Kevin Warwick

Interview - Kevin Warwick

Professor Kevin Warwick is one of the UK's most immediately recognisable engineers, largely as a result of his groundbreaking work with robotics and artificial intelligence. These days he finds himself in more of a management role, in charge of research at Coventry University.

'It's been a bit of a change, really,' says Kevin Warwick, referring to a recent career shift that has taken him from supervising PhD students and talking to school kids about robots to driving the research agenda at one of the UK's lead-ranking universities. The British engineer and pioneer in the field of cyborgs, once primarily known as the media-friendly professor of cybernetics at the University of Reading, is undergoing something of an image change, and is now deputy vice-chancellor (research) at Coventry University.

He's been in place for over a year in a role that has significantly more to do with the day-to-day aspects of management than with robots. So what's going on? Has the globe-trotting lecturer, writer of popular science books and controversial pioneer of robotics technology finally decided to opt for a quiet life? Not exactly. It's more a return to what Warwick originally set out to do and something he's rather good at. Research. Only this time he's driving the agenda.

'Coventry is great on the teaching side and at working with industry. But what the university is looking to do is up its game in research.' Warwick is quick to stress that while the public might know him most for his highly readable books and popular lectures in the field of robotics, 'what they have employed me for is my academic research, publication and citation record.' Applying these skills and qualifications, he intends to raise the importance of research at Coventry not just in the engineering and electronics sectors, but 'across all the disciplines of the university. Although I have mainly worked in engineering, my experience is broader than that: I've published on ethics, philosophy and management.'

Warwick thinks that this last statement might surprise people who know him only as 'the robot guy' as a result of his commitment to the public understanding of science. But that, according to Warwick, is only part of the story. 'When I first went to Reading, I'd not done any media work at all, and they didn't really have many students at the time, or indeed much money. I tackled this by getting involved in more media-friendly exercises.'

He says that he took on the role of public outreach to raise awareness of what is now the defunct Department of Cybernetics (degrees including BScs in robotics will stop in 2016). 'I was trying to popularise science and engineering at a time when that sort of thing wasn't very popular. Today, it's different of course because you have scientists such as Brian Cox, Susan Greenfield and Jim Al-Khalili raising awareness.'

However, engineering still doesn't really get its fair share of exposure, he says. 'Also, when you do try to popularise a scientific subject, you get labelled and pigeon-holed, leading to the assumption that the science you are involved in somehow isn't serious. Which is a shame.' Warwick remembers falling into this trap as a youngster. An avid viewer of 'The Great Egg Race', he regarded the highly respected Professor Heinz Wolff as an eccentric and boffinish TV presenter. It wasn't until some time later Warwick came to the realisation that Wolff was 'actually quite clever and knew an awful lot of stuff about an awful lot of things.'

Nonetheless, there are times when such misinterpretation runs deeper: Warwick has been criticised by some academics working in the field of artificial intelligence (AI), as well as technology journalists claiming that his work is 'not very scientific' and more for 'entertainment.' It's all water off a duck's back to the engineer, who is also author of 'Artificial Intelligence – The Basics', reviewed in this magazine in 2012 as a 'brilliant primer'.

Sent to Coventry

Warwick's resurfacing at Coventry University is hardly a surprise considering he was born in the city and has 'always had a lot of links with the university, doing external examining for PhDs and so on'. Yet one of the biggest worries that Warwick had on taking up the post was one that commonly affects engineers moving into upper management. 'I thought that I might need to do a lot of management training. But, I think that as an engineer you end up leading projects and having to deal with the finances as part of project management.'

Neither did Warwick settle down with a stack of trendy management self-help books to while away long flights as he circles the globe giving lectures. 'Management is all about getting on with people, which in my case at the moment means representing the researchers here at Coventry, giving them the encouragement they need, while believing that we can be up there with Oxford, Cambridge and Imperial when it comes to engineering research. Also, you need to bear in mind that we do things differently here, especially in areas such as automotive design, where we have strong links with industry, particularly Jaguar Land Rover.'

Warwick also sees his role as representing the research agenda within the management structure of the university itself, 'fighting the research corner, as it were. You've got to do that, because there is always a time delay when it comes to research. A new student doesn't instantly produce papers or get their PhD. It may take several years and this has an impact on funding too, because you can put money into a project today, but it could take several years before you see any results coming out of the research.' Warwick says that because there is this time lag, it is critical to keep an eye on the direction of research. 'Of course, you may find out that you're heading in the wrong direction. But on the way along, hopefully you find out how to recalibrate your ideas. You come up with your hypothesis and then you try to prove it, whether it is in the way Faraday did with actual experimentation in the electro-magnetic effect, or you do it in a mathematical way. Or both. Or even, as with the case of Alexander Fleming and the discovery of penicillin, you try to prove one thing and you end up discovering something completely different.'

Warwick says that for him one of the most important aspects of nurturing research in the university environment is 'you research with them. It's a team effort. I've known people who have gone into management after a career in research and they leave it all behind them. Of course, the hands-on aspect is no longer such an important pole in my job as it once was. But it is important to keep it going, which is one of the reasons I am still writing academic papers.'

While research may be more direction- rather than goal-oriented, industry needs something more concrete and less nebulous coming out of the UK's universities. 'That's because they are always fire-fighting, in the sense of needing to produce something yesterday in order to survive. That's where schemes like the Knowledge Transfer Partnerships (KTP) programme can help smaller companies to find what's out there.' However, it's also the job of the universities to say 'hang on a minute. There's also tomorrow. We should be helping businesses to understand where they could be in a few years time.'

No management post would be complete without a superfluity of meetings. Warwick cheerfully admits that he goes to too many of them and doesn't really enjoy the experience if he feels he can't make a contribution, but it goes with the turf and he draws great satisfaction from advising people and assisting with the development of their careers. When it comes to meetings about research policy, 'if it comes down to needing someone to bang on the table and to draw attention to the way in which things need to be changed to make the university more open to a research culture', for Warwick, this is time well spent.

Make courses more practical

One of the critical issues facing British industry, Warwick notes, is the ever-looming spectre of skills shortages. We're sitting in a café in Reading, where the engineer lives, and he casts his gaze around. 'I don't really understand it. Here we are, not far from London, and we are short of decently qualified IT, electronics and computing people. It's a great place to work and we shouldn't be short of these skills.'

Whether this is due to the proximity of Heathrow or the M4 and the high volume of companies clustered around these geographical magnets, Warwick muses that there simply isn't enough home-grown talent to go around. 'Partly, the universities themselves are to blame for this. It costs a fair bit of money to produce IT and engineering graduates. They need laboratories and computers. They need other equipment and that costs money. Now, if you are a business or a sociology undergraduate, say, all you need is a seat to sit on, so the investment required on the part of the universities is much lower.'

Warwick develops the idea to propose that technical qualifications need to be treated in a different way from 'softer' degrees (at which juncture he makes a joke about journalists only needing a pencil and a notepad to gain their degrees in the liberal arts. He has a point.) 'The idea that an English degree course should be treated in the same way as an engineering or technology course is absolutely ridiculous. These young engineers need to be doing experiments and that costs money. I know that there are American universities churning out graduates in engineering subjects who only have a theoretical knowledge about stuff they should be getting practical experience of.'

One of the reasons he finds such abstract degree courses 'ridiculous' is that engineers, of all people, 'need to be allowed to do things wrong. You need to blow things up, destroy things, in order to learn.' He digresses into a fond memory of his own childhood, when as a budding amateur motorcycle mechanic, he routinely 'blew the engines up. This was because I was tweaking them and doing all sorts of things with them that I shouldn't have been doing. But I learned. That's the only way you really learn a subject like engineering.' Warming to his theme, Warwick describes how his school rough books were 'a bit of a mess, because I was always wondering what sulphuric or nitric acid would do to their covers if I got this stuff over them. Would this stuff burn through the cover quickly or slowly? That's what chemistry is all about.'

Silence in the Turing Test

Returning to the theme of publishing research papers, Warwick says that while this might not be the attractive end of the world of technology, it is a vital part of the researcher's life. However, he comments, to the outsider these papers can appear to be 'dull, obscure and using a vocabulary that is designed to prevent people from understanding them.' He even suggests that this sort of deliberate obfuscation is used as a camouflage technique to cover up weaknesses in the research. 'If you write openly and clearly, first you run the risk of not being taken seriously.' More damagingly, the more people understand what you have written, the more likely they are to ask you questions about it, 'and suddenly you're vulnerable. So if people don't really understand what your research is about you can defend yourself that way.'

Warwick recalls with thinly disguised satisfaction how his first research paper was accepted back in 1981. Three and a half decades and 170 papers later the 61-year-old still feels the excitement of being published. 'Of course, when you're younger it's a hell of a buzz. But the last one I got accepted was on Sunday. I was in bed checking emails at two o'clock in the morning and suddenly – [huge cheer] – you find another has been accepted.'

This particular paper – entitled 'Taking the Fifth Amendment in Turing's Imitation Game' – is due to appear in the peer-reviewed Journal of Experimental and Theoretical Artificial Intelligence. It's about what happens if the machine remains silent during the Turing Test, meaning 'it can theoretically and practically pass the test by not incriminating itself.'

Warwick says that there's plenty more petrol in the tank and he will continue to publish papers on his research. 'I absolutely love doing it,' he says. The one thing you can be sure of is that they will be controversial.

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