Lockdown reflections: I could have been an AI pioneer

EQ Founder John Spiers on his early encounters with artificial intelligence.

FacebooktwitterlinkedinmailFacebooktwitterlinkedinmail   by John Spiers, 2nd February 2021

Artificial intelligence (AI) is in the news all the time now with some expecting it to take over from humans pretty soon. I’ve always been fascinated by the concept and many decades ago made my first attempt to programme a computer to think better than humans.

Student engineer

It was 1969, I was an 18 year old student engineer at the UK’s highest security establishment for developing atomic weapons. I and my fellow students were keen to exploit our new found freedom from home to get out and have fun. However, the authorities had cunningly placed this establishment midway between three towns that seemed as likely to provide an evening of stimulating entertainment as Donald J. Trump admitting he could have done better.

The good news was that on site were the two most powerful computers in the UK – water cooled, located in huge hangars and supervised by hundreds of scientists. They probably had the processing power of a Nokia 101 but at the time this was cutting edge technology.

I was allocated to a team that programmed these incredible machines. There wasn’t a massive amount of work sent our way, so pretty soon I had some spare capacity to hone my programming skills. Naturally, the question on top of my mind was: could I get the computer to improve our social life?

Black Eagle

I built a database of every establishment that we could conceivably visit: pubs, dancing schools, night clubs, music venues. Each was rated on a number of measures including: distance away, quality of beer, probability of meeting dates (usually zero), time of our last visit. With great anticipation I made the programme ready for submission to the mighty computer.

The computer facilities were intended for serious work, so I had to be a bit canny about naming my programme. An operator might have realised that it had little to do with national defence if it was called “John Spiers’ Social Plan”, so I called it “Black Eagle”. Whilst this might sound like a flagrant abuse of these facilities, I should state in my defence that I’d already been shown on other assignments how it was common practice to use on-site technology for personal advantage, such as replating the chromium parts on cars, or silver cutlery.

During the day the computers were understandably reserved for refining our nuclear weapons but overnight there was scope to have less urgent programmes run. Each line of code was punched on a card and then all the cards placed in a tray that would be collected at about 5pm. Next morning, with my heart pumping, I would race to see what had been brought back, often to find it had failed at about line 10. It could take weeks for me to get a programme running.

Eventually I corrected my coding errors and Black Eagle started producing output: in the form of our social calendar for the next 30 days. Initially my friends shared my enthusiasm. We would follow the instructions and in light of our experiences, update the scoring – a proper feedback loop just as required by AI. Sadly, there was rarely a need to increase the Date Meeting score above 0.

Computer knows best?

After a while I started meeting resistance. “Right”, I’d say, “we’re off to the Coach & Horses tonight. “Oh no” was the response “it’s crap there”. As time went by I struggled to persuade the team that the computer knew better than them. Recently, when reminding my colleagues of this episode, I was disappointed to find that the cynicism has persisted. One suggested that Black Eagle’s propensity for sending us to venues devoid of other customers could be a useful addition to the Government’s portfolio of measures for maintaining social distancing!

Discouraged, I packed away my computing skills and decided to try and make a living in the City. Whilst I can’t complain about the out-turn from that change of course, I do still wonder what might have happened if I’d been more persistent….

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    John Spiers

    John is Chairman of EQ Investors and Chief Executive of The EQ Foundation.

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