus on women in mathematics and computing. In the early 1960's as computers became available to commerce there was a marked shift in the employment market: Programming, which was once seen as a sort of secretarial task, came to be viewed as a technical profession, and women were discouraged from entering, and in many cases explicitly exited from those jobs. There was another slump in female participation in the mid-1980's. When I started teaching, 40% of my class was female. As the home computer revolution took off, computers seemed to become ‘boys toys’ and we lost female applicants – at one point we were down to around 8%. Things are now improving, but slowly.
We have a rich display of computer hardware, both complete systems and components. The year-on-year increases in computing performance over the last 50 years have been driven by miniaturisation, and we show that as a progression from Babbage’s bronze digit wheels to a modern 512G subminiature memory card. It has been an exciting ride, but the improvements will not continue for long because wires are now only a few tens of atoms across, and so cannot shrink much further.
Our final theme is digital entertainment: the games industry is now more valuable than the film industry, and the performance of low cost games consoles depends on specialised array processor chips. Recently, these chips have been re-purposed and used to speed up training of classification networks. The basic techniques have been known about since the 1950s, but classification networks were mostly laboratory curiosities since their performance was never quite good enough for real world applications. Now that an array of processor chips are being used, performance has significantly improved and advances in self driving cars and other ‘science fiction’ applications are the result.
3. What can people visiting the exhibition expect to take away from it?
I guess that depends on their interests. We have social history, technical history and thought-provoking displays, in particular work from the University of Washington which shows a digitally synthesized video of President Obama which can be lip synched to say the words of an Obama impersonator. It is important for people to know that even what appears to be live video of a world leader may be entirely fake.
4. What feedback have you received from visitors to the exhibition so far?
Great enthusiasm and lots of discussions. The anachronistic 19th century computing devices and the deep fake video of President Obama seem to generate the most interest.
5. What do you think the most interesting change in technology has been over the past fifty years?
As a technology, high integration of transistors onto a single silicon substrate but as an outward manifestation of technology, undoubtedly the World Wide Web. Academics have had access to the internet for decades, of course, but I still remember the first time I saw a network address on the back of a supermarket lorry – I was amazed that shoppers were being encouraged to use ‘our’ network. I had no idea how quickly the economy would switch online and how all-pervasive the net would become in everybody’s lives.
6. Do you have any interesting hobbies or interests?
I love teaching, because enthusiasm is infectious and it’s uplifting to see students getting to grips with a subject. I’m interested in engineering mechanisms of all kinds; software, electronic and mechanical. At the moment, my main spare time activity is organising a local group for folk that build and run small live-steam locomotives. We have a portable track that we set up in the Boilerhouse during our Royal Holloway Science Festival and at a variety of local events. My students know of my rather quaint interest in railways, and last year (to my astonishment) they presented me with a computer-controlled train set… They’re a great bunch!